Write Club, the creative writing society, recently had their annual Halloween competition.
We had a great deal of entries and wanted to share with a wider audience the calibre of work we received.
If you fancy grabbing a cup of tea or coffee and settling down for a read, over the next three couple of days, we will be sharing our winning entries.
– Cin McGuigan, Chair of Write Club
warning: strong language ahead, reader discretion advised.
Joint Third Place – Amy Doherty and Jade Langan
Smile, by Amy Doherty
Today is the day they come for me.
I can feel it, like a sixth sense, the tiny hairs at the back of my neck standing to attention. It’s an ancestral thing apparently, a rush of adrenaline telling you there’s a tiger nearby, so hurry the fuck up the nearest tree. During my brief foray into counselling they spoke about warning lights, and faulty alarm systems – as though my anxiety were a wiring issue that could somehow be fixed with circular breathing and counting to ten. But it’s not paranoia if you’re right.
I’ve prepared myself, much good may it do me. I’m sure whoever finds this note will also find my sad little rucksack, what the doomsday preppers call a ‘Bug Out Bag’. Water, food, important documents, a spare phone and charger. I’m still not used to mobile phones. My neighbour convinced me to get one, despite my concerns. She even set it up for me, explaining it slowly, as though I’d never seen one before. That’s when I realized how pathetic I must seem. Or how ill. The skin on my hands seems thin, like tracing paper. It’s been a long time since I dared look in a mirror. I shouldn’t like to meet the stranger who lives there.
They’ll assume it was madness. Or early onset dementia, perhaps. Poor Liza, only forty five, didn’t she lost the plot toward the end? Tragic. I suppose that’s why I’m writing this, although likely you won’t believe a word. But I have no family to pass an estate to, no friends to worry what happened, not a soul who will miss me when I’ve gone. I just need to tell someone the truth. Just once. About the lady on the bus.
I leant my head against the windowpane, the rumble from the bus engine like white noise against the inside of my skull. Back then I’d worked in the stock room of a high-end shoe store, arranging hundreds of boxes all day long, up and down the ladders. Mind numbing work, especially for a twenty-year-old girl who just wanted to eat, sleep, and party. The ride home was my chance to decompress, recover. To relax.
But not too much. I felt myself dozing and reluctantly sat upright. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d missed my stop and ended up at the depot. Last time I had to walk the full five miles back to my flat, creeping from streetlight to streetlight and tugging at my too-short uniform skirt. Never again. It was dark outside, the November frost already beginning to settle. Nothing to do but stare at the fuzzy outline of my own reflection and let my mind wander.
That’s when I felt it, the same thing I feel now – those little hairs on the back of my neck. Screaming at me – Tiger, there’s a goddamn Tiger you stupid hairless ape. The laminated glass made a poor mirror, but it was clear enough to see the movement that had alerted me. There was a woman sat across from me, where there hadn’t been before. Although she must have been there – we’d made no stops since mine. Perhaps she’d moved seats? There was something about her face. Something peculiar, warped. My senses were screaming at me not to turn, not to look directly at her. But I couldn’t help it.
Not a tiger. She was older, perhaps fifty or sixty, her hair salt and pepper grey. She wore a neat white coat, loose around the collar, showing an elegant silk scarf underneath. The very image of propriety. Her eyes were blue, piercing, but otherwise normal, staring unblinkingly at me. I realized I must look like a maniac – twisted around in my seat, mouth wide open. I snapped it closed and pressed my lips together, an approximation of a smile.
There was a pause, endless, and then she smiled back – no, grinned, an enormous, jaw cracking grin that spread from one side of her head to the other, and yet seemed utterly devoid of
mirth. I could see every tooth. Was that even possible? Yes – incisors, molars, a dark grey patch that was undoubtably a filling, and still her smile seemed to grow. With horror I realized that her lower lip had split, blood trilling heedlessly down her chin and along her jaw, pooling in the collar of her elegant coat.
“Hello.” she said. Or rather, something said. Whatever was speaking to me certainly wasn’t the same woman who had picked out her scarf this morning, an elegant teal and blue pattern, matching the sapphire of her earring. This voice seemed to fizz and buzz, like a poorly tuned radio.
“Um,” I said.
“You’re on the wrong bus, Liza.”
A sick heat ran up my back, fingertip prickles. I bit the insides of my cheek, hard, desperate not to faint. Car lights flashed outside the window as we the bus turned heedlessly, throwing strange shadows across the aisle.
“I don’t- I… I can get off.”
There was movement behind me, like a great looming shadow. I realized I couldn’t remember who else was on the bus. Could the other passengers see this? Were they just the same – frozen in place, fearing for their sanity?
“Too late.” This time the static-filtered voice came from behind me. Deeper, a man. Or something like a man. “You’ve seen us now.”
“I haven’t seen anything!” I meant to scream, but it came out as a breathless whistle.
“I agree.” came another voice.
“She’s seen too much.”
“She should stay.”
All of them, I realized, all the passengers. Everyone. More shadows grew around me, creeping coldness around my neck, arms, legs. Still the woman sat watching me, grinning, her lip now slowed to an ooze. My mind seemed to wobble, and I focused on her eyes, as though thinking of anything else would send me plunging down from the thin precipice of sanity.
“Be quiet.” she finally said, and the shadows retreated a little. Though not too far.
“I don’t want to stay”. I managed. “I want to go home.”
“Are you sure?”
She sniffed, as though disappointed.
“You would have been a good host. But we have our rules.”
Murmurs of dissent from the shadows, then growing louder, the buzz enough to fill the air with thick, solid sound. I covered my ears, willing myself not to scream.
“Enough! You’ve seen us. And one day you will see us again. Next time…” she pointed one finger at me, no longer grinning, “You will say yes. I know this.”
Something was squirming beneath the skin of her hand, moving and pulsing. It wriggled upward, beneath the sleeve of her coat, and suddenly her whole head was a moving mass, writhing and pulsing with hideous rhythm. I opened my mouth to scream and felt the shadows move toward me, into me. I felt their hunger. Their rage.
I woke up at the bus depot, head pressed against the cool glass. My breath had left a white fog against the pane. Someone was shaking me and I leapt up, shrieking, my voice sharp and brilliant in the silence.
“Whoa! Miss, it’s alright!”
The driver. Young, almost handsome, with the faint beginnings of a moustache under his nose. I remembered him from when I got one and laughed, a little wildly.
“Oh my god, I’m so sorry. I fell asleep.”
I fumbled beneath my seat for the bag, cheeks growing hot. He smiled politely in reply, standing a touch too close. I hoped he wasn’t a creep.
“Are we at the main depot?”
“Yep.” He pointed out the window at the station, full of silent buses. “Can you get home from here okay?”
“Yes, thanks. Sorry again.”
He opened the door, watching as I stepped down onto the tarmac.
“You’re lucky they let you go, you know.”
“I said, you’re lucky. They usually don’t.”
“They… they were real?” I wanted to run, but my legs felt far too heavy.
“As you or me.”
He closed the door behind me.
I still don’t know what they were, or why they let me go. I stopped catching the bus, of course. Found ways to work from home, trading my flat for a nice, secure bungalow. The years have aged me, too fast. Still I see them sometimes. In the reflection of a shop window. In the background of a news program. Years ago I used to catalogue them, write them down in a journal, but my
sightings are too frequent now to bother. The journals are in my safe, should they be of interest to you. Passcode is my birthday.
They’re getting closer. I’m sure the postman smiles differently now. I have to go, somewhere they won’t find me.
I wish you luck, whoever you are. You’re going to need it.
More of Amy’s work can be found on her website.
Green Stones, by Jade Langan
A large conifer hangs heavily over the gravestones in the corner of the cemetery. The tree’s branches push out low densely, shadowing the graves. The late afternoon winter sunlight struggles to peep through. I wish I knew what type of tree it was; Mum would have known. Every time I visit, I think the same thing. Without thinking, I reach up and pull a low hanging branch towards me. I suddenly realise how this may look and stop like a statue. I scan the area to check there is no one else about. No, all alone. I bend a small limb down towards me. It has foliage at the end that I could use to identify it at home. The twig is young and flexible. I bend and twist it until it tears unwillingly from the tree. The bough springs up again with force. As it reverberates into place, it showers me with small spikey pines. The end of my twig looks ruptured, white flesh and green-brown bark separated like a nasty gash. I have broken something that had been perfect and whole. ‘It’s fine,’ I mutter under my breath as I push it into cleaning box before someone comes and sees what I have done. I return to the task at hand.
The lichen and moss have grown more than last year; it has been a damp summer. I looked at the dull green stones and reread them.
Walter G Slack 1863 -1942 Beloved father and husband.
Frances M Slack 1866 – 1942 Beloved mother and wife.
Charles Whitfield 1887 – 1960 Beloved father and husband.
Frances M Slack 1895 – 1975 Beloved mother and wife.
Frances M Whitfield nee Wright 1924 – 2005 Beloved mother and wife.
Margery A Whitfield nee Davis 1926 – 2007 Beloved mother and wife.
Margaret J Whitfield nee Oliver 1929 – 2012 Beloved mother and wife.
Beloved. Beloved. Beloved. I know them by heart. Every year I come, regular as clockwork, the week before Christmas, to clean the graves. All of them here, my mum last.
My dad had hated where these graves were; he knew that after my mum, there was no more room. The three sisters had decided that after all their years married to their beloveds, it was more important to rest in peace with their mum and dad. I don’t get it, but I don’t have a sister. Maybe it’s different? Perhaps there’s a bond I will never understand? They had lived through a war together, gone to boarding school together, grown up on the farm together. Their lives were different from mine.
I grab my first bottle of diluted bleach and put some on the brush and start to scrub, the smell of lichen and bleach reminds me of Christmas’ gone. Walters’ W is looking a bit worn; it is over a hundred and fifty years old.
Every year, in the crisp cold of winter, I come and scrub. My Mum did it before me. She would say, ‘Scrub and think about the dead.’ Her face as stony as the graves, unsmiling, on hands and knees, ‘This is not a place to play. Come and help.’
Dead and buried, long gone, passed away, in a better place. It’s all crap, really. They are just gone. And yet here I am, again and I don’t know why, still scrubbing.
There’s a wind today, whipping the hairs on the back of my neck, sighing to me. I lean back and look at the old church which towers amongst the graves. The stain glass windows are dark, and the clouds match them. Rain is in the air. Time to move on to the first Frances. I talk to them whilst I clean, I ask them about their lives, was Walter considerate, when things were hard? Walter and Frances’ gravestone are the largest and most imposing. They lie flat on the ground, with scrolls and carvings of cherubs and angels around the sides. I hope Walter was kind to Frances. The wind hisses and I swear I hear ‘not kind’ whispered in my ear. The hairs on my arms stand up.
A cloud has blocked out the sun. An involuntary shiver passes through me. I’ve been coming here since I was a child. I always feel I am missing something when I leave. Like I have left something, someone behind.
Brushing the edges of Charles grave, I feel sad. My Mum had always said he would have loved to play with me. I was born in 1967; I just missed him. If Mum had been able to conceive her own child, he would have seen all his daughters with children. Instead, he died knowing the sadness of his beloved Margi, childless, despite being married since 1956. Do you know about me, Grandad? Would you have loved me even though I wasn’t your blood? The wind blows again; there is a chill in it I didn’t feel earlier, it is getting late, too late for cleaning gravestones, I’m losing the light. Then I hear it, a murmuring, ‘she should have had her own baby, too many dead babies, dead babies, dead babies…’. I stand up. Someone is having a joke with me. I zip my jacket up as I look around, pulling my arms around me. Mum always said I had an overactive imagination. I shake my head and get back to the job in hand. I need to finish before the light goes. Just the sisters to clean, they are far smaller than the other stones. Only three squares of grey granite, identical sizes, one for each sibling.
I finish quickly, spooked by the wind, the shadows and now the dark drizzle of rain. I go back to the car and get the Christmas wreath I place every year, just like Mum did, made of holly and ivy. At the same time, I get the bottle of clean water to sluice the cleaning solution off the graves.
As I rinse the graves with water, I wish them well and think of happier times. Christmas dinners with all my Aunts, Uncles and Gran. My Mum laughing. I place the wreath with my Mum. The child inside me is going, ‘Look Mum, I made it myself, is it OK?’
I gather all my things and take the wilted flowers and remnants of wreaths from the year before and put them in the boot. I go back and click the small wooden gate closed and give one last glance to the graveyard and church. I see dark shadows; they seem to turn towards me when the gate clicks. I quickly shut the boot and get into the car.
As I drive away, I see the vicar who gives me a cheery wave. Then he waves again at the side of the car. I glimpse in my rear-view mirror and see all three sisters sitting there looking at me sternly, altogether again. I look at the road and back again and they are gone.