Four brand new tales to creep you out and mess with your head, plus another chance to read the popular short story, Late: a ghostly tale.
A Flip of the Coin: Do you believe in Heaven and Hell? Jimmy didn't, until a stranger appeared at his death-bed with a shocking proposal...
Stamp: Ben awakes from a one-night-stand with a hangover and an unusual souvenir. What does it mean? And what happened to the girl who gave it to him?
Rock God: Adored, idolised, worshipped. In our celebrity-obsessed culture, pop stars are treated like gods. But how far do their powers actually go?
Superstition: Laura knocks on wood, avoids black cats and never walks under ladders. Her husband calls her a freak. Maybe he'll wish he had believed her...
Late: a ghostly tale: Long after the children have escaped for home, a lone schoolteacher is working late. But is she really alone? Is someone there that she can't see? And, if so, what do they want?
A Flip of the Coin
He hadn’t expected it to be like this.
The harsh fluorescent light reflected painfully from the sterile green walls and stung his watery eyes, causing him to squint through his eyelashes. The scent of bleach and flowers tried, but failed, to mask the underlying odour of defecation and death. He wasn’t sure what he had expected. A hand, warm against his cold and paper-thin skin, held his own gently, dutifully. After a long and interesting life, James Edward Bailey waited for the end, not with fear or trepidation, but with patience. At least he was not alone.
The silence was heavy, broken only by his own laboured breathing and the rhythmic tick of a cheap plastic clock on the wall. A countdown. He wondered how many minutes he had left, how many aching inhalations and exhalations. Not many. The shadow of pain in his chest told him that. He turned his head to look at his silent companion, unmoving and bent over his withered hand. It wasn’t anybody he recognised. He wondered if his children had visited, wondered if they would visit. He hadn’t seen them for a long time.
The figure sensed his movement and raised its head. A man. His face was pale and tight, but kind. His hair, like his eyes, was dark and soft. He met his gaze and smiled weakly at the stranger. He wondered who he was, and why he was here with him. He moistened his dry lips and spoke.
“Do I know you?” His voice sounded weak and frail, like it had no life left. He remembered when it had boomed. The stranger shook his head.
“No, Jimmy, but I know you.” He laid his other hand over Jimmy’s and his fingers stroked soothingly as he answered; they were bone-thin but comforting. Jimmy imagined his skin whispered like sheets of parchment where they touched. “I will be here for you.”
“That’s very… kind of you.”
“It’s what I do.” The stranger smiled. Jimmy searched through his foggy memory for any recollection of his face. The morphine had numbed his brain. He remembered when it had been so sharp. He couldn’t place him.
“What is your name?” Jimmy wheezed.
“I have many names. Some call me Thanatos, some the Grey Walker, others Anubis.” He paused and looked directly into his eyes. “I imagine you would know me better as Death.”
Jimmy gasped, a rattling sound that vibrated through his frail body. Was this some kind of joke? He peered at the stranger’s pallid, drawn face and knew that it was not. Death had come for him.
“I’ve never been much of a believer,” Jimmy began. Death smiled again.
“I know. I know everything about you. I know everything.”
Jimmy didn’t know whether he found that comforting or not. He shifted slightly and tried to sit up. He couldn’t. He remembered when he had been strong. Death made hushing sounds and shook his head.
“Relax. It won’t be long now. It’s almost time.”
Jimmy let his head fall back onto the pillow. His heart, weakened by time and cigarettes, tapped quickly in his chest. He wasn’t sure what he had expected. His visits to church had been limited to obligatory weddings, christenings and, more frequently in the last years, funerals. He didn’t believe in God, or Heaven. He’d had no time for religion. Not like his Emily.
He smiled as he thought of her. Emily. His beautiful wife. His one loyal supporter. They’d met in an office where she’d been a secretary and his firm the suppliers of their office furniture. She’d given him an ear-bashing over a chair that had broken when she’d sat on it and he’d invited her out to dinner to apologise. They’d been married three months later, when the spring blossom fell from the trees like the confetti that no one could afford.
He’d never really recovered after her death four years previously. He’d sat by a hospital bed like this one, watching her fade away before his eyes, feeling a flame inside him gutter and perish. He seldom cried, but he had wept that day, knowing she was gone forever.
“Will I see her again?” he asked Death. He didn’t have to say her name; Death knew who he meant. He gestured to the other side of the bed.
“She’s here now.”
Jimmy turned his head as quickly as he could manage, and his eyes opened wide in wonder. To his right, radiant with youth and love, sat his Emily. Her golden hair was thick and lustrous, and her skin glowed a soft pink. Her lips formed a smile like a rose blooming as she took his hand and pressed her cheek to it.
“Jimmy,” she sighed. “I’ve waited so long for you to see me again.” She raised her head and beamed at him. Jimmy whispered her name as he strained his fingers to grasp hers more firmly, wincing automatically as the slight movement tugged the plastic tube that fed him morphine through his bruised and collapsing veins, surrounded by mottled and dry flesh. He tore his eyes away and back to Death.
“I was wrong? About the afterlife? There is a Heaven?”
“Of sorts. People make their own Heaven. And Hell.”
“Which one will I go to?”
“On what? On whether I believe?” Jimmy began to feel desperate. “Because I do! I believe!”
“It’s not that simple.” Death withdrew his hand from Jimmy’s and reached into his pocket. Jimmy noticed, for the first time, that Death was wearing jeans and a hooded jumper. He wasn’t sure what he had expected. Death’s hand returned, wrapped tightly around something small. He stood and stretched out his arm, holding his closed fist in front of Jimmy’s face. From the corner of his eye, Jimmy noticed Emily’s brow crease anxiously.
Death opened his fingers slowly. A shiny silver coin gleamed on his upturned palm.
...The song changed just as he reached the edge of the dancefloor: a pounding bass with a sexy hook. Perfect. He shuffled his way casually over to the girl. She had her back to him and, this close, he caught flashes of the perfect creamy skin of her back and shoulders through the moving bodies. He inched closer, not wanting to seem too obvious. He elbowed some of the competition out of the way and eventually managed to manoeuvre himself so he was beside her.
She turned suddenly and stopped dancing. He stopped too, surprised at the electric jolt that ran through him as his eyes met hers. He had never seen anyone so beautiful before. Her eyes were like toffee, honey-brown and sticky: they seemed to draw him in and hold him there. She smiled, revealing small white teeth. Her smile was flawless. She began to move again, inviting him with her eyes to join her.
Their bodies swayed together in perfect synchronicity. She turned so her back was against him and her soft hair brushed against his cheek. It smelt of violets. He ran his hands over her hips and she placed her own hands on top of his, holding him there. He glanced over to Tim and was gratified to see him stood up, staring, with his mouth literally hanging open. Ben grinned back.
The girl turned again so she was facing him. Her perfect mouth opened and she asked him, in a voice so sweet it made his knees weak, what his name was. He swallowed, not sure he could remember.
“Ben,” he managed to say. She smiled and carried on dancing, brushing against him every now and then. He leaned forward, partly so he could breathe in the scent of her hair again.
“What’s your name?”
“Cassie.” She lifted her hands and rested them on his shoulders as the song changed again to some Euro-pop rubbish. “Want to go somewhere quieter? I know a place.”
Ben blinked in surprise but nodded, too awed to push his luck by speaking. She gestured with her head at Tim.
“Your friend can come too. He’d have more luck there.”
Ben looked over to Tim, who had recovered from his stupor sufficiently to make rude gestures behind Cassie’s back, telling him in no uncertain terms that he considered Ben’s luck to be in.
“Ah, I don’t know that he-”
Cassie placed a polished fingernail on his lips.
“It’ll be fun. It’s a nice place. Nice people.” She took his hand and led him from the dance floor. “Come on.”
Mia yelped as Darren grabbed hold of her wrist and yanked her up the stone steps of the converted theatre, not letting go until the bustling street was behind them and they were through the doors. She barely had time to take a breath before she was plunged into a heaving rabble of strangers, the smell of cigarette smoke and stale beer besieging her nose like a smog of fast-living and reckless attitudes.
“Come on,” he called over his shoulder. “We don’t want to be late.”
“I’m coming,” she said, rubbing her wrist, her fake smile falling as soon as Darren turned his head away. He was already pushing through the crowd, and she wriggled through the bodies to keep up, clutching her handbag tightly against her chest. She didn’t want to lose him in here, not with this lot. They all looked so strange. Tattoos, piercings, heavy eye make-up and an abundance of black filled her vision in each direction she looked. Did all rock fans dress like this?
Using her bag as a shield, she shoved past a girl with a pierced lip to catch up with Darren, who reached back to pull her closer.
“This way,” he grinned, locking her fingers with his. “You’re going to love it- you’ll see.” His enthusiasm was infectious and, despite her misgivings about rock concerts, and the people who frequented them, Mia couldn’t help but grin back.
She let herself be jostled into the tight bottle-neck of leather and guyliner that was forming at the doors to the theatre’s main hall. It was uncomfortable, to say the least. She tried not to wrinkle her nose at the body odour of the teenage boy wedged against her back, or stare at the facial tattoos of the man who was trying to elbow his way in between Darren and herself. She was so out of her depth. The closest she’d come to a rock concert was seeing Busted when she was fourteen. She clung on to Darren’s arm as they shuffled forward. This was nothing like that.
Darren already had their tickets in his hand, ready to give to the man guarding the single entrance to the main hall. He had a hole in his ear so large that Mia swore she could fit her finger through it. Didn’t that hurt? Who would want to do that to themselves, anyway? The man caught her staring and Mia blushed, quickly looking away for something- anything- else to gawp at as they shuffled forward.
Her eyes scanned the foyer and rested on a giant poster of a man wearing a creepy mask complete with goat horns. He was dressed entirely in leather, with a plaited tail that curled around the neck of a young girl who, judging by the look on her face, didn’t seem to mind very much that she was being near-strangled, or that she wasn’t wearing many clothes. Maverick Hart the poster read. Rock God Tour, 2013.
Yanked from her pleasant dream by the scream of her alarm clock, Laura rolled over and slapped the “off” button down with more force than was necessary, her eyes still closed. She scowled sleepily, dreading the moment when she must open her eyes fully and acknowledge the day. Serious considerations of hitting “snooze” crossed her mind, but then the alarm would sound again at 7:06, and that would never do. The lovely images faded as real life elbowed its way into her conscious mind. She sighed. She hated Fridays.
Moving stealthily so as not to wake the slumbering form next to her, she rolled out of bed on the right side and slid her feet into her slippers: right foot first, then the left. She stumbled groggily towards the bathroom, occasionally ricocheting from the walls and various items of furniture, counting her steps as she went. Eighteen. This was good.
In the bathroom, she washed her face and brushed her teeth, making sure to perform each action an even number of times. She tried and failed to count the lines that appeared beside her eyes as she screwed up her face while she brushed. Each day, there seemed to be another. She frowned at herself in the mirror, contorting her pretty face until it resembled the crumpled duvet she’d left behind. Her ash-blonde hair looked grey in the artificial light, her skin pale and washed-out, like the colour had been leeched from her. She felt drained.
She spat, rinsed her toothbrush and wiped her mouth, being careful to leave the towel folded neatly on the rail. She returned to the bedroom- fourteen steps this time, which was even better- to dress.
Today would require something special. She selected the skirt that she had been wearing the day she passed her driving test and the V-neck jumper she had been wearing when Brighton won against Leyton Orient in 2011. It was a beautiful cerulean blue that stood out against the more neutral-toned hues in her wardrobe, but she needed something bold today, something lucky. Today was going to be a good day; she’d make sure of it.
She applied her make-up and opened her jewellery box. Her hand hovered over a pair of antique sapphire studs that would match her jumper before she eventually decided on the silver hoops she had been given for her twenty-fifth birthday. That had been a good day. She slid a silver bangle -a present from her first boyfriend- over her wrist, glancing guiltily at her husband behind her. He slept, stagnant, sprawled out across the mattress, taking up more room than was fair. She shook her head to dislodge the unkind thoughts that suddenly shouted their outrage. That wouldn’t do.
She checked her reflection in the full-length mirror hanging on the bedroom wall; she looked smart, assured- exactly the image she wanted to project to the watching world. It wouldn’t do to let anyone know.
...The dark country lanes twisted as she raced along them, barely needing to even look as she flew along the dyke-lined route she had travelled so many times before. Her mind was miles away, back at the old building and the thing that she had experienced there. She remembered again how she was always the last to leave; perhaps now she understood why.
She glanced in the rear-view mirror; the school was far behind her, but the chill had followed. She realised she was gripping the steering wheel tightly, and shook her hands, one at a time, to loosen her stiff fingers.
She forced her shoulders to relax and stretched her hand out to turn up the heating. Her eyes left the road briefly as she turned the dial to its maximum setting. The hot air blasted onto her face, feeling painful on her cold skin. She adjusted the fan and let it blow gently over her hands until they began to feel warmer.
She eased off the accelerator, sat back in her seat and began to feel calmer; the butterflies stilled and her heart resumed beating normal time.
She shook her head in wonder as she continued along the narrow lane, heading for the main road and home. Already, she felt silly. She imagined trying to explain what had happened and, even to her, it sounded ridiculous. Who would believe her tale? The weight of unfulfilled responsibility was heavy on her shoulders. If anything happened at the unlocked school that night she’d lose her job.
She contemplated pulling over and phoning the caretaker, but dismissed that idea as she tried and failed to imagine a plausible-sounding excuse for leaving the school unlocked. The further she travelled, the more she began to regret her hasty exit. She sighed at the realisation: she would have to go back, and she would have to go back alone.
At the precise moment that thought entered her mind, a cold sigh whispered on her left cheek. She jerked her head up and stared into the rear-view mirror. Staring back at her were a pair of piercing blue eyes, so like her own, but these were not wide with fear as she was sure hers must be. They held her with their gaze, bright and hard in a face whose shape suggested youth, even as it was lined with age.
She screamed as it smiled at her in the mirror, the sound muffled by the car’s soft interior...