Happy Friday, everyone!
I know it’s been a while, but here we have a shiny new piece of fiction for Friday! Check out my Flash Fiction page for past pieces of Flash Fiction fashioned for Friday fun (try and say that after your first Friday night pint).
Follow #FlashForFriday on Twitter to keep updated for future flashes!
This is, actually, more of a short story than a flash fiction as it’s close to 3,000 words. I was in a prolific mood!
(Other short stories – stories over 1000 words – on my Short Fiction page!)
A strange, wandering tale about ups and downs, winning and losing, debt and balance.
“Oh, wow. Just…” Dan struggled for words. “Wow. I really won?”
“That’s right, Dan,” said the alarmingly up-beat voice on the phone. “You are today’s winner. Three out of three questions right means you get the full £200,000 tribute.”
Dan swallowed, trying to stop his heart escaping from his mouth. “Wow,” he said again.
“You said it, Dan! Stay on the line to finalise your payment. And now, everyone else, stay tuned for a report from Somerset on tonight’s Solstice festivities – ”
There was a buzz and then a smooth, female voice purred down the line. “Hello there, Mr Shields. Congratulations.”
“I really, really won?”
“You really won,” the lady said and he could hear her smile. “Now I’ll just need to take some details and we’ll organise a bank transfer.”
Dan answered her questions dazedly. Name, date of birth, address, bank details. In his head he was already paying off credit cards and settling court orders and beginning to believe there might be a day soon where he wouldn’t be woken by bailiffs hammering on the door. His life might finally balance back out.
“You won £200,000? How?”
“Full Circle Radio,” Dan beamed as he shovelled his favourite noodle dish from the sushi place around the corner form work into his mouth. “I entered the Midsummer Midday Quiz on Saturday. I won!”
“Two hundred grand?” Lucy set down her pasta salad, eyes wide. “Just like that?”
Dan nodded, grinning wider as he chewed.
“That’s amazing. I mean, really amazing.” Lucy frowned. “I was just thinking the other day…you listen to radio competitions being won all the time. Like, literally, all the time. And yet you never meet anyone that’s actually won one. But here we are!”
“I didn’t think I’d even get through. But I did. And I got the questions right.”
“What were the questions?”
Dan frowned into his bowl. “They were weird. It must have been some sort of midsummer pagan thing? I think Full Circle is some sort of indie, hippy station. They were questions about occult things – solstice rituals and stuff. All Greek to me, but I have book at home.”
“You do? Doesn’t seem like your sort of thing.”
“It’s not. It was in the house when I moved in.”
“That was lucky.”
Dan nodded. “It’s been gathering dust for a year. But the answers were in there and now I’m up two-hundred thousand.”
“What are you going to do with it?”
“Clear the credit cards,” Dan mumbled around another mouthful. “And the Payday Loans. Pay off the car. Buy a working washing machine.”
“Nice one, Dan,” Lucy said with a smile. “You deserve some good luck.”
When the bell buzzed to signal the end of lunch, he went back to his place at the production line opposite Lucy. He stuck the stickers on boxes of strawberries with chapped fingers and a wide smile. Lucy was smiling too.
Dan had never noticed before, but Lucy really was rather lovely. Maybe he’d ask her out, now he could afford to take her to dinner.
Thank you for your cheque for £8,315.25 Mr Shields. This is your written confirmation that your last outstanding account has been cleared and closed. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch for any future credit needs.
Dan almost cried. He toyed with the idea of getting the letter framed. But he filed it away at the end of his new folder with the label ‘Cleared’, feeling more carefree than he had years.
He was just checking his remaining accounts with the app on his new smart phone, just to see them all in the black, when the landline rang.
“Hello Mr Shields.” The smooth, female voice was familiar. “And how is everything going?”
“Sorry, who is this?”
“This is Alana at Full Circle Radio, Mr Shields. We spoke a few months ago.”
“Oh, yes. Of course. Is there a problem?”
“No problem at all. We received your signed consent forms and everything is in order. I trust you received your tribute no problems?”
“Oh. Yes. I did,” Dan said. “Thank you.”
“Our pleasure. Really.”
There was a pause. “Was there anything else?”
“I’ve just rung to remind you of your balance, Mr Shields.”
“Your return. You answered the questions, remember?”
“Yes…I remember,” Dan said, casting his mind back.
“Yes,” snapped Dan, needled. “They were about the names of gods…I think.”
“And the location of a…portal…gateway?”
“The Through Door.”
“Ok, the Through Door. And when…when…ok, it’s been a little while. The last one’s slipped my mind.”
“It was about when the door is open to accept the sacrifice that will continue life’s cycle of dark and light.”
“Yeah. Hippy stuff.”
Dan sensed he’d said something wrong. “Well…what I mean is…new age things. Hippy ritual…stuff.”
There was a pause. “We are not hippies, Mr Shields. And the Full Circle has nothing to do with free love or hummus.”
Dan rested his thumb over the disconnect button, but they had his bank account details. “Look, I’m sorry. I know I got the questions right, but it’s not like I claimed to be an expert. I had the answers in a book in my house.”
“Ah, a book. I see. Where did this book come from?”
Dan frowned. It was currently propping up the coffee table. “Is this going to affect me keeping my prize?”
“Not at all,” Alana sounded like she was smiling again but he wasn’t sure he liked it. “The tribute is yours. It cannot be taken back. Did you read the whole book?”
Another pause. “No matter,” she continued. “You answered the right questions with the right words. And your heart was true.”
“You needed the tribute. To balance your life.”
“I suppose so…”
“And now your life is balanced, isn’t it?”
He glanced around his living room, newly furnished and cleaner than it had been for months. There was humming from the kitchen as his new machine finished a load of washing and he could smell the rich, savoury scent of the pheasant roasting in his new oven. “I suppose it is. Yes.”
“Good. We are glad. There’s just one last thing we need from you.”
“That’s right. You want to maintain The Balance, don’t you?”
“Look,” Dan said, voice raising as his nerves tightened. “I’m very grateful for this prize and everything. But you’re not making sense. If the prize really is mine and all the paperwork is in order, I honestly don’t understand what you could still need from me.”
Dan swore he could hear her smiling even though she wasn’t talking. He tried to make himself hang up. The silence crept on.
“Balance, Mr Shields. It’s all about balance. This is just a little forewarning. Midwinter is coming. It will soon be time to redress the balance.”
Dan hung up.
“What’s the matter, Dan?”
Dan looked up, not realising he’d been staring out the restaurant window in silence for a stretch of unknown minutes. Snow was falling softly, turning the pavements into slabs of white in the blackness of the night. The doors in the building opposite were propped wide open onto an unknown darkness beyond.
Lucy’s brow was creased with concern. He tried for a smile.
“Nothing’s the matter,” he said. “How’s your food?”
“It’s good,” Lucy said, though she didn’t take another bite. “What about yours?”
“Good,” he responded, pushing the last of the steak around his plate. “Really good.”
He could feel her watching him. But he could feel everything watching him. She took his arm when they left and he jumped.
“There’s something wrong, isn’t there? Is it me?”
“No,” Dan, said quickly, though he didn’t look at her. “It’s not you.”
“Is it money again? Are you slipping back?”
“No,” he shook his head, hands bunching into fists in his pockets. “Everything’s balanced. Perfectly balanced.”
“So, what is it?”
Dan shook his head and stopped walking. A doorway ahead stood open. It was dark beyond. It was just a fire escape, he told himself. The back door to a warehouse. It was open because they were accepting a late delivery. It wasn’t as black as it looked. It wasn’t really sucking him in.
He thought he heard a smooth, female voice purr in his ear. “It’s time to redress the balance, Dan. Come to through the door. Come to me.”
“Dan.” Lucy’s voice startled him back to reality. He stepped back from the curb and she took his hand and turned him to face her, her gloved hands holding him firmly by the elbows. The snow caught in her hair and her glasses were slightly steamed up. He swallowed. She really was so close. And real. So real.
“Dan, I want to say something. And I don’t want you to be mad with me…”
Lucy bit her lip. “I know we’ve not been going out that long…but I’ve known you a while. And you haven’t been yourself lately.”
“I…” he started, looked away. How could he tell her the truth? How could he even explain that every door he saw seemed to yawn onto nothingness and tried to pull him in?
“No, let me finish,” she continued, dropping her hands and huffing clouds into the air. “I’ve looked this up. Sometimes winners, like you…radio prize winners, particularly…they can get like this.”
“Don’t be angry,” she said again. “I was just worried, that’s all. So I did a bit of research. And I’ve found that big cash prize winners – from radio competitions mostly, I don’t know why. Something to do with the facelessness or suddenness. But anyway. Radio prize winners can sometimes go…a little weird.”
Dan felt heat flood his face.
“I don’t mean you’re weird,” Lucy said, blushing herself. “It’s just…it seems these winners sometimes spend their money, clear debts, buy houses, or cars, sort their lives out and then just…vanish.”
“Yeah. I don’t know how or why. The articles aren’t clear. But they just seem to abandon their new lives…disappear. More often than you’d think. The psychologist I read said it’s something to do with feeling uncomfortable with their good luck, like it doesn’t feel earned…people feel the need to redress the balance.”
“Don’t panic,” Lucy said, taking his hand. “It doesn’t mean this will happen to you. You just need to make sure you don’t give in to it. Don’t stress about the prize money. It was won fair and square. Just enjoy it, ok? Don’t overanalyse where it came from or what it might cost you.”
“Did someone tell you to say this?”
Lucy blinked. “No.”
“It was her, wasn’t it?”
“Alana.” He choked on the name. He thought someone repeated it in his ear as he said it.
” I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Lucy’s face crumpled. “Who’s Alana?”
“She…” Dan started but his throat closed.
“No one’s told me anything,” Lucy insisted. “I just wanted to help.”
“Leave me alone,” Dan cried, turning on his heel and stalking away. Lucy called after him. He ignored her and broke into a run.
The phone had been ringing for half an hour straight. He had pulled it out of the wall after the first fifteen minutes. It was still ringing.
Dan clutched his hands in his hair and listened to it ring, breath rattling in and out and heart hammering in his chest. After another ten minutes he grabbed the handset and pushed the pick-up button. He stared at the dark digital screen for another minute before putting it to his ear.
“Where’s the book, Mr Shields?”
“Leave me alone.”
“Where’s the book, Mr Shields?”
“Look, Alana, or whoever you are. I’ve looked this up. People feel guilty about their prizes. They run away, leave it all behind. I’m not going to do that. I needed that money, but I don’t feel guilty about taking it. I’ve made a good life for myself.”
“You have. A perfect, balanced life. You need to leave that life behind now, Mr Shields. The world must keep turning. You must give up that life as tribute.”
“You won’t make me run away. I’m going to the doctor tomorrow.”
“You’re not crazy, Dan. Where’s the book?”
He glanced across the room. The book was stuffed under a cushion on his new leather sofa. He hadn’t been able to look at it after sifting through it over and over for a way to break the cycle and not finding anything. But when he’d tried to throw it away, he’d found he couldn’t.
“I need you to put it through next door’s letter box.”
“You can’t make me do anything.”
“Next door’s letter box, please. Just slip it through. Then come back. I will be waiting.”
“There’s no one living next door,” he fumbled.
“Not yet. Post it, please. Then come back to me.”
“Because the cycle must continue. You want the world to keep turning don’t you?”
“I’m not mad. And neither are you. This is the way it has to be. It won’t hurt, I promise. Post the book through next door and come back to me. I’m waiting.” Her voice was so smooth. So warm. He tried to hang up. “I’m waiting for you.”
The snow was coming down hard. It was completely dark. The streetlights made confused puddles of grey in the endless swirls of white and black.
The book was heavy. It made a clunking noise as it hit the floor on the inside the house next to his. The windows were dark. The SOLD sign swayed back and forth in the snowy wind. He reigned his mind in from imagining who had bought it…who would be moving in…who would find a heavy book bound in brown leather with no title on their door mat.
The book looked old. It looked valuable. The text didn’t make much sense, but it looked too unique to throw away. There were etchings and diagrams, pictures of the sun and moon, poems and page after page of meaningless symbols. They might put it in with their other books, half-entertaining the idea of taking it to an expert to get it valued. There were some great stories in it. And some strange ideas. And some weird answers to some very specific questions.
“Did you do it?”
“You know I did,” Dan mumbled into the receiver.
“Good,” Alana said. “Now go upstairs. Go through the door. It’s time.”
“Yes, Dan. Just go upstairs. Open your bedroom door and walk through. Your part is over. Come to me.”
His legs were heavy. A detached part of his mind admired the plum carpet he’d had laid on the stairs a couple of weeks ago. The colour had been Lucy’s idea. He wondered who’d get his newly redecorated house. There was no mortgage. He hadn’t made a will. Maybe Lucy would be able to lay a claim?
He kept climbing. His bedroom door was newly washed white. There wasn’t a mark or scratch on it. He wondered how long it would have been before he’d scuffed or spilled on the new paint. Lucy liked cats. If she’d moved in, cats might have scratched it. He might have spilled tea down it as he elbowed it open to bring her a cup of tea in bed.
He stared at the white paint like it was a field of white snow waiting for the first footprint. It was waiting for marks to be made. But not by him.
There was light under the door. He knew he hadn’t left the light on. There was a sound too, one he felt rather than heard. A humming or a drawing sound, like water swirling down a pipe.
He took a breath and rested his hand on the handle. It was warm. He closed his eyes. There was a voice in his ear.
“It’s Midwinter’s Night, Dan. The longest night. Come through the door. Leave the night behind for the rest of the world.”
Something warm filled him, a feeling of ease. Contentment. Balance.
He opened the door and stepped through and closed it behind him.
The sun started to lighten the sky outside just as the door clicked shut.
Somewhere across town a young couple was out of bed early to be ready for the moving van. They were moving all the way across town. Time for a new start. The place needed a bit of work and they needed more furniture but they were hoping to have it all sorted by midsummer. If they managed to pay the court order off by then…
They both worried about keeping up with those payments. But they kept telling each other it would be ok.
Something would work out. It always did.
Word Count: 2819