The Need for Sleep

I wrote this story for the ‘Hour of Writes’ competition a few weeks ago. If you haven’t heard of Hour of Writes then I recommend you pay the site a visit. The idea is simple: the theme is set each week and participants are encouraged to write a story, poem or non-fiction piece based on it. A timer is set for one hour, and away you go! Each participant must read and mark three pieces of submitted work in order for their own to be considered for the prize, so it has a real community feel to it.

The theme for that particular was ‘Live the Dream’. Here is what I was able to come up with. I hope you enjoy it.

 

The Need For Sleep

By Adam Dixon

The weak morning sunlight trickled into the hotel room, promising a day of brightness and warmth. For Tomasz, the day could not seem any brighter than it already was. He reclined against the plump pillows on the large bed as the breeze from the open window raised pleasant goose-bumps on his arms. He selected a piece of warm, crispy bread from the tray on his knees and held it up to Justyna’s lips. Justyna, glowing from happiness and from their recent love-making, giggled and opened her mouth to accept the offering. She had never looked so beautiful and Tomasz fell in love with her all over again. Justyna crunched the bread and poked around on the tray for a moment. She lifted a piece of sausage and wriggled closer. The bed sheets she had gathered around her fell away, revealing her naked body for an instant before her raven-coloured hair covered her breasts. She placed a hand delicately on Tomasz’s chest and raised the other to his mouth. Tomasz breathed in the scent of the meat, detecting the sweet herbs added to flavour it. His stomach rumbled and Justyna laughed, bird-like and full of life.
“Eat, my love,” Justyna said, smiling sweetly. Tomasz stared into her pale blue eyes and opened his mouth. He relished the rich, succulent flavour of the meat almost as much as the feeling of Justyna’s fingers on his lips and on his chest. Desire awoke within him again and he gently cupped her face. He leaned forwards and moved his face towards hers…

A bell sounded, piercing and urgent. Tomasz awoke with a start and immediately cried out in despair.
“No! Not again!” he wailed, covering his eyes with his hands. Tears coursed down his leathery, wrinkled face and fell to the floor. The bell rang again impatiently.
“Oh, Justyna!” Tomasz moaned as he swung his weary legs from the warmth of his single bed. He could still taste the sausage on his tongue, and her fingertips still lingered on his lips… Tomasz dressed quickly in a simple shirt and trousers, shoving his feet into his reliable old boots. He stood and gazed at himself in the small, grimy mirror on his bedside table. His rheumy eyes took in the image of an old man, crumpled and heartbroken. His eyes strayed to his left arm and he sighed. He hadn’t removed the Artifact; he detested that part almost as deeply as waking up. He unclasped the leather binding as swiftly as his arthritic fingers would allow before pulling it away. He winced as the sharp stud pulled free from his flesh, dripping blood in a thin crimson river down his forearm. Tomasz wrapped a simple bandage around the wound before shrugging on a battered overcoat. The bell rang again as he tucked the Artifact into a secret compartment next to his bed. Tomasz swore.
“I am coming, you cretin!” he said through clenched teeth. “You had better have a lot of work for me today, I wish to sleep for longer tonight!” He patted the unassuming wooden panel hiding the Artifact for reassurance, then he shuffled out of his tiny room. His employer awaited.

“Tomasz, what the hell kept you?” the mage demanded, his ridiculous green eyebrows arching in annoyance. Tomasz bowed, causing his back to crack audibly.
“My apologies, Master Aleksander,” he wheezed. “I must have overslept.”
“This is happening too often, old man!” the mage snapped, crossing his arms in his voluminous golden sleeves. “Honestly, if you ever came to your senses and ask for proper payment I would dismiss you and hire someone younger!”
“Do not fear, Master Aleksander,” Tomasz said with practiced humility. He glanced up with a sad smile. “All I require is for my tasks to be exhausting and for somewhere to sleep once they are complete. Nothing more.” Aleksander eyed Tomasz with distaste. The man had been using the Artifact again; he positively reeked of the ancient magic. Aleksander shuddered at the idea of using fresh blood to awaken a spell, it was almost medieval. For a moment, Aleksander’s coldness evaporated. If only he could find a way for the Artifact to work with magically-induced sleep…that would give Tomasz a bit of an easier time…if he could just- but no, Aleksander did not have time to waste researching such frivolities.
“Good,” the mage said stiffly, regaining his poise. He jerked a poultice-stained thumb towards a set of wooden stairs. “I have twelve barrels of healing potions which need decanting into the one-hundred-and-twenty flasks you will see in the cellar. They have already been laid out, and they will each need to be stoppered and labelled. Do not spill a single drop, Tomasz, it is expensive stock!”
“Right away, sir!” Tomasz said eagerly. “I do apologise once again for my lateness. I will make it up to you, I promise.” With that, he hurried off to the cellar steps and descended into darkness. Aleksander frowned after him. He was almost certain that the old man was thinner than before. He looked almost skeletal.
“You’re not eating properly, are you?” Aleksander mumbled. He shook his head; he had no time to care about the whims of an old labourer!
“Bah! If he wishes to tread this path, so be it!” he said to himself. “I’m not his keeper! I’ll not interfere!”

Tomasz fell asleep almost as soon as his head hit his pillow that night. He had willed his aching, fatigued body back to his claustrophobic room and had attached the Artifact as soon as he could. The brief sting followed by the unnatural throbbing as the magic leaked into him did not prevent him from slipping away quickly. His eyes opened within a dream almost right away. He looked down at his hands. They were old and wrinkled, so it was not a dream of younger times. A shame, but it couldn’t be helped. He glanced around him, and his heart sank in his chest.
He was in a hospital. Sterile white walls surrounded him on all sides and the reek of stale urine and futile disinfectant invaded his nostrils. A corridor stretched out in front of him, and at the end of it was a single bed. On it lay a shape which he couldn’t quite make out, but he knew it was Justyna.
“No, not this one…” he croaked, closing his eyes tight and willing himself to wake up. The offensive odour grew stronger and he heard a weak voice call his name.
“Tomasz? Tomasz, where are you?”
“Justyna!” Tomasz opened his eyes and lurched forward as a strangled sob escaped his lips. His footsteps boomed on the floor, echoing loudly around him and lancing into his ears like daggers. He staggered into a run, seeing the bed moving closer, but slowly, oh so slowly!
“Tomasz? Tomasz, are you there? Tomasz…I’m frightened…”
“I’m coming, my love!” Tomasz called desperately. “I’ll not leave you!” Tomasz hauled himself along the corridor, his old legs protesting and his chest tightening painfully as his breathing came out in short gasps. After what seemed like hours Tomasz reached the bed. It was a simple affair, just a thin mattress on top of a bench, but that was all the space the hospital had been able to provide them with at the time. The Plague had spread so quickly…
“Tomasz?” Justyna tried to raise herself in the bed, her wasted arms trembling with the effort. Her once-radiant face was gaunt and discoloured by the consuming disease, and the light in her beautiful eyes was dim. Tomasz gently lowered her back down and took both of her hands. He forced a smile and blinked away tears as he fought to catch his breath.
“I am…here, Justyna,” he said. “I will…always be…here,”
“Oh, Tomasz, I hurt so,” Justyna said miserably. Her back arched and she winced in pain. Her bony fingers gripped his weakly, and Tomasz felt her wedding band slide up a few millimeters at the movement.
“It’s alright, my love,” he wheezed, leaning down to kiss her cheek. It was so cold, and so thin. She even smelled wrong, like the disinfectant on the floors. Tomasz’s lips trembled as he kissed her and he fought to the urge to cry out in despair. Instead he whispered in Justyna’s ear.
“I love you, Justyna,” he said, channeling all of his passion into the words. “Gods, I love you so much…”
“I love you too, Tomasz,” Justyna said, cradling his head with her arms. They clung to one another in silence, neither knowing what to say. Tomasz wished he could do something, anything for her.
“Tomasz, will we see the Grand Budapest again?” Justyna asked, breaking the oppressive silence with a faint voice. Tomasz choked down a sob; the Grand Budapest was the hotel where they had spent their honeymoon.
“I think so, my love,” he whispered. “You just need to get better first. The doctors will make you strong again, you’ll see.”
“Oh, that’s good,” Justyna said, lying back down with her eyes closed. She wore a smile, and Tomasz smiled as well. Justyna’s breathing became less labourious, and she appeared to relax. Tomasz still held her hands in his, and felt the tears splashing on to them. He opened his mouth to speak to her…

The bell rang sharply. Tomasz was jerked awake and ran a hand across his wet cheeks.
“Oh, Justyna,” he said, shaking his head and groaning. He sat up and pulled away the Artifact, not caring that the blood spattered onto his pillow. He stood and dressed himself, preparing for the next day of work. He stared into the mirror once again, and then staggered off. He sincerely wished for a better dream that evening…

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Undead Dating – Collaboration!

Hello everyone! Back in June, which already seems like a lifetime ago, I attended the Blogger’s Bash in London and met some fantastic bloggers and writers. One such blogger was Steve, who with whom I clicked right away. Steve’s blog, Talk About Pop Music, is great fun and provides some well-informed information about a a variety of successful pop songs. I’d thoroughly recommend a visit! Anyway, we got chatting and Steve suggested that we collaborate in the future. I was happy to take him up on the offer.

Steve’s suggestion was that I write a short story based on the lyrics of a song of his choosing. He chose “Here in my Heart” by Al Martino, which interestingly was the very first UK Number One!  The subject matter of my story is perhaps not what most people would think of when hearing Mr Martino’s dulcet tones, but I enjoyed the way it unraveled for me regardless. I’m going to post it on my below but please do visit Steve’s blog for the original post and for some pop music entertainment! Cheers, Steve, I’m excited to finally work with you!

 

Undead Dating

By Adam Dixon

Horatio Brudenell-Cavendish shambled across the half-destroyed streets of Brighton, his undead heart heavy in his chest. He raised his head to watch the dark, churning thunderclouds and the flames dancing across the sky. Before he had perished in a drunken accident in 1756, he hadn’t expected his afterlife to be lonelier than his mortal existence, but here he was, reborn into a world where humans had been utterly vanquished with no-one to talk to. His black thoughts and self-deprecation had pursued him into this new awakening, and he doubted that this time he could end it so effectively.

“Oh, Lord, what a cruel joke you have played upon me!” he said, staring with dry, withered eyes at the terrifying flashes of light and fire which lit up the sky. “Was I so detestable to you in life that you must punish me so in death? Am I never to be loved?” The last sentence Horatio whispered, the sound barely audible and barely escaping the confines of his ruined throat. He saw the now familiar sight of hundreds of undead staggering across the remainder of the town and ignored them. He would not speak with them, and why should he? They were probably still rabid from the looks of them, and he had no desire to spend his time with such brutes. He dragged his feet aimlessly until he stood before a burned shell that was once a modern church. Even the holy places hadn’t escaped divine justice, it seemed. His sad eyes caught sight of a bright, cheerful poster which proudly announced that “The Brighton Undead Speed-dating Service is operating once again!”, and would take place at eight o’clock that evening on Brighton Pier. Horatio stared at it for a few moments before sighing and heading off in the direction of the pier. He had little hope of finding someone to spend eternity with, but he couldn’t allow himself to give up completely. Besides, he’d see Elsie again, and that alone was worth it. With that thought in mind, he smoothed the creases of his dirty waistcoat and tightened his frayed, mud-covered tie as best he could and pressed on.

***

The dating hall took place in the remains of the old arcade on Brighton Pier. Horatio still wasn’t certain he knew what an arcade was, but judging by the strange, oddly-coloured machines guarding the perimeter of the room he thought it must have been a forbidding place. The Pier had mostly survived the End Times, but everything past the hall had been destroyed and fallen into the ashen sea. The putrid odours of rotten and burnt wood hung heavy in the air, wrinkling noses which ought to have been used to it by now. The harsh wind screamed around the room from the gaping maw at the end of it, and coupled with the rough splashing of the waves it made it difficult to hear what was being said.

“So, have you been to one of these nights before?” the werewolf seated in front of Horatio asked in a loud growl. Horatio nodded, a greasy lock of black hair falling across his mottled forehead.

“Yes, I have tried my hand at these evenings thrice now,” he shouted, trying to sound interested. His eyes kept flicking back towards the zombie who stood at the door, watching the proceedings like a proud mother. Despite the disfigurement caused by her reanimation, Horatio thought she was beautiful. Her clothes, which had been in the ground a far shorter time than Horatio’s, were the brightest garments in the hall, regardless of the mud stains. Elsie Cartwright was like a shining beacon to a man adrift in a storm.

“Can’t’ve been much of a hit with the ladies, then!” the werewolf barked, shaking her great snout. Horatio’s attention snapped back to her and he forced a smile.

“Evidently not,” he said with a sigh. The werewolf cocked her head and gazed at him, a strange look coming into her yellow eyes. Horatio fidgeted, wishing the bell would ring again and signal the end of their three minutes together.

“Can’t think why, though,” she said, her pink tongue lapping at her chops. “You’re more interesting than most of the groaners I’ve met. Better looking, too.” The wolf huffed and turned away in embarrassment and Horatio grimaced. In life he had been tall, dark and handsome, but in death he was just as repulsive as everyone else.

“Ahh…well, thank you, madame, you are most kind,” he said, wondering whether or not he should return the compliment. The wolf certainly looked expectant. As he struggled for something positive to say about her, the bell rang.

“Oh, time’s up!” the werewolf said reluctantly. “Nice meeting you. Don’t be a stranger, now!” She gave what Horatio assumed passed for a wink. He smiled back and nodded politely, thanking her for her time. Standing up, he shambled over to the neighbouring table and approached the next eager face. The hall became animated as several others did the same, albeit rather slowly. The participants were obliged to endure an extra two minutes of “walking time” as the zombies present took a while to change tables. Horatio felt as if it would be a very long night. He looked up at Elsie as he sat down in front of his next “date” and she smiled and waved at him. Horatio felt his undead heart soar and he smiled back. He then forced himself to focus his attention on the newest bag of hideous in front of him and resolved to wait to speak to Elsie. She would be much more agreeable company, he was certain, and he would feel better for hearing her voice.

“’Ello ‘andsome!” the zombie in front of him leered. It had one good eye and its jaw was hanging by a few rotted threads of sinew. Horatio wasn’t sure if it was male or female, but he suspected that asking such a question would not start their meeting in the most positive light. Just another hour and a half, Horatio¸ he thought to himself, then you may speak with Elsie. Steeling himself, Horatio began conversing with his next “date”.

***

“I beg your pardon, Miss Elsie,” Horatio began once the “dating” had finished. “May I help you in any way?” He had managed to politely decline the werewolf’s offer of a night-cap without causing offense and had waited with impatience as the undead made their snail-like progress back to town. Horatio had taken a deep breath and shuffled over to Elsie. She turned to look at him and smiled.

“Oh, hello there, Horatio!” she said with genuine pleasure. “That is very kind of you! Yes, if you don’t mind, I could use a hand clearing away the tables. I’ll be here all night by myself, you see.” Horatio nodded, knowing all too well the limitations of their reawakened bodies. He set to work aiding her and worried over what to say. I must begin a conversation, damn it! He thought to himself with irritation. Why am I such a damnable bore? A bolt of lightning darted across the sky and struck a building somewhere in town, a tremendous crash filling the air a moment later. Still Horatio was mute.

“Any luck tonight?” Elsie asked, saving him from the awkward silence.

“Not especially, Miss Elsie,” he replied, spreading his arms wide. “Perhaps I am not good enough for the creatures of this new world. I daresay that I wasn’t much of a man for my betrothed in my former life, either, being a drunken scoundrel.”

“Oh, rubbish! I’ll not have you sayin’ that!” Elise chided, swatting him lightly on his shoulder. “You’re a strapping figure of a man, or at least you were, an’ anyone can see that! You’re a fair deal more agreeable than most of the folk from your time an’ all! An’ from my time, too, as it happens. My old hubby never spoke to me the way you do.” Horatio blushed, feeling what little blood he had left rise to his face. Elsie had died in the 1930’s, and she had lived a life destined to be frustrated by social barriers. They had become greatly reduced when compared to Horatio’s time, but they had not progressed enough for a strong-willed woman like Elsie.

“You have my thanks, Miss Elsie,” Horatio stammered. “Have you…have you had any potential…suitors?” he asked her, afraid of the answer but needing to know. Elsie looked at him and a shy smile crept across her face.

“Actually, there was a charming ghostly fella who spoke to me tonight,” she said. “I know it’s not my policy to get involved but he was ever so nice. He was a Frenchman who died whilst visitin’ the area centuries ago. Very polite an’ not at all high-an’-mighty, much like yourself, Horatio! I think I might like to see him again.” Horatio felt panic flood his body and he was struck dumb by the feeling. Come on you, fool! His mind screamed at him. It is now or never!

“Miss Elsie, I…” Horatio began, chewing at his lower lip. It tasted awful and the shock of it made him forget his embarrassment. “I wonder if you would consider spending some time with me instead?” Elsie paused during folding a chair.

“With you, Horatio?” she said, her eyebrow rising and her mouth opening slightly. Horatio cleared his throat and continued.

“Yes, I understand that it is somewhat improper of me,” he said, smoothing the front of his half-rotten suit jacket. “But, you see, I have been…in love…with you for some time now.” Horatio looked at Elsie with sincerity in his eyes. Elsie’s eyes widened and her hand flew to her breast.

“Miss Elsie, since I have reawakened I have been so alone,” he said, stepping towards her. “My heart is lonely, and my soul although it be damned cries out for a companion. I…wish to spend the rest of my unnatural life with you, Miss Elsie. You would complete me.” Horatio trailed off, surprised by his tenderness and feeling the beginnings of panic returning. Oh, Lord, what if she denies me? He thought with desperation. I will die all over again! Elsie stood watching him, her undead eyes blinking rapidly. The wind howled around the arcade in a mocking laugh and the pier creaked ominously as if it were about to collapse. Horatio almost wished that it would.

“Oh, Horatio,” she whispered. “You do have a way with words! Any girl would be lucky to hear them!”

“Miss Elsie, I will give you my arms gladly if only you will restore this blackened, un-beating heart of mine,” Horatio said, reaching out a wasted, green-hued hand. Elsie laughed and seized it, gripping it tightly and beaming like an angel. Horatio felt his shoulder groan and worried that he might live up to his promise in a more literal fashion than he had intended.

“Horatio, you’ve said enough pretty words,” Elsie said, gazing into his eyes. “We’ve time enough for those and more besides! Truth be told, I’ve not had eyes for anyone else since you first walked in here. I’ll share your arms an’ give you mine also, you silver-tongued charmer!” Horatio felt his spirit dance and his heart suddenly flutter in his chest like a phoenix arising from ashes. He had never felt so happy, even in his mortal days. Elsie took his other hand and smiled at him.

“But let’s take it slowly, shall we?” Elsie said with a sly wink. “No need to rush when we’ve got all of eternity before us!”

“No, indeed not, Miss Elsie!” Horatio said, his own face breaking into a wide smile. He ignored the unnerving creak as his jaw stretched and he stared deep into Elsie’s eyes. Happiness, I have found you at last! he thought. Perhaps the new, dead world would not be so bad after all.

 

An Update & a Reblog!

Good evening, all! Happy Hallowe’en and have fun with your ghoulish night of tricks, treats and stuffing yourself to the eyeballs with sweeties!

Now, some of you may have noticed that I have been a bit lax recently with my blog. Whilst my inactivity saddens me, it is mainly due to the fact that I have been gearing up to take part in this year’s National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo for short) and that has taken up a large portion of my writing time. Because of this, I have been unable to pen a horror story for this evening, but I will instead provide the link to a short story I wrote back in April, entitled “Unreal“. In fact, I wrote this piece as part of a different writing challenge, which was actually undertaken as a warm-up to Nanowrimo! I hope that it will suffice and that you enjoy reading it if you haven’t already.

I have a small pile of completed stories, both new and old, which I will be posting throughout November, as well as providing updates on my Nanowrimo progress as I slog through it. I apologise in advance for the lack of routine, and I will get straight back on to working on my ‘Fiction Fursday’ stories in December, which I am thrilled to say have been quite successful!

Enjoy your evening, one and all, and if any of you are getting involved in Nanowrimo , please get in touch!

 

UNREAL
By Adam Dixon

Jack could hardly believe the realism of the game. As soon as he pulled down the visor-screen he could almost swear that he was standing in a meadow during the height of summer, rather than sat in his ergonomic gaming chair in his draughty South-London flat. He could nearly feel the grass tickling his feet and taste the pollen in the air. The box containing the virtual reality system boasted “A gaming world so real, it’ll leave you drained!” It certainly was visually impressive.

“Wow,” he whistled in appreciation. “Pretty good start!” He glanced down at himself and marvelled at the physique of his chosen character. He gazed in wonder at a bare torso covered with rippling, solid muscle and saw equally strong legs supporting him. He almost whooped in delight. He was just like Conan the Barbarian!…

Click here to read on, if you dare…

Fiction Fursday/Night Terrors

Today’s story prompt was provided by my beautiful, long-suffering partner, Samwise. She has been trying to come up with a prompt for me since I started these Fiction Fursday posts, and she finally came up with a good one. She suggested that I write a story where “a person is hiding in their wardrobe from an intruder and his/her phone rings”.

This sounded like a great one to me, but I was determined not to write anything too obvious. I reckon I managed it, as when Samwise read the first draft she said “Well, that’s not really what I meant!”. I’m hoping that’s a good thing and I hope you all enjoy the tale I have come up with.

P.S. If anyone would like to provide a prompt for me to use in the future, please leave your suggestion in the comment section. Thanks!

 

Night Terrors

By Adam Dixon

Maggie awoke shivering from the cold. She closed her eyes and tried to drift back to the warm retreat of sleep, but she could not. Rubbing her eyes she crawled from her bed and staggered over to window. It was closed. She stood for a moment, scratching at her bed-hair and creasing her round face in confusion.

“Bit chilly for June…” she mumbled, moving with groggy steps towards her large wardrobe. She passed her desk, barely registering the birthday cards which sat there. “34 and Ready for More!” a pink one proclaimed, a gift from her neighbours. Next to it was her mobile which she scooped up and activated the torch app. She began rooting around inside the wardrobe, pushing blouses, dresses and cardigans out of the way.

“In here somewhere…” she said, still not fully awake. She knelt down and crawled inside the cupboard, thrusting aside sensible shoes and suitcases. Her fingers closed around the soft fabric of her dressing gown and she smiled in triumph.

Her bedroom door creaked open. Maggie froze, her eyes widening as she came awake in an instant. It was not the gentle creak of a breeze but the sound of the door being pushed. Maggie had always lived alone. A single footstep announced the arrival of an intruder. Then another. Another.

Maggie crawled further into the wardrobe, careful not to knock the sides as she turned around. Lucky for her it was large and she was able to sit against the back of it with her clothes hanging down over her face.  She shut off the torch on her phone, praying that whoever was in the room didn’t see it. Her mind raced as she tried to figure out what she should do next. Should she make a run for it and call the police? She didn’t even know what was happening! Should she stay where she was? That seemed like the best idea for the time being, but what if the intruder looked in?

Maggie tried to control her breathing as her panicked mind began throwing up suggestions as to who her intruder might be. It was that thief who escaped from the nearby prison the week before! It was one of those psychotic murderers she had learned about on TV! Or maybe it was a vampire, like in that scary book she was reading…She resolved to keep silent and not move at all…

Maggie’s phone began to ring. The high-pitched screech of her basic ringtone cut through the silence and Maggie’s heart leaped into her throat. Scrabbling furiously, she lifted it and prepared to swipe right to reject the call. She looked at her phone and her pounding heart seemed to freeze over. Her bulging eyes threatened to burst from their sockets and the blood drained from her face. The caller I.D. informed her that “Mum x” was calling…Maggie’s mother had been dead for seven years.

The clothes covering Maggie’s head were ripped from the railings with a vicious tug. Maggie screamed in terror and curled into a ball, waiting for the first blow of an axe or the sting of fangs on her throat.

“Margaret, there you are!” a voice hissed. A familiar, impossible voice… Maggie opened her eyes and forced herself to peer up into the darkness . Standing before her, as white as snow and dressed in mouldy clothes, was her mother. A strangled cry was torn from Maggie’s throat.

“Mum?!” she whispered. The phone was still ringing in her hand.

“In the flesh!” her mother replied, with a harsh cackle. That wasn’t right, Maggie’s mother had never cackled. “Or as near as I can be!” More cackling raised goose-bumps on Maggie’s skin. Her phone stopped ringing.

“But…how? You’ve been…”

“I know, I know,” her mother waved a hand with impatience. Her skin was translucent and Maggie could see her flowery wallpaper through it. The thin, pinched face of Elizabeth Goodwin looked just the same as it always had, except for the unpleasant smile stretching from ear to ear. Elizabeth had rarely smiled.

“I should be a rotten mess by now, eh?” Elizabeth grinned, her eyes wide and alight with madness. She struck a dramatic pose with her hand against her forehead.

“Oh, but I ought to be returned to the dust from whence I came, hadn’t I?” Elizabeth moaned. “Alas, my child, that was not to be my fate!” Maggie blinked rapidly and shook her head. Elizabeth had never made jokes either.

“I must be dreaming…” she said. “This is a nightmare…” She scrabbled for the rosary beads around her neck.

“Oh, you’re not dreaming, my dear,” Elizabeth rasped, crouching before her terrified daughter. She stabbed a ghostly finger towards the beads. “And that trinket won’t protect you! The nightmare is mine, not yours, I am the punished one here!”

“Punished?” Maggie’s head whirled. “What do you mean? You were so pious when you were alive!”

“Wrong God, my dear,” Elizabeth said with a sneer. “Devote your life to the wrong God, and the real one is quite unforgiving! The chains…oh, the chains! Would you believe it, Dicken’s was almost right!” Elizabeth stood again, throwing her head back in a shrill laugh. The noise echoed around Maggie’s small bedroom, bouncing off the walls and lancing into her ears.

“Dickens…what do you mean?” Maggie asked, struggling to stand. Her legs were trembling and her heart was hammering in her chest. She felt as if she were on the verge of fainting.

“Dickens, girl!” Elizabeth said. “Jacob Marley! He returned from the dead with great, heavy chains wrapped around him! Well, Dickens was close, oh so close! But his chains would be better than these…”

“Chains? Where?” Maggie cast her fearful eyes across her mother’s body.

“Chains in here,” Elizabeth tapped her temple with a pale finger. “Too much…such awful suffering…it drives you MAD!” Maggie recoiled at the shouted word, pressing herself into the wardrobe again. Elizabeth took a step forwards with a rictus grin on her face and hunger in her eyes.

“But I can throw them off…just for one night….seven years from the day….” Elizabeth was muttering now, not talking to anyone in particular. She reached out towards Maggie, who slipped down the wardrobe and into a whimpering ball once again.

“Mum, no, please!” She begged. “Whatever you’re doing, please stop!” Elizabeth continued walking towards her, muttering again.

“Just one night…one night to make them stop…” Elizabeth paused, her hands inches from Maggie’s face. A horrible light gleamed in her eyes. “By the way, happy birthday for yesterday, dear!” She barked a laugh and lunged.

“Mum! NO!” Maggie screeched as Elizabeth’s cold fingers gripped her face. Elizabeth’s back straightened and her head swung backwards, her eyes rolling and her mouth going slack. Maggie’s world exploded into horrific, blood-curdling noise. She heard the screams and whimperings of men, women and children, old and young alike. She heard moans and shrieks, cries of anguish and shouts of pain. Each voice followed the other, as one reached its end the next one started; there was no respite. No single voice was the same, but the screams were united by one emotion: fear. Maggie bellowed and dug her fingers into her ears in a desperate attempt to block out the noise. The wailing continued unabated.

“What’ve you done?” Maggie shouted, barely able to hear herself over the noise. “MAKE IT STOP!”

Elizabeth stood still, gazing around the room in wonder. She touched a hand to her forehead and smiled.

“They’ve gone…” she breathed, relief clear in her voice. “I can’t hear them anymore…it worked!”

“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO ME?!” Maggie cried, squeezing her eyes shut against the torrent of suffering. Elizabeth glanced down at her daughter and smiled without a hint of sympathy.

“What you are hearing is my punishment,” she said, matter-of-factly. “You are listening to the final, terrified screams of everyone who has died or is dying in this world. Once upon a time I would have felt awful about doing this to you, Margaret, but not now. Tonight, you are my saviour!”

“MUM, MAKE IT STOP!” Maggie began to writhe around on the floor as the screams continued their relentless assault. Elizabeth cackled and swept out of the room with the contented sigh of a free woman, leaving Maggie alone.

The living cannot hope to cope with such torment. That night, Maggie’s mind broke down and she was driven insane by the incessant screaming. Her terrified neighbours awoke to her cries and called the police, fearful of a violent attack. The police arrived and found Maggie writhing on the bedroom floor, sobbing and begging incoherently. She was taken to a psychiatric hospital and sedated, but to the horror of the staff she carried on screaming even whilst unconscious. She continued to do so until the first rays of dawn, which brought with it a blessed silence. However, Maggie’s mind never recovered. She was duly sectioned and spent her remaining years staring into space and babbling to herself. She would be heard muttering “chains”, “Dickens was close” and “Mum, why?” over and over again. This would continue, and once every seven years her screaming would begin anew…

The Slacker

I wrote this story today on my lunch break. It’s partially inspired by my lack of activity over the last fortnight, for which I feel guilty about. I’d gotten into a satisfying writing routine which made me happy and I will strive to get back on track with it. Unfortunately because I am a hideous slacker there will be no Fiction Fursday story until next week, sorry! Until then, I hope you all enjoy this little tale of a bloke who has a MUCH better excuse for his lack of productivity!

Here’s to getting back on track!

 

The Slacker

By Adam Dixon

John pushed open the door to his office with a shaking hand. His palm left a sooty smear on the white paint and his once-sensible shoes trailed mud and grime across the blue carpet. Pulling out his wheeled chair John sat down heavily and released a pent-up sigh of weariness. He slouched comfortably, content to close his eyes and steal a few moments of peace. He wrinkled his nose as the stale freshness of the room began to flee before his breath-taking stench. He reeked of sweat and ash and blood. Another sigh followed his first, this one of resignation.

It had been a week since he had last sat at his desk. Only a week, John thought in disbelief. What had begun as a perfectly ordinary, mechanical, boring week had spiralled into long, nightmarish days filled with fear, desperation and the struggle for survival. Heroes, too, John thought. He supposed that he could count himself among the men and women who deserved that title. He’d certainly earned it. He opened his eyes and glanced down at the thing in his hand. It was a long tooth, blackened and twisted with a razor-sharp point at the end. It was smooth to the touch despite its obvious age and John grimaced as he thought of the blood it had spilled recently. He could hardly believe that he, John the humble accountant, had proven to be one of the saviours of the world, but the tooth was conclusive evidence. Perhaps it was something to show his future grandchildren now that there would actually be a future to look forward to. John smiled for the first time that week and placed the grisly object on top of his desktop screen. With another sigh John booted up his computer.

The PC whirred quickly into life and beeped at him merrily. For once John found the noise comforting; it was as if nothing whatsoever had changed in the world. Scanning his build-up of unread emails John suppressed a groan and rolled his eyes. He’d received several over the last few days from his most demanding client, a man who had managed to remain short-sighted and irritating even whilst the world was coming to an end. Never mind the fact that John had been pressed into the fight to save both of their lives as well as those of everyone else on the planet, the client demanded a quick response to his tax issues. There were a few choice words flung at John in some of them, the basic gist of them all insisting that John was some kind of over-paid slacker in a tie. That’s not true, John frowned, and I lost my tie four days ago!

John ran filthy hand through his filthier hair and took off his blood-flecked glasses. Ignoring the painful protestation of his wounded leg he stood up and turned off his computer. Nodding curtly John limped towards the bathroom. After all he had been through that week, he figured that he had earned a break. A hot shower with lavender soap and a deep sleep in an actual bed at least. The client could afford to wait this time. John carefully wriggled out of his ruined shoes and dug his aching toes luxuriously into the soft carpet. Oh yes, the client could most certainly wait!

Fiction Fursday/The Boy and the Oak Tree

Hello, everyone! It’s Thursday again, and time for another story! This week’s offering was prompted by a fellow blogger and fiction writer, Sarah. Sarah suggested that I write a story about a ghost who is haunted by a human who won’t leave them alone. Well, I thought that was a bloody brilliant idea and so I went for it. Thank you, Sarah!

Here’s what I was able to come up with. I hope you enjoy it.

P.S. If any of you lovely readers out there would like to suggest a story for me to write on another Thursday, please tell me so by leaving a comment. Thanks!

The Boy and the Oak Tree

By Adam Dixon

“Heaven preserve me, not again!” Catherine groaned as she saw the boy approaching. She’d had it up to her undead neck of his gawking but she could not dissuade him from returning night after night. She considered vanishing from sight or disappearing into the gnarled oak nearby but dismissed the thought. The cursed lad would only hang around anyway! So instead she was forced to wait until he had crested the grassy hill and strode eagerly towards her. He looked like a hound loping towards his master. Idiot boy.

“So, here you are again, boy,” Catherine sighed, resting her hands on her hips.

“Course I am, Cathy!” the youth squeaked, his pimpled face lighting up. He was roughly eleven or twelve years old, rather small and bespectacled. “I told you I’d be back, didn’t I? I don’t like to think of you being stuck here by yourself.”

“I have managed perfectly well for over a century, thank you very much!” Catherine snapped.

“Yeah, but now you don’t have to!” the youth said. He brushed aside lock of lank, greasy hair as it strayed across his eyes and winked at his pale companion. “I’ve got your back, Cathy!”

“Will you stop calling me Cathy!” Catherine shouted, her neat hair springing loose from beneath her bonnet. “Really, young man, you are far too familiar! A woman of my station should be addressed as “my Lady”, never by her Christian name, or by any ludicrous shortening of it! If you must insist on invading my solitude then you must learn to address me correctly!”

“As you wish, my lady!” the lad chuckled and bowed low, sweeping his right arm around in a flourrish. He glanced up from his stoop, frowning at Catherine.

“By the way, Cathy,” he asked. “What’s your station, anyway?” Catherine raised her eyes to the sky and wondered what she had done to deserve such a tiresome companion.

“In life I was the Lady Catherine Seymour of Somerset, boy,” she replied, standing straight and regaining her poise. “I did not suffer fools then and I do not intend to begin doing so now! Consider yourself warned!”

“Sure thing, Cathy!” the lad winked again and sat down on the grass. Catherine longed for the dawn and wondered if all modern children were as irritating as this one. She grumbled to herself and stalked over to the other side of the oak, wishing that the boy would leave her alone.

 

A few years passed and the boy continued to return. Catherine’s annoyance had lessened somewhat but she still found strong words to say to him.

“Young man, why in God’s name are you wearing that awful shirt?” she demanded, her stern face darkened by a frown. The boy glanced down at his t-shirt. He had grown a few inches taller and had the feeble beginnings of a moustache growing above his lip.

“It’s just a band shirt, Cathy,” he replied, scratching at his bony elbow.

“It has the image of a lunatic displayed on it!” Catherine protested.

“Oh yeah, they’re called Iron Maiden, and that bloke’s their mascot. They’re awesome! I’ll bring my iPhone next time and play you some of their music!” The lad was grinning with excitement.

“Hmph!” Catherine said, grimacing. “Keep your ridiculous fashions to yourself, please!” Catherine folded her arms and sat down beside the oak. The lad sighed and settled on the hill next to her. After a few moments of silence and picking at blades of grass he spoke again.

“Cathy, I’ve been reading up about ghosts,” he said. “And it’s got me thinking. I reckon you’re a lost spirit, held here because of unfinished business during your life.”

“Fascinating.” Catherine replied, rolling her eyes. The moon was full that night and she enjoyed the way her ethereal form seemed to absorb its lunar glow. She almost felt beautiful..

“I was thinking that if we can find out what yours is, we can help you move on. You know, to the afterlife!” The lad’s eyes shone behind his spectacles. “You could finally rest, Cathy!”

Catherine tutted and glared at the lad.

“Do you think that a few books will reveal the mysteries of the afterlife to you?” she said. “I am bound here because of the life I led and the manner of my death, nothing more. God has not seen fit to allow me into Heaven and this is a reality I must accept. Clearly, you have been guided towards me as part of my punishment!”

“Oh, don’t be like that, Cathy!” the lad looked hurt. “Come on, there must be something we can work with? Maybe your death! How did you die, anyway?”

“I took my own life on 8th June 1867.” She turned her head, her ghostly eyes meeting the lad’s shocked ones.

They did not say anything for the rest of that evening.

 

“Hi, Cathy,” the lad said, although in truth he was no longer a lad. He had grown tall and his body had filled out leaving him looking healthy and strong. His pimpled face had smoothed and his cheeks boasted the stubble of a man. He looked rather fetching, although Catherine would never tell him that.

“Hello again,” she said, scratching her nose with pale fingers. “It has been a month since your previous visit. I was beginning to believe that I had finally gotten rid of you.”

“Ha! Never that easily!” the man chuckled. He became serious and stepped closer to Catherine. “Listen, I’ve been reading more on unfinished business,” the lad’s voice had taken on a bass rumble which reminded Catherine of father. She found the faded memories it evoked unsettling.

“Have you, indeed?” She asked, inspecting a translucent nail.

“Yeah, I have,” the man replied. “I think it’s time you moved on, Cathy. All the books I’ve read tell me that you need to move on soon or you’ll lose what’s left of your mind. You’ll end up like a wraith. Now, I’ve spoken to a local reverend who can talk to spirits as well and I think he can-“

“No!” Catherine said, quivering with sudden rage. “I refuse to be examined by any priest! It is bad enough that you are still visiting me! No, I forbid it!” The man sighed.

“Alright, alright,” he said as he shrugged his shoulders. “No priests. But I’d still like to help you, Cathy. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do since I found you here.”

“Your concern is neither desired nor appreciated!” Catherine lied. She had warmed to the man over the years despite her better judgement. She found his drive to help her to be sweet, if rather annoying at times. If only she had received that level of dedication from her family…

“You’ve still got such a way with words, Cathy,” the man laughed and shook his head. Catherine turned her back on the man, hiding a smile as it crept across her face.

 

“I think it’s time, Cathy,” the old man said. Catherine had watched the man shamble up and over the crest, feeling pity overwhelm her excitement. By then she openly looked forward to his visits, although she couldn’t remember when that had occurred. She found a sense of solace in his company which she had lacked during the century she had stood alone.

“What do you mean, young man?” she asked. She still insisted on calling him “young man” despite his physical seniority over her, her trump card being that she had existed for almost two centuries and him not quite one.

“I’m dying, Cathy,” the man wheezed, mopping at his sweating brow with a tissue. He looked terrible: his eyes were sunken in purple pits and the pallor of his skin was akin to Catherine’s. Catherine gasped, moving towards him.

“What? But…you can’t!” she spluttered. “You can’t die! I…how will you visit me?”

“I won’t, that’s the real kick in teeth,” the old man replied, a wry smile tugging at his lips. He closed his eyes and grimaced, a hand over his heart. Catherine reached out to touch his hand. Her arm passed through his body without resistance and in that moment she became aware of the weak fluttering of his pulse. It was like a fly struggling against the paper which held it stuck.

“Ooooh, don’t do that, Cathy!” the man laughed, pausing to cough. “I’m cold enough in this bloody gown!” The hospital gown was already grass-stained and it rustled gently in the wind. Catherine withdrew her arm, desperate for something to say.

“I…but…you can’t…” Catherine had never felt so terrified. She had become familiar with her solitude in the previous century, but the time before she knew the boy seemed aeons ago. She was afraid to go back to those long lonely nights. Horribly, mind-numbingly afraid.

“It’ll be alright, Cathy,” the old man said. He lay down and ran a skeletal finger across his white moustache.

“But why…are you here?” Catherine managed to ask. “You’re sick…surely you ought to be with a doctor, or at least a family member or a friend?” The old man smiled weakly.

“I was, but I managed to give them the slip,” he chuckled briefly before a series of racking coughs stopped him. Catherine’s heart wrenched with every one, her eyes widening in alarm as spots of blood flew from the man’s lips and decorated his gown. He finally stopped and rested his head again, panting.

“I…had to see you…again,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper. His eyes flickered towards Catherine. “One last…visit.”

“But what shall I do without you?” Catherine wailed, feeling wretched and helpless. “You brought light to my existence when all I could see was darkness! My family and friends never cared a whit for me, not like you do!” She cast her head about to and fro, as if her denial could prevent the inevitable. “I never even asked you your name!” She cried, half in disbelief. Had she really never asked him that?! The man smiled again and spoke, his voice barely audible over the sound of the blowing wind. Catherine leaned in close, afraid that the jealous breeze would snatch away the man’s words.

“Can still…help…unfinished…business…” the man’s eyes closed and his final breath stumbled from his throat as a rasping sigh. Catherine stared down at the body of her only friend, aghast and dumbstruck. She felt the unbearable weight of loneliness crashing down on her ghostly form, twisting her heart into painful knots which could not be untied. She squeezed her eyes shut against the tears which would have flooded her face if she still had the capacity to weep.

“Damn you, boy!” she croaked, her throat constricted with emotion. “You have abandoned me…just like everyone else!”

“Oh, don’t be like that, Cathy!” A voice squeaked behind her. Catherine whirled and stood facing the spectral apparition of a young boy. Her boy! There he stood, looking as scrawny and puppy-like as the day they had met, with the familiar huge grin on his face. He scratched at his elbow and laughed as Catherine stood agape.

“What? How…?” Catherine stammered. She looked behind her to confirm that the body of the old man was still there. It was, and it lay peacefully under the oak tree.

“Unfinished business, Cathy,” the boy replied, winking at her. “All those years you sneered at the idea and here I am!” Catherine stared at him.

“But…what business have you left unfinished?” She asked, her mind a mess of confusion. The boy stepped towards her and touched her hand. Catherine gasped as she felt his cold fingers encircle hers.

“You, Cathy,” he said. “I still need to help you move on, remember?” Catherine trembled with emotion, startled by the first feeling of contact she had had in so many years.

“I figured out what’s been holding you back, too,” the boy said, taking Catherine’s other hand. Catherine looked deep into his eyes, marvelling at how beautiful they were now that they glowed with pale light.

“You never found anyone who cared about you enough,” he said. He moved a half-step closer and slid his arms around Catherine’s waist. He embraced her fondly, resting his head on her chest. “Well, now you have” he whispered, as if to a lover. Catherine’s eyes opened wide. The bubbling cauldron of emotion within her spilled over and she threw her arms around the boy, trembling.

“Oh, it is you!” She said. “After all this time waiting and it has been you all along!” She wanted to say more but could not find the words. Instead she held the boy tightly, not daring to let go. They stood for a several glorious minutes, clinging to one another like reunited sweethearts. Finally, the boy looked up at Catherine.

“It’s time,” he said with a smile. He took her hand and begun to lead her away from the oak. Catherine was afraid again, feeling the first beginnings of panic flare in her breast as she glanced back at her death tree. It had been a solid, stalwart reminder of her past for countless days and she felt uneasy about leaving it. But one look back at the boy’s eager face banished all of her doubts. The boy released her hand and made an exaggerated bow.

“After you, my lady!” he said. Catherine laughed long and loud, the joyous sound echoing into the night. She moved confidently towards the moonlit field beyond, taking the boy’s hand once again. In an instant they had disappeared together, their ephemeral bodies vanishing like smoke before a breeze. The wind blew through the now empty field, and even the old oak tree seemed to sigh. Catherine Seymour had moved on at last.

 

Paintings of the Past

This is a story I wrote a couple of weeks ago for the lovely Esther Newton’s Guest Post. She kindly provided the prompt for me and this one was a joy to write. It seemed to flow from my mind to and on to the page more so than some of my more recent efforts. So thank you, Esther!

 

 Paintings of the Past 

By Adam Dixon

Joe opened his eyes and looked around the room; where the hell was he? He was standing in a long hallway with white walls, wearing nothing but a pair of boxer shorts. He blinked a few times to make sure that he was awake. He was, and with a clear head and calm stomach too, which dispelled his second idea that he must be drunk. He turned his head and stared down the corridor. It was a very long one and he could barely make out the end of it from where he was standing. All he could see was a crimson carpet running along the floor like an elongated blood stain and what appeared to be a series of paintings or photographs hanging on both walls. He glanced behind and saw only another blank wall blocking his path. He scratched his head in confusion and tried to figure out what had happened.

“JOSEPH PEEL, PLEASE MOVE ALONG. THE GATEKEEPER AWAITS,” a clear voice boomed from above. Joe almost jumped out of his skin and cast about to and fro, seeking the cause of the noise. He saw nothing but the walls and carpet. After calming down a bit Joe concluded with a degree of satisfaction that he must, in fact, be dreaming after all and that by approaching this Gatekeeper the dream would reach its conclusion. He would then wake up in his over-priced but stylish flat in Brighton and wonder at the significance of it for a moment before getting on with his day. Maybe it would even feature in some of his writing in the future. Regaining his dignity, Joe took a deep breath and began to stride down the hallway.

The objects mounted on the walls were all paintings. Joe knew little about art but he appreciated the realism of each one. They all boasted a central image of a man or woman staring off into the distance surrounded by a snapshot of their lives. One showed a tall, bearded white man wearing blood-spattered armour standing amidst several fallen soldiers, the cross of Saint George proudly displayed on a flag behind him. Another depicted a white woman on a wooden stage, gesturing wildly as an audience gazed at her with rapt attention. Another saw an Asian woman wearing colourful clothing watching a fierce battle with horror and sadness. Joe noticed that the paintings appeared to be displayed in chronological order in terms of their historical period. He rather enjoyed the grotesque painting of what surely must have been a victim of the infamous Vlad the Impaler in Russia. The suffering of the naked, bleeding man was exquisitely and disgustingly detailed. The painting of a primitive black woman protecting her children from a white man with a rifle was as inspiring as it was horrific. After half an hour of walking and not paying complete attention, Joe walked into a solid wooden desk and stubbed his toe.

“Ahh, bugger it!” he yelled, bending over to grasp the injured digit and hopping about in fury.

“Oh dear, that is most unfortunate!” a woman’s voice tutted sympathetically. Joe ceased hopping and looked up. He had reached the end of the hallway. A small, plump woman with a kindly face was seated behind the offending desk, her soft brown eyes gazing at Joe with concern.

“Are you alright, Joseph? I really ought to have said something, but I saw how engaged you were with the Artwork! Oh dear, silly old fool that I am!” The woman was about sixty, with curly silver hair and wearing a practical woollen cardigan over a simple green dress. Her voice was friendly, if a little bit high-pitched, and Joe found himself liking her instantly despite his situation.

“Erm, that’s alright,” he replied, unsure what to say. “So…are you this Gatekeeper, then?”

“I am indeed, Joseph!” The woman clapped her meaty fingers together in delight and beamed at him. “I am your Gatekeeper and I must say that it is a pleasure to see you again!”

“Erm…right,” Joe gingerly set his foot down and stood up straight. “So, what happens now? Are we going to have a tea party or something until I wake up?”

“I don’t follow you, Joseph,” the Gatekeeper frowned. “There won’t be a tea party, although I could have prepared one if I knew that’s what you would have wanted. You won’t be waking up either, I’m afraid. Well, not like this, anyway.”

“Oh…kay…” Joe scratched his head again. He looked behind the woman. There were two doors set against the sterile white walls, both just as plain and unassuming. The way out, perhaps?

“I wouldn’t approach the doors just yet, dear,” the Gatekeeper said, reading his intention. “Not before I tell you about them first. I always forget that you won’t remember the last time!”

“What last time? How do you know me? You’re just my imagination, a figment of my subconscious!” Joe was becoming annoyed. “I know I shouldn’t’ve eaten that bloody stilton! Look, just say what you need to say and let me wake up. I’m a busy man, I haven’t got time for this!”

“The dead have an eternity in this Waiting Room, Joseph Peel,” the Gatekeeper said solemnly.

“The dead? What the hell are you talking about?”

“You are dead, Joseph,” the Gatekeeper said with regret in her voice. “You died on Wednesday 3rd of May 2016 A.D. You are currently approved for Resurrection in 2030.” Joe stood dumbfounded, staring. After a moment he began to chuckle, running his hand across his face.

“That’s not bad, actually!” he said, grinning. “Although I’d have thought that my subconscious would’ve come up with something a bit more exciting. Maybe that’s why my first books haven’t sold! Haha!”

“Joseph, I am not jesting,” the Gatekeeper leaned across the desk and looked intently up at him. “You died at four thirty-two A.M after your lit cigarette dropped from your fingers and onto a pile of discarded writing paper. Your flat went up in flames a few minutes later. Your severe inebriation prevented you from waking up in time to save yourself.” Joe stood still again.

“You…you must be joking,” Joe stammered. “I can’t be…dead…I was only-“

“Thirty-seven years old,” the Gatekeeper interrupted, glancing at a sheaf of note papers in her hand. “You were unmarried, living in Brighton, England and you were working as a freelance writer. I know all about your life, Joseph. This life and all of your previous lives, too. Did you enjoy the charming paintings of them? There are quite a few now!”

“Previous lives…” Joe’s face scrunched up in confusion. “Are you trying to tell me that I’ve lived as those men in the paintings that I’ve just walked past?”

“No, Joseph, that’s not what I am saying,” the Gatekeeper said with a frown. “I am trying to tell you that you have been ALL of them, both the men and the women. Every single painting you wandered past before reaching me is a depiction of the person you once were, during a single stage of Resurrection.”

“Resurrection…”

“Yes, Resurrection, Joseph,” the Gatekeeper sighed. “It really is unfortunate that you don’t remember all of this when you come through here. It’s rather tedious having to explain it all over again! Simply put, Joseph, your soul has lived forty-seven lives throughout its existence and it is my duty every time you die to guide you onto your next Rebirth. Understand?”

“I…” Joe was lost for words. He scratched his head, a look of defeat creeping across his face. “I’m…dead….but…it’s not fair! I was finally getting somewhere with my life! My book sales were picking up and I’d started dating again! Why now?”

“Life is rarely fair, my dear,” the Gatekeeper said sadly, cocking her head to one side. “After doing this job for a few millennia you’d see that, too. You’ve had much worse luck in previous lives, if that makes you feel any better? You were wrongly accused of murder in Texas in 1843, for example; you were hunted down and lynched by the townsfolk! It’s shocking that they would even do such a thing to a woman back then…”

“No, it doesn’t make me feel any bloody better!” Joe cried, slamming his fist down on the desk. The Gatekeeper jumped, her curls bouncing and her pearl necklace jostling around her throat.

“Come now, Joseph! There was no need for that!” she said, adjusting herself crossly.

“Like I give a toss!” Joe retorted. He began to pace before the desk, stomping his feet deliberately.

“Why now? What’s the point?” he said, half to himself. “Why let me die in 2016 if I’m not due for Rebirth or whatever until 2030? Surely I could’ve lived until then!”

“Then you would have come here slightly older but no less annoyed for it,” the Gatekeeper replied, folding her arms across her chest and leaning back in her chair. “Now, Joseph, you must make a decision. You have two choices: to spend an eternity in this hallway with nothing but these walls and paintings for company, or accept what has been planned and be Reborn once again. To do so you need only open the door on the left. I know which one I would choose, given the opportunity.”

“What about the other door?” Joe rounded on the Gatekeeper. “What if I choose the door on the right?”

“That door…” the Gatekeeper’s tone and expression was grave, “is where Death awaits. If you walk through that door, Death will embrace you and He will reap your immortal soul. Your death that time will be final; no more Rebirths, no more lives to lead. It will be the End.” Joe shivered, hugging himself against the chill which passed through him.

“Do…do many people choose that door?” he whispered. The Gatekeeper shrugged.

“Some,” she admitted. “But not many. Most find the very idea too awful to contemplate.” Her expression revealed what she thought of that option. “You do not have to make your decision right away, but if you delay for too long then I will assume that you do not wish to be Reborn and I shall leave you here. By all means take a few moments to think it over. I shall wait.”

Joe’s mind whirled with emotion as he tried to make sense of everything he had learned. He raised a hand to his eyes and wandered back down the hallway aimlessly. He thought about his life, or the one he remembered at least, and longed to return to it. He felt crushed by the weight of his misfortune. Life really had been improving! Sure, he’d never have become the next Stephen King, but he was all set to make a halfway-decent living from his writing.

“A bloody house fire! How could I have been so stupid?” Joe groaned, recalling the countless instances when he had glanced up at his broken fire alarm and reminded himself to get it fixed. Maybe it was natural selection at work…

Joe opened his eyes and saw that he was standing in front of a ghastly scene. The painting before him showed a man lying on the back of a wooden cart with a dozen other corpses, all emaciated and riddled with disease. A village was burning in the distance, with a line of identical carts moving out from its gates. Joe was repulsed by the scene and suddenly grateful that he couldn’t recall this particular fate.

“Okay, I’ve made my decision.” Joe said, looking at the Gatekeeper with a pained expression. The Gatekeeper nodded and looked at him expectantly.

Joe straightened and took a deep breath. He stepped past the desk and with a trembling hand he opened the door on the left.

 

A – Z Challenge Day 26

It’s finally here! The final story for this April’s Challenge! I can hardly believe that it’s over, it has been a fantastic month! I’ve really enjoyed taking part and I am rather impressed with myself for managing to write as often as I did. I’ve had a couple of stumbles along the way, but I’m here on the last day with my twenty-sixth short story so I am pretty bloody pleased with that!

This prompt is once again from Viki, who has been a fantastic help. The word she chose to end my Challenge is “ZANY”. I don’t know about you lot, but whenever I hear that word I automatically think of Dr. Seuss and his wacky creations! My idea for a story is significantly darker than the friendly Cat in the Hat, just as a warning!

Anyway, here is my final story for this April. Thank you to everyone who has been following my progress and a bigger thank you to everyone who has found the time to give me feedback on my stories. As a side-note, my previous story which I uploaded earlier today was my 50th post since starting out WordPress, which I am really pleased about. Thank you, everyone, for helping me to keep doing what I love.

ZANY

By Adam Dixon

Rosie heard the music before her sister did. It filtered into her dreams, the beautiful, haunting melody of the simple pipe dissipating her innocent imaginings like a breeze through smoke. She allowed it to gently caress her senses and pull her slowly towards wakefulness. Once awake she lay still in the darkness, listening to the lonely pipe calling to her very soul. After a few minutes, Anna begin to stir in the bed next to hers and soon they were staring at one another in excitement.

“It’s him!” Anna breathed, smiling sleepily. Rosie nodded and sat up. Her neatly-trimmed brown hair was in disarray and she had been dribbling as she slept. Wiping her freckled face clumsily with the back of her hand Rosie got out of bed and hurried over to the window. Anna joined her a moment later, jittery with nervous anticipation. They stared out at the fields beyond their village, trying in vain to spot the source of the music. They could not, and Anna looked at Rosie expectantly. Being the Big Sister, it was Rosie’s job to make the decisions when Mummy and Daddy weren’t around. Rosie drew herself up to her full height of four feet two inches and assumed an important pose.

“Well, Anna, we’ll have to go and find him!” She said, nodding for emphasis. Anna gasped and clapped her hands together.

“Oooh, we’re going to have an adventure!” She yelped, bouncing up and down. Rosie clamped a hand over Anna’s mouth, eyes wide as she listened to the sounds of the house. She could hear nothing from their parent’s room, only the distant playing of the pipe.

“You need to keep quiet, Anna,” she whispered, removing her hand. “We can’t wake Mummy and Daddy up! They wouldn’t let us go and see him!”

“But we promised!” Anna replied, pouting. “We promised the Colourful Man that we would come and visit him if he played his pipes! Mummy and Daddy always say that we should keep our promises!”

“Yes, they do,” Rosie agreed, putting on her slippers and searching for Anna’s. “But they wouldn’t like it if they knew we were doing it at night time! Give me your feet, Anna, you need to put these on. Find your coat, too, it will be too cold for just a nightie outside!”

Rosie and Anna busied themselves for the next few minutes as they gathered provisions for their exploit. Soon, they both had coats, slippers and woollen hats on, and Anna held a plastic bag containing a packet of crisps each and half-empty bottle of fruit juice which they had saved for a midnight snack. Rosie put the spare blankets and pillows under their bedsheets just in case their parents looked in on them. It was unlikely, but she judged it to be a good idea nonetheless.

“Right!” Rosie stood, hands on hips as she observed Anna and the bedroom. She smoothed down her stubborn hair with her hand before attacking Anna’s darker curls with a brush. “Off we go then! Make sure you tiptoe past Mummy and Daddy’s room, Anna, and watch out for the creaky steps on the stairs!” Anna nodded eagerly, brimming with excitement. The two girls carefully moved through the house and down the stairs, unlocking the front door and stealing out into the night. The low amber glow from the few streetlights guided their way as far as the edge of the village, and from there Rosie used her Barbie torch to light their path. She held onto Anna’s hand tightly, whispering to her that the Colourful Man would be so pleased to see them.

***

Less than a mile away, hidden in the nearby wood, the Piper stopped playing. He knew that the girls would reach him soon, his pipe’s magic always saw to that. He stretched his arms and legs out as he sat on the tree stump, scratching his long white beard and yawning. His colourful robes were dulled by the darkness but he would still be easy to spot because of them. The children had been captivated as he had put on his ridiculous act for them at the village fete, jumping, twirling and juggling for them. He even told nonsensical stories in order to make them laugh and had howled along with them like a wolf. They enjoyed his clownish persona, and they always wanted more. He would wait until their parents were distracted before whispering into their ears that they would be able to play together again if they only promised to come to him when he played his pipe. The children readily agreed, completely ignoring the “Stranger danger” ethos that their parents had drilled into their heads. They were just as gullible now as they had been a century ago.

The Piper didn’t know why he had lived for so long, but he suspected that it had something to do with his diet. He grinned as he sharpened his skinning knives with a whetstone; young children were simply so nutritious!

 

A – Z Challenge Day 21

Day 21 is here, and that means it’s the final week of this April’s Challenge! I’m surprised, relieved and somewhat saddened by the prospect of it all being over so soon! Today’s story is a bit late because I have been working late today, which has required me to write on the go and almost exclusively on my phone, which is something I haven’t done before. Quite a tricky but rewarding experience, I must say!
Anyway, today’s suggestion comes from the brilliant Geoff Le Pard
, who, as I have previously mentioned, is largely responsible for inspiring my theme for this Challenge. Geoff suggested the word “UNREAL”, which I am delighted to say really forced me to think hard. I discarded several ideas before I settled on this one, and I hope I have done it justice. Thanks, Geoff!

UNREAL
By Adam Dixon

Jack could hardly believe the realism of the game. As soon as he pulled down the visor-screen he could almost swear that he was standing in a meadow during the height of summer, rather than sat in his ergonomic gaming chair in his draughty South-London flat. He could nearly feel the grass tickling his feet and taste the pollen in the air. The box containing the virtual reality system boasted “A gaming world so real, it’ll leave you drained!” It certainly was visually impressive.

“Wow,” he whistled in appreciation. “Pretty good start!” He glanced down at himself and marvelled at the physique of his chosen character. He gazed in wonder at a bare torso covered with rippling, solid muscle and saw equally strong legs supporting him. He almost whooped in delight. He was just like Conan the Barbarian!

“Oh man, this is gonna be good!” Jack squeaked, lifting and flexing his limbs for a better inspection of his new physical prowess. He felt powerful and confident, making his character strut around the deserted meadow with a deliberate swagger. It all seemed so real, even down to the dull thud of his character’s rough leather boots on the soil. The only aspect which reminded Jack that he was in a game was the Head-Up Display fixed permanently in his sight just above his left eye. It displayed a full green health bar, as well as currently empty weapon and potions slots. In the centre of his vision was a flashing red timer counting down from one minute, urgently informing Jack that the “FIRST WAVE”  was approaching.
“Hmm…weapons…” Jack muttered, casting to and fro. He spotted a large, double-headed axe leaning against a nearby fence. Brimming with excitement, Jack ran over to it and curled his massive right hand around the haft. As he tensed to lift it, the resistance astonished Jack. It even felt heavy!
“Fuck, this is awesome!” Jack exclaimed as he took a few practice swings with the axe. It made a low whooshing sound as it cleaved through the air and threatened to overbalance him. That didn’t matter, he’d get the hang of it in time. As he moved around the meadow with the axe held high the red timer hit zero. Almost instantly Jack heard savage snarls behind him. He spun around to see three terrifyingly life-like wolves running towards him. Yelping, Jack held the axe at the ready, somewhat comforted by its weight.
“Come on, then!” He shouted, planting his feet and squaring his shoulders. He felt braver than he had ever been as Jack the nerd. He was Conan, and he wasn’t scared of some stupid wolves!
The first wolf attacked, leaping through the air with its razor-sharp fangs seeking Jack’s throat. Jack swung the axe in an awkward sideways motion with all of his new might. His axe slammed into the wolf, sending shock waves up his arms. He felt faint as he heard bones snapping and the wolf howling in pain. Wow, this is a bit too real! Jack thought, his emotions caught somewhere between joy and horror.
Swinging the axe twice more he felled the other two wolves like trees. As he stood panting, he noticed that the red timer had started up again; the “SECOND WAVE”  was on its way.
Jack spent the next hour battling various enemies as the timer stopped and restarted. Wolves, bandits, fellow barbarians and even armoured knights fell to his mighty axe as Jack grew in confidence and determination. He was astounded by the VR’s attention to detail; he saw every sickening laceration, every grimace of pain and and every look of terror on his enemies faces. He continually had to glance up at the HUD in order to remind himself that he wasn’t in mortal danger at every turn. He experienced the full impact of the VR’s sophistication when a knight stabbed him through the arm. Pain radiated from his wounds and his forearm grew slick with blood. His health bar decreased by a third and Jack felt a portion of his energy disappear with it. He screamed and almost threw off his visor-screen in a panic. Instead, he despatched the knight and stood trembling, reminding himself firmly that it was only a game. A damned realistic game, but still a game. None of it was real.
Jack was becoming exhausted by the “SEVENTH WAVE”, and he was pounced upon by a huge bear during the “EIGHTH WAVE”. He was forced the ground under the weight of the beast, choking on a mouthful of its reeking fur. The bear tore into Jack’s throat and he screamed again, marvelling at the heightened sensation of pain he was experiencing. As the bear’s jaws opened and closed, Jack felt his strength ebbing away. The virtual meadow began to grow dark as Jack’s health bar emptied. The last thing Jack thought before he died was wondering what the loading screen would look like. He wasn’t sure if he would hit “CONTINUE”. He’d had enough for one day…
Back in Jack’s flat, the vampire Lucius reluctantly finished his feast. He withdrew his own very real fangs from Jack’s throat and stood back, wiping fresh blood from his chin and admiring his handiwork. The overweight, heavily-acned corpse that had once been Jack sat slumped in the preposterous gaming chair, its skin pale and its face contorted in agony.
Lucius laughed as he contemplated how easy hunting was becoming these days. One could always find loners like Jack who would jump at the chance to test out a prototype gaming system, no matter how dodgy it all seemed. Lucius removed the visor-screen from the corpse’s head and collected the controllers and power outlet. Before he left, he turned back and took one last look at the very real, very dead man. He grinned and strode out of the flat. Virtual reality: just another way to turn the vulnerable into the delicious!

A – Z Challenge Day 11

Day eleven is here! It’s strange to think that we’re nearing the half-way point of this April’s Blogging Challenge, and even stranger to think that I’ve actually written ten stories before this one!

Anyway, today’s word comes from my very own proof-reader/second-pair-of-eyes/ideas-bouncer-offer/hand-holder/constant-source-of-encouragement, my partner, Sammi. Or, as I prefer to call her, Samwise! Today’s word is “KARMA”, and this gave me a bit of trouble to begin with. Initially I thought “great! I can write something about good and evil deeds and have some kind of mighty cosmic force balancing them out!”, but then I quickly realised that I had no idea how to write such a thing! After a little while of staring at a blank page , this is what I came up with.

Thanks again, Samwise!

KARMA

By Adam Dixon

Ping!

Karma looked up from her calculations and glanced at her computer screen. She’d received an email from one of her agents in the land mass currently known as Great Britain. She opened it, scanned it briefly and tutted.

“Hmmm…Mr Jones, you naughty little man!” she muttered under her breath. “Leaving the poor woman with two kids and no job, eh? Well, I’ve got the very thing for you…” She began typing, forwarding the email to her good friend and work partner, Death.

“This one’s been especially bad this time. He clearly has no stomach for commitment or hard work. I’d suggest bowel cancer. Let me know what you think!”

Karma pressed SEND, knowing full well that Death would respond in the affirmative. He almost always agreed with her on these matters, not least because it spiced up his day. She cleared her throat and adjusted her glasses before looking down at her calculations once again. She had been working out the scale upon which divine justice needed to be issued to European politicians based on their actions over the last two decades. It was proving to be quite tricky, as not all of them were crooked or uncaring bastards, but enough had been that it called for some serious punishment. She realised that it was something that she would have to build up towards, and she had an idea how to get the ball rolling. She reached for her office phone and dialled her receptionist.

“Percy, my dear, would you please send Pity in for me? Thank you!” Karma smiled as she sat back in her chair. Perception was the best receptionist she had ever had, and they had worked together for aeons now. He always knew which cases needed her direct intervention and made sure that the flow of celestial traffic into her workspace was one-way. After a few moments, the door opened and a tiny, meek-looking being shuffled inside.

“Come in, Pity! Have a seat, dear,” Karma smiled and gestured towards the empty space in front of her desk. She always said that, regardless of whom she was addressing. It was an example of her strange sense of humour.

“Hello, Miss Karma,” Pity mumbled, holding one of her arms nervously. “How can I help you today?”

“Well, dear, I have rather a big job for you,” Karma tapped a few buttons on her keyboard and wheeled her chair over to the printer as it began to whir. Collecting the ejected pages she turned back to Pity and showed them to her.

“Do you know who these men and women are?” She asked. Pity pushed her long hair from her eyes and scrutinised the images. She nodded.

“Yes, Miss Karma,” she replied quietly. “They are members of the current European governments. Such a shame, they have very difficult jobs…”

“Indeed, but they have made several mistakes and the cosmos demands balance,” Karma knitted her long fingers together and stared at Pity over them.

“I would like you to influence the various media organisations around Europe. Their reporters need to begin to pity these specific individuals so that the stories they release will reflect this. I trust you can have that done within the month?” Pity looked up at Karma, her soft face creased in confusion.

“Well, yes, of course I can, Miss Karma,” she said. “But, may I ask why?”

“Oh, I suppose so,” Karma replied, sniffing. “These men and women have built their careers on strong public images, and in doing so have trampled on many people, both their governmental peers as well as the people they serve. I need to bring them all down a peg or two before their individual punishments can be put into place. Does that satisfy you?”

“I…yes, Miss Karma…” Pity answered, fidgeting. “But, erm, wouldn’t this be a job better suited to Hate?”

“Pfft, no!” Karma waved the suggestion away as if it were a bothersome fly. “Hate will certainly become involved later, but for now a subtle touch is needed. These people do not need to be reviled just yet, they need to be pitied! Their public’s trust in them needs to be shaken not with a barrage of anger but with simple doubt and even understanding! They need to be seen as fallible humans and therefore not fit for their lofty positions, and that is why I require you to plant the seeds. Now, we have wasted enough time discussing this, off you go, dear! I expect to see firm results before next month!”

“Yes, Miss Karma,” Pity replied sadly. She bowed her head and trailed out of the office. Karma shook her head in irritation. Pity was a good worker, loyal too, but she was often a hindrance with her warped sense of morality. Yes, people got hurt when Karma did her work, and yes some of them even died, but she was doing the universe a service. Why did Pity have to overcomplicate everything? Besides, it was a fine balancing act; those who were wronged or helped others during their lives were due a bit of compensation and so Karma saw to that as well. It was all part of the job and Pity would do well to remember that. Karma pressed the call button on her phone again.

“Percy? Be a dear and send me up one of Gluttony’s special muffins, would you? I need the sugar today!”

“Well, I would, Karma, but you ate the last one yesterday,” came Perception’s amused reply. Karma could almost hear the smirk on his face. She pressed the button, an angry frown creasing her forehead.

“Well then, you’ll have to bring me that one you’ve hidden in your desk, won’t you? Don’t think I didn’t see it, Percy, I see everything! Now hop to it!”

Outside the office, Perception sighed and rummaged in his desk for the muffin. Karma’s behaviour didn’t bother him, he knew better than most that she could be a real bitch.