Petal Fall

The spring sun is warm on my back. Not quite warm enough for sandals but I’d chosen a flowy skirt that blows and hustles against my legs. The grass here is smooth and green, the gravel paths weed-free, the topiary neat and clipped but the garden is silent; there are no birds, no sound of a gardener’s shears, no children running. The box has been clipped recently and the pungent cat-urine smell of it hangs in the air.

I turn a corner and find myself walking alongside a high red-brick wall. I catch the merest floral scent and look around. Here, there are pyracanthas trained against the wall, neat strips of spiky green that are not allowed to blossom or develop their exuberant orange berries. I draw in a breath that feels tight, stifled as if I’m the one being trimmed and still there is that faint scent.

Half-way along the wall, I find a scruffy old door with layers of peeling paint and grey old wood beneath. It is just ajar. I gently push the door with one finger as if less contact makes it less a trespass. Through the door are cherry trees in full bloom. The ground underneath the trees is dense with weeds and brambles. The trees themselves are neglected, but the petals spiral in the sun.

The sound of footsteps in the distance hurry me through the door and I push it closed behind me. Then the brisk, purposeful crunch-crunch-crunch passes by along the gravel. I release my breath.

The sunlight through the dense petals gives the light a fairy-tale hue. The brambles arc like strained barbed wire by the narrow path and the branches of the trees are twisted, distorted by time and disease, and over it all, this pale pink light and the faint scent and underneath the smell of petals, there is something of rotting leaves and decay, a bright note of death. I am drawn on by the gentle curve of the path and a reluctance to return to the insipid place behind me.

Ahead of me, something lies on the path. I step towards it, pulling my skirt from the grip of a thorn. The petals fall into a crimson pool of blood, scattering around the body of a little girl, her hair askew, the pink confetti landing on her pale cheeks as if it had stolen the colour from her.

A swirl of dizziness heaves me sideways and I grab a tree branch to stop myself falling and when I take my hand away, it is covered in blood. Her blood. I back away, wiping it on my blouse, my eyes fixed on the girl. Once she is hidden by the curve of the path, I turn and run to the door, my skirt tangling around my knees.

When I reach the door, I scrabble at it. There is no handle in the blank face of splintered wood and I cry out for help. My voice carries up and over the wall into a deadened silence of the other side; no birds, no chatter, no little girl’s laughter.

***

Copyright © Elizabeth Cutts August 2019

***

This was originally written for an assignment for the NCW crime course I did recently. It could turn out to be the beginning of something larger, or perhaps it’ll stay as just a snippet.

 

Vigilante

The man in the hospital bed is unconscious – sedatives according to the nurse – and I find I’m half glad he’s alive after all. It was a moment of madness, of sheer rage, and then I’d done it and I couldn’t go back.

I’d recognised the little scrote straight off. He was driving along on his whiny little motorbike smashing the wing mirrors off cars for the sheer hell of it. Jake Thornton. Jake is a small-time dealer, thief, vandal and, I am one-hundred-and-ten-percent sure, even though I can’t prove it, beater and general abuser of women. He probably kicks puppies for fun; he’s that kind of scum. And when I saw him, driving along, destroying people’s hard-earned property, I just lost it.

I accelerated towards him, the engine cheering me on, a sort of hot, rushing sound in my ears and then a jarring thud. He flew through the air like a ragdoll, arms flailing madly. He landed on the road in a messy heap as his bike skittered along the tarmac. I floored it again, bump bump, over him, and I was off, gone. Half an hour later the car was in flames.

A doctor steps into the room and stops, a little surprised to see me.

‘When can I speak to him?’ I ask.

‘We’ll call you.’

‘He’s out of danger?’

The doc nods, picks up Jake’s chart and starts to read. He wants me to go. I ought to go.

‘He’s one of our frequent fliers,’ I say. Jake’s pimply face is greyish and feeble looking against the hospital sheets. ‘Wonder if the little shit will have learnt his lesson.’

The doc shrugs. ‘Do they ever, officer?’

‘Like hell,’ I say. ‘Better get back to the station. Got to report my own car stolen today, can you believe it?’

The doc gives a short, humourless laugh, and shakes his head in sympathy. The doors slap shut behind me.

***

Copyright © Elizabeth Cutts August 2019

***

This brief story started life as an exercise for the NCW crime writing course I took recently.

Condemned

‘They ain’t getting me out of here, Sarah. Never!’ John was ranting on his favourite topic. Didn’t it occur to him that, in his refusal to leave the condemned flats, he was trapping her too? As she locked the door behind them, rain slapped at the window at the end of the hallway.

I hate him, she realised. She removed the key from the lock and examined this revelation as she started towards the stairs, him blathering on behind her. Eight floors and the lift not working. Well, why would they mend it?

When did she start hating him? When the letter came and he settled in for a fight like an angry rat in a trap? Or before that when he quit his job because the new foreman, well, forewoman actually, had told him what was what. Or even earlier?

She stopped dead and he nearly walked into her. At the wedding. Yes. Then. She had thought she looked like a beautiful princess version of herself. She had glowed; the white lace shifting and swaying, reflecting light up into her face and making her hair shine. He’d said to his mate, ‘Put a bow on a pig, it’s still a pig, isn’t it?’ When he saw she’d heard, he shrugged and took another beer. His mate had looked embarrassed, at least.

‘What are you stopped for?’ he asked.

She opened the door onto the stairwell which still smelt of piss and old concrete, even with the flats almost empty. He shouldered through before her.

‘Did it ever occur to you that I’m trapped here too?’

John turned on the top step, surprised anger on his face.

‘You what?’

‘You’re a selfish prick, John.’

‘Fuck off, we’re staying and that’s final.’ His face had gone an unpleasant blotchy red and yellow, scrunched up in anger and, what was it? Disgust? Yes, that wrinkling of the nose. Disgust. A cold, calm rage swept through Sarah.

She shoved him hard in the chest.

His look of surprise almost made her laugh, and then the flailing of his arms as he fell backwards and the crack of his head against the concrete stair edge pulled a disbelieving giggle from her and then she couldn’t stop. It was a sort of hysteria, she thought, as irresistible as vomiting. She had to sit on the top step to calm herself.

A last choked gasp escaped into the stale air from John’s slack mouth. He lay in the corner of the stairwell, blood seeping around his head.

He looked dead but she ought to check. She went down, her legs wobbling, and felt for his pulse. None. The laughter, or perhaps nausea, threatened to bubble up again. For a moment she thought about CPR, about paramedics and flashing blue lights, about stern policemen with notebooks. That could wait.

She turned and ran down the stairs, her feet clattering echoes up into the space until she burst out of the door at the bottom into the rain. She was free. Her heart fluttered in her chest and her breath came in gulps as the rain battered the top of her head and streamed down her face. The laughter escaped again because her chest didn’t have space for the joy alongside the terror. The sound of it bounced around the grey skies, the weeds and concrete until someone on the next street, waiting for a bus, smiled at the sound.

***

Copyright © Elizabeth Cutts August 2019

***

This is a slightly expanded version of a story written for my NCW crime writing course with Julia Crouch.

Exit Only

She wrenched awake. Blinding sun streamed through a crack in the curtains. The sheets coiled damply and she struggled to escape them. Her mouth stuck to itself and she grimaced and poked her tongue into the crevices in her lips. The smell of bacon hung slack in the air.

‘Hey!’ A voice lifted from the kitchen. ‘Want breakfast?’

She felt her stomach curl and twist, ‘Nah,’ she said. She pulled her clothes on over her sticky skin. ‘Thanks,’ she added, walking past the kitchen door.

The front door slammed behind her, cutting off a question. Another morning, another exit.

***

Copyright © Elizabeth Cutts March 2015

***

Written for the 100 word flash fiction challenge on Chuck Wendig’s blog. Definitely a bit quick and dirty. But fun!

Locked

Tom’s flashlight beam flicked and skittered around the roof beams of the church. A grey layer of dust covered every surface and the pews, which would once have faced the altar in orderly rows, were scattered as if a great wind had blown them into crooked piles. I closed the massive wooden door behind me and explored the columns and carvings with my torch beam. The church smelled of dust and old wood with an undertone of decay. A sick feeling settled in the pit of my stomach.

Broken glass glittered among the dust on the floor and the distorted ruin of the stained glass windows let a sharp draught run through the building, shifting the cobwebs. Tom brought out a box of candles and a lighter and started to put the candles on the ends of pews and in stone niches, sticking them down with their own wax. The flames stammered in the draughts and more than one was extinguished the moment he turned away from it.

I walked to the west end of the nave, underneath the tower. There were two doors; one in the south side of the tower and one in the north wall. The font was a crude stone thing in the centre of the space below the tower and I couldn’t tell, in the flickering light of candles and torches, whether it was very roughly made or was once more intricate but had been vandalised. A line of rodent footprints scrabbled through the dust on the wooden lid which I lifted and peered into the empty curved stone basin. I dropped the lid back into place.

‘Hey Serena,’ Tom called from somewhere out of sight.

The church had a north aisle that ran the whole length of the building alongside the nave and a wooden screen divided off the east end into a separate chapel. Tom’s voice came from beyond the screen and I followed it. Two tombs sat square and dark in the centre; they were the sort that have a sculpted figure on the top with arms crossed and eyes open in blank piety. Tom had stuck a candle on each figure’s nose and groin.

‘Look.’ He gestured as if displaying a prize. A moulded brickwork fireplace had been built in the outer wall to warm the toes of priests praying for the immortal souls of the entombed.

‘We shouldn’t light a fire. Where will we get the wood?’

‘We can use the broken up old pews,’ he said and then in answer to my look, ‘Don’t be so scandalised, half of them are firewood already.’

The temptation of warmth and light was strong. I didn’t really want to be in the church and being warm would make it less of an ordeal. ‘I suppose it can’t hurt.’ As I said the words I heard a noise and cocked my head.

Tom was busy peering up the chimney and I strained my ears for a repeat of the sound. I was not sure what I had heard. A scraping, clanking maybe but it was over before I could focus on it properly.

I walked back to the font and examined the two doors I had glanced at earlier. Both were low and narrow, pointed at the top, and made of thick wood with large and ungainly keyholes. I tried the South door as it seemed to go up into the tower but it was locked. Behind me I heard the noise, closer this time, a scraping metallic sound. I spun round and the door handle of the other door settled back into place. My breath solidified in my chest and my eyes fixed on the door ahead of me. I forced my breath out and took another as I stepped sideways, keeping my eyes on the door.

‘Tom!’ I called. There was no answer. ‘Tom!’ As I yelled there was a crash and I looked down the church, eyes strained.

Tom stood among the debris of a broken pew. He held up a piece he had just broken off and grinned. The smile faded as he saw my face and then widened again. ‘Did I make you jump?’

‘I just saw that door handle move!’ I pointed at the door ahead of me.

He dropped the wood and sauntered up the aisle, frowning. ‘What?’

‘That door handle moved.’

He walked up to the door and rattled the handle, turned it and let it fall. It made the familiar scraping and clanking sound. ‘Locked.’ He put his ear to the door. ‘I wonder where it goes.’

I shrugged. ‘It’s like a section was added on to the end of the north aisle, or walled off from it.’

‘I bet it was just movement in the building or something. You know what old buildings are like.’

I frowned. ‘I definitely saw that handle move. Like properly turn. It didn’t just wobble.’

‘Hmm.’

‘God, you’re so patronising!’ I said.

‘Well there can’t be anyone else here can there? I’m going to get the fire going.’ He stamped off down the aisle and started to bash pieces of wood around.

I was just about to follow him and gather up some of the already broken pieces when there was another noise. It was a gentle scratching. Scritch scritch scritch. Then it disappeared behind a mass of Tom’s banging but when he stopped it was still there. Scritch scritch scritch. It was coming from the font and it sounded like a small animal.

Scritch scritch scritch.

It was probably just a trapped mouse and I ought to lift the lid and check. I glanced down the aisle towards Tom. He was gathering an armful of wood and scowling and so I stepped towards the font.

Scritch scritch scritch.

I dropped the lid and it crashed to the floor as I was transfixed by the sight in the font. I tried to yell but all that escaped from my mouth was a dry croak. Crammed into the font were the corpses of rats in various states of decay. Maggots writhed among blood encrusted bones, making the remains of dusty fur and leathery skin shift and heave. The smell of decay took hold of my throat and I retched.

Tom noticed me gag and came up the aisle to join me. He looked in the font and grimaced. ‘That’s gross.’ He picked up the lid and dropped it into place to hide the decaying mess.

‘It wasn’t there a few minutes ago,’ I said.

He looked at me with disbelief in his face.

‘I took off the lid a while ago and the font was empty. Absolutely empty.’ My voice rose as I saw doubt on his face.

‘Don’t yell.’

‘Well, you don’t believe me. What? Am I lying? Do you think I’m lying?’

‘No of course–,’

A loud bang from the ceiling above us made us duck. We looked up as dust sprinkled around us.

‘What the hell?’ Tom looked at me, his eyes wide.

I brushed the dust from my shoulders and clenched my guts. I swallowed again. ‘I don’t know. Let’s just go home.’

‘No. Someone’s messing with us, I want to see who it is.’

‘Does it matter? I just want to go.’

‘They can’t leave without passing us,’ he ignored my protest, stepped over to the door and tried the handle.

‘That door is solid,’ I said. He rattled it and then started looking round the walls and in the window recesses and niches. ‘What are you looking for?’ I asked.

‘Sometimes they keep the tower key somewhere nearby. Somewhere out of the way on a hook or a ledge.’ He reached above the door surround, said ‘See?’ and brought down an old iron key.

He put the key in the lock, turned it with a grinding noise and pulled the door open. He raised an eyebrow at me. I didn’t want to go up, but I didn’t want to stay alone down in the church either so I gave a tight nod. He turned and, shining his torch ahead of him, started up the spiral of steps. I followed behind him. As I stepped through the doorway my back prickled and I felt that someone was behind me, someone whose eyes were boring into my back. I turned and shone my torch around. Nothing. I continued up the steps and after a moment I heard the crunch of a footstep behind me. Again I turned and my torch illuminated the crumbling plaster of the staircase walls but nothing else. Tom was out of sight just above me and I hurried up the stairs, still hearing steps behind me.

I emerged into the tower room, turned and shone my torch at the empty doorway. ‘I swear I heard steps behind me.’ I said.

He snorted. ‘Echo.’

I was sure he was wrong. The crunch of the step on the plaster strewn treads of the stairs hadn’t sounded like an echo to me.

‘They must be up on the next level,’ he said.

I shone my torch upwards to crisscrossing rafters and the cavernous mouths of two bells. Bell ropes hung down through the room we were in and disappeared down to the ground floor through holes. A doorway opened onto the tower staircase above us to allow access along the rafters to the bells. I caught the flicker of a pale face in the dark and then it was gone.

‘Hey, I think I saw someone,’ I said.

‘Let’s see.’ He headed to the stair case and hopped up them two at a time. ‘Oh,’ his voice drifted down to me and a moment later he joined me, ‘It’s bricked up.’ He frowned. My skin chilled and tightened under my clothes.

‘Fuck it, let’s go light the fire and open the booze,’ he said.

The candles in the chapel had blown out in the breezes that criss-crossed the church like spider webs. I moved the candles to more sheltered corners, relit them, then wrapped myself in a sleeping bag and watched while Tom lit a fire in the old fireplace. I opened the bottle of cheap wine and he brought out a pack of supermarket sausage rolls and a huge bag of Doritos. We wrapped ourselves up in the sleeping bags and ate and drank in silence. The food and drink sat heavily in my stomach and we curled up in the sleeping bags with all our clothes on. Tom’s back was to the fire and I spooned up against him, my face out towards the church and my phone in my palm. I couldn’t imagine that I would sleep, but I did.

I woke suddenly. My right arm was fuzzy with pain from being under me on such a hard surface and I sat up to stretch it. Tom grumbled something in his sleep. The church was dark. All but one of the candles in the chapel had gone out and the fire had collapsed into pale ashes with a red glow. I could hear that it had begun to rain. I reached behind Tom for the wood and put a couple of pieces on the remains of the fire and watched as they started to burn, before lying back down and snuggling back into Tom’s chest. Then I wondered; what woke me? Was it the pain in my arm or a noise? I strained my ears. A memory of the scraping clank of the door handle came back to me. Was I just remembering the sound from earlier in the evening?

Tom mumbled something and pulled me further into his arms. I closed my eyes and tried not to listen. I was warm and comfortable snuggled in the sleeping bags and blankets with Tom and the fire behind me. I was just drifting back to sleep when I heard the noise again and my face was chilled by a cold breeze. I raised myself on one arm and listened.

‘Tom.’ I reached behind me and shook him.

He woke bleary and irritated. ‘What?’

‘I heard something.’

‘It’ll be your imagination. Again.’

There was a crash from the tower. Tom scrambled out of his sleeping bag and jumped up. ‘Oh whoever is doing this is going to get a kicking.’ He grabbed his torch and ran out of the chapel.

I muttered, ‘Right. So I’m imagining things and, at the same time, someone’s messing with us.’ For a moment irritation swept away the fear but it seeped back as I stood in the chapel chilled without the blanket and Tom’s warmth. The light from the fire flickered across the impassive faces of the knight and his wife lying on their tombs. I took my torch and went into the main aisle of the church. Tom was standing by the font. His torch beam flicked around me and then up into the rafters before settling on the wooden beams above him. The silence tightened.

The crash from the floor above was so loud that it seemed that the beams had all jumped together. Tom ducked, dust rained down around him and he coughed, waving his hand in front of his face as he stood up again. He flung open the tower door yelling, ‘I’m coming up you arseholes.’

I heard him run up the stairs and onto the floor above and then there was silence. The atmosphere solidified and every one of my nerves was at full stretch. A cold breeze whipped through me and still the silence hung.

I took a step towards the tower door. ‘Tom,’ I called. The silence started to ring in my ears and then it tore as a crash reverberated around the church. ‘Tom!’ I yelled and ran towards the door but I was stopped by a series of crashes from above me and then Tom’s voice shouted wordlessly in pain. My eyes were fixed in horror on the ceiling above me as another great crash sounded and then the silence descended again.

I ran to the tower and up the stairs. The tower room was empty although the debris and dust had been scuffed about and the roof door hung open, banging in the wind. As I emerged onto the roof I was slapped in the face by a gust of wind and rain.

‘Tom!’ I called out but the only sounds were the rain pelting down and my own ragged breaths. The sky was thick with clouds which gleamed like tarnished pewter as moonlight filtered through.

There was a lead gulley around the central roof of the church and I moved around it, leaning into the tiles. The crenelated brickwork that prevented anyone falling down into the graveyard was just knee high and I half crawled along the precarious path calling Tom’s name. As I came alongside the lead roof of the north aisle I could see a dark patch out on the pale grey surface. I scrambled onto the flat roof and went over to it. It was his knitted hat, soaked. I picked it up and it left a dark stain behind it on the lead.

‘Tom!’ I shouted against the wind and rain. Although I shouted at the top of my voice the sound was muffled and flung away by the wind. I pushed the soaked hat into my pocket and walked to the edge of the roof to peer down into the graveyard. My torch showed me the teeming rain and the black shapes of the graves as I swept the beam among the bushes and tombs. The smell of damp earth and grass came up from the churchyard.

A movement caught my eye and I swung my torch round. My foot slipped on the wet lead and I fell to my knee, grabbing the brickwork in front of me. I tipped forwards, landing hard with my gut on the brickwork, my breath knocked out of me and I just managed to save myself from overbalancing by dropping my torch and holding on with both hands. The torch bounced down the outside wall of the church and disappeared into the undergrowth and I collapsed in a heap behind the low brickwork. Sobs caught themselves in my breathing and I struggled to calm myself.

After a few minutes I reached to my back pocket for my phone but it wasn’t there; I must have left it by the fire. I stared into the darkness for a moment and tried to smother my swelling panic. A drip ran down the back of my neck from my plastered hair taking a shiver with it. My jeans were soaked and I was starting to feel numb and stiff and I realised I needed to get to my phone and the fire.

I felt my way back to the main roof and clambered over the parapet, bashing my sore ribs in the process. The handle to the tower door turned easily and the door swung inwards; the blackness inside the room was solid and malevolent. The charcoal smudge of light from the cloud huddled moon reached no more than a foot into the room. I stepped into the room with my left hand out against the wall and shuffled my way around the floor, feeling forwards with my foot at each step, leaning into the solidity of the wall. The darkness pressed painfully against my eyes which strained to see although there was nothing visible.

Halfway across the room I reached my foot forward and it nudged something soft but firm. I clung to the wall and gathered myself to bend down and touch whatever lay in front of me. I nudged it again with my foot and it gave a little but didn’t move. I bent, reached out and touched it with my hands; fabric, jeans, a leg inside the jeans.

‘Tom!’ I said out loud, shaking the leg. ‘Tom are you ok? We’ve got to get out of here.’ I moved up his body. ‘We should never have come.’ Something hard slid under my knee and I picked it up, square, plastic, Tom’s phone.

The leg moved a little and I sighed in relief but the air froze on my lips as a voice came out of the darkness. My voice. It said ‘Tom! Are you ok? We’ve got to get out of here.’ And then closer to me, ‘We should never have come.’ The voice had a flat tone which was nothing like the scared, shaking voice in which I had spoken. I scrabbled backwards away from the sound and touched the phone’s power button.

The dim blue light showed the room was empty. There was no body in the middle of the floor. My head span with confusion. None of the debris in the room could have felt like a leg in jeans, even confused and desperate in the dark. I flicked the light around into the corners, into the stairwell, up into the belfry above. There was nothing but dust, cobwebs and a sense of waiting.

I opened the door onto the stairs and found that they were not in darkness. Someone had stuck a single candle in the narrow, dust filled window ledge. The tiny rectangular window was made of a few small panes of leaded glass opaque with grime and there was one of these windows at each revolution of the stair. In brighter times they’d give a scrap of daylight and as I went down I found that each of the niches had a candle.

As I emerged from the tower firelight spilled from the chapel out into the church. The orange, flickering light winked and shimmered from the broken shards of glass still in the windows. I walked to the chapel entrance. The fire cracked and spat in the grate and as I came round the tomb of the old knight I saw a figure curled under our blanket, facing the fire.

‘Tom!’ I rushed to him and he lay still, curled tightly around himself. I shook him and he straightened arms and legs and then grabbed hold of me, screaming. I screamed and screamed and through my cries I realised that he was crying with laughter, not with pain. He was shaking and convulsing but with cries of laughter.

‘Oh we got you so good. You should have seen your face!’ Tears of laughter ran down his cheeks, shining in the firelight. I slapped him hard across the face.

‘Ow!’ he raised his hand to his face but couldn’t stop laughing.

‘You utter shit,’ I said and start to gather my stuff together, rage and embarrassment burning me up.

‘Oh come on,’ he said. ‘It was just a bit of fun.’

‘I thought you were dead!’ This elicited another guffaw from him and so I added ‘I wish you fucking well were.’ With that I closed my bag and slung it onto my shoulder.

He tried to stop himself laughing. ‘Ok look, I’m sorry.’ He coughed to hide another laugh that bubbled up, ruining his attempt at a sincere look. ‘But you’ve got to admit that the rats; that was classic horror.’

My anger turned icy cold. ‘So the rats were you, the turning handle, the banging?’

‘Well, not all me, Sian and Michael are here.’

‘Really.’ I narrowed my eyes. ‘And that bit with the body upstairs and my voice.’

‘What?’

‘When I was in the tower room; the body that disappeared, my voice repeating my words back to me?’

‘Sounds awesome but I didn’t plan it, they must have been improvising or some shit. Cool. Let’s go see them.’

‘Yes. Let’s.’

He seemed to have taken my sudden coolness as an improvement on incandescent rage and he led the way over to the locked door next to the tower.

‘Ta da!’ he said and swung the door inwards. Leaning against the back wall were two figures, their legs straight along the tiled floor in front of them, their heads tilted to one side. For a moment I didn’t recognise Sian and Michael. Their faces were white in Tom’s torchlight and the light from my phone, their eyes were wide and dark and their mouths hanging open. The smell of carrion was in the air and my stomach twisted.

Tom looked into the room and gave a short shout of laughter. ‘Cool set up guys.’ He stepped down a couple of steps. A cold tendril of fear had loosened from my anger and was working its way up my neck. I stood fixed to the top step.

To the left of the narrow room was a bricked up doorway that must once have opened out onto the churchyard, opposite it were three steps down to a door which was wide open. This doorway had a wide, rounded top, older than any other doorway I’d seen in the church. Steps continued down beyond the door and a dusty, earthy smell seeped up into the room.

Tom ignored the open door and walked past it, stepped up to Sian and shook her shoulder. ‘Sian!’ he said. She slid sideways onto the floor leaving a dark stain on the whitewashed wall behind her.

‘Fuck!’ Tom stepped back. He looked back at me, confusion and fear on his face and then turned back to her. ‘Quit messing, babe.’ He shook her again and then he shook Michael, calling for them both to wake up, stop messing him around, the joke’s over now.

He started to cry in small, whining sobs as he tried to feel for Sian’s pulse. I watched him, remembering my own fear a short while ago. I should have felt sympathy but the icy rage was still tight under my skin. The key to the room laid on the top step and I bent and picked it up. The cold iron chilled my skin.

The doorway to the right was dark and I could no longer see anything beyond the doorway; no brickwork or downwards stairs just a thick blackness. The darkness began to seep over the door step behind Tom, it gathered and swirled in tendrils and brought a deep sense of hatred and fear. I watched, held my breath, waited. Tom turned and saw the darkness gathered between us and then beyond it he saw me in the doorway holding the key in my hand. His eyes widened.

I slammed the door shut, turned the key in the lock, and ran.

***

Copyright © Elizabeth Cutts October 2014

***

Dust

Eliza sits on a damp stair in the corpse of a genteel Victorian seaside villa. In the distance the sea sounds as if it is taking great gasping breaths of the air, which stinks of mud and fish. Jackdaws squawk and clatter in the broken roof above; a litter of nest material and the tiny bones of dead chicks are scattered across the stairs around her. She is looking at the oak door in front of her which must be the only untainted thing in this town with its brass door knob, still shiny as if it’s regularly used, and a keyhole with an ivory inlaid surround.

She stands up, steps towards the door and strokes the pale wooden panels. It smells of clean wood but that passes and the old stench of the town returns. The door is between floors at the turn in the stair and Eliza turns her back on it to descend.

In the kitchen the brown light leeches through the glassless window, staining the remains of a lace curtain with a tobacco tinge. Eliza pulls at a drawer and, with a crash, it disintegrates into the cupboard below. She sorts through a litter of cutlery and rotten wood hoping to see a key but there is none. The other drawers are empty but for faded lining paper.

The living room only holds a piano which gives out a plunk as she looks in, so she turns to the last doorway off the hall. The door is of a similar type to the locked door except that it is weather stained and rotting like everything else in the town. It lies drunkenly against the wall and Eliza carefully steps around it into the room. Above a writing desk hangs an old sepia photo of a regal looking woman in a high necked blouse. Eliza reaches out with a dirty hand to touch the glass which somehow remains in the frame.

The walls are lined with bookcases and, thinking a key might be hidden in a book, Eliza attempts to pull one from the shelf only to find that they are a sodden mass glued together by mould and damp. The smell of rotting paper and leather catches in her throat and she gags. Abandoning the books she finds the desk drawers are locked but remembers metal skewers in the kitchen and fetches the narrowest she can. She shoves the point into the first lock and wrenches it, grimacing as she feels the delicate mechanism snap. Hurriedly she destroys the other two locks, avoiding the disapproving glare of the woman in the photograph.

In the left hand drawer she finds some coins and a small congealed envelope of paper money. Useless. She rubs her thumb over the faces and letters of the coins. The copper pennies have a tangy scent to them and she puts the coins in her pocket to look at later. The right hand drawer has a packet of letters held together with a ribbon that crumbles when she moves them. They are dry, miraculously. A glance shows her that they are love letters and she shoves them into the drawer and slams it shut.

Pulling open the centre drawer she finds a pad of letter paper, three good pens neatly lined up, and a white key. She picks up the key and examines it closely. Ivory. Or bone maybe. Its surface is smooth as if it has been handled repeatedly.

She goes out to the hall and reverentially steps up the stairs, slowly, one by one. She is holding her breath. The key slips neatly into the lock, turns with a gentle click and the door sways inwards. Eliza steps inside.

The room is so bright that she squeezes her eyes shut before opening them slowly so that they can adjust. This must have been a bathroom; clean white tiles line both the floor and walls. Clear glass in the window lets in clear light through a white lace curtain. Two mirrors on opposite walls reflect each other, and each other, and each other and bones. Neat heaps of bright bleached bones piled against the walls; small delicate bird skulls, thick leg bones of large mammals, nests of rib-cages of all sizes.

The dusty smell catches in Eliza’s throat, she feels as though the moisture and life is being dragged out of her by the desiccated air. She gasps. A sense of disappointment and fear wells up inside her and she cries out and she turns to leave.

The door is smooth and polished and firmly shut. There is no brass door handle on this side and Eliza cries out again, beating on the door with her rough hands. She falls to her knees and puts her eye to the keyhole.

On the stair outside a jackdaw gleefully tears open a fish and eats.

***

Copyright © 2013 Elizabeth Cutts

***

This is written in response to Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge. The idea is to roll dice against lists of genres and story elements and then combine them. I rolled:

Genre 1. Southern Gothic. I interpreted ‘southern’ as the English South coast because I’m not American and there is something gothic about our delapidated coastal towns.

Genre 2. Dying Earth.

Story elements: a locked door, a key made of bone. To get the door and the key was very lucky!

If it wasn’t for the fact there’s a deadline I would put this aside for a couple of days before making another run through it, and maybe finding a beta reader but there’s no time for that so here it is.

 

The Morning After

Sheila stood staring at the ruins as rain dripped from the hood of her borrowed cagoule. At her feet the water was mixing with the soot into a blackened mud, dripping and gurgling in a silence in which she could hear the cacophony of the night before. Flashing lights, wailing sirens, crying and the roaring of flames. It had been like some ridiculous television programme she would usually watch curled up with a glass of wine. She poked a nondescript blackened lump with her foot. It turned out to be a book and the pages smeared apart damply, their insides unburnt. A dictionary, nothing romantic. If life were a television programme it would have been something significant. If life were a television programme it would be A Clue, there would be A Moral Purpose and eventually, after fifty minutes there would be Justice.

She glanced back, hearing footsteps behind her. Col hadn’t got his hood up and his hair was plastered to his head. She would usually have teased him; his red cheeks and rain spattered glasses topped off by the flattened hair made her affection for him rise in her throat in a way that would usually have emerged as a laugh. Not today. She held out her hand and he took it, pressing his lips together in the half-smile people give when a burden of sadness must be shared.

‘We won’t be able to recover anything at all, will we?’ she asked. He shook his head.

‘They say it’s not safe to go in and there’ll be nothing worth getting out anyway.’ He looked around at the remains of the garden. ‘Wonder if Horace got out ok? I don’t think he was in the house.’ He called out ‘Horace!’ Horace!’

Sheila watched the rain falling out of a ruined gutter and pooling by the front door in the quiet, a car swished past, slowing to peer at the wreck of the house. To her relief, as the car drove on, there was a reproachful ‘meow’ and an ancient and very wet black cat emerged from the grass with an accusatory look. Col squatted down and the cat purred and butted his knee with its head.

He lifted the cat up, cradling it between his coat and his chest, ‘Come here,’ said Col as a deep purr rumbled out from under the jacket. He tickled the cat under its chin and looked up at Sheila and smiled, a watery smile, pale but with a ray of relief that not everything was lost.

‘Darling,’ she began, and he drew back, sensing a warning in her tone, ‘what are we going to do with him?’

‘I. Well. I don’t know.’ He looked down at the cat.

‘We can’t take him back to Mum’s place can we? And we don’t know when we’ll be sorted out. We may need to rent for a while.’

‘But we can’t chuck him out!’ Col’s voice cracked a little.

‘No, no of course not, but maybe Mrs. Dale…’

‘No! I mean, no. Why?’

‘You know why. And she’s always loved Horace. He spends half his time there already.’

Col sighed ‘I suppose you’re right. I just thought…’ he paused, and the sentence faded away.

‘I know, love.’

He looked down at the cat. ‘Always were a mercenary old thing weren’t you? Making big eyes at Mrs. Dale like we never fed you. Come on you silly animal.’ Sheila followed as he carried the cat round the corner to Mrs. Dale’s place. Her beautiful garden had butted on to theirs and Horace had worked his way into her affections in the way that only a personable cat can, rubbing his face on her knee as she tried to do the weeding and asking to come into her immaculate kitchen from the rain.

Mrs Dale opened the door and with exclamations of surprise, consolation and offers of help she ushered them into the kitchen, bustling to get the kettle on and biscuits out.

‘Well Mrs Dale, there is maybe something you can do for us, at least until we get ourselves sorted.’ Sheila said and Col brought the cat out from under his arm.

‘Oh Horace! The beloved beast. Does he need a foster mum?’

Col nodded. ‘I hope we’ll be able to have him back soon. But we’re going to have a bit of a time of it.’

‘Oh you are aren’t you dear. Of course I’ll look after Horace.’ She smiled at the couple and reached out and patted Sheila’s hand. ‘Of course if you need anything else just ask, this is no trouble, no trouble at all, it will be my pleasure.’

As they walked down Mrs. Dale’s path, Sheila gave Colin’s hand a quick squeeze and he sighed. They didn’t look at the burnt out remains of their modest little home, with the black sooty marks streaming up from each window like grotesque eye make-up. They avoided each other’s eyes and Sheila held her mouth tightly shut against the tears as she climbed into the drivers seat. Colin slid in next to her and briefly laid his hand on her leg and as they moved off, tried desperately to think of something to say, something optimistic or mundane, something not about the immediate future, or insurance policies, nor about past memories, nor about being sad, about Horace or home, he just wanted to say something boring. Something that was nothing, but he couldn’t think of anything so they pulled away in silence and tried not to look at their home.

***
Copyright © 2012 Elizabeth Cutts

Strangers

The voice came from close behind her. ‘Hi there!’

She jumped. Abandoned warehouses and factories lined the canal here, looming against the autumn sky. She hadn’t seen anyone else on the tow-path but then with her head down and ears full of Pearl Jam she probably wouldn’t have noticed a shark in the canal either.

‘Oh, er, hi.’ She blushed, taking off her headphones and fumbling to stop her tape. ‘I’m Jenna’

The young man who’d appeared beside her was the good looking one she’d noticed here before. He seemed to have business in one of the buildings and she’d been dawdling along the path home from school in the hope of seeing him again. His loose shirt, old fashioned in style, had an open, laced neckline which she thought made him look like the hero from a dodgy romance. On other men she would have laughed at it, but it somehow suited him. She wished fervently that she’d bothered with some make-up this morning instead of running out of the house, toast in hand, exactly fifteen minutes after she’d woken up.

‘I’ve seen you a couple of times about here, haven’t I?’ he asked.

She glanced back along the tow-path, praying that her Dad wouldn’t appear on his daily run. It was starting to get annoying, the way he’d run past her and her friends, wearing leggings and shouting a cheery ‘hello girls!’. It was so excruciatingly embarrassing, even when it was just her friends. Here with this cool guy it would be twice as bad but she did feel a bit lonely here with someone she’d never spoken to before.

‘Yeah. I live near here. Watson Street. My Dad often runs along the canal here,’ she added, just in case. Just in case her Dad showed up, or just in case this guy turned out to be a psycho, either really. ‘So what are you doing here?’

‘I’ve been preparing for a gathering we’re holding tonight.’

‘What, like a party?’

He paused and thought for a moment. ‘Exactly, a party. Would you like to come Jenna? You would be welcome.’ He gestured at the building behind him.

‘What here?’ she said incredulously, looking at the shabby, lonely old warehouse, stained with rust and grime, which looked down on the canal with its broken windows.

‘Why not? There are three stories of space for the dancing to really get going in there.’ He smiled widely, a wink flicked across his face and was gone almost before she spotted it.

She shifted uneasily and chewed her lip, but maybe Sadie would be free to come with her. Sadie would think a party in a warehouse was just the most awesome thing.

‘Yeah,’ she tried to sound casual ‘great.’

‘Any time after dark, just come on in.’

And before she could say or ask any more he had opened a door in the side of the warehouse and slipped quietly through it, leaving her staring thoughtfully at the closed door, the afternoon becoming evening around her.

* * *

‘Mum!’ Jenna yelled along the corridor from her room to the kitchen.

‘What?’ her Mother’s exasperated face appeared round the door ‘Can’t you come in here to speak, rather than yelling? Oh never mind. What is it?’

‘I’ve got a ton of coursework to do, I’ll probably be up later than you. Can you just leave me to it and not interrupt?’

‘Fine. But don’t stay up until dawn again. Any work you do in the wee hours will be worse than useless and you’ll just make yourself ill.’

‘Yes, Mum. If it gets to one in the morning I promise I’ll stop.’

‘Ok. I just worry about you’ her mother wagged a finger ‘It’s good you work hard but sometimes…’

‘Yes, Mum!’ Jenna said sharply and shut the door to her room. She heard her Mum sigh and shut the kitchen door behind her. Jenna’s room was on the ground floor just off the kitchen, isolated from the rest of the house because it used to be the garage until her Dad had converted it. Now she was seventeen they pretty much left her alone if she asked them to and conveniently there was a low window. She’d only snuck out this way once before, but it was nice to know she could if she wanted.

She thought about the fact she really ought to do that coursework and forget about the amazing party she would be missing. She couldn’t believe that Sadie wouldn’t come with her. Standing on her doorstep Sadie had glanced over her shoulder into her house and whispered ‘No really, I can’t risk it. Mum will go mad if I fail and I’m already behind. Mr. Johns wants to see my work tomorrow. I just can’t.’ All Jenna’s other friends lived too far away to ask in person and the phone was in the living room, in prime eavesdropping space. Her parents would be bound to overhear.

So she sat on the bed thinking about how unfair it was. She’d never been to a proper big party before, never had a boyfriend. Sadie was on boyfriend number three and this one was twenty-one years old and achingly cool. The closest Jenna had got was a disappointing and sloppy fumble with James at his house during something he laughably called a party. Jenna stood up and began rummaging through her wardrobe.

* * *

Half an hour later she hurried along the towpath, guts twitching with nerves. In the dark, the noise of her feet scuffing along echoed strangely over the water and the murky smell of the canal seemed to hang in the air. As she approached the warehouse warm lights flickered for a moment in the broken windows and then were gone. She paused to build up the courage to try the door and as she did so a couple opened it and stumbled out and away up the path. Music followed them out, a deep, roaring beat that exhilarated Jenna and drew her in. She tentatively opened the door and stepped through and then jumped when two identical large men appeared, one either side of her. They glanced at each other over her head.

‘Jenna?’ they said in unison.

‘Um, yeah.’ The music she had heard almost seemed quieter here than from outside, as if muffled.

They gestured to an inner door, mirror images of each other. Glancing at them curiously she opened the door they had indicated and was engulfed by the beat. She was a vast, cavernous room. Windows high up in the walls showed deep blue squares of night sky. The room was packed full of people wearing the most ridiculous assortment of clothing. One man wore a red business suit and there was a woman in an old fashioned ball gown, some wore richly coloured and uncanny masks and yet others seemed to be naked but for their gorgeously painted skin. They were all dancing to the thunderous music. She couldn’t see the speakers, but there must have been a massive stack somewhere here. She stared around her, enchanted by the abandonment of the dancers and the variety of their costumes. Some even had wings somehow attached to their backs and tails coiling out behind them.

Their bodies writhed, the beat resonating through them, they jumped and flailed so that it hardly looked like dancing. Some of the people were grinning, having the time of their lives, others had a look of intense concentration on their faces. Lights, seemingly as sourceless as the music, wove and played above them, reflecting off the sweat and glittering costumes. Walkways and stairs criss-crossed the space above the floor and here too people danced, the lights span across them, faces and masks flickering and then falling into silhouette again. Jenna gasped as someone launched themselves from a platform and seemed to hang in the air before unfolding wings and swooping across to the other side of the space.

Jenna stood, awestruck, feeling her plain clothes to be shabby and insufficient. As she wondered whether she ought to leave two smiling people span out from the mess of dancers and gathered her up. Their skin was identically painted in a shimmering luminous green and they laughed as they took her by the hands and drew her into the throng and as they did so she felt the beat move through her body and she began to dance.

* * *

She wasn’t sure how long she’d been dancing with the strange assortment of people when a hand gripped her wrist and drew her out of the crowd. Looking around she saw it was the man who had invited her. He seemed taller than he had outside and somehow held himself apart from the dancers, maybe because he was the host.

‘Having a good time, I see!’ He said and to her surprise she found she could hear him. She nodded breathlessly, bouncing slightly in time with the beat. ‘Would you like to come up for something to eat and drink?’ She nodded uncertainly, feeling drawn back into the crowd, but he took her hand again and led her away from the music and out into the lobby with the two identical security guards. Her host opened another door and they began to ascend a narrow staircase.

They came out onto a long corridor with large windows down one side. Here the place didn’t look or feel particularly industrial. It was more like some kind of sparse mansion. None of the windows were broken and the dull throb of the music was barely audible from below through the carpeted floor. Opening a very plain looking door, he led her into a richly decorated room. Soft lights glistened on velvet sofas, hangings and piles of luxurious cushions. A gentle haze of scented smoke hung in the air and a low table was covered in an assortment of delicious looking food and drinks. She stood in the doorway awkwardly as he walked over to the table, picked up a glass of pink liquid and drained it in one fluid movement. He took a sticky looking pastry and turned to her.

‘Please, have something to eat and drink.’ He gestured to a row of filled glasses of all the colours of the rainbow and the plates full of rich looking food ‘It will allow you to dance forever and a day and open your heart to the other dancers.’ He smiled.

Jenna smiled back awkwardly. This sounded suspiciously like she was being offered drugs although it just looked like food and drink. Fabulous food and drink but still just food and drink but she found herself saying ‘thank you, I’m having a lovely time’ as if on a visit to an aunt ‘but I’m not very hungry.’

He shrugged and picked up a passion fruit, tearing it open and scooping the insides out with a delicate silver spoon.

‘Well,’ a soft voice spoke from behind her ‘I think it’s rude, don’t you darling?’

Jenna spun round and a beautiful green eyed woman was uncoiling herself from a sofa that Jenna could have sworn was empty when she entered the room. Jenna stuttered in embarrassment.

‘Don’t be embarrassed girl-‘

‘She’s called Jenna’ said the man.

‘Don’t be embarrassed, Jenna. I am joking. But please, really, won’t you have anything?’

Jenna flushed. ‘No really, I’m fine thank you.’

The woman smiled with amusement and Jenna felt strangely transparent. The woman laughed a slightly bitter laugh and stepped forward.

‘Poor little girl. Are you rejecting our hospitality? I think she’s rejecting our hospitality, darling.’

‘Oh leave it my sweet’ he sighed and eviscerated another passion fruit.

‘But we haven’t had such a lovely captive for, oh it must be centuries.’

‘No,’ he turned to look at Jenna a thoughtful look on his face ‘no we haven’t.’ He picked up a cobalt blue glass and turned to Jenna staring at her intensely.

She turned and ran for the door, along the corridor and clattered down the stairs, laughter drifting along behind her like the incense.

The music seemed to have stopped and as she ran into the main room she found it empty. There was no sign of the party she had left just minutes before. Impossible shafts of light came in through grey and broken windows, dust motes danced in the air and silence filled the huge space as the beat had moments ago.

Outside she found that it was full daylight. The canal glistened and she blinked, confused. Behind her the warehouse was silent.

Then she realised she must have come out of a different exit from the warehouse, though she didn’t remember there being other branches of the canal there must have been because right opposite the door she’d just come through was a glistening new apartment building, all wood and glass and metal. And up the canal she could see another new building. She’d obviously come out the other side of the warehouse into a newly rebuilt area of town she didn’t recognise.

A white haired man was running purposefully along the tow path towards her in lycra leggings and very snazzy looking running shoes. White cords sprouted from his ears, obviously from some up-market in-ear earphones and tucked down the front of his vest. As he got closer she realised he looked vaguely familiar, as if you’d put her Grandad into lycra, somehow straightened his back and sent him out to train for a marathon.

‘Excuse me!’ she said loudly, intending to ask where she was.

He stopped dead, staring at her disbelievingly then whispered ‘oh my god’ and then, his voice hoarse, ‘Jenna?’

Jenna felt her stomach drop and her head swim with a vertiginous shock of recognition and confusion.

‘Dad?’

 

 

***

Copyright © 2012 Elizabeth Cutts

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