July 2018
Winner: Jennifer Riddalls - Yaffle (read it below)

June  2018
Winner: Kier Hull - Mr Caper's Children

May 2018
Winner: Sarah AlcockThe Manor 

April 2018
Winner: W R Daniel - Sympathy and The Devil

March 2018
Winner: Louise Taylor - The Thin Places
Runner-up: The Not-so-human Soul - Rick Limentani

February 2018
Winner: Mary Prior - United 

January 2018
Winner: Doors & Creature - Snickerdoodle
Also shortlisted:
Lucy Underhill - Run
Shaun Baines - To Cheshire, With Love

November/December 2017
Winner: Doors & Creature - A Creature
Runner-up: Airen Lang - Andrew

October 2017: Anna Haldane - The Silver Whisper
September 2017:  Olivia Dunnett - Whistling Monster
August 2017: John McNorvell - Christmas Present
July 2017: Annalisa Crawford - The Fear of Ghosts

Read Jennifer Riddalls' winning story below. Think you can do better? Then subscribe monthly - or pay a one-off entry fee - and send us YOUR story:

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June 2017
Winner : Valentine Williams - Get Away From The Window!
Gone Fishing (Caleb Stephens) - illustration by M R Jeffery copyright (c) 2018
Also shortlisted :
Jerry Ibbotson - 97 Seconds
Caleb Stephens - Gone Fishing
C.R. Berry - Ery Mai's Dream

You can read previous winners in our very first issue of Dark Tales right up to Volume 16:

Click here for Volume 16
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Click here for Volume XV

Click here for Volume XIV
Click here for Volume XIII

Whistling Monster - illustration by M R Jeffery

by Jennifer Riddalls

Last Friday, on the day I’d been planning to end my life, an owl appeared in our garden. I stared at it for a full minute and wondered if it was real. Had it come for me, this feathered grim reaper? Behind me, Gerard shuffled into our little conservatory. 

Without turning, I could picture the tea tray in his hand, the tea slopping dangerously close to the edge as he stepped over the doorframe, the white rose swaying in the amber bud vase. The same. Every time. Our days were a comforting drudge that sloped along in time to the dripping tap in the kitchen. The owl, that was new.

‘What ...’ he began, before seeing it too... ‘oh.’ We stood still together and he mimicked my thoughts, as if combined we were less than two people. ‘How strange, I’ve never seen one in daylight or so close... ever.’

Our visitor was perched on our ancient whirligig, which leaned drunkenly, a carousel of rusty pole and sagging string. Forgotten pegs dangled upside down, like little dismembered birds' feet suspended in the air. He was a sentry on top, so still he might have been stuffed, yet there was nothing for him to guard but a crumbling shed and well-loved flower beds. He wore his cloak of tan and black flecked feathers with pride. Only a patch of white downy tufts on his puffed chest were restless in the breeze as they agitated at the cruel curve in his hooked beak. Burnt orange eyes glared at us, like dying embers in a fire. His face markings were dominated by lines like eyebrows pointing severely down into a professor’s frown. He stared through our blown PVC windows, condensation miring his view. Did he even see us?

‘Isn’t he marvellous?’ Gerard said.

‘Yes, stunning,’ I said. I didn’t say, I think he might be Death.

‘Afraid I must put this down.’ Gerard broke the spell when he moved off towards the table. I moved toward Gerard but didn’t take my gaze from the owl. He was making small jerky head movements to follow me for each step, a predatory motion. The skin on the back of my neck crawled as fingers of autumn air seeped in through the old windows and made me shiver.

‘Look,’ said Gerard, ‘his head is moving just like the turret on a tank. You’re firmly in his crosshairs.’ He chuckled, always thinking of the army. I frequently joke that Gerard never really retired.

‘You and tanks,’ I said, my voice laced with a fondness I didn’t feel.

‘You seem good today dear. Best you’ve been in yonks,’ he said and picked up his book.

He was right. I was moving more normally and the pain was much more bearable than usual, though possibly because I thought I would end it that day. Good didn’t cover it, I couldn’t even remember what that was, but certainly it was a better day than most. Thanks to the marvel of the internet, I knew what was coming for me. After the diagnosis, I’d decided the point I’d check out, on my own terms, while it was still possible. That point had been a month ago and every day I gave it just one more day. Ironically, I didn’t feel like I had the energy to go through with it, until a few days ago.

‘Probably all the sleep you’ve been getting after all those bloody squirrels copped it. You may have our new friend to thank for that. Even that yappy mutt from number 16 didn’t kick off last night. He’s spooked everything into order.’

I smiled, remembered all the bits of squirrel tail blowing round the garden like dandelion wishes. The whole squirrel clan had been shredded up, even the little baby ones. Gerard thought a fox had been at them but an owl made more sense. It could have picked them off as they skittered out of our eaves and down the electricity wire. Even the pest-man had failed to get rid of the rodents. When he went up there they’d all escaped and simply chewed their way back in again a few days later. As if recalling a past life, belonging to someone else, I remembered that once they’d been my favourite creatures. Gradually I’d come to loathe them. Their constant scratching and gnawing had kept me awake for months.

My eyes stayed on the bird. ‘You’re right. No wonder he’s hanging around, he’s waiting for more squirrels.’ I directed this mainly to myself, as I knew I wouldn’t get much out of Gerard. ‘Hmmmm,’ was his delayed, automatic, response. He was completely lost in reading, something about the Falklands I think, using his amazing ability to single-task to the exclusion of all else. Every day his tea cools completely untouched. I re-heat it and replace it when he is 20 minutes into his book – that’s when he sets the book down and drinks all his tea. The same. Every time. Would he miss that when I’m gone?

There was a faint horrible smell creeping into the room. It couldn’t have been coming from the owl and yet that was my first thought. I got up and banged the window, hard. Harder than I'd usually be able to. His head jerked back a little, but he didn’t fly off. Disturbed, Gerard put his book down and drank his tea while it was still hot. ‘Is he getting to you love? Why don’t we give him a name, see if that makes him seem friendlier?’

‘What if it’s a she? Whatever it is, it’s making me feel uneasy.’ I felt like I’d seen the bird before. Summoned him, a voice whispered in my head. ‘Why won’t he fly away?’

‘See, you said he again. Let’s call him Yaffle, like the little bird in Bagpuss – remember him?’

‘Yaffle!’ I smiled, it was appropriate, though somehow it made him seem worse. A voodoo word. Yaffle... snaffle. ‘Can you smell something rotten? It’s getting stronger.’

Gerard shook his head and concentrated on his tea. The smell reminded me of walking through the plastic screen at the butchers. The stench of raw meat had always made me feel sick. It had something to do with the owl. I had to get closer.

I left the conservatory and deliberately didn’t look at Yaffle. Where would he look now? I got to the kitchen but before I reached the back door I heard a loud screech. He was agitated that I’d left. I heard a tea cup smash against tiles back in the conservatory.

‘Damn it,’ Gerard said. ‘Bloody bird.’

The tap dripped in the sink beside me, a slow thunk, thunk-thunk like flies against glass. The bolt on the outside door slid across uneasily. I used my fingertips to slowly push the back door open. For a second, I saw Yaffle before he saw me and there was a panic in the way his eyes darted back and forth across the conservatory windows. I caught Yaffle’s gaze again and he seemed to relax. Slowly, his eyes left mine and he looked to the ground. I followed his gaze and a little squeak sparked off in my throat.

On the back door step, a small dog, dead. Its insides were peeking out. I glimpsed purplish intestines - a coil of fat, lifeless worms. One of its back legs was snapped, the bone black with congealed blood and raspberry ripple strings of tissue keeping it attached to the body. I felt numb yet not surprised, as if I’d seen this before. I looked back at Yaffle. His head was tilted to the side as if stretching his neck out. He waited for me to understand.

I did, slowly. This dog, I’d wished it dead. Every night we heard it, two houses along, barking stupidly at nothing. Yesterday, I’d watched it being walked past our front driveway and it had stopped, back legs quivering as it squatted and left its stinking business behind. I’d day dreamed about getting out, slipping it rat poison, wrapped in meat. Then I’d had a better idea, involving an axe and strength I didn’t have. Yaffle ducked his head down and released his huge wings and lifted up into the air, reeling away to the fields behind our house.

‘Bloody hell, what’s that?’ Gerard, behind me in the kitchen, staring at the dog, puzzled. Disgusted.

Together, we cleaned it up. We agreed the owner would blame us, cause a fuss. He wouldn’t see straight Gerard had put it, glancing at me nervously, equal parts delighted and suspicious at my new found energy. He’d looked at me with revulsion, for God’s sake leave it June, and his eyes widened with a twitch of fear when I’d pulled some of those plump bits of offal out of the dog’s belly and left them drooping, dripping from the whirly, an offering. Nevertheless, he had dutifully transferred body to bin bag and tossed the lot. I even managed to get down to scrub the patio but forgot to change out of my faded blue slippers. They were last year’s disappointing anniversary present, now spattered with murky blood and I smiled as I pushed them into the bin.

Later, I stood in the hallway, hidden in shadow and watched Gerard haul out my cracked welly boots from the boot basket in the kitchen. He examined the still-sticky mud and the hairy lumps of dark red jelly mottling the boots he hadn’t seen me use in over a year. Saw his shoulders drop a fraction under the new weight of realisation. I bared my teeth at him in the dark and waited to see if he still loved me. He did. Like a good soldier, he cleaned them and said nothing.

Now, a week later, I sit outside with Yaffle while Gerard poresover his Reader’s Digest book about British birds, making notes. I see him put the book down to focus on his tea, raising the cup slowly to his pursed and waiting slug-wet lips, and I look away. I try not to watch, or listen, when he drinks tea. The same way, every time. I try not to imagine the cup smashing in his hands, porcelain lodging in his bad knee, blood dripping onto tile. Not Gerard, Yaffle, not yet.

But I know we need something bigger, to absorb some more of my pain. It’s creeping back in. I go outside, feed him strands of bacon dangled from my grease-shined fingers, his hooked beak twisting round to snatch the strands. Behind the double glazing Gerard watches warily over his book, his eyes wide, eyebrows pushing up at the perspiration on his wrinkled brow. ‘Should you be doing that, dear?’ he calls weakly from the safety of the house. I ignore him and Yaffle lets me stroke his soft wing with the back of my little finger. Velvet and silk all at once, so soft I can barely feel a thing. I whisper a thank you. Nothing the same, ever again.

Copyright (c) Jennifer Riddalls 2019

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