I entered this short story into Stephen King’s recent competition with The Guardian. Needless to say, I wasn’t shortlisted, so my work will never be read by Mr King himself. But the competition gave me the drive to finally finish a story, to write and rewrite and put myself out there for the world to criticise. AAnd so I’m sharing it here, for you beautiful people to read, and hopefully enjoy.
By Vikki Patis
Every morning at six o’clock sharp, without the need for an alarm clock, Simon rose from his bed, slid his feet into his slippers, and padded downstairs to the kitchen. He filled, emptied, refilled the kettle, and put it on to boil, before placing two slices of bread into the toaster. After breakfast, he went upstairs – sometimes, if he was feeling particularly energetic, taking them two at a time – to brush his teeth, wash his face, comb his hair, and get dressed. Every morning he put on the same outfit – black trousers, a plain white polo shirt, and black shoes, with a black jumper on hand in case the weather was unkind.
And, thus ready, every morning at seven o’clock sharp, Simon called goodbye to his wife, got into his old Fiat, and drove to work.
Simon worked at the toll bridge that connects – or divides, depending on the way you look at it – Devon and Cornwall. He sat in a small metal box for 8 hours every day, taking money, giving change, and wishing everyone a pleasant day. Simon’s days were rarely pleasant, but neither was he discontented. Every day at half past twelve, he took his lunchbox, containing his cheese and pickle sandwich and salt and vinegar crisps, down to the car park which overlooked the river Tamar. He ate in silence, chewing his food slowly, always seeming to be deep in thought. After eating, he smoked a cigarette, then headed back to his metal box, where he would sit taking money, giving change, and wishing everyone a pleasant day, until four o’clock, when he would raise a hand to his colleagues, climb into his old Fiat, and drive home.
Random events rarely occurred in Simon’s life; he lived by his routine, happy in the safety net of similarity. But when strange things did happen, they were burnt into his memory, to be picked over and reopened like wounds that refuse to heal. One day in September, after a frustrating drive up the A38 in torrential rain, Simon pulled up outside his house and wrenched the handbrake up. He glared through the windscreen, the wipers still moving furiously in front of his face, and his eyes landed on a small heap on the edge of his front garden. What is that? he thought, squinting through the downpour. He decided to investigate; if someone had dumped rubbish on his grass, he would bloody well hit the roof.
Simon switched off the engine, opened the car door, and marched over to his garden, yanking his hood up as he went. A few feet from where the lump lay, Simon stopped dead, his eyes widening. It was a cat. The cat was dead, or so Simon supposed, from the lumpy, broken way it was laying on the grass. Its once white-and-grey fur was now matted with blood and dirt. There were track marks leading from the cat to just about where Simon stood on the pavement, as if the cat had dragged itself to supposed safety before finally succumbing to its horrific injuries.
What happened? Simon wondered, a hand covering his mouth in shock. Did it… Did I… his uneven thoughts trailed off, his mind too disturbed to consider any real possibilities. He closed his eyes and took long, deep breaths, silently counting them, and when he got to fifty, he opened his eyes again. The cat was still there, but it wasn’t quite as horrifying as before. It occurred to Simon that he needn’t do anything at all; he could simply go inside, close the door, and continue with his normal routine. After all, one wasn’t supposed to find a dead cat on an otherwise perfectly nice evening. And so, eyes averted, Simon made his way along the path to his front door. Someone else will deal with it, he thought. It doesn’t have to be me.
He went through the house, threw his lunchbox on the kitchen table, flicked the kettle on, and wandered into the living room. The old TV was flickering again, casting an eerie hue upon the furniture.
Simon said as much to his wife, who was sprawled across the sofa.
‘We really must buy a new TV, Jade,’ he murmured, as he went over to give it a whack. Jade didn’t flinch. The TV continued to flicker. Simon sighed. He briefly wondered if he should tell her about the cat, and quickly dismissed the idea. Since the months following their wedding five years ago, Jade had become more and more withdrawn, prone to fits of violence and periods of deep depression. He wandered back into the kitchen to make his tea.
Having settled on a steak and ale pie for dinner, Simon preheated the oven, and settled down at the kitchen table to wait. Blowing on his cup of tea to cool it, he unfolded his reading glasses, settled them on his nose, and began opening the days post. Water bill due, must book an appointment with the dentist, TV licence due… Simon gave an ungentlemanly snort at the last one. On a notepad by the kettle, he made a note to pop into a shop and look at televisions the next day after work.
The oven timer beeped, startling Simon and almost causing him to upset his cup of tea. He silenced it quickly, darting a look at the living room and his indisposed wife. As he was putting the frozen green beans on to boil, he considered offering Jade some food, and once again decided not to disturb her. Simon ate alone at the kitchen table, chewing mechanically and leafing through a newspaper. He made a mental note to pick up an enchilada kit on his way home tomorrow.
The next day, after work, and after once again entertaining the idea of keeping a tally of how many people ignored his pleasantries each day, Simon headed towards the city centre. He’d never liked Plymouth, much preferring the quiet outskirts to the bustling student town, but needs must, and Simon needed to buy a new TV. He’d intended on going into the city centre itself, but changed his mind at the last minute, and instead joined the dual carriageway which would take him up towards Plympton, and the electronic store, which he had every faith would be able to sell him a new TV.
He parked up, entered the shop, and was immediately pounced upon by a greasy-haired twenty-something.
The sales assistant, whose badge read Adam, sauntered over to him. ‘Good afternoon sir,’ said Adam around a mouthful of chewing gum. ‘What can I do for you today?’
Pushing his discomfort aside, Simon mustered up a smile for the young man. ‘I’m here to buy a new television,’ he said. ‘Mine has been on the fritz for weeks now, and I want something new.’
Adam chewed, nodded, and assured Simon that they would find something for him today.
And find they did. After some humming and polite haggling, Simon settled on a new TV. He paid, helped Adam carry it to his Fiat, and thanked the young man heartily. The whole process had been entirely painless – the few hundred pounds aside – and Simon was in a good mood. He swung through McDonald’s and grabbed a burger for dinner (the mental note to pick up an enchilada kit completely forgotten), and ate his chips as he drove home. He was sure that this new television would cheer Jade up.
Simon had always known that Jade was out of his league. But, as he regularly reminded himself, he never would have looked at her if she hadn’t invaded his booth at Goodbody’s one Friday evening, interrupting his meal and his thoughts.
‘I’m on an awful date,” she’d said, flicking her fringe out of her eyes. “Any chance I can hide here with you until he leaves?’
Panicked and slightly scared of this young woman who had forced her way into his evening, Simon had asked where her date was, mumbling the question into his lasagna.
‘Oh, he’s just nipped to the loo. He can’t see me from here, right?’
Simon peeked round the edge of the booth to see a young man with floppy black hair and scruffy jeans approach a table, strewn with dishes and glasses, a confused frown on his face.
‘I think you’re good.’ Simon had looked up at the woman. Her hair was curly and wild, almost black, and her eyes were bright green, blazing out of her porcelain face. ‘You didn’t let him pay for the meal, did you?’ he had asked, a small smile on his lips. He was starting to feel bolder under her gaze.
The woman had laughed. ‘Of course I did!’ Simon couldn’t help but laugh too. ‘He was a sexist pig, and part of that sexist piggism meant he simply had to pay for my meal.’ She rolled her eyes, still smiling. ‘May as well use it to my advantage.’
Simon had thought he could see some logic in that.
‘Well, I’m not a sexist pig,’ he had said, feeling a blush creep into his cheeks, ‘which means you can’t have any of my dessert.’
She had burst out laughing, and Simon had felt himself falling headfirst in love.
They married quickly. She was an art student – and a talented one at that – pulling pints in the student union in the evenings; he was already working full time at the bridge. She moved into his two-bedroom house shortly before their wedding, which was a quiet affair. He could tell she’d had a difficult life, but it wasn’t until their wedding night – a mere four months after that first meeting – that he got the whole, horrible story. He held her, kissed her hair, told her that he would do his very best for her. He was stable, she said, he would provide, and that’s part of the reason she chose him.
Oddly flattered – Simon wasn’t one to put much stock in passion and the like – he simply nodded, drew her close, and listened to her heart beat steadily. Life, life, life, it said.
After poring over the manual for an hour, and some casual swearing at the new gadget, the television finally flickered to life. Smiling triumphantly, Simon placed the remote control on the coffee table and headed for the kitchen for a celebratory cup of tea.
While the kettle was boiling, Simon nipped upstairs to the toilet. He pulled the cord and the overhead light flickered on. As he was washing his hands, he glanced into the mirror, and barely suppressed a scream. There were flecks of blood congealing on the surface. Eyes wide, he thought he saw a flicker of movement behind his left shoulder, before the light blew out. The scream burst through his lips this time, and he ran for the door, throwing it wide and letting the light pour in.
Safe in a shaft of sunlight, Simon stared back into the bathroom, now – or perhaps it always was – empty. He shook his head as if to clear it, but his memories were taking over, snatching him from the present and dragging him back down into the past.
There was so much blood. That was all he could think, as his wife had wailed in agony and despair on the bathroom floor, her face grey. So much blood. And shapes, there had been shapes in the blood. Clots, surely, a small, logical part of his mind had said, just clots, but in that moment, Simon had fancied he could see his future in those shapes, and he didn’t like the look of it.
A shriek from Jade had snapped him out of his thoughts. He went to her, and, slipping an arm around her waist, half-carried her to the bedroom, pulling her around the mess on the floor. Tears streaked down her face, cutting through her make-up in vicious lines. He knew with startling clarity that his wife, who had, aged fourteen, buried two siblings, both parents and a beloved pet cat after a freak fire destroyed their home, would never be able to bury this grief. She wanted life, she’d said, when the story had first burst from her lips. Something spared me that night, that night the fire broke out and I was staying with a friend, laughing and chatting and eating ice cream, while my family burned to death. And so I chose life. But I see only death.
And now there has been another, Simon had thought, returning to the bathroom door and staring down at the bloody monstrosity on the floor. He knew with a cold dread that it would not be the last.
Simon jerked out of his reverie. The bathroom floor was spotlessly clean, white and sparkling. He couldn’t remember how the floor had been cleaned that first time; probably the same way the walls of their spare bedroom had been cleaned, after Jade had thrown a tin of paint at the wall in despair. Simon shuddered. Leave me alone, he told his memories. What’s done is done.
His dreams that night were red and vicious, full of ghosts and grief. He tossed and turned, mumbling in his sleep, and, for the first time in years, slept in late.
He woke up slowly, opened one eye, then the other, to weak sunlight filtering through the net curtain. His tongue felt thick in his mouth, his throat dry. He sat up, blinked, glanced at the clock on his bedside table. He simply couldn’t believe what he saw. He, Simon, punctual and dependable, was late for work. He rushed through his morning routine, almost showering with the cup of tea he threw down his gullet, and ran out the door.
Simon arrived at work, only five minutes late in the end, and mumbled an apology as he hurried past his supervisor, who barely raised an eyebrow. The working day went slower than usual, despite being five minutes shorter, and it felt like a decade had passed before Simon could take his lunch and sit in his car, looking out across the Tamar. The water was calm today, sparkling prettily in the sun, and it helped soothe his despair. Tomorrow will be better, he thought, finishing his sandwich and taking a sip of Coke before lighting a cigarette. Tomorrow will be better. It became a mantra, and as he finished for the day and joined the traffic heading home, he found he was very much looking forward to tomorrow.
But the feeling didn’t last long. The next morning, after an early dinner and a long sleep, Simon woke up at the usual time, to rain lashing against the window. He could hear the wind howling through the trees, and wondered whether they would have to close the bridge. His morning routine complete, he headed for the door. Something made him pause at the open living room doorway. He peered in, seeing nothing out of place – the TV flicking black and white lines across the walls, his wife curled up on the sofa, dead to the world. And then it hit him.
The stench. It seeped out of the living room like death itself, curling tendrils of hate towards him. It smelled of dirt and hell and evil and rot, and he suddenly went cold, frozen down to the core. Terror forced his eyes wide and mouth apart, and then the stench got in, into him, and he gagged.
The movement shocked him into action. He ran for the door, flinging it wide and slamming it shut behind him, as if hoping that a piece of wood could keep it in, keep it away, whatever it was.
You were waiting for someone else to deal with it, he thought, or heard, or thought he heard. But no one came. No one will come.
Suppressing a scream, Simon ran to his car, leaped inside, and locked the door after him. As he screeched away, he fancied he could see a face in the window, grinning out at him.
Simon drove around aimlessly in the pouring rain, found he was automatically heading to work, and changed direction. He couldn’t face all those people, not today. He approached the Marsh Mills roundabout, pulled into Sainsbury’s, and parked up. He was breathing hard, his hands trembling, but he managed to fumble his phone out of his pocket and ring his supervisor. ‘There’s been a family emergency,’ he said, barely hearing his own voice. ‘I won’t be in today. Pardon? Oh yes, tomorrow, yes, all being well, I’ll be back tomorrow. Thank you.’ He hung up, then on impulse switched his phone off. He lit a cigarette, opened the window to let the smoke roll out. He breathed in fresh air, raindrops pattering unnoticed against his face.
After two more cigarettes and time to think, the shakes finally started to subside. No longer could he sit and wait for someone else, anyone else, to fix his problem. He started the car, sighed heavily, and lit another cigarette for the journey.
As he drove, his mind wandered back to an evening a few years ago, when he had come home from work to find his wife cold and unmoving on the sofa. Jade must have made a mistake, he had told himself, taken too many pills by accident. He had sat down in his chair, terrified into inaction. She had woken up coughing a few hours later; Simon swam back to consciousness too – his mind had gone blank as he waited for something to happen. Jade had moaned, and Simon had gone to her, knelt beside her head, and smoothed the dark hair back from her clammy forehead.
‘How are you feeling?’ he had whispered.
Her breathing was slow and shallow. She had blinked several times before answering.
‘Like death,’ she had croaked, and the grin that broke out across her face had sent chills down his spine.
A black cloud hung ominously over the house. The rain beat against the windshield. The engine off, the wipers still, Simon sat hunched in the car, nervously nibbling his nails. He suddenly sat up straight, his eyes wide in his face.
I left Jade in there.
The realisation hit him in the stomach like a fist and made him feel sick. In all the time that had passed since he fled the house, the idea that there was something in there that could harm Jade had never crossed his mind. Horrifying scenarios flicked through his head, memories mingled with fear. Jade covered in blood; Jade’s face ghostly pale; Jade knocking over her pot of paint and covering the walls in red. He buried his face in his hands, moaning softly. After all she’s been through, after everything, I just left her. And yet, as he thought it, a part of his mind wondered what exactly he had been so afraid of. It was as if a portion of the fear he’d felt in the living room had stayed behind when he fled. He wondered briefly if the fear would return, if it was waiting for him, and stifled a giggle. Of course it is, he thought, with absurd clarity. Whatever it is, it’s waiting for me. No one else, just for me.
Armed with that knowledge, and the heavy torch he kept in the glovebox, Simon stepped out of the car, and, drenched, made his way to the front door, and whatever awaited him inside.
The first thing he noticed was that the front door was open. It was creaking softly in the wind, swaying back and forth, giving Simon a glimpse of the utter blackness inside. It was dark outside too; heavy clouds had rolled in, rain fell in sheets from what seemed like every direction, and the wind whistled through the air, sounding for all the world like a woman screaming.
I slammed that door, he thought, but the thought had little impact on him. With every step he felt numb, resigned to his fate.
Pushing open the door, he poked his head through the gap, the torch raised above his head. The hallway was full of shadows; the light from the door barely penetrated them. Every sense was alert, his body ready to flee at the first sign of the thing that had already chased him out of the house that morning. Although the weight of the torch in his hand made him feel braver, he knew it would be no use against whatever was waiting for him inside.
Simon crept along, keeping to the wall, barely breathing. The smell of cigarette smoke reached his nose. He peered around the living room door, and was surprised to find Jade sitting up, blowing smoke from her nose like a dragon, the cigarette burning in the darkness. The room was filled with mist, layers upon layers of ghostly tendrils engulfing the room.
‘You’re awake,’ he said stupidly, his tongue thick. ‘Are you – Is everything alright?’ He glanced around the room as he spoke, but the smoke made it hard to see anything clearly. He rubbed his eyes.
‘I am,’ Jade replied, her voice a whisper. ‘For the first time in a long, long time, I’m awake.’
Simon threw a look of surprise at her. ‘Wh-what do you mean?’ he stammered. He knew she had been having a difficult time, but the look on her face was one he’d never seen before.
His wife tipped her head back, opened her mouth wide, and from it came a sound of pure horror. It was a scraping, barking laugh, the sound of a rabid dog growling, a corpse clawing its way out of the grave. With the sound came the smell, that awful, stomach-turning stench of death and decay. The mist grew thicker, swirling around Jade as she laughed.
Abruptly, she snapped her jaws shut, but the sound still reverberated around the room, echoing in Simon’s ears. Fear clawed at his stomach, his heart pounded in his head. The torch clattered to the wooden floor.
‘Jade,’ he said slowly. ‘What-what-‘
‘What have I become?’ she croaked, a hideous grin plastered to her face. Her once radiant hair was now dank and matted, stuck to her skull, but her eyes were still bright, feverish. ‘What have you turned me into, Simon? Dear, sweet, reliable Simon, who could imagine what you were capable of?’
Simon blinked in confusion, but didn’t dare respond. He barely recognised the woman in front of him; his wife was now a thing of terror. As she spoke, the mist swirled violently, wrapping Simon in a lover’s embrace, silencing his shrieks with wispy fingers curled around his throat. He struggled fruitlessly, his limbs barely moving against the tightening press of the mist. The stench of death filled his lungs, choking him; his eyes popped wildly out of their sockets, blind and full of nothingness.
He felt himself being drawn upstairs, with Jade floating ahead. They passed photographs on the wall, of him, of Jade, of them both together, happy and smiling and living in wedded bliss, before the terror began. As if she read his mind, she turned back and gave him an incongruous wink.
‘It didn’t last long, did it, dear?’ she murmured. ‘No, not long at all.’
She led him into the bathroom, where she paused at the open doorway, her face suddenly overcome with sadness.
‘You let your child shrivel on the bathroom floor, born in blood and anguish. You let your wife choke to death on pills of poison. Do you remember the cat you left in the garden? It was still alive, barely, but it would have been saved if you’d just done something!’ Jade screamed the last words. Her face was no longer sad; it was terrifying in her fury. He scanned the room, frantically looking for a way out, but as his eyes landed once more on his wife’s, he knew there would be no escape.
That grin, that ghastly, terrifying grin, which promised that the worst was yet to come, stretched across Jade’s face once more.
‘Oh no, Simon, there will be an end. But not for you, not from me. I’ve been gone for a while; we have so much to catch up on.’
In the final moments of horror, Jade’s face swam up before him, her now ever-present grin and savage eyes glittering in the mist, like the moon breaking through the clouds. The mist turned black, engulfing him. Ringlets of red curled around him; his struggles became weaker, his breathing laboured. He looked into Jade’s eyes one last time. ‘I want you to meet your daughter,’ she breathed.
Copyright © 2016 by Vikki Patis. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.