Tag Archives: Short Story

Halloween Update

Hello!

So … a tiny little update to some exciting stuff I mentioned on Twitter a few weeks ago, plus some more recent news.

A little while ago, this became my pinned tweet:

two-contracts

So this was kind of exciting for me for a few reasons. One of the contracts is for a story already written, scheduled originally for publication in an anthology on Halloween this year, but scheduling of one sort or another has pushed that back to early 2017. The theme of the anthology is top-secret but brilliant, and I can’t wait to see the other authors’ spins on such a delicious idea.

The second contract … well, this one is scary, at least to me. It’s scary because it’s for five (yes, FIVE!) stories that haven’t been written yet (though the ideas are percolating), so it’s a different (and thrilling!) type of creative pressure for me. Another reason that it’s scary is that the other authors involved are all these incredible creative powerhouses of whom I’m a little in awe, so yes, I feel like I’ll have to raise my game to earn my place in those pages beside them.

It’s maybe a little too soon to reveal the theme of the anthology *Trademarked Cheeky Geeky Northern Boy Teasing Wink* but … Just. You. Wait.

The more recent stuff I mentioned was this:

booth

This was really exciting, especially given the wonderfully high standard of the competition entries published on the Storgy site over the last week, in the run-up to Halloween. The story in First Place is being announced on the 31st October itself, and I can’t wait to be utterly terrified by the winning entry.

Should you wish to read my story, the link is here, but even if you give mine a miss, I really hope you read the other, excellent tales. They’re perfect Halloween reading!

Anyway, if you made it this far, thanks for reading and Happy Halloween! I’ll be spending it in a bloodstained hockey mask and wielding a machete … nothing to do with Halloween, just what I do on a Monday 😉

 

 

 

 

 

 


Empathy – Part Two

Part One

‘Even when we were children,’ Pierre said. ‘We were a strange pairing, as different in nature as we were alike in appearance. I was the shy, studious one, always reading or thinking, while Alain was forever swimming and exploring and climbing trees. One day, when we were ten or so, I was up in my room reading – I forget what – and Alain was scrambling around up in the high branches of the great oak at the edge of our field.

‘Something else must have captured his attention – something else usually did – and he missed his footing. My brother was an exceptional climber, but falling was never his strong point. He landed badly, twisting his left arm beneath him. Snapped his wrist clean through, I heard the doctor say later.

‘I didn’t know of his accident until he came through the door cradling his arm, with his clothes all torn. He wasn’t crying, but his face was pure white and covered in sweat. Our mother panicked, naturally, with one son looking as though he’d seen Marley’s Ghost and the other one screaming his heart out.’

I frowned, not fully understanding, though it should have been obvious.

‘I’d been sitting on my bed reading,’ Pierre told me. ‘When suddenly I was on the floor, clutching my wrist and screaming in agony. I remember the way it felt, even now – like my wrist joint had grown a bracelet of knives. Mother rushed in and ran to my side. She was almost screaming herself, asking me what was wrong, but I couldn’t seem to catch enough of my breath to tell her. I just lay there wailing and pressing my arm against the front of my shirt, until she picked me up and carried me downstairs.

‘She had just lifted the phone – to call an ambulance or my father at his office, I don’t know which – when Alain walked in. She took one look at him, then back at me, and I have never, never seen such a look of fear and confusion on a person’s face.’

He smiled at me weakly, his eyes wet. ‘And in that moment, I’d never loved her more. I think I’d like that drink now, Jacques, if you wouldn’t mind.’

‘Of course.’ Quickly I poured him a glass of mineral water, trying to keep the tremors in my aching hands at bay. I didn’t mind pouring him a drink. I had to gently angle his head forward so that he could take a sip, and I didn’t mind that either.

When he’d finished, Pierre said, ‘To be honest, I would’ve preferred it with a chaser of morphine, but thank you anyway.’

I started to rise. ‘Shall I fetch a nurse?’

‘No, no.’ He watched me sit down again. ‘The pain isn’t as bad tonight, actually – I think it’s because you’re here, giving me something to talk about, take my mind off it.’

He smiled his fragile smile, but there were beads of sweat breaking out in the wrinkles of his forehead and I knew he was lying. The pain was as bad, if not worse, than all his other nights, but this was Pierre Leveque, and he was going to last the course. By God, he was.

‘The thing that happened to Alain and I,’ he said. ‘The scientific types call it empathic trauma. I’m sure you’ve heard of it, it’s surprisingly common between identical twins.

‘As the years passed we grew further apart – I stayed here and built on the family riches, while Alain travelled the world, and as you know we lost touch. At least, we did in the sense that there were no letters or telephone calls between us, but every now and then … every now and then I’d feel something. I’d be alone and hear some woman whisper his name in some exotic accent or I’d feel my knuckles sting and know that he’d used that famous right of hook of his on someone, somewhere in the world.

‘I mostly forgot about the tree incident, but he never did, it seemed. After … after he died, when I inherited his diaries I saw that he’d spent more than twenty five years cataloguing such phenomena. I found files, photographs, witness statements, all manner of documentation. There were incidents similar to our own – sisters in the United States who would flip migraines back and forth like a tennis ball – and other stories, all of them confirmed by independent witnesses. One report was of a German sailor lost at sea when his ship went down in a storm and he was washed ashore on some remote island that hardly anyone knew existed, yet his brother directed the rescue plane right to it.

‘Over the years, Alain had collected a number of possible explanations for such incidents, but in his last diary entry – the night of his suicide – he seemed to have settled on which one he believed. The entry is … disjointed. I can’t imagine what state his mind must have been in at the end, but his rendering of the theory is quite explicit. Telepathic empathy is latent in all twins, but it needs some kind of extreme emotional stimuli to trigger it. Pain, anxiety, grief, whatever. Even with the evidence in front of me, it all sounded so far fetched, until … until I …’

Pierre’s voice bled away then, as if the horror of his brother’s suicide and the dreadful events that followed it had struck him anew. I understood, because this is where my memories and Pierre’s memories and the nightmare all become one.

This is where the secrets are.

To Be Continued

Part Three


Empathy – Part One

An experiment, of sorts. A short story in five parts, starting today and ending on Friday. I’m making this one up as I go (well, I make them ALL up – mostly – but you know what I mean). I’ve spell-checked it but that’s about as far as I’ve gone with the editing, so please excuse its first-draftness, and keep your fingers crossed that I can answer the question that I suspect all writers find terrifying and wonderful – What Happens Next? I have an X on my mental map marking the likely final destination of the story, but knowing myself as I do, I’m apt to spill coffee on the map or lose it or become distracted and turn it into a paper plane. We shall see. Anyway, here we go …

The night Pierre Leveque gave me his secrets, I thought he wanted nothing more than forgiveness in return, but there was another, hidden reason behind his final confession that I didn’t understand then. I know better now. The telling makes it real, you see, and not like the terrible dream it seems to be.

That’s why I’m telling you.

One morning in early December I received a telephone call from Pierre’s solicitor. She told me of his illness – terminal is such a clinical word – and of his final wish to see me that night. Hearing that he was dying hurt me, and realising that it had been thirty years – thirty! – since we last spoke didn’t make it hurt any less. I had spent those years toiling away in the same accounts department of the same electronics company until my retirement five years ago, the summer I lost my childhood sweetheart to leukaemia. Dear, sweet Yvonne. My only comfort now is that I honoured her wish to be cremated. I dread to anticipate my actions had I behaved otherwise.

There had been letters, of course, three decades worth, always filed with the rubbish the moment I saw Pierre’s elegantly spiky script upon the envelope. I never had any wish to open them, but now, knowing suddenly that the hand behind those unread words would soon be stilled, I found myself agreeing to Pierre’s request. His solicitor, an engaging English mademoiselle who sounded too young to have been born when her client’s trial was meat for the vultures, assured me that Monsieur Leveque would be pleased.

I declined Pierre’s offer of transport, choosing instead to travel to his prison via the cold labyrinth of the metro. Gliding beneath the snowbound streets of Paris, I knew we would have to talk of the business with Alain – the cause of the chasm between us. My horror of Pierre’s crime was undiminished, an open wound we shared, but as the warder held aside the white plastic curtain that concealed Pierre’s deathbed even though the rest of the infirmary was empty, I saw that the time for quarrels was past, and the time of understanding – and thus true horror – was only just beginning.

I remember the space around his bed looked strangely barren without the medical equipment one normally associates with such scenarios. No hanging bags of IV nourishment or beeping screens waiting to flatline. Pierre had ordered that under no circumstances should his life (or his life sentence) be extended beyond its natural conclusion, and even when incarcerated men of Pierre’s wealth almost always get what they want. And the Prison Governor got the yacht he’d always dreamed of, I hear.

Sitting beside his bed, I was unable to tear my gaze away from the wasted scarecrow beneath the sheets, so shocked and saddened was I at how his illness and the lost time between us had carved lines into his face. His blue eyes had faded, grown jaundiced and bloodshot, yet they widened in recognition the instant they met mine.

‘Jacques. Thank you for coming.’

Something broke inside me when I heard how weak and rasping his voice had become, but I managed to smile and answer, ‘I’m only here because I couldn’t get tickets for the theatre.’

He chuckled, a rattling and empty sound. ‘You should’ve mentioned my name.’

I nodded, peeling off my gloves. ‘So … how are you feeling?’

Pierre arched an eyebrow at me. ‘This cheap mattress is my fucking deathbed. How do you think I’m feeling?’

I winced, partly because the cold night had set my arthritis flexing its claws. It was a very cold night.

Pierre sighed. ‘Sorry.’ He closed his eyes for a moment. ‘I heard about Yvonne. I’m sorry about that, too. I wasn’t sure if I should send flowers -‘

I sliced off his apology. ‘I’m glad you didn’t. They wouldn’t have been welcome.’

‘No …’ he said thoughtfully. ‘No, of course they wouldn’t.’

An uneasy silence fell between us – the silence of strangers, I realised. Then Pierre said, ‘Jacques, you know why I … why I needed to see you?’

I nodded.

‘I don’t have much time.’ he went on. ‘The doctor here is alarmingly young but I believe he knows his job. He tells me I have another few days, but we both know he’s being a trifle optimistic.’ He coughed weakly, and I reached for the mineral water beside his bed, but Pierre shook his head. ‘Jacques, I want to explain. There are things I couldn’t say at the trial, or in my letters to you. And I want to tell you more about Alain.’

Yes. Alain Leveque – Pierre’s identical twin. Just hearing Pierre speak his name again made my disgust uncoil, but I simply nodded once more. The metal legs of the chair beside Pierre’s deathbed squeaked against the tiles as I pulled it towards me and sat.

‘Go on.’ I heard myself say.

To Be Continued

Part Two


Flash Fiction – The App

Sometimes, as I suspect all FP-contributors know, the microfiction machine doesn’t necessarily shut itself down once the unspoken deadline of midnight has passed. Normally, when this happens to me, my imagination usually decides to move on and delete whichever mini-tales that didn’t make it home before the witching hour, but the following tiny slice of story evolved from the glass slipper that one unused FP left behind.  It’s a slight tale, but I thought it was fun, with a certain “around the campfire” spookiness to it. We’ll see …

‘No, I don’t think so,’ Ellis said, looking over her glasses at Sarah’s phone. ‘It sounds kind of creepy.’

‘Oh, it’s just a bit of a laugh,’ Sarah said, scrolling the screen. ‘All you have to do is download the app then put your details in.’

Ellis’s fingers tightened a little around her own phone, but she didn’t tap in the code to unlock it. It wasn’t that she thought Sarah might peek at the numbers, or use the phone to sneak into her Facebook or anything. She trusted her friend, and they’d even gotten past that night when Sarah had got off with Billy Simmons when Sarah had known that Ellis really liked him. She thought that Sarah had probably guessed the unlock code, anyway. One, Nine, Nine, Four – the year Harry Styles was born. Ellis didn’t really listen to One Direction anymore, but she still thought that Harry was gorgeous. It wasn’t her fault she liked older men.

‘What kind of details?’ she asked doubtfully.

‘Nothing much,’ Sarah told her with a smile. ‘Just stuff like your age, your height and weight,’ She drew on her cigarette. ‘How much you smoke and drink, that kind of thing.’

Ellis drew back as if Sarah’s phone was infected with some horrible disease. ‘I’m not putting my weight in.’

‘It’s fine,’ Sarah said. ‘You only have to do it once, and it doesn’t show up again.’

‘We’ll be late for school,’ Ellis shrugged. ‘I might do it later.’

‘Do it now,’ Sarah insisted. ‘We’ll walk quick.’

Ellis sighed. Sarah wasn’t going to let this go. She unlocked her phone as they started walking along Temple Road. Behind them, at the corner that led into Church Avenue, an old, olive-green van paused briefly at the junction, then began to turn in their direction.

Sarah gave Ellis the site address, and the two of them watched the screen as the app downloaded. Sarah finished her cigarette and pitched it into the road. Ellis followed the instructions on screen, tapping in her birthday, her height (she added an inch), her weight (she made Sarah look away, but still deducted a pound), and her smoking and drinking habits (never smoked, drank occasionally).

‘All you have to do now is press Calculate,’ Sarah said. Ellis was slightly conscious that her friend had raised her voice a little, speaking over the growing growl of an engine. ‘And the app works out the day you die.’

‘What did you get?’ Ellis asked her as they approached the kerb. Her fingertip hovered over the Calculate icon, but she still wasn’t sure if she wanted to touch it.

‘Oh, I got ages away,’ Sarah grinned. ‘Like, sixty-five or something. That’s even older than my Nan.’ Her voice clicked up another notch to compete with the approaching engine noise. ‘You don’t even smoke, so you’ll probably do even better than me.’

‘I hope so,’ Ellis said as she stepped off the kerb. Very suddenly she could smell petrol fumes, hear the tinny jingle of some morning radio programme. She tapped the Calculate button, her eyes widening as the projected date of her death appeared on the screen.

Beside her, she heard Sarah scream, a high, startled squeal that seemed to entwine with the other screech, the song of tires against tarmac. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Sarah leaping back, back onto the kerb. She glanced the other way and saw the van, and the driver’s pale, horrified face. An air-freshener in the shape of a Christmas tree hung from the rear-view mirror, dancing madly on its string as he hit the brakes, the driver’s coffee toppling from the dashboard as the van stopped perhaps an inch from where she stood. Ellis could feel waves of heat streaming from the engine grille, sour with petrol fumes, but suddenly she was very conscious of how thin and insubstantial the heat felt to her, how little it warmed her skin.

‘Fuck,’ Sarah was saying, her voice ragged at the edges. ‘Fucking hell, Ellis, you nearly -‘

The driver was swearing too as he pushed open the door of the van and got out. ‘You stupid little cow,’ he was shouting. ‘You almost got yourself -‘

Ellis barely heard them. She was staring at the digits flashing on her phone. Staring at them and remembering that Dad had come home again drunk last night. Remembering how he’d been arguing with Mum at the top of the stairs and how she’d gotten between the two of them, frightened and wanting nothing more than for them to stop fighting. She remembered a shove in the middle of her back, her Mum or her Dad, she couldn’t be sure which of them it had been, but she supposed it didn’t matter, because she remembered falling from the top of the stairs, toppling like coffee from a dashboard, and she remembered –

She stared at the digits, realising that after that, she remembered nothing at all.

The numbers blazed red on the screen of her phone.

Yesterday’s date.

 


Hide and Seek – #10WeeksOfHorror Writing Challenge

Ah, writing challenges, those silver-tongued and snake-hipped sirens that I find myself unable to resist! One such bright and shiny thing at the moment is the wonderful #10WeeksOfHorror challenge. The original post explaining the concept can be found here, at the oasis that is the Prose Before Ho Hos blog (DISPATCHES FROM THE MAN CAVE OF WRITERLY AWESOMENESS!), but essentially it involves being inspired by 10 writing prompts posted in the 10 weeks prior to Halloween (Halloween! Whoop Whoop! HALLOWEEN!). If you haven’t already, I’d thoroughly recommend heading over that way to take a look at the awesome poetry and prose the challenge has inspired so far. As I write this, we’re halfway through the challenge, and the following story owes its existence to the prompt Creepy Kids. I’d like to thank the splendid Jessica West (@West1Jess), who I’d venture is something of a silver-tongued, snake-hipped siren herself, for kindly bending the laws of time a little with the submission deadline.

Incidentally, all of the prompts are nefarious variations on the 12 Days Of Christmas song (5 Creepy Kids as opposed to 5 Gold Rings etc) and, given they’re counting down to Halloween (I’m excited about Halloween, have I mentioned that?), they come across almost as a strange, dark reflection of the original song, a kind of evil twin, if you will, which considering what you’re hopefully about to read, seems somehow apt …

Of all the games that Liam had played in his nine years, hide and seek was his very favourite. Even now, although it was dark, and he could hear more murmurs of thunder approaching the house, he could feel the excitement of the game running through him, feel his heart beat faster, feel his palm grow damp around the neck of the broken bottle he held.

He thrust it into a shadowed corner, disappointed when the sharp, jagged edges found nothing but empty air. He much preferred to be seeking rather than hiding, but the game seemed to have lasted a long time, and he and his sister seemed to be getting nowhere. He supposed that two seekers against one hider wasn’t fair, but Lauren had said that, as she was older than him – almost by two minutes – that made her the grown up and she could change the rules of the game if she wanted.

He could hear her upstairs, stamping about, opening doors and cupboards, breaking things. Sometimes he heard her singing, songs from that boy-band that she had all the posters of on her bedroom wall. Her singing wasn’t very good, but Liam loved his sister, and would never tell her that. He wouldn’t dare.

She had the carving knife. Liam had wanted it, but again Lauren had told him that she was the eldest, she was in charge, and that if he wanted to play then he’d have to use the bottle. He’d struggled to smash it properly though, thumping it uselessly against the kitchen worktop, until Lauren had taken it from him and shattered the base upon the stone steps outside the front door.

‘Be careful,’ she’d said as she handed him the weapon. ‘There’s just the two of us, remember.’

He’d nodded, understanding. Just the two of them, looking after each other, just like always. He still remembered the other one, though, had thin, hazy memories of a third, stuttering heartbeat with them in their mother’s tummy, an interloper in their living cradle. Their brother had been much smaller than either of them, less developed, with barely a scrap of mind to him, no thoughts, just a shallow puddle of feelings cased in soft bone. His confused, numbed tangle of emotions had been an unwelcome ghost on the secret frequency between Liam and Lauren, a kind of idiot static crackling through their line of communication. He’d been a spindly little thing as well, Liam recalled, a blind shape sheathed in thin, vein-webbed skin that, as Lauren had promised, even the twins’ tiny fingers could puncture and tear.

Lauren claimed to remember it all, but Liam remembered enough. Their mother had told people she’d lost their sibling – Liam had heard her say as much, back when he was a newborn himself, and she’d felt that she could talk freely. Lost. That was how she’d phrased it, talking to someone else in the hospital while Liam nestled into the soft warmth of her breasts, pretending to be asleep but listening to every word. Lost, as though their brother had been a cluster of car keys instead of a cluster of cells, and that had always struck Liam as strange, because she hadn’t lost him at all. The dismantled tatters of him had emerged from her minutes after the twin’s own sudden arrival into the world.

Being outside had felt very different to being in their mother’s tummy, too bright and too cold, a frightening tide of colours and sounds. There were green sheets and silver lights where there had been only a rich, watery dark, and loud voices where there had only been the rush of blood and the soothing throb of his and Lauren’s pulses. There had been screams. Yes, their brother had shrieked as the last of him was unravelled, but that had been a been a kind of confused, scared echo on the twins’ mental wavelength, nothing like the noises that had welcomed them into the world, their own spidery wails and the thick, hoarse cries that shuddered from their mother when she saw their sibling.

They were real screams, long howls that splintered in the air, spilling pain and horror and distress from the cracks. The kind of screams he’d heard tonight.

He stepped quietly into the dining room. There was nowhere to hide in here, not really, not except under the wide wooden table. He crouched, not near enough so that anyone hiding under there could reach out and clutch at him, and angled the glass teeth of the bottle into the darkness beneath. Through the wide window of the dining room he saw the lightning flash, as if the clouds were taking snapshots of the surrounding countryside. For a moment he thought he saw a trembling shape huddled back near one of the legs and he raised the bottle, ready to jab it forward, but the shape faded with the lightning, and he breathed again. The space beneath the table was empty. She wasn’t there.

He stood. He could hear Lauren on the landing, hear the stairs creak as she started down them. She must have finished her search, and she would have called out if she’d found the hider, if only to let him know that she’d won the game. But she hadn’t called out, and that meant that he might still win for once. The doors and windows were all locked, and Lauren hadn’t even told him where she’d hidden the keys, and there was no way out of the house until the game was over. Lauren hadn’t found her upstairs, and he’d searched almost everywhere down here, which meant that there was only one room where the hider could be. He could do this. He could still win.

The thunder growled as he entered the living room. The storm was getting closer, he thought, just like him. The carpet squished beneath his shoes as he moved forward. He should have known that this was where she’d be. This was where the game had begun tonight. He should have known that she’d come back here.

‘Liam!’ Lauren was shouting. She sounded like she was at the bottom of the stairs now. ‘Liam, where are you?’

He didn’t answer. He was so close now. He kept looking down at his feet, navigating a silent path between the dark, wet islands on the carpet. The first teardrops of rain had begun to fall, ticking against the windowpane. He glanced that way and saw smeared, bloody handprints on the glass, where she’d tried to escape. As he drew nearer to the sofa, he thought he could hear her breathing.

Somewhere behind him, in another room, he could hear Lauren swinging open doors, hear the metallic swish of loops on a rail as she pulled curtains aside, checking all the places he’d already checked, as if she thought he wasn’t any good at the game. He’d show her. He was going to be the winner.

Another flicker of lightning showed him the shape behind the sofa, not his imagination this time. She probably thought she was well hidden, that she was playing the game well, but Liam could see one of her hands, trembling, the thin fingers twitching. She looked like she was wearing a red glove.

‘Liam!’ Lauren yelled again. She sounded close now, like she was in the dining room, but she was too late. He had won.

He moved closer to the shape behind the sofa, bringing the glassy fangs of the bottle upwards to strike. He stood in front of her, stepping over his father’s outstretched legs to do so.

‘Found you, Mum.’ he said.

She looked up at him through the wet strands of her hair, and he thought that her eyes looked strange, too dark somehow, too flat, like the eyes of the teddy bears in Lauren’s room. It was if something was missing from them now, nothing left but the same murky void that he’d found in his brother, no thoughts, just feelings. Lauren had managed to catch her a few times in the tummy with the carving knife, but looking at her now, with her empty eyes and her slim, white arm draped across their dead father’s chest, Liam started to understand that she was hurt in some other way, some way that he couldn’t quite see, some kind of pain that even a kiss couldn’t make better. It made him feel a little sad. He had wanted her to enjoy the game as much as him, right to the very end.

He raised the bottle, hesitating when she spoke.

‘Liam …’ Her voice sounded heavy, too wet, as if she were breaking her own rules and talking with her mouth full. Her bloody hand shook as she brought it up. Her fingers reached for the bottle and he thought she was going to try and snatch it from him, but instead her fingertips merely brushed the broken, jagged edges.

‘Sharp, my love …’ she said thickly. ‘… careful, don’t … cut yourself …’

And there it was again, that light in her eyes that he knew so well, the one he’d always craved when knees were scraped and heads were bumped, when gold stars at school needed an approving smile or lullabies needed to be sung. That light, that sparkle. It made her eyes shine, made them glow as bright as cat’s eyes in the shadows of the living room, and so that was where he aimed the shattered teeth of the bottle, again and again.

When it was done, he heard Lauren’s voice behind him. ‘Oh,’ she said, disappointed. ‘You won.’

He turned. She was standing in the doorway to the living room, the carving knife still in her hand. Lightning painted her pale features paler for a moment, and less than a heartbeat later the thunder boomed. The storm was right on top of them, he thought.

He looked down at the bottle, its fangs glistening now. The shape of it looked different, some of the teeth shattered or lost. He knew that if he glanced at the wet wreckage of his mother’s face he would find them, but he didn’t look. He didn’t have to. He knew he’d see it forever.

He threw the bottle aside. It thumped to the carpet and rolled away into the shadows.

‘I want to go outside.’ he said. Suddenly his face felt too hot and sticky and all he wanted was the rain on his skin, the cold on his face. ‘Where are the keys?’

‘You can’t go, not yet.’ Lauren told him, her smooth forehead creasing into a little frown. ‘The game isn’t over.’

He shook his head and made a small gesture at their parents, but he didn’t look at them. Suddenly he didn’t feel like he could do that. ‘Of course it is. There’s no-one left to seek. I won.’

‘I’m changing the rules again,’ Lauren said, stepping forward. ‘If you want to go outside, now you have to look for the keys.’

The thunder spoke just before he did. ‘And what about you? What will be you be doing?’

‘I’ll be seeking you, of course.’ she said brightly, and he realised that while he had thrown the broken bottle aside, his sister still held the carving knife.

‘Tag, Liam.’ she smiled. ‘You’re it.’

 


Dead Cert

There are a couple of versions of this story.  There’s the version below, and another, very different incarnation that was broadcast a handful of years ago on UK radio.  The radio version was actually called Blood’s Dream, which is a horrible title, but was all I could think of at the time.  The broadcast version is actually one of my favourite readings of my work, and the presenter was kind enough to call my story “spinechilling”.  I remember being thrilled because it was the first time I’d heard anyone say anything like that about my work.  I was extremely grateful for the comment, but goodness only knows what she would think about the version I’m serving up below …

She was staring at her reflection in the hard silver skin of the juke, dreamily unmoored to the wiry, leather-jacketed stranger staring intently back at her. The stranger’s image curved weirdly across the polished shell, distorted and distant, as though she was seeing it in some fairground hall of mirrors. She saw a half-child in monochrome warpaint; beneath the tangled spill of stormcloud hair her eyes were ringed with black, glinting dully like dirty glass, hollow orbs tattooed with living ink on the inside, pupils and irises and lacework veins. Tonight, she decided, the stranger’s name was Emma.

She selected the last of her three tracks on the juke and punched in the numbers. The first of her chosen 45s was plucked from the ranks and flipped on to the turntable. A moment later Patsy Cline commenced to serenade the breathing shadows in their smoke-fogged booths, singing about how crazy it is to love somebody. Emma turned and walked slowly back to the bar, sensing his cold, insectile gaze crawl hungrily over the swell of her breasts beneath her black t-shirt.

He hadn’t changed much in the last eight months. He was perhaps twenty-five or so, tall and muscular, sporting the same stubbled scalp as his companions. He wore the right jeans, the right trainers, and the football shirt of his team. They all did, just as they all drank the same beer and shots and smoked the same brand of cigarettes and leered stupidly over the same vacuously pneumatic models and pop stars.

When she’d walked in alone from the night and the sky’s promised tears he’d whispered something to his mates and oh how they’d laughed. It was then that she’d turned and made eye contact, held it for that all-important extra moment, the one he’d read as Yes, come on over. Talk to me.

She’d sat at the bar and ordered her drink from a claret-haired woman whose tired smile told her a lot. Whiskey and lemonade. The taste was cloying on her tongue but she drank it down and ordered another. Let them think she was in the mood for something sweet.

They were watching her now, filtering her presence and behaviour through a murk of male intuition, thinking with their scrotums, their sour cargo the only grey matter that mattered to them. If a woman’s alone then she’s waiting for a man. Fuck off and die means she’s playing hard to get, or she’s frigid, or she’s a lesbian. She imagined their conversation about her, full of lewd speculation and so-called compliments wrapped in dirty silk.

Nice tits …

Bet she bloody gives it away …

Yeah, she’s a dead cert …

She watched him for a few more minutes, in the long mirror behind the bar. Watched his companions goad and cajole him into making a move. Watched him and waited. She didn’t wait long.

He slithered up behind her, fed her some chat-up gambit strewn with cobwebs – it wasn’t Do you come here often? but it was close – and offered to buy her a drink. Smiling, she accepted. The second of her jukebox tracks was on now. Cheatin’ Heart. He offered her a cigarette. Again, she accepted, and smoked it slowly. If nothing else, she knew she gave good filter. They talked for a while. He asked her a few impersonal questions she gave him the answers he wanted to hear, knowing he’d never remember them anyway, the way he didnt remember her.  Twice during the brief conversation, he forgot the name she’d given him.

Eventually, he said, ‘My car’s just outside.’

She never did get to hear that last 45.

 

They stood in silence in the car park in the rain. She felt cold and soul-dead, her flesh as drained as a wrung-out rag. The world around her was a dirty, metallic grey. Colourless neon rippled and swam in the puddles at her feet. Grey thoughts in her head. Grey memories of a grey job in a grey factory, cutting small parts for some vast, unknown machine. Grey threads in her hair, though she was only young, she thought.  Grey dreams.

‘So,’ he said. ‘Your place or mine?’

‘No.’ she told him. ‘Here. Now.’

He half-smiled, surprised … and maybe a little scared, she thought. Good.

‘Erm … okay, right.’ He held the rear door open for her and grinned unpleasantly. Emma felt her revulsion uncoiling. She had a sudden, barely controllable urge to shatter that grin into a handful of enamel splinters.

Instead, she got in.

Sliding across the back seat, she caught sight of herself in the rear-view mirror. Her make-up had bled in the rain; behind the damp tangle of her fringe, her eyes were clogged with mascara tears, sunken grey moons in decaying orbits. They were naked now, it seemed; the stranger was gone. Quite suddenly she remembered a seventeen year old girl she had once known, taking a short cut home one winter’s night, across the waste ground that bordered the estate where she had lived. The girl had known she was taking a risk, the stretch of forbidden desolation was unlit and deserted, a landscape of burned out cars and reeking vegetation erupting through ancient concrete, of ruptured refuse bags and discarded condoms. She had been scared, scared of the dark and the silence, but not as scared of these things as she was of getting home late, of causing her Mum and Dad to worry.

Emma found herself wondering if she would ever remember what became of that girl, but then the man was scrambling on to the back seat beside her, his bulk squeaking against the cheap vinyl. She turned, hitching up her skirt and holding him in a dual embrace, like a spider, arms folded across his meaty shoulders, stockinged legs wrapped around his hips. Her hands ran through his wet hair like curious mice. He squeezed a hand between their bodies, unzipping and sliding his blunt fingers the length of her thigh. He meant to hook her panties aside, she guessed, his bloodshot eyes widening when he realised there was no need.

‘You’re cold,’ he breathed hoarsely. ‘I’m cold, too. Let’s see if we can’t warm each other up, eh?’

Emma didn’t answer and he didn’t seem to notice. When he tried to kiss her his breath reeked of beer and stale cigarette smoke and she turned her face away. He didn’t seem to notice that, either.

His tongue probed her ear like some squirming, eyeless worm as he held her open and guided himself to her. Emma felt him pause momentarily, perhaps wondering if he should use some protection but deciding to chance it anyway, after all if she ended up with a kid it wouldn’t be his problem would it and only queers caught AIDS didn’t they –

God Above, she wanted him dead.

He pushed himself a little deeper, cautiously, frowning as though something within her was blocking his way. She smiled and drew her legs back, pulling him in all the way in one sudden movement; sour air hissed between his teeth, pain or pleasure, she didn’t care. Finally inside, he whispered a name that wasn’t hers.

And stopped.

She felt him half collapse inside her, his lust stolen by the unnatural chill of her. ‘What -‘ he had time to say.

Her hands tightened suddenly against his skull, the blackened fingernails slicing his scalp like razor blades. He snarled and tried to snap his head back but Emma was stronger, stronger than she looked and stronger than him. She pressed her cold lips to his and he screamed against her mouth, thrashing between her legs and clawing frantically at her hands. Emma felt nothing. He tore at her clothes, and she found it good that it wasn’t drunken passion that drove him now but terror. Now she might start to enjoy this. His fingers seized a handful of her hair and pulled; it came away in his grip, strands of black and grey. He clawed at her face, make-up and meat peeling away beneath his fingernails.

Her tongue, somehow sinewy and slimed with filth, squeezed between his teeth and in horror and shock he bit down on it. It burst in his mouth, ejecting its payload of eggs laid in dead flesh. She heard his cries, choked and choking, and felt a wondrous savage joy bloom inside of her.

He struggled for a time and then was still. Emma disentangled herself from his remains and got out of the car. She could feel her tongue in tatters behind her teeth but knew it would heal.

She reached into her jacket and took out her own cigarettes and lighter. She leaned on the car and smoked, listening to someone else’s choices play on the jukebox. Her cigarette was only half done when she decided to flick it away, watching it arc across the dark like a shooting star, and only hearing its whispered death in a pool of dirty water.

 

 

 

 


Untitled For A Reason

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Max awakes, his eyes snapping open at exactly 7:50 AM. He lays utterly still in his narrow bed, a bloodshot blue gaze peeping fearfully over the top of his patchwork quilt, his heart ticking in perfect unison with his alarm clock. He can’t get out of bed yet, doesn’t dare, because last week he realised that between the hours of midnight and eight in the morning, the floor of his little ground-level bedsit is electrified, perhaps even lethally. He has become convinced of this one sleepless night after watching a stray feather from his pillow dance crazily across the horrible green carpet with what he knows is some kind of static charge. The possibility of a draft whispering beneath the locked, chained and bolted door of the bedsit has never crossed his mind.

He glances at his alarm clock. 7:52. The clock is the old fashioned kind, cogs and springs and a tiny hammer poised between twin bells, set to ring in eight minutes time, when it might be safer. Max doesn’t like those digital clocks. He has heard that they radiate carcinogenic beams that stimulate brain tumours. Max smiles to himself. He knows all the tricks.

Suddenly a small grey bird hops onto the peeling ledge outside his window and peers in through the breath-misted glass. The bird glares at Max, its tiny black eyes blinking rapidly.

Max closes his eyes and tries to imagine a great black wall, as high as the sky and ten times as wide. Big enough to shield his thoughts. He has read somewhere that scientists are breeding telepathic sparrows as part of some military madness, and although the bird perched upon his windowsill doesn’t look like a government prototype, a person can never be too careful. Max knows how to spot most of them, though; they are the ones whose early morning calls have evolved to sound like real birds, all the better to disguise their unnatural nature.

Either way, the wall in his head eventually proves too much for the bird. Soon it flies away, to report back to headquarters.

The time is 7:54.

There is a sudden thump from the flat above. Max sucks in a startled breath and thinks, Oh God what if a serial killer has broken into the building and murdered the man upstairs! Maybe that thump was the sound of his body hitting the floor and what if the killer comes down here and

‘Stop it.’ he tells himself harshly. ‘Stop it. You’re starting to sound paranoid.’

Paranoid. It’s the word that Max’s doctor has used, his Arctic eyes glittering behind the half-moon spectacles, his thin lips pressed together in a bloodless smile that Max suspected was just a few millimetres away from a smirk of cold superiority. Paranoid. A word that had cropped up more and more in his constant arguments with Carolyn in the months before she’d finally given up and thrown Max out of their house.

She’d called him paranoid as he tried to warn her about the clocks and the sparrows, and had suggested sarcastically that maybe all the cameras on Big Brother actually worked both ways, allowing the television people to spy on the viewing millions. Max had managed to laugh at that, believing it was ludicrous – until he started to think about it.

In a way, Max is glad to leave the house. There is something nasty there, lurching around the attic in the middle of the night. And besides, Max knows that his wife and the doctor are lovers. Carolyn has denied it, of course, but what else would she say?

For a month or so after that he stayed with Beverley. He had thought that he could trust his own sister, even though he knew that her boyfriend – the unpleasantly handsome Rick – didn’t want him in their house. One time when Rick had offered to cook dinner for the three of them Max had peeked into the kitchen and watched him slip poison into Max’s food. Beverley had assured him that the poison was some harmless seasoning or other, but even so Max had swapped the plates around when no-one was looking.

After a few weeks, Max had started to relax a little, to feel safe even. Then, one day, Beverley had brought home a little honey-coloured kitten from the veterinary surgery where she worked as a nurse. Max didn’t trust it. The little sparkle in its eyes told him that it had only been pretending to be sick, that it was just waiting for the right moment to scratch Max’s face, or to bite at his fingers.

The kitten had been nameless, and so Rick had jokingly suggested that they call it Furball, but in the end Bev had decided to name it Honey, on account of its colour. Max’s muttered suggestion of Satan had seemed to go unnoticed.

He started to watch it, knowing somehow that the animal was plotting against him. One time he found that it had coughed up some yellow stuff on his pillow as a kind of a warning. He suspected that it was leaving the house at night to rendezvous with its feline accomplices, and that they held meetings where they gossiped about Max in some secret cat language that despite his best efforts and a dozen filled notebooks, he had not as yet been able to interpret.

He had thought about mentioning his suspicions to Beverley, but realised dismally that she was working for his many enemies now. He saw it in the way she could never quite meet his eyes, heard it in the telephone conversations where she tried to disguise her hatred for him by talking about work or arranging to meet her friends. She was using some kind of code, he thought. And then what happened? meant, Max’s listening. Oh, yeah, I think so, meant, Oh, I hate him, too. And, most damning of all, Yeah, okay, speak to you soon, meant, We’re going to kill him. Soon.

Eventually, about six weeks ago, he’d left. Beverley and Rick had both supposedly been at work, and he’d been alone in the house, except for the kitten. Max had packed his bags and then sought out his feline nemesis, finding it toying with a tattered ball of wool in the warm darkness of the airing cupboard. He drowned it in the washbasin, then went around the house wiping his fingerprints off everything.

He had thought about leaving a trap for his enemies, maybe some ground glass in the sugar jar, but eventually thought better of it. Simply escaping their clutches would be enough for him.

He’d drifted for a little while then, sleeping rough, a doorway here, a freezing bus shelter there. He used his cashcard sparingly, because the cash dispensers are in constant electronic communion with the orbiting spy satellites, which in turn might relay Max’s location to his enemies. Max isn’t sure when he realised that it’s this unending stream of data to and from space that is destroying the ozone layer, but he knows that the scientists are wrong when they blame the humble deodorant. And they call him paranoid!

And so at some point he ended up here, in this little bedsit. It isn’t much, but he feels safer now than he has for a long time. In spite of the electrified floor. He looks at the clock. 7:57. In three minutes time – four, he amends, just to be on the safe side – in five minutes time he will get out of bed and make himself a nice cup of tea.

Above him, he hears a door open and then slam shut. He sighs, relieved; the man upstairs hasn’t been murdered after all, it seems.

Unless of course, that’s his killer Max can hear, slamming the door behind him on a charnel-house tableaux and descending the stairs with slow, heavy footsteps. There is an odd, somehow liquid quality to the footfalls that Max finds unsettling.

Thump / Squish, they go. Thump / Squish.

It’s okay, he assures himself, though his pulse is racing now. Nothing to worry about. But suddenly he finds himself afraid that he hasn’t locked the door to his own room, that he’s forgotten to slide the bolts and secure the chains. But of course he hasn’t forgotten. Locking himself in at night comes as naturally to him as breathing and besides, even from his bed he can see the door and see that everything is as it should be.

The wet, heavy steps stop outside his room. Max waits to hear the main door to the building swing open and wheeze shut, but it doesn’t. He can hear someone out in the foyer, breathing in hard, rapid gasps.

And quite suddenly, there is a knock at the door.

Max swallows uncomfortably. He thinks about hiding under the quilt until his visitor goes away, but something tells him it’s too late for that, that whoever is out there in the foyer already knows that he’s in here, already knows that he’s scared.

There is a sudden, splintering crash, and the door bursts inward, the locks and the bolts and the chains giving way to some massive impact. Max opens his mouth to scream, his throat yielding little more than a startled squeak.

The man in the doorway is covered in blood.

He stands in a pool of it, tall and wide, leather-jacketed and filling the doorway like the devil in torn jeans. His black hair uncoils from out from his scalp in crazed corkscrew shapes, slick with the same crimson muck that streaks his white face like warpaint. His hands are gloved in gore, and hold weapons still wet with murder. A knife in the left. A claw hammer in the right.

‘Hello.’ he whispers, then, raising the tools of his trade. ‘And goodbye.’

Max starts to cry. He cries because he’s scared, because he’s about to die, but somewhere in his fear and despair there is a spark of great joy. I’m not paranoid! he thinks deliriously. They were all wrong – the doctor, Carolyn, Beverley and Rick. All of them! I’M NOT PARANOID!

His suspicions flood back into his mind, only this time they aren’t suspicions, are they? They’re facts. His sister and her boyfriend had been planning to kill him, probably with another poisoned meal. The kitten had been conspiring against him, its horrid mewlings the threats of tortures to come. His wife and the doctor were lovers, laughing about Max behind his back, probably in the marital bed itself, in the house with something lurking in the attic. And the sparrow! The sparrow on the windowsill had been sent by the government, to probe his innermost thoughts with its genetically engineered telepathy! It’s all true, the cancer-causing clocks, the man in the doorway murdering the man upstairs, even the electrified –

Even the electrified floor.

As the killer takes his step, lifts his foot over the threshold of the door and lowers it towards the horrible green carpet, Max shoots a look at the clock on his bedside table.

The time is 7:59.

Max closes his eyes, his heart fluttering unpleasantly in his chest like a bird trapped in a chimney, his trembling hands tugging the quilt up to the bridge of his nose. He waits to hear the  of several thousand volts channelled into a human body, waits to smell the heady odour of cooking meat – he imagines that it will smell something like roasting pork, rich and sweet, and resolves that if he survives this ordeal he might well become a vegetarian.

But it doesn’t happen. After a moment Max opens his eyes, and sees the leering, bloody face of his assassin looming over him. As the killer raises his knife, the hands of Max’s alarm clock reach 8:00 AM precisely, but the ringing is lost amid Max’s desperate, final screams.