Thank you to everyone who entered the STORGY Halloween Short Story Competition! It was a pleasure to read the diverse entries received, and we are honored to have experienced the thrill of reading such fine writing. Our editors have chosen the winning stories and over the course of the next week leading up to Halloween the full shortlist will published in STORGY Magazine, with the two runners up and winner of the competition revealed on the final three days! Congratulations to everyone who made the final shortlist. We hope you enjoy reading these stories as much as we did. Happy Halloween…
The Gag Reflex
‘So what happens now, Sal?’
They sat at the kitchen table, half empty wine glasses between them. Michael glanced at the overflowing ashtray.
‘And why the dope?’
Sally looked up, her eyelids drooped. ‘I need to be relaxed.’
‘Relaxed?’ Michael scowled, unable to remember how that felt. ‘Relaxed for what?’
Sally pushed a sheet of paper across the table.
Michael picked it up and let his eyes tumble to the bottom.
‘I can’t do this alone,’ she said. ‘I’ll need your help.’
You need help, all right, Michael thought, scrutinizing the instruction sheet. ‘What exactly do you have to swallow here, an entire plant? This is Chinese medicine we’re talking about, right?’
‘No,’ she said flatly. ‘It’s a lot older than that.’
‘Then what?’ Michael’s patience was as taut as cat gut. He waved the sheet of paper. ‘You need to explain, love.’
Sally took a deep breath. Michael followed her eyes to the wall clock behind him. One minute to midnight. When he looked back at his wife he saw tears on both cheeks.
‘This is too much, Sal! I know how much you want this baby. God knows I want it, too.’ He reached out for her hand but she pulled it away, leaving him groping at thin air. ‘But I’m scared, Sal. Honest to God. Scared that this has turned into an unhealthy obsession…’
There was a single knock from the front door, firm but not unduly loud. Sally’s eyes widened suddenly, and Michael saw both fear and hope fighting inside.
‘He’s here,’ she whispered.
The knock came again. Michael stood up, glad to have something to do. ‘The medicine man, right?’
Sally looked at him, unblinking, nodding once.
He marched through the hall, hand reaching out for the front door catch.
‘We do have a bloody doorbell!’
They’d tried everything to have a baby, and nearly ruined themselves financially in the process. The irony was that even if Sally got pregnant now they could scarcely afford to look after themselves let alone a child.
As he turned the door catch a shiver ran through him, as if the cold night air had entered the house already. The concrete path was empty, though, the gate closed. Michael stepped outside, looked up and down the road. Nothing.
‘Bloody kids!’ he muttered, slamming the door behind him.
The kitchen door was still half open. As he looked up he saw the expression on his wife’s face and paused. Her eyes were fixed on something hidden behind the door. Through the gap between the door and the frame Michael could see something dark occupying a previously empty chair. There was no hope in Sally’s eyes now, only terror.
Michael stepped forward, placed his hand on the door and pushed. They had company, after all. He looked to his wife for clarity.
‘He’s here,’ she repeated.
In his mind he heard a policeman ask: In your own words, Mr. Atkins, could you describe the assailant?
Michael let himself fall back into his chair. The crazy part was that what sat across the table from him was not altogether unfamiliar. The dark cape rose up over hunched shoulders towards a wide brimmed black hat, the neck wrapped in a tattered scarf. But most prominent of all was the beak-like structure that masked the entire face. Michael could see no gaps through which the man might see, but he felt watched, nonetheless. Yes, he’d seen this costume before. But where? A Halloween party? A film? Sally’s words echoed from the other side of midnight: ‘It’s a lot older than that.’
The visitor reached slowly beneath his cape, disturbing an odour that reminded Michael of a pigeon that had died halfway down their chimney one summer. He pulled out a card with a gloved hand and passed it to Michael. The card looked dry but felt strangely slimy to the touch.
He read the florid handwriting on one side. He assumed the unreadable name was in Latin, but written beneath in English it read:
RETURN. RECYCLE. RE-USE.
‘Who are you?’
The card disappeared again into the folds of the cape, and turning to Sally the visitor offered her the gloved hand, palm upward. The gesture seemed to break the spell that had paralysed his wife.
‘Yes,’ she sighed. ‘I have it. Wait a minute.’
Without even looking at Michael, Sally headed for the stairs. He thought about calling after her but she was already through the door.
The visitor turned his head towards Michael, but still said nothing. The false beak tapered to a point, its leading edge promising something similar to but much deeper than a paper cut to the unwary finger. However sincere Sally’s motives were in contacting this masked stranger, Michael’s immediate impression was that they were both in danger. Hearing footsteps scuttling across the spare bedroom above – the nursery, she called it – Michael leapt to his feet.
‘I think you should leave,’ he said firmly. The visitor did not respond. Michael pointed towards the hall. ‘Leave. Do you understand? I want you to leave.’
Reaching back inside his cape the visitor pulled something out in his fist. A knife was Michael’s initial fear. But the object’s true identity, when it registered, made him let out a guffaw of distain.
‘You’re crazy,’ he said. ‘Now get out!’
The visitor held up the parsnip, and as Michael watched the fingers tightened slowly inside the glove. A pain beyond anything he had experienced burned through his penis. The gloved hand continued to tighten, and as it did the pain in his crushed member intensified. The implication, however fantastical, was clear. Michael threw himself back into his chair and the gloved hand loosened, instant relief setting him panting as his wife’s footsteps skipped down the stairs. The parsnip disappeared back inside the cape.
Sally was holding a shoe box. She placed it on the table before her and grasped the lid.
‘You need to want this as much as I do,’ she said, lifting the lid.
The smell from beneath the visitor’s cape was nothing compared to the stench that rose from inside the shoe box. Again the visitor offered Sally his gloved hand, palm upward.
‘Sally, what the hell is going on here?’
She reached carefully into the box and lifted out the thing rotting inside.
‘Don’t just tell me you want this baby. Prove it.’
At first Michael assumed it was a bird, a chick that had fallen from a nest. But the longer he stared the more clearly the object’s true identity became. With tears rolling down her face Sally placed the tiny body into the gloved hand and the visitor bowed his head solemnly.
Now that it was closer, Michael could make out the crude pink limbs, the hairless head and black button eyes.
‘When it’s done, all you have to do is make love to me and we will have a child. I swear.’
Again the visitor bowed his head solemnly, this time in Michael’s direction.
‘Where the hell did you get that?’
‘Don’t you remember?’ she tried to smile. ‘You gave it to me.’
How could he forget? The hours sat in a hospital waiting room from two in morning, the blood still drying on the passenger seat in their car. Then the doctor putting his hand on his shoulder just before dawn, sympathy expressed without words. She’d lost the one baby they’d managed to conceive in a decade.
Only somehow she had kept hold of it. Questions of how and when seemed irrelevant beyond the raw fact that his wife had kept the corpse of their dead child, and then hidden it somewhere in the house.
‘The nursery,’ he murmured.
Sally was staring at him with an intensity he recognised from the doctor’s surgery, the IVF clinic, the private hospital. ‘I’ll never give up,’ she’d told him. The visitor carefully raised his hand with the tiny corpse to his beak and appeared to kiss it.
Michael glared at his wife, disgust and revulsion for what she was doing evolving into a loathing of her.
‘The instructions, Michael,’ she whispered, taking the tiny body back from the visitor. ‘You’ve got the easy bit, believe me.’
Michael picked up the printed sheet with its numbered points, its meticulously clear diagrams, and re-read the title running across the top of the page:
HOW TO SUPPRESS THE GAG REFLEX.
‘Listen Sally,’ he hissed. ‘I know how important this is to you. I do. But nothing’s going to happen tonight except you traumatising yourself for life…’
‘Show me that you want it, too, damn you!’ she screamed. ‘Don’t you get it? That’s what this is all about. Proving how much we want it and making it happen!’
Sally brought the lifeless body closer to her mouth, seemingly oblivious to the site or smell, and her tears fell freely.
‘Love’s not just something you feel, Michael; it’s something you do.’
‘But this is… this is sick, Sal!’ He tensed his muscles, ready to lunge forward. ‘I won’t help you! I can’t!’
Sally looked to the beaked visitor. ‘Oh, I think you will.’
Both gloved hands disappeared inside the cape this time, re-emerging with the parsnip and something else. Michael’s eyes widened.
‘No. No, please!’
The visitor gave the parsnip a playful squeeze to let Michael know he meant business, and then brought the tip into close proximity to the steel face of the vegetable grater. That was when Michael knew that Sally’s insane scheme was going to happen, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.
They didn’t speak for over an hour afterwards. Sally was busy fighting to hold onto the contents of her stomach. Michael could not take his eyes from the now empty shoe box. The beaked visitor was long gone, vanished in the time it took to swallow.
‘I think I can hold it down now,’ was the first thing she said. ‘We should go upstairs.’
The realisation of what she meant hit him so hard it was his turn to gag. But with the nausea came hope. As she headed for the door, Michael stared down into the box and declared, ‘No.’
Forty minutes after that it was all over. She had pleaded, begged, and threatened him, but he could not make love to her knowing what lay inside her. Whoever – or whatever – their visitor was, he would demand a price for his services, and that price would be greater than any soul should contemplate paying. One day, with treatment, she would understand, maybe even forgive him. But when she finally staggered from the downstairs toilet he could feel the waves of hatred coming off her like a warm breeze.
Collapsing exhausted onto the bed, he slept fitfully until the nightmares arrived. Waking suddenly, he saw that Sally’s side of the bed was still empty. He made his way downstairs, across the hall and back into the kitchen. He had taken the knives from kitchen, the pills from the bathroom cabinet, and hidden them, leaving nothing with which she could harm herself.
He looked down at her and saw that she was smiling triumphantly. What now? he wondered, fearing for her sanity. The wine glasses were still where they’d left them, the overflowing ashtray and the hated instruction sheet, now screwed into a ball. But there were four other objects on the table. The first was the shoe box. The second was a bucket. He could smell the vomit from where he stood. The other two objects she quickly picked up.
Michael felt the skin of his scrotum tighten, the blood vessels in his head engorge. He opened his mouth to scream, but the hand holding the turnip was already jerking down towards the gleaming face of the grater, the vacant shoe box waiting below to catch the strips of shredded vegetable.
‘Never give up, darling,’ she laughed. ‘Remember?’
Catch up on the Halloween Short Story Competition Shortlist by clicking on the links below:
Day 1 – Rapping at my Chamber Door – by Leah Cooper
Day 2 – Swing Me – by Tabitha Potts
Day 3 – Call Me Mr Moogle – by M Sheldon
Day 4 – ‘Mummy Are You There?’ – by Kirstie Turner
Feature Photo by Renee Robyn.
Check out Renee’s Photography here…
STORGY Halloween Competition Illustration by HarlotVonCharlotte