As part of my challenge, I’m posting a short story every week. I’ve been pleased with everything I’ve put up so far, but this week, I’m not sure. I loved the concept for this, but I don’t think I’ve got it quite right. Something’s missing and despite plenty of time with the edit today, I’ve still not cracked it. I’d love your thoughts on what could make it better.
Hopefully, I’m talking rubbish and it’s great, but either way, I’m pushing myself to create something new every week and that means it’s not always going to be gold. Or silver, for that matter…
There was once a boy who found a box. In that box were two secrets. One promised joy and the other heartache. And so the boy had to make a choice…
Ethan scratched his neck for the tenth time in as many seconds. There were spiders in here. Spiders the size of his fist. He hadn’t seen them yet, but he knew they were here. Every room in this wing of the university was thick with them, feasting on the undisturbed dust and growing fat as they dreamt of preying on unsuspecting students sent here by their professors to find fictional texts.
‘Sod this.’ Ethan said to the darkness. But professor Kingston had said it was here and, seeing as he couldn’t finish his thesis without it, he would continue searching.
He could be down the pub. Darren had finished weeks ago and spent every day since soaking up the sun and drinking beer. Instead he was here in the darkness digging through boxes that smelt of old people’s homes.
Ethan wandered aimlessly through the room, running his torch along shelf after shelf filled with random folders and books. How was he going to find the right book even if it was here?
The beam of his torch cut through the floating maze of dust and alighted on a box that caught Ethan’s eye. It was smaller than the others and it took him a second to realise why it stood out.
There was no dust on it. Not a shred nor scrap of dust or dirt clung to the white cardboard. He wound his way between the abandoned furniture until he stood right in front of the shelf. It looked like a shoe box, only square. Shoes for people without toes.
He chuckled and went to pick up the box, then stopped himself. He wasn’t sure why, but something stopped him. This box was different from the others. Picking this box up would change him.
He laughed into the darkness and and nervous chuckle came back, an echo in a space far too small to create it. He shrugged and scooped the box up. The mating habits of earthworms would have to wait, no matter how interesting Prof Kingston thought they were.
The box was lighter than he’d expected and he nearly threw it over his head. He carried it back to the stairs and perched on the bottom step. With a catch in his chest like he was about to jump out of a plane, he lifted the lid.
Bloody typical. He was about to close it when he realised it wasn’t quite empty. Two slips of paper sat at the bottom of the box. His hand shook as he retrieved them, though he’d have claimed otherwise later. And the paper felt heavy, heavier, even, than the box itself.
Two slips of paper, folded in two. He set the box aside and held them tight. The feeling returned, of something closing in on him. The word fate wasn’t one he threw about much. It wasn’t one he gave any credence to, yet he couldn’t deny feeling it, peeking at him from between his fingers.
He could put the paper back in the box. He could put the box back on the shelf and go down the pub. But the paper had something written on it and he wanted to know what it was. If he put it back in the box, someone else would find it and it would say something quite different.
He opened the first slip of paper.
Your true love’s name is Jessica. You can meet her on 21st February 2016.
He read it a few times and checked his watch. It was the 21st January today, so one month exactly. His first thought was that, at 21, he wasn’t sure he was ready to meet his true love. His second thought was that was utterly stupid. It was never too early to meet your true love. Most people went through their entire lives without meeting them. He didn’t believe in fate, but he believed in love.
He sighed and tucked the paper into his pocket. How had he ever been nervous about looking at that? What an amazing thing to find. He pulled it out, read it again, grinned at the dust, and tucked it away.
He opened the second.
On 21st February, 2016, a man will attack Westfield Shopping Centre. He will kill a number of people. Only you can stop it, but you will be his only victim.
He could stop it? How the hell was he supposed to stop someone? He would be a victim. Did that mean he’d die? He needed to tell the police. He looked at the slip of paper. What would they think when they saw it? They’d think he was a nutter. They’d think it was him who was going to do it, like one of those weirdos you see in movies who tell you what they’d going to do, but somehow find a way to do it anyway.
He’d been watching way too many horror movies. But he had to tell someone. People were going to die. The note said only he could stop it. Maybe it was a trick. He shook his head. It wasn’t a trick. He could feel the truth like he could feel his heart beating in his chest.
What did it mean when it said he would be a victim? Did that mean he’d definitely die? Was it being coy? What if he met his true love and died a few hours later? What kind of evil bastard would play that kind of joke?
People were going to die.
He scrambled up the stairs, all thoughts of earthworms gone, and raced home. The paper sat in both pockets, one slip on either side, and he could feel them burning into his skin. The weight of two truths bore down on him, slowing his steps.
When he got home he chucked them onto his desk, breathed a huge sigh of relief as though he’d just taken off a weighty rucksack, and went down the pub.
He didn’t have to decide anything yet. He had a month. He sat at his desk, staring at a thesis that refused to write itself, mind spinning in circles. Only he could stop the killer, so there was no point in telling someone else.
He didn’t want to die.
That’s what it meant. It was being nice, lulling him into a false sense of security, but the truth was, he was going to die. His choice was save a bunch of people from certain death or find true love. It wasn’t both.
But the note said ‘can.’ It didn’t say you will find true love, it said you can. What did that mean? That was like the wording on one of those competitions designed to get your email address and give you nothing in return except crappy spam mail. He could find true love.
He’d looked up every Jessica he could find in the greater London area yesterday. He’d tried to, anyway. Once he found the first hundred, he gave up. That wasn’t going to work.
It was all a trick. Someone had set him up. Someone wanted him to find the box, which was why they’d put it down there without any dust on. They were watching him. Maybe it was one of the psychology students. Sick bastards.
He’d thought that every day for a week, but just as he’d done for the previous six days, he picked up the slips of paper from where they lay staring at him. The moment he felt the paper, he knew this wasn’t a set up. They vibrated, buzzing against his skin, speaking to him. This was no set up.
Another week went by, during which he wrote some emails. He wrote to the head of the Met and the head of security at Westfield. He did it through his uni account to show he was being transparent. He told them he’d heard an attack was happening. In both cases, they asked for proof, or where he’d heard it. They needed to ‘verify his sources’ before they could move on the threat.
He didn’t email back. He thought if they held the paper, they’d just see paper and some typed words. Anyone could have made them. He could have made them. He had an image of them coming for him on the morning of the 21st and taking him away. They’d lock him in a cell and he’d hear about a massacre from behind bars.
He made up stories about Jessica. He’d see her in a shop, serving someone, or maybe buying something. She’d come out and they’d meet. Maybe she’d look his way and smile. Maybe she’d bump into him and he’d help her pick up her things. Maybe he’d offer her coffee and she’d say yes. Maybe she’d offer him coffee…
He knew her. She worked in a shoe shop, or maybe as the HR manager in the big department store. She had black hair, or maybe brown, shoulder length, though, definitely. Great legs, lovely smile. He could see her in his mind’s eye.
What he couldn’t see was his thesis. The deadline came and went and he stayed at his desk, staring at the paper. He forgot to eat one day and only realised when he woke at two in the morning with his stomach growling.
Another week went by and he typed out the notes again, onto fresh paper. His hands shook as he did it and he didn’t know why. The words leapt off the screen at him and burrowed into his mind. He printed them out and the new version hummed with the same life as the original. It wasn’t the paper that was alive, it was what lay on them.
The truth had power.
He rearranged the words, looking for some clue, or some code he might have missed. He looked the words up in a dictionary, exploring every possible connotation of can and victim, but found nothing to satisfy his doubt.
He stopped eating. It was ridiculous, they were just words. But every time he looked at food, he felt sick. People were going to die. He was going to find true love. Maybe. Maybe, maybe, maybe. Nothing was certain.
Without knowing quite how, it was the 20th. Tomorrow he could meet his true love and know a lifetime of happiness. Possibly. Or he could go to Westfield, stop a massacre, and die. Probably.
He didn’t sleep that night. He lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, but seeing her. There were lots of hers now. He’d gone back to tracking every one he could find on the internet. Some he’d even looked at on Facebook. There were plenty to choose from, and plenty of pretty ones too, but without speaking to her, he had no way of knowing which was his true love.
Would he know her when he saw her?
He closed his eyes and saw blood. It was his, mostly, but now and then it would be that of other people, bodies lying dead on the white shiny floor of the shopping centre. Too many bodies. It was them or him, so why should it be him?
It had to be him, because he knew and they didn’t. It was his fate to save them. He couldn’t not save them, just because he might find true love.
He woke feeling appalling, but with his mind set. He loved Jessica without even meeting her. He wanted her more than anything in his life. But people were going to die. He couldn’t let them die, not whilst he knew about it. He’d never been what he’d call noble. He’d never spoken out at school when something unjust occurred. He never argued with his teachers and professors and parents when they unfairly accused him. But this time, he had no choice.
So early in the morning, before the police could arrive, he slipped from his house and made his way to Westfield. He strolled up and down as the shops opened, watching first one woman then another. A few smiled at him and he tried to decide for each whether it was a genuine smile or politeness. If it was the former, he’d try to figure out whether they looked like a Jessica. He’d spent a month staring at Jessicas, but he still couldn’t decide.
Lunch time came and he settled in the food court, trying to see everywhere at once. His mind turned from his true love to the man with the gun. He didn’t know whether it was a man, though he was assuming it was. How would he know him? How was he supposed to stop him?
His fork paused halfway to his mouth as a thought struck him with the force of a truck. Maybe Jessica was the one with the gun. Maybe that’s why he could stop her. She was his love and he would talk her out of it before she could do anything.
He fixated on that idea, watching every woman who came through with a large handbag or bulky jacket. Within a few minutes he was exhausted, but he kept trying.
Dinner time came and went and he missed it. He didn’t think he’d be able to keep anything down anyway.
Where was she? It was half seven and she wasn’t here. The evening shoppers had arrived and were browsing in the fancier parts of the centre. How was he even supposed to spot the gunman? They could be anywhere in here, he didn’t have a chance.
He grabbed a pie from the supermarket and strolled, munching mechanically on his late dinner and wondering whether the girl behind the counter had been called Jessica. He should have asked. Maybe it was up to him. That was why it said can. He needed to be proactive. He needed to find her.
He peered through shop windows until he saw an attractive sales girl. She wasn’t exactly his cup of tea, but she was pretty. She had a face he could imagine falling in love with. He dashed inside.
‘Excuse me, are you called Jessica?’
‘Are you called Jessica?’
‘What does the name tag say, love?’
‘Oh. Sandra. Right, excuse me.’
He ran back out and jogged down the central walkway, staring through shop windows. She was here, somewhere. If he was going to die, the least he could do was find her and tell her how he felt. That decided it. There was no point in asking names. He would know, the minute he saw her, if she was his true love.
He searched and searched and Westfield was a big place. He returned to the food court just after half nine. Alone. Empty. His sides were heaving and his chest felt heavy. Where was she? Where was the gunman? What was he even doing here? He would find her. The whole thing was a joke, a set up designed to make his life a misery.
He sat for a minute on the bench, watching the late nighters go by. Half of the shops had shutters pulled down. It was closing in fifteen minutes. He wasn’t ever going to find her. He wasn’t going to save anyone’s life.
He scowled and stood. His cheeks reddened as he realised he’d been looking for the wrong person. What he should have been looking for was the maker of the box, the person who’d put him up to this. Somewhere in Westfield, someone was laughing.
He zipped up his jacket and stomped for the lifts. As he rounded the last corner, the nearest lift opened and a man stepped out. He was wearing blue jeans and a t-shirt. In one hand was a brown paper bag with his hand inside. It was odd and he had to look twice before he realised what he was seeing.
‘GET DOWN, EVERYBODY GET DOWN!’ He barely knew he was shouting before he ran at the man, waving his arms. The gunman’s eyes widened and he shook his head. Then he raised his arm, something went bang, and everything went black.
Ethan woke in a small room that shook backwards and forwards. A siren came from somewhere nearby. The whole room lurched sideways and he gripped the side of the bed. He was in an ambulance. He felt very heavy.
A face appeared above his with a smile attached to it he thought he could drown in and die quite happily. Then he remembered the gun man. He tried to sit, but none of him worked like it should. ‘Did he kill anyone?’
The woman shook her head. ‘No, thanks to you. You knocked him out and the police got him down. He had two guns. He was going to kill lots of people and you saved them. But don’t worry about that now, just lie still. You’ve lost a lot of blood.’
‘What’s your name?’
‘I’m Jessica. Nice to meet you.’
She smiled again as he slipped away into darkness.