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.

August Writing Challenge: Face In The Crowd

At the end of July I asked my Facebook page followers to give me some more random writing prompts to respond to and I had a great selection to choose from. I ended up blending two together for this weird little story. Author Paula Harmon suggested a story set within a crowd and author Sim Sansford posted a creepy picture of a faceless woman with faceless masks hanging on the wall behind her. I also played around with second person POV which was great fun! Please note, this is only a second draft and I will definitely be rewriting this story at some point, maybe even making it a bit longer.

Image by Keith Johnston from Pixabay

Face In The Crowd

You won’t see her coming.

Except maybe out of the corner of your eye…

And by then it will be too late anyway.

She seems to know who she wants; you see. She is a predator, stalking you, and you are the prey. Nothing more, nothing less.

Let me take you back to the last crowd you found yourself in. Heart already pounding faster than it should, prickles of cold sweat erupting on the back of your neck, while something tight and spiky curls into a hard ball inside your guts. You’ve felt it before. Bad things happen in crowded places. A human is never so alone as when lost in a crowd. You remember them all. Different types of crowds, none of them safe.

School assembly, remember that? Trapped on a hard varnished floor with your knees tucked up under your nose so that you don’t touch the people on either side of you. Not your friends. Never your friends. To the left, to the right, in front of you and close behind, surrounded, fenced in, unable to breathe. Always too hot. No way out. Panic beating its small wings inside your chest as your outward face insists that nothing is wrong here.

Supermarket queues… Not as hemmed in, but still, the heads bob too close before you and one glance over your shoulder reveals a horrifying snake of people behind you. You swallow fear and bite back the urge to run, because how weird would that be? Suddenly barging through, shoulders crashing into backs, pushing, shoving, running, running. You’d never be able to go back if you did that.

Christmas crowds: the hopeless horror of a shop wedged tight with angry, entitled bodies. You give up and go home and shop online. You don’t like crowds. Never have. Festival crowds. You gave those a go. Outside, fresh air, music thumping through your veins, alcohol and friendship spurring you on. You thought, I can do this! But then you made the mistake of looking behind you, seeing the impossible volume of human life, jumping, shoving, screaming, living, too fast, too hard, too close. You stumbled when they pushed and the pushing didn’t stop. You tried to pick yourself back up, breathless with fear, but they kept coming, trampling, not seeing you, because you had ceased to exist.

Remember, that was the first time you saw her?

Weaving her way through the herd with feline eyes, swivelling to take in every view; hunting someone down. She was tall, you remember that. Towering above the revellers yet hunched over to disguise it. Her neck swanlike, or snakelike. A small mouth, or no mouth. She pushed through them, not touching anyone, moving like oil, her pupils gliding eerily from side to side, until she reached out with a long hand, longer fingers, nails curled over and mottled grey. You saw her touch someone but you didn’t see what happened next because the crowd surged and you almost died.

That’s why I don’t like crowds, you tell anyone that will listen, I am not antisocial, just emotionally scarred from nearly dying. Broken ribs are nothing to laugh about you remind yourself when that chilly fear settles across your shoulders, telling you to turn around and go home.

Today the crowd bustle before you. They have taken over the entire square. It’s market day; you should have known. You shake your head at your own stupidity and lack of foresight. But you did the best you could – remember that – moving to a quiet seaside town, dead in the winter, smells faintly of salt and vinegar – humming with tourists in the summer but that’s when you stay home or go out on your boat. No risk of a crowd out on the water.

Today, market day, the crowd moves like a messy unified thing, a squirming mass of warm bodies and haircuts, small lives, red faces, sweat stains. You hate it. But you need to go to the post office, right on the other side. You sigh heavily, dramatically, your annoyance with these people’s existence out of proportion to their right to exist just like you. You’d fire a rocket launcher at them if you could. You still remember being trod into the mud. You shudder.

But you move. You have to. You can do this. They’re just people.

You step forward and before you are even ready, before you have taken the obligatory deep breath and shaken out your limbs, pulled your bag closer across your chest, the crowd sweep you up and take you.

This is what you resent.

This makes you wish you had a grenade in your coat pocket.

The inescapable claustrophobic nature of the crowd. Of people.

Just people, you tell yourself, but you know that’s not true. They’re not just people, not just this or that. Never underestimate them. Never expect the best. Instead, always prepare for the worst. For sickening body odour and hairstyles freeze dried into place, for sharp elbows and fat shoulders. For feet that trample your own. For bags that whack you out of your space. For bodies, thick and long and selfish and demanding, all moving, and moving you whether you want to be moved or not.

You grit your teeth put your head down and push through.

And then you see her.

Like you did when you were down in the mud.

Tall, hunched, otherworldly in her movements, she glides along, coming for something, someone. Lank pale hair hangs over her shoulders. She has her back to you, every bump in her elongated spine visible through the thin colourless dress she wears. Her arms are at her sides, the elbows jagged, the forearms raised and at the end of the wrists her long thin hands hang, fingers dripping, nails curled.

Your breath catches in your throat and you freeze, unable to breathe or move. Your scalp seems to contract and tighten under your hair and your entire body floods with ice cold fear. It feels like the world has stopped but it is just you, frozen while the crowd moves and circles around you. Unbelievably, they seem oblivious to the strange, hunched form who hunts among them. She doesn’t touch them as she glides between warm bodies and not one of them looks at her or senses her dark presence.

You want to scream out, do something. You open your mouth but nothing emerges except a cold puff of air. You stare in agony as the colours of ordinary life swirl around her and then slowly, you see her reaching out. For she has chosen someone, a woman. A small petite woman with bright red hair wearing a spotty blue and white raincoat.

The hunched woman reaches for her, claw like hand sinking into unwilling flesh and there is a small, awful moment when the woman with the red hair stops and turns and stares in haunting clarity up at the collector. But it is fleeting, a microsecond of agonizing helpless horror and then it is over.

The red-haired woman walks away unscathed, slouching through the crowd with her bag on her shoulder, none the worse. Until she passes you and you see that she no longer has a face.

But no, maybe you imagined it. You are seeing things. Panicking. It’s all this stupid claustrophobic fear that you have no control over. You find yourself moving, pushing through, determined to make it to the post office, determined to brush this off, brush it away.

But as you move through the crowd, you see her again. She is still hunting. Still collecting faces. She towers over the people, glassy eyes swivelling in hollow sockets until another catches her eye. Not you, not you, no, thank God. She does not look at you because if she did you know you would be helpless, unable to run.

This time she makes her way over to a young man chatting on his mobile phone. He is powering through the crowd in a hooded jacket and black jeans. He is smiling, laughing as he focuses only on his conversation. He is easy prey, too distracted to feel her sliding towards him. He freezes when she touches him and you see the same dull dawning horror explode behind his eyes before it’s over. His face is gone and he moves on, still talking.

You make it to the post office and shove your way, sweating, through the doors. You can’t get out of that crowd quick enough. You cower at the window, behind shelves of envelopes and pens. You peer out, determined to hide until the whole thing has dispersed. You won’t go out there again, not with that many people, not with her out there stealing faces.

‘Are you all right?’ a worried voice asks from your shoulder.

You glance at the little man who wears a tight expression on his weathered face. ‘Yes,’ you swallow hard and reply shakily. ‘I’m sorry but I’m not good with crowds. Do you mind if I wait in here for a bit until I feel a little better?’

He nods and smiles in sympathy and leaves you alone.

You peer back out at the ever moving, swirling, humming crowd of life. The shoulders and heads, the hats and coats, the faces and the faceless.

I will be needing more writing prompts for my September challenge so feel free to post any here!

July Writing Challenge: The Longest Day

At the end of June I posted on my Facebook author page asking for writing prompt suggestions. I received a lovely amount and the one I chose to respond to was, ‘write about an ordinary day that lasts forever.’ I had a few stabs at this but this was the final result. I hope you enjoy it. This is the second draft and I will probably play around with it a bit more before it gets added to my next collection. I’ll be asking for a new challenge for August!

Time didn’t work the same way in Grandma’s garden.

Time had its own rules there.

Time is not the same for children as it is for adults either. And if you combine children with a dark and secret place they have been forbidden to enter, you find that time plays tricks on you. That an ordinary day can become an extraordinary one. That an ordinary day can even last forever.

Would you like that? To live forever?

I thought I did, when I was a child. I first realised death would get me when our dog Ralph got smashed to bits by a speeding car. He wasn’t supposed to be out on the road. That was my fault. I left the gate open and he followed me out to the ice cream van, wagging his fat tail hopefully. His hope ended when the speeding car swung around the corner and took him out. I still remember counting the bits of him that were spread across the road. My mother later said I was in shock, when I kept repeating the number. Twenty-two. It was twenty-two. And I knew then that death was coming for everyone, even me, which didn’t seem remotely fair because I was obviously special, and ought to be allowed to live forever. Children are self-centred like that. Think the world revolves around them.

Until they go to visit their grandparents and the house is full of noise and gossip and there are aunts and uncles everywhere you turn. No child can tolerate that much head rubbing and lip smacking for long, so we wriggled free, me and my cousins, and we went out to the garden.

We followed the wide stone steps from the front door, down to the first layer of the garden. This was Grandad’s domain, with his runner bean plants, giant marrows, trimmed conifer hedges and the door to his cellar. There was a little low brick wall we taught ourselves to balance on, arms flung out to either side. If you toppled one side, you’d land on his runner beans and someone would tap on the glass from the window above to scold you.

We skipped down a worn grass path away from the tapping on the windows and the prying adult eyes until we came to the next layer. A flat spread of grass surrounded by bright flowerbeds. Grandma’s domain. A rotary clothesline swung in circles in the breeze. Her bird table and bird bath were always full to attract the birds she watched from the window.

There was another wall here – you could jump down and land in the final area. The lower garden, where the grass was longer and greener. Grandad’s compost heat warmed the air and flies buzzed manically around it. Here the fences seemed higher, the trees thicker, the canopy above sheltering us from the windows of the house.

Here, we traded secrets. Robert was a snitch and a tell-tale. Martin wet the bed last time he slept over at Grandma’s. Lucy’s dog got splattered on the road and the blood sprayed all the children in the face. It was a zombie dog who kept walking even after his head had rolled away. Maria’s mum had an affair and now she is getting a new daddy. Here, we traded dares. Throw one of Grandad’s tools over the fence. Poke a stick into the steaming compost to see if it is really full of snakes. Steal some knickers from the line and hang them in a tree. Pick the plums from the neighbour’s tree. Throw plums at the houses and then duck.

It was dark and green and safe but in the fence was a small iron gate that led down to the very lowest, furthest part of the garden. Grandma and Grandad did not venture down to the lowest point for several reasons. There were too many trees, Grandad said, so he couldn’t grow anything down there and also, the hose wouldn’t reach. It was too difficult for them now to climb all the way back up, Grandma said, with their old bones and bad backs. It was too wild down there, they said. Best to leave it alone.

We were forbidden. They couldn’t see us from the window, couldn’t see what we were up to and we were always up to something. It was too overgrown down there, too tangled and there could be rubbish, even glass amongst the undergrowth. Over several summers, our curiosity grew into something that felt alive. Something yearning and aching and building up inside of us until that particular summer, the summer I was twelve, we could bear it no more. We hatched a plan and prepared for battle. It was me and my two younger brothers, Patrick, eleven- and nine-year-old Harry. It was my cousins Robert and Martin who were ten-year-old twins at the time, and cousin Maria who was eight.

We set up a picnic in the lower garden, not too close to the fly infested compost pile. We asked to borrow a huge umbrella for shade and behind that, we dutifully spread out a soft blanket and organised the food and drink they’d let us take. We knew from the windows they would just about be able to see the umbrella and would hopefully assume we were still playing behind it.

‘They’ll be too busy watching the match,’ I added when Patrick gave me an anxious look. ‘Besides, we won’t be very long.’

We stood at the gate and took a deep breath. Beyond the gate, darkness beckoned and Maria slid her sweaty hand into mine. I checked my watch – it was ten am. Behind us the sun was a red gold ball of fire torching the garden, but beyond the iron gate, we could feel soft cool air calling to us. It smelled different too. It smelled alive.

What struck me first, before we went through the gate, was how green it all was. How you couldn’t really tell where one tree or shrub ended and another began. It was a mass of tangled green in varying shades and it felt hungry. It wanted us to come in.

So we did. What we found first was a set of small stone steps. This delighted Maria who happily hopped from one to the other, declaring they were small enough for fairies. The boys charged ahead, waving sticks at imaginary danger. I lagged behind, mainly because I wanted to take it all in, this forbidden, secret land, and because Maria was still tightly clutching my hand.

There was little light. Only tiny fragments made it through the thick canopy of trees and vines above our heads. I identified fir trees mostly, but there were hawthorn, ash and elm as well, all pushing and vying for space. The bushes were mostly rhododendron. Grandad always said that plant was an invasive pest, but its flowers were in full bloom, exciting Maria further as she danced ahead to pluck the bright purple petals.

It was silent. I saw the odd bird flit from tree to tree but I didn’t hear any song. The path seemed to go on forever and I was in awe, confused. I had no idea my grandparents garden was this big, this long. It kept going down, which didn’t seem to make sense because I knew that behind their house was another road full of houses just like theirs. I felt like we should have reached a boundary fence by now, someone else’s land. But it just kept going, and the steps got narrower and steeper and when I called ahead, the boys did not answer.

‘They’ve gone,’ Maria stated plainly and my heart beat faster.

‘Hiding,’ I told her. ‘Watch out. They’ll jump out on us soon.’

Suddenly, she froze and screamed. It was a horrible sound, one that I was sure the adults would hear from the house. Thanks to her, our adventure would be over before it had even begun. I shook her arm to get her to stop but she just pointed to something sat on the next step. Something we had almost stepped on.

It was the largest slug I had ever seen. It was almost as big as my foot. I backed up, blinking in panic, because although I liked to think of myself as a tough customer, I was repulsed by those things. It was just sat there, glistening and pulsing. Its gleaming skin was the colour of the steps, mottled green and grey. I looked over my shoulder and felt sick when I saw more slugs posted on the steps we had already descended. How we didn’t slip on them and fall to our deaths, I will never know.

She hadn’t got far but that was enough for Maria. She pulled free of my hand and charged back up the steps, screaming for her mother. Great, I thought, watching her go. Any second now they’ll be bellowing at us to come out and asking us what the hell we thought we were up to.

‘You can stop hiding now,’ I called out to the boys. ‘Maria went back screaming over a slug! The game’s over!’

There was no reply, just a heavy waiting silence. I stepped over the slug and kept going, mainly because I knew I had to retrieve my brothers and cousins before the adults really got angry with us. There were no more steps after a while, but I couldn’t believe how far we had gone. Where was the fence? Where were the other gardens?

Peering ahead, I could see a dusty brown path weaving around tall firs and pines, seemingly stretching on forever. The branches of the trees were so low and heavy they brushed the ground, creating dark pockets of thick shadows between their trunks. I stared at every one, daring the boys to leap out and scare me and every time, it felt like something was watching me in return. I shivered and walked on.

Now the steps had ended, there was nothing man-made down here at all. No signs of human life. No rubbish, no old plant pots or garden tools, no bird feeders, nothing. I looked up and saw a tiny fragment of sunlight winking at me through the tops of the trees. Around me, the darkness seemed to creep closer.

‘Boys?’ I called out again, nervous now. This was no fun without them. The plan wasn’t to come down here on my own and get shouted at on my own afterwards. The plan was to have an adventure, to explore and discover. I didn’t feel like doing that now. I turned in a circle and caught a glimpse of something shimmering to the left. I wove my way through the trees – some spindly white boned birches this time – which were growing in a haphazard fashion around a large pond. ‘Boys?’ I asked again, but I didn’t like the sound of my voice down here. It sounded too loud, too abrasive and I was sure I could hear the bristle and rustle of undergrowth that didn’t like it either.

I stepped closer to the pond and felt cold water seep into my trainers. Yuk! I grimaced and plodded forward a few more steps, cold brown muck squelching between my toes. The surface water of the pond was rippling, suggesting life beneath and I watched for a while, as a trio of ginormous dragonflies descended like mini bug-eyed helicopters. There were flies too. Lots of them. A gentle thrum of crickets and grasshoppers could be heard beneath the buzzing of the flies and as I skirted around the pond and kept going, the sound grew louder.

I searched around the pond, keeping it in my sights, on a mission now to find those little turds and make them pay for ruining our plans. Maria, I could forgive, but the boys were taking this too far now. This was supposed to be a group adventure. Having said that, the silence and solitude were becoming rather nice. I smiled a little bit, thinking how lucky we were to have found such a secretive place. I also felt an unexpected twinge of anger at the adults for keeping this from us for so long.

I searched for footprints in the mud and dust and found none. I searched for broken twigs and sticks, a trail of anything that would lead me to their hiding place and found nothing. I got bored after a while and as there had been no angry bellows from the adults, I started to make a den a safe distance away from the pond. I got lost in my work for a while; dragging suitably long branches and sticks over to a sturdy pine and arranging them around it in a wigwam formation. I covered it with ferns and left a doorway to entice my cousins in. I sat in it for a while, feeling hot and sticky and thirsty, and thinking longingly of our food and drink back on the picnic blanket.

‘Okay,’ I announced after an hour had passed. ‘I’m going back now. I’m hungry. You better come out and follow me back up or we’ll all be in trouble.’

There was no answer. I was proud of the little den though and smiled at it over my shoulder as I walked back past the pond and headed back towards the steps. Only they weren’t there. I stopped and looked around. The pond was on my right, as it had been on my left on the way down. So the steps ought to be directly ahead. But they weren’t. Instead, all I could see were trees and rhododendron bushes. There was no path at all. No steps, nothing. It was like a dusty, dry jungle of silence and waiting.

‘What?’ I asked myself, turning in a circle, but I had no answer. I had no clue. I had no choice but to keep walking. I checked my watch and saw to my horror that it was past lunch time. How could that have happened? I hadn’t taken that long over the den, had I? I must have. I shook my head and kept walking, trying to head back towards the hill of steps that had led me here.

But there was no hill, no rising incline of land, so surely this was the wrong way? If I wasn’t climbing upwards, I was going the wrong way. I turned around, slightly panicked now and laughing at myself nervously and tried the opposite direction. That didn’t make sense because the pond was no longer on my left, but what could I do? Maybe there were two ponds?

‘You guys!’ I yelled out in frustration. ‘You’ve ruined this whole game and I hate you! Come out right now!’

Of course, no one did. The boys were long gone. Perhaps a monstrous slug had scared them too and they’d run back to the gate another way. I had no option but to stomp around in anger and frustration, but I only seemed to get myself more lost. Some time later, gleaming with sticky sweat, I sat on a grassy hill under a ginormous oak tree and checked my watch. I was shocked to discover another two hours had passed me by. This wasn’t right. I was so confused, all I could do was sit there for another hour, just gazing at the ground in front of me, just trying to figure out what the hell had happened here.

Eventually, the panic subsided and a kind of weary, grudging acceptance kicked in. Maybe I live here now, I thought, maybe this is my place and I can never leave. With that notion kicking around in my head, I started to perk up a bit. I stopped freaking out and started exploring instead. I found all kinds of interesting and unbelievable things that day on my own at the bottom of the garden. You would not believe any of them if I told you. And I knew that if I ever spoke a word of this to anyone in my life, I would be branded either a liar or a lunatic.

I knew I would keep it to myself and once I’d made that decision, things got easier again. I began to enjoy myself, climbing trees that seemed to provide the perfect branch at the perfect time. I found long, twisted vines of elder and ivy and swung from them, each one holding my weight easily. I found a little stone bridge that swerved over a thin, shining point, where I stood and watched rainbow-coloured frogs diving and swimming.

I heard the voices in the undergrowth, the whispers in the trees, the soft playful laughter behind the leaves and I laughed back. I was home.

And not long after that, with my watch telling me it was now four in the afternoon, I suddenly came across the stone steps again. The slugs had gone. Bright light sparkled from the garden at the top and I could even hear my cousins laughter.

I emerged blinking and squinting into the hot sun that parched the end of my grandparents garden, fully expecting the adults to come racing down towards me, stressed and panicked and furious. But they didn’t. My cousins and siblings looked up at me from where they were sprawled out lazily under the umbrella we had set up, but none of them seemed to react with any urgency. I’d been gone all day; what the hell was wrong with them?

‘Can we eat this now you’re back?’ asked Maria holding up a slice of apple cake in her grubby hand.

I stumbled towards them, nodding, my head fuzzy with fatigue and confusion. None of them reacted as I plonked myself on the blanket and plucked several leaves from my sweaty hair.

‘How long was I gone?’ I asked them after a while. I was staring at my watch, trying and failing to understand this.

Martin shrugged, his mouth full of crisps. ‘Dunno.’

‘Ten minutes?’ Patrick suggested.

I tapped my watch. ‘That’s impossible.’ I opened my mouth to start to tell them, to explain that my watch said I’d been in there all day, that I knew I had because of how long and far I had walked and climbed and played, because every inch of me, every bone ached and throbbed with exhaustion. But then my mouth snapped shut and I said nothing.

Minutes passed and still I said nothing. I was starting to think keeping it to myself might be the best option. I didn’t want anyone to laugh at me or call me a liar and besides that, I’d found something special, hadn’t I? Something dark and inviting, something secretive, something alive.

Something that was mine.

One More Writing Project Won’t Hurt…

If you follow this blog you probably already know how many writing projects I tend to work on at the same time. I used to think working on more than one book at a time was a bad thing, but eventually I came to accept that it’s just always going to be this way. Writing truly has me hooked and I just can’t stick to one thing until its done. I like to have a few things juggling around me!

Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Currently, those things are: The Day The Earth Turned series, which is in the process of edits and proofreads and I hope to release book one in May 2023. The Fortune’s Well trilogy I co-wrote with Sim Sansford – we hope to release book two next month. The spin-off from The Boy With The Thorn In His Side series – about half way through first draft. And Black Hare Valley – finished in rough first draft!

As if this wasn’t enough for me, lately I’ve been getting all sorts of small ideas for small pieces, either poetry, flash fiction or short stories. I would be an idiot to ignore these things when they come to me, so of course I have been writing them down, and would you know it, a new story/poetry collection is already emerging. In the spirit of adding to this collection I recently asked my Facebook page followers to suggest writing prompts to me. I have a pinned post and people have made some amazing and enticing suggestions.

I went with one about an ordinary day becoming an endless day and I had so many different ideas for how to do this, that I have the start of a few different stories I may pursue later. One started off as a post-apocalyptic thing but started going off on a tangent that didn’t fit with the endless day theme. The one I went with actually started life last week as a short story about an adult’s memories of the monsters that lurked at the end of her grandmother’s garden. I will finish that one, but parts of that then grew into a different story about an endless day. I am nearly at the end of it and I will publish it here and on my blog at the end of this month before asking for more ideas from people.

It might sound utterly mad to be adding to my writing workload, but I love playing around with different writing formats, genres and ideas, so it’s impossible to say no. I also think that asking my small but lovely group of followers to make suggestions is a great way to connect with them and involve them in the process. It’s basically asking for writing prompts and choosing the best one each month to respond to!

I should have the finished story for you next week, but in the mean time maybe you would like to make some suggestions for my August challenge? Any ideas welcome! Just leave them in the comments. Maybe a story title, a phrase or sentence or piece of dialogue, images, a certain character or even lyrics from a song.

Thank you for reading, see you next week!