Posted in Fiction

Q&A: A Horror Short Story

Q&A_Cover.jpg

Q&A

By Brian Rowe

Theo Hauser sat in a stalled limousine, his left hand wrapped around a cold glass of bourbon, his right hand pressing his phone against his ear. He looked up at the theatre marquee to see his name in big, bright letters. Thirty years ago, this sight may have excited him, even astounded him. Today it made him want to slam his fist against a wall.

“Val, I’ve already told you,” he said. “The script isn’t working. We can’t make this movie if I don’t have a third act, do you understand that?”

Theo heard a loud roar from inside the theatre. Either the murderer had finally received his grisly death by chainsaw, or the end credits had begun. Either way, Theo’s time in the limo was limited.

“I’m aware I haven’t made a movie in ten years. You think I don’t know that? You think it doesn’t haunt me every single day?” He sighed and finished his drink in one large gulp. “I don’t know. I just… I can’t finish it. Maybe what they say is true. Maybe Chainsaw Murders was always meant to be my legacy. Maybe there’s nothing else I have to say.”

The limo door opened, revealing his driver, a man even older than he, his face covered in a thick Santa Claus beard. “Mr. Hauser? They’re ready for you.”

Theo set his drink down on the seat next to him. “Already? We just got here.”

“The credits are rolling. They’re asking for you to come inside.”

Theo sighed and waved his driver away. He shoved his phone up against his ear again and said, “Listen, I’ve got to get going, they’re calling me into the screening. I’d ask you for one more month but I understand if you can’t wait that long. I want to make my next film with you, I do — but I just can’t make any promises — ”

“Mr. Hauser?” The driver tapped his fingers loudly against the top of the limo. “It’s time.”

Theo nodded to his driver, then said into the phone, “I’ll talk to you later, OK?”

He slipped his phone into his pocket and stepped out under the blinding lights of the historic Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. He readjusted his sports coat and tie and glanced at his reflection in the vehicle window; his goatee was uneven, and his face was noticeably gaunt. He looked up at the marquee to see not his name this time but the title of his movie. He had been so proud of those three words for so many years, but lately they had turned into a slow-acting poison clouding up his creative mind. He was grateful for the film’s legacy, but he didn’t know if he’d ever be able to step out of its shadow.

Theo shook his head and walked to the theatre’s side entrance. He only had to take five steps forward for the thunderous cheers to begin. The fans in the front waved their memorabilia up into the air, and nearly half of the crowd leaped to their feet to give him an overjoyed standing ovation.

The horror director waved to the crowd, shook the young moderator’s hand, and took a seat on the large, sticky stage. The freezing auditorium was at full capacity.

He crossed his right leg over his left and settled in for another night with fans remembering his 1977 slasher classic, the only film on his resume that was still being shown anywhere in the new century. It was his third Q&A of the month, following his appearances in Hollywood and Century City. It was a busy time for Theo Hauser. It was October, after all.

The moderator for the evening wasn’t a significant film director or personality; the kid before him looked more suited to be working the concession stand.

“Mr. Hauser,” the moderator began, “we are so happy to welcome you to our screening tonight, and to give the audience an opportunity to meet one of their favorite filmmakers. How does it feel to be here talking about a motion picture you made thirty-five years ago?”

The director laughed and scratched his bald head. “You really want to know? It makes me feel old.”

Most of the audience laughed. The crowd was a mix of all ages, from ten-year-olds to centenarians.

“No, honestly, it’s a joy and a privilege,” the director said. “When we made The Chainsaw Murders back in ’76, we shot it in sixteen days. We had no money, no experience. The enthusiasm got us through.”

“And the film took a while to catch on with audiences, is that correct? It wasn’t a success right away?”

“Yes,” the director continued. “It took a few years for the film to develop a cult following. It wasn’t until it played in drive-ins did people start discovering it, and it wasn’t until critics began praising it in the early eighties did people start approaching me about it…”

And on and on they went, the director trying not to bore himself with the same old stories, jokes, and life lessons concerning his ancient horror masterpiece. He went on to make five more movies after The Chainsaw Murders, but nothing had made a dent at the box office, or in viewers’ imaginations. When his controversial 2002 feature about the Columbine massacre went straight-to-DVD, only to be pulled from shelves days later due to customer complaints, he knew his days as a horror director were numbered. The older he became, the more he wondered if he’d ever be able to get another film off the ground. He had been working on a new screenplay on and off for nearly three years, with promise of funding from a fledgling New York-based distributor. But he’d struggled to finish it. He didn’t know if he’d ever finish it.

And so Theo Hauser spent the latter part of his career traveling the country attending horror conventions, film festivals, and small town screenings. And everywhere he went, nobody ever wanted to talk about his other movies. They all wanted to talk about Chainsaw Murders. Sometimes he felt like a one-trick pony, a creative visionary who once had a shot at a memorable career but failed miserably.

But then he remembered that it could have been worse.

Better one classic than nothing, he thought.

“All right,” the moderator said. “Now we’re going to open up the floor to questions. If anyone with a question for Mr. Hauser would just raise their hand.”

At least twenty hands shot up in the air. Theo took a deep breath and settled into his chair.

“Yes,” the moderator said, pointing to the center of the crowd. “You, with the orange shirt.”

The young, obese man, wearing a Chainsaw Murders t-shirt, sat in the second row. “Yes, hi, Mr. Hauser, this is a real honor,” he said. “I’m sure you get this question a lot, but I was curious if you’re ever going to make a sequel to The Chainsaw Murders.”

The director had been posed this question so many times that he had exhausted his toolbox of answers. Sometimes he responded with something funny and witty; other times, cold and bitter. Occasionally he delved into a long story regarding the years he spent writing a second installment that in the end proved to have too high a budget for any studio head to sign off on.

“Not a chance,” was all Theo said.

The second question concerned the casting of the supporting roles, the third concentrated on his use of synthesized music, and the fourth dealt with his rumored romantic relationship with the film’s leading lady.

“It wasn’t much of a relationship,” the director said. “We slept together once. But that was it.”

Some mild laughter scattered throughout the audience.

“OK, fine, twice. She was hot. What can I say?”

A lot of the younger men in the audience applauded. Even the moderator shared in their enthusiasm.

“Thanks for clearing that up, Mr. Hauser,” he said, then gazed back out into the crowd. “Another question?”

A few timid hands popped up, but it was a man sitting in an aisle seat who raised his hand highest of all.

“Yes, you,” the moderator said. “With the black jacket.”

The man nodded and rose to his feet. He had short black hair and a pale, pedestrian face. He flaunted a prominent smile that would’ve been more noticeable if it weren’t for the tears in his eyes.

“Mr. Hauser, I just wanted to thank you so much for gracing us with your remarkable presence this evening, and I wanted to congratulate you on this, the thirty-fifth anniversary of not just one of the finest horror films ever made, but one of the greatest motion pictures of all time.”

The fan had a weird voice and an even weirder rhythm to his speaking. He enunciated specific words and phrases, giving the room an instant aura of awkwardness, so much so that the director wanted to immediately bolt for the emergency exit.

“I have seen this film well over two hundred times, and each time I find myself totally captivated, by every scene, every shot, every moment, that resulted from that incomparable, creative wonderland that is your brain.”

The guy wasn’t stopping. Worse, there didn’t seem to be a question in sight.

The director glanced briefly at the moderator, who seemed at a loss for what to do.

“And you are so well-regarded for The Chainsaw Murders,” the man continued,that many neglect your other truly terrific films that include Row Boat, The Millennium Killers, Evil Has A Name, and Columbine: A Day in History, the latter of which may be one of the most underrated films of the last decade.”

“Question!” a young woman coughed behind the man.

“Ask a goddamn question!” an older guy screamed from the back of the theatre.

The moderator forced a smile and turned to his left. “All right, let’s open the floor to someone else — ”

“And in conclusion,” the man said, “I think I speak for everyone in this room in saying that we could not have been treated tonight to a more talented, more giving, more spectacular filmmaker than our very own Theo Hauser, a man who will forever be remembered in the centuries to come as the ultimate icon of horror cinema. Mr. Hauser, I would like to take this opportunity to consider you… my friend. Thank you.”

The man finally took a seat, making for much applause in the room.

“He’s making me sound like I’m already dead,” Theo said to the moderator, but he didn’t hear him. The moderator immediately took the next available question.

Somebody else in the audience started talking, but the director stayed focused on the strange pale figure. The guy had a brown briefcase resting on his knees, as well as what looked to be a guitar case on the aisle next to his seat. The director wondered if this bizarre individual expressed his brand of irrational behavior with lots of directors at a multitude of venues, or just with him.

“Mr. Hauser? Did you get that?”

The director glanced at the moderator. “I’m sorry?”

“This young woman to your left just asked if you had any projects in development.”

He looked down to see a pretty girl no older than twenty waving at him.

“Oh, yes, hi there,” the director said, trying to blink himself out of his daze. “Nothing concrete at the moment. But I am working on a script.”

“So we could potentially be seeing a new film of yours soon?” the girl asked in a genuinely hopeful tone.

“Honey, as soon as I can find my ending.”

Laughter erupted throughout the audience, clearly from many jaded L.A. screenwriters.

“Well, on that note,” the moderator said, “I wanted to thank you all for coming out tonight for this special thirty-fifth anniversary screening of The Chainsaw Murders!”

Everyone started clapping, and the director stood up from his chair, nodding and waving at everyone.

“And I especially want to thank Mr. Hauser for making his way out to Santa Monica tonight,” the moderator concluded. “Sir, this was a real treat.”

The director shook the moderator’s sweaty hand and darted his eyes to the side exit where his limousine awaited him. He was halfway to the door when a group of fans charged up to him with so much enthusiasm that he momentarily feared for his life.

“One at a time, please,” the director said. “I’ll get to all of you. Don’t push, don’t push.”

Fans shoved items at him to sign that were, as expected, mostly related to The Chainsaw Murders, but a VHS of Row Boat happily surprised him and one of the masks from The Millennium Killers made him smile.

After ten minutes, the group in front of him finally receded. He was almost done.

“Mr. Hauser, sir.”

Somebody pushed an old laserdisc box set of Chainsaw Murders against the director’s chest. He did a double take.

“Oh, wow,” the director said. “The three-disc set. I didn’t think any of these were in existence anymore. Where did you find this — ”

He looked up to see the pale man with the briefcase. The figure stood completely still, a dopey grin on his face, his eyes staring into the director’s like a puppy in love. “I’ve had it for years, Mr. Hauser. Still in its original wrapping. I’ve never allowed myself to open it.”

“Oh,” the director said. “I see.” He glanced behind the man to see that he was the last of the autograph hounds.

Theo signed his name in the center of the box, nodded with a polite smile, and started making his way to the exit.

“Oh, Mr. Hauser! Can you sign another?”

Theo didn’t stop walking. “No, I’d like to,” he said, not making eye contact with the fan, “but I’m late for another function. I hope you’ll understand.”

“Pleeeeeeease?” The man rushed past him and stuck his arm out, blocking Theo’s exit to the limo.

The director sighed and tried not to call out this aggressive fan for what he was: a whiny child. “OK, OK. For Christ’s sake. But only one more.”

The man opened up his briefcase and handed the director a screenplay. But it wasn’t just any screenplay.

“You have got to be joking,” the director said, flipping through the eighty-eight pages, which were covered in mostly ineligible writing. “This is my script.”

“Yes, sir. That’s your personal screenplay from the 1976 shoot. Some guy in New York auctioned it off in the late nineties. I paid top dollar for it.”

The director nodded and signed his name above the title on the script’s cover. He appreciated the guy’s enthusiasm but couldn’t ignore the creepiness factor. “Well, thanks again for the support.”

He brushed past the man’s arm and walked out under the night sky.

“But wait,” the man said. “I just have one more thing.”

The director turned the corner to find his limo driver enjoying a cigarette. “Please get in the vehicle,” he said, pushing past him. “I need to get out of here.”

“Sure thing.”

The driver hurried to the left side of the limo. The director pulled on the door handle, but the door was locked.

“Mr. Hauser! Wait!”

The man with the briefcase charged up to the director, holding up his guitar case. He wasn’t going to take no for an answer.

“I’m sorry,” the director said. “I have to go.”

“I just have one more thing for you to sign, I promise.”

He put his briefcase down and pulled up the guitar case. He started to click it open when the side door of the limo unlocked.

“Goodbye,” the director said.

He opened and shut his door before the man could stop him.

“No! Not yet — ”

“Go!” the director shouted at his driver. “Go, go, go!”

As the limousine pulled forward, the man started chasing after it. He pressed the palm of his left hand against the side window and dragged his heavy guitar case with the fingers of his right. He lost his grip when the limousine made a right on busy San Vicente Boulevard and started speeding down the center lane.

The director closed his eyes and didn’t open them again until he was back on the freeway and out of Santa Monica, heading toward his home in the San Fernando Valley.

Another crazy fan evaded, he thought.

The director arrived at his upscale Studio City home a half hour later to find it dark and abandoned. He tipped the driver and walked up the winding driveway, hoping by some miracle that when he entered he’d have his family there to greet him — but he didn’t want to get lost in wishful thinking.

Theo headed straight for the kitchen. Some whiskey on the rocks helped ease his pain. His third wife had left him barely a month ago, and his only child was grown up and married and teaching chemistry across the country. He was alone in his big house for the first time in twenty years. He didn’t mind the quiet, but nothing had prepared him for the loneliness.

He finished his drink and grabbed the bottle of whiskey. He wanted to pour himself another. He held the bottle over his glass, watching as a small amount dripped out and splashed against the ice. But then he looked past the glass, and past the kitchen, to the adjacent family room, where a giant poster of The Chainsaw Murders was framed above the fireplace.

Theo set the bottle down and extended his middle finger.

Enough,” he said, and raced out of the kitchen.

Theo entered his study and sat down on his comfy blue chair. He turned on his laptop screen and clicked open his screenplay. The words stopped on page 77.

He tapped his fingers on his desk and rested his thumb against his chin. He pursed his lips. He studied the monitor.

“Come on,” he said. “Come on, you fucking hack. Think.”

His screenplay was about a serial killer picking off members of a popular Houston-based band one by one. He was almost done. But he hadn’t been able to pin down the killer’s identity.

Theo closed his eyes. He thought of tonight’s Q&A.

“Oh my God,” he whispered. “How could I be so stupid?” His eyes opened so wide he thought a blood vessel might have burst. “The killer should be their biggest fan!”

He didn’t even take the time to sort through all his thoughts. His fingers just started typing. Theo sat there for more than an hour, stopping his typing only once to scratch his back. He reached page 109 and typed in big, bold letters: THE END.

The director sat back and grinned. “Thanks, creep. You just saved my career.” He hit PRINT, grabbed his cell phone, and sped out of the room.

Theo walked to the kitchen and brought his phone up to his ear. Now was the time for that second drink. Now was truly the time to celebrate.

The call went to voice-mail. “Val, it’s done. I don’t know what just came over me, but… I did it. I’m printing out the pages and will have it to you first thing in the morning. Oh my God, I can’t believe it. I think it’s actually good.” Theo poured himself more whiskey, enjoyed a savory sip, and wiped an unexpected tear from his left cheek. “Call me when you can, OK? Thanks.”

He slipped the phone into his pocket, then brought the glass back up to his lips. He took another sip. He heard the pages printing in his study. He set the glass down and rubbed his hands together in anticipation.

He stopped the rubbing when he noticed the strange sight on the kitchen island, on the opposite side of the room.

He stepped forward and peered down, confused to see, of all things, an open guitar case.

“What the hell — ”

An earth-shattering noise roared to life behind him. Before he could turn around, a shooting pain struck his back.

The director started screaming.

What is it what is it what is it!

A running chainsaw smashed all the way through his stomach and protruded out the place where his belly button was supposed to be. The director looked down, horrified, before belting out another succession of violent screams.

As his blood and guts spilled against the kitchen floor, the chainsaw turned off. Theo remained standing, still conscious but fading.

“Mr. Hauser, here’s my pen.”

His body shaking, his mouth filled with blood, his vision turning to a fuzzy blackness, the director looked to his left to see his own biggest fan.

“As I was trying to tell you at the theatre, I have in my possession the last known chainsaw used in your film. It appears at the end when the sadistic killer finally meets his match. Can you believe, Mr. Hauser, that the chainsaw still works after all these years?”

The director slumped down to the ground, and as he faded into nothing, his final glimpse was of the man putting a black sharpie in his hand and assisting him with his signature.

“Just here.”

Theo finished signing his name at the top of the chainsaw’s blade, and as he released his final breath, the chainsaw roared to life again, this time moving up from his intestines toward his throat, ripping through his brain and out the top of his head.

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