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.
Scroll down for Author’s notes.
Through the knees of his suit trousers, woollen and scratchy, the child could feel the wet soil seeping. He had found a snail to watch.
It moved glacially across the ground, tipping itself this way and that, riding the stalks of the grass like a drawn carriage on a bumpy road. He tried to pile sticks in its path, but the snail simply moved around them, ever-moving, ever-progressing. The tan shell had scratch marks across it, as though it had once been in the grip of a huge monster, a bird that had once pecked at it, trying to tip the snail onto its back and pick out the meat inside.
It was a tough snail, no doubt. He reached out his stained finger and touched a feeler, giving a squeak of excitement when it flinched and recoiled from his touch. As he watched, it sucked its body under the shell and sat there, now still.
The wind in the garden was cold. He was glad of the oversized suit sleeves, which he wrapped around his hands and held tight in his palm. The white roses behind him crackled in their dry bush as the air drew them upwards from underneath. He heard a distant car. His brother, across the path, tucked his trouser leg into his shining shoes and turned, running into the house.
The child leaned forward on his knees and picked up the snail with his forefingers, pinky stretched wide in case, somehow, claws popped out the bottom. He tipped it over. Just as he’d hoped. The jelly grey underbelly of the snail twitched and tried to pull itself inside further. The edges were light, and frilled. They reminded him of a petticoat his mother wore. He touched the slick skin again, rubbing its belly as if it were a real pet, and wiped his hand on his trouser pockets before putting it back in the grass. It didn’t move for a long time.
The air had dropped a few degrees further and the sun had started to set over the shed roof in the time he sat there, watching the snail patiently as it tipped this way and that, pushing back out from under the shell. Come on, he thought. Move, he thought. I’ll protect you.
A shadow had formed at the end of the path, where it wound around the side of the shed. It was a dark, thick hole spreading from one end of the brick to the other. The boy hadn’t seen it form, but now as he squinted, his insides squelched with fear. That’s no ordinary shadow, he told himself. That shadow is too big and too dark. He’d seen shadows before – ones that had spread across the garden in just half an hour when the sun was at its lowest. It would stretch out towards the house, the light grey shape gently touching the path, the grass, the conservatory doors.
This one is different, he knew it. It had picked this garden to take over. It was here to eat him up. It wasn’t the absence of light, it was a big black slick of oil, and as he watched it slowly creep across the garden he thought he could hear a low hum, like a ship’s horn or a bass.
Even stranger, the shadow wasn’t moving with the sun. There it was, still he could see it above the rooftop. It hadn’t sunk any lower in the last few minutes, but the black shadow had moved almost a foot and was already licking at the end of the garden path towards him. His heart constricted in his chest as he saw the blades of grass at the edge of the garden start to curl and yellow as the darkness slid up to it.
It was here. Death had caught up to him. Though he was only young he’d always thought that it would come to find him one day soon. He’d felt it before – a dark figure outside his bedroom window, a creak under his bed, footsteps on the stairs, carpets turning to lava, moments lost in a crowd, alone. Every moment he’d died a little death from fright but now, he knew that it had come to take him for good.
His breathing shallowed, the fright rising in him like a red panic and coloring his cheeks. Though his mind willed his body to move, he couldn’t. And then the shadow started to change.
All at once, parts of it were stretching towards him. Small black hands, crawling across the ground, followed by heads attached to necks attached to torsos. Whole bodies, so thick that they seemed to rise from the ground. The grass withered from under its touch. He tried tucking one leg under another to push himself upright, but he couldn’t remember the next step to stand.
It was over the lip of the path now, and the fingers were elongating and curling, tracing the pattern of grass and seemingly taking delight in its death. Another figure rose out of the black. He gasped and pushed himself backwards, scrambling with his hands and feet, pushing the heels of his palm into the soft soil until he felt the sharp sting of the rose bush on the back of his head. The sun sat in the sky, reddening, watching as the scene unfolded below it.
Like the mouth of hell, he was sure he could see the darkness rushing underneath the shed, consuming it totally, black mist rising up behind the windows inside. He wanted to shout but there was no air left.
These formless figures were the people he’d feared before. The strangers, the danger, reaching out to him.
The marks in the soil showed where he’d hauled himself backwards. He realised with a shock of fright that the snail had been too slow to move and had been enveloped already by the darkness. All that remained was the shell, in shadow, tipped onto its side and hollow. He gave a piercing cry as the black hand grabbed his ankle. Inside the house, setting the table for dinner, the mother was looking for her son.
This short story was really fun and quick to write. I based it on Roald Dahl’s ‘The Wish’ which is a fantastically dark short story, only 1400-ish words long, that not many people know he wrote. It’s based around the terror as a child when your imagination turns something like a patterned carpet into a pit of snakes. It starts with something really small – the kid picking at a healed scab, and then as quickly as your attention span snaps, it becomes a situation where they’re facing mortal danger.
I loved this idea and really just wanted to try copying the style, because it’s different to my own kind of writing – and I wanted to challenge myself to keep it short. Dahl tends to incorporate his protagonist’s thoughts into the third person narrative, which proved a bit tricky but I really got into the swing of it.
I even kept a similar open line: “Under the palm of one hand the child became aware of the scab of an old cut on his kneecap” to try to create that same feeling of a child’s intense concentration and imagination – and, an almost identical last line.
I think this one might be a little darker, because the shadow isn’t as obviously a figment of his imagination – but I have a soft spot for this little story. I had this recurring nightmare when I was a child that the shadows I saw would suddenly detach from their subjects and I’d realise that they weren’t shadows at all – one of my many complexes!
Any feedback gratefully received, from writer to writer or reader to writer – would love any tips 🙂