Winner: Charlotte Kelly - 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 Charlotte's winning story below. Think you can do better? Then subscribe monthly - or pay a one-off entry fee - and send us YOUR story:
Winner : Valentine Williams - Get Away From The Window!
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:
by Charlotte Kelly
It was back, God knows she wished it wasn’t, but there it was, skulking.
She had become aware of its sighing and muttering around two weeks ago, although there was nothing to see. She’d done her best to ignore the signs. She’d hoped that things would work themselves out, and that it would move along.
But after a few days of its oppressive presence, her nerves began to wear thin. On Monday, as she sat at the bench in her apartment picking at a plate of spaghetti, she noticed its shadow falling across the floor in the hall. She put down her fork and glowered in its direction.
On Wednesday morning she was sitting at her desk, staring miserably into space, when a movement jolted her out of her torpor - she gasped in shock – it was walking calmly through the office.
Her line manager, irritated by the noise, tutted crossly. The creature moved steadily onwards and passed out of sight, heading in the direction of the photocopier.
Thursday passed without incident. But a vague dread had budded in Daisy’s mind, and despite the relative calm, she could feel it growing, preparing to bloom.
On Friday she got in from drinks with friends to find it standing expectantly by the chest of drawers. She stopped abruptly in the doorframe. Their eyes met.
It was partially covered in wispy white feathers, which sprouted unevenly from flesh that looked like the quivering surface of a lung - moist pink, blotched with red and purple. It was scrawny, with protruding bones and eyes bulging from a skull-like face. Its whole body continually expanded and contracted as if it was hyperventilating. Totally alien, and yet all too familiar.
~ Hey there buddy, wheezed the creature, overfamiliar, smug.
Daisy was speechless with horror and rage. She held its gaze, but did not speak.
It did not seem perturbed by her silence, running a finger over the chest of drawers as if to check for dust. Daisy caught herself wishing she’d vacuumed. A pink bra hung half out of the top drawer.
It smiled, soft face twisting. ~ Back at ya. That skirt’s charming. You’re all dressed up. Good on you.
Her eyes widened, but she swallowed her fury. “Will you be gracing me with your presence for long?”
It laughed. ~ Hard to know. Out of my hands really.
She sighed. “Well, we have a maximum stay of two weeks, we take cash or credit, the WiFi details are on the modem…”
~ Still masking your feelings with humour I see, it breathed. ~ Well done. By all means keep up the brave face. How’s tricks, Daisy?
“Just peachy, thanks,” she bit back.
Its eyes drifted to her phone, clamped tightly in her hand, and it smirked. ~ Missing someone?
Daisy swallowed a scream of anger and glared pointedly instead. After a few awkward seconds the creature shrugged and wandered off into the shadows of the wardrobe.
Over the weekend its visits became more lingering, and her self-control ebbed. On Sunday night she lost her temper and trapped it in a box and took it down in the lift and flung it onto the street outside.
But after ten minutes or so, she heard the lift doors open again and the room darkened almost imperceptibly, and she knew it had returned.
The following week saw it moving freely through Daisy’s apartment, wandering aimlessly through her office, and trailing behind her at the supermarket. It even showed up to a midweek planning session at her boss’s house, and she could see it snaffling marshmallow bites from the kitchen table while they were brainstorming strategy.
Daisy made an effort to fill her days with good things. Work was a constant inconvenience, but she jogged in the botanical gardens at lunch, or drank milkshake with friends, and the power of the creature lessened slightly. Action is the antidote to despair, she told herself.
The sand was crowded with groups of tattooed, well-built men throwing frisbees or drinking beer; young people on work-holiday visas peeled out of their cafe uniforms and ran straight into the chilly sea. With a month to go till Christmas, summer had come early to Wellington, and the entire city had turned into sun-worshippers overnight.
Daisy and her friend Helen were a small pale outcrop among acres of tanned masculine flesh. “I feel like a great white whale,” muttered Daisy.
“You’re more like a seal,” decided Helen.
Daisy cackled with laughter. “I’ll take that. Graceful, carrying a little weight but still cute, nice eyes…”
The creature was a few feet away, aimlessly digging a hole in the gritty sand. Scrunch, scrunch, scrunch. The sound was quiet, just on the edge of her hearing, but it was there.
“How’s things with Edward?” asked Helen. Daisy shook her head and shrugged, spreading her fingers wide, fighting back a sudden urge to cry.
“Wanker. One minute he’s in love with you, the next he’s ghosted you. Just cut him off.”
“Yeah, maybe,” said Daisy vaguely, staring at a crisp packet blowing about in the breeze.
The sea was cold as they eased their way in. The water sloshed around their feet, their knees and then their hips until they finally took the plunge and submerged their whole bodies, pushing through the pain of the chill until the temperature became bearable. The sea was choppy, and they giggled and gurgled with joy as the large waves rocked them. The central business district looked hazy across the bay, making the buildings nearby seem crisp.
After the swim they dried and dressed, put on jumpers and lipstick, and went to the bar Daisy used to drink in with Edward. They ordered gin with sweet lemony tonic and hot crispy chips. The gin softened the edges of the day, and Daisy unwound in the security of friendship. She was comforted by the peace of knowing that someone was there for her, and would be there next week, and the week after that. But the time passed, and before long she was turning the key in the door to her apartment.
Her housemates were nowhere to be seen. The open-plan space was still warm, retaining some of the heat trapped there during the day by the immense rattly old windows. The white surfaces reflected the dying light.
Her loneliness was overpowering.
She tried to focus her ragged attention span on a book. It was hard going, forcing the stories down one sentence at a time. Raymond Carver’s characters dealt with their drinking problems, sometimes found redemption, sometimes didn’t. Once in a while, she was able to lose herself in the narrative.
The creature stared from the shadows of the wardrobe.
A little after 10pm, it climbed up the bed frame. With a sudden horror she realised it was intending to crawl over the top and onto her feet.
It landed with a damp flop, soft and warm, and began to make its way slowly up her legs. She was paralysed by revulsion, but felt heavy, unable to muster the mental energy to fight.
The creature moved closer until it sat squarely on her stomach. It glistened faintly in the lamplight, eyeballs shining from dark sockets. Its damp and faintly sweaty smell washed over Daisy.
She swallowed her nausea, and affected a casual air. It peered over her laptop. She was on Facebook, which, she realised, may have aggravated it.
~ You can’t ignore me forever, it said. ~ You’ve got yourself into another fine pickle, and there’s nothing to be done. So here I am, and sure seems like I might be here a while. So might make myself comfortable. Help myself to the food in the fridge, though God knows what’s on your shelf doesn’t make much sense, withering courgette and taco shells a month old, you really embracing the single life ay?
Daisy’s fingers twisted in the sheets, but she shrugged calmly. “As you like. I’m sure things will be resolved one way or another soon enough, and then you’ll have to move on.”
~ Ha ha. Soon enough. Yeah, yeah.
“Excuse me?” she asked through gritted teeth.
~ It’s just funny. That you try so hard to forget me. The times we’ve spent together! Remember winter 2014? I moved on soon enough then, ay?
It rocked with mirth.
“This is different.”
~ Yep, okay. Totally different.
She could feel the moisture from its body seeping through the sheet. “I wouldn’t get too comfortable if I were you,” she said, with venom.
~ You’re not fooling even yourself, it said, suddenly serious. ~ I’m right where I need to be.
“We’ll see,” she said evenly.
“Who are you talking to?” called her housemate.
On Saturday she put on her trainers and headed outside. She was training for a race, pushing herself, going slightly further each week. The ritual gave her some peace; her breathing was regulated, dictated by the needs of her body, and her mind was less cramped than at home.
She pattered steadily round the bays in the sunshine, zigzagging past people strolling, eating ice cream, walking dogs. Depeche Mode bleeped and swerved through her headphones as she ticked off the kilometres. Fast going out, but slower on the way back; regular short breaks. Still a way to go until she was ready. The creature was nowhere to be seen.
Even when she got back to the apartment, the coast seemed clear. But she knew better than to think she’d shaken it off for good, and sure enough, after she had stretched and showered and was in the kitchen slicing capsicum for an omelette, she became aware that it was sitting across the counter from her.
~ Hey runner, what are you running from? it whispered, amused.
“Just getting some fresh air, dude,” she sighed, taking eggs out of the fridge and not looking at it. She never looked closely, if she could avoid it.
~ You can’t stay outside forever, you know.
“It would seem not.”
~ Still not heard from Edward ay? asked the creature, as if it had just thought of it, brimming with faux-sympathy. ~ You wouldn’t have thought he’d just leave you hanging, nice boy like that. I for one expected better from that young man.
“I’m going to message him in the week, as you heard me say to Helen. Then I can get some closure.”
~ Closure? And that’ll solve everything? Maybe I’ll be on my way too, ay? It laughed breathily. Daisy was getting flustered. She cracked an egg and fragments of shell landed in the bowl and some of the white oozed down the side and onto her fingers.
“It’s a step in the right direction. I know it’s not a magic bullet,” she snarled, groping for a cloth to wipe the slime off her fingers.
~ Enjoy your endorphins before they wear off completely, I’ll be around.
“Go fuck yourself,” she muttered.
Her housemate walked through with a basket of laundry, looking at Daisy from the corner of her eye.
Somehow Daisy dragged herself through the rest of the weekend. She was finding it difficult to breathe, and even though the sun shone, she didn’t feel like going back outside.
She stared at her reflection in the bathroom mirror, and realised dully that yesterday’s makeup was still smudged under her eyes. Her dark hair hung limp, the style grown out, the ends ratty. She looked tired and sad and unkempt.
She was distracted and irritable at work. She was sleeping badly. She had begun pouring little drinks at night. The creature was wearing her down, sucking the life out of her.
Screw this, she thought.
On Monday morning she walked to work, the creature weaving through her legs like a cat. At her desk she composed and sent Edward a message, asking him to explain himself.
The creature sat behind her screen now, as she forced her distracted brain to perform routine tasks. Flustered by its direct gaze, she mixed up her passwords, made mistakes in emails, bit people’s heads off, and cried briefly in the kitchen.
That evening Edward finally surfaced and told Daisy he wasn’t ready to be in a relationship. The creature sat oozing beside her on the sofa and helped itself to some limoncello. Its pointed silence was worse than any snide remark.
Daisy stared at the message for a bit, then put her phone down, sat back and wondered where she’d gone wrong. At least I know now, she thought, and for the first time in a month, the panic squeezing her chest eased slightly.
After a while she became aware that the creature was fidgeting, which she recognised as a sign of hunger. It occurred to her that its appetite for food was strange, when it seemed that such a fantastical being ought to feed off darkness, despair and the like.
“Why do you eat so much? Aren’t you just a damn metaphor?” she asked it.
~ I may be a metaphysical creature. But I’m still a creature, it said. ~ You don’t understand me because you can’t face me. But I go by my own laws.
“Is that so?”
~ I contain multitudes.
“Very articulate tonight, hmm?” she sighed. It smiled and performed a little mock-bow.
She picked up a book, stared at it for a minute, and put it down again. She got up and wandered around the empty apartment. The sky was darkening, but still pale where it met the hills on the horizon. A cluster of indigo clouds drifted slowly over the houses in the distance. Tinsel shone on the Christmas tree. Traffic noises drifted up and in through the open window.
She turned and looked at the thing on the couch, which sat demurely, meeting her gaze. And she realised it was right. There would be no escaping its claustrophobic presence. She couldn’t force it away. She had to accept it, and wait for it to leave of its own accord.
So this is my life, for now, she wrote in her diary. I won’t distract myself with a billion hobbies or fill up my evenings with dates. We’re going to sit here, just the two of us, until I’ve got the better of it, till it becomes an old and boring acquaintance. I’ll make it comfortable. The creature will eat well in my house. I might teach it card games to pass the time. Can you imagine?!
We’ll live here like hermits until the end of the year. I’ll go for long runs and read and pour myself drinks. And in the New Year, I’ll make a plan.
Copyright (c) Charlotte Kelly 2018