May 2, 2019 at 11:06 am #5046RaineParticipant
I’m trying out a different format for this based on discussions, so am giving us a two month window to help more people post. There wasn’t a massive consensus on how to select winners so for this one, I’ll stick to just me choosing, unless anyone wants to message me their preferences and then I’ll make it a combined thing.
So… the task this time is simply to post the opening 400 words of any short story/wip that you are working on. It’ll be judged purely on ‘how much do I want to read on’.
If anyone is not working on a bigger thing just now and/or wants a prompt instead, then 300-400 words based in your old school, after hours.
Have fun 🙂May 2, 2019 at 11:51 am #5048
Excellent idea RaineMay 2, 2019 at 12:37 pm #5049AthelstoneModerator
The Memory Thing
I think it was reproach: that look on his face; or maybe despair. I only had a second to work it out as he fell backwards onto the tracks. That’s an odd way to put it. I mean, I wasn’t actually trying to work anything out, let alone his expression. And I was shocked; I hardly registered what happened. This man, this young man, alive then dead in an instant. At the time I thought he looked surprised, and that’s what I said. But when I’d had longer to think, it might have been reproach and I felt guilty.
I came to this town to assist the Haedus Finance Company in installing and testing a new IT system. That’s what I do. In the morning I left my hotel and walked to the station intending to catch a train three stops to the Haedus Finance Data Centre. Everything was entirely normal: the spring sunshine, the steady stream of people to and fro, the convivial smokers grabbing a last cigarette before heading to the trains. Once I had found my platform, I relaxed and looked around me. Passengers waited in disordered rows or in knots laughing and telling stories about last night in the pub or the day ahead: whatever bound them together. Next to me, a man of about my age in a blue suit rocked from toe to heel. He had a paper tucked under one arm while a case swung gently at the end of the other. He stared implacably across the tracks over the heads of passengers waiting on the opposite platform and I had the notion that if only I could see what he was looking at, I might understand a little more about him. So I stared where he stared.
In the ironwork of the roof I could see movement and a ragged bird’s nest spilling over the edge of a girder. The movement was a cat. It was so unexpected; how did a cat get up there? The cat pounced. Wings beat frantically. Debris fell to the roof of a kiosk below, a splattering that might have been eggs or chicks. I turned. Was my blue-suited neighbour as surprised as I was? I was about to say that it wasn’t something you saw every day, but the words died on my lips. A young man blocked my view and he was looking at me.May 2, 2019 at 3:08 pm #5050John S AltyParticipant
The pirogue nudged its way between the cypress stumps, lily pads parting in its path and reuniting in its wake. The only sounds came from the rustle of leaves in the slight breeze and the occasional slap and roil of a feeding bass. It was late afternoon; a low sun dappled the brown surface of the bayou and the shadows pointed like gnarled fingers towards the east. The boy guided the boat alongside the wooden pier and stepped ashore with the mooring line. A grey heron shrieked and lifted off, startling him. He swallowed hard and waited for his heartbeat to settle before he tied the mooring line to a cleat. The shack at the end of the pier was one of hundreds in the vast swamp, erected by fishermen who came for the catfish and crappie. Some used them as a base to tend their moonshine stills. This one was different.
Early that day, as dawn turned the mist rising from the wetlands into swirls of fire, the boy had slipped out of the shotgun house where he lived with his grandparents and jogged down the dirt road towards the single lane highway. Most days he made this journey with less urgency, to meet the yellow school bus which would carry him to the junior high school in Homewood, but it was Saturday and he was on a mission. The boy paused to shift the canvas sack from one shoulder to the other then picked up his pace again. The sack carried two bottles of water, his first aid kit and his filleting knife. Also in the sack, wrapped in an oily cloth, was his grandpa’s ancient Colt Model 1909 revolver which had first seen service in WW1. He crossed the highway and plunged into the cypress trees on the far side where the solid ground quickly gave way to swamp. Tied to a tree was his fishing pirogue and into it he dropped the sack, pushing it securely under the amidships seat. Then he retrieved his paddle from its hiding place and put that in the boat too. He took a deep breath, clenched and unclenched his fists. He had to go, he couldn’t back out now.May 2, 2019 at 4:18 pm #5056SquidgeParticipant
Apologies…409 words. 😉
By Tilda’s twenty-sixth attempt to produce an illuminorb, Silviu’s patience was wearing thin.
“Concentrate, Tilda,” the Ambakian powermage snapped.
“I am concentrating.” Tilda rubbed her palm against her trouser leg. It felt hot; surely she must’ve been close to pulling the Power down that time?
“Again.” Silviu grabbed Tilda’s hand and pulled her arm straight out in front of her.
Tilda gritted her teeth. She’d never get the hang of this. She could feel the Power inside, fizzing through her veins as it had done ever since her initiation, but she couldn’t seem to pull it outside of herself to form one of the illuminated spheres that Silviu had demonstrated so easily.
Silviu sighed and rubbed his forehead. “Remember what I told you. Say the words illuminarka spherus, imagine a channel in your arm and direct the Power along it, towards your hand. Then you can shape the Power into something more tangible – like an orb.”
“And if I can’t?”
Silviu’s blue eyes shone like chips of ice when he replied. “You must. You cannot progress any further with your training as a powermage until you succeed.”
And how long would he be prepared to wait for that? Tilda’s stomach dropped into her boots. If she failed to achieve this first step in her training, would Silviu start looking for another mage to represent Merjan?
She wouldn’t be beaten by a little ball of light. She squared her shoulders, closed her eyes, and focussed on the fizzing sensation. It had been strange to feel that extra something inside her body over the last few days, and its constant presence had fooled her into thinking it would be easy to use the Power. But to consciously tune into that sensation and draw on it to produce an orb was much harder than it looked.
The doubt demons struck; you can’t do it!
Don’t think about failing, a little voice said in Tilda’s head. You can see and sense the Power – heck, you’ve even spoken to it. You can’t give up, not after everything you’ve gone through to become the Mage of Merjan. Concentrate… and try again.
Tilda took a deep breath and quieted her thoughts. In her head, she imagined a line, running from her chest to her shoulder, then along her arm and thickening where it reached her palm. Concentrating hard, she visualised the fizzing as blue light, and gently, drew it along the line, colouring her whole arm blue.May 2, 2019 at 5:18 pm #5060SandraParticipant
Drink with a dead man – and apologies, 410 words
Innocuous in colour as a Rich Tea biscuit, the envelope was angled so as to fit into the grey metal cell of the Post Restante box. Illuminated by the single bare bulb in the narrow passage between front and rear of the shop, the vertical/horizontal of the letter’s shadow made of it a hitman, waiting with casual menace on an intended target. Kit Talamantes, thumb and first finger of his right hand gripping the key with which he had unlocked and pulled open the battered grey metal door, found himself reluctant to take hold of it.
Behind him, an eruption of laughter. Glancing back he saw it came from what, in rural Spain, passed for a queue; its collective amusement directed at a sun-wrinkled seventy-year old, whose purchase of stamps had drawn bantered accusations of a secret lover. Her enjoyment of the attention made a mockery of his fears; he reached in, grasped the letter and twitched it out, dismissing as overly dramatic the fingertip sensation of a sting.
Cheap, flimsy, and lightweight enough to hold the possibility of emptiness. Handwriting unknown; his name correctly spelled. Airmail sticker, British stamps, postmark indecipherable.
He made his way out of the shop. Debated whether or not to open it immediately, then decided coffee – and sitting down – might be a wiser … precaution?
Across the square, he chose a table which offered privacy. Slid a finger into the gap at the top corner of the envelope, tugged gently outward, slitting it, jaggedly, along the fold, and looked inside.
It was not empty. Not quite.
Someone had gone to the trouble of cutting a single notification from a column of an English newspaper. Had cut it in such a way as to leave it attached to the blank outer margin and the page header. Had neatly folded the strip, concertina-style, before putting it into an envelope and posting it to him. The paper was last Saturday’s Northern Echo. The notification of a wedding, due to take place in ten days time.
He knew the groom
He knew the bride.
He knew they could not marry.
With the exception of one woman no-one else on this earth should have known this. In any case, neither she, nor anyone else, would connect him, the man named on the envelope, the man he was, here and now with the man he had been then.
Because everyone from then, her included, knew he died. Eight years ago.
May 2, 2019 at 6:04 pm #5062RichardBParticipant
- This reply was modified 1 year, 11 months ago by Sandra.
You seem to have set a fire with your idea, Raine: even I’m having a go. Yet more apologies: 408 words.
The Last House
There’s freedom and there’s freedom. Sleeping rough and scavenging for food is freedom, but not the sort that appeals to me. And that’s exactly what I’ll be doing tonight if something doesn’t turn up. Another night’s B&B will just about clean me out.
And there’s precious little sign of anything turning up here. Mountains and moorland and big sky might be just what you need if you’re looking for peace and solitude and communion with the beauties of nature. If you’re on the road, homeless and looking for work, they’re no use to you at all.
How much more of this is there? I haven’t had a lift for hours, and I can feel every yard of the miles I’ve walked in my blistered feet, my sore shoulders, my aching back, and most of all in that bloody right leg. It’s hotter than it has any right to be this high up, the bottle of water I bought in Brecon this morning is a distant memory, and my rucksack’s getting heavier by the minute.
SAS men have died in these mountains. And I’ve seen lanes in Surrey that carried more traffic than this supposed main road.
They must have been having a laugh when they sent me along here. Pub along the Swansea road, they said. Desperate they are, they said. You might have a better chance there.
So where is it? There’s not a house in sight, or a barn, or any trace of civilisation at all. Not even a tree. Just rough yellowed grass and shaggy heather. Not a sound, except the wind in the grass and the occasional distant bleating of a sheep. I could be the last man left on Earth.
Or do I hear something coming up behind?
Yes, I do. Better stick out my thumb. Go through the motions.
His brake lights have come on. His hazards are flashing. Glory be, he’s stopping.
It’s a white pick-up, streaked with rust and spattered with mud. Not quite my idea of luxury transport, but I’m hardly about to get picky.
The passenger’s door is already open when I arrive alongside.
‘Thanks, mate,’ I say, dumping my rucksack on the floor and settling myself into the seat.
My saviour has wiry grey hair and a cheerful, weather-beaten face. A sheep farmer? There doesn’t seem to be much else to do around here. ‘I’m only going to Ystrad, mind,’ he says. ‘You okay with that?’
May 7, 2019 at 8:39 am #5090
- This reply was modified 1 year, 11 months ago by RichardB.
And more apologies – 411 words
HOW TO LEAVE A HUSBAND WHO ADORES YOU
Six Month Plan
Decide to do it.
Shut off all those voices inside you saying what a wonderful man he is and how lucky you are. How he does everything for you. How most women would give anything to have a husband like him.
Note: Do not tell anyone what you plan to do. No matter how good a friend they seem. They’ll think you’re mad. Or they’ll think you’re joking. And it isn’t funny. It really isn’t funny.
Find out how much money you have.
If your bank accounts are online, try to get hold of the codes and passwords. He must keep a record of them somewhere, if not at home, at his office. You can always pop in when he’s out and tell his secretary you’ll leave a note on his desk. Alternatively keep an eye out for paper statements arriving in the post. A steaming kettle does open envelopes if the glue is the old-fashioned type you have to lick to seal. Iron the envelope afterwards to get rid of any wrinkles. He will never notice.
Open a bank account somewhere no one knows you and put money into it.
It’s harder than it sounds so give yourself plenty of time. Take out a bit more cash than usual for groceries if you do the shopping on your own. Sell anything you can. Anything that won’t be noticed. Jewellery, for example, although the resale value of quite expensive pieces is rubbish. If you have a birthday, get people to give you stuff from M&S because you can take it back and get the cash.
Rent a studio flat somewhere far enough away for no one to know you. A big city is best. Get one with a security entrance where you have to buzz people in. Or better a concierge. And transfer anything vital into it: paperwork, things you need for work, a few clothes. You’ll have to leave things you love behind because he’ll notice if they go missing. Put your life onto a secret tablet or computer: email accounts, online banking and so on.
Leave. And go without telling him. Write him a note and disappear. I know you think you owe it to him to tell him face to face but, believe me, it’s better just to go. You’ll have to take my word for it.May 20, 2019 at 5:36 am #5177SeagreenParticipant
WASTE NOT, WANT NOT (391 words)
Early evening, and the headache that had been stalking me all day slammed into me with the force of a rear-end collision, scattering coherent thought into the ether and making further editing of the new book impossible. I wasn’t surprised by it – the headache, I mean – the pain in my temples had been building up since Chapter Eight, but I was surprised by how fast the dull ache behind my eyes had elevated to the psi of an over-inflated tyre. Too late now to divert it with medication, it would be like trying to extinguish a bushfire by pissing on it. My only option was to crawl into a deep, dark hole and let the headache run its course… after I called Lucy to tell her I wouldn’t make it for dinner.
‘That’s three times in the last fortnight you’ve cancelled on me, Dad,’ she said, sounding more piqued than concerned.
‘I know, sweetheart, and I’m sorry. There’s no excuse for it. I was so caught up with editing, I probably didn’t drink enough…’
‘That’s what you said last time. And the time before. If I didn’t know better, I might think this was some elaborate plan of yours to convince me you weren’t coping and get me to move back home.’
What? Pain jabbed at my eyes. Where the hell had that come from? ‘Grossly unfair, Lucy,’ I said, through gritted teeth. ‘When have I ever given you that idea?’
‘Come off it, Dad. In the three months since I moved in with Paul, do you know how many times you’ve called with one of your ‘little emergencies’? Five. Five times, Dad. Three times because you’ve forgotten to charge the battery on your chair and twice because you ran out of your medication. And now these headaches. Tell me, what am I supposed to think?’ Her voice dropped, and I strained to catch her next words. ‘Is it Paul, Dad? Tell me honestly; is all this nonsense because you don’t like Paul?’
Don’t like Paul? I loved Paul! He was perfect for her. My blood pressure ratcheted up a notch.
‘Lucy, you’ve got this all wrong!’
Light exploded behind my left eye; a brilliant white supernova that lit up the inside of my skull, followed by a blotchy red darkness like a shutter had come down.
This was new.June 29, 2019 at 7:20 pm #5511LibbyParticipant
THE RIGHT ATTITUDE. Opening of a novel in progress. (383 words)
Lois stood in her kitchen in dolly-bird boots and a skirt above the knee. She was looking through the window just in time. The woman drew up at the curb and Ruth stepped out, pulling her satchel with her. The woman, another mother, waved and Lois waved back.
The point, though, was not to see this woman – kind though she was to offer a lift at the end of every school day – but to look at Ruth. Lois’s heart rose. As her daughter came up the drive in her school blazer, one side of her body dipped with each step. This morning the limp had been in both legs; she’d dipped on both sides. A roll, a sailor’s gait in an eleven-year old going to school.
The reason was a mystery, despite their trip to the surgery yesterday. The doctor had been tight-lipped – ‘cautious,’ was his word – and this had left Lois’s nerves turning. Would the problem get worse? She must appear untroubled for Ruth’s sake; not shift whatever was happening in to a drama. In any case, the limping might get better.
Although it was hard to stop observing, Ruth mustn’t feel monitored. So, as her daughter approached the house, Lois looked instead at their cul-de-sac and the other modern houses across the way.
Ruth came in through the back door, via the garage. The up-and-over was left open to let Lois go in and out with the Mini and Ruth leave muddy shoes or wellingtons outside the kitchen. She was a child who enjoyed going for walks.
‘Hello, poppet. All right?’
Since yesterday, when the doctor had said he couldn’t diagnose the limping and she must see a specialist, most of Ruth’s conversation had become single-worded. That was the trouble with an intelligent child. She did well at school but could pick up the unspoken as well as Lois could herself.
Ruth said, ‘I’ve got maths for homework.’
This sounded better – a full sentence of information.
‘Have some tea first.’
‘What is there?’
Lois was moving towards the fridge. ‘Mushrooms on toast.’
A snack until Malcolm came home when she’d cook a proper meal and they’d all eat together.
Ruth nodded and went to hang her blazer in the cloakroom, and when Ruth’s back was turned, Lois watched.July 1, 2019 at 9:21 am #5520RaineParticipant
Well, thank-you everyone for entering. I’m so glad I set this particular challenge as it’s been so much fun getting little insights into all your works in progress and I can genuinely say I’d have carried on reading every one of them. They all pulled me right in and left me wanting more, so seriously well dones on lots of good stuff.
Because the numbers were manageable, I’ve got a wee comment on each. Not particularly detailed, but if anyone wants to ask for more thoughts, then I (and perhaps others) can try. So here goes:
The Memory Thing – @athelstone.
Brilliant startling start with an engaging voice that lets us feel instantly connected to the PoV without yet knowing much about them directly. You’ve posed all sorts of questions about the dead man and what the mc is going to do next (and why they were drawn to the dead man in the first place). And you get a bonus point for the cat.
Untitled – @JohnAlty.
This leaps in with some powerful scene setting both of the bayou and the boy’s life. I found the timeslip a little tricky but I think that’s just a feature of the short word count. The sense of foreboding works as a strong contrast with the youth and isolation of the boy & the reaction to the heron was perhaps the most powerful moment in setting up that atmosphere.
The Black Ruby – @Squidge
We get a real sense of Tilda & of her relationship with Silviu in this opening. We’ve got an instant window into the short term stakes & a good balance of world building with the highly engaging internal dialogue.
Drink with a Dead Man – @Sandradavies
This is such a wonderfully drawn mystery right from the outset – starting with his seemingly fanciful dread, contrasting with the queue, and then the reveal, it raises so many questions about him and the couple and the sender of the letter. I love the tiny details (opening the envelope) that add to the tension even before we’ve any idea why. Gripping already.
The Last House – @RichardB
Brilliant scene setting and internal dialogue in this opening. It raises good questions of how he got to this point, who sent him in this direction and what his prospects are. I love the opening paragraph – the sharp wit hinting at anger.
How to leave a husband who adores you – @Janeshuff
This is such an unusual way to start, and captivating. The building blocks of realising that this adoring husband might not be the wonderful guy Step 1 suggests, the sense of urgent secrecy contrasting with the methodical, almost dryly witty voice. It all hooks you in to her life right away.
Waste not want not – @Seagreen
Love the older mc, and the hints of his life – the chair and meds and writing, the relationship with his daughter being close perhaps but complex. The voice nicely avoids feeding into clichés of old/disabled people & I love that lovely piquant last line!
The Right Attitude – @Libby
Lovely characterisation of the worrying mother trying not to show her worry, scrutinising everything her child says & does. This poses an obviously powerful question of the child’s health and the family’s response to that, setting it up nicely against the normal domestic background.
So choosing a winner was ridiculously hard. Like I said, I’d have carried on reading all of these, and as that was my only judging criteria I made my life difficult! Buuuut, I’ve got to go with Sandra’s Drink With A Dead Man, because I might have to kill her if she doesn’t let me read the rest of this! 🙂 Thank-you so much everyone and well done to the lovely, murderous Sandra!July 1, 2019 at 9:32 am #5521SandraParticipant
Good heavens, Raine – what a compliment, especially in view of the strength of the rest; I certainly was torn between at least three to name as my favourite. Thank you, indeed. And you can most certainly read the rest, as soon as it’s done. (Currently ‘resting’ after finishing a first draft last week, and already knowing things need changing).
I’m away from home at the moment but will use journey time to think up an equally worthy challenge for the next couple of months.July 1, 2019 at 10:03 am #5522DaedalusParticipant
Great idea for the competition Raine, and a lovely selection of entries. Well done Sandra – worthy winner.
I apologise for not joining in btw. I fully intended to, but as I’m between WIPs I was going to have to start something new. I had some ideas but every little spare moment was taken up with other things and at twenty to midnight when I was standing outside with a dog who refused to pee I realised I probably wasn’t going to make it this time…
Looking forward to next month’sJuly 1, 2019 at 10:14 am #5523
Yes, brilliant competition. And totally agree with Raine. I would have carried on reading all of them. Congratulation to Sandra and can I add my name to the list of people who would like to read the rest of it.July 1, 2019 at 10:59 am #5524LibbyParticipant
Congratulations, Sandra! A very worthy winner. I’m also on your list of readers when you finish. I was inspired, as well, by everyone else’s entries to try and up my game. An enjoyable competition. Thank you, Raine.July 1, 2019 at 11:37 am #5525John S AltyParticipant
Thanks for a good competition idea, Raine, and well done Sandra.July 1, 2019 at 1:56 pm #5528AthelstoneModerator
Great idea for the competition, Raine.
Sandra – well deserved. Absolutely intriguing start.July 1, 2019 at 4:46 pm #5529SquidgeParticipant
Agree with you Raine, 100%! Loved Sandra’s start (among others!!) Well done, Sandra xJuly 1, 2019 at 9:17 pm #5531SeagreenParticipant
Thanks, Raine, and well done, Sandra 🙂July 1, 2019 at 9:22 pm #5532KazGParticipant
Congratulations @sandra! And well done @raine, I’m sorry I didn’t join in as I somehow missed this new version of a comp (great idea btw)…but my fault entirely. I will read all these with relish 🙂 xJuly 2, 2019 at 8:51 am #5533JonathanParticipant
Nice work Sandra – congratulations 🙂 Stunning entries all round – might have to rewrite my WIP opening again!July 2, 2019 at 9:54 am #5537RichardBParticipant
Great idea for the competition – specially as I had an entry all ready to go and didn’t need to do any actual work…
Congrats, Sandra. I’m only glad I didn’t have to do the judging.
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