#AtoZChallenge: Kindness of Strangers

It was another rainy afternoon in the city and Kate, stuck without an umbrella, wasn’t looking forward to splashing through the streets to get back home. She stayed put in the comfort of the little cafe that she always visited after work. If the weather didn’t let up, she’d probably end up staying for dinner. Kate took a seat by the window, sipping her coffee and willing the rain to stop, just until she was back in her apartment.

“Excuse me, miss?”

She turned around to see an older gentleman standing by her table. His silver hair was cut short and neatly parted, and a neatly trimmed beard wrapped itself around his lined face. He was holding a small black umbrella.

“Perhaps you’ll need this,” he said, his face cracking into a warm smile.

Kate was taken aback. “Oh…umm..thank you.” She looked from the man to the umbrella, puzzled. “Don’t you need it, though? To go back out there?” She gestured toward the window.

“Oh, it’s no worry. I’m meeting a friend here and then we’ll be leaving in his car. And besides, I’ve no shortage of umbrellas. Please,” he said, presenting the umbrella to her, “You’ll get home quicker this way.”

Kate cocked her head. “How did you..?”

“Oh, how silly of me to assume,” the man said, looking sheepish. “I suppose you could be headed anywhere.”

“Yes…I suppose so…” Kate gave him an awkward smile and accepted the umbrella. “Thank you. Really. That’s very kind.”

The man nodded. “It’s no trouble at all, my dear.”

Kate walked home mostly dry. Her shoes were soaking wet and her pant legs couldn’t escape the weather, but she was glad to have the umbrella in her hand. How lucky, she thought, and then turned her mind to other matters.


 

“Hey! Taxi!”

Another cab whizzed past, ignoring Kate and her frantic waving. She cursed under her breath and scanned the road. It was surprisingly empty for a weekday afternoon. She spotted the familiar lit up sign and waved her hand again. And yet another taxi took no notice. She was getting late and getting frustrated.

She had half a mind to just walk to the restaurant and was about to turn around when a car pulled up alongside her. It was a tiny little thing, round and pastel colored. An old woman peered out the passenger side window.

“Are you going somewhere, young lady?”

Kate took a step back. She was wary of getting into cars with strangers, but then again, how dangerous could that sweet old woman be?

“I have a date, actually, ” she said.

The old woman clapped her hands together. “Oooh, how exciting! Well, we can’t be late for an occasion like that, now can we? Hop in, hop in! I’ll drop you there in a jiffy!”

Kate hesitated again. “But you don’t even know how far I’m going.”

“If it’s close enough to get by taxi, I’m sure I can manage!” the woman chirped.

She was clearly out of her mind, but oddly enough, there was something reassuring about her voice. Kate couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but the woman seemed familiar.

“Do I…know you from somewhere?” she asked.

“No, but now’s as good a time as any to change that, eh?”

Kate laughed and got into the car. Fifteen minutes later, she was outside the restaurant. She thanked the old woman, who smiled and drove off. This date could have started off on a bad note, Kate thought, watching the car disappear into the horizon. But it didn’t.

Over the past year, Kate realized, whenever she found herself in a bad situation, some stranger always came by to help her out. She’d never experienced that sort of generosity in the city before. It was really strange.

It all happened after the accident. Kate pursed her lips as she remembered that day and how it changed her life forever. But, she reminded herself, things were better now. And if her odd streak of luck continued, things would keep getting better.

She took a deep breath, cleared her head and walked inside.


 

It was quiet in the little diner. No one was there except for the old man. He had a plate of half eaten eggs and sausages in front of him, and was taking generous swigs from a stained coffee mug.

The old woman walked in and was greeted by a waitress who seemed to materialize out of thin air. The woman waved her a cheery hello and walked over to the booth where the old man was.

“Running a bit late today,” he remarked with a twinkle in his eye.

The woman plopped down on the seat across from him. “Ooh yes, sorry about that. I was dropping Kate off.” She leaned forward and dropped her voice to an excited whisper. “She’s on a date!”

The old man’s eyebrows flew up. “A date? With whom? Did you see the boy? He’s not a beatnik, is he?”

The woman dismissed his questions with a wave of her hand. “Oh, Horace, you’re such a worrywart. I’m sure he’s a nice young man. And if he isn’t, Kate can take care of herself.”

“I know,” Horace sighed. “But its hard not to worry. What if she needs our help again, Minerva?”

“Then we’ll help her, just as we’ve done so far.

I’m just so glad to see her out and about. After the accident, after she…lost us, I didn’t think I would ever see her smile again.” Tears were forming in the corners of Minerva’s eyes; one of them rolled down her cheek and dropped on to the placemat in front of her. Horace reached out and put his hand over hers.

“There, there, dearest. She didn’t lose us for long, did she? We’re still around. Whether she realizes it or not.”

“True, ” Minerva said, with a sniffle. “We’ll always take care of our little girl.”

“Yes, we will.” Horace was smiling, though his eyes were damp too. “Now, how about some coffee? Unless you’d prefer something stronger, of course.”

Minerva laughed. “Coffee will be just fine, you old lush!”

Horace broke into a grin and signaled the waitress.

“So, ” he said, leaning forward. “Just what does this young man do?”

“Oh, Horace!”

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#AtoZChallenge: Dead End Romance

Delilah Stokes had always been told that dead men tell no tales. She learned that was a lie when her ex-husband refused to shut up.

Frank was the kind of guy that young girls were looking for: roguish, charming and spontaneous. He had the sort of face that looked just as good with a smile or a brooding frown, and he knew how to use each expression for maximum effect. When they met, Delilah was a twentysomething free spirit on a journey with no end in sight and Frank was a twentysomething dreamer who couldn’t tell a speed bump from a milestone. Sparks flew the first time they locked eyes at an old gas station, and they burned for each other.

They were young and energetic, living each day as if tomorrow were just a myth. Their wildfire romance led them to the altar, followed by a steamy honeymoon. Using the short-sighed gift of prophecy that all young lovers have, they knew they’d be together forever. A year later, they realized ‘forever’ had an expiry date.

Once the scorching layers of passion, lust and proclamations of everlasting love had burned away, they realized they had nothing left. Frank was still living in his dreams without a penny in the real world and Delilah was hopping from one dead-end job to the next, trying to find a reason for their marriage to survive another day. With time and a few changes, they might have stuck it out. But then Frank had a plan.

Even when she’d first met him, Delilah knew that Frank was a man who saw laws more as rough guidelines. It was a charming trait at first. But as their relationship went further and Delilah craved a degree of stability, Frank’s wayward ways became harder to bear. So when he suggested armed robbery as a solution to their money problems, she wanted nothing to do with it. But Frank, for all his faults knew how to exploit his charm.

It was a simple plan. Masks. Guns. A trail of gas stations. Hold up the convenience store clerks at gunpoint and clean out their registers. They would skip a few along the way, make it seem random, hard to track. Nothing could go wrong.

After their third robbery, things seemed to be looking up. They were a pair of anonymous crooks on the run, but that initial spark of passion was back. For a little while, Delilah forgot her ideas of married life and craved the freedom of the open road again. But Delilah had always been told that crime doesn’t pay. And she discovered how true that was when the long arm of the law finally stretched far enough to wrap its fingers around them.

After an hour long chase involving three cop cars, Frank’s car couldn’t take it any more. They were stranded, holed up in the gas station that would have been next on their list if the cops hadn’t shown up. Frank was holding a gun to the old cashier’s head. Delilah was trying to find another way out. The fuzz was closing in. It was over. But then Frank took it too far. He was going to shoot the hostage. Delilah just knew it. She couldn’t let that happen.

Delilah lunged at Frank, managed to loosen his grip o the old man. He still had the gun in hand, though. And Frank wasn’t happy. He shoved her aside and she could see the madness building in his eyes. He aimed the gun at her, started to say something. Maybe he was going to convince her to kill the hostage. Or maybe he was going to say his final goodbyes before killing her. It didn’t matter. He never finished. Delilah found the shotgun hidden under the counter and fired it right into Frank’s chest. The sound was deafening. The sight of exploding flesh and organs made her throw up. But it was done. She had shot the hell out of ‘happily ever after’.

Delilah turned herself in. She confessed to everything. Told the whole story. The jury was sympathetic, but she was still a criminal. She got five years and served three. It was just long enough to watch her dreams shrivel away to nothing. Even after being released, she felt like she was in a cage. Guilt didn’t wash away no matter how often she showered. Her only consolation was that she was rid of Frank and his madness.

On a warm summer night, Delilah couldn’t sleep. She was plagued by strange thoughts and visions, nightmares that evaporated into smoke whenever she opened her eyes. She got up and went to get a glass of water. When she came back, Frank was sitting on the bed, waiting for her.

“Hey Del,” he said, flashing that same charming smile she’d fallen in love with all those years ago. He looked exactly the same as the last time she’d seen him. Slicked back hair. Fine line of stubble along his jaw. Gaping hole in his torso.

Delilah gulped down the rest of her water with her eyes closed. When she opened them, Frank was still sitting there in the dim moonlight.

“Dammit, Frank,” she said, wiping a trickle of water from her chin. “What the hell do you want now?”

 

 

13 Tales of Terror: Dearest Son

“Hi Dad!”

“Hey kiddo! How’s your day been?”

“It was ok. Kinda boring.”

“Yeah? How come?”

“Well, Mike left today.”

“He did?”

“Yeah. His parents came to see him. They talked about some stuff. Then Mike was really happy. I’ve never seen him laugh so much before. Then he left.”

“Oh…I’m sorry, buddy.”

“It’s ok. I heard something about a new kid coming in.”

“New kid?”

“Yeah, he’s s’posed to come in the afternoon, I think. His parents aren’t around so his uncle’s bringing him.”

“Well, that’s not so bad then. At least you’ll have someone to play with again.”

“Yeah. I hope he’s nice.”

“I’m sure he will be, buddy.”

“How was your day?”

“Oh, you know. The usual. Work. Got some new projects coming up so I’ll be working late for a while.”

“You won’t come visit?”

“Sure I will! I’ll always make time for you, son.”

“Daddy? When are you gonna take me home?”

“I..uhh..well, don’t you like it here? You’re meeting so many new people, and you’ve got so much place to play.”

“It’s nice. But I’d like to go home again. I wanna see Mom. Why doesn’t she visit?”

“Your mom just…has a lot going on. She’ll visit soon, I promise.”

“Ok.”

“Hey. you know we both love you a lot, right?”

“I know.”

“Things are going to be difficult for a little while. But it’ll all be okay soon. We’ll spend a whole day together as a family. I promise, son.”

“Ok, Daddy.

Hey, I think that’s the new kid! He’s coming! He’s coming! Can I go say hi?”

“Sure thing, son. Just don’t disturb anyone else, ok?”

“I won’t! I’ll just say hi and see if he wants to play right now!”

“Alright, have fun!”

“Bye, Dad!”

“Bye, son.

I love you.”

He sprints across the grass, bursting with excitement. You’d think he was getting ready to open Christmas presents. A hearse pulls up near the gates. Soon the mourners and the pall bearers will be coming in. I wonder how old the new boy was, and how he died.

Poor kid. At least he’ll have company here.

 

 

 

 

13 Tales of Terror: Bound

A striped blue sweater.

That was Ben’s first memory of Anna.

A striped blue sweater, alternating between dark and light shades, with a turquoise collar. It was a couple of sizes too big for her, making her look like a little girl in her sister’s old hand-me-downs. But Anna loved it.

All these years later, the colors had faded. The fabric, which Ben remembered as soft and fuzzy, was rough in his hands. He worried it might crumble if he held it too long, but he couldn’t put it down. Not just yet. It was the only connection he had left to her.

Ben and Anna had met in college. He was a freshman with dreams of becoming an English teacher and she was a junior with a passion for chemistry. Their classes were on opposite ends of the campus and they didn’t have any friends in common. The one place where their paths did cross was the library. It was there that he had seen the girl in the blue striped sweater hurrying off, her library card still sitting on the checkout desk. He returned the card and she thanked him. That one exchange turned into a conversation. That one conversation turned into several, and before they knew it, they were going out for dinner.

Ben remembered that night well, including the stunning purple dress Anna had worn. She had torn one of the shoulder straps a couple of years ago, but she still kept the dress around. It was somewhere near the bottom of the pile, still as vibrant as the first time she’d worn it.

Many more dinners followed, along with other outings. The picnic where she’d worn the polka dot dress, the beach trip with the yellow sarong and blue swimsuit, the graduation dinner with the gray gown. Ben picked up each in turn, feeling the fabric knot itself around his fingers, twist around his limbs. He fought the encroaching numbness in his extremities and picked up the box. Inside was Anna’s wedding dress.

They were married on a crisp autumn day, when the leaves were turning but the air was still warm. Anna looked resplendent, shimmering in the late afternoon sun. Ben could still feel the warmth on the dress. He half expected to find his hand circling Anna’s waist, for her to turn and smile at him as he whispered his love to her. Instead, the dress wrapped around him, squeezing his ribcage.

Two years later, Anna gave birth to a son. Daniel was so beautiful, swaddled in a blanket the color of the summer sky. As Daniel grew, there were birthday parties, school functions and family vacations. Gray streaks crept their way through Anna’s hair, but her clothes were as vivid as ever.

Ben remembered the indigo shirt Anna was wearing, in stark contrast to her silver mane, when she collapsed. From that point, she was reduced to lifeless hospital gowns until the end. Dark blue veins climbed along Ben’s neck, bleeding out of the shirt in his hands.

It had been six months since Anna’s passing. Everyone urged him to move on with his life, to keep Anna alive as a memory rather than dying alongside her. Finally, after many discussions with Daniel, Ben decided he was ready. He put all of Anna’s clothes out in the living room, to be donated or sold off. But each article of clothing was a memory, and memories weren’t so easy to erase. Ben was struggling to breathe as the clothes tightened their grip on him; his lungs were collapsing. The sleeves of Anna’s sweater wrapped themselves tightly around his face, and Ben closed his eyes.

***

“Dad?”

Daniel’s voice floated through the hallway.

“Dad? Are you there?”

“Danny…”

He walked into the living room and looked around.

“Dad?”

There was no response, but he noticed someone sitting in the armchair facing the window.

“Oh, Dad, there you are! I’ve been looking for – ”

Daniel stopped as he reached the chair. His father wasn’t sitting in it. There was just a pile of his mother’s clothes, stacked all the way up to the headrest.

 

It’s Alive!

In the spirit of the season, it seemed appropriate to resurrect this dead blog of mine. Alas, most of my writing of late has been confined to a professional environment, with barely any time for the more creative side of it.

However, Halloween has always been one of my favorite times of year, and I would be remiss if I didn’t pen a scary story or two for the occasion. And why stop at two when you can shoot for a baker’s dozen?

That’s right, I’ve got 13 spooky tales coming up that are brimming with chills, thrills and more than a few kills.

The first day of my 13 Tales of Terror series will coincide with the October challenge on Write, Edit, Publish (hosted by the lovely Yolanda Renee and Denise Covey) and thus I’ll begin with my entry for that challenge.

So have a seat (you’ll only need the edge of it) and prepare yourself for some tricky treats. The 13 Tales of Terror are almost here!

20 Tales of Terror – Day 15: Haunted

  
She haunts me.

I see her face, jade eyes framed by raven locks, and I yearn for her.

The sight of her ruby lips curving into a smile would make the most arid desert blossom with life.

I remember the touch of her pale skin, like velvet. I can never forget the way she laughed when my fingers caressed her face. I would give anything to touch her again.

But I cannot.

Our love will only live on as a memory now.

All I can do is watch from afar as she walks by. She has a new life ahead of her, while I am doomed to wander the world, forever restless.

Forever haunted by memories of my life.

WEP Halloween Challenge – Childhood Fears

I had a lot of fun participating in my first WEP Challenge a few months ago, and I was eagerly looking forward to their Halloween Challenge, which is here at last! As with the previous challenge, this one is split into two parts. The first part asks us to describe a childhood fear or phobia that haunts us to this day. For the second part, we have to write an original piece of horror fiction in 1,000 words or less. That fits perfectly into my own horror-themed plan for the month!

When talking about childhood fears, I don’t even know where to begin. I was scared of a lot of things as a child. There were, of course, the ghosts, ghouls and other assorted monsters that make the hearts of children go thump in the night. For example, after watching The Witches (based on the Roald Dahl book) for the first time, I was worried that my mother might actually be a witch in disguise. For a few short weeks, I got nervous whenever I was left alone with my mother, expecting her to transform into her true self and turn me into a rat. And catching even a glimpse of a horror film would leave me convinced that our house was haunted and whatever spirit inhabited it would only make its presence known to me.

But there were also the slightly more abstract fears. I’ve always been a bit afraid of the ocean. It’s a bit odd, because I like swimming and beaches just fine, and I’ve always wanted to live in a coastal town. But the ocean as a whole, a vast fathomless body whose depths we haven’t fully explored, frightens me. The idea of being in the middle of it, with no land in sight, is horrifying. Just an unending, infinite stretch of water, teeming with life that’s fairly alien. Add some sharks or other aquatic predators into the mix, and it’s a perfect recipe for a sleepless night.

In fact, the ocean was the subject of a short story I wrote a couple of days ago, as part of my 20 Tales of Terror series.

And now for my WEP submission, a variation on a classic ghost story.

The Stranger on the Path

Jeremy raised his lantern a bit higher and quickened his pace. He hated the idea of walking home in the dark, but it couldn’t be helped. Kara would be waiting and he didn’t want to worry her. Jeremy was the village school teacher, occasionally tutoring some of the boys in the neighboring villages. His tutoring session had longer than expected this evening, and it was well past sundown when he left.

The path between the villages was straight, with open fields on either side. On this night, the moon chose to lay hidden behind a thick curtain of clouds, and Jeremy’s lantern was the sole beacon of light in the darkness. Forbidding silhouettes loomed in the distance, but Jeremy knew they were just the trees and the hills. His heart still thudded in his chest. He had never walked the path so late before, and he didn’t know who or what he might encounter. He found himself thinking about the stories he’d heard as a child. Stories of spirits that terrorized unsuspecting travelers, leaving only petrified corpses behind.

His eyes darted around, searching for movement in the shadows. He was bathed in sweat in spite of the chill in the night air and was breathing in short gasps. He took a few moments to calm himself, swinging his lantern around as he did so. All he had to do was get home. There was no point worrying himself to death.

Presently, he approached the river that ran halfway between both villages. He didn’t have much further to go. As he stepped onto the wooden bridge that spanned the river, a voice rang out from the darkness.

“Hello, friend!”

Every muscle in Jeremy’s body froze. Outlined against the indigo sky was the silhouette of a man standing on the bridge. He stepped forward into the halo of light created by the lantern, smiling. He had a gaunt face, his hair was streaked with gray, and he carried a small trunk.

“Sorry if I startled you, friend. It’s just that I was headed to Felheim and I appear to have gotten a bit lost. Would you be able to point me in the right direction?”

Jeremy stayed rooted in place, unsure of what to say or do. Almost instinctively, he looked down.

“I..uhh…”

The man held out his hands in a placating gesture.

“I understand.  It’s late at night and no doubt, you’re wary of meeting a stranger on the road. Forgive my intrusion.”

With that, he stepped aside to let Jeremy pass. Feeling like a fool for letting childish fears overtake him, Jeremy stammered out an apology.

“I, uh, I was actually going to Felheim myself,” he said, his voice growing stronger. “And I suppose I could use some company. I must warn you, I have no money, though.”

He added the last sentence clumsily, still feeling cautious.

“No worries, friend,” the man smiled. “I will to my utmost to not rob you.”

Jeremy couldn’t help laughing, and resumed his journey.

“So what is it that takes you to Felheim at this hour?” he asked.

“I was to meet Dr. Fallon tomorrow”. Jeremy nodded in recognition of the name. “He and I were to discuss some business regarding his clinic. As it happened, I was able to come a bit earlier. But not quite early enough, it seems.”

The man indicated the blackness around them with a broad sweep of his hand.

“And yourself?”

“Well, I’m the local school teacher. I was tutoring at one of the neighboring villages and ran a bit late.”

“Ah, we are both victims of time, it seems.”

Jeremy smiled. As they walked on, he felt all the more foolish than ever for his previous doubts.

“This seems an unsafe place to be walking alone,” the man said, peering ahead.

“It’s safe enough I suppose, if you don’t let your imagination get carried away by ghost stories.”

The man laughed. “And what stories preyed on your mind?”

Jeremy cleared his throat loudly. “When I was a boy, I had heard tales of spirits that haunted the pathways. How people would often meet strangers on the road, who would request their help or pose a question. As the poor travelers stopped to talk to them, they would notice that the strangers’ feet were backwards. That’s when the strangers would shed their human disguise and reveal their true forms.”

“A gruesome tale indeed. Well, as you can see, my feet are quite normal.”

Jeremy smiled sheepishly. “Yes, it would appear so.”

At length, they approached the village, which was shrouded in darkness. It couldn’t possibly be that late. Surely someone had to be awake. Jeremy walked up to his house. Not a single light was on. He took out his key and started opening the door.

“How odd. It seems everyone’s gone to bed early tonight. Alas, I cannot introduce you to my wife, but I don’t think she would mind you staying the night. You can meet Dr. Fallon tomorrow. “

“Don’t worry about it, friend.”

Jeremy continued to fumble with the door, which refused to open.

“I can’t understand it. What’s going on here?”

“You really shouldn’t believe every story you hear, friend,” the man said, his voice seeming to blend with the wind. “Not all of us have our feet backwards.”

Jeremy turned around with a start. There was no one behind him. He raised his lantern high and looked around but there was no trace of the stranger. He also realized, on closer inspection, that not a single building around him looked familiar. He turned back to the house, which also looked alien, and which seemed to be disappearing into the darkness. The whole village was being consumed by the night.

Jeremy screamed for help, but it was no use. He was no longer in the world he knew. He had fallen into the realm of stories and legends, just another petrified corpse for parents to tell their children about on cold, moonless nights.

Word Count: 1,000 even! FCA