House of Words

Other submissions by Mephi Hernandez:
If you want to read their other submissions, please click the links.
The White Bassinet (Short Stories, Writing Award 2023)
Writing Award Sub-Category
Award Category
Logline or Premise
Based on true events, House of Words takes readers into the mind of a writer, exposing the darkness and joys that go into creation, while balancing the interwoven stories of those lives forever tied to the Milstrom estate. It is chilling, tragic, and mind bending all the way through its final page.
First 10 Pages

Act One:

The writer


The Milstrom estate stood in silence, as it had for the last three years, awaiting its newest tenant.

Armand Vega had slept for most of the two and a half hour drive out to the township of Darien. But woke up in time to watch as the company car pull onto the property of the home that would be his prison for the next six months, or until he completed his next novel.

He hadn’t enjoyed the status that warranted a chauffeur in at least five years, but apparently his publisher didn’t trust Armand to arrive of his own accord. Although he resented their insinuation—thinly veiled as a benefit, “We just want you to travel comfortably.”—he went along with nary a word of dissent. Figuring that perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad; knowing that he’d reached the end of his options.

At first Armand wasn’t sure they had arrived, since the road was long and treelined, without another house in sight. But soon as the car turned onto a lightly graveled path, the open iron-gate immediately piqued his interest; even at his nicest residence he’d never had an outer gate. Just before it stood a combined call-and-mailbox, its silver varnish worn and rusting, like some long-abandoned relic there to warn about the fate that befell the family Milstrom. At least, that’s what he assumed their name to be; a couple of its letters were missing.

Half a minute later the house came into view from its perch on the slight hill at the driveway’s end. Armand hadn’t known what to expect, but whatever it had been was somehow brighter than this. Or maybe, bright wasn’t the right word. The house itself was a white Victorian with red shutters, a tiled roof, and a wraparound porch that even had a bench-swing on it. But the whole place somehow felt asleep, in a matted and dingy way, as if it only ever rained in this part of the woods.

Even so, the sight of it took his breath, because the house demanded attention. Not merely because of its size, but for its sheer presence among the wilderness that in all this time had not been able to recapture it.

When the car stopped, Armand attempted to remove his bags from the trunk, but was cut off by the chauffeur, who insisted, “I’ve got these, sir.”

Armand backed away then ascended the steps and stood awkwardly by, unsure how to proceed. Despite a long run of success, he’d never really gotten used to any of the niceties and brown-nosing that came with it; going about his days as if he were any average Joe. Which, became much easier as the years since his last book release waxed on.

The chauffeur walked the luggage up, saying, “I believe the key is under the mat, sir.”

Armand moved to retrieve it, and the moment he lifted the aged, straw-like greeting square, an array of dust and bugs escaped.

“Ugh,” He started and daintily snagged the key. Then with a close-lipped smile to the chauffeur, proceeded to open the door. “It works. Only hope there’re no other surprises inside. Thanks for your help.”

He extended his hand, wondering if perhaps there should be some cash in it? Armand was generally conscious of tipping but had no loose bills just then.

“My pleasure, really… Well, now that my job’s technically done, could I maybe—get an autograph? I know you’re probably eager to settle in and–”

Armand waved off any further chatter, “It’s not a problem. Just nice to know someone still appreciates my work.”

“Well not just me. You’ve got tons of fans; we’re just waiting for whatever comes next.”

Aren’t we all, Armand thought. Then took out a pen and asked, “So, you have a book – or something?”

Defeat swept over the chauffeur’s face. “Honestly, I didn’t know I’d be driving you today.” He nervously patted his pockets then produced a datebook from inside his sports coat. “How ‘bout in here? I could get the page framed.”

“That’ll work.” Armand took the book, flipped to the last page, and stared at it for several seconds. He never knew what to write at these moments, whether the recipient was a close friend or complete stranger. What could he possibly put down that would not only appease but honor someone’s graciousness?

He scribbled down the least contrite remark he could think of before handing it back. The chauffeur looked upon his prize with genuine glee. “Thank you, Mister Vega!”

“Please, I’m just Armand.”

With the chauffeur gone, Armand entered to inspect his new digs. Inside was dark, as unlived-in houses often were, heavy drapes drawn over all the windows. Yet, he’d been assured that only a week ago the power and other utilities were restored; the estate manager herself had to come check the pipes, heating and colling, so everything should work swimmingly, as she put it. But he was skeptical; having partied in more than one seasonal home, he found that old houses rarely ease back into use.

The first thing he noticed upon entering the high-ceilinged foyer was the big, round stained-glass window above the second-floor landing. To either side of it descended mahogany staircases that reminded him of photos shot within stately manors. The muted, colorful light pouring in through the window served to highlight years of dust floating about like little galaxies in the endlessness of space.

He sneezed at the sight of it, and his left eye began to itch. “Perfect.” He muttered, then pulled his shirt up over his nose and set to open all the drapes and windows on the first floor, getting to know each room as he did.

The house was, as if it had been built that way, completely furnished with everything from sofas to saltshakers, candelabras to a Baby-grand in the parlor easily twice his age; even an array of barely used sports equipment, and two paddle-boats moored inside a little house to the left of the dock. A place seemingly ready to take in a family at a moment’s notice.

Yet, for all its amenities, Armand found the house still felt empty. There wasn’t a single photo or heirloom on display, and every piece was exactly in-place, making the house lees a home and more like a museum. Only, one that had no specific story to tell. Where had the people gone, he wondered? The ones that put all this together and spent a life here. It’s as if when they left, not even their memory stayed behind, only these things so neatly curated.

So Armand didn’t exactly feel welcome. Which was just as well, for he’d grown up in inner-city transience and was accustomed to temporary dwellings.

“Six months,’” He said aloud. “Then I’ll be on my way.”

Of this he was certain. What he didn’t know however, was whether he’d be returning to fame or obscurity, riches or poverty.

The light of day had faded to dusk while Armand unpacked and claimed as little space within the house as possible: one of the bedrooms with an adjoining bathroom—deciding against taking the master suite since he was only a guest—and a corner of the sunroom that faced the pond but caught none of the glare. It’s there he set up a station consisting of a desk, laptop, portable lamp, and the comfiest chair he could find.

He planned on forcing himself to spend three hours a day there at a minimum, or until he’d written six pages of fresh material. Long gone were those days when he could write away six-plus hours before coming up for a real breath. Back then, he was utterly possessed by words; now they mostly eluded him.

Satisfied with the day’s progress, he took a moment to realize, “I’m starving.” Then picked up his phone, which had to that point been acting as a radio, pumping classical tunes through his smart-speaker. The only notification was a text from Joan, his first and only agent: Hope the move went well! Let me know if there’s anything else you need.

“Yeah, a story,” He said, but didn’t text back. Instead, searched for what food was close enough to be quickly delivered. The publisher had arranged for a chef to come three times a week, yet that wouldn’t start until tomorrow. For tonight, fast food would have to do.

Less than an hour after, he was dining on that great American staple, Chinese food, in front of the fireplace. Not that the night was particularly cold, but Armand was endeared by the homely quality of the bright flames and delighted in the comfort they gave. This was the quietest night he could recall having in at least a year and allowed himself to simply enjoy the stillness.

But all too soon the silence bore into him with its unavoidable solitude, bringing memories he didn’t care to have and a sadness he’d long been running from.

With a heavy sigh he stood and stretched, resigned to the idea that no better time than now existed to start his work. The sunroom just beyond the kitchen served as well under moonlight. Better in fact, Armand found, as the stars reflected off the pond’s surface and the entire scene past the windows was like the dream a painter had prior to setting their brush to canvas.

If I can’t get it done here… He thought while sitting before his laptop. Then opened Word to find the ever-blinking black line that had once guided him to discovery and joy, but for the past six years only heightened his sense of existential dread.

He took a deep breath and typed the question that had led to several of his most known works: Where are my words?

Fifteen minutes later, he was browsing through photos of famous writers’ pets. Thinking that although he would only be around for six months, he should get one. After all, it seemed to be a common thread among his contemporaries and predecessors. He didn’t have any pets at home, and maybe that was part of the problem. Writing was a solitary pursuit, but no one said it had to be a lonely one, he reasoned.

Yet, a dog would be too noisy, too needy; a fish much quiet; and he simply couldn’t trust cats. He wondered what kind of animal—if any—Mary Shelley had kept. Figuring that if he had the same one it could, perhaps, somehow connect him to the master herself.

Mary—as Armand sometimes allowed himself to call her in his mind, since he could never imagine her being pretentious enough to make strangers, let alone fellow writers, address her as Mrs. Shelley—was the reason he’d begun writing psychological thrillers. The premise that we create our own monsters resonated throughout every aspect of his being and was the stage upon which the best of his stories had once played out.

Even so, he often vehemently debated—and still held firm—that Frankenstein was not actually a monster at all, but a metaphor. His first time coming to this conclusion was during his second year at Dartmouth, while taking a course on the critical study of American Letters, where he actually read the book; unlike when it had been assigned in high school and he just watched the DeNiro film and did a report on that. In college Armand discovered a genuine Love for problem solving that lead to him taking a vested interest in the assignments that most challenged him.

On the class after he’d finished reading Mary Shelley’s great work, he (kindly) informed his fellow students and professor that they were all missing the point. “She wasn’t writing about a monster at all.”

“Right. So we just imagined the giant being made of random body parts that terrorized the doctor and townspeople?” Someone chided.

“Yes, the literal meaning of her words as she wrote them was a monster. But guys, Mary Shelley battled severe depression.”

“Nah, they just called her crazy.” Insisted a proud feminist who never missed a chance to point out a woman wronged. In this case, Armand agreed.

“Exactly. Back then her illness would’ve been written off as hysteria or occasional melancholy, but in this book she’s trying to show the world how she really felt and what it was like to deal with all that pain. Maybe she was even trying to explain it to herself.”

“Oh come off it, man. She wrote the story as a competition during a writers’ getaway. In Connecticut, no less! It was meant to be scary… If anything, we could classify it as an early science fiction given the heavy reliance on her day’s technology.” This came from the type of Poindexter that only grew more insufferable because of bullying, and the freedom from it which he found in college. Constantly setting out to prove his peers wrong, but on this issue, Armand didn’t disagree.

“It’s that too—and started out as horror. But how many times has a writer sat with one idea in mind only to watch it develop into something else?”

“Hey, it’s what King believes.” Came a small, cool voice from the center of their lecture hall. Armand had only just looked at her when the groans began. Because by King she meant Stephen, and many of the students in their class—at their school—were simply too highbrow to mention his work with any level of seriousness. Or at least, they enjoyed pretending to be. Armand was overcome with appreciation.

“That’s right,” He cleared his throat. “At its core this story is about her struggles with depression. The monster is her suffering, her unrelenting dark-half. And he is the doctor, doing all he can to control it.” Armand wasn’t sure if the idea was gaining traction but felt a glimmer of hope when the professor addressed him.

“Alright everyone, let’s bring it in. Mister Vega, I think you might be onto something. We should look for deeper meaning in what we read and write. But, let us all be cautious not to impose our own thoughts onto the work of others, or to read too deeply. After all, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

Armand often thought fondly about that class, for it had helped to shape the writer he became, and gave him Mitsy. A girl unafraid to admit she enjoyed King as much as Milton, and unabashed when likening Rowling to Dickens. She had an avidity for words, feeling all the world existed only because of the syllables that comprised it. And whenever she spoke, Armand was captivated, though he shared little of her Love for the writings of “Great men.”

For him, reading Tolkien was no different than perusing Deuteronomy sprinkled with a touch of Revelation; his own tastes leaned more toward expediency: Films and Hemmingway. Even “Frankenstein” was a drag for its first three chapters. He Loved all these stories however and lived for discovering characters. It’s why he’d been so helplessly fascinated with Mitsy.

With a yawn, Armand finally gave up trying to write for the night. Then closed his laptop on the Petco website, cleared away the last of his food and went to bed.

The walk upstairs was too quiet, and—as he turned off the lights in the sunroom and kitchen—too dark, he realized with sudden, inexplicable unease. So, he left the embers of the fireplace to burn themselves out and provide whatever little light to accompany him away from the first floor. He was starting to understand that the wealthy kept butlers and maids so they wouldn’t have to put out the lights themselves. At least there was the stained-glass window above the landing, almost glowing despite the night. Armand shuddered as he passed below it.

The hall leading to his rooms seemed longer in the dark and had he a sleeping bag or blanket on the sofa Armand was certain he wouldn’t walk on it. Yet, he moved forward swiftly, thinking that he was acting like a child; that the only creaking floorboards were those beneath his feet, and the imperceptible pressure behind him was air from a window he’d forgotten to close. But his steps and pulse quickened as he reached the bedroom and shut himself in. Then stood there for a moment, his back and head pressed to the door, eyes sealed as he secured the lock. Breathing away the fear that crept outside the heavy wood, and inside his heart.

This was the aspect of living alone that Armand could never reconcile: Having nothing and no one to save him from himself.