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.
“That’s right, Eric,” 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 £20,000 tribute.”
Eric swallowed, trying to stop his heart escaping from his mouth. “Wow,” he said, again.
“You said it, Eric! Stay on the line to finalise your payment. And now, stay tuned for a report from Somerset on tonight’s planned festivities – ”
There was a buzz and then a smooth, female voice smiled down the line. “Hello there, Mr Carlton. Congratulations.”
“I really won?” Eric quavered, voice not sounding like his own.
“You really won,” the lady said. “Now I’ll just need to take some details and we’ll organise a bank transfer.”
“So this is really it? You just give me the money?”
“You answered the questions correctly,” the woman said. “You get the money. Now, can I confirm your full name?”
Eric answered her questions mechanically. Name, date of birth, address, bank details. In his head he was already writing cheques to debtors 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 what? How?”
“Full Circle Radio,” Eric beamed as he shovelled microwave noodles in his mouth in the break room – brand name, this time. “I entered the Midday Quiz on Saturday. I won!”
“Twenty grand?” Lucy set down her pasta salad, mouth hanging open, eyes wide behind her glasses. “Just like that?”
Eric nodded, shovelling more noodles. God, they tasted good.
“That’s amazing. You know…” Lucy frowned, “I was just thinking the other day, you hear these competitions being won every day. Dozens of radio stations run them, all the time. I her people winning them every day. And yet you never meet anyone that’s actually won. But here we are!”
“I know, it’s weird,” Eric said. “I didn’t think I’d even get through. But I did. And I got the questions right.”
“What were the questions?”
Eric swallowed, frowning into his bowl. “They were odd. It must have been some sort of midsummer special. I think Full Circle is some sort of indie, hippy station. They were questions about pagan things – rituals and stuff. I have a book full of that kind of stuff.”
“You do? Doesn’t seem like your sort of thing.”
“It’s not. It was left in the house when I moved in.”
“That was lucky.”
Eric nodded. “I know. It’s been gathering dust for a year. But the answers were in there. I rang and got straight through and won!”
“What are you going to do with it?”
“Clear the credit cards,” Eric mumbled around another mouthful, grinning. “And the Payday Loans. Pay off the car. Buy a working washing machine.”
“Nice one, Eric,” Lucy said with a smile. “You deserved a break.”
Eric grinned wider as he swallowed the last of noodles. Yes, yes he did deserve it.
When the end of the lunch hour bell buzzed, he went back to his place at the production line opposite Lucy, still smiling. He stuck the stickers on boxes of strawberries with chapped fingers and a wide smile. Lucy shook her head but smiled too.
Eric had never noticed before, but Lucy really was quite pretty. Maybe he’d ask her out, now he could afford to take her to dinner.
Thank you for your cheque for £4,315.25 Mr Carlton. 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.
Eric almost cried. He toyed with the idea of getting the notice framed. But he filed it away at the end of his new folder called ‘Cleared’. He felt like a whole new man.
He was just checking his accounts on the app on his new smart phone, just to see them all in the black, when the landline rang.
“Hello? Eric Carlton speaking.”
“Hello Mr Carlton. Good to hear you.” The smooth, female voice was familiar. “And how is everything going?”
“Sorry, who is this?”
“This is Alana at Full Circle Radio, Mr Carlton. We spoke a few months ago.”
“Oh, yes. Of course. Is there a problem?”
“No problem at all, Mr Carlton. We received your signed consent forms and bank details and everything is in order. I trust you received your tribute no problems?”
“Your prize, Eric.”
“Oh. I did,” Eric said. “Thank you.”
“Our pleasure. Really.”
There was a pause. “Was there anything else?”
“I’ve just rung to remind you of your balance, Eric.”
“Your return,” the voice flattened. “You answered the questions, remember?”
“Yes…I remember,” Eric said, casting his mind back.
“Yes,” snapped Eric, needled. “They were about the names of gods…I think.”
“And where a…portal…gateway was?”
“The Through Door, Eric.”
“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 sacrifice to continue life’s cycle of dark and light.”
“Yeah. Hippy stuff.”
Eric sensed he’d said something wrong. “Well…what I mean is. New age things. Legend. Pagan ritual…stuff.”
There was a pause. “It’s not pagan, Mr Carlton. And has nothing to do with Free Love or hummus.”
Eric swallowed, rested his thumb over the disconnect button and wondered about hanging up. But they had his 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?”
Eric frowned. It was currently propping up the coffee table. “Is this all tied to me keeping my prize?”
“Not at all, Eric,” 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. You didn’t just want it. You needed it to balance your life.”
“I suppose so…”
“And now your life is balanced, isn’t it, Eric?”
He glanced around his living room, tidier than it had been for months. There was humming from the kitchen as his new machine finished a load of washing and he was beginning to smell the chicken roasting in the oven in the new roasting dish. “I suppose it is. Yes. Thank you.”
“Good. We are glad it is all going as planned. There’s just one last thing we need from you now, Eric.”
Eric swallowed. “There is?”
“That’s right. You want to keep the balance, don’t you?”
“Look,” Eric said, voice raising to cover the gathering nerves. “I’m very grateful for this prize and everything. But you’re not making sense. If the tribute – I mean prize – really is mine and all the paperwork is in order, I honestly don’t understand what you still need from me.”
Eric 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 Carlton. It’s all about balance. This is just a little forewarning. Midwinter is coming. It will soon be time to redress the balance.”
Eric hung up.
“What’s the matter, Eric?”
Eric looked up, not realising he’d been staring out the restaurant window in silence for a stretch of unknown minutes. Snow was falling softly and the pavements were slabs of white in the blackness of the night. The doors in the building opposite were propped wide open but were black beyond. Wide and so, so black.
Lucy’s brow was creased with concern. He tried for a smile.
“Nothing,” he said. “How’s your food?”
“It’s good,” Lucy said, though she didn’t look away or take another bite. “What about yours?”
“It’s 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.
Lucy took his arm when they left. He jumped.
“There’s something wrong, isn’t there Eric? Is it me?”
“No,” Eric, 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?”
Eric shook his head, looked up and stood still. A doorway over the road stood open. It was dark beyond. It was just a fire escape. It was just 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, Eric. Come to me.”
“Eric.” 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 very pretty. And real. So real.
“Now, Eric, 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 it hasn’t felt like you’ve been yourself lately.”
“I…” he started, looked away. How could he tell her that every door he saw yawned and tried to pull him in to somewhere…else?
“No, just let me finish,” she continued, dropping her hands and huffing clouds into the air. “I’ve looked it up and it looks like winners…radio prize winners…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. Big cash prize winners – from radio competitions mostly, I don’t know why. Something to do with the facelessness or suddenness – radio prize winners sometimes go…a little weird.”
“I don’t mean you’re weird,” Lucy hurriedly said, blushing. “It’s just…it seems a fair few have spent their money, cleared debts, bought houses, or cars, sorted their lives out and then they’ve just…vanished.”
“Yeah, I don’t know how or why. The articles aren’t clear. The winners just seem to abandon their new and perfect lives and run away into nothing. The psychologist I read said it’s something to do with the new lives not feeling earned…people feel the need to redress the balance.”
“Now, don’t panic,” Lucy said, holding her hands up. “Because we’ve figured it out and you don’t need to give in to it. You just need to take it easy, ok? Don’t stress about the prize money. It was won fair and square. You should just enjoy it, ok? Don’t overanalyse where it came from or what it might cost you, ok?”
“Did someone tell you to say this?”
Lucy blinked. “No, Eric. No one told me to say anything.”
“It was her, wasn’t it?”
“Alana.” He choked on the name. He thought someone repeated it in his ear as he said it.
“Eric, I don’t know what you,re talking about.” Lucy’s face crumpled. “No one’s told me anything. I just wanted to help.”
“Leave me alone,” Eric said, 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.
Eric 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 digital screen for another minute before putting it to his ear.
“Where’s the book, Eric?”
“Leave me alone.”
“Where’s the book, Eric?”
“Look, Lucy’s 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’m not 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, Eric. 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, Eric. Where’s the book?”
He glanced across the room. The book was stuffed under a cushion in the luxury recliner. He hadn’t been able to look at it any more after sifting through it over and over for a way to break the cycle and not finding anything, but couldn’t throw it away.
“Good. I need you to put it through next door’s letter box, Eric.”
“You can’t make me do anything.”
“Next door’s letter box, Eric. Just slip it through. Then come back. I will be waiting. I promise this will be over soon.”
“There’s no one living next door,” he fumbled, kneading the bridge of his nose.
“Not yet. Post it through Eric. Then come back to me.”
“Because the cycle must continue, Eric. You want the world to keep turning don’t you?”
“I’m not mad, Eric. 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 for you, Eric.” He voice was so smooth. So warm. He tried to hang up. “I’m waiting for you, Eric.”
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. He looked up. 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…you would be moving in…who would find a weird book with no title on their new door mat.
The book looked quite old. It looked quite 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 that sounded like spells 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 little stories in it. And some strange ideas. And some weird answers to some very specific questions.
“Eric? Did you do it?”
“You know I did,” Eric mumbled into the receiver.
“Good,” Alana said. “Now go upstairs, Eric. It’s late. It’s time to go.”
“Yes, Eric. Just go upstairs. Open your bedroom door and walk through. Your part is over. Come to me.”
His legs were heavy as he went upstairs. A detached part of his mind admired the plum carpet he’d had laid a couple of weeks ago. The colour had been Lucy’s idea. He wondered who’d get his newly re-decorated house. The bank had been paid off, 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 washed a new 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 it. Lucy liked cats. If she’d moved in, cats might have scratched the new paint. He might have spilled tea down it as he elbowed it open to bring her a cup 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, but one he felt he was feeling rather than hearing…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, Eric. This is the longest night. Come through the door. Leave the night behind for the rest of the world.”
Something filled him, like a warmth, a sense of contentment. Of balance.
He opened the door and stepped through and closed it behind him.
The sun started to grey the sky outside after the door had clicked shut.
Somewhere across town a couple was out of bed early to be ready for the moving van. They were moving all the way across town to their new house. Time for a new start. It 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 car paid 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.