Category Archives: Short Stories

Everything Will Be Dark / The Returned

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A second blog post from me in two days….I know, right? I’m clearly high on Easter eggs and Ben-Hur.

A couple of months ago, one of the lovely people from Wattpad HQ contacted me and asked whether I would be interested in writing a story inspired by the A&E television network’s new series, The Returned.

‘We need about 15,000 words,’ they said. ‘And we’ll need weekly instalments every week for four weeks. You’ll be asked to sign a contract and if you don’t meet all the contractual agreements, we’ll send the boys round to cut off body parts and stick your head on a pike.’

Okay, so the last bit might be a lie and I might just have been watching too much Game of Thrones, but to be fair, being asked to write to order, seemed almost like putting my head on the block. I was about to start writing the third book in my Wattpad series The Whitechapel Chronicles AND I was pretty stressed out at work and the last thing I needed was to put myself under any additional pressure.

‘We’ll pay you!’ Wattpad said.

‘SHOW ME THE MONEY, you crazy Canadians!’ I replied with gusto. Yes. Gusto.

And so, I found myself signing up for my first PAID writing job. AND they were going to pay me in actual real money. REAL MONEY. Not that Monopoly stuff my older brother used to pretend was real money when we were kids (and that he used to steal from the bank whenever we played – YES, I STILL REMEMBER THAT BROTHER!)

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not all about the dosh. I’ve been more than happy to write for free on Wattpad for the past three years but to get the opportunity to earn a one-off salary for writing a 15,000 word short story, well, I wasn’t about to turn that down.

Not only that, but the story itself was to be commissioned by the A&E Network and that was an opportunity I knew I’d be insane to turn down.

I’m sure many people think it must be easy to write knowing you’re going to get paid for it, right? WRONG. It was hellish. I struggled with every chapter. The pressure was immense. The first chapter went down really well and then the pressure built to the point where I might have cried a little. Okay, I may have even sobbed. I almost missed the final deadline. The final chapter screwed with readers heads so I sobbed some more. It wasn’t pretty. All in all, it was much, much tougher than I ever imagined it would be.

But…if asked, I would do it all again in a heartbeat.

Call me a masochist, if you will, but I really would. And no, not just because of the money (although getting paid for creating stories is always a bonus) but because it was an experience I will never forget and one that I was really proud to be involved in. I was honoured to be asked by Wattpad because to me, it meant the great powers at HQ knew who I was and trusted me enough as a writer to do a decent job. On a site with 35 million users, it’s not easy to get noticed. But somehow that’s what happened, and now my story entitled Everything Will be Dark has amassed close to 90,000 reads, which is way more than most of my other short stories, barring The Fan and it reached the top three in the mystery/thriller list.

If you fancy checking out just what made me sob like a baby for four weeks, here it is.

http://www.wattpad.com/story/32744515

Thank you,

Linz xxx

 

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Rock stars, Hashtags and Fanfiction

Hey WordPress,

It’s been a while hasn’t it? I decide to post for the first time in ages and find that the WordPress app has completely changed and I don’t know what the hell I’m doing but hey, what’s new?

Anyway, my first post of the year (yes I’m aware it’s February) is all about my new short story The Fan.

I don’t often write short stories but they tend to come in handy when I’m stuck writing the full-length novels. It’s just a great way to break free by focusing on something completely different for a change and tends to motivate me to dig myself out of the writer’s block oubliette.

This story was something that had been floating around in my head for a while, inspired by Misery by Stephen King and also by Channel 4’s fabulous ‘what-if’ drama Blackout.

I think I’ve said before how much I love writing horror, particularly psychological horror and so to see The Fan already hit #12 in the horror charts on Wattpad probably makes me prouder than seeing Playing Dead hit the #1 spot on the vampire chart. Not that there is anything wrong with the vampire chart you understand *coughs*. It’s just great to hit the charts in a genre very close to my twisted old heart.

Please do go along and give The Fan a read and maybe give it a little vote and comment if you love it.

http://www.wattpad.com/story/12686127-the-fan

Thanks
Linz x

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Cupid Inc.

At the beginning of November, I received a phone call from a number I didn’t recognise. Now usually, I would just let that unknown number wander into the lost realms of voicemail but I fortunately remembered that I was due to receive a phone call; from someone that I knew of, but had never spoken to before. I answered it desperately hoping it was who I expected it to be, and not just some random crazy phone perv.
Luckily, it wasn’t a random perv but the boyfriend of one of my best friends, Bek.
Rewind two days previous and Bek’s sis, Victoria had contacted me to ask if she could give Matt my number as he had something to ask me.
Ah, I thought, it’s Bek’s birthday coming up. Maybe he wants to arrange a party? Leaving it a bit late mind you, but oh well.
I was wrong about the party. Well, sort of.
As it turned out, Matt didn’t want to arrange a party, he wanted to propose to Bek! After I collapsed in shock and them danced around the kitchen with glee, Matt explained he was enlisting the help of Bek’s family and friends. He wanted us to help him write a book and not just any book but A Book of Questions.
Each person was to write a short story, any story about any subject however the first letter of the first word in every story would spell out WILL YOU MARRY ME? The book would then be published and given to Bek by way of proposal.
Yeah. I know. Awesome idea.
Once I recovered from the complete awesomeness of it, the next question was, what to write? I was pretty sure that paranormal or horror fiction wouldn’t be welcome as part of a marriage proposal, so I had to come up with something a little bit different to what I would usually write. Not as easy as you might think. Just because you’re a writer, it doesn’t mean you can necessarily lend your hand (and your pen) to any genre.
Anyway, below is the story that I came up with. It’s full of love. Warm squishy stuff. Hearts. You get the picture. Oh and a slightly chubby, curly-haired match-maker called Arthur.

Arthur J. Erosmus was having a bad week. Jenny in Accounts had completely blanked him at the photocopier and in the lift, the boss Mr Jupitus had pulled him up about not wearing a tie and to top it off he was now fifteen percent down on target. To make matters worse, his colleague, Reginald Amores had hit target yesterday and now Arthur only had the rest of today to make up his fifteen percent and quite frankly, it wasn’t looking promising.
Arthur’s desk faced the Employee of the Month wall and the last thing he wanted was to have to look at Reginald’s face every day, smiling down at him, all snidey and laminated. It was bad enough hearing his high-pitched laughter as it squealed through the office, making Arthur wince as Reginald howled at some terrible joke, usually one of his own. But if he had to sit there and look at him too….well, Arthur didn’t think he could bear it. And there was no point pretending the picture wasn’t there. The eyes would bore into him, forcing him to look up and take notice of Reginald with his immaculately side-parted hair and those bloody irritating ties, like the one with the Superman pattern or the one with Homer Simpson giving a big stupid thumbs up.
Arthur ran his fingers through his sun-tinged curls and wondered how the hell he was going to miraculously reach his target by the end of the day. No matter how much he pondered on it, he thought the only thing that would work would have to be a miracle itself.
Bethany Abrams was proving to be his most difficult client yet, and Arthur had had his fair share of tricky customers. But Bethany; well, she seemed to be in a class of her own where stubbornness and obstinacy were concerned.
They were either too talkative or too quiet, they lacked drive or they were too ambitious. They were too domineering or too much of a doormat. If she could find a reason – any reason – rest assured, she would find it. Take the last one for instance. On paper, he had seemed pretty much perfect. Of course he wasn’t one hundred percent perfect, after all, nobody was, but he ticked most of the boxes more than adequately.
Or so Arthur had thought.
Just when he thought he had finally nailed it and the deal was but a hypothetical hand-shake away, Bethany decided to back out.
“His teeth were just too……too white!” she had shrugged, flushing at the lame excuse. Because, lets face it, both Arthur and Bethany knew it was lame. It was more than lame. It was verging on exasperating.
But now, Arthur was sure he had cracked it. He was certain this one was The One. He’d been working on this new one for weeks now, examining the case file with a fine-toothed comb, looking for something – anything – that Bethany might find fault with. And so far, there had been nothing that Bethany could object to; in fact, if anything, she seemed brighter, happier and with a definite spring in her step that was nothing to do with another new pair of shoes. Yet something still wasn’t quite right. There had been a handful of dates – very successful dates for that matter – and yet something was still holding Bethany back and Arthur just couldn’t fathom what on earth it could be. The longer he looked at the files, the more it perplexed him until he was ready to bash his head against the desk in frustration.
It had to be here somewhere, staring him in the face, he knew it!
Feeling the need for a break, Arthur shambled over to the kitchen, hesitating at the door when he saw Reginald and Jenny near the microwave, looking all cosy over a pot noodle. Jenny flushed when she saw him, whereas Reginald looked over and smirked. Arthur nodded a hello and busied himself making a very large and very strong coffee.
“Still busting a gut over that Bethany Abrams case, Arty?” Reginald said, raising a clearly amused eyebrow and his smirk growing wider and more irritating.
Arthur, thought Arthur, not bloody Arty.
He smiled confidently, although inside he felt anything but. “Almost there actually,” he replied. “Today’s the day I reckon.”
“Bit optimistic aren’t we?” laughed Reginald. “I’ve give up if I were you. She’s a tough one, that girl.”
He elbowed Jenny, expecting her to join in his laughter, but Jenny had the good grace to look a little irritated herself. She gave Arthur a small, encouraging smile.
“Don’t give up, Arthur, I’m sure you can do it. Everyone needs a bit of love in their life, even the tough ones.”
Arthur stared at her, amazed. Reginald looked suitably disgruntled and went back to his pot noodle, spilling some down one of his equally putrid ties.
Back at his desk, Arthur took a big swig of coffee and smiled. He was going to do this. Whatever it was, he knew it was there. Scanning the files for what seemed the hundredth time, Arthur cross-referenced all the relevant details, likes and dislikes, hobbies and interests yet still the key alluded him. He glanced at his watch, seeing the little hand tick round and he felt the panic begin to set in with beads of perspiration dotting his forehead. Leaning back in his chair, he spun around and then banged his head against the desk in frustration. When he opened his eyes, he realised his head was now laying on his latest rental from Mr Jupitus’ vast library, a copy of Ovid’s Art of Love.
His eyes widened. That’s it!
In the bookshop, customers browsed the shelves in peace, glad to find some moments of calm and tranquility from the hustle and bustle of the crowded shopping mall outside. Bethany ran her fingers across the spines of the books and released a small sigh of contentment as she breathed in the smell of freshly-printed pages. She loved it here, Arthur knew that she never missed a visit to the bookshop every time she made a trip to the mall. He also knew that Mark, her latest suitor, also happened to love it here and oh look, here he was now.
From his vantage point on the other side of the long book shelf, Arthur skulked in the romance section, peeking over surreptitiously every now and then, waiting for the moment; that one moment.
Bethany, lost in a world of book covers and book blurbs, wandered aimlessly in the crime fiction section, picking up a book here and there, searching for that one which would capture her unwavering interest. From the other side of the section, Mark meandered along the shelf, eyes covering the spines from top to bottom, also searching.
As they drew closer to the middle, Arthur knew this was his moment. Concentrating very hard, he reached forward and poke his finger at one book in particular, dislodging it from its home on the shelf and letting it drop to the floor between Bethany and Mark.
Instinctively, they both bent down to pick it up at the same time.
“Oh!” they both said, surprised to see each other at the same spot, their favourite shelf, in their favourite section of their favourite bookstore.
They looked down, both noting the Sherlock Holmes book in their hands. Their fingers touched, igniting the spark that Arthur had been waiting for.
“Bingo!” he cried and reached for one of the gold-tipped arrows in the quiver on his back and carefully took aim with his bow.
As the arrow flew across the store, Arthur smiled and gave a silent prayer to Jupitus that it would be his laminated portrait up on the Employee of the Month wall at Cupid Inc. yet again this time, and not Reginald and his bloody awful ties.

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The Body

1.

She felt the thudding bass of the music through her feet as she moved from the dance floor. The flashing lights combined with the beat, making her feel a little giddy. She made her way through the suffocating club crowd towards the ladies toilets. It was the only place in this club that you could find a bit of space! Three teenage-looking girls stood at the mirrors applying their make-up and laughing together.

She entered a cubicle, locked the door and undid her trousers. The three girls left, still laughing. The toilets were quiet.

“Michelle”. It was a man’s voice.

She jumped at the voice, but smiled to herself.

“Is that you, Taylor? You shouldn’t bloody be in here you dirty perv!”

“Michelle”. A whisper now, it sounded like it was right on the other side of the door.

She quickly pulled up her trousers, flushed the chain and yanked open the door.

“Taylor, you arsehole!”

There was no one there. She turned to face the cubicles behind her. They looked empty. She pushed the door of the cubicle next to the one she had been in. It was empty. So was the next one. And the next. All the cubicles were empty.

“Shit, think I’d better lay off that vodka,” she giggled.

She turned to face the mirror on the wall behind her, looking down to take her lipstick from her bag. Looking up, lipstick in hand, she saw him.

Standing behind her. Smiling.

She felt her heart shoot to the top of her chest as she gasped, dropping her lipstick onto the counter. The case shattered, spraying small pieces of jagged frosted plastic into the basin.

Whirling around, pressing herself against the counter, she gasped again, louder this time, because there was no one there.

Not daring to move, barely able to breathe, she let her eyes dart around the room. The cubicles still looked empty. He couldn’t have hidden in one of them, as she hadn’t taken her eyes off of him, from the moment she had seen him in the mirror.

Had she looked down, watching her lipstick as it fell towards the counter? She could still hear the sound of the plastic hitting the enamel. No, she hadn’t looked away. She had kept her eyes on him, right on him.

A door creaked from the cubicles on her left. He had to be hiding in one of them.

Why? Why would he hide? He could get her now; the toilets were empty. Where was everyone? You couldn’t usually keep the girls away from the ladies, but she realised that no one had come in since the three teenage girls left. Panic started to creep into her throat.

She felt a pain in her hand and looked down to see that she had gripped the counter edge so hard that her knuckles were white and she could see the veins starting to protrude.

He must have closed the door, trying to conceal himself. If she ran past she could probably reach the door before him. Probably. Oh god, she thought, I really, really don’t want to go past the cubicle.

The toilets were quiet. All she could hear was the rasping sound of her breath as it tried to fight its way up her dry throat and force its way out of her open mouth.

Slowly, she released her grip on the counter and edged one foot forward barely an inch. She leaned her body forward, reluctantly, almost as if she would be safer if she remained attached to the counter.

In the silence of the toilets, she thought she could hear him breathing. She knew that he was waiting, listening to her as she fought the panic that was building, making her head pound with tension.

Looking down, she saw the gap under the cubicles. If she bent down, she could see if he was standing on the floor or on the toilet seat. If he was on the toilet seat, then he might not be so quick to get down and chase her. However if she did bend down, he could charge from the cubicle and catch her before she was ready to flee.

Curiosity got the better of her. She moved back towards the far wall, so she could get more space between herself and him. Cocking her head on its side, she bent to look under the gap, placing her hands on the cold tiled floor.

She couldn’t see his feet. Then and there, she made her decision. She would run. She could see the door at the end of the room. She could make it.

With a push against the back wall to propel her forward, she ran, feeling every step like she was wading through water. In her head, she saw the cubicle door opening, an arm reaching out, fingers touching her elbow.

She had reached the door, her hand grasped the handle and for one moment she was sure that it was locked. It opened, letting in the bumping beat of the music and the flashing neon of the dance floor. Everything was as it had been before.

But she didn’t go through the door.

Looking behind her, with the safety of the crowds before her, she realised that the cubicle door hadn’t moved. He had not jumped out, arms outstretched. She had imagined it all. But she knew she had not imagined him. He had been there, with that smile of his, staring at her in the mirror.

Still no sound came.

She looked back at the dance floor, hardly understanding what she was doing as she let go of the door handle.

She had to check. She had to see if he was there, or whether his face had just crept out from the dark place in her head.

Striding forward with a confidence that before had seemed to desert her, she slammed the door back on its hinges. The toilet echoed with the bang.

The cubicle was empty.

Angry now, more at herself than anything, she stomped along the line of cubicles, slamming back each door in turn. Nobody. Nothing. The cubicles were all empty.

Turning back to the mirror, she saw her face in the glass, flushed and eyes blazing.

Jesus, she thought, just look at yourself, most definitely too much vodka tonight.

She laughed out loud and headed back to the door and out into the club.

Behind her, in the toilets, a cubicle door creaked open wide.

 

2.

The body was found at approximately half-past three in the afternoon on a quiet, chilled Sunday in November.

Mrs Ethel Carwardine, or rather Ethel’s border collie, Sammy, found it face down, submerged in the murky shallows of the park pond.

The body was icy tinged, with patterns of purple-black bruising contorting the skin surface. The hair, matted with grass, reed and dirt, floated gently in the water. A thin eternity band engraved ‘for luck’ was worn on the third finger of the right hand. One diamante earring remained in the left earlobe. The right earlobe was torn, probably from the forceful removal of the lost earring. Blue toes and fingers showed the remains of fuschia-coloured nail polish. Scratches and bite marks decorated the back and thighs. No item of clothing remained.

Sammy’s well-chewed ball landed with a slap bang in the middle of the back and rolled off into the gap between the right arm and the ribs. The body bobbed up and down in the shallows causing mud to stir from the banks and cloud the already gloomy water.

Sammy, already in pursuit of her favourite toy, reached the corner of the pond, ten feet away from the body. Tentatively, she placed one sodden paw into the chilly water; lent forward with one leg paused in mid-step and sniffed at the air. Usually Sammy did not mind the pond, although she took great care not to go too deep, she enjoyed wading in the cooling water after a long exhaustive walk, but today something was different.

The dog whined softly as the new smell in the pond reached her nose.

She spotted the ball but did not attempt to retrieve it. Instead she lowered her head, growling, then turned and pelted back through the long grass.

On discovering the dog without the ball, Ethel (plain ‘Nel’ to her friends at the bingo hall) went in search of the toy herself, muttering under her breath about her ‘damn, lazy old mutt’. Picking her way through the waist-high grass and the bushes, she winced as the lower branches snapped against her shins. On breaking through, she bent down to inspect the branches’ handiwork, noting with disdain the numerous snags in her tights, bought only the day before.

‘Bugger’ she said. And then saw the body.

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The Stairwell

‘Yesterday, upon the stair,

I met a man who wasn’t there

He wasn’t there again today

I wish, I wish he’d go away…’

Antigonish – Hughes Mearns

 

Shaun stumbled out of the cab, tripped and hit the concrete much harder than he would have wished.

“Shit,” he hissed, feeling asphalt imprints on his palms and a sharp pain wrench his knee. Behind him, in the eight-seater mini-bus, his friends cackled and whooped.

“Shaaaaaauny you fucking loser,” howled Daz, his head appearing in the light emanating from the open door. “Fucking lightweight, can’t handle your beer, son!”

“He fell over, he fell over,” chanted Dave and Bubble before collapsing into hysterical laughter and banging on the sides of the taxi.

Shaun stood up, trying to pretend his palms didn’t sting like hell and brushing down his jeans. Was that a hole torn in the knee? Fuck. Reaching into his pocket he pulled out a crumpled five-pound note and threw it at Daz.

“There you go, geezer, that’s my share for the cab. Or you can give it to you mum and tell her here’s that fiver I owe her for that shag the other night,” he smirked and ducked out of Daz’s reach as his mate tried to swing a playful punch at him. Dave and Bubble howled even louder and as the cab began to pull away, Daz shouted out the door. “I’ll fucking have you next time, son!”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever mate,” Shaun called, but the cab was already pulling out of the car park and he could just about see his friends faces, flashes of pale pressed up against the window, as they turned the corner and out of sight.

Shaun laughed softly, giggling at his own joke and knowing he would definitely be on the end of one of Daz’s pranks next time they went out. Still, he was a big man, he could take it.

Turning, he looked up at the block of flats behind him, rising out of the ground like some black monolithic beast. Lights were dotted here and there over the face of the beast showing that not everyone in this rank building were asleep.

I bet that fucker next door is still awake, playing his fucking shitty metal music all bloody night, thought Shaun, glancing up to see if his neighbours light was still on. Not that he had any chance of seeing anything from here. The fifteenth floor was out of sight from where Shaun was standing.

God how he hated this place. And he hated Gail more for forcing him to live in a shit-hole like this. If it wasn’t for her and that slimy fucker she was now dropping her knickers for, Shaun would still have been living in her nice house out in the suburbs. Instead now Slimebag ate meals at the table where Shaun should have been eating, slept in the comfy bed where Shaun should have been sleeping and screwed the woman who Shaun should have been screwing.

“I can’t do it anymore, Shaun,” Gail had said, that sickening self-pity in her eyes as if it wasn’t her who had been fucking someone else. “I can’t cope with the drinking, and the lies and having to do everything around here. I’m tired of paying for everything and I’m tired of your bloody idiot mates.”

And so that had been that. Out with Shaun and in with Stephen The Slimebag, who had probably been poisoning Gail’s head for months at work, complimenting her on her hair, buying her lunch and telling her how she could do better. Sly fucker.

Fuck him, thought Shaun, and fuck her too. He walked over to the entrance to the flats, shaking his head when he realised the security lock was busted yet again; the keypad was hanging from exposed wires and giving anyone access to the building. He went in, making a mental note to call the caretaker in the morning, although little good it would do as the security system had been vandalised four times since Shaun had moved in three months before. Cutting across the entrance lobby he pressed the call-button on the lift and waited, leaning his head against the wall and closing his eyes, praying for the alcohol haze to disappear soon. A few seconds passed and he realised there was no sound coming from the lift shaft, so he stepped back to check the light. Dimly lit numbers showed the lift was still on floor fourteen.

“Come on!” Shaun groaned and hammered at the call button with his fist. When still nothing happened, he cursed and aimed a kick at the lift doors. “Doesn’t anything work in this fucking building?”

He stomped over to the stairwell, grimacing as he opened the door and a strong stench of urine hit him full on in the face. Shaun hated having to take the stairs. Not only did he have to try to climb his way up endless flights of steps, the stairwell was poorly lit and only had very small, narrow windows all of which had been covered with spray paint.

Shaking his head and muttering curses to Gail, Shaun started up the stairs, gripping the handrail to steady himself. He avoided looking into the dark corners, where dank puddles of piss and rain water pooled together, reaching out across the floor with watery tendrils threatening to grab at his ankles.

By the time he reached the fifth floor, Shaun was already out of breath. The booze wasn’t helping either. He felt the woozy storm cloud infesting his head and he stopped for a moment, praying for it to fade but knowing that nothing but a good few hours sleep was going to lift this feeling. Gritting his teeth, he carried on, feeling the weight of each step bearing down upon him.

Just as he reached the tenth floor and he thought he was about to burst a lung, the light above him began to flicker. Shit, he thought and then all the lights in the stairwell went out completely, plunging him into darkness. He waited in the gloom, hoping that they would flicker back on. Suddenly he heard footsteps from somewhere above in the stairwell and he felt his heart skip in panic. He didn’t really like coming across the building’s other inhabitants during daylight, let alone on a darkened stairwell where anyone could and probably would pull a knife on him. The estate was rife with gangs, and the Dalston Boyz – named after the apartment block, Dalston House – were notorious for hanging around and intimidating the residents, despite being little more than teenagers.

A light from one of the floors above flickered back on and Shaun looked up through the gap in the middle of the stairwell. For a moment he thought he saw a shadow pass overhead, then more footsteps echoed down.

“Hello?” he called up and regretted it immediately. Way to go Shaun you prick, he cursed himself, why don’t you just announce that you’re on your way up, give whoever it is ample opportunity to jump you? He was definitely in no fit state to defend himself.

Creeping halfway up the staircase, he stopped and craned his neck to look upwards, listening intently for any signs of movement coming from the floors above. In a split second and appearing so quickly it made Shaun cry out, a hooded figure flashed into his line of sight, before the lights went out again and the stairwell was shrouded in darkness once more.

Shaun shrank back against the wall. Fuck-fuck-fuck!  He hadn’t been able to see clearly enough to tell whether it had been a kid or a man, the lights we just too dim and all he had seen was someone wearing a dark hoody. He hadn’t even been able to see the hoodie’s face. He waited, with his back up against the wall and heart hammering in his chest. With a buzz, the light on the tenth floor flickered back into life, making Shaun jump and he stumbled and fell back on the steps. He lay there for a moment, trying to catch his breath which seemed stuck in his throat before exhaling deeply and letting out a low giggle.

Fucking idiot, he thought, shaking his head at himself for getting spooked so easily. If the fellas could see him now they would literally be pissing in their own pants. He would never live this one down, not in a million years.

He struggled to get up and glanced up the stairs, straining to listen for any signs of movement from the floors above. He was going to just have to front whoever it was. If it was just one kid, surely he could look after himself, drunk or not? Creeping as stealthily as his alcohol intake would allow, Shaun carried on up the stairs with the lights now flickering sporadically, lighting up the stairwell for mere seconds before throwing it back into darkness.

Eleventh-twelfth-thirteenth. No one lurked on these floors. Shaun felt his muscles slowly beginning to relax and his heart beat stopped racing as he passed by the door to the thirteenth floor. He climbed the next flight of steps, nose wrinkling in distaste as a sweet stench pervaded the air. On the mid-landing, the dark puddles had stretched out from the corners and reached almost to the top of the steps. Shaun grimaced as his feet squelched in fluid he didn’t even want to think about. Fucking great, he thought, he could see these shoes going straight in the bin together with his ripped jeans. Carefully stepping through the puddle, he stopped at the bottom of the staircase, immediately noting the wet, dark footprints leading up the steps. Following the trail with his eyes, Shaun jumped at the sight of a dark hooded figure standing on the next landing, right at the top of the steps and with his back to Shaun.

The hoodie didn’t move. If he had any idea that Shaun was literally just behind him, he didn’t show it. He just stood, perfectly still, with his hands by his side. He was fairly tall, but there was still no way of knowing whether he was a teen or man. Everything else about him was pretty nondescript; dark denim jeans, worn slightly baggy, white trainers although from the back Shaun couldn’t tell the make. That was it.

Shaun stared up at the hoodie, his lips moving wordlessly as he struggled to know what to say or do. He felt stunned into stillness himself, just standing there, with his wet shoes and now-ripped jeans, staring up at the immobile figure. Water dripped somewhere behind him and the noise of droplets spattering against the floor made Shaun blink. When the hoodie still didn’t move or acknowledge he knew Shaun was there, Shaun finally said the first thing that came into his head.

Oi, oi fella, y-you gonna get out of my way?” He had hoped for a voice of steely bravado, but in the cold, darkened stairwell it sounded small and weak. Still the hoodie didn’t move nor make any sound in response. Shaun could feel his guts flipping and his bladder twitching in fear. He could look after himself, but this was ….. just creepy. What the hell was this guy doing just standing there? And why didn’t he turn round and confront Shaun?

“I – I’ve got a blade you know,” Shaun stammered.

Suddenly the hoodie moved, making Shaun flinch, except instead of turning around and brandishing a real, not imaginary knife, the hoodie walked forwards across the fourteenth-floor landing and disappeared through the door leading to the flats. Shaun watched amazed as the hoodie simply walked away, before he scuttled up the steps to the landing and peered anxiously through the window that looked into the corridor beyond.

No one was there.

 

**************

The next day, Shaun was awoken by the shrill sound of his phone ringing, cutting through his head as if some demon animal was raking its claws over his skull. At first he couldn’t catch his bearings and feeling cold and wet, he half-wondered whether he had fallen asleep in the stairwell. Wrenching open his eyes, he realised he was cold because he was naked except for his underpants and lying curled up on the floor in his bedroom, with his back pushed up against the closed bedroom door and he was wet because he was drenched in his own sweat. Somewhere in the bedroom, the phone was still ringing.

Shivering and aching all over, Shaun tried to sit up, feeling waves of nausea swim in the pits of his stomach as he moved his head so he sat very still for a moment, clutching his temples and trying to fight off the sick feeling. Still the phone kept ringing.

Crawling very slowly across his bedroom floor, Shaun slithered in search of his phone and realised that the noise was coming from his jeans, that had been discarded next to his bed. Rifling through the pockets, he found his mobile just at the point when whoever it was decided to end the call.

“Fucking typical,” he groaned, checking the caller display and seeing Daz’s number on the screen. He hit the call button and Daz picked up straight away.

“Shauny you fucking lightweight, where are you? Thought you were going to meet us in time for kick-off?” Daz boomed down the line. Shaun could hear laughing and jumbled chat in the background.

“What?” grumbled Shaun, rubbing at his eyes and trying to focus on the alarm clock by his bed. “What time is it?”

“It’s bloody half three already. Don’t tell me you’re still in bed? Fucks sake, Shauny, you must be getting old, you really can’t handle it anymore can you?”

Raucous laughter, unmistakably coming from Bubble and Dave, drilled in Shaun’s ears and he held the phone away for a moment, feeling as if any more noise might make him throw up on the bedroom floor. It took a few seconds to realise that Daz was still talking, his voice sounding tinny in the receiver.

“What did you say, mate?” Shaun asked “Sorry, couldn’t hear above Bubble and Dave’s big gobs.”

Daz sighed. “I said, get down here fucking pronto, you loser, you’re missing the game. If you hurry, you might just make it in time for the second half.”

Shaun winced. He didn’t even know how he was going to stand up, let alone make it down the pub within half an hour. “Alright, alright, mate, be there as soon as I can.”

“Put your fucking knickers on, you big girl and just hurry the fuck up.”

The line went dead.

Shaun reached over for his jeans and then remembered tearing the knee out of them last night when he fell outside the cab. Oh yeah, fuck, he thought, before noticing his trainers lying underneath his crumpled jeans. Frowning, he grabbed one of them and lifted it up in front of his face, turning it over and examining the sole.

“What the …..” he gasped. Blood stained the entire sole of the shoe. He picked up the other one, noticing the same. It had also smeared up the sides as if he had just dipped them both into a vat of blood. Or a puddle of the stuff.

Unwanted images flashed into Shaun’s mind: a darkened stairwell, lights flickering above his head, feet squelching in a puddle of water and piss that had engulfed the mid-landing. Except it hadn’t been water and piss had it? Shaun shook his head.

“No,” he whispered. “No. No. No.” He threw the trainers, one after the other and they hit the bedroom wall, patterning the blue paintwork with dark red streaks. Feeling the tidal wave reaching up from his stomach and drowning his throat, Shaun stood up quickly and catapulted himself out of the room, only reaching the toilet just in time, where he threw himself down in front of the bowl and released a torrent of foul-smelling vomit against white porcelain. He retched and retched until long lines of bile and saliva hung from his open mouth and trailed across the toilet seat.

After the sickness had cleared, he showered quickly, relishing the sting of the hot water as it washed over his skin, then he dressed, grabbing anything that didn’t need ironing and shoved his phone and wallet into his jacket pocket. Putting the crumpled, ripped jeans and bloody trainers into a plain white carrier bag, Shaun left his apartment, with the intention of chucking the bag into the large communal bins outside Dalston House. He didn’t want those things anywhere near him and he couldn’t imagine anyone rifling through Dalston’s bins unless they wanted a used needle in their skin.

Rushing along to the end of the corridor, Shaun smacked his palm against the call button and waited for the lift to make its way up to the fifteenth floor. His leg shook impatiently as he stood there.

“Come on,” he hissed. Suddenly the door at the end of the corridor swung open and Mick, Shaun’s metal-loving neighbour, huffed through the door, beads of sweat peppering his wide forehead. He sniffed when he saw Shaun standing in front of the lift.

“Not fucking working again, is it. Better take the stairs. Still at least you’re going down and not up. Those stairs are a fucking killer.”

Shaun stood back and let Mick pass, watching as his tall, burly neighbour stalked down the corridor, wheezing with every step. Seeing his neighbour in distress would usually raise a smile for Shaun, but not today. All he could think about was having to take the stairs again. He waited, staring at the door to the stairwell which was still swinging slightly from Mick’s entrance. In his jacket pocket, his phone rang again, the sudden noise making him jump. Fumbling to get it, Shaun saw Daz’s number flash up again. He stabbed at the receive button with his thumb.

“I’m on my way, stop bloody calling me.” He hit the end-call button before Daz could say another word and pushed at the door, shaking his head. If Mick had managed the stairs, then there was obviously no one hanging around out there, but Shaun did think it was strange Mick hadn’t mentioned seeing all the blood just before the fourteenth floor landing.

Fuck it, he thought, if Fat Mick can do it, so can I.

Pushing through the door, Shaun stopped on the landing, hearing nothing but the creaking of the swinging door behind him.  Were the lights out again or did they just not come on during the day? Shaun couldn’t remember for sure; all he knew was that the stairwell was dark, uncomfortably dark, and he didn’t remember noticing before how dark it was in the stairwell during the day. Cautiously he stepped forward, peering over the side and looking down. Everything was still and quiet. No shadows moved. No lights flickered.

Put your fucking knickers on, you big girl. Shaun could hear Daz’s words whispering in his ears and he shook his head and laughed to himself. If only the fellas could see him now. He could imagine their cackling and the tears streaming down their faces in hysterics at how scared and how stupid Shaun was feeling. He smiled, hating how false and tight it felt on his face.

Go quick. Don’t stop to look at anything. Just keep your eyes ahead and keep going, he thought, taking the first flight of steps two steps at a time. He glanced up momentarily as he reached the mid-landing and saw the door to the fourteenth floor below him.

Don’t stop. Keep going.

He clattered down to the fourteenth floor landing and refused to look through the window in the door to the corridor beyond, keeping his eyes firmly fixed on his feet and making sure he didn’t miss his footing in the gloom.

Oh god. Oh god. Please don’t let there be any blood. Please.

Treading carefully down the next flight of steps to the mid-landing, Shaun exhaled deeply when he looked down and saw the floor was free of blood. In fact, it was completely dry. No puddles of water or piss, although dark putrid smelling stains in the corner told him that someone had no doubt relieved themselves here. Still, he thought, smirking, it’s gotta be better than blood.

He almost skipped across the mid-landing, turned to go down the next flight of steps  and came face to face with the hoodie who stood at the top of the steps, head bowed and quite still, with his hands by his sides. Shaun gasped in surprise and horror, stumbling backwards, bag flying out of his hands and landing on the floor with a sharp crack to his lower back. He cried out in pain, but could not take his eyes off of the figure in front of him.

The figure slowly stepped up onto the landing and Shaun desperately tried to scramble away but found he could not move. Reaching down the figure touched Shaun’s leg and immediately Shaun felt his bladder loosen. Oh no, he thought, feeling the dampness soak through the material at his thighs and he looked up as the hoodie loomed over him.

Staring into the hood and seeing nothing but impenetrable blackness within, Shaun began to scream, and scream and scream.

 

*****************

Shaun’s eyelids fluttered. Somewhere far off he could hear banging. Constant, un-relentless banging that seems to resound around his head and make his teeth judder. He felt cold again. Really cold, as if his very core had been replaced with a block of ice that was freezing his innards and spreading out to touch its cold fingertips to bone and muscle. As his eyes finally flickered open and unable to ignore the banging any longer, Shaun ran his hands down his chest to find he was fully-clothed and not practically naked like the last time he had woken up freezing cold. When was that? Today? Yesterday? Last week? He struggled to remember but the memory was hazy and jumbled as if he had spent another night on the beer. Maybe that was it, maybe he had too much to drink again yesterday.

Gail was right. The thought spiked into his head, however he couldn’t quite think who Gail was. He could remember the name and he knew it was someone he should remember, but thinking about this Gail – whoever she was – made the pain blast across his temples as if his very skull was trying to burst through the skin.

Stumbling to his feet, Shaun found that he had thankfully passed out on his bed, although the dull ache in his body told him it had not been a very comfortable sleep. Following the sound of the banging, he shuffled towards the front door, seeing a dark shadow moving through the frosted glass. The shadow moved and this time hammered against the door so hard that Shaun could see the door moving in its frame. He stopped, closing his eyes and seeing flickers of images in his head; a dark shadow was reaching for him, he was on the floor and he couldn’t move and the shadow was touching him, actually wrapping its cold fingers around his leg and touching him. Shivering, Shaun’s eyes flew open, trying to banish the images from his mind. He didn’t want to open the door. He didn’t want to let the shadow in. He didn’t want it to touch him again.

“Shaun!” The shadow’s voice sounded muffled through the door. “Shaun, for fucks sake I know you’re there, I can fucking see you. Now open the bloody door will you!”

Daz! Shaun remembered the voice of his friend and pulled at the latch, opening the door slightly to see his friend’s face, eyebrows knitted together furiously and mouth set in a thin, grim line, before it softened visibly and the anger turned to one of clear shock.

“Fucking hell, mate, you look bloody awful,” Daz stared.

“What? Do I?” mumbled Shaun, rubbing his knuckles across his head as if he could massage the pain away.

“Yeah you do,” frowned Daz, shoving at the door and forcing Shaun to take a step back.  “What’s going on? You sick?”

Daz pushed into the hallway, closing the door behind him. Even the sound of the door shutting echoed against Shaun’s skull and he leaned back against the wall to steady himself. Daz stood back and studied him, his eyes wandering over Shaun’s face.

“So what’s going on? You had flu or something? You look fucking terrible.”

Shaun forced himself to focus on his friend’s words but his head was spinning in some deep whirlpool and he was sure he must still be horrifically drunk.

“Sick? Flu? No…..no…just, you know, too much to drink I guess,” he murmured. His tongue felt thick and dry in his mouth, making his words sound slurred.

“What?” Daz snapped “you mean you went out last night? With who and why the fuck didn’t you tell me? I’ve been trying to reach you all bloody week. Look at the state of you, Shaun.” His eyes narrowed. “Were you on something? Is that it? I fucking told you to go easy on that shit.”

He stalked off into the living room, muttering something under his breath and Shaun followed, hearing the sound of his feet shuffling along the carpeted floor. Every footstep felt  like he were wading through water.

Daz was standing in the living room, shaking his head as he looked all round. “Bloody hell, Shaun, look at this place. I knew you were a lazy sod, but this is just disgusting. How long have you been on the smack and who the fuck are you doing it with?”

Shaun just stared at Daz, puzzled. “What are you talking about? I’m not doing anything. I just had too much booze that’s all. I think you were right, I can’t handle it anymore.”

“That still doesn’t explain why you haven’t answered my calls? What’s going on?” Daz glared at him.

“Nothing’s going on, nothing at all,” Shaun said, suddenly feeling so tired he knew he would have to sit down before he fell down. Shuffling over to the nearest sofa, he collapsed onto it, frowning at the pile of clothes and newspapers stacked up across the cushions. Daz was right, this place was becoming a right shit-hole. If he still lived with whats-her-face then she would have cleared all this up. Who was that again? Shaun blinked, trying to picture her face. His mum? Yeah, that’s right, his mum. Although the thought still niggled at him as if he knew deep down that it wasn’t quite right.

“You expect me to believe that? I don’t hear from you all week and you say nothing’s going on? You were meant to meet us down the pub. I called you. You told me you were on your way but you never showed. What the fuck happened? Now I turn up here and you look like you’re at death’s fucking door or something and you tell me everything’s fine?”

Shaun looked up, confused. “What are you talking about? I did come and meet you. Didn’t I?” As soon as the words left his lips, Shaun knew that wasn’t right either. He remembered leaving the flat, remembered seeing Mick, remembered speaking to Daz on the phone…but the rest? Shaun desperately tried to reach into his head and unlock what was nothing but a dark blur. He must have met them. He must have.

“I don’t understand…” he began.

“No nor do I, but whatever it is you better fucking sort yourself out. I thought something had happened to you. We all tried calling you but you never answered. I even came round on Sunday night to see where you were but you must have been out, doing whatever it is you’ve been doing.”

“For the last fucking time, I haven’t been doing anything!” Shaun practically growled the words out and his voice didn’t sound like it was his own. It was deep and menacing and he immediately saw a flicker of fear pass across his friend’s face. “Sorry, sorry mate. I didn’t mean to….look I just don’t know what’s going on but I swear to you I haven’t touched anything. I just thought….I don’t know. Maybe I have been sick. Maybe that’s it, maybe I’ve had a fever or something?”

Daz bit on his bottom lip, eyes laced with uncertainty before shaking his head. “Well whatever it is, maybe you should go see a doctor or something. People just don’t lose a whole week from the flu. It’s not right. Just sort yourself out will you, Shaun?”

Shaun watched as his friend walked over to the door before turning and giving the room the once over again. “Get this place cleaned up. The council would have a field day if they came in and saw what a state you’ve made this place.”

He started to go before looking back at Shaun, his face a mixture of pity and disgust. “For god’s sake Shaun, get yourself cleaned up too. And stop wearing that fucking hoodie. You look like one of them little bastards from the estate.”

And then he was gone, leaving Shaun to stare down at what he was wearing; a dark blue hoodie, a hoodie that he didn’t remember ever buying, a hoodie that he didn’t even know he had. Somewhere, in the black recesses of his mind, a memory sparked into life; of someone else, something else wearing the very same hoodie and the sound of someone screaming, screaming, screaming. Shaun covered his ears with his hands and squeezed his eyes shut.

 

***************

 

When he opened them again, sometime later, he was foetal, curled up in a ball on the sofa, with the hood pulled up over his head. Sitting up, he looked around, taking in the jumbled piles of clothes, dirty dishes and crumpled up old newspapers. Frowning he stood up and wondered where the hell he was. He vaguely remembered someone else being here but couldn’t remember who. Maybe this was their flat? But he didn’t recognise anything and trying to remember just made his head explode with splinters of pain that made him want to collapse again. Probably better off not trying to remember, he thought.

Shuffling across the room, he stared into the mirror above the old fireplace. Inside the hood, his face looked dark and sallow. His skin looked almost grey and engrained circles shadowed his eyes. Did I always look like this? he wondered before feeling that now all too familiar agony pulse through him whenever he thought too hard about anything.

Stop thinking, stop thinking.

He looked round the room again, knowing that this wasn’t his place. If it ever was, he didn’t really care. He just knew he didn’t belong. He knew instinctively that another place waited for him now.

Heading out of the strange flat, he walked down the corridor, past the lift and ignoring the buzz and hum of the machinery as it pulled and pushed the lift up and down in the shaft. He pushed on the swinging door, ignoring the creak as it swished back and forth behind him. As he entered the stairwell, lights flickered overhead and from somewhere came the drip-drip-dripping of water in some dank corner.

Fourteen-fourteen-fourteen, he thought and for the first time in what seemed like an agonising eternity, the pain did not shatter through his skull. He pulled the hood down so it almost shrouded his face and smiled.

 

 

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Filed under Short Stories

Angie, Banjo and The Bogeyman

Great plumes of steam rose up in front of Angie’s eyes and she momentarily stopped jiggling her hips in time to the music to wipe a hand across her sweat-spotted brow. The iron in her hand hissed like some angry cobra, waiting to attack; except the only thing that this iron was waiting to attack was her husband’s crisp white work shirt. The cotton was stubborn and always fought against the heat and steam in a way that made the job even more torturous than it usually was. Angie knew that the only way to dull the effects of the torture was to turn up the music and dance with the iron, ignoring its hisses and spits of steam.
It was a sticky June evening. Whilst the sunshine of the day had retreated, it had left some of its heat behind, creating a humid, uncomfortable night that Angie knew would have her installing the fan in the bedroom to turn the stale air. Eddie would insist on keeping the windows wide open regardless of the fan, something Angie hated to do, especially during the summer months when it meant an open invitation to all manner of night-time bugs. She hated the thought of moths and spiders creeping in; imagining how they must crawl over her half-naked body as she slept.
Standing in the kitchen now, Angie was grateful for the wispy white voile that hung over the open patio doors, acting like a mosquito net and and keeping all the creepy crawlies at bay. She was also grateful for the soft evening breeze which fluttered through and tickled at her bare legs, patterning her skin in welcome goosebumps. Moving her feet and hips in time to her favourite Kings of Leon track, Angie sang along as she pressed the clothes and desperately hoped the pile in the laundry basket would start to look a little more appealing. Banjo, her chocolate Labrador, lifted his head and cocked an ear at her quizzically as she danced in front of the ironing board, occasionally turning to the dog and singing directly to him, smiling as he wagged his tail, banging it against the side of his basket. When she turned away, he would lay his head down on the side of his bed, his eyes still on her as she moved about the kitchen.
Track after track played on and the ironing pile seemed just as tall as it had when she had started an hour ago. Angie cursed the fact Eddie had an office job that required a daily change of shirt, rather than a much easier-to-iron tee-shirt. Still, she couldn’t complain. The fact he went to work every day in a crisply ironed shirt meant he came home each month with a pretty attractive pay packet and Angie only had to work part-time, which suited her perfectly. Okay, so the down side was that she had to do all the ironing but it seemed a small price to pay and listening to music with a glass of Pinot to hand always lessened the pain.
Finishing the last work shirt and finally starting on her own clothes, Angie changed CD’s in the stereo and smiled as Banjo whined from the corner.
“Come on, Banjo boy, we like this one,” she laughed as she went over and scratched behind his ears before dancing back over to the ironing board.
Banjo whined again and Angie glanced over at him, noticing the he didn’t appear to be whining at her; his attention fixed on something in the garden.
“You wanna go out, big guy? The doors open, go do your thang,” she drawled, pointing at the open patio door.
Banjo didn’t go out, instead he sat upright in his basket, staring out into the darkened back garden with his ears pricked up and letting out a low, almost inaudible growl. Angie stopped what she was doing and placed the iron upright on the board.
“Banjo, what ever is the matter? Is that bloody cat out there again? Go show it who’s boss!” She stalked over to the door and pulled back the voile, straining her eyes to see out into the garden. Scanning the darkness, Angie couldn’t see any sign of Banjo’s nemesis, next doors tabby cat, Charles. Don’t let the royal name fool you, this was no regal moggy, this was a rough looking feline with a tatty ear and a probable case of fleas.
Behind her Banjo whined once more, the sound snaking past Angie and sending shivers down her spine as it whispered in her ears. She couldn’t help but feel the hairs on her neck stand on end automatically as she stared into the gloom, noting how the light breeze made the thin branches move and causing the shadows to flicker. She felt something touch her leg and she jumped, looking down to see that Banjo was now standing next to her, his gaze now intent on something at the bottom of the garden.
Eddie’s shed was down there, right at the end of their eighty foot lawn. They were fortunate enough to have plenty of land out back and Eddie had taken full advantage by building a huge workspace, which was actually less of a shed and more of an aircraft hangar. Angie often jokingly referred to Eddie’s shed as ‘Area 51′.
“You keeping aliens in that thing, hon?” she had smirked, dodging out of the way of the tea towel that Eddie had playfully snapped at her backside.
Now, staring out into garden, Angie hoped the only creature out there was Charles and not acid-blooded aliens stalking the shrubbery and flowerbeds.
“Damn it, Banjo, stop being a wimp and go get that cat, where ever it is!” Angie turned to the dog and tried to shoo him out the open door. Banjo’s claws skittered on the tiled floor as he scampered back to the protection of his bed in the corner of the kitchen, where he stood, his tail between his legs and head bowed.
“Banjo?” Angie frowned at the lab before looking back out into the darkness.
Everything was quiet. Too quiet. Angie stepped out onto the patio and scanned the garden. The problem with having such a large garden was all the dark corners; too many places for someone to be hiding, especially down by the shed. Shadowy, dank places where anyone or anything could be lurking. Not acid-blooded aliens of course; but worse things. Things that were watching. And waiting.
Angie shivered and rubbed at her bare arms, suddenly feeling exposed in her shorts and vest top despite the warmth of the summer evening. Banjo gave another growl from within the kitchen and Angie squinted into the furthest reaches of the garden, trying to make out familiar shapes. The step ladder leaning against the shed wall. The array of potted plants on the small shingled area in front of the shed that Eddie diligently watered every day. The bird bath that was a proving a big hit amongst the local bird community during this hotter-than-average summer.
Wait. Did something move down there? Angie’s eyes widened as she saw shadows shifting and undulating. Another growl from Banjo had her moving quickly and she stumbled back into the kitchen, grabbing hold of the handle and yanking the door closed behind her. Hand trembling, she turned the key and then pushed on the handle, making sure that it was definitely locked. With her palms flat on the door, Angie pressed her face against the glass trying to see out but it was useless. The light in the kitchen just reflected her own face in the window and the garden was plunged into impenetrable darkness. She could feel her heart hammering in her chest and her breath left small imprints on the glass as she exhaled in short sharp gasps. Nothing seemed to move beyond the glass. Nothing but endless shadows that by now covered the whole of the garden.
The iron hissed behind her.

***************

When Eddie had returned later, after an evening at the local rugby club, Angie was perched on the sofa, her legs curled up underneath her and Banjo by her side with his head on her lap as she stroked his head in a motion that was as calming for her, as it was for him. The music channel was on the television, playing endless music videos in an attempt to lift the anxiety from head.
Eddie stumbled a little as he entered the living room, humming jovially and obviously booze-infused.
“Hey sexy, how’s my girl?” he said, throwing himself down on the sofa beside them.
“Good night?” said Angie, forcing a smile.
Eddie leaned back, stretching out and linking his hands behind his head. “Yeah pretty good, although had to stop Wheeler from making a tit out of himself as usual. Trying to chat up some fella’s bird. You know Wheeler.”
“I sure do,” she replied flatly.
“How was your evening?” he reached over and stroked at her hair, tucking a few strands behind her ear.
“Well it was fine until Banjo freaked me out,” she said.
“Why, what did he do? Throw up on bedroom rug again?” Eddie smirked.
“No you idiot, he was just getting spooked by something in the garden, and that spooked me out.” She smiled, but it felt stiff and fake.
“Spooked by what?” Eddie looked at her, eyebrows raised.
“I don’t know, it was as if he could see something down by the shed,” Angie touched a hand to Eddie’s leg, grateful he was home and wanting to find comfort in having him close.
“Well god, that was probably that bastard tabby cat again. Caught him down there earlier trying to shit all over the shingle. Tried to insert my boot up his arse but he ran off before I could get to him. Got a good mind to go round to Margaret’s and tell her to keep that bloody flea-infested thing out of our garden.” Eddie grabbed the remote from by Angie’s feet and switched over to the sports news channel.
She stared at him, incredulous that he could brush off her anxiety so quickly.
“Eddie, it wasn’t Charles. There was something out there but it wasn’t Charles.”
“Of course it was babe, you know what that thing is like, loves to hang out there taunting our Banjo-boy,” he rubbed the dogs belly affectionately.
“I’m telling you it wasn’t the bloody cat!” Angie snapped, annoyed that Eddie wouldn’t take her seriously.
Eddie snapped his eyes away from the screen. “Bloody hell, Ange. Calm down will you? If it wasn’t the cat, what do you think it was? Vampires? Ghosties? Ted Bundy? There’s nothing out there.”
“I just knew you wouldn’t take this seriously,” Angie huffed, turning away from him and glaring at the television, feeling the anger burn as hot as her cheeks felt.
“For god’s sake babe, what do you expect? You’re scared of your own shadow. You’d still check under the bed for the bogeyman if I wasn’t around,” he laughed, not in a cruel way but it still made Angie feel completely stupid and she wished she had not said anything.
Eddie always teased her about her fears. She was scared of the dark. Jumped at thunderstorms. Shrieked whenever a bug came near her. And as much as she hated to admit he was right, she probably would check under the bed for monsters if she could. As a kid she always tucked herself in and hated any part of herself to be exposed during the night, fearing the touch of some clammy hand on her ankle when the lights went out. She was still the same now. She would never let her leg or arm fall over the side, scared that something would reach out from under the bed and drag her under, down into its dark, hellish pit where no one would hear her screams.
She knew she was spooked easily but this was different; this had felt different. And besides it hadn’t just been her who had been given a bad dose of the heebie-jeebies. Banjo had sensed something too. Not that he had to feel embarrassed by Eddie’s leg-pulling. Instead it was her that had to sit there with flaming cheeks and tears of embarrassment stinging her eyes.
Eddie squeezed her knee and sighed. “Look, if it will make you feel any better I can go take a look if you want?”
She knew he was only doing it to humour her. Faint amusement danced in his eyes and whilst she didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of mocking her any further, Angie did want him to check; just to help reassure her and calm her nerves. She nodded and gave a half-smile.
In the kitchen, Angie held her breath as Eddie unlocked the doors and stepped outside, torch in hand. She stood on the step, wringing her hands and biting on her bottom lip as she watched Eddie trudge up the garden, swinging the beam of the torch this way and that, lighting up the darkest corners and investigating under bushes and behind trees. As he neared the end of the garden, he stopped as if straining to listen to something and Angie called out to him. “What? What is it?”
He lifted up his hand as if to shush her before continuing to approach the shed where Angie had thought she had seen something moving. She could hear the crunch of his shoes as he reached the shingled area. Suddenly he stopped.
“Bloody hell!” he exclaimed.
“What? What have you found?” she cried, hand clutching at her throat in horror.
Eddie turned and began to walk back down the lawn towards her. “Shit!” he hissed “that bastard cat is gonna met the steel-toe capped end of my boots when I next see it!” He stopped and wiped his foot back and forth on the grass. “These are bloody new shoes and now they’re covered in fucking cat shit. Bloody great!”
He stomped across the patio and leaned against the wall, removing his shoes and leaving them on the bench by the door.
“I’m definitely going to see Margaret tomorrow about this, I work too hard out here for that tatty fucker to come in and crap everywhere.” He stepped inside, brow furrowed in anger and Angie quickly moved out of his way, feeling guilty that her stupid fears had caused him to mess up his new shoes. He glared at her and shook his head.
“See, Ange, there’s your bloody bogeyman. A poxy cat! You seriously need to get a grip.”

******************

As expected, Angie hadn’t slept well that night. The heat had been stifling upstairs and Eddie had gone to bed in a bad mood, turning his back on her and not even offering a goodnight kiss as he usually would, let alone anything more. Angie had tossed and turned, watching the hours tick by on the alarm clock and hearing the constant buzzing of the fan as it churned the air in the corner and barely making any difference to the humidity in the room.
When she had finally slipped down into slumber, her sleep had been restless and tortured with dreams that made her toss and turn even more. She saw herself tiptoeing up the garden, torch held out in her trembling hand, feeling the cool wet grass under her bare feet and the cold night breeze on her skin. Somewhere far behind her, Banjo was whining and the noise carried up the garden in pained whimpers. Something brushed against her shin and when she looked down, Charles was rubbing himself against her and winding in and out of her legs as if he were trying to trip her up. She hooked a foot under his belly and tried to push him away, but he just miaowed and stepped in front of her again. Unable to stop herself, Angie stumbled as she tried to avoid him and she fell, feeling the moisture of the ground seeping into her vest top as she landed on her front, hands splayed out on the wet grass. Charles rubbed against her face; his thick ginger hair tickling her nose and making her splutter as some went into her open mouth. He miaowed loudly in her ear and she got on all fours and pushed him away roughly. It was then she could hear the banging. Thumping noises that seemed to reverberate in the ground beneath her.
The cat hissed and slashed a clawed paw across her face.

******************

When she awoke, with the sheet stuck to her sweat-dampened skin and bunched up in her clenched fists, she immediately saw that the space next to her was empty. She sat up in bed, puzzled as to where Eddie was. The alarm clock flashed nine in the morning. Eddie would usually have woken her with a cuppa by now. She ran her fingers through her hair and felt the beginnings of a headache thumping at her temples. When she stood up and walked out onto the landing, the banging grew louder and Angie steadied herself against the bannister, wondering if the remnants of her dream were still with her.
No. She could definitely hear banging. Padding downstairs, she followed the noise out into the garden to find Eddie hammering a piece of trellis to the top of the fence. As she walked out onto the patio, Eddie looked up and smiled broadly at her. It was already hot outside and he had thrown his top off and his tanned back looked sleek with perspiration.
“Hey sleepy head, how you feeling today?” he grinned.
“I could ask you the same thing. How is it you don’t have a hangover? And what are you doing?” she laughed, feeling relieved that Eddie didn’t seem to be still be angry with her.
“What can I say? I’m one of those lucky ones,” Eddie winked “I figured a little more height on the fence might stop that cat from jumping over. Was thinking barb wire would also be good, but wasn’t sure how Margaret would feel about a shredded moggy?”
He walked over and gripped her around the waist, pulling her close. “You okay? You looked like you were having a bad dream.” His eyes met hers and she was pleased to see concern there and not the mocking looks of the night before.
“Yeah a little I guess,” she shrugged, wrapping her hands around his neck “I’m sorry for being such a scaredy cat last night. Banjo just got me wound up.”
“Pesky mutt!” he murmured, nuzzling into her neck “anyway, you got me to protect you, right?”
Angie smiled, enjoying the sensation of his breath on her skin. “Yeah I know. You’ll chase the bogeyman away, won’t you?”
“Darling, that bogeyman ain’t got nothing on me, trust me.” He kissed her throat and she giggled, loving the feel of the sunshine on her face, but wishing the thumping in her head would just go away.

********************

The following weekend, the storms came, providing a welcome relief from the crushing heat that had been building like a claustrophobic bind all week long. You could sense the storm was coming; something in the air, a feeling or a smell maybe, but it was inevitable. Angie knew they were due a break in the weather but when the thunder finally cracked through the air on Saturday night and the rains began assaulting the ground, she was stupidly unprepared for the onslaught.
“Bugger,” she cried as the first drops began beating at the living room window where she had been engrossed in a film, curled up in her favourite spot on the sofa with a bottle of wine and Banjo for company.
Grabbing the washing basket from the utility room, she threw open the patio door and ran out into the garden, yanking clothes from the washing line; pegs and all. Gasping as the cold drops spattered her skin, she darted across the garden, clutching onto the basket and shrieked when a loud clap of thunder burst overhead. God how she hated storms!
Just before she reached the back door, something caught her attention on the bench. Eddie’s shoes were still there, discarded from the week before when he had accidentally stood in Charles’ mess. Jumping through the doors, she threw the basket down and went back out to save the shoes. Eddie would go mad if his new shoes were ruined by the rain.
Slamming the patio doors shut behind her, Angie grabbed a towel and began drying herself down and scrunching the excess water from her hair. Finally she wiped away the wet footprints she had trailed across the kitchen floor before chucking the towel into the machine ready for the next wash. Picking up the shoes, she took them over to the sink and found an old nail brush in a drawer so she could give the soles a good scrub and get all the cat shit out of the grooves.
“Oh,” she said, surprised when she looked down to find both soles were already clean. She didn’t remember Eddie cleaning them and had assumed he had left them out there to do another time, but regardless she was pleased she had saved them from a soaking. And besides, there was nothing worse than having to clean shit off of shoes.

*****************

Later that night, Angie looked at the clock on the mantle piece to see that it was drawing close to midnight. She stretched out her legs on the sofa and yawned, deciding that there was no way she could stay awake to see Eddie when he came home. Banjo mimicked her stretch and looked at her expectantly.
“Is it that time again, mister?” she said, affectionately stroking his neck. “Come on then.”
She wandered into the kitchen, with Banjo shadowing her, and went to the back door, knowing that if he saw the rain, she’d have a hard job getting him to go out. Fussy old mutt hated getting his feet wet. She had to get him so his nose was practically touching the glass, before opening the door and quickly pushing him out.
The door swung open and drops of rain quickly hit the step and Banjo’s face. He hesitated and tried to back up.
“No, no, no, boy. Come on, you gotta go out and pee. There’s no way you’re doing it on the bedroom rug,” Angie groaned. She tried pushing him, but the dog wouldn’t move. Instead he whined and tried to get past her.
She fielded him back to the door and pointed out to the garden, raising her voice authoritatively.
“Out. Now!” she commanded, grabbing hold of his collar and tugging him to the step. The dog whined even louder now and pulled back. Angie’s feet slid on the rain spattered floor and she tumbled, crying out in pain as her knees hit the tiled floor hard, yet still managing to keep a grip on Banjo’s collar.
“What the hell is wrong with you, you damn mutt? It’s just a bit of bloody water!”
It was then she heard the banging.
Turning her face to the garden, she waited and strained to listen beyond the sound of the rain drops hitting every surface. Hearing nothing, she laughed softly to herself before turning back to Banjo.
“Think you’re gonna spook me again, eh boy? Come on….” She stopped mid sentence, seeing how Banjo’s gaze was fixed on something in the garden and his ears were pricked up.
Bang-bang-bang.
She could definitely hear banging. It was faint and muted by the rain, but there was a definite banging noise coming from somewhere at the end of the garden. Angie’s eyes flipped in the direction of the shed.
Hearing Eddie’s voice in her head, his mocking jibes about what a baby she was about things that go bump in the night, Angie stood up and glared defiantly at the garden.
“I can do this,” she said out loud “it’s probably nothing. Nothing at all.”
Grabbing the torch from the utility room and a pair of pumps off the rack, Angie stepped out into the garden, immediately wishing she had grabbed a coat to shelter her from the incessant rain. The heat still hung in the air, defying the cold of the storm and creating a tension that did nothing to ease her fears as she tiptoed up the garden. She could hear the banging noise grow louder with every step.
The shadows twisted and crept all around her and Angie felt as if a million evil eyes were upon her as she approached the shed. She could feel them crawling all over her body, coveting every inch of her skin. A noise to her left, a wet sucking sound made her gasp and she swung her torch round, sweeping it across the flowerbeds, searching for some hideous monster which she was sure must be stalking her and about to snatch her and drag her down into the wet mud. Nothing moved. She waited, wondering if that was breathing she heard, but soon realised it was her own breath leaving her in short, hard gasps.
The banging continued and Angie gulped and hesitated, not wanting to go any further but feeling her foot take another step. Then another. Suddenly something brushed against her leg and she screamed, dropping the torch as she jumped back. She felt thick damp fur against her ankles and she looked down in horror to see Charles, the ginger tom cat rubbing against her legs and looking back at her; his eyes iridescent in the moonlight.
Frozen in the garden, Angie felt as if reality and dream were weaving all round her, winding in and out of her legs and scratching at the thin veil of courage she had draped loosely around herself. Charles miaowed and the sound made her shudder. She took a step towards the torch and he pushed against her legs again. Angie clapped a hand over her mouth, fearing what was to come next. If this was her dream, she knew that any minute she was going to trip and fall to the ground. She couldn’t let that happen. She didn’t want to feel his sodden fur against his face; didn’t want to taste it on her tongue. She knew if she fell, that would be it.
Deftly stepping over him, she grabbed for the torch and raised it in her hand as if to throw it at the cat. He hissed and scrambled off to one side, heckles raised and tail swishing wildly in the air. He didn’t move any further, just stood there, eyes flashing angry yellow.
The banging continued and Angie looked up sharply, finally realising where the noise was coming from. The shed door was swinging open; fuelled by the storm winds and banging against the frame. She stalked over to the shed, shaking her head at her own paranoia and smiling to herself. It had been the bloody door, all along. Typical!
Angie started to shut the door and suddenly wondered why it was open in the first place. Eddie always kept the door locked and bolted, yet here it was, unlocked and open and swinging back and forth. She swung the beam down so she could examine the lock, worried that maybe someone had broken in. The lock was unbroken, there were no signs of damage to the door. No. The door was just unlocked.
Angie frowned. Eddie never left the door unlocked. In fact, he was obsessed with keeping the shed locked up and had even added an extra bolt and padlock to ensure he deterred even the most persistent of thieves. Something about this wasn’t right. Could he have forgotten to lock it? That just wasn’t like Eddie. Whatever had happened, Angie decided that she was going to go back to the house and call him on his mobile. If someone had managed to get in, Eddie would want to know about it.
She pushed the door but stopped before it was shut fully.
Bang-bang-bang.
Angie froze and held her breath.
Bang-bang-bang-bang.
This was the noise she had heard. Not the door, but this. A kind of dull thumping sound that was louder now, coming from somewhere within the shed. A bolt of alarm ripped through her. What if it was Eddie? What if he had come in here and someone had attacked him? What if he now lay somewhere in the dark expanse of the shed, injured, bleeding, unable to do nothing except bang on the floor in the desperate hope that Angie would hear him. Stepping tentatively inside the shed, Angie cursed the boards as they cracked under her feet.
“Eddie? Eddie? Are you there?” she whispered.
Bang-bang-bang.
The shed seemed even bigger on the inside. There was a large work bench – Eddie was an inspiring carpenter – with all manner of tools hung on the wall nearby. Each tool had its own place on Eddie’s Tool Wall of Fame. Angie’s eyes scanned the work bench area quickly and noted there were a couple of gaps on the wall, although not being a regular guest to Area 51 she had no idea what was missing. Still, considering the amount of tools Eddie had, she couldn’t imagine why the thieves, if they truly were thieves, would only take a few items as no doubt they could have acquired an impressive loot if they had taken more. Eddie never scrimped on good tools.
Moving further into the shed, Angie tried to work out where the noise was coming from. She knew she was getting closer but the sound puzzled her. It still sounded like it was coming from further away, not a resounding, clear noise as it would be if Eddie were banging on the floor.
One corner of the shed was home to all the garden equipment, garden tools, the lawn mower, and an array of unused plant pots and watering cans. The rest of the shed was made up of mostly shelving units which were installed in horizontal rows. Each shelf almost reached the ceiling and each held all sorts of paraphernalia. Screws, nails and various other DIY bits and pieces that Angie didn’t have a clue what they were for, were all housed in separate neatly labelled boxes. A place for everything and everything in it’s place. She could hear Eddie’s words now. He was obsessively tidy, especially when it came to his shed. Oh Eddie!
“Eddie? Are you okay? Please Eddie where are you?” Angie could hear the tremor in her voice.
Angie reached the end of the first shelf and peered round the corner. No Eddie. Just boxes and boxes of his things. The muted thumping noise continued to haunt her. Where the hell was it coming from? The next aisle was clear, as was the next. Finally Angie reached the last and widest aisle. Poking her head around the shelving unit, she held her breath, sure that this must be where Eddie lay, having been cornered in the darkest reaches of the shed by some opportunist assailant.
Nothing. No Eddie. Angie felt the tears prick her eyes. Why wasn’t he here? She just wanted to get out now. This whole thing was freaking her out and she wanted him to appear so he could comfort her and tell her everything was alright. She would even put up with his piss-taking about her being scared of her own shadow, if he would just put his arms around her now and make her feel safe again.
Bang-bang-bang-bang.
Angie cocked her head. The noise seemed slightly louder here, as if it were coming from somewhere down this last aisle. She walked a few steps until she was flanked either side by the tall, imposing shelving units and listened again. A little further and still the banging persisted. Angie’s eyes swept all around her, desperate to find the source and eventually she looked down at her feet. Raising the torch slightly she directed the beam of the torch to the floor in front of her and down towards the end of the aisle.
Obsessively tidy he might be, but the one thing that Eddie always fought a losing battle against was the never-ending tide of sawdust. It got literally everywhere. Eddie was constantly wiping down the shelves and sweeping the floor, but the sawdust was always hanging in the air, just waiting for a place to settle.
At the end of the aisle, Angie noticed that there was a section of flooring that seemed to be relatively dust-free, not because it had been recently cleaned, but more as if it was an area walked upon more often. When she homed the beam in on the floor, Angie could see foot prints and what seemed to be hand prints, patterning the floorboards. Kneeling down, she examined the prints more closely, sweeping her own hands across the floor where the prints seemed most concentrated. There was a hatch here! Some kind of trapdoor, similar to their loft hatch. Angie sat back on her heels for a moment, troubled as to why Eddie had never mentioned building a compartment under the shed. Maybe he kept valuables here? But why not tell her?
Bang-bang-bang.
Angie gasped. The banging was coming from somewhere underneath the shed; it was coming from below the hatch. What if the thieves had found Eddie’s secret door? What if they had over-powered him and stashed him down there, hoping no one would find him? She run her fingers quickly along the edges of the door but could find nowhere to open up the hatch. Quickly she got up and ran back to the tool wall, grabbing a long flat head screwdriver before running back to the hatch, where she jammed it into the small groove in the floor and managing to lift the hatch enough to hook her fingers under.
Lifting the door up and swinging the torch downwards, Angie was shocked to see that the space below was more like another room. She couldn’t tell from here how big the space was, but the light captured some beams and it looked big enough to stand up straight in. Moving around the edges of the hatch, Angie used the torch to investigate further, feeling tendrils of fear gripping her heart. Her bladder pressed painfully against her stomach and she resisted the urge to let the fear take hold and pee herself.
As she swept the beam across the floor, she felt her mouth go dry and head pound furiously as the light picked up what appeared to be another door, except this one looked like an actual door embedded in the ground. It was wooden, not dissimilar to any door you would see inside a house, with a small window, probably no more than about seven by four inches in size. There was a bolt with a padlock, the same type of lock that Eddie used on the main shed door. Angie jumped as the banging started again. Only now, she knew exactly where the banging was coming from.
“Hello?” she called out, still keeping her voice low.
The banging immediately stopped, then shuffling as if someone or something was moving about. She strained to listen. The banging started again, harder this time and more persistent.
“Hello?” she said, louder now.
Suddenly a hand appeared, palm flat out against the inside of the window. Angie shrieked and clapped her own hand over her mouth to stifle the scream that was caught in her throat. The palm slapped against the glass again, small frantic flashes of white within an awful black hole. It wasn’t Eddie’s hand. No. Not Eddie’s hand.
The pee did come now. Angie felt it trickle hot down the inside of her thigh and spatter the floorboards around the edge of the hatch. She shuffled back quickly, hearing her breath escape her in a hee-hee-hee sound. Shining the light directly onto the small window, the torch slipped out of her sweat-drenched grasp and tumbled into the room below, hitting the ground and rolling to a halt with its beam illuminating the wooden door and the glass. A dark stain spattered the wood.
With her whole body shaking, Angie stood up, feeling unsteady on her feet and light-headed. She placed a hand on the shelf to her left to pull herself up, but before she could stand fully, a blow to the back of her head sent her plummeting down to the floor, face first. The second blow caved in the back of her skull and the last thing she saw was another pair of eyes, staring at her through the glass, wide eyed and mirroring the shock and terror in her own.
Eddie bent down to retrieve the claw hammer from the back of his wife’s head. Pieces of scalp, hair and bone stuck to the claw end of the hammer as he wrenched it free from her skull. He stroked her hair, tucked a few loose strands behind her ear and sighed.
Without bothering to clean the hammer, Eddie walked out into the garden. He could hear Banjo barking manically back at the house.
“I never did like that bloody pesky mutt,” he said.

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Filed under Short Stories

A Lily-Rose By Any Other Name

It had always helped to have a pretty name.

“You were so beautiful, I named you after two flowers, not one,” her mother had said. The irony of her name was not lost on Lily-Rose. It suggested delicate, fragile and feminine and she was more than happy to let people make a judgement about her based solely on her name.

Of course, secondary to her name was her appearance. Carefully curled blonde hair, cheeks so rosy that she rarely needed blusher, the brightest blue eyes and eyelashes that went on forever; it was no wonder that Lily-Rose’s mother had practically dressed her like a doll when she was growing up. She had always worn dresses; her mother declaring she would rather cut off her own arm than let Lily-Rose wear trousers or worse “those horrible boy jeans”. Her childhood had been filled with pretty dresses with full skirts, patent shoes and ribbons in her hair.

Now she was twenty-eight and she still sometimes put ribbons in her hair, or one of those skinny satin alice bands, however these days the natural curls of her childhood were more like waves and Lily-Rose spent painstaking hours curling her hair to perfection. When most women were whipping out the irons and opting for the fashionable poker straight look, Lily-Rose knew most men secretly liked the curls. And they seemed to like the ribbons and bows even more and she knew why that was.

Rest assured, men loved the way Lily-Rose looked. She oozed femininity from head to toe and she knew it. In summer, she loved to wear ditsy floral shift dresses or fifties-style frocks in a variety of pastel colours. In winter, she wore cute twin sets, A-line skirts and heels. Always heels. Sometimes she accessorized with pearls or a little diamante here and there but nothing showy or flash; just enough to add a little sparkle and all this was finished off with a slick of candy pink lip-gloss.

There was no doubt about it, her pretty-in-pink appearance worked like a dream and she just loved to keep up the pretence. It was so easy. It had always been easy. No one ever thought she could be anything but the doll her mother had brought her up to be. Her boss, Windsor Evans definitely thought she was doll; a pretty addition to his office and damn sight more interesting to squeeze than one of them stupid stress balls. And try to squeeze her he did, more or less every day by the photocopier or whenever she brought him his coffee. Of course, he tried to hide the fact he was giving her a squeeze, but as his hand gripped her waist and lingered a little too long on the fleshy part just above her buttocks, Lily-Rose knew it wouldn’t be long before he was trying to show her a little more than the weekly figures whenever he asked her to stay after hours. That was going to be awkward as it would prompt her to take action and she liked her job, despite Mr Evans’ wandering paws. In fact, this was the longest time she had ever stayed in a job and indeed the longest time she had ever lived in one place since she was a child.

Robert had a lot to do with that. She hated to admit it, but she knew he was the reason she had stuck around longer than usual. With his perfectly combed hair, startling green eyes and neat, white teeth, Lily-Rose had been automatically drawn to his picture on Casablanca.com, the latest online dating site that she had began to frequent. In fact, everything about him had seemed so damned perfect that she had been immediately suspicious. Men like Robert were rarely what they appeared to be. There was usually a wife, children and a boring semi-detached family home out in the suburbs. Or the face behind the picture was often that of an over-weight, sweaty, balding troll who couldn’t believe his luck that the face behind her picture was actually the same face as in the picture. But strangely, Robert seemed to be everything his profile had told her. He wasn’t married or even had a girlfriend – she had done the necessary checks, of course – and he really was an international business executive for a high street bank. And his reason for joining an online dating site? Well, he’d spent years building his career so had only previously found time for casual dating and now, when he’d finally been stationed at head office and had more of a stable base, he’d discovered he was terrible at the dating game and so a friend had suggested joining an online site.

“To be honest,” he’d told her on their second date “I’d always thought online dating sites were for weirdo’s and perverts. You have no idea how glad I was when I met you for the first time and realised you were normal. Well, better than normal.”

Lily-Rose had blushed on cue and looked away feigning embarrassment but inside she was smiling and thinking how easy it always was.

One date had quickly turned to two and now ten dates down the line, she was still seeing him and actually looking forward to seeing that perfect smile with the perfectly neat teeth. The Lily-Rose behind the flushing cheeks and twin-set was starting to get nervous. The Lily-Rose behind the lip gloss was looking for reasons to put an end to it all, but frustratingly, Robert seemed to offer her no ammunition. He was an absolute gentleman on every date, turning up on time, always looking immaculate and giving Lily-Rose his one hundred percent attention. He was the opening-doors-and-pulling-out-chairs-type but not in a sickeningly annoying way. This was definitely not the way it was meant to be.

All the others had provided more than enough reason. Secret wives or girlfriends, children they forgot to mention, wandering hands, footsie under the table, forgetting their wallet. There was always a reason. Except for the first time, however. There hadn’t really been a reason back then; Lily-Rose knew that, although she had tried to tell herself there had been and often found herself chanting these reasons to her reflection in the mirror in the morning, as she curled her hair. He had a nasty habit of collecting ear wax and sticking his finger in his ear to retrieve it, before examining it and wiping it on his clothes. Sometimes one of his socks would fall down round his ankle and he never pulled it up; he would let the fabric gather there, revealing a rather pasty leg. Sometimes spittle collected at the corner of his mouth and even worse, sometimes he sprayed when he talked.

His name had been Peter and he had lived next door. Their parents had been friends and so Peter and Lily-Rose were friends even though he was ten and Lily-Rose was only eight. Strange that a ten-year old boy would choose to hang around with an eight year old girl but Peter had doe eyes for her and she knew it. She had always pretended it was the other way around, following him wherever he went and he never once told her to go away. She knew he never would. Lily-Rose had known that had she let matters take their natural course, the teenage Peter’s doe eyes would turn to invitations to the cinema, feeding her popcorn and fake yawning so he could stretch an arm across her dainty shoulders in an effort to cop a feel in the darkness of the theatre. She wasn’t massively opposed to that happening, in fact, if anything she felt quite indifferent towards him. She neither liked nor disliked him. He was just Peter. And Peter was just a means to an end.

 

*************

The tree stood before them, stretching out tall and imposing at the far side of the field. Its tough-barked battle-ready trunk spawned many thick branches which twisted together, spreading outwards and upwards. Standing at the bottom of the tree, with his back resting against the trunk, one sock gathered around his ankle, Peter looked up into the knot of branches and then back to Lily-Rose who stood in front of him, in pink satin and white tulle.

“I can climb almost all the way to the top,” Peter said, grinning.

“It’s too high, Peter,” Lily-Rose answered, twirling a curl around her forefinger and swaying back and forth so her skirts spun out around her legs.

“You’re just scared of heights, silly,” the boy replied, reaching out and pulling her hair playfully, watching as the curl sprang up and bounced back into place. “There’s nothing to be afraid of, it’s just an old tree and it’s real easy to climb.”

“I’m not scared,” pouted Lily-Rose, “not really, anyway.”

“Why don’t we climb up together, I can help you,” Peter asked “you’ll love the view near the top, you can see in old Mr Jameson’s garden. Sometimes he falls asleep on the patio in just his pants and he has his mouth open really wide.”

They giggled at the image of Mr Jameson stretched out, old skin sagging round his bare stomach and white Y-fronts on show, although secretly Lily-Rose felt nauseous at the thought of the old man sitting there with barely nothing on.

Feigning reluctance and fear, for Lily-Rose could very easily climb this tree after much secret practice; she followed Peter upwards, sometimes stopping because she didn’t want to move to the next branch and asking for Peter’s help. In return, Peter offered lots of encouraging words and soothing sympathy whenever she pretended she was too frightened to climb any further in the maze of branches. Finally, they reached as far as they could go, and sat side by side looking out across the field through small breaks in the foliage. Peter huffed and puffed after the climb, failing to notice that Lily-Rose was hardly out of breath at all.

It was definitely a beautiful view from the top of the tree. Blue summer skies stretched out above them, a light breeze flickered at the long grass below them and they could hear birds whistling and singing through the tree tops.

“Told you that you would love the view from up here, Lily-Rose,” Peter said, spittle spraying out as he said the ‘Rose’ part.

Lily-Rose could hear the bird song now and she could have sworn they were singing Whistle While You Work. She smiled and quickly pushed at the boy sitting next to her, watching as his face turned from one of contentment to one of alarm as he fell backwards, his legs tumbling after him as he plummeted through the branches. The sound of snapping wood intermingled with the sound of snapping bones and the thud of his body hitting obstacles on the way down. Finally Peter landed on the ground with a dull thwack.

Climbing down as fast as she could, being careful not to slip and fall herself, Lily-Rose found Peter lying in the clearing at the base of the tree, looking as twisted and knotted as the branches above. A wide graze streaked across his cheekbone and one of his legs was missing a patch of skin just below the knee. He was not moving, except for a small twitch of the fingers on his right hand and the blinking of his eyes, which now stared at Lily-Rose in horror and fear. Seating herself on a fallen log just at the side of the clearing, Lily-Rose sat with knees together, just as her mother had taught her a lady should, with her full skirts gathered around her legs. She arranged the fabric so that it fanned out around her neatly and thrust a thumb into her mouth which she sucked on thoughtfully whilst twirling a curl around her forefinger. Peter blinked even more, his eyelids fluttering as furiously as butterfly wings, and his stare turned to pleading, then back to fear and eventually to nothing at all. Lily-Rose thought his glazed eyes looked a little bit like her doll Amber’s, only Amber’s eyelashes were curled and far prettier than Peter’s.

Without a word, she got up and walked to the edge of the wooded area where it met the vast expanse of the open field and promptly burst into tears. As she ran across the field howling and wailing into the summer air, she vaguely wondered if she should have drunk more water before she came out that day so that the tears would keep flowing, just as they did when she made Amber drink enough water so that she could squeeze her head and watch the tears burst out of the doll’s tear duct holes and drip down her face.

It hadn’t been difficult to fool everyone. Upon seeing a very distressed little doll-like girl with her full skirts and ribbon-decorated curls, of course everyone knew that this was a climbing game that had gone very wrong. A tragic, terrible, awful accident and how incredibly traumatic for Lily-Rose to see her best friend Peter die in such a horrific way.

*************

Now, years later, sometimes Lily-Rose would awake at night and see little Peter lying next to her in bed, his body twisted under the bed sheets and his pleading, terrified eyes staring at her and she would whisper to him “You sprayed when you talked. You had spittle at the corners of your mouth. You let your sock fall down.”

There was always a reason. The others never visited her at night. Lily-Rose was thankful for that. For a start, they’d never all fit in her bed. The house was crowded enough with just Peter in it and he had a nasty habit of popping up when she least expected it; sometimes in her wardrobe, sometimes curled up in the bath, and sometimes on the other end of the sofa as she settled down to watch television. He used to just sit there and stare at the screen, as if they were normal couple settling down to watch their evening soaps. These days, however, she knew he was looking at her instead. She knew that if she wrenched her eyes away from the television, she would turn and see him just laying there, his pleading eyes fixed on her and fingers twitching against the sofa cushions.

She couldn’t ignore him the night he appeared in her bath. Soft candlelight flickered off of the cream walls and rose scented bath oils sweetened the steam-filled room. Lily-Rose had settled into the warm water with her curls piled high on top of her head and was enjoying the ambience when suddenly the surface of the water rippled at the tap end and Peter’s head popped up. His now wet hair stuck to his forehead and droplets trickled down the graze that marked his cheekbone. Lily-Rose could see his limbs still twisted up under the water and his fingers tapped against the side of the bath, the dull tinny sound echoing around the small room.

“What?” hissed Lily-Rose “what do you want? Go away. I don’t want you here.”

Tap-tap-tap.

Peter blinked at her, stopped; then he blinked again.

“I can’t take back what I did. You’re dead. Accept it,” she whispered.

Peter blinked once and Lily-Rose was sure he was agreeing with her.

Tap-tap-tap-tap.

His eyes turned pleading again, big blue pools of beseeching sorrow.

“Look, if you’re here to warn me off or tell me to stop, don’t bother. I haven’t done it for ages. I’ve….” she stopped, faltering and wondering why on earth she felt the need to explain to a dead boy about Robert.

Peter glared at her, his eyes unblinking and black. The water rippled again and she was sure he had moved slightly closer to her. She drew her knees up under her chin and pressed her back up as far as it would go. Was the water cold already? Her teeth began to chatter and she clenched her jaw in an effort to stop shivering.

“I’ve met someone. Things will be different now. I promise,” she said, hearing her voice shake and hating the sound.

The water bubbled now and Lily-Rose distinctly felt a foot touch her ankle. He was in the middle of the bath now and she could smell damp earth and leaves mixed with her rose scented oil. He was so close now, so horribly close and for the first time in her life she wanted to scream but couldn’t.

“I promise,” she whimpered, closing her eyes in the desperate hope that she would be alone when she opened them.

Tap-tap-tap-tap.

Opening her eyes, Lily-Rose found Peter’s eyes just inches away from her own and when she looked into them – really looked into them – she realised exactly what the dead boy wanted.

Suddenly she understood everything so perfectly.

 

**************

The restaurant was one of the finest Italians in town. So good in fact that it was a famous haunt for many celebrities and their pictures hung on the walls; grinning faces with arms draped around the owner and his talented head chef. The waiters schmoozed and charmed the customers, with particular emphasis on those of the female variety, encouraging flattered laughter, big smiles and even bigger tips. It hadn’t surprised Lily-Rose in the least when Robert had said he was taking her to this restaurant. He knew all the best places and wasn’t fazed by the size of the bill.

“You can’t put a price on good food, excellent service and outstanding company,” Robert had said, without even a hint of cheesiness. Everything Robert said was smooth, cool and completely in earnest. It was flattery at its best and Lily-Rose had to admit it always worked. Even in the early days of their courtship, when she was highly suspicious of him and still determined to find a reason, the way Robert spoke and what he said always seemed to strike a chord.

Tonight was no exception. From complimenting Lily-Rose on her new dress to asking about her day at work, drinking in every detail and commenting on her perfume, Robert was still proving to be the total gentleman he had been all along. When he smiled at her with his perfect even white teeth, Lily-Rose couldn’t help but smile back and her black heart flipped a little in response. Her stomach fluttered nervously and the flush on her cheeks was instant.

“What did you think of your Gamberoni Diavola?” Robert asked; his voice deep and warm, as the waiter removed their dinner plates.

“I thought it was just delicious,” breathed Lily-Rose “I love seafood; the prawns were just melt in the mouth.” She dabbed delicately at mouth with the napkin, feeling guilty at the small smudge of pink gloss left on the crisp white fabric.

“In that case, next time you should really try the Spaghetti alle Vongole. The clams are out of this world,” Robert said, eyes lighting up.

“Oh I don’t eat spaghetti and definitely not in public,” Lily-Rose said, brow wrinkling in distaste “far too messy.”

Robert laughed softly but nodded in agreement. “Nothing worse than getting spaghetti down your clothes. Best to avoid the dangerous foods. I went out with a girl once who sucked the spaghetti up into her mouth like she was five years old again. Horrible.”

“How awful,” frowned Lily-Rose.

“You have no idea!” grinned Robert and then they both laughed together, eyes meeting briefly before Lily-Rose felt her heart thudding a little louder in her chest again and she looked away quickly and almost gasped at what she saw over Robert’s shoulder.

Lying twisted up on the floor between two tables was Peter, blinking madly and fingers twitching-twitching-twitching.

“Are you okay?” Robert said, reaching over and touching fingertips lightly against hers.

“Yes, yes I’m fine,” urged Lily-Rose, smiling weakly and trying not to look back over his shoulder again. Waiters were stepping over Peter as if he wasn’t even there.

“Are you sure? You look a little pale all of a sudden. I hope it wasn’t the seafood.” He looked at her in a flood of concern and his eyes drifted to her forehead where Lily-Rose could feel the first beads of sweat breaking through her skin.

Standing up from her chair suddenly, Lily-Rose gathered her handbag into her arms and excused herself, knowing that she was also going to have to step over the dead boy and praying that his fingers wouldn’t tap-tap-tap against her legs.

“Excuse me for a moment please,” she whispered and left Robert staring after her, worry etched on his face.

In the ladies room, cold water blanched away the perspiration on her forehead and Lily-Rose tried frantically to re-apply her make-up, cursing her trembling hands. Finally after three attempts, it was done and she assessed herself in the mirror, making note of her peaches and cream skin, long curled eyelashes and perfect eyeliner. With a sweep of pink gloss, she pressed her lips together to allow full coverage and sprayed a quick spritz of perfume.

Fixing herself with a steely stare, she stood up straight and lifted her chin. “You sprayed when you talked. You had spittle at the corners of your mouth. You let your sock fall down.”

Seating herself back at the table, Lily-Rose apologised for her previous lapse and made an excuse about too much wine, although of course she had barely drank two glasses, which was always her limit anyway.

“Please, don’t apologise. I would never have forgiven myself if it had been the seafood. Imagine, bringing you to a restaurant and sending you home with food poisoning!” he smiled “would you like dessert or coffee?”

She declined politely, noting the small touches of spittle that had gathered at the corner of his mouth as he smiled. “Why don’t we go back to yours for coffee instead? Coffee should always be taken in a much more…..intimate setting, don’t you think?” She smiled and looked at him shyly through long, mascara-sleek lashes, noting the excitable flush that crept into his cheeks.

“I couldn’t agree more, Lily-Rose,” he said and quickly motioned for the waiter to bring the bill.

It had always helped to have such a pretty name.

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