Another Thursday and another story! This week I was provided with a prompt from Jason over at Aethereal Engineer. Jason has given me some great prompts before and he has done so again. His suggestion was that “a person discovers a portal to ‘somewhere else’ in their closet. What happens?” I thought that was a pretty good one!
Here’s what I was able to come up with. I hope you enjoy it.
P.S. If anyone would like to suggest a prompt for me to use another day, please let me know in the comments.
A Missing Belt and Fine Shoes
By Adam Dixon
Jerry Mackintosh was drunk again, but this time he was angry too. He had slaved ten years away at the local mill only to be replaced by a machine. Jerry had walked out of the gates clutching his final wage packet and straight into the pub, and had proceeded to spend half of it on stout. Upon staggering home, he had worked himself into a foul, dangerous mood.
“Jerry, keep your voice down!” Mary, his petite wife pleaded. “You’re frightening the children!”
“Oh, I am, am I?” Jerry sneered, casting about in search of the brats. “Mustn’t do that! Can’t scare the ungrateful little sods, can I?”
“Jerry, don’t, they’re not ungrateful,” Mary said, wringing her hands together. “They don’t like it when you come home late and start shouting, that’s all…”
“I’ll do whatever I bloody well like!” Jerry shouted, balling his hands into fists. His watery blue eyes were bloodshot and angry. “I’m the man of this house, and by God you’ll all know it!” Jerry swung and punched Mary in the stomach. She doubled over, the breath whooshing from her lungs. Jerry followed it up with a backhanded swipe which knocked Mary to the ground. He towered over her, swaying and breathing heavily. Mary began to sob and curled herself into a ball; she knew this part all too well.
“Where’re those fucking kids, anyway?” Jerry cried, his voice hoarse. “I’ll get those little brats! Teach them some respect!” He rolled up the sleeves of his shirt and reached for his belt. He then realised that he hadn’t worn it that day and cursed aloud. Jerry stalked up the rickety old staircase and into the tiny master bedroom. Wrenching open the wardrobe he began searching inside it, throwing moth-eaten trousers and dresses onto the single bed. He knew it was in there somewhere! Growling and gnashing his teeth, Jerry took a step forward and tangled his foot in a pair of stockings. He bellowed as he fell, bracing for the impact of hard wood against his head.
He was stunned when he landed sprawling on the ground. He lay blinking and felt gravel under his fingers and an unpleasant smell under his nose. He raised his head and glanced around him. He appeared to be in a small village, surrounded by people bustling to and fro, all of them wearing strange, dirty clothing. Jerry got to his feet with some difficulty as his anger gave way to confusion. It had been dark when he’d gotten home, so why was the sun burning down on his bald patch? Glancing around he saw wooden houses with thatched roofs leaning against one another and cobbled streets littered with straw and excrement. Jerry rubbed his temples. He didn’t realise he was that drunk!
Jerry’s attention was drawn by giggling nearby. He turned and saw two grubby children, a boy and a girl of roughly the same age, dancing around in a puddle. Jerry’s confusion was forgotten as his rage rose up once again like dead leaves touched by a flame. Sod the belt, he was going to give those brats a good hiding! He snarled and lumbered towards them. As his shadow fell across them the two children looked up. If Jerry hadn’t been so drunk or so angry he might have realised that both children had brown hair, whereas his children had blond hair. But he didn’t, and he cuffed them on their ears, knocking them into the murky puddle. Jerry heard gasps from people close by but he ignored them.
“Take that, you little shits!” Jerry said, towering over them as they sat up. The boy was rubbing his head and staring at Jerry in disbelief and the little girl began to cry.
“Don’t you give me those crocodile tears, young lady!” Jerry raged, seizing the girl by her hair and hauling her upright. The boy protested, getting to his feet and clinging to Jerry’s wrists. Jerry knocked him down again with his free hand and held the girl with ease.
“Ha, that’ll teach you!” Jerry said. “You’re not a man yet, sonny-Jim!”
“Oi, what d’you think yer doin’?” A voice called. Jerry turned, still gripping the young girl’s hair. A woman in a dress which may have been yellow once was staring at Jerry, her eyes wide in shock. There were other women in similar dirty clothes next to her, wearing the same horrified expression.
“None of your bloody business!” Jerry retorted. “Stay out of this, whoever you are!”
“I shan’t!” the woman replied. “Who d’you think you are to come waltzin’ in our village with yer fancy clothes an’ beatin’ our children? You wait til Big John hears about this!”
“You’ll shut your mouth if you know what’s good for you!” Jerry said. He turned back towards the children but was caught by surprise when a skinny man with a white beard stepped forwards and shoved him in the chest. It was a weak shove by all accounts, but Jerry was so drunk that it threw him off balance and sent him stumbling into a fence. He gripped the fence and eyed the old man with contempt.
“Oh, you’re in for it now, old fella!” he said. The old man swept his bony arms around the children and hugged them tight. His mouth was a thin line of anger and his eyes blazed.
“I dunno who y’are, stranger, but no-one attacks my grandchildren!” the man wheezed, gritting his blackened teeth. “My boy’ll have yer guts for this!”
As Jerry’s stout-addled brain tried to process this information, a huge man with a black beard and a leather apron came charging towards him. Jerry had just enough time to stand up straight before he was lifted from his feet. Jerry was a tall man, but this brute was almost a giant. He choked as a gloved hand gripped his throat and lifted him two inches off the ground. He was brought close to the face of the bearded man and looked into furious green eyes.
“NO-ONE TOUCHES MY LITTLE’UNS!” the man said, tightening his grip. Jerry struggled and gasped, catching the sooty smell of the man’s apron and the sweat on his brow. The man grunted and threw him across the street. Jerry bounced off the cobbles and landed in a heap next to an empty wooden trough. He tried to stand but the man beat him to it again, hauling him to his feet. Stars exploded in Jerry’s eyes as the man hit him hard in the cheek. He felt the skin tear and was dimly aware of blood flowing down his neck. Jerry grasped the man’s wrists with shaking hands.
“No more!” he said, suddenly sober through fear. Like all bullies, Jerry was a coward when challenged. He knew he was in big trouble.
“I THOUGHT YOU WERE A MAN!” the man said, punching him again, this time in the ribs. Jerry thought that his chest would cave in if he had to endure another hammer-blow like that. The man walloped him on the other cheek before dragging him down the village, his feet drawing meandering lines through the straw.
“You’re goin’ to the Town Watch!” the man said, throwing in another punch for good measure. “That’ll teach you! Beat up my little’uns, will ya? Yer a disgrace!”
An hour later, Jerry was lying in a dark, smelly cell complete with iron bars and a pile of straw for a bed. His clothes were ruined, covered in mud, dirt and his own piss. He stank, his cheek and ribs ached and his head was raging with a hangover. He had never felt so miserable and he still didn’t know what was going on. He wasn’t dreaming, he knew that much; you couldn’t dream pain so vividly.
“Why did I go into that bloody wardrobe?” he groaned, massaging his head. He knew perfectly well why and as he sat in the cold and the dark, a familiar feeling began to creep into his heart. It was an emotion which had dominated his life ever since he realised that he drank too often, ever since that frightened look had appeared in his wife’s eyes. Jerry drank to stifle that emotion but that only made it stronger the next day. That emotion was shame.
“Oh God, what have I done?” Jerry said, burying his head in his hands. He began to sob and tug at his hair, promising the cell that he would mend his ways if he could only get home to Mary and the kids.
“Do you mean that, wretch?” a sibilant voice whispered from the darkness. Jerry almost yelped in fright and scanned the cell for the source of the noise.
“Hello? Who’s there?” he called, shrinking back against the wall.
“Your cell-mate, wretch,” the voice replied. It was coming from the other side of the cell, not three steps away. “I’ve been watching you since the Watch tossed you in here. You are in a sorry state, aren’t you?”
“I deserve it,” Jerry said, wiping snot from his nose with his sleeve. “I…I’ve shamed myself with my behaviour.”
“But you wish to make amends, do you not?” the voice said. There was a scuffling of straw. “Perhaps…I can help you.”
“How?” Jerry asked, squinting. He could make out a shape nearby, but he couldn’t see any features. “Come closer.” There was a moment of silence before the figure slid closer. As the meagre light from the window fell upon it, Jerry saw with relief that it was just another prisoner like himself. The man was thin with sunken brown eyes, his clothes were ragged and filthy and he stank of stale sweat. He was grinning at Jerry, revealing a dazzling smile which contrasted weirdly with his dishevelled appearance.
“I can send you home!” the man hissed, his eyes widening. “I can see you are not from this world: that much is plain. I have met a few wretches like yourself and I have helped to send them back.”
“You…you can get me home?” Jerry’s mind raced. He wasn’t sure what the man was talking about, but he was so desperate to get out of the cell that he was willing to believe anything.
“I can,” the man said, running a dirty finger along his stubbly chin. “For a price…”
“I don’t have anything to give!” Jerry said, on the verge of tears once again.
“Your shoes,” the man replied, pointing.
“My shoes?” Jerry was perplexed.
“Yes, the Watch did not deprive you of them, but I would like to,” the man said. “The leather is very fine, better than anything I may find in this village. Give me your shoes and I will send you home.” Jerry almost twisted his ankle as he tore his shoes from his feet and thrust them towards his cell-mate. The man received with a smile, running his emaciated fingers across them lovingly.
“Ahh, many thanks, wretch,” he said. “These will aid me more than you realise…”
“Now send me home!” Jerry whined. The man nodded and placed the shoes on the ground. He stood up and walked over to the corner of the cell. Jerry couldn’t see what he was doing, but he heard a low chanting in a strange language and the padding of the man’s feet. A blast of cool, fresh air struck Jerry in the face, raising goose-bumps on his flesh and sending loose straw scurrying across the cell like fleeing insects. A glowing rectangle stretching two metres high light up the man as it pulsed on the wall of the cell. The man turned towards Jerry and flashed his smile.
“It is done,” he said. “Pass through this doorway, wretch, and you will return from whence you came. Farewell.” Jerry stood on weak legs and shambled towards the doorway. The pale glow hurt his eyes after so many hours in darkness, but he didn’t care. He moved as fast as he could and passed through the wall with a cry of desperation. A warmth seeped into his body, rejuvenating his aches and lifting his soul like a hot bath. For an instant, Jerry was blinded by intense light and at bliss…
Jerry hit the floorboards with a thud. Winded and shocked, he looked up. His heart leapt as he recognised his bedroom. He twisted round to look behind him. There was the wardrobe, with its doors flung open and clothes strewn on the floor. Jerry kissed the wooden floor and scrambled to his feet.
“Mary!” Jerry called, his voice hoarse with emotion. “Mary! Kids! Where are you?” He staggered towards the doorway and descended into the kitchen. Mary was standing at the bottom, looking up at him with wide, relieved eyes.
“Jerry!” she said. “Where have you been? It’s been three days! Where are your shoes?”
“I’ve been away, Mary,” Jerry croaked, reaching the bottom of the stairs and pulling his astonished wife into a tight embrace. He breathed in the soapy scent of her neck and felt the flour dusting her cheeks.
“Jerry!” Mary said in surprise as he nuzzled her neck. “What’s gotten into you? Are you alright?”
“I’m fine, Mary,” Jerry said. “I’ve just realised what a brute I’ve been. But no more, I’m a changed man. I’ll never hurt you or the children again, I promise.” Mary was taken aback by the emotion in Jerry’s voice. She returned the hug, patting his back with a bewildered expression.
“That’s wonderful to hear, Jerry,” she said, pulling away from him and smiling. Jerry beamed at her and held on to her hands.
“Where are the kids? I need to tell them I’m sorry.”
“They’re at school, Jerry. It’s nine o’clock.”
“Oh, good. I’ll tell them later, I need to tell them.”
“Of course,” Again Mary was stunned by the depth of Jerry’s emotion. She fidgeted as she thought of something to say.
“Jerry, I know about the mill,” she said at last. “I’m so sorry to hear about that, really I am. But there might be a job for you in town. There’s a man who has just moved here, a stranger, and he’s set up a shop near the baker’s. He said he’s looking for hard workers to get his business going, so maybe you could speak to him?”
“Yes, yes, I’ll go right away!” Jerry said, grabbing his wellington boots and shoving them on. He walked out into the murky morning and breathed a long sigh of relief. He was home again, and now he realised what was important to him. He walked into the town, greeting astonished neighbours who had been worrying about him and assuring them all that he was very well, thank you very much. As he approached the town centre, he saw the new shop. It was a cobblers, with a freshly-painted sign boasting “Shoes of Fine Leather Inside!” Jerry smoothed his clothes before pushing the door open. A merry jingle filled the cool interior as the bell above the door was jostled. Jerry looked around and saw shoes of all sizes stacked on shelves and the almost-pleasant smell of leather filled his nostrils. He walked to the back of the shop and rested his hands on the counter, searching for the proprietor.
“Hello?” he called. “I’m sorry to disturb you, but my wife told me that you are looking for workers. I would like to offer my services.”
“Ah, I think I might have some use for you!” a voice hissed behind him. Jerry whirled and was stunned to see a familiar face. The man rubbed his now clean-shaven cheeks and flashed his dazzling smile.
“It is very good to see you again, wretch!” the man said. He threw his head back and laughed as Jerry stood dumfounded before him. He wasn’t sure what to make of this development, but it had to be better than sharing a cell. He swallowed and shook the man’s hand. For better or worse, he was a changed man now and he intended to prove it. He couldn’t help wondering what other surprises his life had in store for him now.