Jason Gurley

By day, I'm a user experience designer; by evenings/weekends, I write novels from my home in Scappoose, Ore. My newest is Awake in the World, published February 2019 by Roaring Brook Press; my previous novel, Eleanor, was published by Crown in 2016 and has since been translated into German, Portuguese, and Turkish. I’m currently working on a new project.

Scenes from a work in progress

A few days ago, while ostensibly working on some edits to a larger project, I got distracted by a shiny object, and started working on what I thought would be a very short, very fast story. I figured four thousand words, maybe five, and then I'd be done. 

It's been six days now, and the story is twelve thousand words long, and showing no real signs of stopping yet. It's also a bit... weird. I honestly don't know what to call this story. It might be a horror story, but it might be something far bigger than that. 

Here's a short excerpt from the rough draft–emphasis on "rough"–for you:

“World’s upside down. Look, the roots are growing up into the sky.”

The seriousness with which Wade described the tree on the Fowler land stuck with me for years after. He was joking, of course, the way he tended to do, but in that laconic way that belonged to him alone among our tangle of friends. I hadn’t thought about him in years, or the tree that he’d been pointing at, the one that stood leafless and twisted in the middle of the otherwise carefully-kept lawn, isolated like a sculpture, looking like the petrified nervous system of some long-dead titan. He was right, of course, about the general weirdness of the tree. It was almost otherworldly, like something transported whole from Middle-earth. The things that tree must have seen, you might think when looking upon it. 

I remembered all of this, in a sudden cold rush when my father, tired and searching for anything to talk about on the phone, said, “Oh—you probably didn’t hear about the old Fowler place.”

Just those words conjured a memory so immediate, so precise, that I was almost there again, twelve years old and standing on the street-side of the white fence that framed the strange property. 

“What’s that?” I asked him. 

“Damn thing went and burned down all itself. Old wood, I reckon. Squatters, maybe.”

He pronounced it squarters, the way my mother said warshing machine.

“Nobody was hurt?” I said, but only because that was the proper thing to ask.

“Not that they found. Damn near took out an acre of woods next to Mrs. Rushland’s rent trailer, though.”

I said, “I’m glad nobody was hurt,” and the rest of his words blurred into static, because those words—the old Fowler place—didn’t just trigger an old memory of Wade and weird, twisted trees. 

They brought back a memory that had spent the last thirty years at the bottom of a brackish swamp, where memories weren’t supposed to come back from, ever. 

•     •     •

“World’s upside down. Look, the roots are growing up into the sky.”

Nobody paid any attention to Wade, but I shot him a sideways glance. 

“So—what?” I said. “The sky’s really the dirt?”

Wade shrugged one shoulder. “Maybe there’s two skies. Maybe the dirt”—he stomped one dirty tennis shoe on the gravel shoulder of the road beneath us—“isn’t all that deep. Maybe it’s like a belt, and there’s sky underneath just like there’s sky above. Except maybe we’re on the beneath side.”

“You’re fucking weird, Wade,” Dustin said.

Wade shrugged again. I didn’t come to his defense. He was, to be fair, fucking weird.

“I’m going over,” I said. 

“I don’t think you should,” Wade said. 

I hitched up my jeans and got ready to vault over the white fence rail, but Dustin agreed with Wade. “Man, the landscape guy’s just over by the shed. He’ll see you for sure.”

“What do I care?” I argued. “And he’s not a goddamn landscape guy. He’s just a shithead with a lawnmower. Besides, I want to go swimming. It’s too shitting hot.” I turned and pointed a finger at Wade. “And don’t tell me your mama thinks I swear too much.”

“I wasn’t saying nothing.”

“He was about to,” Dustin said. “But he’s right, we should come back when the lawn guy’s gone.” 

I was adamant, though. “When he’s gone, it’ll be seven, maybe eight. It’ll start cooling down. I want to swim now. It’s like ninety-ninety-nine fucking degrees.”

Dustin sighed, then turned to Wade. “It’s hot, man,” he said.

Wade turned and looked up the street, then down it. The only cars were far away, milling along Woodburn Boulevard. Not more than a few came down Brentland Street during the day, just in the morning and again at night, when everybody’s parents went off to work and left their no-good kids home all day to fuck with the neighbors’ swimming pools. Or fuck in them, if you happened to know someone who hadn’t tried it and gotten chlorine burns on their crotch parts. Everybody learned it sooner or later. Except the three of us. We were twelve. Horny as owls, talked a good game, even Wade, who sometimes surprised the shit out of us, but at the end of the day we all went home and beat off to torn-out pages of a Playboy we’d found in damp old backpack in the gully. 

“Fine,” Wade said. “But not here. Be smart about it, at least.”

He pointed, and we followed his finger to the overgrown woods on the house’s west and north sides. The fence ran in a nice, straight line along the property’s perimeter, but as it came into contact with the woods, it got drunk and began to weave and buckle into the trees. Eventually, it succumbed, and vanished into a growth of fir trees that sprawled onto the back half of the property like sand from a torn ballast bag. 

Dustin clapped Wade on his skinny shoulder. “That’s why we bring you along, man.”

I grinned. “Let’s go swimming, yeah?”

“Yeah, okay,” Wade said.

•     •     •

The old Fowler house was legend in our neighborhood in Channelton, but nobody could tell you quite why. There were countless stories about the old place: it was haunted; the old man who lived there was a pedophile; a whole family had been killed there years ago. It didn’t matter which one you believed, or if you believed any of them. They all seemed plausible when you saw the property, and the old Colonial house that rested heavily in the middle of it. 

Bill Fowler had built the place in the ‘60s, was the general consensus, back when nobody knew what he was up to. Built the whole place in the woods, and then when he was done, buzzed the trees off of the land and put up the fence. My father liked to tell the story of how the whole town thought Fowler was stupid for not cutting the trees down first. That was the punchline of the story, when you got right down to it. Locals just got a kick out of mocking someone who did something for their own reasons, especially if those reasons were obscure. And Bill Fowler, as the stories all go, was nothing if not obscure. 

But he was a perfectly ordinary man. He didn’t keep to himself. He worked in the county recorder’s office, took his wife dancing at the veterans’ hall, bought beers for the guys at the bar after work on Fridays. Kept one pair of boots for Sunday church, wore out the others working in the yard on Saturdays. For awhile he’d kept horses on the property, though Dad said they spooked easy, and more than once he’d come home from the refinery to see Mr. Fowler’s mare trotting down the asphalt street, shins bloodied up from busting down the stall gate again. He’d lead the horse home, then help Mr. Fowler fix the gate up. 

For me, the stories started with my father. After those evenings, or any other evening when he had cause to visit Bill, my father would come home sweating a little more than usual. Mom would tell him he looked a little peaked, and get him an iced tea and park him in the porch swing, and Dad would struggle to catch his breath a little, like he’d been out for a long run, and then he’d drink his tea down and say almost nothing about what was on his mind. I’d hear him mutter about it to Mom later, though, in the quiet of our little brick house. “I just always get the heebies out there,” he would say. I don’t remember what Mom ever said back. “Heebies” was a very amusing word to me, but when I heard my father say it, it felt different. 

Bill Fowler died the same year I was born, 1977, and the old place went up for sale soon after. The sign grew moss and fell over a few times before someone moved in. One day, my father told me later, the sign was just gone, and there was a charcoal-colored Ford Cortina parked amongst the weeds of the gravel driveway.

•     •     •

We could see the car from the shadows of the woods. It never seemed to move, from what any of us could tell. Maybe it never had since 1977. But the gravel driveway was kept orderly and neat, the weeds cleared and the packed-down rocks perfectly parallel to the fenceline, and the car never seemed to radiate that familiar, stale glow of abandonment that we were all used to noticing when a car sat too long on a neighbor’s front lawn. 

“I don’t see anybody now,” Dustin said. 

“The groundskeeper is over there,” Wade said, pointing again. “Tending the azaleas.”

“He’s just a guy with a lawnmower,” I repeated, but halfheartedly this time. 

The lawn guy was good, I had to concede. The property had the greenest grass on the block, and even in the places where ivy gathered densely around the grounds, it seemed almost intentional, like the guy meant for it to do exactly what it was doing. The only curiosity was the dead tree, ringed at the base with thorny brambles and shiny black rocks. It didn’t match the trellis on the side of the house, with its creeping vines and yellow, fat blossoms. It didn’t match the hedges on the east lawn, the ones that flanked the old barn. 

“I don’t see the swimming pool,” I said. 

“It’s back there,” Dustin said. “My brother said he and Gina snuck back there last month and did it in the shallow end. He said it was the best pool in the neighborhood.”

“Maybe your brother’s full of shit.”

“Maybe you’re full of shit,” Dustin retorted. 

“Guys,” Wade said. 

The groundskeeper had packed up his tools and was carrying them towards his pickup truck, parked just behind the gray Ford Cortina. 

“I think he’s finished,” Wade said.

“I just want to get in the water,” I complained. “It’s still hot, even in here.”

And it was. The woods were dense and dark, the strongest trees blotting out the light so that the weaker ones dried up and fell against each other and crumbled into rotten piles of dust. The floor of the forest was orange with dead pine needles, and I could barely see the sky through the thicket of branches above. 

“It’s fucking creepy in here,” I added. “Almost as creepy as that fucking house.”

“The car is what creeps me out,” Dustin said. “You know that car doesn’t even come from here?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean, Ford doesn’t even make that car,” Dustin said. “It’s like a phantom car. It’s not supposed to even exist. Think about it. You ever seen a Ford like that in the school parking lot? At the grocery store? Nobody else drives it because it’s not real. That’s got to be why it never moves, man.”

“It’s a Ford Cortina,” Wade interrupted. “They make it for England, man. It’s a Ford, it’s just not an American car.”

“The fuck are you talking about?” I asked. “Ford is American.”

“They have overseas markets, too,” Wade said. 

Dustin looked at me. “Fucking weirdo.”

I nodded. “Wade, you talk like you aren’t made for here.”

The groundskeeper finished loading up the truck, and we all turned our attention back to the driveway at the sound of his rusted door slamming shut. The man had just tossed something into the passenger seat, and walked around the pickup as if he was about to climb in and drive off. Then we heard another slam, a fainter one. 

“Oh, shit,” Dustin said. “The old man.”

Starring Steve Carell as...

On the nature of instruction: Remembering Manual