December Writing Challenge: Year in Review

At the start of every month I ask my Facebook followers to suggest some writing prompts and challenges and then I post the one I chose at the end of the month. This time I picked ‘Best of the Year – the year in highlights’ from Beaton Mabaso. I also picked a prompt from author Paula Harmon which was about a diary – I started this as it inspired a short story but the story kept getting longer and I haven’t quite finished it yet! So I am going with this one, thank you Beaton!

Image by Tumisu from Pixabay

Like every year before it, 2022 has flown by. There is always that uncomfortable and resentful stumbling into January – the least favourite and most dreaded month. It feels like everything is grim and cold and miserable and it feels impossible that spring and summer will ever return to cheer us. Yet they always do. January gives way to February, and as we fall into March, we start looking ahead again. We look for the first signs of spring – bluebells and daffodils and birdsong. We start to smile again, we start to feel warmed and excited. And then summer comes and it feels like forever but it never lasts as long as we want it to. Autumn creeps in stealthily, the air in the mornings has a crispness to it, the leaves start to tumble. Before we know it we are back where we began – at the end of a year, looking a new one in the eye. Another year of life, another year closer to death.

To be honest, the year has gone so fast for me, I’m struggling to look back on it at all. It was a blur! It barely happened. I was spun around and I’m back here again. But then I remember little bits and pieces, small wins and victories, events and memories, and it all starts to seep back.

In the news of course, 2022 has little to smile about. Lockdowns are a thing of the past, yet covid continues to ravage us. As a family we have definitely had our least healthy year in a while, with my youngest son’s school being pummelled by viruses and illnesses. Currently, there is a lot of fear around the rise of scarlet fever and invasive strep A. Every time a child gets a sore throat, we panic. But, touch wood, we have so far avoided both. My son has had a lot of sick days in 2022 though, more than I am comfortable with and I hope that 2023 sees a healthier year for everyone.

The war in Ukraine is a continuing tragedy. Like any war, it all just seems so pointless. Time and time again, the men in suits send ordinary people out to fight and die, while they argue and see very little of the killing and dying themselves. The war had an impact on fuel prices and inflation has spiralled out of control. The cost of living crisis is the current crisis. Yes, it feels like every year gets its own crisis, its own heartbreaking and frustratingly avoidable emergency.

In the spring petrol stations in the UK ran dry as people panic bought fuel. I joined many a long and winding queue in the hope to fill up the car so I could get to work or get my son to school. We stopped using it as much as a result and my husband started cycling to work and back. The prices and supplies stabilised but it made me think hard about our dependence on fossil fuels and cars. It made me think hard about everything.

In the summer my second daughter sat her A-Levels and I could not be prouder of what she has achieved. She was deeply affected by the lockdowns and her mental health took a real battering. She battled through and in September we drove her to Devon to start her new life at University, studying marine biology and oceanography. She could not be happier. She is loving every second of it. Our first daughter started her second year of creative writing and film studies in Wales and we managed to catch up with her when we had a caravan holiday nearby at the end of August. That little simple holiday was a key happy memory for me. The weather was perfect, New Quay in Wales was just stunning and my husband, myself and our two boys whiled away laidback hours on the beach, building stone cairns with the smooth rocks, collecting smooth pieces of driftwood, having picnics, playing arcade games and eating out. Our caravan was really nice and it was a perfect little break away together.

As for the rest of summer, it was record breaking for all the wrong reasons. The UK saw temperatures soaring above 40 degrees for the first time and we sweltered in heat we are just not built for or used to. The other issue was lack of rain, with many counties declaring hosepipe bans as drought lingered. Again, I thought about what we are doing to our world and what it means for the future. It was tragic to watch the wildlife suffering. The trees started losing their leaves early and you couldn’t find greenery anywhere.

We all breathed a sigh of relief when cooler weather sailed in and for the most part, autumn was kind to us. It could have been equally brutal, sending endless rain and floods our way, but it wasn’t and it stayed mild well into November. During autumn, people were getting increasingly nervous and upset about the huge increases to their heating bills. There has been government support for those struggling the most but no long-term solution has been offered. I’d like to see massive investment in renewables to end our dependence on fossil fuels for good but I can’t see this current lot doing anything radical. Instead we have sticking plasters offered and millions of people afraid to switch their heating on.

And as if it somehow knew, the weather turned bitterly cold and winter arrived with a vengeance. With prices sky high and temperatures lower than they’ve been since 2012, people are stuck with impossible choices, often choosing between heating and eating, and again, I am reminded of our ridiculous dependence on the fossil fuels that are killing our planet.

But for me personally, 2023 has been kind. I’m now running seven children’s writing clubs and throughout this year nearly every one has been full with a waiting list. As a self-employed person, I am constantly nervous about whether people will sign up again, especially now times are getting so tough for so many. To get ahead of the game, I am planning on offering two new clubs in 2023 and I will also start offering workshops via Outschool. Financially, this has been a good year for us, which is weird, but we are both earning more and have two less children at home.

My writing went into some kind of crazed overdrive in 2023!! Sim and I finished and released the first two books in our Fortune’s Well trilogy and the third is due for release early 2023. I published The Old Friend – A Collection of Tales and Poems in April and I fnished the final drafts of all four books in The Day The Earth Turned series. 2023 will be all about me planning the best launch yet, getting amazing covers and releasing them one by one.

As well as working on those two series, I also wrote the first draft of At Night We Played In The Road – which is a spin-off book from The Boy With The Thorn In His Side. That led to me getting ideas about a crossover book, using characters from The Boy series, the Holds End series, The Mess of Me and Elliot Pie’s Guide To Human Nature… Phew! Currently titled The Dark Finds You, once I had the plot outlined, I could not resist diving in and in about six weeks I had written this book too. It wrote itself, to be honest. The story connects Danny from The Boy series, Bill Robinson from Holds End trilogy, Leon from The Mess Of Me and Elliot from Elliot Pie’s Guide To Human Nature in a plot about a missing boy. These books were already connected in small ways so it was very easy to pull the characters all together for this one plot. I loved it and cannot wait to work on the second draft. It will finish off and tie up that whole universe. Once I had written it, I then decided to go and finish the first draft of The Mess of Us, which is obviously the sequel to The Mess Of Me, as I had started it a few years back. That was a harder one to write but I got there! So, now I have the three final books in that universe written in first draft. I will be starting At Night We Played In The Road next, as in terms of the timeline, it’s the next one to finish and release. Then it will be The Mess Of Us and then The Dark Finds You. Plenty to keep me busy then!

But that wasn’t all. In February we had a ten day power cut thanks to storm Eunice and a three week WiFi cut! I couldn’t use my laptop so ended up writing something new in a notebook to keep me busy. Black Hare Valley was an idea already plotted out to some extent, complete with character bios and a detailed map, and this break from technology seemed like a good reason to play with it. I got totally addicted, filled five notebooks and during a three month period, wrote the whole thing. So, that will get worked on at some point too!

As you can see, a crazy year for output and productivity! Oh, I also started putting together a new short story/flash fiction/poetry collection because I’m always accumulating little bits and bobs.

I’m looking forward to 2023 on a personal level. I can’t wait to release more books, dive into second drafts, and maybe even start new books. It is what I love more than anything. I am looking forward to warmer weather, time outside and work on the vegetable plot. I am looking forward to another little family holiday and perhaps a festival or two. I am looking forward to running more writing clubs and seeing where it all goes.

But first, we have Christmas to enjoy! Our food is all bought, our decorations are up, presents are all wrapped, now we just need our eldest back from uni and we are all here and ready to have fun!

What was 2022 like for you? What were your highlights?

November Writing Challenge: Addiction

At the start of every month I ask my Facebook followers to suggest some writing prompts and challenges and then I post the one I chose at the end of the month. This time I picked ‘Addiction’ which was a one word prompt. What came to mind was a list poem so here it is:

Image by Rilson S. Avelar from Pixabay


Addicted to dinosaur remains

Fossilised ideas

Dirty pleasures

Heating homes

Running cars

Getting there faster

Building roads

To better boost business

Addicted to plastic

To the convenience of forgetting

It sits in the earth forever

We breathe it in

Drink it, eat it

Feed it to babies

It flutters in trees

It drifts on the seas

Around the neck of a seal

The beak of a bird

In the stomach of a whale

Addicted to shiny new things

Neat front lawns

Weeds killed efficiently

Packages delivered on time

Addicted to right now

Addicted to cheap food

To burgers and nuggets

And penned in pigs

To horror and murder

Mined diamonds

iPhones and slavery

To turning a blind eye

To what doesn’t concern us

Addicted to capitalism

To what we need, what we want

To infinite growth on a finite planet

To investment

But not in nature

But not in the wild

Addicted to believing we are important

To slaughtered hedgerows

Felled trees

Filthy oceans

Polluted rivers

Addicted to ourselves

To speed, to need, to want, to greed

Unable to see

Addicted to the end

October Writing Challenge: The Shrieking Stream

Every month I ask my Facebook author page followers to give me writing prompts. It can be anything from a visual prompt, to a song title or lyric, overheard conversation, a piece of flash fiction, or a poem. This month however, I have taken my prompt from suggestions made by some of the young people who attend my writing clubs. A few weeks ago I gave them a challenge. They were given lots of words and had to make creepy story titles from them. ‘Ancient Stream Drowns Shrieking Person’ really caught my imagination! I should add, that I normally post my writing prompt challenges at the end of the month, and this post should have been about creepy book recommendations. However, I still have two books to read that I want to mention, so I decided to do the posts the other way around. Therefore, next week, please expect a book recommendation post and for today, here is my October writing challenge response. This was supposed to be flash fiction, but as you can see, it grew and grew! Tell me what you think. It’s a first draft, so needs a little work at some point!

Image by Engin Akyurt from Pixabay

The Shrieking Stream

Of all the haunted places that fill this green and quiet county, The Shrieking Stream is next on my list and as luck will have it, I arrive in its vicinity the day before All Hallows Eve. If that isn’t perfect, I don’t know what is.

I pull up outside The Green Gate Inn in the tiny village of Brackenhurst at midday and I am shown to my room by the elderly proprietor Mrs Pence. She is a thin grey-haired lady, slightly stooped and with an air of distain about her. She welcomes me, of course, and smiles patiently as I explain that her B&B has come highly recommended by some backpacking friends of mine. She shows me my room which is situated on the third floor of the eighteenth-century inn she runs with her husband and informs me that lunch will be served in the dining room at one o’clock sharp. I thank her and say I will be glad to have some. It has been a long journey and it won’t take me long to unpack and get settled. She smiles her thin smile, while her eyes remain as cold as the pale October day beyond the windows.

Once alone, I unpack my two bags. One, a simple backpack contains enough clothes and toiletries to last two days and two nights, which is how long I have booked the room for, and the second, a suitcase on wheels, contains my recording equipment and laptop. I unpack this first and spread it out across the neat wooden desk that is tucked under one of the tiny windows. A quick glance at the street below confirms my first thoughts on arrival; Brackenhurst is one of those forgotten rural villages, lost in time. There is minimal traffic and the pedestrians all have a lost and lonely look about them.

This is good though. This is just what we need. I turn on my camera and microphone and start recording.

Hey there freaky folks, how are you all doing today? Well, just a quick update from me before I grab some lunch. I just arrived in the tiny village of Brackenhurst, home to The Shrieking Stream, a place supposedly so haunted by the lives it has taken over the centuries, that at night, you can hear the lost souls shrieking from under the water. Sounds spooky, right? Well, I’m here to investigate, record and share with you, my lovely followers. After lunch I’m going to try and find the stream, which is said to be quite well hidden in the local woods known as Green Gate Woods. I should also mention that the extremely ancient inn I am spending the night in is called The Green Gate and I’ve got to say, it has a sinister vibe, people. Even the landlady scared me a little bit! Just kidding. I’ll be back later to update you all and to let you know if I found the stream! Of course, to hear it scream, you’ve got to go there at night and I’m planning on doing that tomorrow, Halloween night. Okay freaky folks, thanks for following as ever. Don’t forget to like, share and subscribe and above all else, stay freaky!

I end the recording and press share. Within seconds I’ve received a barrage of likes and reactions, and a smattering of comments. My followers are desperate to see photos and videos of The Shrieking Stream and so am I.

When I finish unpacking, I grab my wallet and leave my room. I bump right into Mrs Pence and almost scream. It shocks me so much; I lean over my knees with one hand pressed to my chest. She merely steps back and observes me quizzically with her arms hanging at her sides.

‘I’m sorry,’ I sputter, although really it ought to be her apologising, after all, what was she doing right outside my door like that? ‘I didn’t see you there.’ I straighten up and offer a weak smile. ‘You scared me!’

‘I can see that,’ she replies in her soft, yet monotone voice. ‘I thought I heard voices. It is just you here? I only have a booking for one.’

‘Oh!’ I nod and wave a hand. Of course, that makes sense. She heard me chatting and thought I had a friend in there. ‘That was me talking. I was recording my podcast.’

‘Podcast?’ she repeats the word as if it offends her.

‘Yeah, you know, like videos you make and share online? I’ve got followers all over the world.’

Mrs Pence’s eyes narrow ever so slightly and I notice for the first time that they are a pale grey, almost the same shade as her wrinkled skin. She turns away from me without another word and makes her way slowly and carefully down the stairs.

I shake it off. I’m starving. I follow her down and join the other diners for lunch. There are a young couple who are obviously enjoying a romantic break together. An older man with thinning hair, dressed entirely in waterproofs, who spends the entire lunchtime poring over what look like very old maps. Two women, possibly in their fifties, who are giggling as they eat their way through large slices of cake. And me. I order a ploughman’s and when it arrives, it brings a smile to my face. A large hunk of granary bread, thick slices of dark pink ham, wedges of apple, two huge, pickled onions, some chutney, cheese and a large tomato. I eat it all and wash it down with two mugs of tea, before deciding I better get a move on.

Today’s mission is finding the stream. Tomorrow night, I will venture out after dark and record everything that happens. I return to my room for my waterproof coat and boots as it has just started to rain. In the porch, I zip up my coat and double check the map I’ve downloaded on to my phone. An exhalation of breath behind makes me jump again. I whirl around and there is an old man standing there. He is wearing loose brown slacks that wrinkle around his knees and a heavy overcoat, the colour of dark chocolate. Grubby slippers poke out from the bottoms of his trouser legs. There are several keys jangling on a lanyard he wears around his neck.

‘Going to be a downpour,’ he warns me, pointing past me to the dark skies above the village.

‘Oh, that’s okay,’ I tell him, patting my chest. ‘Got my waterproofs on.’ I hold out my phone and show him the vague map which was the best Google maps had to offer. ‘Just checking, is this is the right way to go? I’d like to explore the Green Gate Woods.’

The man does not look at the phone, instead he recoils from it as if it upsets him. He even waves a hand at it, almost knocking it from my fingers. I frown and slip it into my front pocket.

‘Long trek that way,’ he nods to the right of the inn. ‘Turn left. Cattle grid. Keep going. Road turns to mud. Another cattle grid.’ He gives a little shrug of his shoulders and exhales again as if he is finding just standing here particularly taxing. ‘Bit further on. Should see the sign on your right. You’re there.’

‘And the famous stream?’ I ask him. ‘Is that easy to find once you’re in the woods?’

The old man lowers his head like a child in trouble. He exhales once more, this time the breath filling out his cheeks and pushing out his lips as he shakes his head once. He slips his hands into his pockets, shakes his head again and then very slowly, turns away from me and shuffles back towards the dining room.

What the hell? I smile though. That’s one for the podcast later! There are a lot of ‘characters’ here, that’s for sure. I get going. The skies have darkened and as I step outside, I am pelted with light rain. I pull up my hood and walk right, following the narrow road away from the inn. He was right about it being a long trek. I walk for half an hour before I see a crossroads and can turn left, as he advised.

On the way I pass old fashioned shops that are crammed together as if they are huddling against the weather. If buildings could have faces, these would all look like that old man, I decide. They would all be sighing and looking down in a weary, fatalistic manner. I make myself smile imagining the shops with eyebrows above their small windows, and downturned moustaches above their front doors. There is a dressmaker, a bakery, a grocery, a post office, a pet shop, a butchers, a toy shop, a hairdressers and a book shop and after that, I walk past the occasional house or cottage. They all appear the same; small and squat, whitewashed or grey, some with thatch that has seen better days, some with tiles that look fed up of clinging on. Most have small front gardens and plots of land behind them. I catch glimpses of wet bedraggled washing hanging on lines, cats at the window looking out, the occasional swing set or trampoline, and vehicles that just seem to be sat in mud. I take out my phone and start taking pictures. This place has a vibe to it, all right.

I come to the first cattle grid and cross over. After that, the road does indeed turn to mud. Further on, I cross the second cattle grid. I don’t see any cattle or anything else, as it happens. The skies are quiet. There is no birdsong. No cars, no people. I keep walking, enjoying myself immensely, because this is going to make a fantastic episode later. I will probably prerecord this one so that I can edit in the creepy photos as well as any footage I get.

Another twenty minutes later I finally see the sign to Green Gate woods. It is an old-fashioned wooden sign covered in wet moss and lichens. I take some photos and move on. It soon becomes apparent that the woods are huge. I get a bit nervous. The road has turned into a path and even that is getting narrower. Evidently, not many others have been this way for a while. Perhaps visiting The Shrieking Stream is not top of the list for locals or tourists. Brambles snake out from either side, occasionally catching and clawing at my waterproofs. I hear the odd tear and swear under my breath. My boots are covered in mud and the ground is uneven, causing me to reach out for whatever I can, branches, tall grasses, even the brambles, to help keep me upright. I take more photos because this is turning into quite a journey and my followers are going to want to enjoy every moment of this.

The things I do for fame and glory, I grin to myself and keep moving. It seems to me that although the rain has all but halted, the sky has continued to darken. I stop and look around. The trees are incredibly dense here. It takes my breath away for a moment because they are so tall, so foreboding and so watchful, I can’t help feeling awed. I identify a mixture of silver birch, oak, sycamore, hazel and ash. There are others I don’t know the names of but most have started to change colour and the air around me is full of floating leaves. They drift down like colourful snowfall, each landing in the mud to rot and become part of it.

I feel a little tense now. For some reason, the falling leaves standing out against the dark sky makes me feel, I don’t know, watched, maybe. It’s silent. That’s another thing. Despite the size of these woods and the abundance of mature trees, there are no birds, no squirrels, nothing scuttling or scurrying away. The only sound is my footsteps as I push on through the thick mud.

Now I am starting to feel silly and annoyed with myself. Another half an hour passes and the path is almost gone. I am weaving my way between tree trunks, using them now to stay on my feet as the thick mud and dead leaves suck at my boots, trying to hold me still. How am I supposed to find the stream if there is no path to follow? No sign?

Since it is no longer raining, I take out my phone and check the map. The red line wriggles through the village like I did, lurches left like I did and then keeps wriggling. Left, right, on a bit, left, right, right, right, left. It makes me feel dizzy. I can’t follow that and anyway, I have no idea where I am to attempt to follow the line.

All right, this is ridiculous. I make the decision there and then to turn around and head back. I am exhausted from wading through mud and fighting with brambles. I will make my way back and see if I can get hold of some better maps. I turn around and take two steps and that is when I hear it.

It sounds like someone calling out; maybe a name, maybe something else. It’s far away and faint, but it drifts up above the trees and ends in an ‘ee’ sound. It sounds like someone calling a cat, for some reason. It reminds me of my neighbour back home. Every night after dark, she opens her back door and calls for her cat.

I resist the urge to shout back by biting my lips. It might not be anything. I might have imagined it, or it might have been a bird, or something. Then I remember the stream… It couldn’t be, could it? I laugh at myself. I tell myself now is not the time to chicken out. I did come here to see a shrieking stream and maybe that is just what I have found. I look around me, frowning at each possible direction.

The ground looks drier to the left, so I head that way. It’s still wet, especially where the leaves are lying in thick drifts, but the ground is rising and falling in small hillocks which feel soft and spongy underfoot. Nearly every tree trunk is covered in old moss and fungi of various kinds. This place has the feel of something very ancient…

I hear another noise. This time I freeze and my heart thuds stupidly against my ribcage as I try not to breathe too loud. It wasn’t the same noise. It was more like a hoot, like an owl would make. And there is another one. Hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo. I relax. Just an owl. It’s a relief to know there is something alive in these damn woods after all.

I keep going left and the land rises slowly. I wonder if I am on a slope, or small hill. I think it would be good to get to higher ground if there is any. I might be able to see my way out if I can get higher, so with fresh energy, I push on, grabbing trees and hauling myself through them, kicking my way through the sludgy rainbow of dead leaves on the ground.

The noise comes again. Not the owl noise. The one that ends in ‘ee’. It’s closer this time which makes the hair on the back of my neck stand on end, only because I don’t know what it is and we all know that not knowing is worse than knowing. It drifts up again and peters out over the treetops, but I was right the first time. It’s a human voice, and they are calling something or someone whose name ends in ‘ee.’ Maybe a dogwalker has lost their dog?

‘Hello!’ I shout back and then instantly regret it. Silence hits me like a wall. If it was quiet before, then this is something new. It feels like the woods have frozen around me. My eyes widen in their sockets as a shiver twists up my spine. Not a single dried leaf flutters from the treetops. I feel like I have broken something.

I can’t stop the panic now. I am not a baby. I am someone who travels the country looking for scary stories, but I have never felt like this before: like the woods are watching me; like they are holding their breath while they examine me. I can almost imagine lips of gnarled wood rising into silent snarls as they prepare to devour me. I keep moving to higher ground and I take out my phone, desperate for a signal. I’ve been lost for a long time now and it is nearly dark. My watch says that is impossible because it is half past three, but the world around me says otherwise. But I don’t have a signal. I try anyway, finding the number for the inn and trying that first as someone there might just be able to direct me out of here. But it won’t connect. It just ends the call every time I try.

The silence drags on, forbidding me to move. Just breathing feels like I am breaking the rules here. But I can’t stay still and I can’t stay here. I press on, trying to breathe, trying to calm down, reminding myself that I packed a flask of tea and a packet of biscuits and a first aid kit, just in case. I’ll get higher and then I’ll be able to figure this out.

Looking up I can see a ridge lined with smaller, thinner trees. If I have been slowly clambering up a hillside, then this must be the top I am now approaching. I breathe out in relief and keep going, grabbing at trunks and branches as my body slows in weariness. I am almost at the top and grateful to find drier, crisper land underfoot when I hear the scream.

This time there is no doubt about it. It is a wail of utter despair that bursts out of the trees ahead and rushes past me, making me stumble and drop to one knee. It lingers, drawing out into a strangled gasp before it fades to nothing. It occurs to me for the first time that perhaps someone is playing a joke on me. Locals, maybe, fed up with people like me trampling all over their stories.

‘Who’s there?’ I yell, cupping my hands around my mouth.

No one answers me but another scream cuts through the trees, hitting me with a blast of icy air that leaves me staggering again, almost losing my footing entirely. I right myself and cringe as it sails over my head. This one is louder, more agonised, like someone is having their insides ripped out of their body. It peters out, but in horrible little breathless gasps of pain.

I want to run, but I don’t. I do what I should have done minutes ago. I take out my phone and start recording, at first turning the camera on myself to exclaim; shit is getting real here, freaky folks! I’m lost in the woods, no kidding, slightly shitting myself actually, haha, Green Gate woods, no kidding, Brackenhurst, if you never hear from me again, hah! That’s where I am, but I am seriously lost, guys. Seriously. And I keep hearing weird noises, like screams or someone calling someone else. I’m gonna keep recording so you can hear it too. I’m climbing a hill now so I can see better, I hope. Nearly there. Okay. Let’s take a look.

I turn the camera around and sweep the area with it recording. I am on a narrow ridge, not much of a hill but I can at least look down on the way I came. I can see the wandering trail I made through the trees and I can see how the land is much wetter and thicker below.

What is really weird though, I say to my audience, is how dark it is. I get its October and I’m in thick, thick woods, but my watch, unless its wrong, says half three, guys. And look, how dark is that? Almost full dark, right? Yeah, freaky folk, I’m about to be well and truly lost in the dark in the woods! This was not the plan. But finding the stream was so I’m gonna at least try and do that. Okay. Holy shit! Did you hear that?

My hand is trembling as I turn the camera on myself again. My eyes are so wide they ache in the sockets. Another scream has filled the air around me. It seems to come from everywhere, even me. I jumped about a foot in the air when it started. It sounds ferocious, I think, like the noise an animal might make when caught in a trap. There is rage in that scream and my head is starting to hurt.

There is another one, but this one is closer to the voice I thought I heard earlier. It ends in ‘eeee’ again, and I can’t help thinking there is a question mark to it.

‘Who’s there?’ I shout back, desperate for it to be a person, desperate for it to be someone looking for me, or a local playing a prank.


Shit, they’re not saying Toby, are they?

‘I’m here!’ I yell back, hurrying along the ridge, turning in circles, squinting through the trees to see. ‘I’m Toby, I’m here!’


Toby? Yes, Toby, I’m sure of it. Someone is calling my name. Someone is looking for me!

You hear that? I say to the camera as I keep moving. Toby! Shit guys, someone is out here calling my name. Please say you can hear that too! And how dark is it now, seriously? Look! I can barely see my feet or my hands in front of my face. I’m gonna call back.

‘I’m here!’ I yell again and that’s when I see a bright light twisting through the trees below on the other side of the ridge. I stop and gasp. No, not a light, it’s water! I move towards it. Yes, as I get closer, I can see it is water. The surface is shining back at me as it ripples through the thick ferns and gorse and heather down there.

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Italk to my camera again. Look guys, I think I found the stream! Or a stream, at least. Oh my God, could this be it? The Shrieking Stream? They say you can hear it in the village at night and I believe it, and I’m sure you do too now. Shit!

Another scream slices through the darkness, making me drop my phone in panic. I drop to my knees and search for it frantically, sinking my fingers into claggy earth and leaf mulch until I find the hard rectangle and see it’s camera light blinking back at me. The scream was horrible: a gargled, gurgled, helpless sound; despair and defeat and dread all mixed together.

I grab the phone and walk briskly down to the stream. At last, I have found it. I stand on the banks which are brown and littered with pine needles and cones, and smothered in thick white fungi, and moss and lichen in various shades of green. I hear a splash and my head snaps up. I look left and right. The woods have been swallowed by darkness so I use the phone as a torch, sweeping it this way and that, recording the curve of the stream, which is not more than a few feet deep by the looks of it.

So this is what’s been making all that noise, I tell my followers, I give you, The Shrieking Stream, and you better be grateful guys, because this is genuinely the most scared I have ever been doing this shit, and I’ve still got to find my way out of here.

‘Toby! Toby Barnes!’

My head whips around and I see a figure coming towards me from the left. He or she appears to be wading in the stream. I stare in a mixture of hope, dread and utter confusion, because nothing about this makes any sense…

As it comes closer, I can see the shape of a man, with thinning hair and glasses on, and waterproof clothing, and boots that come up to his thighs. Wading boots.

‘Are you? Are you the…’ I’m not sure, but I think it might be the man who was in the dining room earlier, the man with all the maps. I breathe out in relief because maybe he has come to save me, he has come to help me with his maps! My shoulders relax and I lift the camera so my followers can see my rescuer making his way down the stream.

‘Toby! Toby Barnes!’

‘Yes, that’s me!’

The man doesn’t seem to hear me though. He keeps coming, splashing through the stream which seems eerily still around him. I get that feeling again, that the woods are holding their breath and their secrets and something is about to happen. My scalp tightens and my bowels loosen and then it does, it happens.

The man’s arms fly upwards like he’s taking part in a Mexican wave. His eyes widen and the glasses fly off. His mouth gapes and a whoosh of startled air escapes his lungs. He starts sinking, rapidly; the water is suddenly over his knees, then his waist, then up to his shoulders. It all happens so quickly, I barely have time to react, but I stuff my phone in my pocket and race towards him, thinking he must have slipped or something.

He screams.

It’s a piercing shriek that makes my blood run cold and my guts curl up, but by the time I reach him, it is too late. He is gone. I plunge my hands into the stream and there is nothing there.

‘Shit!’ I sit back, breathing hard, my eyes flicking wildly over the surface of the stream. I lean forward, try again, wave my hand around in the water but there is nothing. There should at least be his hand, or his head, or…

The water bubbles further down the stream. I stand back, wary now of its wet edges, and stare in horror as something begins to emerge. Surrounded by rippling circles growing, I see pale fingers begin to rise. I scrabble for my phone and film it. Because this can’t be real. I must be asleep, dreaming, back at the inn. Or I fell and hit my head and I’m hallucinating or something. I want to say something, to my followers, but I can’t talk. My tongue is a useless lump of meat and my body has turned to stone.

I just stare in horror and hold the phone as the fingers lift through the water. They are pale and bloated, the skin sagging and wrinkled around the knuckles. I start to move back, slowly at first, my heels digging into the mud in front of me, pushing me away. The hands give way to slender wrists, followed by thin arms. The sleeves of whatever she was wearing have rumpled down to her shoulders, and I know it is a ‘she’ because her head breaks the water at the same time, her grey hair flattened on her bony skull, her eye sockets empty and her mouth a hole filled with wriggling maggots. She opens her mouth and screams.

I drop the phone and cover my ears.

It seems to go on forever. The treetops are shaking. The earth vibrates and growls beneath me. I move with it, shaken from side to side, until I manage to reach out and grab the trunk of the nearest tree. I pull myself to my feet, reach down and pick the phone up again. It’s still recording. I leave it running and place it in my pocket.

When I look back at the stream the woman, who I am certain was Mrs Pence from the inn, has gone, only a few ripples letting me know she was ever there. I have to go. I have to get out of here.

I turn and start to scramble away, back towards the ridge. I don’t look back when I hear the two women screaming. The two women who were enjoying their cake just hours ago. I recognise their voices, and I can hear nothing but horror and useless fear in their screams, which are high-pitched and jagged, hurting my brain.

I run on. I think I won’t make it. I don’t let myself think that. I push thoughts away. Blind panic now, blind. Pure instinct. Survival mode. I mutter to myself as I run.

Run, run, run, just fucking run, don’t look back, don’t, don’t just run, run, keep running, oh God, just run, run, don’t listen, don’t look back, just run!

I am hurtling down the other side of the ridge when the young couple reach for me. They appear together, holding hands, on the other side of a large fallen trunk I am scrambling over. I run right into them and start choking on the smell of rotting flesh. Their mouths are open and screaming. The screams hurt my bones and my heart judders. I think, I am going to die here. I turn my head away as they both snatch at my clothes, for I have already seen the swollen, waterlogged skin hanging from his face, and the missing jawbone on hers, and the wet, hanging hair, tangled with leaves and sticks and pine needles.

I don’t think I’ll get away but I do.

I run, faster and faster and faster. The screaming follows me. It never stops. I run on and on, stumbling and falling, rising and skidding, grabbing and snatching, barely breathing. I am running on empty now, every part of my body on fire with fear and adrenaline and exhaustion.

I don’t think I’ll make it but somehow, I do.

Somehow, I stumble out onto what can only be a narrow, mud choked path. The path I was on before. I can see my own footsteps in the mud and I laugh in joy and relief and start to follow them. The sky is lighter again. I can see a few clouds.

I pull out my phone and talk breathlessly into it.

Guys, guys, I hope you got all that. As soon as I get a signal I’m gonna upload the whole thing to my channel, fuck editing, I can’t believe what just happened, I have to show you now!

I cry when I see the sign to Green Gate Woods. I lean against it and sob. I am drenched in sweat and covered in thick mud that is starting to drop of in chunks. I can now feel the pain of countless scratches, scrapes and bumps. I start to wonder if any of it happened. I see the young couple rearing up behind the log and almost vomit. No, it was real. I will never forget the ripe, sour smell of their rotting organs.

I stumble on. Every part of me aches. As soon as I see I have a signal, I pause and log into my podcast channel. In less than a minute I have uploaded my entire recording with the title, This just happened right now!! Oh My God!!

That should be enough drama to get my followers excited. I think I will edit it all together later though, with the photos I took on the way here, and maybe I’ll try and get some interviews too from the villagers.

My phone is back in my pocket and I am trudging towards the first cattle grid when I spot the old man from the inn. How strange, I think. What’s he doing out here in his slippers? He’s standing on the other side of the grid looking just the way he did in the hallway of the inn before he turned and shambled away. His shoulders are hunched, his keys are hanging, his hands are in his pockets and his head is low. He exhales sadly as I approach.

I expect him to say something about the state of me. I am covered in mud and twigs and leaves. I must look awful. He must know something bad has happened to me. I am shaking now too, as the memories hit me one by one. I don’t want to think about any of them right now, but I can’t seem to shake them away.

Did I dream it all?

The videos on my phone would suggest otherwise.

‘Hello?’ I call out warily as I get closer.

He doesn’t answer. He just looks sad, his lower lip jutting out as his hands sink even lower in the pockets.

‘Hello?’ I ask again. ‘Are you all right? What are you doing out here?’ I glance again at his grubby slippers. When I look back at his face, I see something awful.

His skin is grey and wet. Bubbles have filled his mouth and are expanding and then popping between his sagging grey lips. His eyes have lost all colour. The eyeballs seem to swim in grey liquid before rolling away into his head. The skin on his nose is flaky and as I stare in horror, a chunk slips away and hits the ground between his slippers.

A foul smell meets my nostrils and as he lifts his hands from his pockets, I see dirty stream water running from his arms down to his wrists. It spatters against the ground, quickly forming puddles.

He opens his mouth and I fear a scream. I start to lift my hands in anticipation, to press them over my ears.

‘What?’ I yell at him then, staggering backwards. ‘What are you trying to tell me?’

He lifts his awful swollen hand and points right at me. ‘One of us now.’

‘What? What?’ I shake my head, keep walking backwards. ‘No, I’m not. Leave me alone. Get away!’

He laughs and more stream water pours out of his mouth, revealing grey rotten stumps for teeth. A small silver fish wriggles through them and drops to the ground where it writhes and gasps. I stare in horror and his mouth stretches wider. I expect a scream but again, it doesn’t come.

‘We are all dead here…’ he gurgles as more filthy water fills his mouth. He starts to choke then, choke on the water and on the wet leaves and pine needles and he twists his head, as if trying to escape it, and then finally, his lips part and the skin tears open, revealing the bone of his jaw and he shrieks.

September Writing Challenge: Late Night Thoughts

Every month I ask my Facebook author page followers to give me writing prompts. It can be anything from a visual prompt, to a song title or lyric, overheard conversation, a piece of flash fiction, or a poem. This month I had another wonderful selection to choose from and a non-fiction prompt really caught my eye. Thanks to author Shannon Rohrer for this one!

Late Night Thoughts

Before bed, I venture outside and the air is cool, September saying hello. It makes me smile. Feel sort of giddy like that back to school feeling and the smug comfort of pulling on a favourite hoodie for the first time since the heat came. The sun sets a little earlier every night, dark now by 8pm. I cross the garden, flattening grass that died and came back to life. I think about life. I think about death.

I close up the chickens, then check the field behind. I’ve watched all the sunsets this summer, I’ve seen all the colours spread across that same horizon. I’ve watched the copse darken until it resembles a spiked hedge, jagged edges breaking up the sky.

There is a chill in the air, reminding me to say goodbye to summer. I eye up the woodpile when I go back inside. Will it be enough? What sort of winter lies ahead?

There is a calmness, like the earth breathing out, or perhaps she is holding her breath, bracing herself for what comes next. This summer we torched her. We burned her like never before. For the first time, some of us thought about water. And not having water.

Inside, I sit down to write, the window open, the road silent and dark, the pheasants making a fuss as they settle in the trees that line the lane. Everything goes around and around. The sun goes down, the sun comes up. Summer ends, autumn begins, they merge and overlap, until the first frost bites. We wake up and get up and do the things that make a life. We lie down and sleep. One day we don’t wake up.

I think about death when I climb into bed. I try not to assume another morning awaits me. Like every time I get into the car and wonder if today is the day I die. Because we don’t know, we never know. We take it for granted or is it faith? My car won’t crash. Not me. Not today. There is no death in my rear view mirror, only all the open roads that lie ahead. Paths to choose, forks in the road, possibilities, waiting, potential, waiting. Somehow, we feel like we are always waiting.

As a child, we wait for the school day to end. We wait for summer to free us. We wait for Christmas to excite us. We wait to grow up. As teenagers, we wait to become adults, to taste the things we’ve heard about for so long. To have our turn. Take our place. As adults, we wait for the weekend. We wait for better days, more money, more time. As parents, we wait for babies to be born, alive. We wait for babies to survive into toddlerhood and we sigh in relief every day we keep them safe. We wait for children to become teenagers, so that we can claw our lives back and let them go. We wait for phone calls in the dead of night letting us know they are safe. Then we wait for death.

We wait for aching bones and finding it hard to get on your feet. We wait for our bladders to wake us up at night like clockwork. We look forward to sitting down with a nice cup of tea and a good book. I think about this late at night. What am I waiting for?

I don’t know.

Maybe I have everything I will ever need or want, right now. A home, a partner, children, work, a garden to tend, writing to do. Maybe I’m not waiting for anything anymore. Maybe death hovers, reminding us that it’s always close but maybe I don’t have to wait for death, just keep an eye on it.

Late at night, I think that life is very, very weird. You’re born, you live, you die and ultimately, eventually, you will be forgotten. But that’s okay, isn’t it? Is that the part of death we fear the most? We fear death of loved ones because we can’t stand the thought of losing them. We fear our own deaths because we will cease to exist. Possibly. Probably.

Mostly, I don’t think I mind.

In some ways, I have left things behind so that I might not be totally forgotten. Four children, countless trees and shrubs and so far, sixteen books. Eventually, that will all be gone too. Does it matter? I don’t think so.

Life moves on. From dawn til dusk, from summer to autumn. We have no more right to everlasting life than the leaves drying and curling and floating down to rot on the forest floor, and we are just as much a part of everything. Of life, death and decay.