Magnum Opus, Part 1 of 3
I recently wrote a ghost story for a contest held by Phantom Wines (spoiler: I didn't win). It was an interesting exercise for me, because the winning story would ultimately be transformed into a short film to be used for an advertising campaign, and it required me to write differently than I might usually. I had to "think like a filmmaker" (an area in which I have zero experience or expertise). For instance, I needed to rely more on dialogue as opposed to being able to narrate a character's thoughts, and my descriptions had to be particularly clear (if even a bit boring). I didn't necessarily worry about word choice and sentence structure and laboring the overall poetry of the thing as much as I normally do. And while I enjoyed writing this way, this story is a bit of a departure from my usual writing and is currently without a home, as I do not intend to include it in my second horror fiction collection (the first will be out in 2021 -- stay tuned!). And so, I am creating a home for it here.
Another part of thinking like a filmmaker is to know how to artfully build suspense. It is my hope that in posting this story in installments, I will leave you wanting more! I will post a new part of the story each day for the next three days.
Enjoy, and please feel free to leave feedback!
MAGNUM OPUS, PART 1 OF 3
The basement was Sean’s favorite part of his new house. He and his mother, Carla, had moved in a week after his eighth birthday, during the heat of summer, and he very quickly set about exploring.
“Be careful!” Carla warned as he ran past her carrying two handfuls of superhero action figures. “There are a lot of things in the basement that are fragile and valuable. Don’t touch anything!” She wrestled with a box of kitchen utensils as Sean clomped down the basement stairs.
“Ok!” he shouted in return. The basement’s odd features reflected the architect’s various interests. Sean descended the staircase and ran to the right where, in the far end of the basement, there was a door. He pulled it open and found several sinks against the wall and wires crisscrossing the room. When he flicked on the light switch the room glowed red: it was a darkroom devoted to the architect’s photography hobby. Sean scurried out of the room once he discovered that it was empty and devoid of anything to hold his interest.
Kitty corner to the dark room was a large walk-in vault with a heavy door that was open wide enough for Sean to slip through. He pulled the cord dangling from the ceiling, illuminating a single bulb. The vault was lined with shelves and filled with dust, making him sneeze. The items within were meticulously organized: the bottom shelf was lined with Banker’s boxes filled with paper files. The middle shelf held strange looking porcelain figurines and antique beer steins. The top shelf was used to display several cases of coin collections. Sean figured that these might be the valuable things his mother had warned him not to touch. He understood collections, as he had an ample superhero action figure collection, but nothing in the vault looked like much fun to play with, and he didn’t want to get in trouble.
Next to the vault, and directly across from the stairs, was arguably the basement’s most curious feature: three walls protruded into the basement, making a small room within the room. However, while it had a small rectangular window facing the stairs, there was no door. It was a random structure that seemed to serve no purpose. Sean found a footstool under the stairs and pulled it beneath the window where he could peer in, cupping his hands around his face to block out the light. The view consisted of nothing but darkness. He shrugged and traced HI with his finger in the layer of dust coating the window.
Sean hopped down from the footstool. He had saved the best for last: to the left of the strange room, in the opposite end of the basement from the dark room, was another door. When he walked through it he was greeted by hundreds of wine bottles in racks reaching from floor to ceiling. “Cool!” he exclaimed as he got to work setting his action figures on the bottles, turning the racks into a treacherous mountain. As he played he could hear his mother’s voice echoing down the basement stairs. Her phone was on speaker, and she was chatting with an old friend while loading linens into the washing machine.
“Yeah, the owner was my cousin, and he was also the architect. He designed doctor’s offices in his professional life, so as you might imagine, the house was a true labor of love. It was his magnum opus. Some people said he was obsessed with it, but I didn’t know him well enough to know if that was true. Anyway, the poor guy died of cancer a few months ago – he was only 45, if you can believe it – and his one request was that the house stay in the family. I was the next closest kin, and so here we are!”
“I’m so sorry about your cousin, but glad about the house! I’m sure it’s a big step up from the shoebox apartment you and Sean were living in in the city. Were you close with your cousin?” the friend asked on the other end of the phone.
“Not really. I mean, we saw each other at holidays and family gatherings, and he used to send a few of us pictures of the house in a group text when it was in the process of being built. But he wasn’t all that close with anyone in the family. Anyway, not only did I inherit this gorgeous house, but my cousin was also a collector, and I think he left behind some really valuable things. I have an appraiser coming next week, and it could be a life changing amount of money. And you would not believe his wine collection! Tons of amazing wine. You need to come over for a glass or three…”
The sound of the washing machine drowned out his mother’s voice, and Sean busied himself with his superheroes, crafting their dialogue and creating sound effects that echoed through the wine room. It was hard to believe several hours had passed when Carla called down the stairs for him.
“Sean! Dinner! Come wash up!” Her voice echoed through the basement. Sean left his superheroes scattered all over the room and ran up the stairs.
Sometime later – after dinner, dessert, and a bath – Sean came back down to the basement to collect his superheroes. Instead of being in the wine room where he left them, they were propped up against the wall beneath the window of the door less room, arranged in descending order of size. Sean shook his head and rolled his eyes. “Mom,” he said under his breath. In a quick movement he scooped up his action figures and dashed back up the stairs, his footsteps reverberating behind him.
If he had been paying attention, he would have realized that his mother hadn’t been in the basement all evening, and so hadn’t touched his action figures. And, if he had been paying attention, he would have seen that underneath where he had written HI in the dust, someone had written in a delicate scroll, hello.
Sean was reading his comic books before bed when his mother came in to put away his freshly folded laundry and say goodnight. He watched her thoughtfully for a moment before speaking.
“Mom? What’s a magnet opal? I heard you say it when you were talking on the phone.”
“Ha. Magnum opus. It means important work. I was saying that this house was the architect’s – my cousin’s – magnum opus. It was his most important work, and the thing he was most proud of.”
“Why is there that small room with a window and no door in the basement?”
Sean’s mom closed the sock drawer and thought for a moment. “I don’t know. No one else in the family knows for sure either. But I have two ideas: one is that he built it to hide a mistake, like a crack in the floor or something. The other is that he built it to hide something that was really important to him.”
“Like a treasure?”
“Who knows? Maybe!”
“But what about that other room? The one like you see in banks? Couldn’t he keep things in there?”
“You mean the vault? He kept important things in the vault, too. But he might have kept something even more important in the small room. Next week a man is coming to knock a hole in the wall and then we will have our answer.”
“Yes, let’s hope so! Ok, sweetheart. Enough comics for tonight. Sweet dreams.” She kissed Sean on the forehead and he was asleep before she even left the room.