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simon collis

musings of an omnivorous biped

It was near closing time in the castle. If they weren’t the last visitors, they at least weren’t far off. Penny was standing at the wall, looking out of one of the small cross-shaped windows. She’d had enough of imagining herself as a twelfth-century archer, and was now simply savouring the warm afterglow of Earl Grey, scones and jam and enjoying the view down the hill when Craig called over to her.

“Hey Penny, come look at this,” he said.

She turned reluctantly away from the view, adjusted her bag on her shoulder and turned around. He was pointing up towards the window on an upper deck of the castle and she didn’t see the open cover of the well. One foot went down into it, and as she turned to try and stabilise herself, Craig’s foot swept around and kicked her other ankle. She dropped into the well, almost silently, a sound resembling a mouse squeak escaping her and no more.

Fear kicked in immediately, and she flailed her arms, finding the cold wet stone of the side of the well, but unable to slow her rapid descent into the gloom. She looked up, terrified, seeing the light failing, and realising, as it clunked into place, that Craig had immediately replaced the cover of the well. With a thud, she landed in sheer darkness.

She sat there for a moment, unbelieving. Craig had tried to kill her.

“Oh come on Penny,” she said out loud. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

But of course he did. He replaced the lid back on the well. But why, that was the question. Maybe he was cheating on her with that girl from work – what was her name?

“Stop it,” she closed her eyes and pushed the thoughts away. There were more important things to worry about. Like surviving.

But how?

“Hello?” she shouted. “Help me! I fell down the well!”

There was no answer. Of course there wasn’t – Craig had replaced the lid. Assuming anyone was near the well,

She felt to the floor with one hand. It felt cold, metallic and a little damp. This must be one of the grates they install in old, unused wells, she thought, just for situations like this, when otherwise perfectly normal men turn psycho and try to kill their girlfriends. So that meant she wasn’t too far from the surface, and could probably climb out quite easily.

“And then I’m going to kill him,” she hissed.

Penny joined her hands together and cracked the knuckles on both. It was an old habit, and although her mother had hated it, her grandmother always commented one thing: “she means business.”

“How right you were, granny,” Penny whispered. “How right you were.”

She reached out in the blackness, and put her hands against the wall. It was cold, clammy, but not as damp and slippery as she had feared. She pulled herself to her feet, the bruising in her back and hips beginning to protest already.

Call the police she thought, and reached for her bag to get her mobile phone. It wasn’t on the right shoulder, as normal. Instinctively, she checked the left shoulder, hoping it would be there, but it wasn’t.

Taking a deep breath, she stooped down, and felt around on the metal floor. The metal appeared to be thick, maybe three or four fingers thick, while the holes were much smaller. Good. That meant that if her bag was here, it certainly would be on the metal floor and not –

“Ouch. Fucking ouch!” she shouted, and felt her finger. It was wet and sticky – possibly blood. What the hell was that on the floor? She stood still, listening hard. She heard something to her right: maybe a drop of water; maybe rats.

“Fuck you, rats,” she shouted, and stamped her feet. “Fuck off rats!”

Penny stamped on the floor, setting off clanging noises for a few more minutes, until she felt safe enough to reach down again. Bending down, she felt along the outside walls of the well. The well felt bigger than from outside; perhaps even two could comfortably stand up here. That was a little reassuring. Although she wasn’t claustrophobic, there was at least room to move – a little, anyway.

Her fingers suddenly encountered what could only be the leather strap of her bag. She sucked in breath sharply, and then eased out with a sigh. She gently picked it up and placed it over her head, strap on the other shoulder, like a messenger bag. The strap wasn’t quite long enough for that, but she didn’t want to lose it again.

Feeling at the clasp, she opened the bag, and felt around. A familiar button lit up the phone’s screen, revealing the contents of the bag. Relief flooded over her, like hot water flowing into a cool bath. She lifted the phone out of the bag, looked at the screen and froze.

No signal

Penny closed her eyes and sighed. “Up we go then,” she said.

She switched on the phone’s torch mode and looked at the wall. It wasn’t smooth – there were large pieces of plaster missing between the stones, and jagged edges. They might be dangerous if she started sliding, but the good news was that looking up, she didn’t seem to be too far down.

Penny turned off the torch and closed her eyes. She breathed deeply for a few moments, trying to get as much oxygen into her bloodstream as possible. Once her breathing was under control and she felt ready, she opened her eyes again.

There was some light after all, it seemed, as she could vaguely make out the wall in front of her. That was understandable – the wooden lid over the well probably wasn’t as light proof as it used to be when they originally made it, however many years ago. And it was possible that Craig hadn’t put it back properly in his hurry. That was a comforting thought, and she smiled a little.

She walked forward to the wall and started hunting for handholds. It was easy enough for the hands, but not for the feet.

“How are you supposed to do this?” she asked of nobody in particular. The fact that nobody replied was comforting.

She tried pulling up just with her arms they weren’t strong enough on their own. She looked for a toehold for one foot, just in the first stone above the gribut the hands weren’t strong enough. She found a break in the stones and jammed the toes of her left foot in, pushed with that foot, then pulled with the arms. This seemed to be working, so she found another hold with the right foot and did the same.

Penny nodded to herself and put her left foot up again. This time, it didn’t catch and slipped down, putting weight on her shoulders which screamed in agony. She held her breath, clinging tight to the wall, swung her leg back and tried again.

“Note to self,” she whispered. “Don’t be greedy.”

This time her foot caught into place, and she pulled herself up again. Change legs, one foot up slightly, and pull. She was now two full stones above the metal grid. Looking up she couldn’t see where the well ended.

Her throat drying, she tried her right leg again, going a single stone. Each stone was no more than a head’s height, but every one meant she got closer to freedom.

And then it happened: her right hand slipped part way through the left leg raising, and within moments she fell back down to the metal grid. She hit hard, her back and hips getting the worst of the bruise.

Penny screamed, in frustration and pain and rage all at once.

And then she noticed something. It was brighter down here than it was towards the top of the well. There was light, but it wasn’t coming from above.

She opened the clasp on her back again and pulled out her phone. Switching the torch on again she looked around the well.

Down below the grid was a long, long drop. There was no water at the bottom, just darkness. The well must have dried up years before.

She shone the light around, turning around to look at all the walls and then –

“Why didn’t I see that before?”

Behind her was not rock, but a door. A curved door. The grill was three or four stones below it, but the handle was less than head height. If she could open that door, then maybe…

“Why has a door suddenly appeared in this wall?” she asked.

It hasn’t, her subconscious replied. You just haven’t noticed it before.

“Fair enough,” she shrugged.

She shined the light on the door. Holding the phone in one hand, she grasped the ring on the door and turned it. It was stiff, as though unused in years (centuries?), but it swung easily in its socket. She began trying to twist it, and gasped as the pain from her shoulders coursed through her body like a hot knife.

She buttoned her (now ruined) beige jacket, put the phone into her bag, and pushed the bag so it hung in front of her stomach. Using both hands, she grabbed the metal ring on the door with both hands and turned, hard.

It moved.

Penny closed her eyes, swallowed, and felt the tears come into her eyes as the door opened.

Compared to the climb, it was an easy matter to enter the doorway. She sat down on the step, pulled up her legs, and then turned herself backwards to fact into the room.

She pulled the phone out of her bag, closed the door behind her, and looked around.

To her left was a wrought iron bench on which lay a woman dressed in rags.

“I remember you,” she said to the unmoving woman. “You’re the waxwork from the dungeons, aren’t you?”

She looked at her phone. Four fifteen. It wasn’t even last admissions yet.

She walked over to the door. It was, of course, locked. As dungeons should be.

Maybe it was time to turn off the torch on the phone? To save the battery. She opened the screen, turned off the light and saw one bar.

Penny smiled.

“You’re in real trouble now, Craig,” she said, and began to dial.

The post “Penny Drops” first appeared on simoncollis.com and is Copyright © Simon Collis 2018. All rights reserved.

The Onyx Ring

Posted by Simon Collis on 2018/04/14
Posted in Year of Short Stories  | Tagged With: , , , , | No Comments yet, please leave one

“Don’t move, and you won’t get hurt.”

The sawn-off barrel of the shotgun waves an inch from the bald man’s face.

“I’m sure we can come to some arrangement,” he says, smiling.

“Just give me the money,” the man shouts. “I just want the money.”

“How much money do you want?” the bald man asks. “And why?”

The man with the gun narrows his eyes a little. “Why do you want to know?”

“Because, as I say, I think we can come to some kind of arrangement. A quid pro quo, if you like.” Read more

The moon is full; I can feel it. I can feel the change in my legs, feel the skin ripping and tearing, the transformation beginning. The pain is almost unbearable for a few minutes as my legs change shape, my chest changes, the hair changes.

My family won’t recognise me any more. Even my thoughts are different, somehow changed along with my body. I’m cold. No clothes, of course. I must run but I can’t. Be careful, I tell myself – this is the danger time. Give them no sign. Slip away, quietly. It’s for the best.

There’s a wall around the side. I walk around there, climb it easily. So easy when I’m like this. I couldn’t normally. I’ve done this so many times. Read more

The old man scratched at his beard as he walked. He looked through the bars of the cage, past the old lion, watching the sun going down on the horizon.

“Hey there, Leo old lad,” he said, softly. He billed himself as the gipsy lion tamer, of vaguely eastern European extraction, from a town no longer in the same country as his birth, no longer able to remember the language he spoke as a child yet still retaining a vague accent. The reality of an old man from west Yorkshire who decided one day to join a circus based on a Monty Python sketch wouldn’t, he’d decided, sell many tickets.

He sat down next to the cage, cross legged, and pulled the tobacco pouch out from his pocket. The lion shifted across the cage, and rubbed his ears against the bars. Rolling a cigarette with one hand, he idly scratched behind the lion’s ear with the other. Read more

This is the third part in a trilogy. If you haven’t read them yet, then I recommend reading “If, Never” and “Jenkins Is The Problem” first…

“What’s this?” Eric asked, looking through the recent photos.

Lusha looked away from her canvas and back at the screen.

“Hmm?” she pondered. “Looks like the building over the road.”

“Not that,” Eric zoomed in, pointing at the screen. “Here.”

In the window, clearly visible now, were a man and a woman kissing.

“Oh yeah,” Lusha giggled. “Didn’t see that when I took it.”

“Knew that SLR was good,” Eric said. “Told you it was, didn’t I? Costs a bit but we’ve never had anyone return one yet.” Read more

If, Never

Posted by Simon Collis on 2018/03/03
Posted in Year of Short Stories  | Tagged With: , , , | 2 Comments

I caught the bus at quarter to seven, as I normally do.

It’s the usual grey route to work. Grey tower blocks, grey concrete walls, grey gardens, grey weather.

And then we get to the first stop, and on she gets. I think her name is Jennifer: that is, I hope it is. She’s tall, willowy, with wispy golden hair and a laugh that can break a man’s heart. She sits next to me on the bus, and we flirt a little. She giggles, demurely, face partly hidden by one hand as with some kind of old fashioned modesty she has to hide her face, like she’s a heroine in a Victorian novel instead of a mobile phone shop customer service agent in a mini dress.

“Ticket please?”

I shake my head and look at the empty seat beside me. I reach into my pocket, draw out the season ticket and hand it to the inspector. He waves it against a machine that beeps, and he hands me back the card.

I look around again on the bus. There’s a row of seats facing sideways just in front of me, and the first one has a blind man with his dog.

I say blind, but we both know that’s a cover, of course. There’s exquisitely crafted surveillance devices built into his glasses and his dog is highly trained to sniff out explosives. He’s undercover, of course, and we both know it. That’s why he’s there. I’d reveal myself, if I had to, but I only know this because… well, let’s just say I’m involved. A little. Well, maybe more than a little. Read more

How The Moon Sings

Posted by Simon Collis on 2018/02/24
Posted in Year of Short Stories  | Tagged With: , , | No Comments yet, please leave one

“You’re late.”

“I’m sorry,” Helena says. “The Metro…”

Bien. Come in.”

Helena didn’t admit to standing outside the house, nerves jangling, pacing up and down, trying to summon the courage to press on the bell.

She looks around the house. It’s clean, well-kept, neutral colours, open spaces. This is the expensive side of Paris, far away from the cheap hotel she’s booked. The woman leads her into what looks like a living room – pictures of Jean in frames all around the room: on top of the grand piano, the walnut cabinet containing what looks like expensive antique crockery and glassware, hung on the wall. Helena can’t see them well enough to know, but they look like holiday snaps mixed with publicity photos and even newspaper articles. Read more

Grimgreen

Posted by Simon Collis on 2018/02/17
Posted in Year of Short Stories  | Tagged With: , , , | 4 Comments

“Now,” said a voice behind Pluve, “I’m not saying double entry bookkeeping is just witing it down twice. I mean, y’know, it is, in a way, but…”

The gnome took his change and picked up the tray. “Excuse me,” he said, trying to elbow past the centaur, carefully holding the tray in both hands.

“Sorry, dude”, muttered the centaur , moving just enough to one side to allow Pluve past. The elf on the other side shuffled back a little, and murmered an apology when he backed into a troll.

“What I’m sayin’,” the centaur continued, “is that double entry bookkeeping right, it sounds like you just put everything in twice, but s’more complicated than that, right?”

“Uh huh?” responded the elf. Pluve cast a glance back as he put the tray down on the table and noticed that the elf looked even more drunk than the centaur, if such a thing was possible. Read more

Florence

Posted by Simon Collis on 2018/02/10
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At the age of seventy-three, Florence felt she understood death. She didn’t really know very much about it, but she had heard the word. She had lost people. So she had some memory of it, some vague notion of yearning for souls lost.

There was no sunlight in this barn. No clear road. She felt age take her over. The air seeped from her tyres. Rust started to nibble the corner of her bodywork. Mice found ways in and shredded the stuffing of her red leather seats, once so shiny and proud, now home to a family of mice.

So this, she thought, was death. Not a sudden bang for her, just a slow fading. Read more

Doctor Fog

Posted by Simon Collis on 2018/01/27
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DOCTOR FOG

WARNING: the following story contains subjects that some readers may find distressing.

“Do you remember, Kenneth?” they would ask. Therapists, police. “Do you remember what happened that night?”

I remember.

I was six. Six years old. How, at six years old, do you say that you remember so clearly – as clearly as if I could see it play in front of my eyes now – but that they wouldn’t believe me?

I had seen the monster before that night. He used to stand in my wardrobe, waiting. I assumed that it was he, and not her, in the way that you make these assumptions at the age of six, on little more than guesswork. I assumed also that the wide smile he gave me, revealing long, sharp teeth, was not a pleasant one.

I knew little of monsters then, and what monsters are. I know better now, of course. Read more