Sunday, 6 August 2017

Penned




I bought this book (Dean Koontz - What the Night Knows) in a charity shop. Wasn't til I got home I realised where it had come from and I was vastly amused by the idea of a story about a cop and serial killer ending up in a prison library. It also inspired this story.

Heather had been writing to Stephen Miller for three years. She’d stored every letter, neatly bound in a manila folder which belied the slow burning romance inside. Once in a while, when she missed him most, she took them all out and read them. As much as they cheered her, she couldn’t help but wonder how they would read if they didn’t have to be careful. It hurt to know that every soft word and loving declaration was read by someone before her, before him, but prisoners had no choice. Especially men like Stephen.
Heather glanced over at the pile of letters, mostly single pages, but occasional doubles. In order, resting one on the other, she realised there was something odd about the edges. She shuffled the sheets tighter, aligned them neatly but could only see an odd darkening along the left-hand side. In a moment of inspiration she fetched a large book from the shelf and set it carefully on the tightly hand-written pages. The sheets compressed and the oddity manifested into words printed down the left side of the pile.
It was like those old pads her dad had used. He’d kept a thick pad on his desk for notes and they were often printed on the sides with company names or logos. It had amused her to watch these images or words slowly disappear as the pad was used up. Stephen had used the same technique and written a phrase which she alone would see. She wondered why he had used such a slow method to send her his words.
Perhaps to stop the officials reading them? Maybe as a get out clause. If she turned out to be one of those flakes who fell in love with unattainable serial killers he could just stop and she’d never know. It was only chance which had revealed them to her now, her natural curiosity and penchant for observing the small things. The fact of his finished missive made her glow. In meant he trusted her. She read the words again, pondering their meaning.
D
R
E
A
M
S
S
E
T
Y
O
U
F
R
E
E
Setting the letters on the desk with the words facing the sofa, she settled down to think, staring at the wonderful, frustrating message. Her mind wandered over their strange and beautiful connection.
Like the rest of the world, she’d followed the unfolding story of the Evangelical Executioner and his bloody trail. To this day no-one really knew if the handsome young vicar was a master manipulator or a dog-collared hypnotist. All the police could confirm was that twenty-eight people had killed a total of two hundred men, women and children, and then committed suicide via a vast array of methods.  As one of the tackier tabloids had gleefully written, in horror movie blood-dripping fonts, ‘…and he’d have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those darn kids!’
Two of the twenty-eight killers had been seventeen-year-old twins. They’d gone into a local nursery and released an airborne toxin, killing 7 children, 2 nursery workers and themselves. No-one knew why they were the only killers to leave suicide notes, but they had and it lead to the arrest of Stephen Miller, a well-liked reverend whose parish was at the epicentre of all the killings. The note had read simply:
‘We did as you asked, Reverend Miller.’
Despite flimsy evidence – mainly the note and a witch hunt by the media that whipped people into a pitchfork and burning torch frenzy – Stephen Miller was branded a modern day Manson and committed to Blakewood Secure Unit for the rest of his natural life.
At which point Heather, a firm believer in the goodness of all men and second chances for all, had decided Stephen Miller needed a friend. A quick search online had delivered his prisoner number and the unit address, along with so much fan worship from teen girls Heather had felt physically sick. Forging ahead, she’d written and been happily surprised when a reply, complete with an explanation of what could and couldn’t be said or sent, had landed on her welcome mat.
The intervening years had been difficult and divine. Heather found it harder and harder to reconcile the wise, funny, clever and gentle man of her letters with the world view which called him Svengali, cult leader and squarely blamed him for manipulating the twenty-eight into doing his killing for him. They struggled with a motive, just as the prosecution had, but Stephen had given them an in. Throughout the trial he had sat silent, hands resting in his lap and a soft smile on his lips.  Interpreted in the media it was decided his motive had been pleasure and some hack attributed a fictional line to Stephen which sealed his fate, despite his never uttering it. When asked why he had done it he was supposed to have replied ‘Because it was fun’.
He preferred not to discuss his case, but once she had asked ‘Why do you think it happened?’ His reply had been more detailed than she had expected.
‘Perhaps, and I speculate, my sermons were more powerful than I thought? They became very popular, as you know, and people came from parishes other than my own to hear them. Was there something in them which inspired this misplaced desire to cleanse the world? I can’t say. If you could read them you might be able to see something I suppose.’
He’d said no more but she had pondered and eventually written to his old parish. Under the guise of writing a psychology piece for a local paper she’d persuaded the new incumbent to hand over a batch of Stephen’s sermons which had been put into storage, on strict instructions that they were not to leave her sight and not to be quoted with any reference to the parish. She’d agreed readily and now she reached out and opened the slim folder. Just three sermons within but maybe enough to give her a sense of what caused the terrible events of three years ago?
Reading through the words, at once new and yet familiar, Heather found herself slipping into Stephen’s voice. She drifted through the text, imagined him speaking the words aloud in his cell. Prison guards came to listen, moved by his eloquence and the righteousness of his words. Some consensus took them, caused one to step forth and open Stephen’s cell door, no man stepping up to stop the action. They parted to allow him to walk to the main reception, their heads bowed in reverence, a few whispering that none who spoke thus could commit heinous acts. The prison governor stood at the main doors, clearly enraptured as Stephen continued to speak. He inserted the combination of keys, paused before throwing the lock switch and embraced Stephen, tears in his eyes. The door swung open and the men started to sing a hymn as Stephen walked into the encroaching darkness of night.
Heather shook herself awake, realised she’d dozed off to dream whilst reading the sermons. She couldn’t quite figure if the light was dusk or dawn and flicked on the tv to get the time. She surfed to the news channel and saw it was morning. She’d slept on the sofa all night which explained her crook neck and aching back. About to rise and get coffee she abruptly dropped back down, listening as a serious-faced anchor read the story.
‘Last night, Stephen Miller, known as the Evangelical Executioner, walked out of Blakewood Secure Unit and vanished. Authorities say they have no ideas why prison staff simply let him walk out, but people are already asking if the rumours about Miller’s ability to control people is more than just media hype. Police have issued a warning to refrain from any kind of engagement with Miller should the public see him and …’
Heather startled when the front door vibrated under three loud knocks and she could see a shadowy figure through the frosted glass.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

The Fairy Door




“What… is that?”
It was the first sign of interest Blake had shown since he and Anna had arrived to look over the house. She couldn’t figure out why he was so disinterested in a free and clear home, an inheritance from her grandma. It rankled the more because Anna had so many happy memories of summers there. Following his gaze she spotted the tiny door set just above the wainscot, the teeny ladder which gave access.
“Oh wow, I can’t believe it’s still there!” she cooed, clapping her hands in delight, “The fairy door!”
“The what?”
“I told you I used to stay here, summer holidays and that, right?”
Blake nodded, his eyes wandering the room, judging and finding wanting.
“Well, Grandma had a tribe of house fairies who used to come out and do the housework overnight. She always said it was how she managed to spend all day playing with us kids and still keep the house spotless.”
“And you believed that? Geez, thought you had more sense.”
 To hide the hurt, Anna knelt, running a hand over the faded and cracked paint of the little door, noting one rung of the ladder was hanging loose.
“I was a kid, Blake. It was nice, no matter if it was true or not. We all loved Grandma’s tales of the games the fairies played.”
“I assume you are now grown up enough to understand that the woman was (a) nuts and (b) probably working herself into an early grave by playing with you lot all day and then cleaning all night.”
Anna hated his condescension, how he swung out of the room before she could make any point of her own in counter. She followed him downstairs, trailing in the wake of his dislike for the old, lived in house, fighting not to let his bleakness overwhelm the happiness she felt at being back in the place she considered safest in the world.
He stopped in the Formica and gingham kitchen, rubbing his hands on his pristine jeans after accidentally touching the stained porcelain sink, and her heart sank as his face set into ‘implacable’.
“We’ll give it a lick of paint, bland it out, get it on the market in a couple of days. I suppose we have no choice but to sleep here until the work is done.”
Anna concealed her smile. Even a couple of nights in Mercy cottage was more than she had hoped for,
Afternoon of the next day proved warm and bright. To Anna’s eye it lit the cottage with inner warmth which spoke of her grandma’s own. On a wave of nostalgia, Anna decided to fix the door. She had a quick search through grandma’s bits and bobs cupboard, found a broken wooden spoon, a trial pot of brilliant white paint and the dregs of some wood glue. Upstairs she painted the tiny door, one ear cocked and listening for Blake’s return from town and his mission to find estate agents, then used the broken spoon handle. Snapping it to size, she glued it in place, held it for a minute and then set it back against the wall. With a little dab of hand cream to grease the doorknob the job was complete. She flopped onto the bed she had slept in for so many idyllic summers, gazing at the door. On the verge of sleep she whispered,
“I want to stay”
Waking with a start, she realised a couple of hours had passed, the light now peachy with evening. She swung off the bed, scurried to the window and noted the lack of Blake’s car with relief. Sleeping on the job was sure to be a no-no. Only as she turned away did she note the peculiarity. The windows had been cloudy, in need of a polish, the sill the same. The curtains had been faded, home to the evidence of a moth or two. Turning back she realised the windows sparkled in the setting sunlight, the sill felt slick and reflected back light from the panes. As to the curtains, it appeared they had undergone some sort of regression back to the vibrant paisley pattern she had recalled from childhood. Of holes there was no sign.
Walking through the room, heading back to finish the magnolia painting in the kitchen, she noted several more small changes. The stairway lampshades, gorgeous art d├ęcor glass, were brilliant, bathing the stairwell in kaleidoscopic light. The runner in the hall felt springy under her feet, the pile no longer stubby or flat. The brasses hanging over the parlour chimney breast also caught gleams and sparks of light. Anna smiled; maybe the house fairies had liked that she’d fixed the door and ladder. Her smile faded as she heard Blake’s car crunch over the gravel drive.
The following morning Blake declared he couldn’t help any more – not that Anna had seen him lift so much as a paintbrush – as the local vendors were worse than useless and he needed to go further afield. Watching him drive away, Anna couldn’t help but notice the oppressive cloud of his presence lifting. The whole cottage seemed brighter, freer. Her heart railed against the idea of selling, but it also recoiled at the idea of Blake living there.
‘Maybe you should get rid of him’
Her treacherous little mind always seemed to speak the words she dare not form and cast into the world. The idea had all kinds of merit, but how would she cope on her own? She never had. Her parents had taken care of her, boarding school had taken care of her and then Blake. He called her Mouse and laughed, her self-esteem shrinking with every chuckle.
Walking back into the bedroom she noticed a pin sticking out of the curtain. Left over from the restoration work perhaps, she smiled, tucking it into a drawer and being hit by a very clear memory. Grandma teaching her how to do patchwork, telling her the story of the mouse and the lion when Anna stuck herself with a pin. Could she ever quit being a mousey Mouse and turn into a hero Mouse?
She gazed at the door, gave in to the urge and knelt before it, speaking softly.
“I was never brave enough as a child. I don’t know if I can change that now, but if you exist, if it’s you restoring the house, show me, please? Some sign that you are there and want me to keep the house. I don’t know how to do that, but I need to know.”
With her index finger she tapped lightly on the tiny door and sat back hard on her rear when her knock was repeated from the other side. Gathering herself she whispered,
“This sounds so silly, but I feel I shouldn’t open the door. If you can’t or won’t speak, how about the one knock for yes, two for no code? Can you do that?”
One knock.
“Do you want me to find a way to keep the cottage?”
One knock.
“Can you help me?”
One knock.
“Thank you.”
She didn’t really know what to do or what to ask so she backed away and headed into the garden to sit under the oak on the swing seat. She spent the day dozing, thinking, planning and discarding, flying to her feet a little before five. Blake had said he’d be back then. She fled upstairs to wash up and change, aware he would be crazy angry because she had accomplished nothing and then stopped.
On the bed lay two objects. The first was a poppet, a stuffed doll with two pins laying next to it. The second she recognised as a memory card for a laptop. Scooping up the doll and tucking it into her dress pocket she plucked the card and headed to the bathroom with it and her laptop. Locking herself in she turned the machine on, inserted the card and opened the single file it contained. It proved to be a recording of a conversation. The background noise suggested Blake had been somewhere busy, like a pub or restaurant, but his words were clear enough.
‘Yeah, I found an agent in Barking who’s willing to fight for a good price. Once it’s sold the money will go into the account, I’ll syphon it off to mine and we’re good to go.’
A pause, a short, nasty laugh.
‘Don’t worry, Shirley. She’s dumb as a sack of bricks. By the time she realises I’ve drained both her inheritance and our savings we’ll be on a beach in Spain, planning our next adventure.’
Another pause, a softened tone.
‘Yeah, love you to. Can’t wait to get back to a real woman. Not long now, lover’
The file stopped. Anna sat on the bed feeling as if she were caught on some bad tv drama. Her mind flipped through all the humiliation and misery Blake had put her through. Her anger boiled up, the hero mouse finally shoving the mousey one over the cliff.She picked up the poppet, took it and the pins to the window, and gazed into nowhere. He’d be coming over the bridge about now. Now a turn left onto the side track. Now a sharp right to avoid the river. She stabbed the pins neatly into both poppet eyes.
When the police came, the older one, who remembered Anna and her grandmother, was  surprised at how much she had turned the cottage around in just a couple of days. Surfaces shone, open windows allowed brightly patterned curtains to billow out, and the smell of coffee and cake drifted lazily on the air. Anna seemed unsurprised at the news, explaining how Blake had a habit of lunch-time drinks and then driving too fast. She wasn’t at all surprised he had come to a poor end in the river. Perhaps she would stay after all. She had been happy here in her youth.
“Do you remember your grandma’s fairy stories?” the man asked, smiling when Anna nodded.
“Oh yes. A lot of silly nonsense for us kids really, but that little door in my bedroom did give me a certain sense of protection and happiness.” She said, walking them to the door with its new coat of green paint and shiny door knocker.
Upstairs the last trace of the poppet vanished through the fairy door and the house fell quiet.




Thursday, 13 July 2017

Reddit Writing Prompt - Soldier Soldier

So I saw a writing prompt on Reddit suggesting using the first and last lines of a nursery rhyme to write a story. I chose Soldier, Soldier, won't you marry me as it was a favourite to sing to #2 daughter when she was little.



‘Soldier, soldier, won’t you marry me?’
Karen heard the old song running through her mind as she opened the door to Jeff. Always, her heart leapt at the sight of the handsome man on her doorstep, in full dress uniform, medals glittering on his breast. She ushered him in and did what she always did, gave him everything she and her home had to offer. Ever she hoped those magic words would finally come. Instead she heard;
“My best coat got ripped yesterday. I don’t suppose…?”
He knew, she knew, and off she went to the attic, flinging back the lid of her grandfather’s military chest. His beautifully preserved camel hair coat lay on top of many mementoes and Karen wondered, fleetingly, if he minded her giving away his things. She doubted it. He’d always been one for living in the now, not clinging to past glories. She closed the chest, gave away the coat and watched it walk away on the back of her soldier. Without the words.

A couple of months passed. She wondered. Should she let him go, say goodbye to the last shreds of hope? Give herself a chance at someone new, at full happiness? She had almost decided to do so when the knock came at the door. He chatted carelessly about some dinner dance being held at the barracks. He did not ask for her, but for grandpa’s top hat and kid gloves. He tipped the hat to her, did a Gene Kelly dance in and out of the gutter as he disappeared into the rain-sodden evening.

Next leave rolled around and he came with it. The routine remained unchanged, her hope perhaps a little faded, but still bright. She could loathe herself for the skip in her chest whenever his mouth opened, but it was beyond her control. She loved him with everything she had. Preparing to return to barracks, Jeff changed into his uniform, shoved a foot into his boot and tutted. A heel hung forlornly, flapping back and forth as he swung his foot. 

She was gone almost before the mute appeal in his eyes met hers. The chest gave up old, but still serviceable, boots, the last shine grandpa had given them reflecting the faint haunted look behind her gaze. She offered them, smiled when he admired his well turned-out self in the hall mirror and tried not to feel disappointment when he waved himself away.

She ran after him, caught him in the street, stared up into his confused frown;
“Won’t you marry me?”
He put her from him, gently, firmly, shook his head.
“I thought you understood what we have. I cannot marry you for I have a wife of my own.”
He hugged her briefly, set off once more.
Karen returned to the house, to the chest, took out a final item, ran after him, aimed, fired.
‘Soldier, soldier, you won’t marry me, and I have a gun of my own.’ She whispered, sinking to her knees in the downpour, watching his blood dribble into the gutter.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Short Story - Take Your Chances




 For Lynne Brown, who gave me the inspiration ;)

Emily cycled up to the junction, her heart in her mouth. It was the same every day; either pedal like crazy and hope the cars missed you or sit, and wait, possibly until you were retirement age.  The council kept saying they would install lights, had been for six, years now, but the promise had attained the stuff of legend. And so the accidents happened, the injuries and deaths mounted.

And the residents of the four villages fastened their seatbelts, put the pedal to the metal and did the suicide run morning and night. In 3 years of travelling to the rural museum, where she worked reception, Emily had never seen anyone willingly let some else through. It was always a battle to the death, cars skirting around the edges of disaster daily. For cyclists it was worse.

Emily put her head down, sent a prayer to whoever was listening and shot into traffic. The usual choir of horns and curses buffeted her on all sides, but she weaved her way through and shot out onto the narrow lane which paralleled the road to Winterhalt. She put a foot to the ground, let out her held breath and relaxed. Eight hours before she had to run the gauntlet again. Pushing off she noticed the square bulk of a sofa cushion, in delightful shades of grandma’s floral curtains, plonked by the hedge which marked the end of the lane. She sighed, silently cursing fly-tippers and headed to work.

A couple of days later, aquaplaning through a puddle at the lane entrance, Emily noted the cushion had been joined by another in a vastly unattractive shade of vomit yellow. Well yes, she could understand not wanting that monstrosity in the house, but why were they collecting at the lane entrance? Mentally taking a note to call the council and report the rubbish, she hurried on.

Another working week rolled around and Emily felt momentary hope when she saw a council van hurtling across the junction, but alas. In fact the original plump pair had been joined by a third in electric orange. Fine, if the council wouldn’t do anything, she would. Come the weekend those eyesores were going to the community dump.

Saturday dawned and Emily set out early, a borrowed wheelbarrow from a friend’s allotment and a great deal of determination getting her out of bed at the unearthly hour of 5am. She figured that would be early enough to avoid the worst of suicide canyon. She trusted so because if the roads were treacherous for bikes they would be lethal for a walker with an unwieldy barrow!

She dodged a single car and turned onto the lane, and stopped dead. Seated on the sofa cushions was a trio of men. They were dressed in pinstripe suits, replete with bowler hats and furled umbrellas. They sat cross-legged, holding clipboards and pens poised. Uncertain how to proceed, Emily cleared her throat. The man nearest looked at her and she couldn’t help thinking of a train full of quintessentially British men heading to the City. Whatever they were, they made her brain squirm and her skin itch.
“Yes?” Clipped tones, Oxford essence.
“Erm, can I ask? Do those cushions belong to you?”
“No.”

The man looked away, clearly assuming they were finished. Emily edged nearer and the man looked back.
“Yes?”
“I want to take them to the dump.”
“You can’t, we’re using them.”

Again, he assumed finality, but Emily was beginning to be slightly annoyed and very intrigued. At which point the sound of a car engine began to grow in the direction of Lower Muslip. As one, the men clicked their pens, rested clipboards on knees and took something from their breast pockets. The sound of knuckles hitting board followed, and Emily watched three bright silver dice roll on three clipboards.
‘5’, ‘1’, ‘2’
The men called their rolls and marked their clipboards. The car sailed through the junction and Emily gave up. She rolled the barrow under a hedge and took up a position behind the men, who roundly ignored her.

A van, scoring 5, and a tractor racking up 9 followed before Emily could hold it in no longer.
“What are you actually doing?” she asked in a respectful whisper. The van which had headed out, made the return trip, its driver furiously yelling into a mobile as he hit the junction.
‘5’, ‘5’, ‘2’!
Scratch of pens and then a shattering bang. A tyre blew on the van and it fish-tailed, swinging right through the junction and ending up backed into a streetlight. The driver stumbled out, shaken but unharmed. The trio rose, tucked pens in breast pockets and looked ready to leave. Emily stepped in front of them.

“Wait. Just wait. What are you doing? Who are you?”
Two of the men walked off and Emily was pretty sure they just winked out of existence at the road bend, but there was a lot of foliage there. The third man paused, seemed to consider and then spoke.
“It is our game. There are six of us. Three deposit the cushions for us to sit on. The other three must find the cushions and watch. They are always at roadsides. This junction is a particularly fine one.  Lots of potential.”
“Potential for what?”
“Disaster. We watch, we roll and if the dice total more than ten we are allowed to play. The higher the amount, the greater the disaster. Twenty is rare but oh so delicious.”
He scooped up the cushions and walked away, smiling.
“We must find somewhere else for them, but we will be back. This one is our favourite.”
Emily sagged into the hedge, wondering when the next twenty was due and if she would be there.