Winner: Doors & Creature - Snickerdoodle
Lucy Underhill - Run
Shaun Baines - To Cheshire, With Love
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 Doors & Creature'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 Doors & Creature
Jackie said things like ‘son of a gun’ and ‘Jiminy Cricket’ instead of swearing, being a godfearing woman. She didn’t approve of strong language, so when she wanted to express herself, she had to get creative.
We used to write down the best ones. “’Fraggle rock’ is my favourite,” said Mavis as we waited for the kettle to boil.
“’Shitake mushrooms’ is up there though,” I replied. “Very imaginative.”
Jackie had long dark hair and wide brown eyes and wore brightly coloured wrap dresses and shoes with small sensible heels. She spoke loudly, with something that sounded like confidence. She’d been round and round the world and she had not changed the world and the world had not changed her.
“Does she dream them up herself, or does she get them from a website?”
“Perhaps she gets one in her inbox daily.”
“More than daily, surely, she’s had four this morning.”
“A daily round-up, then. A digest, if you will.”
Now she was here, in this office with us, and increasingly out of her depth. Her to-do list was growing at such a rate it seemed in danger of tripping her up. The word was that she didn’t fit in with the new values-based approach, whatever that was. She was stressed, and we all knew it.
“The worse her day, the more often she resorts to her repertoire of inane phrases,” remarked Mavis, pouring boiled water into the coffee pot.
“I’ve lately observed not only an increase in Jackie’s classics, but an associated rise in volume, pitch, and sheer violence of emphasis.”
“Jackie’s Classics sounds like a crap compilation CD.”
“In a bargain bin.”
“In a service station.”
They were tired, savage times, and rather than coping by sticking together, we had started to break apart.
Wednesday was the day things started to change. It was raining and we were all in a very long meeting. I was doodling flamingos in my notebook while Mavis was emailing her mum on her phone and trying to make it look like a work thing. Then we were suddenly asked to brainstorm ways to streamline our output, whatever that meant.
“This is a safe space! Just shout it out!” smiled the boss, standing in front of a flipchart and waving a marker pen around.
“We could reimagine our marketing strategy,” suggested Jackie. The boss looked at her patronisingly. Everyone cringed.
“We could re-brand our… visuals?” improvised Sam, to fill the awkward pause.
“We could brick up the windows, to stop people getting distracted,” said Dennis. The boss looked thoughtful.
“Why don’t we change all the charts in the office from bar charts to pie charts?” said Mavis brightly.
“Great idea!” said the boss. “Really fresh thinking, Mavis. That will align really well with our new values-based approach. The only problem is it needs to be done today, before the board meeting tomorrow. Jackie, can you take the lead on this?”
She was already drowning, but how could Jackie say no? She smiled queasily. She emerged from the meeting fraught and tight-lipped and collapsed on her chair. Mavis and I waited for today’s phrase so we could add it to the spreadsheet.
“Snickerdoodle!” was what emerged.
And as it did she noticed a gritty texture in her mouth, an earthy taste, she said. She frowned and ran her tongue over her teeth and swallowed, and there were definitely crumbs, or bits of soil, slipping down her throat, she said.
I caught Mavis’s eye. We thought we recognised the signs. The writing was on the wall. The chips were down. A victim had been selected. Mavis looked a little guilty at her part in it.
The next thing was Jackie started complaining her computer keyboard was dirty. She bought hygienic wipes and gave it a thorough cleaning. But by the end of the day the grime was back.
She turned it upside down and what looked like the contents of a seed tray rattled onto the desk.
The next day was the same. Her desk looked grubby and her keyboard kept jamming, clogged up with dust and little stones. “Where is it coming from?” she asked in despair.
In the days that followed she started wearing bright varnish to disguise the dirt that had begun to clog her nails, as if she had spent the morning digging up carrots rather than filing reports. She would scrub them and they would be clean for a while and then the soil would start to silt up again. “Gee WHIZ!” she said, examining her fuchsia-painted fingernails in the yellow light of the bathroom.
She was taking special care to appear immaculate; her pretty blue dress flattering her feminine figure, her hair neat, tastefully subtle makeup hiding tired eyes. Only her shoes looked a little dusty; the mysterious soil had begun to gather itself in piles at her feet. They were small piles, but they grew a little larger every day. She would kick them asunder, and particle-by-particle, they would creep back together.
I loitered behind her with narrowed eyes, looking at the horrible little sediment under her nails that resisted all attempts to clean it. My image in the bathroom mirror reflected my distaste. I looked thin and mean. The skin on her fingers was red.
I went to talk to Mavis, who was scowling at complicated-looking spreadsheets through thick-framed glasses, half a sausage roll on her desk.
“It’s getting worse,” I whispered.
Mavis was taking no prisoners that morning. “I know it is. She tells me every day.”
I sighed. “I feel sorry for her, but my nerves are already shot. I have this project, and I’m up to my balls…”
“Don’t you start. Her fretting is getting on my nerves, to be honest.”
“I don’t see what we could do to help, in any case.”
“Contact a garden centre?”
Over the next few weeks or so Jackie filled up her desk with dream catchers, crystals, little plants, and other talismans. I hoped they would protect her. Meanwhile the work kept coming. “William Shatner,” she sighed, which confused me.
Her favourite colleague Barb bought her a handheld vacuum cleaner, and she’d clear the soil away from her feet a few times a day. But the earth seemed to multiply of its own accord, and after a week she needed a small shovel. She’d tread the soil into the carpet if she wasn’t careful, and although we felt bad for her, someone complained and then she had to put bags over her feet whenever she wanted to walk to the bathroom.
Some of the soil ended up in my workspace, which I wasn’t very happy about. It didn’t collect around me, like it did around her, but it felt unlucky, and made everything look scruffy. The soil, it was felt, really didn’t reflect our values.
After a while it became clear that she was sinking. We realised she’d taken root, or she was being sucked into the earth, or something. Her feet had vanished beneath the carpet and the heap of dirt that had become a permanent fixture. It didn’t seem to hurt her, but she was stuck fast.
“It happened last night. I went to stand up and I realised I couldn’t walk,” she explained to Mavis and me in hushed tones, looking around to see if anyone else was listening. The thing that seemed to bother Jackie most was the prospect of ‘making a fuss’.
I stared at the relaxing dolphins swimming in front of a sunset on her computer screensaver. I tried to think of something useful to say or do. “Should we call the… the fire brigade?” I asked.
She smiled bravely. “No, no thank you.”
“How about… like a vicar or…”
She shook her head. “No point crying over spilt milk. I’m sure things will work out somehow, every cloud has a silver lining!”
Mavis stared open-mouthed. I doubted she shared Jackie’s upbeat take on the situation.
“I’d be swearing my tits off,” I muttered.
“Are you guys ready to meet?” called our team lead. There was a thump as Jackie pitched forward onto her desk, stopping her fall with her hands. She had instinctively tried to get up, forgetting that her feet were no longer available for use. She looked embarrassed, smoothed her skirt and sat down clumsily. I averted my eyes.
She’d been too shy to raise her ‘situation’ with management, but when our team lead Willow complained that Jackie hadn’t turned up to the meeting, we had to explain what was up.
“Should we be doing something? Is this a union matter?” asked Sam.
“I’m not sure there’s any specific employment law that covers being sucked into the floor by malevolent soil,” mused Willow.
“Well, shouldn’t she at least get overtime, seeing as she can’t leave the office?”
“We don’t offer overtime. If she wants to work extra hours, she needs to clear it with me beforehand and take the time back within two weeks. Which she has not done,” said Willow peevishly.
“But she’s taken root in the carpet, how’s she gonna take back her leave?”
“Use it or lose it!” was the irritable response. Sam shut up.
The word got round. There was no outcry that a colleague was apparently to be buried alive in front of our very eyes. A few polite emails were sent expressing regret. Jackie was offered counselling, but as she wasn’t able to leave her desk, she declined.
I wasn’t sure how it worked to be honest, as we’re based in an office block. How could the ground swallow her up, here on the 17th floor? Shouldn’t it rather be concrete? Wouldn’t that be more probable, and more appropriate?
Offices do this to you sometimes; demand a sacrifice. Your labour isn’t enough. They simply consume someone whole, to remind you who’s really in charge. My colleagues redoubled their efforts; worked longer hours; tidied their desks. I didn’t know why they were bothering, everyone knew it didn’t make the slightest bit of difference, if you were ‘chosen’ by the forces that controlled the soil there was nothing you could do about it.
Day by day she sank. No one seemed to have much of an opinion on the matter except the cleaner, who quit. Mavis whispered that this was just the first.
“We are all to be sucked into the void and replaced with robots,” she said during lunch, gesturing in the direction of the void with her chopsticks. “It’s just as Aldous Huxley predicted.”
“You’re thinking of Isaac Asimov.”
“Same thing. Seemed like dystopian drivel when it was written, and then all their gloomy predictions came true, and now here we are drowning in self-driving cars and CCTV and, and double-think.”
“That’s George Orwell. Anyway, I thought you were all for innovation.” I prodded my leftover spaghetti with a fork.
“Me, yeah. I welcome our future robot overlords. Sooner I’m rendered obsolete the better, then I can get really fat and float around watching TV all day… which dystopia was that?”
“I think it was Wall-E. Anyway why would they go to the expense of programming a robot, when a broken calculator could do your job?”
“Don’t stand in the way of progress. It doesn’t fit with our values.”
“Well, I’ve decided I’m not going to be sucked into the carpet. I’m going to be uploaded into the data cloud.”
“Don’t be silly, you don’t like heights.”
“It’s not a real cloud, you berk. It’s an abstract concept.”
“You won’t like it. No coffee in your abstract concept.”
“Damn, you’re right.”
They were strange times, and we often resorted to dark humour. It seems glib, with hindsight. Should we have done something to try and help Jackie? Anything? There was inevitability about the process. She usually managed to hide her crying.
Barb stuck by her, good old Barb. She couldn’t do much, but she would come and talk to her, tell her what was going on in the outside world. Who she’d been on a date with, gossip from their yoga class, stuff like that. It cheered Jackie up, and we all appreciated that.
Lots of people were working late, so at least she had company. Working all night had become common; the IT man hadn’t been home in three weeks. It was all part of our values-based approach.
By Thursday morning the earth had half swallowed Jackie. She was invisible from the waist down, but focusing on busily typing up notes. She’d been given a tablet to work on, as her computer keyboard was packed with mud. Her face was clean and made up, but there was soil in her hair. Someone had brought her a latte.
She liked to think positively; it was the end of one chapter but the beginning of another, she explained to us. I blinked. I always knew positivity culture was trash, I thought. What good’s looking on the bright side, in this situation?
“Who knows what opportunities there are, under the soil?” mocked Mavis in the kitchen.
“Perhaps she could retrain as a potato,” I said.
“That’s a half-baked idea,” said Mavis, but I wasn’t really in the mood.
There was lots of whispering going on. We wondered whether a leaving party would be insensitive. Dennis made a joke about soiling yourself. Someone else suggested planting seeds in the earth as an office veggie garden, but I couldn’t see that such soil would nourish anything.
I wondered if Jackie really believed her own sunny-side-up logic. If it was a comfort, good luck to her. Maybe positive thinking had its benefits, after all.
I came in on Monday morning and stopped short. There had been deterioration; she was up to her neck, her soft body no longer hers, her arms encased in solid earth.
I suppressed my horror and said hello. She looked frightened, but her “good morning!” was as cheerful as ever. She seemed to want to talk, but I kept my distance. I’d got pretty wet walking to work in the rain, and I didn’t want to create a mud bath. I took off my rain jacket carefully and went to make coffee.
The atmosphere in the kitchen was glum, and no one spoke much as they shook out umbrellas and made hot drinks. Sam smiled at me weakly and went back to his newspaper. Even Mavis was grimly silent. Something was going to happen. I padded reluctantly back to my desk.
The boss came over with a brave smile – “Jackie, how are you today?” and gave a little speech.
“We really appreciate how your values-based approach has had a real impact on bending the curve for this organisation. We’ll be looking to maximise our gains to get this new project over the line, and you’ve been really instrumental in that.” Jackie appeared deeply moved.
“Our values necessitate constant reinvention going forward…”
I shifted uneasily at that one. Constant reinvention? Had Mavis been right - was this only the beginning? Would the office demand more sacrifices, so soon? Maybe I should start putting in the hours a bit, do something about my appearance…
Both were a little weepy by the time the boss had finished talking about gains and blue-sky thinking and innovation. Then she tried to shake Jackie’s hand but couldn’t, on account of it being under the soil. She strode off and started muttering about how long it would take before the desk would be free. She’d already started advertising for Jackie’s replacement.
Meanwhile Jackie was obviously no longer able to get on with any work. She tried to dictate a letter but everyone said they were too busy just then, and so she fell silent. It wouldn’t be long now.
Barb came over, weeping. It was upsetting for everyone. We’d decided against a cake, but she’d brought in fudge. But Jackie said her appetite was shot. Was her stomach filled with soil? Did the rest of her body still exist? I felt weird thinking about it.
“We’ve had some good old times here eh?” said Jackie.
“Ooh yes,” said Barb, and fell silent.
“Do you remember the Christmas party?” prompted Jackie.
“The tequila! The dancing! That handsome barman! I’m sure he was flirting with you.”
“The one with the tattoos? Mavis got crabs off of him,” I said.
“So did Dennis,” retorted Mavis.
Barb and Jackie looked as if they weren’t sure if we were joking or not. I felt bad for gate crashing their trip down memory lane. Why couldn’t I just be nice?
Barb excused herself to go to a meeting. “See you…” she said awkwardly, and gave her friend a peck on the cheek. Jackie watched her walk away.
For the first time I saw Jackie move downwards; the floor rumbled faintly and she was pulled down a couple of centimetres. The heaps of earth shook, and some crumbled into her mouth.
“Oh fudge berries,” she said, spitting, shaking her head and craning her neck upwards.
The phone rang. No-one seemed interested in answering it, and the noise rolled round and round the room. I suddenly noticed there were coffee grounds on my hand, which looked uncannily like soil. I brushed them off hurriedly and shuddered.
“Isn’t anyone going to answer that phone?” snapped Willow.
“Just a minute,” said Jackie automatically, and then, “Oh, Frisbee discs.”
”Happy Days Corporation, how can I help?” said Mavis, answering the phone in her sweetest tones.
“Smarmy cow,” I muttered. The ground rumbled again and Jackie gasped in fright.
“Could someone print out my handover notes?” she yelled, fear making her speech shrill and jagged. But everyone was too busy to reply just then.
“Hello? Can anyone hear me?” she screamed.
I turned back to face my computer and slipped my headphones into my ears.
Copyright (c) Doors & Creature2018