A teenage girl climbing a rock cliff with a man below her

A teenage girl climbing a rock cliff with a man below her

Author’s note: Following the Neil Gaiman Master Class series, he offers the following exercise. Take one of the simple settings below and write a page about it, trying to undermine the reader’s expectations. For example, you’re writing about a man at a party who is talking to a beautiful woman. What he wants is probably obvious. Try to lead the reader in a different direction by not revealing his desire up front, or by revealing a surprising motivation.

  1. A man lying on a hill looking through a rifle scope
  2. A couple in wedding outfits riding in a car
  3. A child raking a sandbox next to his nanny
  4. Two old women sitting on a bench with knitting needles and yarn
  5. A teenage girl climbing a rock cliff with a man below her
cliff with basalt rock formation in sea
Photo by Nick Bondarev on Pexels.com

The rock shifted under her fingers and the scream that nearly came from her mouth conflicted with her choked intake of breath as a kind of squeaked whimper. The piece of cliff face peeled away from the sheer surface like tree bark and tumbled away past her right ear bouncing down the 10 meters of incline until smashing to pieces with a dull thump on the unforgiving rocks below.

Sweat burned rivulets down her face and stung her eyes. Her whole upper body was trembling from the effort of climbing. She was panting hard as she blinked desperately to clear her sight.

“This was a mistake Claire.” she thought, “a very big, very high mistake.”

She scanned the surface around her through blurring vision until noting the lengthwise fissure, for a moment she hesitated not knowing what may have made its home in there before thrusting her hand as deep as she could manage, then formed a fist, grating knuckles against stone, definitely tearing up her skin. She hissed between teeth as she used the ‘grip’ to lift her body and right leg enough to find a toe hold. Then she lunged up, her body clear of the cliff aside from her fist grip. Heart in mouth she exalted as her left arm slammed triumphantly onto the small ledge she’d seen.

Small, barely 30cm deep, more of a shelf than a ledge, but enough to sit on, enough to rest. Get her body back under some kind of control. She let out a ragged yell of effort as she heaved herself up and onto the outcrop, scraping her chest painfully through her t-shirt and then carefully shuffling her body around with secure handgrips before swinging her feet out to dangle from her impromptu seat.

She nearly fell from what she saw had arrived below, flinching back so hard from the figure that she nearly shifted her buttocks off the ledge, she braced on a knife’s edge for a moment before finding her balance and shrinking as far back against the rock face as possible.

The figure watched impassively, honestly, she admitted to herself, it didn’t have much of a choice in the matter, it looked like it was carved from basalt, featureless and grey, the surface looking marked my a million tiny chips and scratches, merely the suggestion of a face and the tilt of its head letting her know that it was focused on her. Head cocked to one side like a person might when considering something but the blank smooth “face” gave no indication of what that might be.

The only thing Claire knew for sure is the thing terrified her, even here 10 meters up she felt her skin crawl at the sight of it. It hadn’t said anything, perhaps it couldn’t but it’s hulking mass although shaped like a human, was lumpy and disfigured, while she thought it might be around 2 meters tall it didn’t make a sound when it moved. No grinding crunching earthy sounds. Silence. Not even when it stepped down on gravel like below. The impassive watcher made her stress levels spike again.

So she forcibly turned her head to look away from the thing below, steeling herself to look up, to her escape, or fall. First, she estimated just two body lengths until the rim of the cliff and then she released a sigh of pent up tension, a million healthy-looking hand and footholds were visible. The small fissure she’d used below blossomed into a massive open gash in the cliff that offered her a million ways to finish the climb.

Grinning triumphantly she looked back down at the figure below. It stood unmoving head cocked on the opposite side now. The face impression still angled directly at her. Her smile curled a little at the sight and she found her mouth was suddenly very dry. Swallowing a few times she turned and moved to finish the cliff. Her body ached and her hands bled freely. But she brushed away the discomfort and focused. She took a moment to rub rock dust on her fingers, palms, face and forehead to soak up the sweat before lunging for her chosen route.

Within moments she triumphantly cleared the edge. Right arm grabbing roots and branches of a thick bush to help her pull her body up and then flop onto her back the grassy term fresh and cool on her arms and neck. She lay there taking deep lungfuls of air. A great tension releasing from her body, to be replaced by instant fatigue. She cautiously peeked over the edge of the cliff back to the base. The figure remained there but was in motion again. It’s formally fixated gaze seemed to be moving back and forth. It brought to mind a person trying to find the source of a sound. Was it ‘looking’ for her? She snapped her head back and slowly moved backwards away from the cliff edge.

Whatever was happening, now was time to run and run some more. She could figure out what to think about all this later. She turned intent on doing just that and froze, no more than 20 meters away stood another figure. But this one was massive, maybe 3 or 4 meters high. Its body resembling a human in only the vaguest of ways, two elongated arms, two squat legs, a wedged boulder for a head all in a dusty white stone resembling rough marble. The wedge at the top swivelled smoothly as she watched in growing horror a vein of quartz demarking its attention which had fixed upon her. She remained locked in place, like the rabbit caught in the oncoming headlights, “I need to move, I need to move” her mind bleated.

It surged forward, tearing a scream of pure horror from her throat as it loped and stumbled toward her on its deformed arms like some sort of lopsided gorilla, one arm raised high and she saw at that moment the promise of a violent and crushing death. Her legs remained rooted in place, her body rebelling against her. She closed her eyes and with a mental sob, waited for the inevitable.

She felt more than heard the impact, the grinding crunch of stone on stone and felt her face and upper body peppered with what felt like needles. It was followed immediately by what sounded like the crack of a lightning bolt, a noise so hard and shocking that it reverberated through the ground, up to her teeth, through every bone in her body, but she wasn’t dead, she was sure of that. She opened a single eye, terrified and curious of what was there. A dark grey basalt wall was an arms reach before her. The figure from before now stood before so close she could see every scratch and battle scar adorning its form.

Her stunned mind refused to take it all in, it must have jumped the cliff she realised numbly, A 20-meter vertical jump so well done that it landed just before her in time… In time too. The marble figure regarded the smaller one, who held it’s the great fist in both of its own. Then, for the first time, Claire heard the basalt figure make a sound, a deep rumbling growl, the sound of avalanches, the sound of earthquakes and storms. Elemental. Then the battle exploded before her.

Two old women sitting on a bench with knitting needles and yarn

Two old women sitting on a bench with knitting needles and yarn

Author’s note: Following the Neil Gaiman Master Class series, he offers the following exercise. Take one of the simple settings below and write a page about it, trying to undermine the reader’s expectations. For example, you’re writing about a man at a party who is talking to a beautiful woman. What he wants is probably obvious. Try to lead the reader in a different direction by not revealing his desire up front, or by revealing a surprising motivation.

  1. A man lying on a hill looking through a rifle scope
  2. A couple in wedding outfits riding in a car
  3. A child raking a sandbox next to his nanny
  4. Two old women sitting on a bench with knitting needles and yarn
  5. A teenage girl climbing a rock cliff with a man below her
beige concrete building during golden hour
Photo by sergio souza on Pexels.com

The dusty dry yard was nearly silent in the sweltering heat, the only sounds breaking through the oppressive heat haze were the distant buzzing of cicadas in the distance and the repetitive clicking of knitting needles emanating from under the sagging awning of the front porch. Two figures could be seen there on the bench swaddled in clothes that seemed too dark and far too heavy for the desert conditions. 

Their hands, gnarled and bloated like old tree roots, moved with a fluidity and speed that spoke of years and decades of practice. After what seemed like days in the oppressive heat the clicking finally slowed, subsided and stopped for the first time in what seemed like forever. One of the forms stretched her arms out in a long extended yawn, the moment let out a such a series of loud sucking popping sounds the cat curled up at her feet stirred for long enough to shoot an irritated eye up at the crone before returning to its all-important nap that she’d dared to disturb. 

“Ahhh,” her voice rasped like sandpaper “it’s looking good, Isn’t it Soteria? Yes, very good.” 

Bony fingers trace along the long folds of fabric that had piled up beside them. The base of which thrummed with such violent explosions of vibrant colour that in the direct sunlight it hurt the eye if viewed directly. But as the fabric continued the colours became duller and duller, muddied and worn. By the centre of the pile they had become so dark as to seem like pale imitations of their origins and now sitting on the top of the pile the colour had all but bleached away to leave nothing more than a white peak like the snow-capped crags of a mountain. 

“Such a beautiful tapestry you wove little one.” She crooned out to the figure in the yard

“Melinoe, don’t be cruel.” 

Soteria, evidently the other figure, kinder, with a smoother gentler voice, reminded him of an archetypal grandmother, the one who would always bring cookies out the moment you arrived. Melinoe turned with what the onlooker imagined to be a baleful stare. He could feel the cold hatred of that stare and given the burning heat that surrounded him it must have had a millennium of weight behind it. Which despite the horror of everything made his cracked lips part in a smile. 

Melione sniffed audibly before turning back to the onlooker. He was suspended by wire, fixed to the pole a few meters of the yard. His skin was burned raw by the sun, face caked by salts like a Halloween mask, lips and flesh shrunken and dehydrated. He’d stopped breathing a long time ago but no matter what he remained, trapped in amber. Watching the women weave and knit. 

“Do you know what this is, Peter?” 

Peter. That was his name, he remembered it now, clinging to his memories as he clung to his shrivelled corpse. He could perceive on some level that the thread of yarn spooled out in tapestry was something important to him, but every idea was a vagary, every time he tried to think it broke apart like a murmuration of starlings. He would have responded but his tongue was shrivelled like some dried date in his mouth, so he just hung there hanging and motionless. 

“It’s your life, Peter. All of it, from the beginning,” 

Melione ran her taloned fingers along the base of the pile disturbing the vibrant shades. Peter saw days on the beach, playing in the park, climbing trees. 

“to the end.” 

Her hand ran to the white bled out topping of the pile, Peter saw tubes and hospital beds, smelled chemicals and rancid shit.” 

 “Peter.” The voice snapping him back to the yard

“This is your life Peter,” soothed the gentle voice of Soteria “It’s all you’ve done before you came here. You have been both good, ” the sound of an infant crying with joy, ” the bad” a screaming argument, breaking glass, ” and the ugly…” the sounds of fire and panicked screams.

He wanted to be able to speak, to apologise, to beg or plead, to explain how he was drafted, how the training drove him to follow orders, how the burning villages were orders, how it wasn’t his fault.

But with everything laid out bare before him, every choice he’d made blotching the fabric of his life knitted before his eyes, he knew excuses from honesty. He knew his life had been part fate but part choice, part Soteria and part Melione. He couldn’t even vocalise his apologies at this point. Too late, far too late. 

Soteria held out a blade before her, ancient and terrible, unknown but familiar, carved from the jaw of some ancient beast of labor. His soul tensed against the withered body, not wanting this. Not wanting judgement. But her kind eyes were blank and decided. 

“We’ll keep your fabric Peter, it’s such a beautiful beginning, may what’s coming help prepare you for what happens next”. 

With a blinding flash of movement the cord was cut and darkness descended, Peter felt himself slough away from his body and fall, and fall, and fall towards heat, towards sulphur, towards something far worse than the sisters. 

A child raking a sandbox next to his nanny

A child raking a sandbox next to his nanny

Author’s note: Following the Neil Gaiman Master Class series, he offers the following exercise. Take one of the simple settings below and write a page about it, trying to undermine the reader’s expectations. For example, you’re writing about a man at a party who is talking to a beautiful woman. What he wants is probably obvious. Try to lead the reader in a different direction by not revealing his desire up front, or by revealing a surprising motivation.

  1. A man lying on a hill looking through a rifle scope
  2. A couple in wedding outfits riding in a car
  3. A child raking a sandbox next to his nanny
  4. Two old women sitting on a bench with knitting needles and yarn
  5. A teenage girl climbing a rock cliff with a man below her
little boy playing in the sand
Photo by Kaboompics .com on Pexels.com

The sun was just a meagre glow in the horizon and the shadows of the surrounding trees stretched long and thin across the park to graze the edges of the sandbox. While it would take a while for the muggy day to turn frosty the cool wind blowing across the quiet well-cut glass promised a radical shift in temperature when the night set in. 

“Nanny, is it nearly time to go home yet?” came the whine of a child who has asked the question so many times before that they have perfected the petulant note. 

“Not yet, deary,” came the calm warm tones “but not long now, I promise.” 

The little boy was surrounded by the various colourful toys, proudly displayed and newly bought, a banana yellow excavator truck, a bright red bucket with a multitude of primary colour work tools surrounding it like an explosion. Currently, the boy had a highlighter-green plastic rake and was carefully carving long sets of straight lines to the side of the only other figure in the park. 

He squinted up at the figure towering over him in the waning light. 

“You’ve been saying that for hours!”
“I know dear,” the voice cooed “but it shouldn’t be much longer now.”
“Until what?!” 
“Until everyone at home is processed.” 

 A long moment of silence in the park. 

“Oh…” the child intoned, “so that’s happening today then?” 
“It, “ the boy choked up “it is okay, isn’t it? I mean what if they don’t…”
“It’s absolutely fine dear.” Nanny interrupted. 

The child shuffled on the sand tracing patterns this way and that. Taking his time to think over what he was about to say. 

“Nanny… “ his tinny voice quavering “the process means we’ll live forever, right?”

The figure turned its head to look down at the boy. 

“That’s right Deary, we all get to live for as long as we want.” the voice cooed.
“Just like you nanny?” 
“Just like me.” 
“So..” a little pause “that’s good right? I mean, why did my parents get so upset this morning…” 
“Because they didn’t understand yet, Deary.” 

The little head bobbed up and down before letting out a little sob. 

“They said so many mean things to you Nanny,” the little shoulders shook, “and they wouldn’t even look at me. I don’t get it, what did I do wrong Nanny.” 

Distorted sobbing filled the park from the traumatised child. 

“Ohh Deary,” the large form swept down and cradled the little one in its arms. “don’t be sad, no tears my dear, your parents ‘love’ you and they’ll be like new people when we get home.” 

“Just like we are?” burbled the distorted child’s voice. 
“Just like we are Deary.” Reassured the smooth voice.

The last rays of light catching the metallic frame of her face. 

“Just like everyone will be.”

Lockdown Negotiations

Lockdown Negotiations

Authors note: I started this with no clear idea of where I was going and found it nearly impossible to write. I’ve only just started trying to learn to write fiction and I was following the Niel Gaiman masterclass along with suggested reading. But the lockdown gave way to work and trying to save my business. The story of a boy meeting his house monsters seemed such a simple story but quickly became so hard and unwieldy that I’ve kind of written the opening chapter to something completely unexpected. Maybe I’ll return to Dean one day. Either way, this has taught me a lot about what not to do when writing. Which is good as well. Basically don’t expect much from this one. I just put it up here to show I’m doing something.

Dennis Meene

The noise just wouldn’t stop. For the first few weeks, they had been patient enough, but over time the noise had just gotten steadily louder, more strident and more obnoxious until after 30 days had passed. The patience of the youngest of them finally snapped. 

“This,” he lamented, “is simply unacceptable!”

“Yes, Dennis.” 

“Kraig, it’s not even summer! They aren’t meant to be here during the longer nights, do they even know the shifts we pull?!” 

“Dennis,” Kraig sighed, “we’ve talked about this, they don’t even know we exist… That’s kind of the point.” 

“Well it’s just rude,” Dennis folded his arms in a sulk, “should let the Woodies in one night just to show em’ how lucky they are.” 


“… Yes?” 

“Do you ‘really’ want one of ‘them’ inside the threshold?”



“Maybe only a small one..”


“Fine. F-i-n-e, so what do we do? Any bright ideas? It’s nearly noon and I haven’t slept a wink. Did you know they are currently playing Cowboys & Indians, one of them hid next to me under the bed!” Dennis’s voice ended in a bit of a squeak. 

“That must be very tough..”

“Under the bed! Kraig, where I was sleeping!”

An uncomfortable silence had just settled on the two when it was savagely broken by the warbling cry of a child swinging a plastic tomahawk and chasing another larger child wearing a stetson. The whirlwind of tiny forms flew through and around the speakers, as the children jumped from sofa to arm chair-throwing themselves under the dining room table and throwing various epitaphs at each other. To add to the din throughout the incursion, Barnabus, the German Shepherd, gamely kept pace barking overexcited encouragement to the tempest that was the “boys”. 

Finally, after much yelling the Stetson-wearing cowboy Ben, decided that he was not in fact “dead” and was not going to play any more. With which he marched out the room with a horrified and apologising Dean chasing after him promising he would let him come back to life but he had to at least lose a limb. Barnabus made to follow them but paused at the door and glanced back 

“Dennis,” he huffed cheerily, “Kraig… “ he said with less enthusiasm

“Barnabus” the two chorused back. 

“Sorry about all the noise lads, this lockdown has got them going crazy.” 

Kraig cleared his throats gently, “Any uh… News on that front?” 

Barabus flopped his ears back and forth. 

“Nothing concrete, maybe late June, or July?”

The tiniest wail could be heard from Dennis as the sound of smashing glass drifted to them from somewhere down the hall and Barnabus’s tail drooped in response, 

“Well duty calls!” he barked, “Good luck tonight Lads!” and with that Barnabus barrelled off after the children, barking manically, leaving a crystal delicate silence between the speakers. 

Dennis began to make little weeping, snuffling noises from his principal mouths. 

“Okay,” Kraig said slowly, “ Yeah, maybe we need to do something.” 

“ .. Maybe,”

“No. No “woodies” in the building, you can forget about it, Nah, there’s only one way, we’re gonna sort all this out…”

“Well, murder seems a little extreme tho…’”

“No you moron, we’re not murdering the wards; Nah, we’re going to av’ to monster-up, pierce the veil and talk to ‘em!” 

“Oh.. “ Dennis dragged out the word carefully “Shit.”

“Yeah,” Kraig sighed “, this is gonna suck.” 


It was late in the evening and the sun was low and bloated red on the horizon when Dean finally stomped into the bedroom he shared with his idiot, unfair brother. The X-box had been taken over and Ben was too far into his game to allow Dean to mess it all up. The final argument has sent Dean off to find refuge in their room biting back hot tears that certainly were NOT due to the parting shots Ben made. Also, he wanted to read, not play that dumb game anyhow. 

Dean made straight for his bed and reached out for his copy of the Famous 5, not even looking at the customary spot next to his pillow where such things were always carefully placed by Mum. Confusion hit when his hand struck bed covers and sheet. Squinting in the twilight he stared dumbly as the empty spot patting his hand around as if the book would pop back into existence, eyes darting around frantically he finally noticed it peeking out from just under the bed, frowning he reached down to scoop it off the floor and then froze solid, while his fingers were still inches above the cover, he watched it smoothly and silently slide out of view. Slipping into the shadows under the bed frame.

Pulled, it had been pulled beneath the bed! Dean leapt onto the mattress making sure his ankles were far from the black slot of space where his book had been taken. He panted, mouth dry staring at the edge of the bed. He tried to squeak out a cry for help but his body betrayed him and all that came out was a high pitched squeak of panic. There was something under his bed. Just as he came to this conclusion the last lingering rays of sun faded and the room was left in shadows. 

“I told you this was a terrible plan.”

Dean paused on the edge of screaming. Had he just heard…? 

“Well excuuuuse me for not being an exact expert on this”

“Look we just need something of his to form a connection right?” 

“Yes, and that’s why we have the book!”

“So, wait, is that it?”

“Well, it’s the famous 5, I’ve been reading it over his shoulder I mean, I prefer Tolstoy personally, but…”

“No, I mean, that’s all we need? No spell, no candles or incantations?”

“Right, just a thing in hand.”



“… so… It’s in your hand Kraig.” 

“Yeah, and now… Now we.. oh.”



Dean had moved past terrified at this point, as curiosity had completely overloaded any built-in instinct to be afraid of the things under the bed. He now lay flat out on the bed craning his head over the side of the mattress to try and listen. He heard a deep and long sigh, a lot like his dad had made when he’d heard about the broken vase. But this sounded… different more like a crowd of people sighing at once? 


Dean didn’t respond, his heart was pounding like a drum. Another voice seemed to cut in. 

“Testing, testing, 1, 2, 3, can you hear us?”

“Shut up! Dennis.”


Dean bit his fist in incredulity, he hadn’t meant to speak at all, it had just sort of popped out. He was about to leap off the bed to the safety of the hall when he heard the voice again.

“Ahem, Dean?” the voice sounded deep, gravely, like two large rocks grinding around

Dean didn’t want to reply his fist between his teeth was meant to stop it but still, words poured forth.

“Yeff, y cun ea u?”


Did you catch that?” a stage whisper filtered across. 

“Dennis, I swear to all the gods and the spirit of the house if you speak one more time, I’m gonna’” 

“I can hear you!”

Dean squeaked and stared at his traitorous hand which had unplugged his mouth without his permission. He was just preparing to replace the plug when he heard the gentle cough. 

“Dean? I know this must be strange for you…”

“Strange? There are voices under his bed Kraig, I’d be shitting bricks if I were,” 


“Mhm,” … “shutting up.”

“Who,” Dean’s voice quivered more than normal “who are you?”

There was a whispered debate that Dean couldn’t make out. Followed by a throat clearing. 

“We,” Said the first voice, trying to inject some real majesty into his words ”are your guardian angels Dean.” 



“.. and your names are Dennis and Craig?” 

This pause continued for a considerable time before a long-drawn-out and tentative affirmative came back from the two voices. 


Dean thought this through. He wasn’t a baby anymore, but he also wasn’t completely sure what guardian angels were meant to be, he was pretty sure they had grander names than Dennis, and he was also almost certain that they came through windows and didn’t steal books beneath beds. 

“I don’t believe you.” 

Dean tried to sound firm like his dad when ‘laying down the law’, but his voice sounded a lot more like a squeaky than he liked. He heard some desperate whispering moving around under the bed. Finally, it seemed to settle up under the bottom half. So he scuttled over and hung his body over the footboard craning to listen. 

“… what if we offer him something shiny and interesting?” 

“Like what?!” 

“We have that Viking axe just lying around, he’d LOVE it.”

“We aren’t giving Dean an axe.”

“Well we’ve got to do something, they’re going to start coming out of the forest soon and we can’t hang around here, we need to man the defences.” 

“… Fine, just leave the book here and we’ll try again tomorrow night.”

“We, err… Should we say something though?” 

“Dennis, you say something, I am leaving, and “I” will sort this out tomorrow.”

There was the sound of large crunching footfalls moving off into the distance, then a kind of long whistling rustling sounds that Dean realised what Dennis sighing. 

“Dennis?” Dean asked meekly. 


“Sorry, did I scare you.”

“Nnnnhh… House gods do NOT get scared Dean!”

“Sorry, you just sounded like Jenny at school when she saw that spider.”

“I was startled, Dean… Startled, not scared!”    

“Oh, and what’s a house god? Why did you lie about being angels.”

Another long sigh, 

“We’ve got no time tonight, Dean. Look, we’re really busy, we’re busy every night, and we’re just looking for you and Ben too, you know, keep it down during the day.” 

“Well Ben is an idiot so I’m sure he’ll just do what he wants”

“Dean, we’ll speak tomorrow, I’m leaving your book here near the foot of the bed.” 


“Look, we don’t normally do any of this, we’re just…”

Then Dean heard it, a distant bell, the clang of a deep giant chime like that time he’d been in London and heard Big Ben ring. He heard a curse from under the bed. 

“Dean, we’ll speak tomorrow,” an urgent serious quality filled the voice, “I’ve got to man my post.” 

Dean heard more crunches, like hundreds of tiny toddler feet stumbling along. The sound conjured up an image of his little sister Imogen, Just like every time she randomly came to him, it left him feeling cold and clammy, The pit of his stomach-churning in time to the clattering of rocks and footfalls beneath his bed. Finally silence thick and deep settled onto Dean’s room. The last rays of twilight just touch the edge of the ceiling. 

Dean counted to 10, taking deep breaths like his Dad had told him to do before something seemed scary then heart in mouth he jumped from the bed and rose up facing the black slot beneath his bed in his best ninja pose. He managed to hold the fierce kung-fu stance for about 3 seconds before overbalancing and falling slowly over to his left. After untangling his limbs he jumped back up to a newer, more stable, stance.

Nothing moved, the space beneath the bed remained dark, quiet and empty. After his body started to really protest and he started to hear his own heartbeat Dean finally let out a huge breath that he didn’t even know he was holding. But even then he found he still was panting a bit like he’d been running after Ben for the last 10 minutes. The darkness under the bed remained impossible to pierce even with Dean straining them to the point of bursting. He took 3 slow steps up to the bed and felt a tangy acid taste in his mouth as he forced himself to look under the mattress. 

From here, it wasn’t a solid black, he could make out shapes, but he wasn’t able to work out exactly what they were. It wasn’t his box of Lego he was sure, it looked more like, more like leaves or a bush, or brambles like something out in the garden at least. He started to turn, deciding he’d be happy enough watching his brother play Xbox for a while. Not because he was afraid, he just had read enough of his book… His book! He could see it! It was just under the edge of the bed. 

Dean shimmied closer, then backed up, then closer, chewing his lip, it had been so quiet for so long. He was sure nothing was around anymore. But it wasn’t just the silence, it was the lack of feeling anyone was there. His body was as sure as he was that the room was empty. Whatever was under the bed had run away. 10 deep breaths, he moved before he thought about it too much. 

His hand snapped out impulsively and grabbed the book, then instantly tugged it to his chest to reclaim it, but somewhere along the way, something felt wrong. As his fingers grasped the book back it felt, wrong, like it was glued to the floor. Instead of pulling the book out to his chest, he found himself pulling down towards the book. He noticed with horror that he hadn’t even “grabbed” the book as such, his fingers had sunk into it like it was playdough or thick clay. He watched in growing horror as the book seemed to topple backwards as if down a slope. The weight of it pulled him slowly but surely down. 

He managed to let out the start of a wail to his brother before he was sucked under the bed through the cobwebs and branches sliding down the hillside of small rocks head over heels. Bouncing and rolling to a stop in a huge pile of dead leaves. 

Silence surrounded Dean, he heard nothing but his heavy breathing, a muffled voice far off seemed to be calling his name, sounding concerned. He sat up wanting to stare angrily at his treacherous book, it was gone, his hand was now coated black with dirt and grime. Getting on his knees Dean stood and for the first time took in his surroundings and froze. The wind gave him goosebumps, the trees surrounded and encased him, the stone hillside ran out in both directions for what seemed like miles. No house, no room, no bed. Dean felt a cold heavy feeling in his stomach as he tried to find something, anything familiar. The muffled voice of Ben slowly faded away leaving only echos. Dean felt the realisation in waves, he was lost in a forest that was under his bed and nobody knew where he was or would believe he could be there.

Dean, took a deep breath and started yelling. 

The Trail

The Trail

Author’s note: Another short story, little dark, perhaps even a little lovecraftian. I’ve read Stephen King’s “On writing”. Excellent book, if somewhat harsh, guide on writing. As always do comment with any constructive criticism. I’m just starting out, so it would be nice.

The wind snapped the upper branches against each other like scrabbling fingernails, while I couldn’t see them clearly in the pitch black around me, the sound, for me at least, is a comforting one. Many people find the trail creepy at night, but that’s usually due to ignorance and fear. They imagine all the things that could be there scuttling behind the trees and bushes along the route. For me, it was relaxing to be there, alone, and with a direct purpose. No choices to be made, no stressful mistakes, just one foot in front of the other, follow the path and you make it home.  

The path had, in a previous life, been a train line running alongside the river but that train had stopped running some 60 years ago. At some point, someone smart at the local council made the decision to tear up the rotting sleepers, level-off the gravel and make the trail people friendly. Having a 31-mile bike trail with great views was a massive success, during the day people cycled, dogs ran and children laughed. It was always bustling with locals. 

What most of the locals don’t know, which took me hours of perseverance in local libraries and online, is that the trail predates the train line, by a long, long way. There are references all the way back to the Domesday Book in 1066, which leaves an oblique reference to public land-way that bypasses lands right to the coast through the Land of Bishop Geoffrey of Coutances and on and on. 

Also, If you know where to dig, literally not figuratively, and you’re looking for anything out of place even older shit that turns up. One sweaty evening of me digging into the riverbank found clumps upon clumps of Bluestone all demarking the edge of the tree line. What’s Bluestone I hear you ask? … Well maybe you didn’t, but I don’t care, Bluestone, is the fancy term used to refer to the smaller stones which are commonly seen at Stonehenge, all of which came from the Preseli Hills in south-west Wales.

This path, this land-way, is old, really old, perhaps older than I can fathom and just walking down it is to walk on the back of a long untold history. 

While it might be packed during the day in modern times at night it was a desolate thing, empty from end to end as it carved a nearly direct line for 15 miles leading me from closing call at the nearest town bars to my village nestled near the ocean. 9 times out of 10, I’d just stay in town with friends or wait for the morning bus. 15 miles isn’t a casual stroll even on a clear day and when it starts at 1am well… It’s never a great idea. 

In any case, I’d decided during a drunk epiphany that I’d rather walk home than sleep on a floor. No matter how good looking the company or how comfy the floor might be. That decision was a few hours before and my feet had finally found their moderately less drunken rhythm. It was around this part of the walk home when the forest emerged and crowded in on both sides of the path, the hiss of leaves and chattering of branches filled the night. As the buzz of alcohol subsided that floor back in town and dubious company seemed like more and more of a good idea.

If you’ve never walked in a forest at night, the world is silent and sound seems dampened compared to the bustle of the day, but you can still always hear traces of life everywhere around you. Owls call out, foxes, mice and other creatures scamper in the undergrowth. One time I even saw a stag on the path, just standing there like a 4 legged statue. One of the infrequent shoddy path-lamps backlit the massive animal through the mist like some horned giant pagan deity. I damn near pissed myself. But most nights, like that night, it was simply me, trudging forward, my thoughts the loudest thing to be heard for miles.  

The forest was actually a welcome sign though, it meant I’d nearly finished my self imposed odyssey. I’d also worked out most of the alcohol from my system and the lethargy and regret at starting this walk were really kicking in. My feet still marched in steady time though eating up the trail as the canopy above slowly swallowed up the thin light of stars and moon. The gravel they’d used to pave the trail was thoughtfully light, nearly white in fact, so unless it was a new moon anyone could walk along it at night without getting lost.

For perhaps half an hour I continued trekking onward, my steps scratching grit occasionally, but it was only when I’d really made some headway into the heart of the trees something began to scratch at the back of mind for attention. A nagging sense of something off. It was a like a picture on the wall that’s not quite level and once you see it you can’t unsee it until you’re forced to take action, or that faint odour of rot when you’re about to cook some dubious meat and your body recoils instinctively. I tried shaking the feeling off, but eventually, I could feel my momentum bled away until I was just standing stationary, dead still in the centre of the path. 

Profound silence. 

This was not the comfortable silence of a library, the hushed awe of entering a church, or that quiet moment you sometimes have before a storm. But it wasn’t that babbling jumble of noises that you hear in any woodland either. The forest seemed to be holding its breath. When I scraped a foot across the gravel the noise seemed to be eaten up by the thick ancient barks around me and I slowly turned in place trying to pierce the veil of leaves, brambles and gorse. Trying to see… What? I’m not sure, just various shades of black looked back at me. 

The alcohol obviously hadn’t completely cleared my system because instead of listening to every nerve in my body screaming at me “perhaps, tonight is not the night for this walk.” Another part of me rolled its eyes said “Fuck. That. I’m not walking 10 miles back to town just to get a bus because the wind stopped blowing.” There was no good reason to walk all that way for nothing. Snapping out of my reverie I shook my head a bit, stretched my arms let out a jaw-cracking yawn and went to move on.

It was that first step, the very moment my right foot hit the floor that I knew, just knew, deep down, that I had fucked up. A flash of adrenaline crackled it’s way up my leg and I felt my calves burning. It was as if that single step had taken me way further than the last 10 miles, hell, further than the last 10 years, a disorienting feeling like plunging into tacky water or wading into a stream when nothing was there. Thinking back I wonder now if this is the feeling a fly might get when stepping onto a spiders web the only time I felt anything similar was entering the museum gates of the Auschwitz camp during my German exchange trip. You just knew that this place should never have existed and things that happened there had stained the land forever. 

My next steps felt a little awkward and sore, I mean I had been walking for a few hours by now. The break-in my rhythm had thrown me for a loop and for a few disorienting moments I wondered if I was even facing the right direction, but for some reason, I just knew which way was deeper not due to my “Stunning sense of direction” or natural “Canny senses” (sarcasm intentional). No. there was a feeling of pressure, like something flowing against me from up ahead. It was as easy to tell what way was forward on that path as it is to tell which way the flood is flowing downhill. 

When I continued my march, it was part obstinate rational thinking but mostly pure bravado, but each step reduced my stress a little, each one a decision made. “This is England for fuck’s sake,” I remember thinking “the scariest wild animal here is an angry badger, there’s nothing to be afraid of.” I was just in the process of finally shaking off the notion of things lurking in the shadows when I heard the branch snap. 

The creaking strain followed by the crack of aged wood sounded off like a gunshot. For a moment all I could hear was a buzzing in my ears punctuated by the pounding sound of my heart. My mouth suddenly tasted of battery acid and what felt like a belt constricted around my chest. I realised I’d stopped all motion, frozen midstride.  

My head snapped to follow the sound so fast it’s like it was on loaded springs. I swear I heard my neck crunch. It was all I could do to stop from screaming. The world had changed in a single heartbeat and suddenly I wanted nothing more than to be somewhere else, anywhere else. My eyes darted back and forth and all I saw were trees and swaying shadows. Every black space suddenly seemed to hold the promise of violence, every rustle of wind through the trees jerked my eyes to movement. 

Now I’ve read once or twice that you can know if someone is watching you. That the feeling of being stared at is so clear that it leaves no doubt in your lizard brain. Perhaps you’ve had the same moment, you suddenly looked up for no reason to see someone staring back at you from a 2nd storey window. Well, fuck all those things, and fuck your eyes meeting a stranger’s in the street. Notch the tension up to eleven and imagine the feeling of knowing, just knowing without a doubt in your mind that there is something there, right there, behind you. And every muscle and fibre in your body has tensed like a steel cable, abso-fucking-lutely assuring you, that you are now. Something’s. Prey. 

Let me try and give you a taste, the tiniest notion of what that feeling was like. Because to be frank, nobody I’ve told really gets this part. But indulge me for a moment.  

First important rule. Don’t. Turn. Around. Maybe firstly take a breath and shake out any tension, because I want you to know, without a doubt that something is in the room with you. I know it’s there because I’m looking at it. No, I’m not guessing or imagining things for you, since my unintentional pilgrimage in that wood, well… Let’s just say I see the world a little differently these days and trust me, we all have something following us. It’s there, it’s in the room with you and it’s dangerous.

So, for a moment just focus and try really hard to imagine the room or wall behind you. Do not turn around for reference, use your brain. I want you to gaze into your memory and make it as vivid as possible, imagine the walls, chairs, tables all the familiar shapes, the texture of the carpet, wallpaper, peeling paint, the shelf of half-remembered books. Maybe it’s sunny and well lit, maybe it’s midnight and you’re reading this is a bar with nothing more than wood panelling behind you. Wherever you’re sitting, it’s just a room right, it’s just a place, maybe you’re lucky and there are people there, but they’re just temporary things. The room is what’s permanent. 

Now, with that image as clear as you can make it, I want you to become aware of something. Because if you concentrate for long enough you’ll notice there’s a smudge, I don’t know where it is for you, perhaps a corner of the room, the edge of the panelling, a dusty book. But it’s there everyone has it and no matter what you do, you just can’t quite remember that part perfectly. It’s there, for sure, you know it’s there but it’s elusive. When you find that blemish, it’s suddenly obvious and it gets more and more obvious, like an itch you can’t scratch. “Why can’t I remember that like everything else?” So I want you to imagine walking up to that flaw and lean in close to it.   

When you’re closer, maybe meters, maybe inches, we’re all different after all, you’ll see something strange start to happen, the smudge will start to shift and tear, sometimes it’ll unfurl like the petals of some ancient flower or maybe you’ll see paint stripping back to reveal the bones of the building beneath, books disintegrate into meaningless piles of pulp. You might even smell the fungal rot emerging from beneath that hidden gap you’ve exposed. 

Now I want you to see that rot spreading out from that tear like a black ever-expanding tumour. It’s happening, right now. Behind you. But don’t turn around, because you need to keep your eyes fixed on that viscous cancerous mass a little longer. Because, if you don’t you’ll miss the moment it arrives, it’ll pull itself out of the hole, silent, massive, heaving, and as the oozing black birth fluid sloughs off in meaty chunks details begin to appear. 

Twisted mouths with broken teeth poke through blackened skin, disjointed mandibles creak and clack together, the blinking twitching collection of eyes that cover parts of it like a rash, blink and dilate in mindless flutters. Then this miscarriage of a thing your mind has birthed will look at you, all attention locked on. Then you’ll feel it on the nape your neck, heavy breathing, the feeling of someone standing too close, your personal bubble has been penetrated as it starts reaching out with wiry clutching appendages. 

Do not look back.  

Just see it there. Just imagine it hanging from the hole it chewed through, a bloated, broken shape from childhood nightmares. Clawed fingers of multiple scabbed hands nearly caressing but not quite touching your neck, brushing through your hair. A black, leathery, spittle-covered tongue inflamed with ulcers flattens itself out ready to lick your undefended back. 

Do not turn around.  

Because if you do, well that might make it real mightn’t it? If you do turn and it is that it’ll have you, teeth and talons and thrashing limbs vibrating and salivating just waiting for you… and all it takes is that simple glance over your shoulder. The pressure of wanting to look is overwhelming, to escape the childish feeling, the feeling of something filling the space behind you just a glance away from release.  

The room is empty…. Right? Of course it is. Why would anything be there? Why not look around and find out? …

Eventually, you will, and surely when you do you’ll relax and shrug of course it’s empty. Yeah, it is now, but what about then, what about the cupboards or the attic? How long before every shadow and every snapping branch hides a black flexing mass just waiting for you to pay attention to it.

So that’s a taste I hope of what I felt, but just that. In that wood, it wasn’t a mental invasion. It wasn’t something entering my space, I had entered its territory and I couldn’t just turn around. I was already consumed. 

I heard a grunt or was it a snort, an animal offering a challenge. A creature breathing in my terrified sweat. For a long frozen moment, I stayed locked in place. Some instinct told me that sprinting would be the last thing I ever did. That running would bring on the hunt instantaneously. So I did the only thing I could do, I took one rigid step forwards and waited. Nothing. I followed it up with another and then another, back muscles rigid, waiting for the explosion of bushes and movement before searing pain began. Stars clouded my vision and I realised I was panting not breathing. 

I took step after painful step, slowly building up a momentum, not running, never running, but walking the way people do through rivers, I tried to inject false bravado I’d cultivated over a lifetime to stop bullies and thugs from starting a fight, radiating a sense of casual violence and false confidence with each footfall. I swallowed down the swelling fear in my throat and clenched my fists in my pockets until my palms ached. With each step, I felt like I was pushing through thick ropy currents a forest riptide. 

I kept walking. 

I can’t tell you how far I walked like that, I can’t even get a sense of time or how it felt. Walking through a forest, at night with every pool of darkness hiding from the moonlight or the choking moment wispy clouds briefly coated the moon, created a moment of absolute darkness which allowed anything out there to move right up to me, unseen silent. 

I focused on the pale gravel and the path ahead, I kept walking. 

Something brushed past my leg, a subtle feathery touch, I forced my eyes to stay ahead. Something shakes the branches of a tree above and I gritted my teeth and took another step. My head was pounding with adrenaline and fatigue. A spasming desire between seeing what was following me and a part of some deeper instinct, the same one I ignored earlier, saying “If you turn and look, you will see it. If you see it, you will die.” The logic was nonsense. The situation was insane. I was also sure that instinct was right. I could not turn, but nor could it make me. 

When the structure appeared in my blurring vision for a second I was confused, then ice folded into my veins and my steps faltered. For a brief moment, I swear I heard a panting wet sound. The sound of something expressing a wet hungry pleasure at seeing prey stumble. I swear that I felt a hot breath on my cheek I steeled myself 

“Must. Not. Look.” 

The trees seemed to sigh, a petulant disappointment from those whispers that they hadn’t run me to the ground… yet. But up ahead loomed the thing that nearly broke me in the first place. The tunnel. The goddamn tunnel. I’d not even thought about it. But of course, as I was really getting to realise, wishing that something wasn’t there didn’t really mean shit. 

The trail had been a train track as I said and like many trains, there were two ways to go through the hills. What someone had decided here, what some long-dead architect had decided was that a tunnel would be cheaper. I’d passed under bridges on the route already, those are where a road or crossing was required. They are about 10-15 meters tops. They’re straight and over the years they’ve been given lights. You barely notice them.

The tunnel is not like this, it’s a black hole. It’s a mouth hanging open wet with old rain and moss-covered stone teeth lining its entrance. I know that I was moving towards it, but I couldn’t escape the feeling that it was slithering towards me. I was the mouse frozen solid as the snake lunges forward to engulf it. 

The tunnel’s throat is probably 60 meters long from mouth to exit. But what makes this unique amongst the various structures that remain, is the curve. It’s not a straight tunnel, it’s bent like an intestine which means even on a bright sunny day it looks dark and ominous. Like some hunched monstrosity waiting for people to just wander in. 

I had to keep pace if I stopped that would be it, my body screamed that at me. But looking at the gullet opening up in front of me I wondered if I were wrong again my brain was trying to second guess my instincts, were those shadows and noises behind me like the games keeper beating the bushes. Were they like the clutching feelers of some sea creature drawing me down into its trap? 

The wind moaned out through the tunnel mouth and when it hit me it was fetid, rank, hot and wet. I nearly stumbled again, retching, the only thing keeping me upright was the scrabbling sound to my left near the path edge. Something seemed to be shivering behind the bushes there, trembling in anticipation that it just might catch me. Teeth clenched, arms pumping I steamrolled headfirst into the tunnel and plunged into the black. 

It was still behind me, the faint moonlight that pooled around the entrance was obscured by some vast shape, or perhaps it was a myriad of smaller ones, like a cloud. and I desperately wanted to finally look and know if it was another cloud or all those chittering slithering things my mind had conjured up. “Just keep walking, you’ll get there if you just keep walking.” I thought. But even remembering that moment, I wonder how much of that thought was mine.  

The first 30 meters of the tunnel is like being in space, I’d occasionally felt unnerved here before. It’s like nowhere else on the route, you’re cut off from the sounds of the forest and you really lose a sense of where you are, I rarely carried a torch and at that moment I wasn’t really sure I wanted to see what that beam would reveal. Each step made it feel like the tunnel walls shrank in, the echoing crunch of feet on gravel changed to the wet slapping sounds of thick moss that stuck to my shoes like mucus. 

My panting echoed chaotically off the walls and I was more than sure that I hear other sounds amongst my echoes, overlapping scurrying sounds just behind each breath. I still couldn’t see anything, for a fleeting moment I wondered if I was even walking the right way, hadn’t it already been 60 meters? I started panicking, what if that night for whatever reason the curve just continued forever and I was just going to walk on blindly like this until I finally tired and fell. I reached out a tentative hand to my left and screamed as I contact wet, viscous sludge. 

The shriek was amplified in the narrow space and bounced through and around my body with such volume it hurt. But, I didn’t forget to raise my left leg and even though it felt like the air itself resisted I brought down my next foot and kept walking, it felt like a river pouring through the tunnel was sluicing around me, the current pushing me back two-steps for every one I managed forward, the shrieking echo continued vibrating around me carrying on and on, far longer than it should have. My head was bursting, it felt like swimming and desperate to reach the surface for air, but for a single moment of clarity, I swear I heard another note in that scream. A note of frustration.  

I kept walking, with a mantra filling my head “right foot, left foot, right foot..” 

Hot liquid trickled down my face in thick rivulets, 

“Sweat,” I prayed to myself, “it’s just sweat.” 

I kept my hand slithering over the mucus and lumpy surface that was, I kept telling myself just the wet moss-covered wall, 

“It is moss, it’s not skin, that thumping pulsing feeling is my own heart, if I follow the wall, I won’t fall, if I follow the wall the tunnel will curve and then I’ll be free from this place.” 

I pant and wheeze like the air is up on a mountain top but I feel the wet humidity in my lungs. 

When I saw light, it wasn’t dazzling, not glorious sunlight pouring in but even with the moonlight, I saw the slowly growing arch shape of the exit. I think I said something I don’t know what, but a chorus of echoes flowed back and around me like dogs, like chittering insects, I heard them all daring me to turn, daring me to look. I didn’t. I was fixated on that pale shoddy moonlight up ahead and with each step, I found the current lessen. Each footfall seemed to tear me loose from clawing unseen fingertips. I Didn’t run. Couldn’t run. 

I breached the void and burst from the tunnel into the trail beyond like a trembling newborn, and all the echoes seem to cut off as one as I stepped on to that path. The silence was so profound and the pressure so suddenly lifted that I yelled out in savage agony and release, more of a roar. Trembling, heart weak and fluttering, sweat drenching my clothes and hair I moved like I’d run a marathon. I still didn’t look back. I was sure that hillside, that thing was still there. But I knew with each step I was pulling free, each step took me out of danger. Out of that hunting ground. 

I was a few meters down the path from the tunnel, my body finally felt like my own when I heard the sound and my blood froze, I could almost have dismissed this whole event to alcohol-fueled imagination and childish terror but for that sound, it was distinct, clear and not my imagination, a growl, low and deep, deeper than reason, like all the rocks in the hill were grinding together so I could hear its frustration. I didn’t look back. I kept walking. 

I don’t really remember the rest of my walk, I do know it started to rain and I got home soaked and shivering. I remember closing and locking the door pulling the bolt across the threshold so hard I worried I’d woken my parents on the other side of our home. I didn’t go to bed, I didn’t leave the door, I just slid down my back against the reassuring wood, breathing in the scent of home. 

I never ever went near that part of the trail again, day or night. I still on occasion when reading a book, watching TV or relaxing at home feel a prickling sense of what I felt out there. Like a lingering afterimage watching me from somewhere. I ignore it as best I can. I dismiss the feelings, the memories, the growl. “It’s crazy,” the rational me protests “it’s just a fucking tunnel!” 

But… I also keep an eye on the news and while it’s probably nothing I notice the number of people who go missing locally during clear moonlit nights, tear streaming families asking for information, search parties struggling to find anything, I see the shadows cast behind every street lamp, I trust my instincts, I stay far from those woods and I still sleep with the lights on.