Friday, 5 June 2015

A recurring dream - Original Writing (excerpt)

2015 - novel excerpt

Still obsessing over how exactly I want the beginning to go, because of course I am, but I'm actually really happy with this one. Rest of the story's coming together too, haha.

*


She must have had this dream over a hundred times by now. Every time, it always started the same way; with her stepping down from the carriage, patting the horse’s rump and feeding it a crumbled sugar lump she had kept in her pocket all day for that very purpose. She then waved to her coach-mates and the driver before turning to bound down the short path to her house.

She’d been particularly eager, she remembered vaguely, to show off something she’d made at school. What had it been again, a drawing, a figurine? It must have had something to do with the upcoming celebrations, but she couldn’t for the life of her remember what it had been. Memory could be funny like that, losing certain details while bringing other, seemingly more insignificant ones into stark relief.


She braced herself as she looked down at the little figure unlocking the door (how proud she had been when her parents had let her have her own key!); the dream usually went one of two ways at this point. The door swung open easily – no ponderous creaking, a good sign – and the little girl and the young woman both stepped into the sun-filled hallway. What came next?


“I’m home!” yelled the little girl, unceremoniously dumping her kit in a heap by the stairs and kicked off her shoes. She didn’t seem particularly put out when she received no response, and instead continued onwards to the kitchen. She fetched a fresh loaf of bread from the pantry, and with a look of immense concentration (the bread knife was, in fairness, about the size of her forearm) set about cutting herself a thick slice. Leaving her past self behind, the young woman drifted away to walk the paths of memory. She knew she had a little time before things started going wrong; she might as well enjoy it.


Not that the house had changed much in the past ten years, really. It was perhaps somewhat less cluttered than it had been back then, and there were fewer brightly coloured pictures on the walls nowadays. In her memory there were even some pennants hung inside, back when she had been young enough to get excited about the preparations, and before the whole biennial event was permanently marred by tragedy.


As if hastened by her dark thoughts, she heard approaching footsteps on the drive, followed by a key turning in the lock. “Wren, sweetheart? Are you back?” The sound of her father’s voice made the bottom drop out of her stomach and she froze in her tracks, unable to turn around. But of course, she wasn’t the Wren being addressed here.


“DAD!” came the answering yell, followed by the noise of her scrambling down from a chair and the thudding of feet as her younger self dashed to greet him. “Is mum with you? Let me show you what I did at school today!” The diminutive form skidded to a halt in the doorway, and for a split second Wren found herself looking directly at the girl she had been - crumbs around a mouth spread in a wide grin, tight curls, fingers sticky with remnants of the fruit conserve she’d had with the bread - before she felt a strong sensation of vertigo and blinked.


When her eyes opened, she was that vulnerable little girl again. The smile died on her lips as she looked at her father in front of her. Nowadays she was only a couple of inches shorter than him, but in this dream she was seeing him as the towering figure he must have seemed back then. Even still, he was nothing like his usual self. His broad shoulders, usually set straight, sagged, and his eyes, red from tears, were devoid of their usual playfulness. It was the first time she had ever seen him look so vulnerable.


She took a hesitant step forward. “...Dad? ...What is it?” He opened his mouth to say something, stopped, shook his head and looked down at his hands, clenching and unclenching his fists. The colour seemed to seep from their surroundings, and perhaps at the time the sun had in fact dipped behind a cloud - who could say? Her father broke the stillness of the scene by sweeping forward and enveloping her in his arms. They stood like that for a little while, her little figure trembling, his closeness both reassuring and foreboding. Eventually he pulled away and crouched down to look her directly in the eye, his face grave.


“Sweetheart, I’m afraid I’ve got some terrible news about your mother…”


*


Wren lay unmoving in her bed for a little while after waking, before the characteristic call of the bird she was named for caused her to open her eyes, swing her legs to the side and sit up. ‘Just like clockwork,’ she thought, absentmindedly brushing a hand across both eyes and wiping it on the sheets.

The day had only just broken, and the beginning of the sun’s gradual climb suffused the dawn sky with pink. Despite it being early morning it was already pleasantly warm; if the breeze didn’t pick up there was a chance it might grow too hot. Wren made her way to her washroom and splashed some water on her face, then headed down the stairs.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Sparring - Original Writing (excerpt)

2015 - original writing excerpt

Here's some of what I wrote in January. It's pretty clunky and I'm not really confident I'll keep it at all, let alone as Chapter 1, but I'm just kinda glad to be past it. 2000 words or so.

*

It was approaching evening, though the midsummer sun still hung high in the sky. It beat down on the almost empty courtyard of the police headquarters, its sole occupant a young woman training against a target. Sounds from the city were faintly audible, carried on the wind, but it was evident that she was completely oblivious to everything but the exercise she was concentrating on. She wore a simple short-sleeved tunic and close-fitted breeches with thick hide boots, and in her left hand she held a lacquered baton of burnished hardwood. It was around two feet in length, with a strap at one end and a side-handle set a little ways up from it. Off to one side lay a studded leather jerkin she had carelessly discarded before starting her workout.

She had been drilling intensely for almost ten minutes, carrying out the movements with the brisk, efficient air of deep familiarity. The courtyard offered little shade; beads of sweat flew from her as she smoothly cycled through a variety of movements against the training dummy, striking heavy blows directed at locations that would disarm or disable a living, breathing target. She finished her set with an attack to the dummy’s head that reverberated through its entire frame, releasing a satisfying grunt of exertion as she did so. Routine finished, she exhaled and relaxed, tucked the baton into its sheath on her belt and wiped away some sweat from her face.

She made her way over to a water pump situated off to her right, primed it and promptly stuck her head under the ensuing stream. The water was closer to lukewarm than cool, coming as it did from an underground reservoir fed directly by the river, but it was nevertheless refreshing against her skin. Sufficiently cooled, she straightened up, dried her face on her tunic and ran a hand through her hair, brushing water out of the tight curls.

She was just making her way back to pick up the jerkin from where she’d left it on the ground when she heard the sound of approaching footsteps. The courtyard was located towards the rear of the building where there was little traffic outside of training times, so it was always easy to hear people coming. Her hand idly lowered to rest on her baton, more through force of habit than anything else.

When the approaching figure rounded the corner and stepped out into the light she snapped to attention, her hand immediately falling away as the chief of police came in to view. He was a broad-chested, middle-aged man; the burdens of his position were evident in the worry lines on his face and the amount of grey in his hair, yet despite that there was a welcoming air about him. Unlike her, he was wearing the full uniform, which constituted a deep navy jacket bearing the insignia of the Memoria Constabulary and epaulettes displaying his rank.

He caught her eye and a smile spread across his face, and he made a gesture that was half salute, half easy dismissal.

‘I thought I might find you here. At ease, sergeant.’ She returned the gesture and grinned back at him.

‘Hey chief, you were looking for me?’

‘Yeah, I thought we might head back together for a change. It’s too damn hot in my office, I’d rather finish my work in the comfort of my study. I checked your office first; when I saw that you hadn’t left yet it made sense to look here next.’

‘It’s always a treat to see the chief of police display the brilliant deductive reasoning that got him to where he is today,’ she said dryly.
     
Seeing them together, the family connection would have been obvious to anyone. Being in each other’s presence seemed to invigorate them both; the chief was more energetic, and she seemed more relaxed. There was the distinct impression that together they could take on anything.

'You're lucky I'm off duty, brat. What were you up to anyway, just going through the motions?’

‘Yeah; I was only going to take inventory, but one thing led to another...’ She shrugged, and then shot him a sly look and inclined her head towards where the equipment was stored. ‘Actually, seeing as you’re here, do you want to spar? Just a quick best of three!’
Her father laughed and shook his head. ‘Honestly Wren, you’re incorrigible.’

‘Oh, come on! Besides, you missed last week; you owe me.’

‘True enough. I suppose I have been letting work get in the way of training...’ He shrugged and smiled. ‘Fine, we might as well get a couple of rounds in.’

Wren cheered as he strode into the courtyard, shrugging off his coat and draping it neatly across a railing, and followed behind him as he made his way towards the equipment racks. If they were going to spar then she would need a shield, something she’d eschewed against an opponent that couldn’t fight back.

The police in Memoria favoured two different types of shield. One was large and rectangular; it protected most of the body and was adept and stopping crossbow bolts and pushing back against crowds. The other was a small, circular variant of folded metal. It had a convex surface that a gifted combatant could use to turn away blades, making it invaluable in a mêlée. Wren immediately gravitated towards the latter, but her father paused thoughtfully before choosing his. Owing to his greater bulk he found it no great handicap to manoeuvre with a tower shield, and it suited the more defensive approach that he often adopted. Still, he was no slouch with either; after all, he had been the one to instruct her in the use.

‘Ah, what the hell,’ he said, picking up a round shield. ‘Let’s live dangerously.’

They made their way back to the centre of the courtyard, and then squared off facing one another ten paces apart. While her father stretched, Wren sucked in a deep breath to steady herself and bounced lightly on the balls of her feet. The ground was hard packed earth, compacted over the years by thousands of recruits carrying out countless tough drills given to them by tougher sergeants. She had been in both of those positions, and yet none of it compared to sparring with her father. He had been training her ever since she had first expressed her desire to join the force, testing her combat skills almost every week since she had turned sixteen.

Across from her, the chief unsheathed his baton and raised it in his typical salute, to which she followed suit. She took him in, curious about his choice of shield; his stance was relaxed, almost aloof, with his weapon arm slightly out in front and the shield covering his centre. Years of experience had taught her to underestimate him at her peril – while she could usually take a round or two, and she’d started winning every so often, it was far from a common occurrence.

He stood motionless, anticipating her approach. She sucked in another breath, took a few steps towards him to close the distance, then lunged forward in attack. Her first move was a feint towards his left side to test what he would do; he stepped out of her range and made no further move that would have allowed an opening. She continued to press him as he avoided her every attack, until a thrust directed at his throat forced him to bring his shield up to block it. The sound that rang out as her weapon connected was like a gong signalling that warm-up was over.

He immediately shifted into high gear to counter-attack, relentlessly sending blow after blow her way and leaving her no room to retaliate. The repeated impacts on her shield sent jarring shocks through her arm, and she realised that she wouldn’t be able to weather it for long without her arm going numb. She gathered her strength, bracing herself, and when the next attack came, put all her weight behind her shield and shoved.

Despite her regular training and athletic build, under normal circumstances Wren would have been hard pressed to shift her father’s stocky frame. She had caught him by surprise however, and thrown him off balance. Capitalising on the opening she’d just created, Wren stepped forward using the momentum from her shove, and twisted around bringing her baton in a backhanded arc aimed at her father’s ribs. He brought down his own baton to meet the blow, parrying it awkwardly, but she had anticipated this and aimed a kick at his knee even as their weapons met. He dropped to one knee to take the hit, and with a deft flourish she switched to her baton’s side grip and swung in the direction of his lowered head in the same movement that she had been practicing just a short time earlier.
She executed it swiftly, but not swiftly enough. Her father hadn’t simply dropped to one knee, but instead had continued forward into a roll, causing her swing to go wide. Realising that she’d left herself open Wren tried to re-centre herself, but her father swept her feet out from under her and within moments had her pinned to the ground, his baton at her throat.

‘Yield?’ he asked, a smile playing about his lips.

‘I yield,’ she agreed with a sigh. He let her go, and she grasped his proffered arm and let him haul her back to her feet.

‘You reacted well there,’ he remarked with a smile. ‘You didn’t pull any punches either, good.’

‘You were one step ahead of me the whole time, weren’t you?’

‘Well yes, that was the point. It’s easy to predict what someone’s going to do when you back them into a corner and limit their options.’

Wren frowned. Whenever they sparred the first point was always the most hotly contested, and she hated losing it because it inevitably led to a sermon along these lines. It also meant that he would do pretty much the same thing the next round to give her a chance at figuring out where she went wrong. It was such a dad move to pull, and she knew that at least part of the reason he did it was because of how much it wound her up.

True to form, the second round went in much the same way as the first. This time round Wren was able to better exploit the gaps in his uncharacteristically aggressive style and was able to take the point. Her heart wasn’t in it however, and he cleaned up the final round. Frustrated with herself, she bowed stiffly, then yanked the shield off her arm and started towards the equipment storage before she could get another talking to. Her father jogged up and fell into step next to her.

‘You know,’ he said, his tone gently chiding, ‘it was your idea for us to spar in the first place.’

He was right, of course. She was 21, and a sergeant at that; she couldn’t keep acting like a child forever. She stopped and turned to face him, apologetic. ‘Yeah, you’re right. I’m sorry. It’s just... if that had been a real fight, there wouldn’t have been a round two or three, would there? You don’t get second chances out in the field.’

He placed a comforting hand on her shoulder. ‘You’d be surprised. It’s not always as simple as that, and sometimes you don’t have the luxury of giving up.’ She met his gaze, but didn’t say anything. 

‘There’s more to it, isn’t there? Were you really just letting off steam earlier, or do you have something on your mind?’

‘What? No!’ said Wren, then hesitated. ‘Well, maybe. We can talk at home later, I guess.’

‘Why not now?’

‘I want out of this shirt before it starts to smell, for one,’ she said, getting a laugh out of him.

‘Fair point, I could do with a change myself. You sure you’re okay?’

‘Yeah, don’t worry. I’ll swing by your office once I’m done.’


*

This was a bit of an agonising hump to get over, followed by... another agonising hump. Writing is hard.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Breathless - Original Writing

2014 - excerpt

As always, he rang the doorbell in their distinct five push pattern before slotting in his key and opening the door. The familiar mess greeted him on the other side, with his sister sat on the sofa in the middle of it all like a queen atop her throne of junk. She grinned up at him.
'Sup?'
He sighed. 'Would it kill you to at least try and keep this place tidy while I'm gone?' he asked, picking his way across the minefield of strewn clothes and dirty dishes to deposit the groceries on top of the kitchenette counter.
'I would, you know, but I'm just so busy with all this stuff I have going on...'
'Oh yeah?' he said, unpacking the bags and putting the contents into the fridge and various cupboards. 'Like what, exactly?'
'You know, all that stuff... Learning Braille, keeping up with my studies and whatnot. Takes up a lot of my time!'
'Oh please,' he said, closing the last cupboard to punctuate his point, 'you've got nothing but time.' There was no venom in his words though; they went through this same song and dance at least twice a week. He made his way over to the couch, plopped down beside her with an 'Oof' and closed his eyes.
'Hard day at work?' she inquired.
As per usual. How about you?'
She shrugged. 'Same as ever. Bit more Braille, a few more practice papers. I've got them down so hard I could probably ace the exams with my eyes closed.'
He half-opened one eye and peered at her, grinning. 'Bet you've been waiting all day to use that one, huh?' She stuck out her tongue and punched him on the arm, eliciting a chuckle from him. 'You heard about the plans to scrap the current exam system though?'
'God, yeah, what's that all about? If they change the syllabus before I can-'


She was interrupted by a knock on the door, causing them both to freeze momentarily. They exchanged a glance, then he pushed himself up out of the chair and walked over to the door. He sucked in a deep breath before opening it... to come face to face with his landlord. The breath whooshed out of him.
'Hey Alan, what can I do for you? Rent isn't due for another week or two, is it?'
'Oh no, no, nothing like that. I was just passing by, thought I heard you talking to someone. You've not got anyone in there with you, do you?'


He stood aside to give Alan a good view of the empty room, making a vague sweeping gesture as he did so.
'As you can see, no one here but me. I was just chatting to my sister over the net though, that might have been it? I tend to crank the volume up a lot, sorry about that.'
The older man took the gesture as an invitation and strode in, peering around suspiciously. He waited patiently at the door until Alan was apparently satisfied.
'Yeah, well... keep the volume down in future, will you? And remember, flat rules stat e you need to keep the place in a good state, not just that you can't have any visitors after seven.' He made a distasteful face as he stepped over some of the detritus.
He rubbed the back of his head, every picture of the apologetic tenant. 'Yeah, sorry about the mess. I let it get a bit out of hand what with trying to balance school and work, I'll spruce the place up over the weekend.'
'See that you do.' Alan paused again as he made to leave, his eye caught on something. He followed his gaze and almost burst out laughing - his sister had somehow managed to leave one of her bras draped over one of the light fixtures - but he managed to turn it into a cough and a sheepish smile.
'Fashion design, you know... very spontaneous at times.'
'...Right. Just...  keep what I said in mind, yeah?'
'Yup, will do.' He ushered his landlord out, and - politely but firmly - shut the door after him. When the footsteps had faded, he let out a sigh of relief and made his way back to the sofa.
'Man, what is his problem?' said his sister, appearing beside him and picking her laptop up from where she'd left it. He shrugged.
'Dude's just trying to protect his investment, I can respect that.'
'Whatever, guy is a total creep anyway. I bet he was just lurking in the hallway with his ear pressed up against the door trying to catch you out.
'Yeah well, it's tough finding places that let you pay in cash. Worth putting up with the occasional eccentricity.'
'The last place was better though. I managed to convince that landlord I was a ghost by staying in his peripheral vision whenever he came round.
Her brother laughed at that, which promptly turned into a yawn.
'Damn, I'm knackered. Think I might turn in, you okay for making dinner?'
'Cooking isn't the problem; it's the cleaning up afterwards.'
'Hah, true,' he said, getting up and stretching. 'Aite, I'm off to bed. Maybe with all this exhaustion I'll actually manage to sleep through the whole night.'
'I wouldn't hold my breath, if I were you.' He raised an eyebrow at that, and she grinned at him. 'Okay, that one I've been waiting all day to use.'
*
He was by a lake, in a large clearing surrounded by tall, deciduous trees. The grass smelt sweet and fresh, and the sunlight sparkled off the clear blue water. There was a small wooden jetty just off to his right; he walked down it, boards creaking under him. When he got to the end he dipped his feet into the lake, relishing the feeling of the cool water and its contrast with the sun above. he watched the waves ripple out, then closed his eyes and lay back.
After a little while, he realised that there was someone else there with him. He turned and saw a beautiful woman standing at the foot of the jetty. She was dressed in an elaborate kimono, and had a fan not quite covering her coy smile. There was something inexplicably enticing about her, and before he realised what he was doing he'd gotten up and taken several steps towards her.
'Wait,' he thought, struggling to regain control of his thoughts, 'this isn't right...'
The instant that thought formed in his mind, his surroundings immediately changed. The sun disappeared, the clear blue water turned black as night and the temperature dropped precipitously, causing him to shiver. He turned back to the woman and found that she had progressed several paces down the jetty, but he hadn't heard it creak underneath her steps. he took an involuntary step backwards, and her smile grew wider. Too wide.
With every step she took (and he could now see that she floated imperceptibly above the ground, rather than directly on it), he took one back, until there was nowhere left to retreat. There was nothing left for it; he'd have to charge past her. the thought of doing so made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up and his stomach turn, and this must have been reflected in his eyes as her smile grew ever wider. She opened her mouth and he caught sight of her teeth - beautifully white and incredibly sharp.
'Why are you running from me? Didn't you promise to join me?' Now she too was changing - the bright colours of her fine garments fading and growing waterlogged, her long straight hair growing tangled and matted, dark marks appearing across her skin and her fingernails - but still her smile kept growing ever wider.
When she extended an arm out towards him, something inside him broke. Deciding he'd be safer in the glassy waters, he turned and dived into the lake. Immediately it felt as if there were hands grasping around him, pulling him down, down down...
*
He fell with a thud out of the bed, a messy tangle of arms, duvet and pillow. Swearing softly under his breath, he dragged himself off the floor and into the sitting room. his sister waved to him with a lopsided grin, and he returned both the smile and the wave.
'How long did I manage this time?' She checked her watch.
'Wow, three hours, forty three minutes! That might actually be a new record, congrats!'
'Woo. Maybe I'll be able to hit a whole 5 hours by the time the year's over!' He regretted the quip the second it left his lips, and the lack of a response from the sofa pretty much confirmed it. He changed gears a little. 'How about you? You manage to get any sleep?'
His sister shook her head. 'Nah, I don't really sleep at night anymore. Too many... it's just easier during the day, y'know?' He nodded his agreement. 'I don't know why you do it.'
He shrugged, heading over to the kettle and boiling some water. 'I sleep when I can, yeah? Night shifts have their own share of terrors, after all.' He made two mugs of coffee and brought them over to his sister.
'Cheers.'
'No worries. Hey, you okay?'
He took a good look at her; she'd drawn her knees up to her chest, and it occurred to him just how young she was. 'C'mon, talk to me,.'
'It's just...' she trailed off, then shook her head and continued in a voice barely above a whisper, 'I really miss mum and dad, you know? Do you really think that... that we might really be stuck like this for another year?' She was visibly trembling now, the spoon in her mug clinking against the sides. He pulled her into a tight hug.

Monday, 4 March 2013

The Outsiders - Original Writing (complete)

2013- short story workshop (complete)

Here is the (more or less) finished version of the earlier short story I posted back in January under the working title "Shadow Chase". It's changed a fair bit, so you can go back and compare them if you like, but that was 1600 words and this is like 3800 so you have been warned :P


The Outsiders

I've always been able to see them. I found them frightening, at first. What child isn't afraid of things lurking in the darkness? One of my earliest memories is peering down at them from my bedroom, head barely poking over the windowsill. They were perfectly still, dotted at intervals along the street, illuminated by the moonlight. As I watched, they raised their heads as one towards my hiding place, as if sensing my presence. I dropped out of sight and stayed there on the floor until my heart stopped hammering enough for me to crawl back into my bed and hide under the covers.
They never appeared during the day; it wasn't until the sun went down that I'd start to see them out of the corner of my eye, just within visible range. No one else could see them; whenever I mentioned them to adults they'd always say that I had an over-active imagination. I thought that maybe it was something you grew out of, but I came to realise that other children couldn't see them either. That was the scariest part - having to deal with them alone.
After a while, however, I stopped being so scared of them. They only came out when it was dark, and they seemed to stay away from people; with rules like that, I figured that it'd be simple to avoid them. I even made a game of it for the playground - Shadow Chase, I called it. You split a group into three; one team representing the Shadows, as I had taken to calling them; a blindfolded team who could tag the Shadows to stop them, and a third team who could direct them while avoiding getting tagged by the Shadows. Like most kids' games, it usually ended up devolving into a mess of shouting, scrapes and tears.
That was how I first got to know Chris. We must have been around seven then; he was a quiet kid in one of the other classes so I'd never really spoken to him before then. I saw him watching us one day and asked if he wanted to play, on a whim. He listened as I explained the rules, eyes widening as I explained the teams. When I was done he asked, hesitantly,
'That sounds like a lot of fun... how did you come up with the idea?'
'Oh,' I'd said flippantly, too young to pick up on the cues, 'it's all real. The Shadows come out at night, but most people can't see them.' I'd started affecting a nonchalant tone any time someone asked me that question, as I had tired of giving the same response dozens of times only for it to get dismissed. Chris's reaction was anything but typical; his jaw slackened and his eyes widened even further.
'...You can see them too?'
He soon became my closest friend after that. More than anything else, we found it comforting to finally be able to share the burden with another person. It was a secret only the two of us knew about, and that was intoxicating. What had set us apart from everyone else brought us closer together; rather than being different, we were specialThe Shadows were a constant topic of conversation with us, as we had no one else to talk about them with. We wondered what they were, where they came from, what would happen if they caught you. Shadow Chase games took on a special significance for us; it wasn't just play, it was training. We always said that if one of us got taken by them, the other would come to rescue them. In our minds it was as simple as that.

Despite being so soft-spoken most of the time, Chris loved football and could get really rowdy on the field. His dream was to play in the premier league some day, and he went to practice weekly at a club near his house to work towards that goal. He had the talent too - he was small and spry, quick on his feet and great at passing. One night three years after we first spoke, Chris never made it back home after football practice. The clocks had gone back an hour the night before so it got darker earlier; I guess that must have caught him out.
My form teacher told me that I had been called to the Headmaster's office the moment I stepped into class the next day. I was nervous, of course, but it didn't dawn on me why I had been summoned until I got there. When the door opened and I saw Chris's parents standing there, their faces haggard from lack of sleep and their eyes red and sore from crying, I realised immediately.
I remember everything about that office visit in excruciating detail - the broad expanse of his desk in front of me, the clatter of children filing into the building for registration, the smell of cut grass wafting in through his open window, the wooden armrests of my chair gripped tightly in my hands.
'Has Christopher ever given you any reason to believe that he was unhappy?' the headmaster had asked. 'Perhaps something that hinted he was planning on running away from home?'
'No sir,' I had squeaked out in reply. Had he shared any plans to that effect? Did I know anywhere he might be staying if that was the case? Would he ever follow someone he didn't know if they promised him something? The stream of questions seemed endless,  but I did my best to squeeze answers out of my increasingly tightening throat while Chris's parents looked on silently.
Eventually they decided that I didn't know anything, and the headmaster let me go. I made my way back to class, but when I arrived I could feel everyone staring and hear them whispering - word must have already gotten out. After a while it got so bad that I started to feel physically sick, and asked to be excused - I sat crying in a toilet stall until my mum was called in from work to pick me up, and didn't go back to school for some time after.
I couldn't sleep that night.  I tossed and turned for what felt like hours, until I eventually decided to go down to the kitchen to make myself a hot drink. The house was quiet - my parents had spent the evening being part of Chris's manhunt and had gone to bed early. That was probably why the drapes in our living room hadn't been drawn that night.
I found myself drawn towards the window, the street lights outside casting long shadows across the room. I walked right up to the glass and stared at the ghostly figures on the other side, and they stared right back.
There were dozens of them, all concentrated around my house. It was the first time I had ever seen them up close; they were human shaped and clothed in a hooded garment that obscured their faces, with a strange indistinct quality to them; a blurring around the edges. It seemed like all colour had been drained from them, and from what I could make out, their hooded faces were completely featureless.
Given what had just transpired that day, you might have expected me to be petrified. Normally I would have been - for all the bravado I displayed during the day and with Chris, alone at night I still felt as scared as I had been when I was younger. That night though, I was in a sort of trance. As I gazed at the crowd of blank, hooded faces, it gradually began to part to allow a single figure through. 
It was Chris. He was expressionless and dressed the same as the rest of them, but immediately recognisable and barely looking any worse for wear. I have no idea how long I stood there, staring, but once the shock wore off I raised a trembling hand and pressed it against the window. After a brief pause he did the same. I opened my mouth to call his name, but all that came out was a wordless croak.
I was so relieved to see him apparently unharmed that I mustn't have been thinking straight. He was right there, and he was okay! I remember running to the door to let him in, fumbling with the lock and throwing it open, but that's all. My parents found me there the next morning, passed out on the floor. By now I knew better than to say anything about the Shadows, but I still tried to tell them I'd seen him. Obviously they didn't believe me.

They never found a body, of course. It really messed up that family. Eventually they moved away;  I remember the look his mum gave me as their car pulled out of the driveway for the last time. The expression on her face was equal parts resentful, desperate, and pleading; begging me to tell her something that'd bring him back to her.  I never saw her again.
It messed me up too. For a while I had kept insisting that I saw him every night, kept trying to get anyone at all to look with me. After the initial grace period where they put it down to distress, they got tired of hearing me saying it. When my parents cautiously suggested that maybe I should see a psychiatrist, I shut up about it.
I withdrew into myself, after that. While I'd been away from school I had fallen out of contact with my other friends there, and when I returned I didn't bother trying to salvage the relationships; the solitude suited me just fine, and in my absence I had decided to go to a different secondary school than the one we had all planned on attending.
Every night, I'd wait by a window and watch the figures outside until he appeared. The total number of Shadows seemed to wax and wane, but he was ever present.  Over time, the palm on the other side of the glass shrank as I grew and he stayed the same. It became something of a nightly ritual, I guess. Even though I couldn't save him, I wanted him to know that I hadn't forgotten.

Still, I began to doubt myself - there's only so much you can take of people assuring you that what you can see with your own eyes isn't real before you start to think that you might be crazy. More than ever before, I became obsessed with finding out the secrets of the Shadows. Understandably, there wasn't a whole lot of literature on them, and what little existed was usually buried in old, obscure tomes, often written in other languages. If it wasn't for the internet, I would have been completely out of luck.
Over the next few years I slowly, painstakingly, accumulated as much knowledge from various sources as I could to learn as much as possible. I would head straight home and sit at my computer for hours on end, sifting through information, accepting the credible and discounting that which clashed with my own experiences, while the light outside my bedroom window ebbed away. They didn't show up on film, but I found a handful of artists renditions that more or less resembled the creatures I was familiar with.
I learned that the generally accepted term for them was 'Outsiders', though there was enough material referring to them as Shadows or Shades that I was grimly amused that so many scholars apparently had a child's creativity when it came to names. It derived from the fact that they were unable to enter human-built structures or even approach those unable to see them, as well as their ethereal appearance and the commonly held belief that they were the spirits of the dead.
Confusingly, I found that Outsider was sometimes also applied to those who could see them, as the ability set them aside from the rest of humanity. There were sightings of them dated as far back as Ancient Greece, but in all that time there were no recorded incidents of someone coming in contact with an Outsider and returning to tell the tale. There were a few fanciful tales from alleged witnesses who claimed to seeing victims dragged screaming down through the ground as if to the depths of hell, but I dismissed those outright. For one, being in the presence of an Outsider induced sleep, as I had found out first-hand; if the ground really did open up to swallow the hapless, at least they wouldn't be awake to scream. Telling myself that helped alleviate some of the guilt I felt over Chris.

At some point during all this, I stumbled across an internet forum that turned out to be a refuge made up of people who had suffered at the hands of the mysterious beings. It was a small community of only three or four hundred members, but very active and close-knit. Reading through the introductory posts sub-forum was like reliving my story with Chris but with some details changed each time - the loss of a child, a lover, a sibling.  The one that affected me the most had been one of the most recent at the time, written by a girl my age named Kelly. She wrote amazingly candidly about how she had lost her twin sister to the Outsiders, and how the resulting strife had led to her parents divorcing. When I registered the next day, she was the first person to comment on my post.
That community helped me come to terms with the fact that I wouldn't be able to rescue Chris. It was made up of people from all over the world, from myriad different backgrounds and walks of life but all drawn together by a shared experience of loss. It was like a support group, and we all helped one another. They helped me come back out of my shell a little, and encouraged me to make some friends at school. After all, they'd said, having someone to walk home with every once in a while wasn't a bad idea, especially during winter.
Kelly helped most of all. It's safe to say that I had a pretty massive crush on her; everyone on the board knew, and they teased us relentlessly about it. An older couple that had met on the board, Diane and John, constantly said how much we seemed like younger versions of themselves. Kelly took it all in her stride though; one of the things I admired most about her was how she never seemed to let anything faze her. We talked a lot about everything and nothing, first via private messages, then email, text messages, phone and video calls. I was cautious at first, afraid of messing everything up and losing the one safe haven I'd managed to find, but luckily she liked me back. One day, a few months after we had been dating like this, she made a suggestion.
'So... I was thinking,' she'd said suddenly, startling me. We often left our video chat clients running in the background while we idled on our computers; I had been focusing on some coursework and not paying attention to the window with her on it.
'Yeah?'
'I was thinking,' she said again, 'maybe I could come down to visit you? As a sort of belated birthday present kind of thing, y'know?'
I was ecstatic, but tried not to show it over the webcam. Co-ordinating the get-together proved tricky however; she lived a couple of hours away by train, so if we wanted to spend any real amount of time together she'd have to go back in the dark. After thinking it over, I decided to ask my parents if she could stay for the weekend. The request took them completely by surprise; she was the first person I'd wanted to have over since Chris had disappeared, and was a girl at that. They didn't take much convincing though. I hadn't done anything for my sixteenth, and they always liked it when I behaved 'normally' - though they were quick to stress that she'd be staying in the guest bedroom.
She came down the next week. It was incredible finally getting to meet her in person, and my parents took to her too. The first day she stayed over we stayed up well into the night talking, planning future trips, and - once my parents had gone to bed - fooling around. At one point she broke off from me, giggling, only to have the sound fade from her lips. I twisted to see what she was looking at; there was a gap in the curtains, and through it I caught a flash of a silver. I looked back at her, and sharing a look of mutual understanding, we got off the sofa and walked hand in hand over to the window.
The sight that met our eyes was stunning, eliciting a gasp from her. the street outside was filled with more Outsiders than either of us had ever seen - they must have been drawn in greater numbers because of the two of us together. The street shimmered as the moonlight reflected off their pale shrouds; it was eerily beautiful. I took a step forward and, when Kelly hesitated, squeezed her hand reassuringly until she joined me right next to the glass. The sheer number of featureless faces directed towards me was disconcerting, but soon enough there was the familiar ripple of movement as the crowd parted - and this time, two figures emerged from the throng. The smaller figure next to Chris was just as featureless as the rest of the crowd to me, but I could tell by the way Kelly was gripping my hand that it was her little sister.
I placed my hand on the window, and after another moment's brief hesitation she did the same. When her little sister mirrored the gesture it proved too much for her - she jerked her hand away from the glass as if she had been stung, backpedalled away from the window and collapsed to the ground, sobbing. I jerked the drapes shut and did my best to soothe her. When she had calmed down we agreed it was best to call it a night, and went to our - separate - bedrooms. We didn't speak of what had happened for the rest of her stay.

We continued seeing each other like that, making trips and spending a few nights each time, alternating between her place and mine. Save for the first night I spent at hers, I made a point never to check on Chris while with her. It made me feel weirdly guilty, as he was the one who'd brought us together in the first place, but Kelly's reaction to seeing her sister had been so strong that I knew it would be a bad idea. It had really surprised me, but I could understand; as close as Chris and I had been, it couldn't compare to losing your identical twin.
 We applied to all the same universities, and when we got our offers we immediately found a place together. Moving in was every bit as great as we'd hoped. We complemented one another perfectly; her boundless enthusiasm and spontaneity meant we were always trying out new things together, while my more reserved attitude reigned in some of her crazier, more reckless ideas. Those were the happiest days of my life - almost enough to make me forget about the spectre that had brought us together in the first place, if it wasn't for the ever present daily reminder of sunset.
Even so we made the most of it; we'd go out with big groups of friends so we'd always have someone to ward off the Outsiders on our way home, or, failing that, a place to crash for the night. I wasn't a big drinker; I worried too much about the logistics of getting us home, so I just let Kelly cut loose. I loved watching her like that, completely caught up in the moment and unburdened by worry or fear.
Whenever we got home on nights like that, I would quietly sidle over to the bedroom window so as not to wake her, and peer down into the streets below. Gazing down at the sea of upturned faces, blank as masks save for Chris's boyish features, it seemed impossibly long ago that they had taken him from me. In all that time, the only solution I'd found had been to hide from them. How long could it last? Thoughts like that kept me up well into the small hours, when the figures would begin to disperse, evanescent as a morning mist.

We kept the flat after graduating and found jobs nearby. Our social groups grew more disparate as we befriended colleagues, and even our after work time was affected by it. It was strange, not being with one another constantly; after so many years together Kelly's presence had become so familiar that it was almost like missing a limb. We made up for it on weekends though, reliving the early days of our relationship when everything was so new and exciting.
One Friday night, Kelly never made it back home from an after work get-together. It had happened before so I wasn't unduly worried at first, but after calling up her closest friends and the other usual suspects, I started to get frantic. I couldn't sleep that night, and when she still hadn't called home the next day I headed straight to the police station. There couldn't be a search like there had been for Chris, the officer had tried to explain, not unkindly. Adults went missing all the time and for all sorts of reasons; it would be impossible to cover them all.
'Don't worry,' she'd said, 'she'll turn up.'

That was a few weeks ago. The worst part was contacting our parents; my mum had really connected with her, and the look that Kelly's mother gave me when I told her that she'd lost her remaining daughter was an order of magnitude more heart-wrenching than the one Chris's mother had given me, all those years ago.
I decided against saying anything on the forum. It was supposed to be a place of solace, and I didn't want to ruin that. In the time that I'd been posting there, a number of regulars had quit - the fear that something had happened to them was always there, but went unsaid. In the end, I sent John and Diane a text letting them know what had happened, and said that they could share the information with anyone who cared to ask. I wouldn't be back.
I hope with all my heart that the reason Kelly disappeared is simply that she left me; that she found someone better, maybe even someone who could protect her from the Outsiders. Thinking that hurts, but it's better than the alternative. I make sure every curtain in the flat is tightly drawn before nightfall; I daren't look out of a window any more, for fear of seeing her looking back at me.

Friday, 1 February 2013

The Veranda - Original Writing

2013 - short story workshop, first draft

Haha, this course is great for getting me to write more. Wasn't expecting to get called on for this week, but something came up for someone else and I got an email asking if I could do something for Thursday morning.  Fortunately Wednesday night had me brainstorming some ideas for a longer piece I've been wanting to write, ended up amending it to fit the short story mould. Had to cut out two characters which kinda dramatically changed the feel of the whole thing, but I think it still works well. It's quite different from the last thing I posted - a lot of dialogue and not a whole lot going on, to be honest. Still, I had fun with it.


The Veranda

It was a little after two in the afternoon. The sky was blanketed with sheets of white cloud, and the forecast earlier had warned of the possibility of snow. Two men sat in a lounge with a television that was now showing a selection of the same old tired Christmas classics. The older of the two flicked through the channels idly in search of something worth watching, while the younger man languished back on a sofa, his eyes half-closed. The house was filled with the comforting smell of roasting food, and a faint murmur of chatter and clatter of assorted pots and pans could be heard emanating from the kitchen.
The doorbell rang three times in quick succession, its harsh sound breaking the tranquillity of the scene as it resonated through the halls, but bringing a smile to the lips of everyone present.
"That'll be Jade's lot," said the older man, putting down the remote. He made to rise, somewhat laboriously, but the motion was cut short by his companion rising first.
"Don't worry Fred, I'll get it," he said. Fred nodded his head and sank back down into his chair gratefully. The young man left the sitting room and strode down the hall towards the door, but not before the bell rang out three more times. He opened it wide and stood framed in the doorway, his hands on his hips. He glared down at the offenders - two girls, identical down to their matching outfits and dark, bobbed hair.
"What d'you think you're playing at, you little hooligans?" he growled, causing the twins to jump away from the bell and turn towards him sheepishly. Any fleeting guilt they might have been feeling, however, vanished the instant they recognised him.
"Uncle John!" they cried in unison, their eyes lighting up as they mobbed him, causing him to stagger backwards. His face burst into a wide grin and he swept them both up into his arms, causing them to shriek with delight as he whirled them around. Their traditional greeting completed, he rubbed his stubbly cheeks against theirs (despite their protestations) before setting them down again, where they promptly collapsed onto the floor in a giggling, dizzy  heap.
"Where's your mum?" asked John, when they eventually struggled to their feet.
"She's back with dad, maybe helping with the presents," said one.
"Did you buy us any?" added the other, to which the first nodded vigorously.
"I think your granddad said presents had to wait til after lunch. Why don't you go and see if you can convince him to let you open one early? Shoes and coats off first!" he warned, as they made to rush into the house. They stuck their tongues out at him, but did as they were told.
A familiar clacking sound made him turn around; the girls' mother had been making her way up the drive, her slender cane tapping against the ground as she used it to lightly support her left side. She waved as he caught her eye, and he made his way down the slight slope to meet her.
"You made it!" she grinned back at him, bringing her right arm up around his neck as he bent down to wrap her in a gentle embrace. She smelt of summer berries and flowers, directly at odds with the cold winter air surrounding them.
"Hah, as if your sister would let me skip out on Christmas."
"True, Rose is always looking out for you. Did you bring a date this time?" she asked, giving him a sly look.
"We both know that you're the only girl for me."
"Hey now, what's all this?" Another figure, laden with numerous bags and parcels of various sizes, walked into view and made his way towards them.
"Nothing you need to worry about Dave; just reminiscing about how your wife broke my heart when she fell for the first dashing doctor to oversee her surgery and subsequent rehabilitation."
"Hah! Good to see you again John, it's been a while." He set down the bags and John broke apart from Jade to clasp his hand and get pulled into a hug.
"Same to you," John grinned back, then gestured to the bags. "Anything in that lot for me?"
"You're as bad as the girls," said Jade, frowning at his unshod feet on the gravel path. "Aren't those the socks I bought you last year?"
"Oh please, I know you love it. I bet you've got a whole new wardrobe in there for me."
She smiled wryly. "You know me so well. And if I don't dress you, who will?"
"Exactly. Now let's get inside; lunch probably won't be ready for a while, but Teresa will be wanting help with the dessert." He picked up half the bags and ushered the two in out of the cold.

*

It was a little after dinner. John had offered to clear the dishes away, while the twins commandeered the sitting room with their pile of presents. After he finished rinsing and drying the last plate, he decided to use the time to nip out for a quick smoke, ducking into the hall to grab his coat off the rack to do so. He put on a pair of slippers (another gift from Jade from a few years back) and went out.
The back door led on to a wooden veranda, dotted at various intervals with assorted furniture. He placed his glass down on a table and pulled a packet of smokes and a lighter from an inside jacket pocket. He lit up, took a drag and let it out with a sigh, leaning against the railing with his arms out in front of him as he gazed out into the garden. It had gotten gradually colder as the afternoon had worn on, and sure enough small flakes of snow had begun to fall, fulfilling the weatherman's promise. It wasn't yet cold enough for it to settle; a flake landed on his sleeve and he watched it melt.
As he was raising the cigarette to his lips again, he heard the door open behind him, and turned to see that Fred and Dave had followed his example. They grinned at one another, as if to fellow conspirators.
"Shouldn't you two be nestling in the warm bosom of your family?"
Fred gave a snort as he walked over to stand beside him. "What about you? You're just as much a part of it as everyone else."
"Agreed," said Dave. "The girls adore your present, by the way. Said we could all learn a thing or two from you."
John grinned at that; the time he'd spent poring over gift ideas had been worth it then. He made to bring the cigarette back to his lips, then paused halfway.
"You don't mind if I-" he began to ask. Fred cut him off with a dismissive wave, so he took a grateful drag. "Thanks. You're right of course - remember when we put this old thing together?" He rapped on the railing he'd been leaning against. "I'm surprised it's still standing, considering."
"Hah," chuckled Fred, "say what you will about child labour, but it gets the job done. You must have been... fifteen?" John nodded his agreement.
"It was the summer after Jade started working for my parents full-time, when she first introduced me to Rose. God, that was a long time ago."
"Aye, it's incredible the two of you have been together so long. We used to think that, you know..."
"We'd end up together? Yeah, you weren't exactly subtle about it. The anxiety of letting you down ended up stressing Rose out a lot more than the thought of actually coming out!" The two of them chuckled, then John added, with a concealed wink to Fred, "besides, we both know I only had eyes for Jade."
They turned to look at Dave, who had sat down in one of the comfortable chairs and was sipping at his drink, watching their back and forth with amusement.
"You two really need to stop trying to get a rise out of me," he said, calmly. "I'm very handy with a scalpel you know."
"That we do, and we're grateful for it." John retrieved his glass from where he'd left it resting and raised it in a toast, which Dave acknowledged with a wry grin. After the three of them had finished their drinks and John had finished his cig, the other two made to go back in. Fred held the door open for him, but John shook his head.
"I think I'll stay out a little longer. Your house always ends up making me feel nostalgic."
Fred nodded his understanding. "Alright, just don't stay out too long, okay?"
"Sure."

After Fred had closed the door, John walked down the length of the veranda, ignoring the chairs until he got to the corner, where he sank down onto the wooden planking. He brought out another cigarette, but just as he was about to light it the door opened again and Rose walked out, carrying something. He wasn't immediately visible, but she made a beeline directly to him.
"They told me I'd find you he- hey! I thought you quit!"
"For the most part. I've been sneaking a couple here and there," he admitted sheepishly, replacing them in his pocket. "What've you got there?" he asked, in an attempt to change the subject. She gave him a look that indicated that the issue had not been forgotten, but her enthusiasm for the bundle in her hands was more pressing. She unfurled it and he burst out laughing. It was an ancient blanket; dog eared, weather beaten and smelling faintly of mothballs.
"Why on earth does Teresa still have that ratty old thing?"
Rose grinned at him. "I found it upstairs in your old room, folded on the bed. It's a little creepy in there actually? Everything's tidy and untouched. It's like mum's kept a shrine for the son she never had."
"She's got you hasn't she?"
"Hey, I'm as girly as they come! Girlier even, if you think about it."
"Yeah yeah. Come on, get over here." He scooted over and shrugged off his coat, while she dropped down beside him. He draped the coat over the two of them, at which point she swiped the cigarettes and held them aloft triumphantly. He knew better than to press the issue. After squirreling them away, she added the old blanket to the layers and laid her head on his shoulder, in a comfortably familiar position.
They sat there for a while, with no sound but their own breathing, watching the snow whirl about in eddies and the sky slowly darken. He broke the quiet first.
"This takes you back, huh?"
"Yeah," she agreed. "We used to sit like this for hours, back when... you lost your parents, and sis was still in the hospital."
"This blanket's been through a lot with us. I'm glad your mum kept it." A gust of wind swept past them, wafting the combined fragrance of orange, jasmine and, of course, rose past his nose.
"Hey, you're wearing the perfume I bought you."
"Oh yeah, not bad! We got bored watching the kids have all the fun, so we all started opening our own presents. Wanna go in and see what everyone got you? Though I'm not sure you deserve mine anymore, considering..."
"Yeah right," he said. He pushed himself up and hauled her up after him, bundling his coat and the blanket together under one arm. "Alright then, let's see what you got."
"You're going to love it," she grinned, grabbing his free hand and dragging him towards the door.


1958 words