Short story: Joe’s secret

Part of the ‘Stranger Stories’ series

Disclaimer: The photos used in my Stranger Stories series are taken from charity shops, yard sales etc. I don’t know the real identities of the people in the photos, and all stories are entirely fictional. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or events, is purely coincidental. The photos are a tool to brainstorm new characters and experiment with style.

Scroll down to the bottom for Author’s notes.

Spring was here, and so too, finally, was he.

The group had been sat, or stood, for almost half an hour now on the front lawn. The photographer had so far been in and out of the house three times to collect more equipment. To the waiting men, the light bulbs, the stand, and the camera he was meticulously positioning looked like more of a bizarre sculpture than a setup for a single photo.

There he sat restlessly, in the middle. Mr Griffiths.

Little Joseph.

Joe, to some.

I watched from my spot behind the trees as he flexed his feet, trying to keep the blood flowing through the thinning veins in his legs.

“Could you all get up? I need to move the chairs,” the photographer said, throwing some cloth over the camera.

“Again?” The man to Joe’s left grumbled. “Look here, this is the third time. Is it really that important?”

“Well yes, because the sun has moved a bit.”

“That’s because you’re taking so bloody long.”

“Please?” the photographer moved forward and put his hand on one of the chairs. “Last time, I promise.”

Joe ignored the low, weak voices of his associates as they hoisted themselves up, throwing grumbling complaints across his head to each other. He looked to the woods in front of him, where I was just out of sight. Almost as if he was looking for me. Expecting to see me.

When he turned away to reposition his chair, I moved out slightly from the shadow of the tree. From here I could see the mottled skin on his hands, blending in blue veins against the transparent grey crepe paper stretched across his fingers. The joints bulged as he picked up the chair and used it almost like a zimmerframe to the next position. The man to his right sat down and shifted uncomfortably – the hard pad of the chair no doubt settling his dusty bones into a new, uncomfortable position. He bowed his head and I saw the liver spots that spread from ear to ear across the dome of his shiny head, like tea stains.

From the gardens there was the sound of a lawnmower starting up.

I hadn’t expected so many years to pass until I saw him again. But that barely mattered now. He was here, right in front of us.

It was almost midday and the sun was still coming up high to the south, pouring down heat on the suits and the men inside them. The man to Joe’s left started to move uncomfortably as his jacket threatened to darken with sweat. His glasses started to slide ever so slightly down his nose, so he raised a trembling hand clutching a cigar to right them.

“For Christ’s sake, are you ready yet?” said the man standing behind Joe’s right shoulder. The photographer only nodded, continuing to swivel his camera onto the stand. It sunk a little to the right as the wooden leg found a spot in the soil which was damp and soft. I remembered the crashing storm of the night before, which had lashed at the house and threatened some of the newly pruned bushes lining the entrance.

I wondered if he remembered me. If this was a coincidence, or if some memory seven decades old was still itching at him. I wondered if he thought about us while he was sat at home with his grandchildren. If he saw us in the streetlamps, or heard us in the wind.

His trembling fingers pulled at the pressure pleats in his trousers and exposed his socks. He’d been wearing bright red, thick socks the day we’d first met. Woollen and scratchy. He’d got mud all over them when he ran and fell.

Joe looked over to the trees again and squinted, trying to see me (or whoever he thought he could see) in the darkness.

“Is it really him?” Emily asked. She moved in front of me, straining against the front line of the woods, wanting to go to him.

“Stay back,” I said. “We need to wait for him to come to us.”

“Ready!” the photographer said, bending down to the viewfinder and raising his hand in the air. “Now, nice big smiles everyone. Pretend you own the place!”

“We just bought it, you cretin.”

Just a moment before the camera bulb flashed, I sent out a flash of my own bright light. Almost imperceptible to the other men, who probably couldn’t distinguish between the two beats of light. But Joe was an observent man – he had learned to be – and his eyes flickered away from the photographer and over to his right, as I hoped it would. This time, I saw some recognition – and fear – on his face. He remembered alright.

I’d seen that look before. He was only ten years old at the time, racing his sister around a newly opened area in our forest – in fact, less than 50 metres from where I was now. She was giggling and screaming, jumping in and out of his outstretched, reaching hands. We’d spotted his father first, employed as a gardener in the grounds. Only young himself, and with ropey muscles that shuddered with each draw of the saw against the trees he’d been ordered to cut down.

It was hours later. Joe had been playing by himself for a long time, spinning around with his arms outreatched, one hand clutching a toy airplane. His little red socks turning into a crimson blur as he stumbled and righted himself, going faster and faster. He was concentrating so hard on staying upright that didn’t hear his father shout his sister’s name until the fourth time.

Joe never saw his sister again. Just like that, as abrupt as a period in a sentence. His father always believed that she’d run away, been abducted or hidden – he couldn’t stand the idea that she had simply disappeared. He’d never have imagined that the light in the forests he’d seen during the night from the house was her, and not one of the many other adults scouring the woods with flashlights.

But Joe had seen her. Seen me. He’d sat on a felled tree and cried while his father ran to gather other workers to help look. When I appeared in front of him, he tried to run and instead fell, his mottled, teary face opening up a gape of surprise. I stopped him from going any further. I told him what had really happened to Emily. I showed him.

I told him what he needed to do to get her back.  

We watched as Joe got up heavily, pushing his body up from the chair on one shaking arm. He looked like he needed a cane, and I wondered if he’d left it indoors. The younger of the four remaining men picked up the chairs and gestured towards the house.

“Champagne?” he said. “Come on Joseph, this is your biggest investment yet. Come and celebrate with us.”

“A moment,” he replied, pulling a distracted smile. “I fancy a walk first.”

“Later, then.”

Joe nodded and moved forward unsteadily, dragging his feet across the neatly mowed grass. His neck spilled over his collar, gathering and heaving as he made his way towards the woods. He was becoming more jumpy, flicking the milky cataracts in his eyeballs from left to right as he looked for more lights in the shadows of the trees. I obliged with a flash, and his hand went instinctively to his throat.

He was so close now that I could see a scar on his forehead – crumpled above his knotted white eyebrows. I wondered if he got that the same day Emily disappeared. I could feel her behind me, trembling with excitement.

“It’s really him,” she said. “He’s come back for me.”

We moved backwards, our tiny forms skimming the bark of the trees.

“Come out!” He tried to bark with authority, but his voice cracked at the start, and I could see the tension in his jaw as it spasmed with fear.

I tested my own voice. It had been over fifty years since I had spoken a single word to a human. I reached out my arm, small and shimmering in the shadows.

“No. You come to us.”

My tiny wings carried me to his eye level. The sound I made was a cross between a flutter, a tinkle and a buzz, and it seemed to undo him entirely. His knees buckled and he had to put his hands on his thighs to stop from falling.

“Please,” Joe said. “I did what you want – I’ve dedicated my life. I earned the money. I bought the land. You said it was enough. I want to see Emily freed.”

“She’s one of us,” I answered. “Release all of us, and you and your sister can be together again.”

He stepped forward and pulled a handkerchief out of his jacket pocket, wiping his face. The smell of perspiration mixed with the sunshine and his sweater, which was full of years of smoke; cigarettes, old and new.

He recited the words I had given him as a ten year old without hesitation. The prayer must have been on the tip of his tongue for over half a century.

“I am the true and rightful owner of this land. I free you from your bond to this earth. Faeries,” he winced. I imagine there had been many years where he’d repressed that word, convinced he had just gone mad that day. “Faeries, you are released.”

There was a hush. The kind of silence we would conjure inside the eye of a tornado. Even the trees stopped to listen. Joe cast his eyes down to the ground, so afraid.

I heard the sounds of my family behind me, a collective sigh as they felt the effect of the words. Emily flew out from behind me and held herself in midair in front of her brother, her wings turning red like the burning end of a poker as she grew, glowing, into a human form.

Joe stood, trapped in the moment before a sob, watching his seven year old sister’s face manifest before him, and glow brighter and brighter, until he could barely look at her.

Inside the house, I knew that the men would be rising from their chairs, rushing to the windows as an unnatural glow from the woods outside turned quickly to the brightness of a floodlight, lighting up the whole room.

Joe held up his arm against his eyes. She stretched out her arms and became charged like the sun.

“Emily…” he said.

The rest of us were following. Within my body I now felt a bright warmth start to spread out from my abdomen too.

His face was wet with tears. “I love you, Emily.”

“Together,” she said.

There was a flash of light so intense that the molecules in the air around her seemed to burst, and Emily disappeared for the second time in her short life. The light died and with it, Joe, who had fallen to the ground, his hand against his heart.

Author’s notes:

Holy shitballs. This is honestly how I felt trying to write this bloody thing. Every idea seemed like a good one at first, and then I’d realise a plot point I couldn’t fix, or it would become boring, or stupid. Or I just plain hated it.

Even what I ended up with was an absolute nightmare to write.

Firstly, I took almost 6 hours just trying to think of a story to go with this picture that wasn’t cliche. They’re SO (#moneysupermarket) elderly white men who look rich and serious and I wanted to do something a little bit unexpected. In fact, the only way that I could brainstorm something that felt original was by thinking of the absolute LAST thing I would expect to read about these men. Faeries seemed utterly ridiculous, so I figured I could go with that.

Then, the story itself took about 8 hours to write, mostly because I wrote the whole thing from Joe’s perspective and then realised that it wasn’t going to work that way. Keeping the faeries a secret until the end wasn’t really possible when he remembered what he’d seen the day Emily disappeared.

There also wasn’t really a satisfying ending I could give him, within the confines of a short story. I thought a lot about the quote from the BANGER that is ‘Gerald’s Game’ by Stephen King: “Who knows what some men and women have seen in the hour of their solitary deaths? Is it so hard to believe that some of them may have died of fear, no matter what the words on the death certificates say?”

To have Joe die at the end felt a little lazy, but in that way he also got Emily back, and they were reunited, which I found quite touching.

Still, this short story took me over 18 hours in all, and they were all pretty damn brutal.


Let me know in the comments and we can have a jolly old time discussing: 
1. What other kinds of stories are hidden in this photo
2. Whether ‘Joe’ was the right man to pick out of this photo
3. If you even liked this one?

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