Saturday Short – “Red”

I wrote this short story in response to a challenge from a fellow blogger, to write a 1000 word story based on the photo prompt, which I have included here. She actually posted a picture a day, and we were to come up with 1000 words a day. It was hard! I didn’t actually keep up, but this was one of the early stories, and I kinda like it. Yes, I realized after the fact that the time on the watch is not 6:25, but 6:35. But I had to keep it as 6:25 in the story, for obvious reasons. Oh well. I was writing fast, so you’ll have to forgive me. 

Stacy touched the hair clip with her finger, adjusting it so it was an equal distance from the bow tie and the pen.

She heard Toby’s exasperated sigh, but she ignored it. She was on to something, she knew it. Sweat trickled down her nose, and she brushed it away absently.

“It’s red,” she muttered. She sat back, her shoulder muscles aching from being hunched over the desk for so long.

“No kidding,” Toby retorted. She heard him push back his chair, heard his quick footsteps on the tiled floor. She didn’t bother looking up. They had to figure this out. There wasn’t much time left.

Time. Her eyes were drawn to the watch. 6:25. The time when everything had stopped for Luke, and truth be told, for everyone else, too. Eight hours ago now, but it seemed like a lifetime.

She heard a scream, faintly, heard Toby’s quick intake of breath, the rattle of the shutters as he peered outside.

It was all just background noise, distractions she had to ignore as she focused on the objects illuminated by the thin beam of the flashlight.

The pen. The sunglasses. The wallet.

This configuration felt right. She looked them over again, desperately searching for the revelation that was tickling around her mind.

The shutters fell back against the window, and Toby came back, sliding into the chair opposite her.

“It’s getting worse out there.”

It was not worth commenting on. What did he expect, that it would get better?

The headphones. The bow tie. The phone.

Smashing glass, faintly at first, then closer.

Her head snapped up, met Toby’s startled gaze. He swore, his voice tight with fear as he popped up again, over to the window in two quick strides.

A louder scream, more glass breaking, and around the edges of those sounds a faint low-pitched, snarly muttering.

Stacy’s blood turned to ice, her eyes pinned on Toby’s silhouette against the window; a dark shadow against the darker night beyond.

“Turn it off!”

Tony’s voice made her jump, and Stacy snapped the flashlight off, plunging them into full dark.

“Oh God,” Toby exhaled, the words a thin sigh of terror. “I think there’s one coming in, or maybe more, I can’t see – “

The far-off noises of the city’s death continued as it had all night – muffled explosions, the sharp staccato of guns; the futile last fight of mankind.

Stacy forced her attention back to the objects, tracing them with her fingers.

The billfold. The phone. The watch. The glasses.

Toby sat down again, leaning over the desk. It was true, you could smell fear on a person. He reeked with it.

Her fingers touched the smooth leather surface of the Bible.

“We’ve got to get out of here. Now.” His voice was thin with panic.

“No. Not yet. I’ve got to figure this out.”

“We’ve been doing this for hours. There’s nothing to figure out! No message! No final words, no nothing! He died, like everyone else!”

The pen, the hair clip, the bow tie, the Bible.

The weird whooping electrical noise that had preceded the attack on the city, that had formed the background to everything else, was getting louder.

Her brother grabbed her hand, stopping her sweep of the objects again. His fingers were cold. “Stacy, listen. There’s nothing mystical about this. Those creatures – I dunno what the hell they are, or where they came from, but they are real. Luke died, just like the rest of them. Just because you found this stuff of his in his backpack doesn’t mean anything.” He squeezed her hand, hard, and she had to look up. She could see the faint glimmer of his eyes in the dark. “You haven’t had your pill. The OCD’s making you crazy. You’ve lined all this stuff up a million times, in a million different ways. I’ve gone along with it ‘cause I thought we were safe, that they wouldn’t get this far. But they have. They’re inside the building. We have to go, now!”

Stacy knew he was right. She could feel the cage of OCD closing around her, knew that what she was doing was not necessarily rational. But neither was anything else that was happening.

In a crazy world, maybe it was the crazy ones that could survive.

“I know,” she said. “But not just yet. Just give me a second – “

She pulled her hand away, fingers fluttering over the objects again.

“The hair clip is red,” she said, “that means something. The only thing of color.”

Toby exhaled.“We have to go. Now. Just take them with you if it makes you feel better.”

Muffled thumps drifted up from the building, from somewhere below, but not directly below. They had some time, yet.

“Red,” she said, touching the objects again. The pen, the bow tie, the Bible.

She froze, the revelation rolling over her like a freight train, the pieces snapping in to place.

The Bible.

Read,” she hissed, picking up the small book. “Like reading. Read.”

She snapped on the flashlight, directing it at the pages, her fingers fumbling now.

“Stace! Turn it off, c’mon – “

She flipped through the pages frantically.

This Bible stuff was new to Cody, new to them all. He’d gone to some camp, came back all religious. Talked about Jesus.

Her fingers froze. Red words illuminated under the flashlight’s beam.

“Wait, how do you do this, I mean, when you look up a verse?”

“This is crazy – “

“I swear this is it, Toby, this is the answer. We have to find it.”

His eyes were frantic. He blew out his cheeks.

“You need a book, a chapter, and a verse, like, John 3:16.”

Her eyes caught on a word. Luke.

She flipped the pages.

“Luke 6:25. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep.” She looked up at her brother. “The end of the world. That’s what this means, what it’s telling us.”

“So what?”

“So maybe the answer is in here, too. The way out of this mess. It’s gotta be.”

Snappng off the flashlight, she scooped up the small book, dropping it into her pocket, her fingers skimming its edges quickly.

Taking her brother’s hand, they left quickly, two small figures racing away from Armegeddon.

Saturday Short – This Strange Thing Called Fear

Well, life has piled up on me this month, and I haven’t been able to finish That Hideous Strength, which is the next book up in my Year of Reading Lewis series. And I’m a day late posting to the blog. Drat. Well, I’m sure all of you dear readers will survive this slight disruption, but to make it up to you I thought I would post one of my short stories, just for fun. I’ll make this a feature, called Saturday Short, a once and awhile treat of a short story, perfect for whiling away some time on a Saturday..

I originally wrote this for a contest which called for adaptations of Grimm fairy tales, with the addition of a different classic monster. The idea was to write a different story each week and the best ones would make it into an anthology. This story didn’t make it, perhaps because I decided to use an obscure Grimm tale rather than the standard Cinderella, Snow White, etc. Oh well.

The monster I had to incorporate in to the story was a vampire. Now, I can enjoy a good vampire story but I’m not that fond of writing about them. It’s all been done so many times before, right? But I actually found it a  fun challenge and in the end, I’m pleased with the story even though it didn’t get published.

If you are interested, the Grimm fairy tale I began with is The Story of a Boy Who Went Forth to Learn Fear. 

And here’s my story, This Strange Thing Called Fear

One long ago winter’s night, I watched my older brother tremble and cry out as we listened to my father tell a story. We sat around the hearth-fire, the wind moaning around the rafters and knifing through the cracks in the walls of our wattle-clad home. I thought it was one of these icy fingers that had touched my brother, causing him to jump and screech, and so gave him my blanket. He wrapped himself in it but strangely, his squeals and shakes continued, and so I judged that there was something else that caused his strange behaviour.

I looked to my mother and saw her clenched fists, and breathy sighs, and the way her chest rose up and down as if she had been running. This was odd, as she was in fact taking her ease by the fire, being entertained by my father’s tale. It dawned on me then, seeing them both shudder and moan almost as loudly as the wind, that it was something about the story itself that caused their reactions. This puzzled me deeply, for it was a silly story, to my mind, about the dead who walked and the mischief they caused. I could not see the reason for my brother’s distress nor my mother’s wide eyes as they listened.

Mid-way through, my mother turned to me and smothered me in her bosom, crying out that such a tale be too fearsome for my young ears and begging my father to stop, which he did, chucking me under the chin and telling me not to fear, for ’twas merely a tale to bide the time.

Unnecessary advice, for this strange thing called fear I did not know, not then; nor do I now, as a man grown.

It became obvious as I grew older that this was odd, not to tremble and shudder when others around did. It was also odd that at times I saw others tremble and shudder at me, when I would walk through the graveyard at night or face a bear without flinching.

They called me courageous at first, then stupid, and then the other folk took to looking at me sideways, and scuttling away when I approached. Whispers spread, so much so that I determined in my mind that I would learn this thing called fear, and by so doing become as other men are.

My father did not understand my quest, calling me stupid and casting me out, with only 50 thalers to my credit. It stung, this rejection, but I promised myself I would overcome my difficulty and return triumphant, able to shudder with the rest of them.

Oh, the places I went and the things I saw! I met others, who, to be fair, tried without success to help me in my quest. They introduced me to some hanged men knocking in the breeze; and to a castle full of dogs and cats and merry moving beds and other such amusements.

Although through the course of my adventures I did not learn fear, it was not without reward, this journey. Through spending three nights at the enchanted castle I ended up a king, with a fair maiden as a wife, and great riches besides.

For the first few months we lived together well enough, my wife and I, but as time passed the nature of my affliction became real to her.

“Oh husband, ’tis unnatural,” she wailed, one night as a storm battered our castle, the wind whistling around the battlements. “I do not wish for you to be a coward, but surely you can see that to have no fear is dangerous? For without fear how will you understand what danger truly is? How can you protect me, and your kingdom?”

I smiled at her, and petted her head, murmuring sweet words to her until she slept. But her words kept me up the rest of the night as I puzzled over them.

There was a change between us that night. I found her looking at me sideways, at times, and felt her love withdraw from me as sand runs through an hourglass. Her previous regard turned into unease, until finally, I heard her whispers to her maid.

“He is not like other men, and I am afraid,” she said.

It was obvious that my quest was not yet over. I began to see that I would have to leave her as I had left my home, for as I went about my business it became obvious that it was not only she who whispered, but my servants and subjects. Perhaps they would kill me, I thought, which gave me great sorrow that I should die for such a cause.

I determined to leave one night, under the cover of the darkness they all feared, and left my wife sleeping soundly in our gilded bed, stepping softly so as not to wake her.

I left my castle behind, and walked long as the moon rose high, past the sleeping villages of my kingdom. I walked further than ever I had before and finally I came to a cross roads. Here I paused, wondering now which way I should take, for my previous journey weighed heavily in my mind, and most especially my failure to gain my desire. I had tried this once before, I thought, and failed. What point to try again?

It was vexing, this problem. Surely there must be somewhere I could go to learn how to shudder, when at long last I could be as other men were. And then I could return to my kingdom, and my wife, and the whispers would cease.

As I stood there, perplexed, I saw a shadow moving in the woods, and soon a man stepped out from the trees.

He was very pale, gleaming in the moonlight that shone all around. His eyes were black pools in his white face, and they were fixed upon me with marvellous intent. He was dressed all in black, and had an elegant air, I considered, seeing the smooth and graceful way he strode towards me.

A strange man, to be sure, but I was glad to see him, for I thought to ask him if he knew which places the roads led to. I was on a road I was not accustomed to, and wished to leave my kingdom, to seek a faraway place where mayhap they could teach me all I lacked.

I waited as he approached, and he stopped, a few paces away, silent. I drew my cloak closer to me, to ward against the chill that deepened as we stood regarding each other.

“Greetings,” said I. “It is fortunate indeed to meet you here, for I am in need of help.”

At this the man laughed, and as he did I saw his teeth were pointy in his mouth, and thin. His laugh made the air colder, and it had a sharp edge to it, that cut the air around us.

How inconvenient, I thought, and wondered at his own lack of a cloak.

“Help, is it?” His voice was soft, and pleasing to the ear. “Well, the help I give, you might not want. But I am curious, for when men see me they scream, and tremble, and run, yet here you stand, and do not move. What gives you such courage?”

“It is not courage,” I said, and I admit to some weariness in the answering. I longed for the time when I would not have to explain this, over and over again. “It is that I have not yet learned to fear. I am on my way, in truth, to find a place where I might learn it. You seem an obliging sort, to converse with me, so I would ask you: Do you know of such a place?”

A mist was rising, clammy and cold,, and I was forced to pull my cloak even tighter against it.

“Ah. Not a place, no. But perhaps I could help you, after all.” He stepped closer, his black eyes glittering in the moonlight. I saw his hands, the fingers long and pointed as he stroked his chin, regarding me with a faint smile on his face. “Tell me, why do you want to learn this?”

I sighed, and thought that perhaps this man could not help me after all. Surely he should not have to ask. “To be as other men, of course. To enjoy their society, to have the respect of my wife…” I trailed off as I saw the slow grin crawl across his face. It was odd, that grin, for it was most unpleasant.

“Then indeed I can help you! For here is your problem: you wish to be like them, but have you never thought that they should be like you? To have no fear, to never tremble?”

I was struck dumb, for indeed he was right. I had not thought of that before.

He stepped closer, the cold deepening around me, and I found my voice.

“Why you are right, of course! But how could I do such a thing? I seem to be the only one with this affliction.”

His smile widened, moonlight glinting silver off his pointed teeth, and I remember thinking how beautiful they were.

“You are wrong, for I, too am like you. I have no fear, no need to tremble.”

Again I was dumbfounded, and it took some time for me to speak. The mist was thickening now, swirling so that it alternately obscured and revealed his long, thin form.

“How could this be? I thought I was the only one.”

He stepped closer, through the mist, until he was right before me. I had not noticed before, but his black eyes had a faint tint of red in them, like a banked fire.

“Oh no, not the only one at all,” he said, and I was trembling now, but not for fear, but for the cold, which had thickened around us as surely as the mist. “There are many of us. And here is a secret: I know how to make others like us, and I will show you how, if you are willing.”

I cannot tell you the joy I felt at his words. I would be able to return to my kingdom, to my wife and subjects, and make them like me, to have no fear. I would be able to make the whispers stop.

“Oh please, sir,” I said, “I am most willing, indeed.”

His smile was fierce, and his eyes glowing coals.“Loose your cloak and bare your neck, then, and it will be done.”

It was long ago, when I stood on that road before him, so long that the years between then and now have blurred into a river of time that tumbles each moment smooth, robbing them of their poignancy.

But that moment I will never forget, that moment when his long sliver teeth bit deep and everything in me changed.

I woke up hungry, and my mentor showed me the way of our kind, the stalking and the pouncing, the salty nectar of blood and the burning fire of the sun.

You may ask what is the end of this story, what became of my wife, my kingdom, my family. It is a tale to long for the telling, but I can say that I did return, and indeed I made them like me, as my mentor said I could.

It has come to me, in the long years since that beautiful moonlit night when I finally understood my error, that this thing called fear is something not to be desired, after all. For see what I gained because of its lack? Wealth, a beautiful wife, a kingdom, and life never-ending.

Fear is highly overrated.

But it is hard to explain this by words. It is rather something you must experience for yourself.

I’ll visit you soon. And then you’ll see.