This is our second microfiction challenge.
– Write a 300-word story
– Write a crime story, or a story on the theme of shadows, or just write any darned story you’d like
– Send it to me by Thursday night and we’ll post it along with all the others on our website.
– Then post it on your own LinkedIn feed on Friday, 9am BST.
– Use the #microfiction hashtag and tag me into the post if you like.
This is Not A Drill
I didn’t anticipate this.
I’d heard the stories of squash plants being vicious, but I thought that was just they can be a bit spikey. These are something else. Something worse. Much, much worse.
I knew that they were more exotic. I ordered them from Amazon. Yes, I know it’s a big corp and all that, but this company was a small independent seller. Quirky. The seeds looked normal, the leaves looked the right shape, all be it much quicker growing than others I’ve grown before. But it’s the way it grows, and creeps. It’s not right. The spikes on the leaves are not spikes , they are spines. And they are malevolent. The leaves watch you. I tried cutting back a few, and I swear it knew. As soon as I got near it with the secateurs, the wind blew, and the leaves raised into a barricade. Like a Roman army wall of shields. I retreated, and the leaves went flat again. Then there is the rustling. It’s like they are talking to each other, planning, scheming.
It’s not just me imagining things. The birds won’t go down there anymore. They just sit on the fence glaring at it. They don’t sing songs anymore, just the occasional nervous chatter to warn others not to enter. Next door’s cat went in, and hasn’t come out. He was on his usual patrol yesterday, went in and I heard him hiss. And I waited, and waited, but no sign of him. Come to think of it, I’ve not seen the tabby from up the road for a while. The dog just sits by the back door and whines. He won’t go out there anymore. He knows. Dogs always know of impending doom.
I can’t stop it. I booked a gardener next week. I hope it’s not too late. It’s not my usual gardener, I wouldn’t do that to him. This one seemed more up to the task. He said he’s used to hardcore garden clearance. He advertises that he can obliterate Japanese knotweed, so he should have the right sort of stuff. I wonder if a flame thrower might be more apt than chemicals though. It is just him – a one man army against the weeds. Or whatever it is glaring back from the end of the garden. Maybe I should warn him to bring reinforcements.
Jo Martin, The Grammar Mamma
The Monster in the Garden
The high-pitched scream came from the garden, startling Lucy.
She dropped her magazine and ran towards the screaming. As she reached the garden, she met her 3-year-old daughter, Ivy.
“Mummy, mummy!” said Ivy, a little out of breath.
“What is it, sweetie?” asked Lucy, crouching down and putting her hands on Ivy’s shoulders, to try and calm her down.
“There’s…there’s a monster in the garden.”
“Okay,” said Lucy, relieved at the explanation for her daughter’s screams. “Let’s go take a look.”
Lucy took Ivy’s hand and the pair stepped out into the garden.
“Where did you see the monster?” asked Lucy.
“Ermmmm, over there by the shed,” said Ivy.
“You wait here and I’ll go check.” Lucy tiptoed up to the wooden shed and peered around the side. “Nothing here,” she called out to Ivy.
“I think we scared it off.”
Ivy looked relieved.
“Come on, let’s go inside,” said Lucy, looking up at the overcast sky. “I think it’s going to rain.”
After lunch, when the rain had stopped and the sun had reappeared, Ivy nervously went back out into the garden. This time, she took her mummy with her.
They played Ivy’s favourite game – hide ‘n’ seek – and it was Lucy’s turn to hide first.
Ivy stood with her hands over her eyes and counted slowly from one to 10. Then said: “Ready or not, here I come!”
She looked in all the places she usually hid. Where else could her mummy be? As Ivy approached the shed, the scary monster reappeared and she screamed her loudest scream.
Lucy flung open the shed door. “What? What is it, darling?”
“Scary monster!” Ivy wailed, pointing at the shed.
Lucy turned and looked where Ivy was pointing. “Oh, sweetie,” she said, picking Ivy up and giving her a cuddle. “That’s just your shadow.”
Katie Murray, Dolphin HR
Before you knew
It moves when Mummy moves, but it isn’t Mummy.
Some days it’s long and thin. Other days it’s short and fat.
Yesterday it was in front of her, but today it’s behind her.
I wonder what “it” is?
It doesn’t have her face. It’s just grey.
Not always the same grey though.
Dark grey, light grey, or sometimes it isn’t there at all.
When it’s there, it goes everywhere she goes. But then it’s gone.
Daddy has one too. And me. And the trees sometimes.
But what “is” it?
“Are you ok, darling?”
“What were you looking at?”
“That”. I point to the grey splodge (It’s dark grey now).
“No. That.” I’m pointing again, but it’s moved.
“No, the grey thing. What’s the grey thing, Mummy?”
“What grey thi… Oh, you mean Mummy’s shadow”.
“Yes, the shadow.”
“What’s a shadow?”
Joelle Byrne, JoelleByrne.com
I languidly depressed the brake as the traffic light blinked to red. The crossroads lay empty ahead of me, the walking signals doing their reliable waltz, comforting in steady synchronicity. I took a drag of my cigarette and watched the long, lucent exhale disappear towards the stars.
The shadows were deep across the stone facade of the facing church. The up-light illuminated the clock tower, seeming to cast judgement on the late hour and bringing scrutiny from the frieze of petrified angels’ looking ominously down on me.
I suppressed a shudder.
A nauseous anxiety sat in my stomach, roiling in time with the vacillating wiper-blades. I was choking down the urge to vomit when a black saloon sped through the junction.
The car banked hard and careened around the bend, it’s full-beam attention landing on me.
I closed my eyes and froze.
Had I done enough; hid the hysteria from my eyes in the store, shoved the mud-encrusted boots deep enough into that skip?
My brain throbbed; a stream of unabating questions running through my terrified mind. Should I have wrapped differently, dug deeper, driven further?
I adjusted my grip on the steering wheel. The incessant rain on the moor, coupled with the interminable digging had made my hands sore and blistered.
Was this it? Was I caught?
Then as quickly as it had arrived, the car continued on, increasing its distance and leaving the crossroads silent again. The only evidence of its passing, a carmine-hew on my eyelids, as its brake lights reflected in the rearview mirror.
The traffic lights blinked a reassuring viridescence and I flicked the final glowing ember of my cigarette from the car window. I let out the breath I’d been holding and pressed down hard on the accelerator.
‘Shit, that was close,’ I thought.
Jon Gregson, Weightmans
Someone at Caedis&Co
Someone in the Law Practice industry
All viewed your profile
Stefan closed LinkedIn. That was enough strangers for today. There were enough on the train. Not least the guy next to him. He looked like a lawyer. Too much detail. Taking it all in. But on a Sunday? Hmm who cared…
Stefan had somewhere to be. An earlier flight meant an earlier train home to Tanya. As the train left he text. Almost straightaway she messaged back, “No, don’t come till 1900”.
Confusion spread across his face. “Why? It’s more time together.” He wasn’t expecting that. It’d been three weeks.
Again Tanya was instant “No, 1900. It’ll be worth it. Promise xx”
Unsure if it was the tilt of the train, unease begin to rise in Stefan’s stomach. He couldn’t leave it. “Why not before 19:00? Who’s there?” He hated himself but he’d been on this train before.
One blue tick. Two. Then nothing.
It was 18:08 when Stefan arrived at Tanya’s apartment.
He tried the handle. It opened silently. Unusual.
He saw her legs first. Across the bottom of the bed. The rest of Tanya covered with a sheet up to her neck. But the horror of the scene was clear. She was dead. Shock frozen on her face.
Stefan realised. She hadn’t not wanted him here. She had wanted to protect him.
Panic set in. Who? Why? Stefan reached for his phone to call for help.
Doing so, he noticed a shadow in the corner of the room. Before he could react, the shadow swung down and the darkness consumed him. As Stefan’s head came to rest on the floor and his eyes started to closed he read his last words on the business card that landed in front of him… Caedis&Co.
You can’t see me, but I can see you. Every step along the street.
The streetlamps shine onto the damp pavement, but they only highlight the darkness beyond the glow.
A few people make their way from pub to club, but she pays no heed to laughing groups and loved-up couples
Her shift is over, she’s on her way to the bus station and home.
She crosses the road at the park and steps through the gate. Going around adds an extra ten minutes to the walk, and that’s ten minutes she doesn’t have if she wants to make the last bus.
She passes a small grove of trees, then looks to her right as a figure lunges towards her.
She screams, but it is cut short. A strangulated prayer to the gods of the darkness.
She isn’t going down without a fight though. Her assailant swears as she rakes him with her nails.
He reaches into his coat pocket and as he does so, glass connects with bone. A bottle hits his head and smashes. The man drops to the ground in a pool of red wine.
She looks down at her unconscious attacker. By his hand lies a knife. Slowly her gaze shifts up to me. I kick the knife off to one side and offer her a hand up.
‘I saw him follow you when you left the pub. Fortunately, he was so busy tailing you he didn’t notice me tailing him. At the park he went onto the grass so that you wouldn’t hear his footsteps on the gravel, and I lost him for a bit. Sorry. Hang on a sec, I’m just going to call the police. Are you alright, by the way? My name’s Simon. I bought that wine to bring to a party.’
Jo Watson, Agoodwriteup
With the limited function she still possessed in her right hand, she brushed the cat hair hastily away from her keyboard, feeling fairly sure that this motion would likely make the mess worse, as the shedded pelt of her one remaining ally forced its way further between the keys of the stolen laptop in front of her.
She felt her stomach lurch and her shoulders slump as the screen settled into life, shining a too-bright light to the back of her long since joyful eyes. Should she find herself being watched from outside her window, the flicker from the harshly lit screen would surely cast a foreboding shadow of a figure behind and slightly to the right of her on the dimly illuminated kitchen wall. Though it was evidence of her own attendance, the shadow was more fearful than any other darkness that could ever possibly follow her or cross her path. It was an almost constant reminder that she had become her own enemy, and the reason she likely wouldn’t make it through the night.
The email was not one that she wanted to send, and the document she attached was not one she thought – or believed – she’d ever have to think about again, since… well. But, neither time nor choice were on her side.
Within minutes, laptops and phones all over the network would ping into life, alerting their by now surely fast-asleep owners to a notification that they never expected to receive.
How could they? The name on the notification had long since been forgotten.
Forgotten, but never in this world forgiven.
What would happen next would do little to change that.
Sent to all.
Blood splattered across the flickering screen.
Cat hair bedded deeper among the lettered tombstones in its warm, sticky graveyard.
Helen Burness, Saltmarsh (she’s a legal marketing supremo)
Polar nights started in mid-November on Svalbard and lasted for several months.
24/7 hours of darkness and shadows.
But the town and its people carried on as usual. Working, shopping, walking their dogs and meeting up in the floodlit town square. They built fires in their cabins and generally enjoyed feeling cosy and protected on their little archipelago. They often came together to watch the spectacular Northern Lights on clear evenings, and drank nips of Cognac from Ny-Ålesund made with iceberg water.
Residents loved the raw, artic wilderness of Svalbard. It was a happy place. A safe place.
There had been a spate of disappearances. A pattern which could not be ignored.
Every time the residents gathered to view the Northern Lights, someone on Svalbard would inexplicably go missing the day after.
Once was odd. Twice – unsettling. Now the third person had disappeared without a trace, the island’s few police offices were alerted.
Was it a polar bear? Silent avalanche or mudslides claiming lives? Or just unhappy coincidence?
The Governor made a decision and asked for a taskforce of townspeople to search through the endless nights of shadows for any clues. They met up at midday on the Saturday, armed with flashlights and rescue dogs, determined to get to the bottom of the disappearances.
Freydis planned to join. But she knew exactly where those three people lay. At the bottom of of the Svéa glacier, where they eventually become frozen into its structure and remain undetected for hundreds of years.
She smiled to her neighbours in the town square as she contemplated her perfect crime.
It was a clear evening tonight as well.
Sarah Burgess – LinkedIn career coach
The new eye shadows were incredible.
Bright, colourful, glittery, but he has no money.
Could he? Should he?
They’re so small and nobody is looking.
They’d slip in without anyone seeing for sure.
Is anyone watching him?
That security guard has been following him since he came into the store.
Everyone thinks he’s a criminal. It’s so unfair.
His Mum has bright coloured hair and all she gets is “your hair is so cool”. It is, but that’s not the point.
His hair is way cooler, but people stare at him all the time.
Sometimes people cross the street to avoid him. Yesterday a woman drove her mini into a ditch she was staring so hard.
He really needs those eye shadows. What should he do?
His thoughts drift off to a frequent annoyance – why are all the bright and unusual things are in the girls section?
Why can’t the cool clothes be made in all sizes? He’s seen a great pair of hot pink cargo trousers. Probably the size 16 will fit him. But he needs to try them on. Again having the sales assistant judging him.
He actually doesn’t care. He likes them, why shouldn’t he wear them?
Angry with the system, he looks around again. Nobody is looking, he’s sure of it. His heart is racing and he knows he’s sweating.
He discreetly gets them off the shelf and they’re in. He heads out of the shop, crosses the road and waits for his Mum.
That was quick he said. Yeah, I used the scan and go Mum said.
Shit. Has he made Mum a criminal? She always uses a tote whilst shopping and empties it at the till for scanning.
His plan was she’d see them, know he’d cheekily put them in and pay her later.
Charlotte Sheridan – Director – Quokka Agency and Founder of The Small Biz Expert
She startled awake, the voices piercing the silence in her mind once more.
They dripped their venomous whispers into her mind.
She named them “The Shadows”.
Was it her fault? Had she roused them? Was her sleep-deprived mind responsible for beckoning them, much like a Satanist might invoke the devil?
No, she was convinced. These shadows approached unbidden, their ominous murmurs softly filling her ears.
Fragmented whispers of “death”, “blood”, and “destruction” chilled her to the bone.
In the dark stillness, she lay. Watching the creeping silhouettes on the walls matching the ones in her mind.
The voices were rising. She knew there was only a single way to silence them, but the thought of diving into such a dark place terrified her.
She shifted, her gaze settling on the slumbering figure beside her. Could she take that drastic step to quiet the haunting tones of the shadows?
Could she bear the subsequent guilt and repercussions?
He would fight. He was stronger than her. Did she stand a chance?
Now, the voices seemed more distant, their words carried as if by a gust. “Husband, murder, prison.”
She understood her choice. It had never truly been a choice, more a compulsion.
With utmost care, she lifted the pillow from beneath his unsuspecting head.
Then, with swift determination… she struck…
“Babe… babe… wakeup – The Alexa is on the blink again, and it’s playing your True Crime Podcast, can you go down and turn it off”.
He watched her from across the grand hall with its parquet flooring strewn with the candy coloured mess of party poppers and confetti. He watched her pretending. Pretending to fuss over her bridesmaids, pretending to love the next song the DJ played.
Playing them all, all of the people here tonight.
If he could detach himself from the ghastly situation for just a snatch of time he could admire her commitment to her craft, admire her deception at every turn, her utterly perfect portrayal of a sweet natured young woman, weary but happy at the end of her wedding day. Laughing and so very, very calm.
He could hear a voice somewhere in his head rolling out the old line ‘she should be on the stage’. Should be in prison more like, he thought, with a grimace. Immediately the nausea returned.
He could still leave, leave all the madness behind, grab his car keys and be off winding down the country roads until he was far away from this place. He could still do anything else but this, anything.
But then, without warning, she was suddenly striding towards him. He felt hot and cold at the same time and slightly faint as unwanted excitement snaked in to meet his fear. She raised one eyebrow and smiled right at him, right into him.
It was like something had come loose inside him and he knew he would do her bidding, whatever she wanted. Just like what people said about following Nazi orders. He had no choice because he would do whatever she wanted him to do and they both knew it.
It was time and there was absolutely nothing he could do. The music seemed to slow down like an old walkman when the batteries were running low, a hellish sound like a carnival gone wrong. He reached into his pocket. It had begun.
Simon Marshall Ingredient X
“It is fennel?”
“Is it cardamom?”
“Is it caraway?”
“It is not caraway seeds, no.”
“I don’t bloody know then,” Barry sulked.
Why did they always have to do this, he wondered. Why not just sit at the table and eat a meal and look at their phones like normal families? But no, just because his mum had had some god-awful childhood, she took her trauma out on Barry and Jess through these tedious parlour games.
“Is it Nigella seeds?”
“Haha! Nope. I won’t have that woman ruin my pie”
“They’re not named after Nigella, you know.”
“They are in this house. I can’t stand that woman. Why can’t she just cook like Delia does? Why is it all like some sexy phone line thing?”
Barry didn’t want to hear this. He didn’t want to know what a sexy phone line was. This never happened at Terry’s house. He started humming Dancing Queen to himself. He glanced to his left and saw Mum’s grin widen even further. Jess’s eyes crinkled as she mouthed the word “sexy”, and even grumpy old Dad chuckled and shook his head a little.
Was this really his family? He never seemed to get the joke. He had blonde hair, they were all mousy brown. He had blue eyes, yet theirs were dark chestnut. He liked Pop and ABBA, they liked indie and The Killers. They laughed, whilst he agonised.
Sometimes he wondered was he even…
“I know it,” Barry exploded “I know what your dirty little secret is.”
Their smiles fled and Mum gave Dad a furtive glance that told Barry he’d correctly worked it all out.
“There is no bloody extra spice in this pie!” he shouted.
“Haha! Brilliant,” said Mum, her eyes darting to Dad one last time.
Louise Frost The Day-to-Day.
Lent on the railings on the promenade. Looking out to sea with the growing warmth of the early sun lighting my face from the east.
The cloudbank of daybreak was ebbing away and dispersing with each passing moment. The secrets of the night being unveiled as the dawn haze retreats. Night’s invisible and often solitary denizens slipped from sight, the overt brightness of the day illuminating the evidence of their presence.
Notebook and pen in hand. Because I’d seen him. Seen what he was doing and had to stop.
I had to write. How could I not?
Seeing him has given me pause for thought. More than that in fact. He’d given me pause to feel. And to feel deeply.
He was alone, as much as any of us are. Physically separate, disregarded, passed by, overlooked by those, like him, going about their day-to-day.
But I’d stopped. How could I not?
Stopped and observed and broken down. Laid bare in the moment. How could he know that by his actions, I was nearly in tears.
In that moment of fragility, I felt it all. The vastness of the sea stretching beyond my comprehension, too far for me to see, to understand the scope of something so familiar and unassuming. Then reel that back in, the vastness of the sea but then me. A speck, a mote, a minute trace of humanity within the wealth of the world, the universe.
How could this man, on this morning, transform me to this near ethereal consciousness before all too quickly slamming me hard back into the ground. My heart and body too tangible now whilst my mind still resides in peace in that near-divine momentary bliss.
I cannot say and you should not ask, how this all came to pass.
Andy Smyth Keeping a secret
A secret is a secret because you don’t tell anyone else what it is – right?
Often, a secret is underpinned by a threat. My threat was real enough that’s for sure.
I’d left the evidence in clear sight, so ‘She who must be obeyed’ would see it. Just how she’ll react? God knows.
Anyway, before I I discovered whether the threat was real, I decided to scarper and head into town, fortunately the Gardner appeared to plug in the mower allowing my escape.
Called at Rusty’s place on the way to see if he was up for an adventure, but apparently not. Regardless, continued strolling into town, taking in the sounds, smells and all of it.
Noisy, smells of beer, food, urine and vomit assailed my nostrils.
But I was hungry, so went on the prowl for food. What to have? Curry, Chinese, Kebab, Pizza? Decided to follow my nose to direct me to the best place, which turned out to be the Kebab place on the high street.
I feasted out there and, reluctantly, decided it was time to go home and face the music related to my secret. So, that’s what I did.
She was back. Door ajar. Neighbours gathered. About to report me missing. Then I showed up.
Well. Amazed by the response and warm welcome, surely not deserved? I kept silent.
Then everyone disappeared. Now then. Holding my breath, waiting for my impending punishment.
Just me and her behind closed doors…
But no. “I’m sorry babes, I left you for too long on your own”.
Thank goodness for that. I didn’t mean to poop on the kitchen floor, but needs must and all that.
After all, I’m just a dog.
Neil Smith End of the line.
‘You can’t, I’m afraid. He passed away some years ago.’
The words were soft, spoken quietly, but they hit me like a train. Irresistible, inescapable, battering my ears and echoing around my head.
I mumble something, can’t remember what, then stand blinking and silent in the cold, urine-scented phone box. The voice speaks again but I miss it this time. Returning to the moment, with some difficulty, I force out the words,
‘I’m sorry, I didn’t hear what you said.’
She spoke again,
‘Are you alright, son? Can I help you with anything?’
‘No. It’s too late now. I was trying to find my dad. I’ve been looking for him. I wanted to ask him something.’
‘Oh, dear!’ Now it was her turn for the long pause. Then she broke the silence. ‘Do you need a hand? Is there something I can do?’
‘No. Thanks. You’re fine. I’m all done.’
I hang up the receiver and lean my head against the payphone. Rain dribbles down the glass panels and the wind blows a couple of stray, brown leaves around my shoes. A secret revealed had brought me to this place, but it turned out to be a dead-end.
I shiver in the cold, then straighten up, take the returned coins from the change drawer, and put them back in my pocket.
And then comes yet another pause. My hand is against the door but it’s not certain that I am ready to leave my pissy cocoon and re-enter the world. The November weather isn’t encouraging and there’s nothing for me here, in this empty, dark town.
Finally, the spell breaks.
I push against the stiff door and take a hesitant step out into the murky glow of the little town square and an unknowable future.