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Joey Fitzpatrick joey 2

Our reviewer for the July Writing Challenge was Joey Fitzpatrick, a Halifax-based writer, recently retired from The Chronicle Herald. He can be reached at dukeyboat@hotmail.com

For the moment that’s as much of a profile as he has offered. However, on closer examination it is learnt that he was until recently an Editor at the provincial newspaper and is experienced in traditional and online journalism, newspaper writing, feature writing, story telling, creative writing and editing among a host of other skills. He has provided our entrants with much-appreciated feedback.

The choices for the writing challenge for July-August were as follows:

– Describe the last nightmare you had.

– People must not look outside at night from 3 AM to 6 AM. Children are often kept in windowless rooms and adults often wear blindfolds during sleep to avoid incident.

– The evil super villain and the hero are siblings. They still have dinner at Mom and Dad’s house for the holidays.

– It seemed like a good idea yesterday…

– Nobody else is awake.

– Write a story that will make me afraid of the dark.

– Write a story that starts with a word you pick out of the dictionary at random – in this case please state the word in the prompt line.

I am delighted to report that we had eight entries. And here are the stories in the order received.

A Believable Nightmare

by Noor AlNoaimi

Describe the last nightmare you had. (This is not the last nightmare though.)

We were instructed to stay inside, but we never listened to anything they said. They; my aunts and mother, women like children, were ordered to do the same and so did not merit any of our youthful respect. I recall the vision in a blur of grey and sand. The TV was unreadable, an old 80’s model that failed to catch any signals and provide much entertainment, so we sought to entertain ourselves. It wasn’t the best of times, Kuwait and Iraq were at war and thus we were told that the air outside still contained the sickening fragrance of the offshore missiles. We sneaked out of a window in the corner room anyway. The windows were sealed, and we had to pry the tape off in order to escape- My cousins and I. There were three of us attempting our rebellious adventure- None of us really understood what war was, but it did not look good. Nobody acted like themselves, and instead started talking about people we never heard of- a name did reoccur, I think he had a ‘Bush’ of some sort.

I saw my cousins grinning below me, motioning for me to follow which I excitedly did- We barely reached the main gate then, for suddenly my eldest cousin stopped, his gaze towards a khaki colored jeep filled with people. I don’t know why, but we were all afraid of them- The men inside were armed, their countenance did not look friendly when it met ours, and I did not think they were beyond shooting us where we stood.

I heard my uncle’s voice then, I don’t remember what he said but I recall his tone, he was so fierce- we children imagined him transforming before our eyes into a dangerous lion, Instead he drew a gun- I did not see it initially- but he shot it, not towards them but to the sky. We’ve been momentarily struck deaf by it’s after effects despite the good distance between us and his weapon. I watched as the jeep fled leaving behind clouds of dust, and my uncle; giving us a good whiff of what our aunts meant about the smell of war.

I never really understood that dream, and I wish I could remember what my uncle said to them- We were very young during the war, but even so- Our sleep was still disturbed by it.

By the Lake

by Shalini Vaghjee
It seems like a good idea yesterday…

During summer holidays, we always went to my grandmother’s house far from the hustle and bustle of the city. That year, things were quite different though. I had lost my grandmother and my father just few months Earlier… But I knew that I had to take a break to that house where we have been spending our summer for the last nineteen years…

My mother would come a bit later with my sister and her newborn baby girl. Mixed feelings from the intense sadness of the loss of my father and grandmother but a deep joy for my sister who’s dream came true in the form of this angel she recently gave birth too… How happy dad and grandma would have been…
I took the train and then walked through the forest as we did in the past. But somehow the forest looked denser and even the house looked further away… Finally I saw the beautiful cottage next to the blue lake. I felt happy and all the tiredness vanished away… I ran to the house… Oh! Grandma was not here anymore to welcome me with her huge hug, so I took out the keys and opened the door…

As I entered, beautiful memories of giggling and the nice aroma of grandmas favorite pie came to me. The house had been closed since grandma fell unwell and moved to our place in the city for her treatment. The house desperately needed a good make over and I decided to dust and clean the house as our newborn princess would be here for her fist visit. I opened all the windows to let the fresh air and beautiful sunshine in. Then I went to fetch water from the lake, cleaned the house and two hours later, the sun was down. I had some sandwich which I brought and then crawled on the couch and fell asleep.

Few hours later, I suddenly woke up and wondered where I was. Of course I’m in grandma’s house, nothing to worry. But something felt awkward. I looked outside to see the dark night with hardly any stars. This was very rare.. Could it be cloudy? But the sky was blue during the day and here it had never rained during summer. Something was weird. I switched on the lights and to my dismay, blood was oozing out from my skin. I tried to rub my arms and body. But more blood continued oozing out. I felt something crawling on me, clinging to my skin and at times I felt being stung by something, but nothing invisible. On my head, in my nose, my ears…  And the blood kept oozing out… I stood on a puddle of blood, my own blood. I was breathless and even though I wanted to shout for help, I knew this was in vain. There were no neighbors for some kilometers and no one ever came on this side. Then I realized that these tiny insects were coming from the window and they clang to the skin to suck the blood out. These insects were microscopic and could be detected by the rays of light only. I desperately tried to close the window but again in vain. Looks like an army of their kind had held the window and I could not close them no matter how hard I tried. I felt dizzy, I did not know what to do, who to call. Then I remembered one of my friends who stayed nearby and quickly sent her a message. My throat was choking, so calling would not be appropriate. But I did let some missed calls on her phone. Then I fainted…

Two days later, I opened my eyes in the hospital. My body was bandaged and I was given an intravenous blood drip. I still felt a bit dizzy but I badly needed to know what happened… There were police officers, forest guards as well as my mother were waiting for me to open my eyes. We learnt that these insects were always in the forest but they never did any harm to people or even animals. However, recently  some bully teenagers came in the area and they destroyed the underground habitat of these tiny insects. These were inevitably enraged and since then they started attacking men and animals. Once they attack someone, they left the body only when all the blood had oozed out. These insects did not depend on blood nor they like human flesh. They did it only as a revenge to what these teenagers had done to their family. We learnt that they came only at night and windows need to remain shut, not like earlier… I guess opening the window at night to enjoy fresh air seems like a good idea yesterday… But not anymore…

Forever

by Mike Rollins

Nobody else is awake in this dark half of the world but we two, it seems, as I sit beside his bed through the hours that God forgot. And then there is only me.

I rang my brother as early as I thought fair, and he knew as soon as he heard my voice.

“When did he… go?” John couldn’t bring himself to say die. Guilt? I don’t know, but they had not spoken for more than two years now. And John had been Dad’s favourite. But I was the one who had been looking after him: Living with the rages and the stony silences; putting the fires out; apologising for his behaviour.

“One this morning. I didn’t see any point in waking you. It’s not like it was an emergency.”

*

I had no idea at the time what it was that caused the rift between them. They had always got on well. Dad was hardest on the eldest: You guessed it. He never hit me though. He would ground me, take away my stuff. He once burned my football boots because I made the girl next door cry. I couldn’t believe it: I didn’t make her ugly, I just confirmed it for her.

Mum had died when we were young boys. I barely remember her. She is just a presence that lingers in a certain room at a certain time. There and gone. I grew up thinking that Dad hated the world because she died, until at fourteen I saw him through the partly opened door of his bedroom, holding a picture of her and crying like a child; noiseless sobs that were all liquid sighs and short breaths. I realised then that he was a mean bastard because of love, which made it easier to understand. It didn’t make him any easier to live with.

*

Our fight at the funeral might have been less of a spectacle if it had been a cremation, and if it hadn’t been raining for three days.

It started as the coffin was being lowered. I happened to murmur, ”And don’t come back.” I know; not the nicest thing to say, but my life had been hell these past few years, looking after him with no real respite… I suppose it just all welled up in me right there, right then.

John swung at me, missing my jaw as he slipped on the mud and hitting me on the shoulder. I had been wanting to smack him one for a long time and got in a good one as he skidded past me. Up on his feet, covered in mud, he charged at me. We tumbled into the hole and Dad’s coffin broke beneath us, the cheap wood splintering.

We lay there in Dad’s grave, the rain pelting down on us, the funeral party staring,, as silent as they’d been during the service. John’s body suddenly convulsed above me, starting to shake: I thought he was crying. I was wrong. He raised his head, rolling on to his side, and I saw that he was laughing; laughing so hard that tears were mingling with the rain and the mud streaking his face.

That started me off. We lay there and howled our laughter at the grey sky.

As we walked across the stone garden, John leaned into me. “I stopped speaking to him when he found out I was having an affair. He was so disappointed in me, James; I couldn’t look him in the eye. It was over in a few weeks but I just couldn’t face him.”

*

We went for a drink later and talked about how much we loved Dad.

Nobody Else Is Awake

by Preeti Rana

Nobody else is awake.

It’s the chirping of the birds as always.

They hold up the dawn by their beaks. For me. Close to the window so I can see better. I can see better. I am so close. To the pane.

Something about the night has remained both sides. One side my breath frosts the warm glass. On the other side, I see bits of grass on the sill. The night wore green too. Or the bulbul must have stopped construction to peer in.

A laden cloud has rubbed the scent of rain against our window.

The breeze blows nothing new. Today holds the same as all the recent yesterdays. I must go. I need to change. The way you look at me. That look that you know. But won’t tell, spells difficult words. All the plans I’ve been whispering to you. You barely nod anymore.

Once before you looked at me that way. All those years back. And I hadn’t cared. Unbound by you knowing. I was so young. At heart. He had leaned across, hadn’t he, in the light of our dinner table, to listen. To me speak. He pushed aside my careful narrative with all my references of you, family, kids. With that deep hooded look. It doesn’t matter who you are, he had said. What matters is what you want to be.

Maybe he never said it. It could have been all me. Imagining those sparkling eyes as telling.

But they were intoxicating thoughts, worded, imagined. They held me those years. As if by my waist. Carrying me over hills and valleys and I saw views from impossible mountain peaks. You wouldn’t tell me I had gone insane. You hid every mirror that could reflect the insanity in my eyes. Thank God, I began to paint. Everyone, so relieved they had my art to politely applaud. Draw attention away from my madness. You made sure I never ran out of sheets and paints.

I see that night. Me sitting by this window. In my paint splattered apron. It was the first time in a long while you saw my tears roll. Form and roll. Instead of asking what the matter was you said to me “come back to bed”.

As if you didn’t need to ask. I told you I want to leave, that night. “I cannot stay or function around you”. Oh, I said that, didn’t I. You held my hand and took me back to bed. Tucked me closer to you. Held me till I slept.

He was gone. Long gone. Like any passer-by. Or a traveller, leaving behind things he didn’t need.

Or they would have come back for it.

I kept them in poems and aquarelles. But he was gone from it all. What remained held only me.

You almost knew my story. One talks about leaving to those who stay close forever. ‘I don’t love you’ are words said to those you do. It tore my heart as I said it. And you only attended to my wound. I love you. My darling.

You never left my side.

Even today it’s me who has left yours. I must return to you. Jaan. Jaan. Why can’t you hear me? Wake up. This glass. How do I return, how can I get back in. Why can’t you hear me? I’m cold again. I long for our warm bed. The way I fit in your embrace.

I am in a fall. Falling from this height is a flight. There is a fierce velocity against my flesh. No. My bones. No. Against me. I am dissolving. I see a chasm form between us. It spreads like an ink blot, my love.

You still hold my hand. Head back and asleep in my reading chair.

The babies we made on the sofa, that rug.

Asleep under the blanket of morrows. Surrounded by your books. Under our roof. Oh, look at her. Isn’t she lovely. Her heart will crush into a million pieces as this sun rises. No one would see the mosaic lines. Except us. The lightest blow could make it crumble. And she’ll build a fierce protective shell. Oh, let the heart chip with use my darling. Tell her that. Tell her now. Oh, I should have.

And look at him. Our crown prince. You have taught him to resolve with restrain. At the eighteenth hole, when he thinks no one is watching I know he will cry. And there will be no one to wipe his tears. Oh, my gentle boy. Hold him till he cries on your shoulder. Hold him now.

I wish I could breathe just one more breath.

It’s late yet only now I am awake.

Nobody Else is Awake

by Renjith P Sarada

Nobody else is awake”, that was the thought which crossed my mind intermittently when I was lying on the bed, awaiting the Goddess of Sleep to bless.

“Am I the only person who is awake in the midst of darkness at this point in time?”

“Why am I unable to sleep despite a long and tiring walk a few hours ago?”

“Why am I bereft of the much-needed five-letter word, ‘sleep’?”

“Why nobody else is awake?”

A chain of questions radiated out of my head and persuaded me to find out the corresponding answers. But, I was clueless.

I looked at the wall clock. I could barely see the time despite the fussy night lamp. The time was around two in the morning.  Felt glad to know that the night lamp, like me, was also awake – perhaps beseeching the goddess’ blessings.

I stared at my wife who was sleeping like a baby. I felt jealous.

“When would I be able to sleep like this?”, I pondered. I tried my best to contain the fact that one can sleep serenely along with another person who is deprived of it – both, under the same roof.  I got off the bed and switched on the fluorescent lamp, with a deliberate intention to disturb the sleeping beauty. After an inaudible grumble, she turned towards the other side of the light and resumed her slumber.

Let me elucidate further. I have got nothing to do with insomnia or sleeplessness or any kind of jargons indicating a sleep-deprived condition, from a medical standpoint.

What has taken the sleep out of me was a recent comment made by someone who or what shouldn’t have been of any concern to me.    Because, the “someone” being referred here is someone who is a friend of my son’s classmate’s neighbour.

I was meeting him for the first time in my life – that too during a wedding reception of someone else who was equally far from me in all aspects.   As a courtesy, I was introduced to this “someone” by my son’s classmate’s father as we all happened to share the same dining table.

Being strangers to each other, this “someone” had no business to comment on something which was very personal.   Because, that off-the-cuff comment of his, which he might have thought as a casual pleasantry was strong enough to take my sleep away for a couple of days thereafter.

Is this your son?” – even a blind person had once told about the striking resemblance between my son and myself – but not sure of the mannerisms and/or thoughts whether they match perfectly. Though I was vexed by his opening shot, I nodded with an affirmative answer without showing any displeasure.

The next was the googly (in cricket terminology) which snatched my sleep away.

“Was it a late marriage?”.

 “What”?, I grimaced, but asked myself. On hearing the unprecedented question posed by “someone”, the person who introduced me also started to turn pale – reminding me of the litmus test which I had learnt during my high school days.

“What he had to do with my marriage – if it had happened later or earlier?”,  I wondered.   In a fraction of a second, I could make out where he was coming from.   I recollected that he was looking at my more-salt-less-or-almost-no pepper hair while talking to me.

To speak the truth, he was far better than many others from a diplomatic perspective. I recall many who put it straight at my face asking why am I not “dyeing” (in proper contextual meaning, and not in the meaning of its rhyme, of course).

“Oh! I hate anything artificial. Moreover, I am dead against dyeing. Scientifically, you know, the chemicals used in dye making are hazardous……”, I smiled and changed the topic towards some current affairs – both national and international.

Bringing my thoughts back, I looked at the mirror and stared at the reflection of my head.

“True, my head has become very rich – from black metal to silver”.

 I was tempted, but stood confused – whether to dye or not to dye!  

 Because, I knew it was not at all going to be an easy game for me to get into the habit of dyeing, as I had been a strong anti-dyeing advocate, at home. Many a time, I had efficaciously argued against my wife and other people who either supported or sported dyeing. And throughout the debate, for the sake of it, I used to give lectures on the drastic side effects of dyeing based on true or untrue scientific reasons and also throwing “gyan” on made up stories about people in far away countries who lost hair and complexion due to excessive dyeing. The demography of these protagonists were ideally chosen to avoid any follow up by the opponents, especially my wife who is an expert in using Google and making use of other reliable sources.

I sat down at the corner of the bed, contemplating.

Then, I decided.  Yes, I decided to swim against the tide – but on a safer route.   I wished not to be paraded by those who were put paid to my arguments whenever they see me with glossy black/brown hair.

Before executing the plan, I prepared my own points justifying as to why I changed my mind and started dyeing. Having convinced, I concluded that there is nothing wrong in my decision. I had been voicing against dyeing, or rather against applying “artificial” colors and paints – definitely not henna.   So, nobody would have the guts to blame me for violating my argument points or call me a hypocrite if I do a henna treatment on my hair. Moreover, henna is natural.

I remembered spotting henna powder in the ‘things to buy’ list a week back, but was unsure whether it was bought and if so, whether it was black or brown. Without making much noise, I rummaged around my wife’s vanity bag. Thankfully, I could get hold of a packet of powdered henna – and that too, having the label ‘100% Natural Henna”.

For a systematic execution, I came out to the TV room where the lighting was better than bedroom. I read the instructions on the pack many times to ensure that I am not doing any mess-up with my hair, consequently affecting my face.  I looked at the list of ingredients mentioned – all were written in biological names – felt quite agnostic, but were solid enough to substantiate my justification.

“Soak the powder for 4 to 6 hours and then after applying the paste on hair, leave on for 3 to 4 hours”.

I looked at the clock. The time was almost three.

 “Oh! my God!   If I go by the instructions word-by-word, the process would not be completed even by lunch time the next day”, I thought.

Not thinking any further of pros and cons, I cut opened the packet, made up the henna paste with utmost confidentiality by getting in to the bathroom. In line with the instructions, I added a few drops of vinegar to get some highlighting. After the mixing was done, I sadly realized that I had partially tanned the wash basin by spilling the colourful paste inadvertently! I feared of the consequences that are bound to happen the next morning, when the sleeping beauty gets up.   I sprung into action to clean the bathroom at half past three – something I had never done in all these donkey years!! What a plight at night!

I waited patiently in the bathroom itself, for the paste to set in.    Feeling bored, I came back to the bedroom and lied down beside my wife without disturbing her sleep. Moreover, I wanted to give her a surprise the next day morning by posing a different look and feel!  I envisioned my potential appearance, and how everybody would be complimenting me for the new look. After waiting impatiently for an hour, I examined the paste and confirmed that the same is good to go.

“Goodness!, There are no hand gloves available. If I use my hands, I would end up like an Indian bride aftter a Mehendi/Henna ceremony”.

As a stopgap arrangement, I made use of a plastic carry bag – transformed it to a hand glove, applied the henna with much enthusiasm (like how the floors of traditional houses were coated with cow dung during pre-technological era).

I saw my reflection on the mirror – I looked ugly – which I presumed as a precursor to the imminent handsomeness.   After applying henna on the head, I covered it using the same carry bag and tied it with a rubber band.   Due to lack of experience, I could not paste adroitly thereby spoiling the bathroom floor.   I sprung into action again – cleaning the bathroom, the second time in a span of two hours.

After the cumbersome exercise, I found it prudent not to get out of the bathroom thereby spoiling the floor of bedroom too, because I had no fascination to do cleaning any more.

I decided to stay put in the bathroom. As I had nothing else to do, I read all my pending official mails on the phone. Feeling discomfort, I decided to forget all the instructions and clean off the hair without waiting for even an hour.   I was unsure about the henna stains while washing as I did not wish to clean the bathroom for the third time in a row.  So, I took off a trickle from the head, put it on the floor and confirmed no stains remained when I washed it off with running water.

Good to go !

I took off the carry bag from the head, opened the shower and stood underneath. The colors washed off from my head through my face. I felt breathless for a while, but managed to finish the shower quickly.

Anxiously, I looked at the bathroom mirror.

“Awesome!”    All the white strands on the hairs had vanished.   I looked much younger. I came off the bathroom, dried my hair and combed it with perfection.

Oh! my God!”   I looked at the mirror again after switching on all the available lights.

I literally screamed.

This reflex of mine awakened my wife who got up from her sleep with a jolt, screaming likewise. I got a shock of my life and that made me scream again.

She looked at my face helplessly.

“What is this?? What have you done with your hair??”

Shame! I looked like a peacock, with only brown feathers. My head had turned completely brown as if my head was varnished.   I didn’t know what to do. As I lacked expertise to reverse the wrongdoing, I kept quiet.   I knew that I would be a laughing stock in the office if I go in this peacock design!

I asked my wife to suggest a remedy before the day breaks. She told me that the only quick and effective choice left was to use a black dye to cover up the brown shade – but she was unsure whether the henna stains would remain or not.

I envisaged as to how I would be in my office attire the next morning – white shirt, blue trousers, black & brown hair.

“No way! Its ridiculous. It is against my ethics. Moreover, the dye is having lot of chemicals ….”. With a typical facial expression, I was stopped abruptly by my wife handing over a sachet of black dye, which obviously contained artificial colors and chemicals.

Hesitantly, I applied the dye, waited for another hour, washed it off and came out of the bathroom – just to find my wife sleeping calmly as if nothing had happened.

I looked at the mirror.

“Not bad! Yes, I am looking much younger. Why was I against this magic all these years?”

I felt like singing a romantic song in my rough voice.

Luckily, nobody else was awake.

 “Nightmares?”

by Michelle Schultz

The last nightmare I had involved eating out at one of my favorite coffeeshops. My husband and I had arranged to meet with friends I hadn’t seen in a while the week before, so I had been looking forward to it. Our schedules didn’t often mesh with work taking my husband or our friends late into the evening with no warning, so it was a pleasant surprise that everyone was able to come and no one had to cancel at the last minute.

As I had come to expect, the coffee was wonderful: nutty, earthy, or faintly floral depending on the type that I chose. The desserts were hopelessly decadent but large enough to share, so share we did. The subdued music piped through the speakers upstairs covered any silences in the conversation, but I had plenty to discuss with these lovely individuals. We talked of everything except politics; we’d all had enough of that cropping up in our Facebook feeds. I learned that one of my friends was taking vacation soon, and another was strongly considering adopting a cat. As I was always eager to talk with other cat people, I made a note to ask in the coming days if the adoption had worked out.

I only knew two hours had passed because of my watch. It was almost ten at night by the time we had to call it a night. Time had flown, leaving me with that disorienting feeling I get when I’ve stopped focusing so much on making charming small talk and worrying about the next interesting thing I’m going to say. Instead I just let the conversation take me where it wanted, and it had gone beautifully.

I drove us home, the windows down to let the humid air make enough of a breeze to cool me. For a summer night, it was surprisingly pleasant. Maybe I was adapting to the climate here after all.

Given the hour, my husband and I only took a few minutes to pet the cats before readying for bed. It was quiet in the house, and the neighbors in the houses on either side were somnolent as well. You would hardly know anyone else lived in our compound given how peaceful it could be at night.

I lay down in bed, tired enough in a pleasant way from so much conversation, that I didn’t need to read like I usually did before going to sleep. My books were safe on the nightstand as I turned to study the insides of my eyelids instead. I felt the familiar bump as one of our cats bumped my feet before settling down to sleep on one ankle. I could feel his purr in my bones as I drifted asleep.

I blinked awake minutes or hours later. The room was dark, no curtains cracked like I used to do. My feet were cold and devoid of cats.

I turned my head, barely able to make out our dark pillows against the pale bedspread, but my husband’s pillow was empty. He must have gotten up to use the toilet and woken me. I rearranged my pillow and turned over, waiting for him to come back because he’d only wake me up again if I fell asleep.

The silhouettes on the other side of the bed were wrong. I realized that his side of the bed was neat, as if it was still made up. How odd for him to make the bed when he was coming right back.

I sat up and shook the cobwebs out of my head. I leaned forward, half-climbing out of bed to look down the hallway outside the door.

It was as dark and lightless as our bedroom.

No water ran in the bathroom, no whir came from the fan running, and no one stubbed their toe in the dark as they came back to bed.

The room was suddenly too quiet. The lack of sound was like an annoying buzz in my ears, static to fill in the empty spaces that was far too loud once you could sense it.

My husband hadn’t been home for weeks. Work had taken him out of the country, and he was supposed to have been home this week, but those things often changed.

How had I forgotten? What a bizarre, utterly mundane dream to leave me so confused. It was just like last year after my aunt died, when I dreamed of talking to her on the phone only to wake up and realize that the memory of that conversation wasn’t real.

Had I even met with our friends tonight? I strained to recall, but their faces were a blur. I couldn’t remember where we had gone. I couldn’t even tell whether I had met my husband’s coworkers or my friends from church. What had we talked about? Babies? The news? Those things were always coming up in conversation, but nothing seemed familiar.

My imagination must be having a rough time if this was the best dream it could come up with: uneventful conversations with people I already knew in which nothing changed. My muses must be bored. I should make a note to read some more interesting books.

I reset my phone to play nature sounds and lay back down to sleep.

I had a meeting that morning for the monthly women’s gossip session, or at least, that was how I thought of it. Ostensibly it couldn’t all be about women since men could come too, but most often, only women showed up to share what workout they were currently obsessed with because it was the greatest thing ever invented and solved their myriad, highly specific, and trendy health problems when combined with this very particular diet tailored to their genetic heritage, their environment, and the supplements available to them in this location.

I drank black coffee given my bad sleep the night before and sat on the fringes of the latest group to convert to cross-fit/Paleo, or was it Paleo/yoga? Were those regimens even compatible? It didn’t matter. I knew enough vagaries to talk about either if someone asked my opinion. It wasn’t important that I share my experiences so much as ask more about theirs. It was the same with babies: ask the moms questions because deep down, they don’t want to talk about you. Nobody does.

Once my requisite hour was up socializing with the other ladies, I left the room with a excuse about needing to get to my errands. I promised to meet some of them later that week for coffee or lunch so we could discuss the work that we had originally met up to talk about.

I called my husband/rescuer once I got out of sight and asked where he was. Fortunately, he had just finished up some paperwork and was free to drive me home given the heat outside.

I had to wait outdoors so I didn’t run into any of the ladies I had just abandoned, and the heat made me sleepy by the time my husband’s car appeared. On the way home, I just closed my eyes to block out the sun.

When I opened them, it was dark and I was lying down.

I flinched, kicking out and catching only bedcovers. Bedcovers?

I turned my head to get my bearings, but it was as dark as the inside of a black hole and probably just as quiet… unless planets or comets screamed as they were crushed to death, in which case it was probably as noisy as that pregnant silence that filled my ears like a wasp humming.

Once I realized it was my pillow under my head, I almost smiled in relief.

Wow, the muses really were dying of boredom. Now I was being treated to reruns of the last year of my attempts to socialize with other ladies before ultimately giving that up. With only slight variations, that dream could have been any one of a year’s worth of pointless coffees and lunches.

“Sorry,” I said just to break up the quiet as I turned over. I reached out to poke my husband’s shoulder and apologize for probably waking him up with my kicking about.

The shapes were all wrong.

His side of the bed was made up, which was odd. Why would he waste the time if he was coming right back to bed? Had he gone to pick up one of our cats as he sometimes did if he heard it meowing in the hall?

The silence in the room became the slow grinding of gears as my brain caught up with the rest of me.

My husband had been gone for over a month. There was no one here or in the hall.

I flinched anew. Why did this feel so familiar?

Wait, hadn’t I already had this dream? Or a dream? Hadn’t it too been utterly normal, as if I was spending time with friends or acquaintances that used to live here?

My phone hadn’t rung in days if not weeks. No one was calling me to arrange dinner with my husband and me. I hadn’t gone to a ladies’ meeting in over a year.

I lay back down after glancing at the clock. I still had hours to sleep.

“Did you bring the game?” my friend asked as I entered his apartment.

“It couldn’t be anything else in a box this big,” I said, hefting the giant bag holding my favorite card game and one I was eager to teach this group. “I didn’t have time to cook—“

“That’s okay. We were just going to order in this time,” my friend interrupted, closing the door behind me. “Have a seat. Coffee’s in the kitchen, beer’s in the fridge, take what you will.”

“Thanks,” I said as I set the box with the others at the table. I looked around at the familiar faces without being able to put names to any of them. My memory for faces was pretty bad when I’d only met them once, so this was normal enough.

I sat down.

“Hi, everyone,” I said, grinning although it felt a little manic. “I… um, I wanted to show you all my favorite game, the one you asked about last time.”

“Sounds good,” one friend said. “I looked it up. Apparently it won some Euro game award recently.”

“You’ll see why,” I said, opening the box with help from two others at the table. They started removing packs of cards without my asking, eager to get started.

“Did you want something before we start playing?” my other friend asked, standing up slightly.

“That’s alright. I just… want to show you how to play. So we can all play,” I said, my throat closing up around the words.

What was wrong with me?

“One sec. Allergies,” I said, waving a hand before leaving to find the bathroom and some tissues. My eyes were all scratchy too, so I leaned down to splash water on my face. “I’ll be right back. I’m not going anywhere. Please don’t go anywhere.”

I opened my eyes.

It was dark, and the room was quiet.

How funny, to dream of something so mundane. I had been showing… Steve, right? I had been showing Steve and some others how to play my favorite game. My husband hadn’t been there that time, but he would come to our next game night now that he was home.

Wait. I’d had this dream already. Now the dreams were Technicolor mundanity, complete with solicitous friends and eager listeners and clear dialogue. How completely unlike real life.

I checked my phone. The last message I’d had from Steve was from almost two months ago.

I put the phone down. It was still a few hours to dawn. My nature sounds had stopped playing, and the quiet was bothering me again. I turned so I could at least stare at my husband’s back.

The shadows were all wrong.

I sat up on one side and put out a hand. The blankets were all still tucked in, the pillow cold.

My husband had been gone for months. How had I…?

Dammit.

The Nightmare

by Sara Madan

Stranded on the side of the road not a single car had passed by…

My car had broken down in the foggy mist of nowhere. Trying my mechanical skills would be a death wish because I had none. My phone was dead. I decided to walk and find some form of life. I scavenged a flashlight from the dashboard and some left over snacks to keep me going. The foggy mist grew weary to the point I felt I was deep in clouds. The cold kept clinging to my skin like a death trail. I was alone and lost…

I had walked for almost an hour and half. Neither the fact that no vehicles had passed by, nor any sighting of a living form did not bury my confidence, I kept going. Then out of the blue, I saw something like a road sign in a far of distance. As I drew closer, the sign read “Silent Hill population none”. I thought, could this be a joke? My curiosity was begging me to unravel this fact, could it be true? Or was it a prank? Curiosity got the best of me as I moved forward and finally saw the shadows of the town in the distance.

I had finally arrived, the fog disappeared and the view was crystal clear. Houses and buildings were burnt down and I could hear faint groaning and rustling from the ruins. The trees had ghostly look and fearfully strange. As I moved further down I came across a mysterious town hall which was intact without any destruction. I decided to enter and find any signs of life that could help to fix my car. I was getting late and I am sure my parents were looking out for me. As I lunged open the door, I saw a shadow on the other side of the hall, I called “is anyone there? No answer, so I made my way to the other side of the hall, the shadow re-appeared it was skinny like a skeleton of an old man the only thing that was live was his fiery eyes. He had a crooked grin for a smile and as he spoke I could see his guts through his mouth. I asked him about the town, his reply was “welcome to hell”. My heart began to beat as he described how the foggy and misty road was the entrance to hell and that I had passed out at the side of the road in a horrific car accident. How could he have known about the road accident? Panic crept into my chest….you are dreaming…I try to assure myself and manage to cling on to that futile hope.

I whisper to myself…… am I really dead? My heart pounded furiously.

Where am I?

I eyed the portraits which were from the ceiling to floor, wall to wall; of people I knew, like my granddad and neighbours who had passed away long ago. I wondered why their portraits were here in this mysterious burnt out town. All of a sudden when the clock struck 12 midnight (that’s what I sensed), I heard someone whisper my name and then, simultaneously, all the portraits on the wall came alive. To my horror they were all disfigured faces staring at me, trying to touch me I turned to run out of the building to escape but the door was no more there, the creatures tried to claw into me, I futilely tried to escape, but my knees buckled the creatures were upon me, they said “it’s time to say goodbye” , I was choking in agony , blood oozing from my eyes, when I woke up screaming in cold sweat and my grandma holding me, whispering …it is only a dream, you are safe now.

A Life in Darkness

by Noor Nass

The dark as an adjective means with no light. The word dark as a noun means the absence of light in place. When the almighty created the earth, the earth was nothing but pitched black to the deep. The blackness to the creator was like a white page to the writer. There was nothing in that darkness not even a letter or a vowel in place. Like a blank paper ready to be written on, it was waiting to draw something.

To get the writer to be in character then he must write. Just like the creator used darkness and made light for things to be found and became a creator. Therefore, the writer must write to find the written word and be a writer.

Let that word be a story of darkness that took over my life, since I can recall. And, to find the light I had to walk the same path that I rejected over and over again.

I grew up with a 10% functional mother when I was a child. And, just because darkness took over her life.

She did not see life the way her children did or the way her husband did. As much as she was in darkness, the reality of the life we view today only made sense with a few words to her. Like “I am your mother” and “G’d is going to curse you and revenge me”. I lived with that threat constantly.

Growing up in the uptown of the East of the Island, when I was in second grade she hit me up harshly for telling her that I studied and got a 60% pass on one my subjects. She took the degree and shoved it in my face and kept on verbally repeating where is the study you studied. Then the verbal humiliation became physical, she took her heavy hands and slammed it on my 35 KG body.

First, she aimed to my arms, then she took her hands and slammed me on top of my legs- the thighs. And, last to the side way of my body. I was so bruised that you can see the purple effect on my skin.

I went running to my room locking the door behind me. I was saved by her big body that couldn’t keep up with me running around the room escaping her lashes, or my fate would have been worse.

My dad came back from work and found me that night crying myself to sleep and asked me what went wrong. And, I told him the story with showing the scars from the effects of the slams. We could tell, me, my dad, and my family that something was not right with this woman. As a child, I would be forgotten a few times after school due to her long naps and delusional state in the other world.

My mother wouldn’t work. Although she came from a well-off family that owned their own restaurant, and sent all brothers to western educational colleges. And, her sisters sent all their children to private schools for a British education. They would only allow a marriage to happen with their blessings to their offspring’s and siblings. Such as if the Man was not taught, did not work and did not pray five times a day, then it’s pointless to ask. In other words, a rocket science with no moon.

On the other hand, she dedicated herself to raise the children up instead of perusing a college degree. And as we grew older she perused a diploma degree in children’s education. Which, of course I can only remember her when it came time for food or visiting the evil castle of her sisters.

I tried to be a good child by listening to her but nothing she said would benefit me socially, emotionally, educationally, or physically. Her approach was always to serve her and to please her or I will be cursed because mothers hold the keys to heaven and I don’t.

of course, a lot of my friends do not get why I did not spend time with my mother or why I was so mean about it. Perhaps, what I could not understand about her mental situation made me in so much darkness.

Most people would go with just the feeling to be with a parent, I had to go with sympathy, apathy, guilt, forced kindness, obligations and duty. Her situation was difficult and because of social taboos her sisters and her would say there was nothing wrong. To the extent that they believed their own lies. Which is not a bad way of living but the planets will still not grow in my garden and that’s why it was a problem for me.

When I can see her speak to herself in the other world, fantasizing a different husband while she is in a marriage. Every family opportunity was invested on fighting with my father for torturing her to be on medication that are not working.

Then, it will move for his delusional understanding of the working environment, then it will move about how he should not talk about her Lebanese family. The woman used to make up fights and make up gossips that never happened. She cuts out family ties because she insists that my Aunt spoke behind her back when my aunt was in middle school. I was cursed with living with the devil’s creation, it was darkness like hell on earth.

On top of it we were brought up in a modern, Arabic setting where we relied on our parents to set the path for a good block to start our future. Unfortunately, due to the darkness we were in – it was impossible to see the light at the end of tunnel. Except if I meet someone, which I did.

Like an optimist I failed to see the challenges that came with the marriage or some people would say delusions, others would say like a good wife. But that life that made me experience my life for the first time and not force my parent’s life on me lasted until it lasted.

My Armageddon happened, my unexpected happened, and my worst nightmares happened. Like the air breeze stopped blowing my direction and began to mean a different meaning.

The meaning of my husband has altered, the best friend and my rock. That cutty hitting on me in the office while I thought he was separated turned against me. the idea of work, turned into a science experiment in my head. Should I salute the girl that was praying for something along those lines to happen, because I over smiled to everyone.

Mania gave me the feeling of euphoria like an apple falling to the ground at collision with the earth sounded like gravity to me and altered my reality. Like a different parallel world. Except this parallel world felt like a computer scientist that moved as fast as the speed of light to manage my information data.

My life was bummed, it was not like nothing was said and nothing was heard. I ran with my music. like a disease of the mind that held me- there was no place for comfort. Like a thief in the middle of the night that came and grabbed me and my family. To each member their own path. The city of light did not grab us, but religion did. And, it taught us one truth that in the end of darkness there were the pits of hell waiting for the time of our grave. Where it called on us.

To enjoy life, each escaped to their own madness. Except mine became officially true with a pen and a paper. It was dark with no hope. Only to empty my pockets more and ignore my heart, and fill in the pockets of that gold stamp of thee educated person with the convenience of their comfort. No one gave me comfort and no one gave me light, if they tried to pass on the light they would only burn me with it. That included anything I tried to build with that burned light.

I ran for six years in and out of mental institutes, they were painful, harsh and unrealistic. The symptoms of mania would get worse. I would not want to live because I would stop feeling. I would gain weight and be paralyzed .. not to mention sleep all the time. It was obvious it was not working and the more time you gave it. The mental institute would point out how stable I looked. Not to see their own blood on their hands. Like an elephant who was given stabilizers with no purpose to attend to.

The words of wisdom of the world order would not make sense anymore. Except the almighty gave me some truths that the light in my heart kept on fading away as the years passed on and the poisonous torture continued. I found some examples of life and versus helpful and they were: “Ask, and it shell be given to you; seek and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For everyone that asketh recives; and that seeketh, findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.” And, in my world it was “those that peruse will find.” But in reality, I knew from numerous examples in anything someone sets his hearts to shall find the desired outcome. In other words, light decided to shine on my state of darkness. It came as a lovely video stating the new technological evidence of micro-nutrition’s effecting mental health. I couldn’t believe what I heard.

It meant I can walk, talk and look like me. And not like an instrument for the devils and demons. Maybe, with Angels and a G’d.

It was the fifth month being on the doctors advise and no mother or father or a lover shed a tear for what I was feeling. I was in so much physical and emotional pain. I spoke to my father and he placed an order for the micro-nutrition bottle. Of course, being skeptic about the validity of it working. Like dreading the fact that I might come to life again. My order came two weeks after the initial request. I took the bottle from him and went back home. Every day as soon as I wake up I would take some vitamins, and at noon time I would take one again. After four days to one week I felt better. However, It was until I dropped the psychotic crazy drugs that the micro nutrition kicked in the stranger effects. There were hardly any voices, my chemicals felt relaxed and I did not sway with my emotions. As far as everyone is concerned I was experimenting what everyone feels in their daily experience of living on this earth. However, it was until my mind survived over and over the days ahead that I realized that it actually worked. That micro nutrition was able to give my chemicals a natural creation of serotonin to my body that would take me away from my parallel reality. It was not hiding the wounds but it was creating the natural substances of my own tissue. Like my own white blood cells. I finally found the light in my darkness. To remain there would have kept me in darkness; which was painful, would not shut up, would stop, would not rest and with no purpose that is visible in reality or outside of reality. I was scared and all on my own, with no justification but condemnation. It was Dark and I was scared.

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Richard Godwin

Our judge for the 4th Creative Writers’ challenge of this year, was born in London and obtained a BA and MA in English and American Literature from King’s College London, where he also lectured. He is also a published poet and a produced playwright. His stories have been published in over 29 anthologies, among them his anthology of stories, Piquant: Tales Of The Mustard Man. You can find out more about him at his website www.richardgodwin.net, where you can also read his Chin Wags At The Slaughterhouse, his highly popular and unusual interviews with other authors.

Richard is the author of critically acclaimed novels Apostle Rising, Mr. Glamour and One Lost Summer.

One Lost Summer is a Noir story of fractured identity and ruined nostalgia. It is a psychological portrait of a man who blackmails his beautiful next door neighbour into playing a deadly game of identity, and is available at all good retailers and online here.

Apostle Rising is a dark work of fiction exploring the blurred line between law and lawlessness and the motivations that lead men to kill. It digs into the scarred soul of a cop in the hunt for a killer who has stepped straight from a nightmare into the waking world. It is available here

Mr. Glamour is about a world of wealthy, beautiful people who can buy anything, except safety from the killer in their midst. It is about two scarred cops who are driven to acts of darkness by the investigation. As DCI Jackson Flare and DI Mandy Steele try to catch the killer they find themselves up against a wall of secrecy. And the killer is watching everyone. It is available here.

His fourth novel, Noir City, will be published next year in English and Italian by Atlantis. In it a Gigolo seduces the wife of a Mafia boss and is hunted across Europe.

Thank you Richard for that background information and a new addition to our manner of posting our monthly challenges.

The prompt for our October Challenge was:

While preparing your garden at the beginning of spring, you find the blueprints for your house buried in the earth. When you pull it out and examine it, you find that there is a room in the blueprint that doesn’t exist in your house. Both disturbed and intrigued, you set off to find the missing room. Write what happens next?

There was a slight change if someone wanted to base the story in Bahrain and that was that the blueprints could be found in some location other than ‘buried in the earth’ such as at the back of a shelf, in a box anywhere. The rest was left up to their imaginations. The word count was for 2000 words and all our entrants stayed well within the specified limit. Congratulations to our winners.

The following were selected as our winners:

In 1st Place we have Rebecca Young

Congratulations, Rebecca you’ve won first place for the third time!

THE MASTER PLAN

They had seen a dozen villas that day, but when the realtor showed Kate and Matt the Paradise Palms development, they were sold. It was a huge, new development, still under construction. It aimed to be the premier housing destination for young, hip families in the Kingdom of Bahrain.

Paradise Palms had everything on their wish list. It was huge, a labyrinth of quiet streets- all named for exotic flowers. Sidewalks lined every street, perfect for morning jogs, weekend bike rides and nightly strolls with Ella, who was almost 2.

At the front and center was the heart of the development, the clubhouse. The clubhouse included a playroom, a mini-theater, a conference room, a spacious workout room and a party space. Outside was a huge pool, chilled in the summer, heated in the winter, a nice lawn area with two picnic gazebos, a large playground and some tennis courts.

“I love all this! Just think, we’ll be able to entertain here. You’ll be able to play doubles, maybe there will be a playgroup for Ella. It will be perfect,” said Kate. The villa they decided to lease was several curved streets away from these amenities, on Hibiscus Lane, tucked away in a quiet corner of one of the first phases. Kate loved it because it had a larger yard and there would be less traffic.

“It will still be a while before Ella’s riding her bike around,” remarked Matt. “But it will be perfect when she is older.”

The development was brand new and over half of it was under construction. The empty streets with shells of houses in various stages of construction were a little eerie, another reason they chose their villa, on a street farther along the path to completion. A large empty space was kitty-corner from their villa.

“I’m sure it will be built up soon now that the economy is picking up,” assured the realtor.

So the couple signed the lease and in less than a week, they moved from their hotel into the villa. Their house was five bedrooms, which had seemed a little excessive for the three of them. Just more spaces to furnish. But one could serve as an office for Matt and the other could be a playroom for Ella, even though her room really was large enough for all her toys.

Given a generous furniture allowance from Matt’s company, Kate enjoyed outfitting the house. Their shipment came less than a month later. It was providential; Ella had become bored with the small selection of toys they had brought in the carry-ons. And Kate was feeling so homesick for her family pictures, their throws and pillows, her owl-shaped kitchen timer; homesick for all those touches that transform a house into a home. Once they were unpacked and carefully placed, Kate finally felt settled in. Just like that, Villa 264 was home.

“I love living here,” remarked Matt, coming home sweaty from some early morning doubles.

“It is paradise,” said Kate.

The only fly in the ointment was the fact that the development seemed to screech to a standstill. Partially completed villas remained unfinished and no new ground was broken. The empty parcels of dusty earth drove Kate crazy. Especially the lot kitty corner across the street, because all that empty expanse of dirt blew across the street and into her house, sneaking in through the gaps and windows. A fine layer of sand coated everything, her counters, the floor, the fruit in the fruit bowl.

They had lived in Paradise Palms for nine months when Kate had to go to the development’s main office to register their new car for a security sticker. She had walked there, with Ella in tow, asleep in her stroller.

“Hello? Anyone here?” Kate asked as she pushed her stroller through the door. She walked over to the desk, where the secretary, Jeanie, had left a note that read: “Out to lunch, back at 2 p.m.”

Since it was a quarter till two and Ella was still asleep, Kate decided to just wait in the office. She sat down and picked up one of the complementary magazines. She quickly discovered she had already read this issue of Bahrain Confidential. Bored, she looked around the office.

Across the room, one wall was covered in a huge poster, an artists rendering of the aerial view of Paradise Palms. It was a little difficult to decipher at first, but Kate oriented herself and was able to see just how large and ambitious the development was.

While looking at the rendering, Kate spotted several features in the master plan that were not yet built. There was supposed to be a small mosque and cold store in the southeast corner, by Gate Two. Over off of what appeared to be Magnolia, there was supposed to be a play structure in an empty lot. And there, on Hibiscus Lane, just kiddie-corner from their place, was another park. The artist had chosen to illustrate this with swings, a play structure with a good-size slide and some monkey bars.

“This will be fantastic for Ella!” Kate said to herself. “I hope they get to it sooner than later.”

Just then Jeanie walked in, back from lunch and started cooing over Ella, who woke up when the door banged open. She secured the car tag and dreamed the whole walk back of their own playground, just across the street.

“Guess what?” she asked Matt that night. “There is going to be a park across the street from our house in that empty lot!”

“If they ever get around to it,” was his pessimistic reply.

Month after month Kate watched the lot, dreaming of the fabulous play space Ella would have, just a stone’s throw away from the house. They could go there every day, not worrying about bringing along water bottles and snacks and worrying about bathroom timing, because they could just dash home and dash back. As Ella got older, she might be able to play there herself while Kate watched her from her front porch or while puttering around in their garden. It would be perfect.

They had gone to Dubai for a long holiday weekend and when they returned late at night, Kate noticed some construction vehicles had arrived while they were away.

“Oh look, they are going to work on the park,” she remarked to Matt as they were hauling the suitcases inside.

But shortly after midnight, stadium lights flooded their bedroom and the deafening sound of idling semis filled their house, punctuated here and there by back-up beeps, revving engines and bang-clanks.

“What on earth?” said Matt, going to the window to investigate. “I don’t think they are building a park, babe.”

“You think?” she quipped, crossly. Just then Ella woke up and came to sleep with them. They passed an awful night, trying to block out the sound and light. Finally at 6 a.m., the noise knocked off, just in time for Matt to wake up and get ready for work. Kate tried to stay in bed with a restless Ella, but figured going back to bed for maybe another hour until Ella woke up just wasn’t worth it.

“What do you suppose they were doing?” she asked Matt. “Drilling an oil well. Only thing it can be. I’ll ask Bob, he might know,” he answered. “But I doubt they’re finished. We better brace ourselves for another night.” Matt’s words turned out to be prophetic. It wasn’t just another night, it was two and a half weeks of drilling. Kate put up blackout curtains on top of their shades and ran fans at night to try to block out some of the noise, but they were still on edge and exhausted by the end. The drilling always started late and night and finished just after the first call to prayer.

“Why, oh why, does it have to be at night?”

“Something about the gases and it being cooler. And Bob said if we ever hear an alarm, that means they hit this poisonous, odorless gas they run into some time. He said we need to go to the roof right away until it dissipates.”

“So there is a chance they could hit a gas that could kill us and they didn’t think to warn us?” Kate was incredulous.

“Hey, it is paying for our lifestyle and we drive a car. We have no room to complain about a little oil well,” said David. Kate stuck her tongue out at him, which she knew was childish but it made her feel better.

Kate stewed over the oil well the whole time. Ella was crabby due to the lack of sleep, then got sick, so they were housebound. From her room, Kate could see the cranes parked, the equipment at the ready for another night of drilling. She kept thinking about how that was supposed to be her park! Ella’s park. Were they going to still fit a park in front of the well? That was the main selling point of Paradise Palms after all: the green spaces and the parks, not dirt lots, construction noise and oil wells. Finally one day, all fired up, Kate decided to walk over to the development’s main office and get to the bottom of things. Thankfully, Ella crashed out in the stroller the minute they turned the corner.

Jeanie greeted her, “How can I help you today?”

“Hi. I want to know why they are drilling an oil well across the street from my house?” asked Kate.

“You must live off of Hibiscus. We have been getting some complaints, but they are approaching the end of the construction, right on track, within the 20 day estimate.”

“Yes, but why is there an oil well there?” asked Kate.

“Because there is oil there?” said Jeanie, puzzled.

“Obviously, but I thought it was supposed to be a park!”

“Oh no. Oil well. Not a park. But we have a lovely park just off of Orchid and of course there is the one right out here.

“But on the master plan, it shows one right across the street from us,” said Kate, trying to be patient.

“Oh, that thing?” said Jeanie, looking at the wall. “That was before we got government approval for our plans. That was the sales pitch to investors. Not a real master plan.”

“But why do you have it up then, if it isn’t what the development is actually like?”

Jeanie shrugged. “It looks nice. And it would have been nice if we could have done all that. See how much bigger the clubhouse and park are on there? And see the third gate there? And this extra bit of walking trail? You have to dream big, then scale back. It is still a nice development. Just a pity about the oil well. But it should be done and dusted soon enough.”

“Yes, a pity,” said Kate, feeling foolish. The differences were glaringly obvious now that Jeanie pointed them out. “Well, thank you.”

She took the sleeping Ella back home. When she got to her villa, she turned to the lot, where the oil pump stood, partially installed.

“Khalas,” she sighed. “Not a park.” Kate was grateful Ella didn’t realize she’d been cheated out of slides, swings and a jungle gym. She thought about some of the other wells she had seen. Once in a while, they would paint them like giraffes, zebras or birds. “Hmmm… I wonder what it would take to get them to paint it?”

And with that, she went inside, put Ella down for a nap and got online to look for play structures for their back yard.

In 2nd Place we have Simi Kamboj

Congratulations, Simi once again you’re a winner!

THE ROOM OF BEGINNINGS

We are withholding Simi’s story at her request as she is developing it further.

In 3rd Place we have Kelli Horner

Congratulations, Kelli! This was your first challenge and we look forward to more stories in the future.

THE BLUEPRINTS

“I’m not your gardener!” I moaned as my mom handed me the gloves and a shovel.  It was the first day of summer and I’d just finished my freshman year of college.  I needed a couple of days to de-stress before my summer job as a camp counsellor started.

But mom had other ideas.  Apparently, she missed the free manual labour I provided, pre-college.  She decided that it was time to say goodbye to the old apple tree in the backyard, the one that had been slowly dying since I was in diapers.

She smiled a sweet smile, kissed my head and gently shoved me out the door.

“I’ll bring you some sweet tea in a bit, dear!” she promised, shutting the door.  I knew she planned to spend the day in her sewing room, working on a hand-made wedding dress she had been hired to make.  She was going to make $10,000 for this one job, which was why I had to be the one to uproot the apple tree- she couldn’t risk hurting her hands.

Grumbling, I marched towards the tree.  As far as I remembered, it had never produced a single apple in the twenty years we’d lived in the house, though mom told me that the previous owners had used it as one of the main selling points- fresh apples whenever you wanted.  It had supposedly been planted eighty years ago, when the house was first built.

I started digging, hoping to get the whole project over and done with as soon as possible.  It was already hot and extremely humid- summer in Savannah always was.  I had been digging for about thirty minutes when my shovel struck something harder than the dry Georgia earth.  I hit it again and it made a hollow, wooden thud.  With a renewed energy, I quickly dug up a wooden box.  It was about the size of a breadbox and it had been nailed shut.  It looked hand-made and it definitely appeared to have been there a while.

Dropping the shovel, I hurried to the tool shed to grab some of my dad’s long-neglected tools.  I sat on the edge of the patio and worked at opening the mysterious box.  When I finally cracked the lid, I discovered it had been lined with tin to protect another smaller box, this one an old, expensive looking lock box.  Someone had gone to great extremes to protect whatever was inside.

I felt like a detective, working to open this new box, not knowing what I would find inside.  I hammered, banged, poked and kicked until finally, the lock fell away, winking at me in the morning sunlight.

I was disappointed to say the least- it was nothing but some old blueprints and a key that I distractedly stuck in my pocket.  Still, it was better than digging up a tree. Maybe they’d be of interest to someone- dad perhaps.  Looking more closely, I noticed that they appeared to be the original blueprints to our house, back before the garage had been added on and the kitchen expanded.

Smiling, I walked my fingers over the blueprints, taking my home-from-school-route from the front door to the kitchen to my bedroom when I noticed something strange.  Between the dining room and the stairway, there seemed to be an extra room.

No one had ever mentioned this room to me.

Scooping up the blueprints, I headed inside.  I could hear mom’s sewing machine humming and I knew better than to disturb her when she was in sewing-mode.  She could be a scary dragon lady when she was working.

Feeling like a detective, I went into the dining room and knocked on the wall that ran alongside the stairs.  But it didn’t really do me any good, since I didn’t know what I was listening for.  So I went around to the stairwell. Trying to make as little noise as possible, so mom wouldn’t catch me inside instead of outside, I started to move things out of the closet. It took me thirty quiet minutes to make enough space to be able to fit into the closet.  The closet had a sloping ceiling that ended in a point at the base of the stairs.  When I was little, I used to pretend it was a secret fort.  But if there was a room on the other side of the wall, it would stand to reason that there would need to be a door, and in all the time I spent in this space as a child, I had never noticed a door.

I started knocking on the wall again, not sure what I was listening for, hoping it would be a movie moment and I’d know it when I heard it.  And sure enough, I did.  As I squeezed myself down into a squat position near the back of the closet, I knocked and it sounded different.  It sounded hollow.  Could there really be a door behind this wall?  How did I not know about this?  I poked my head out of the closet and heard my mom’s sewing machine still whining.  I was probably safe for a little longer.

I ran outside and got the hammer and brought it in the closet.  I tap-tap-tapped along the wall until I found the spot where the sound changed.  Knowing I was probably going to get in so much trouble, I hit the wall with the hammer and felt the satisfying give of the dry wall.  I pulled down the rest with my fingers and found that there was, indeed, a door behind the dry wall.  Someone had put a wall over the existing wall specifically to cover this door, it seemed.  The door was small- if I was going in, I was going on my hands and knees.  There wasn’t a handle, only a keyhole.  The key from the lock box!  I pulled it out of my pocket and put it in the hole- it fit, of course.  I turned the lock and slowly pushed the door open.

At first it was too dark to see.  I felt along the wall but couldn’t find a light switch.  I almost had a heart attack when something brushed up against my face, then I realized it was the pull string for a light.  I pulled it and it took my eyes a second to readjust.

When they did, I was confused and then horrified.  The room, which was long and so narrow that I could touch both walls with my elbows when my hands were on my hips, was covered with newspaper clippings and articles about murders.  The newspaper articles dated back more than twenty-five years and were from big cities all over the US- Houston, Washington D.C., Portland, and San Francisco.  And Savannah.  Cities where my parents had lived.

Young girls had been murdered in every city.  Their heads had been cut off and placed on their stomachs with their hands propped up and holding the head in place, like a gruesome Jack-o-Lantern.  The killer had left their eyes open.  Their lips had been sewn shut.

“Oh my God,” I whispered.  The girls were all sixteen to nineteen years old.  They had all been good girls from good families.  They had all gone missing from their high schools or colleges.

The sudden realization sickened me.  My dad was a college professor.  He had taught at all the colleges that the girls had attended.  He sometimes guest lectured at local high schools.  He was kind of weird, a real introvert.  I remember him asking my mom to teach him to sew, so he could fix seams or rips when he was traveling.  He was terrible at it.

Panicking, I knew I had to get my mom out of the house- we had to leave before he got home from work.  Whirling around, I gasped as I ran straight into my mother who had somehow managed to crawl into the small room without me hearing.  My heart was pounding.

“Mom, we have to leave!  Dad might be a serial killer!  Look at this…”  I trailed off when I noticed that she was calmly blocking the doorway, holding up a needle and thread in one hand and a dress in the other.  The look in her eyes, though, was maniacal- like nothing I’d ever seen.   “What are you doing?  What is this… all this about?  Mommy?” I whispered.

She started at the word mommy and for a second, I saw the mother I knew- the one who baked cookies and was president of the PTA; the mom who had driven me to gymnastics and Girl Scouts.  My mom, who insisted on family Christmas pictures in matching sweaters and who woke me up every year on my birthday at 4:26am with a cupcake.

“It shouldn’t really be you,” she started, talking to herself more than me.   “I’ve been so good for so long, only a few girls here and there.  You were such a good distraction.  But you left.  I’ve been bored,” she trailed off.

“Mom?” I whispered again, terrified.

“I’ve been working on this dress for you,” she said, holding an old-fashioned, high-collared dress up.    “It’s going to fit so nicely,” she smiled, seemingly lost in thought.  “This room is sound-proofed, you know?  The people who built the house had a crazy mother-in-law who liked to scream and sometimes she would wander out of the house at night.  This was the only place she couldn’t be heard, couldn’t escape from.  It’s a perfect space, really.”

I whimpered.

“It was never supposed to be you,” she muttered.  “I should’ve buried the box somewhere else.  Then we could’ve had apples… Then everything would have been okay.”

She moved around me, dropping the dress to the floor.  She ran her hands lovingly over the newspaper articles taped to the wall and started reading one of the articles.

“ ‘The clothes they wore were not their own- families and friends were able to say this conclusively.  They were hand-made and fit each victim perfectly, as if they had been made specifically for them.’  They were, you know?  Made specifically for them.  I saw them and could judge their sizes perfectly, even from across the campus.  They never really appreciated the hard work that went into making those beautiful clothes.”

Without warning, she spun around and took my face in her hands and started to squeeze.  She forced me to my knees.  I looked into her eyes and saw that my mom was gone, replaced by this other, insane woman.  She held up the needle again.

“No one appreciates quality anymore. Your father won’t be home for hours.  It’s time I gave you a sewing lesson,” she said, closing the door behind her.

The challenge for September, was to create a thriller based in Bahrain with a word count of 800 to 1200 words. We encouraged lots of atmosphere, shadows and whispers, screams and deadly silences and that good old staple – the chase!

Our judge was the well known writer Paul D Brazill. He is the author of the black comedies Guns Of Brixton and Gumshoe, as well as Roman Dalton- Werewolf PI and The Noir World Of Luke Case, a noir romp which takes place in various cities throughout Europe – Warsaw, Madrid, Granada, Toulouse & Cambridge. His stories have been published in various magazines and anthologies, including The Mammoth Book Of Best British Crime 8 and 10 – alongside the likes of Lee Child, Ian Rankin and Neil Gaiman.

Paul’s overall comments were very encouraging. He said, the entries were, “A particularly good selection of stories. All the writers followed the guidelines and used the word count really well. I felt that all the stories would only benefit from being longer.” This is such an endorsement for our writers and as I’ve been saying a unique opportunity to get feedback at this level.

All the entrants received a general overall comment which was both encouraging and helpful.

In First Place we have Rebecca Young

THE STALKER

Congratulations! Rebecca you are a second time winner!

We’re holding the story back as Rebecca is working on it, to hopefully send it in to one of the magazines that Paul has suggested.

In Second Place we have Adnan Al-Baroudi

Congratulations Adnan! This is a first-time entry and you’ve done very well, we look forward to other stories.

THE CHILDREN ARE CRYING

“You must hurry, Markus.” The distant voice called from behind the walls. “The children are crying, and the flood waters continue to rise.”

This voice – this mysterious entity has been speaking to me ever since I entered this god-forsaken tomb. I should’ve stayed at the campsite. I should’ve never come here. I’ve had a terrible feeling about this place ever since I arrived here, and truth be told, I was given warnings aplenty, but the strange invitation letter from my old friend Commodore Theodore Barnabus, who was extremely adamant on inviting me here without giving away any details about the purpose of the invitation intrigued me.

There was something else beyond natural that was residing beneath the earth that they were beginning to discover, and they seemed quite convinced that it was behind a series of unfortunate episodes that had put a kink into some of their operations. Theodore explained that the colonists did not want to openly admit it, but he could read the concerned looks they quietly exchanged with each other and understood as well as they did that they must have stirred a dormant evil. I was only an archeologist and doctor of human psychology, so why else invite me?

This was supposed to be a brief visit. My study was supposed to proceed back in my mansion in Luxembourg. The only instruments I brought with me was equipment to measure small samples of rock and soil, a recorder, a dated map of the island and some assorted reads about the history and relevant commentary on this region. However, the exit is sealed. I am now isolated from my camp inside the earthly caverns beneath the soil and all I’m left with is my journal and this useless lantern that doesn’t illuminate anything but my trembling hand. The air here is dank, and I’m reminded of the scent of death everywhere I turn. There are carvings down here in an ancient hieroglyphic language I do not recognize, and chillingly detailed symbols too graphic for me to describe. Whatever made these was a sinister being, and I am left to wonder if the voice speaking to me somehow bares some answers to a lot of these … inscribed memories.

There is a history here lying dormant. I’ve seen my fair share of paranormal activities in the past. The caves of North Africa come to mind; the forests of Manchuria, and that one incident in the Southern Islands of Indonesia – but this place feels completely different.

I did some of my investigation as soon as I arrived on the shores of Manama. The fort construction was proceeding on schedule, and other than the occasional dissent everything was progressing with absolute normalcy. That was until one night when the tide moved in a little closer than people had anticipated, and with it an ancient stone seal beneath the sand collapsed only  a few miles from the fort’s location, what nobody realized was that the doorway behind this seal belonged to a large burial mound that had been buried beneath the sand for over four thousand years. No one had noticed it before. No one cared to ask. No one dared to approach it, and so it was ignored.

Until some weeks went by and night fell over the labor camps near the construction site people reported a loud and terrifying scream. The scream sounded like a child. And this was strange, because there are no children in the camp. The next morning a labor worker went missing.

This cycle repeated itself every single day afterwards, while other accidents began to arise. One incident saw three laborers dead of dreadful incinerations following a fire the night before. In another incident two soldiers were found drowned off shore with their feet chained to a heavy weight, once again there was no explanation for it. Work was getting disrupted due to what people described were strange ghost sightings, and it wasn’t long before things began to turn very sour. These sightings escalated to the point when laborers reported a gunshot, and the soldier in question was found the next morning huddling in a corner and quivering in terror over the limp corpse of his comrade. When asked what had happened he offered no sensible explanation.

The soldier was executed, as per protocol, but I was finally allowed to view the reports and was chilled at what he described. He simply said: “I did it for the children. He needed me to save the children.” And when asked who was ‘he’ the soldier only said: “A voice.”

Command eventually had to issue strict orders to restore some measure of order, among them were that there would be no mention of ghosts, and any such mention would result in harsh punishment. This of course did little to perturb chaos, because the very same day those orders were barked out almost twenty laborers that night had suffocated in their beds.

I’m left to wonder if perhaps it was this same voice the soldier mentioned that was accompanying me through these dark tunnels. He had a sound that I could only describe as alarmingly mechanical, and lacking any morsel of remorse, and yet there was an urgent weight to his tone. Each time he called me by name I felt as though I was listening to an old friend, as though he was expecting me.

I had barely slept the first night in the small camp I established beside the burial mounds before I heard the scream of a small child. I woke to feel the familiar crawls prickling up my spine and recognized that there would be no sleep tonight. Gathering what courage I could muster, I stepped out from my camp armed only with a lantern. In the silent approach to the burial mound my boots crunched over the sand and the distant sea crashed against the shore.

“You should hurry, Markus,” the voice invited me. “The children are crying.”

In Third Place we have Maeve Skinner

Congratulations Maeve! This is a first-time entry and you’ve done very well, we look forward to other stories.

MISSING

Ben was playing hide and seek in the food aisles of Al Osra.

I was in a hurry. ‘Bennnn, Mummy has to go – now,’ I called again.

Still no sign of his little body racing to hurl himself against my legs. The assistants hadn’t seen him for a few moments. My frustration replaced by a flutter of realization. He wasn’t in the shop. Glanced towards the car park and saw him. He held the hand of a woman I’d never seen before, walking away from the store.

‘What are you doing with my son!’ I shouted at the stranger and swept Ben into my arms. ‘Buwds’, he pointed towards the aviary.

‘Where were you taking him?’ I shouted at the stranger.

‘What’s the problem,’ she looked surprised.  ‘I was leaving the store when this beautiful boy appeared at my side. He pointed outside, I assumed he was following his mother. He pulled me towards the aviary. Why did you leave your son to wander off alone?’

I glared. Embarrassed. ‘I apologize. Thank you for looking after my son.’ I turned to leave.

She peered closely. ‘Are you Ruth Martin?’

‘Yes. But we haven’t met…’

‘We have. Almost three years ago when our babies were born in Awali Hospital. I’m Anna McCann. Don’t you remember me? We were in the same antenatal class but we moved to Dubai shortly after.’

‘No, I’m sorry.’ I studied her. Nondescript features, doughy complexion, tired eyes and lank, loose hair.

‘So many of that group left Bahrain after you’d had your babies. What did you have?

‘A boy, his name was Anthony.’

Was! The word hung between us. The look in her eye was disturbing.

‘He died a year ago, on his second birthday. He would have been three on 22nd.  Like Ben.’

‘I’m so sorry…’

‘It’s alright.  I go through this more times than you can imagine. I usually deny having a child. But when Ben appeared ….’

Fortunately Ben chose that moment to break the tension.  ‘Go car, Mummy,’ he tugged my arm. His face flushed with heat.

‘Sorry Anna, I have to go.’ Damn. My third Sorry to this disturbing woman.

‘We must meet up. We’ve recently moved to Amwaj and I don’t know many people. Give me your number and I’ll give you a missed call. Perhaps we could meet for coffee.’

Reluctantly I reeled off my number, tempted to give a wrong digit but Amwaj was too small. I’d bump into her anyway.

I put Ben into his baby seat and reversed out.  Anna stood unmoving, watching us. I waved. She didn’t wave back.

The first call came three days later. ‘Please come to tea and biscuits with Ben.’  Against my will I agreed. I felt sorry for her. Guilt I suppose.

Anna lived in Zawia 1, overlooking the Lagoon.

‘This is Anthony’s room. I’ve kept it as it would be, if he was alive.’

My blood ran cold as she showed me the car shaped bed. Bookshelves filled with neatly stacked books and games. A child’s desk and chair. A cupboard filled with clothes to fit Ben’s size. She must have brought all this stuff recently.

‘I cant accept that he’s gone,’ she explained. ‘An accident in a building site. He wandered off and entered an empty building and fell down a lift shaft.’

Too terrible to contemplate.  Anna had a breakdown and was still under medication.

Anna continued to find excuses to meet . I agreed, even inviting her to our house on Tala.  Her sadness hung like a shroud fuelling my unwarranted guilt.  She clung to Ben, tempting him with gifts from Anthony’s hoard. He wriggled away, guided by a sixth sense.

Anna became my Stalker: At the supermarket. Out walking. On the beach. ‘Just passing by.’

Things reached a climax. One day I returned to the house and found her in Ben’s bedroom. Sitting on his bed reading from one of ‘Anthony’s’ books.

‘What are you doing here?’ I yelled hysterically.

‘I rang the doorbell but no answer.  Saw Ben crying at the window. I pushed the door and Darling Ben let me in. He handed me one of Anthony’s books – how could I refuse?’

‘That’s a lie!’ I shouted. I called for Carmel, my housegirl. ‘Did you hear the doorbell. Did you let this woman in?’

‘No Ma’am. I was outside hanging washing, door not locked. I didn’t see lady.’

I was furious. ‘Ben doesn’t like anyone to read to him except for John and me.’

‘Perhaps he likes my voice,’ she said unsmiling. ‘Anthony loved me reading to him. I’ve brought more of his books for Ben. He was really enjoying this story, weren’t you my darling.’ A shiver ran up my spine as she cuddled my son and kissed his head.

‘Get out. Don’t ever come into my house again.’ Quick as a flash, Anna gave Ben another kiss. I’ll see you again,’ she whispered and left.

What happened to Anthony? I checked the web for Emirati newspapers of a year ago. There it was.  Mystery of English toddler found dead on building site.  Workmen had seen a woman and child on a balcony. The child standing on the edge. The woman seemed to reach for him but he fell to his death.  She was arrested but released into psychiatric care. An icy hand clutched my heart.

The day before Ben’s 3rd birthday I had a splitting headache. I dozed in bed, Ben playing in his room nearby. Carmel ironing in the kitchen. I heard Ben giggle. Smiled to myself; such a happy child.  Then silence. Too quiet. I jumped up;  Ben’s room was empty.

‘Where is he Carmel?’

‘Didn’t see him Ma’am.’

Heard shouting from crowd gathered at building site across wasteground. Yelling and pointing upwards. Small figure standing in open lift, six floors up. It was Ben. ‘How did he get there?’  Then I saw Anna behind him.

My winged feet raced across the sand. I screamed helplessly.  The foreman assessed the situation. Sent a group up the stairs, stationing one at each floor where the lift stopped.  The crane driver dispatched a worker to perch on the end of the wire and slowly manoeuvred it to swing towards the lift.

‘Mummeee, Mummeee,’ Ben crying for me. Heartbroken, I stood frozen and helpless.  Watched in horror as Anna, arm outstretched, stepped nearer to Ben. As she closed in, Ben stepped forward, towards the edge.

‘Come to me!’ Anna’s shriek floated down.  She pressed a button and the lift shook and moved higher. A collective roar rose from the crowd.

‘He’s mine,’ her screams echoed around the empty building. The cab driver re-positioned his crane. The wire now hung close to Ben. His fearful cries tore me to shreds.  A young man stood up on his precarious perch. His arm swept out and grabbed my son to safety.

An inhuman howl of anguish rent the air:  ‘Anthony why didn’t you come to me when I called,’ Anna screeched as her body spiralled down to her death.

April 2018
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