Halloween Short Story Competition: WINNER!

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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 Chains of the SS Cronus

 by
Charlotte McDowell

*

My heavily weighted belt tugged me down to the SS Cronus’ liquid grave. I slowed my descent. The night before had been calm, leaving the ocean with crystal visibility, as clear as the morning air. It was unsettling. The blazing white sun illuminated the gentle ripples on the surface above, and it felt, for a moment, as if the sky was the sea and I was floating down towards a dark earth. A fallen angel.

The depth gauge on my dive computer read five metres. Five metres and falling. As always, I reminded myself to breathe normally. A pinch of the nose and sharp exhale released the growing pressure in my ears. Breathe. Check dive computer. Ten metres. Pinch. Breathe. Check. Sixteen metres. Pinch. Breathe. Check. Twenty-two metres.

Mike was far beneath me. He’d shot down to forty metres faster than a ship’s anchor, thanks to his extraordinary talent of being able to equalise his ears just by thinking. Apparently one in ten people had the skill. After one hundred dives, it still took me an age to descend. I would waggle my jaw, swallow, swim up and drop back down again, until my Eustachian tubes released the pressure gnawing at my middle ear.

Twenty-nine metres.

I paused, surrounded by infinite blue. A black cloud of barracuda swam overhead, momentarily blocking the sun. With nothing to hear but my Darth Vader breath rasping through the regulator, I felt prickled by the sudden isolation. Pull yourself together, Shoshanna.

Below, Mike had reached the wreck and was searching for an access point. Just seeing his blue wetsuit calmed my thudding chest and gave me the confidence to continue the steady descent. I liberated an air bubble from my buoyancy jacket and watched Mike. He was a natural scuba diver. His agile body glided over the deck of the ship like an echolocating dolphin. I, on the other hand, swam like a water-phobic cat. My limbs lashed about, bumping into rocks and coral like a one-person ecological disaster. Diving wasn’t my thing. But Mike loved to dive and I loved him. But wreck diving…

Thirty-five metres.

The Japanese bombs hadn’t granted the SS Cronus an easy death. The bow had disintegrated and there was a gaping wound behind the bridge where an explosion had ripped through to the hull. Scattered on the seabed were stray items of cargo. There was a broken crate of china dolls, their frozen faces gazing out from shallow graves in the sand. Miraculously intact, a solitary toilet sat upright about twenty feet from the wreck. A beady-eyed moral eel was curled up inside the porcelain bowl, watching.

EAAAAAAAAAAH. A rasping shriek invaded the silence. I spun around searching for its source. What in hell made that guttural, tortured noise? A human-like wail that didn’t belong at the bottom of the ocean, where the only surviving sounds was the clinking of oxygen tanks or the rumbling of boat engines. Mike was casually floating above the deck, his fins tucked in a meditative pose. A movement caught my eye.

There was a large cylindrical opening behind him; perhaps originally the ship’s funnel, it was now merely a dark cavity. Did a shadow just slither into it?

As quickly as my ears allowed, I dropped level with Mike. He gave me the hand signal for ‘OK?’ by forming a loop with index finger and thumb. I shook my head and pointed at my ears.

‘What was that sound?’ I was asking.

Mike pinched his nose and waggled his head, guessing, incorrectly, that I was struggling to equalise. I shook my head again, took the regulator out of my mouth, and mimed a scream. The blank look on his face said enough. He hadn’t heard the noise. Probably it had been my ears adjusting to the pressure.

Still unnerved, I pointed at the hole. ‘Did you see something?’ I tried to ask. Mike drifted over to the opening. Again, he’d misunderstood my signals, thinking I was suggesting we penetrate the wreck. Not here. It felt wrong. Dark things lurked here.

Before I could react, Mike grabbed the edges of the hole and stuck his head inside. ‘Nooo,’ I yelled, exhaling only bubbles. In my haste to pull my husband to safety, I kicked the deck with my fin, stirring up a murky cloud of sand, algae and corroded metal. Struggling to control my buoyancy, I reached out and tugged Mike’s fin.

He pulled his head from the opening with a boyish grin, which spread even wider as he took in my wide eyes and the residue floating above the deck. ‘Level off,’ he signed at me. ‘Relax.’

Feeling ridiculous, I slowed my breath. What was I afraid of – entering the wreck though this hole, or entering the wreck period? The latter was more likely, but Mike had been planning this trip for weeks. I couldn’t ruin it because I had the heebie jeebies. A commitment was a commitment. With a brave smile, I gave Mike an ‘OK’ sign. He blew a kiss through his regulator and returned to the opening.

Masterfully, he shifted his body vertically and entered the hole, face first. Gently kicking his fins, he disappeared into the ship. Shoulders, waist and feet.

My turn.

The inside of the mouth was dark. Almost pitch black. The hole descended about three metres before seemingly widening into an open space. I retrieved the underwater flashlight velcroed to my wrist and, with a deep sigh, awkwardly kicked my legs up and dived into the wreck.

The tunnel opened into a vast room, another of the ship’s holds. Mike was examining an open crate of leather boots. I took one final glance at the open ocean, but the hole was now filled with sediment, blocking any view of the surface. Obstructing the daylight. ‘It’ll settle,’ I told myself. ‘You kicked the ship again dopey, be careful.’

I shone my flashlight around all corners of the room. Just making sure nothing was there.

Mike swam up to meet me and after a quick ‘OK,’ he turned to a small doorway on the starboard side. With a flick of his fins, he was through. I followed, the compressed air dry in my mouth. God, it was cold. I tucked my arms to my chest. The Indian Ocean is the warmest in the world, but it suddenly felt like the Antarctic.

We were in the crew’s quarters, a narrow corridor with rusted steel frames chained to the wall. No bedding. What happened to the seamen’s bodies? Probably some were never found. Carried away by the tide or flattened by the 15,000-ton ship. I shivered.

Mike stopped to inspect a metal chest. I was too jittery to inspect anything. A sense of something lurking in the darkness drove me to wave the flashlight in a futile attempt to light up the room. Where was the marine life? Mike had said to watch out for poisonous lionfish drifting in the dark – ‘The sting won’t kill you, but you’ll wish you were dead,’ he’d said with a goofy grin. Nothing appeared to live inside the SS Cronus. Not a single wrasse or tiny crab. Only algae and rust.

My flashlight swept past the doorway at the far end of the corridor. A hard lump blocked my throat with fright. Something floated there. A naked figure with waxy black skin. It was a faceless thing; any hair or distinguishing features had rotted (or been eaten) away. The body was sexless. Blood pounded in my ears and, frantically, I doggy-paddled over to Mike. There were still corpses here. This was sick; we had to go. Having momentarily flashed the light away from the dead thing, I aimed it back at the doorway. Fuck! Where was it?

Shaking, I swung the beam of light around the doorway. How could the corpse have moved? Nothing in the corners of the room. Behind me?

I gasped and inhaled a mouthful of salty water as my regulator fell. The light went out, but not before illuminating the horror that loomed behind me, grinning. Where was my air? I held my breath. Thrashing. Complete darkness. Two cold arms embraced me. Nooooooo. Not the thing. I struggled against it, but it pinned my arms to my sides. A gust of oxygen filled my mouth. Then Mike’s face appeared. He was holding me, concerned eyes inside his mask. I recovered the flashlight dangling from my wrist and shone it around the room. He did the same. There was nothing there.

After a minute or so, Mike tapped my shoulder. ‘What’s wrong?’ he signed. Then he raised his index finger and drew small circles at the side of his head. ‘Are you narced?’

Nitrogen narcosis. Could it be? I’d heard of divers becoming confused or hallucinating on deep dives. My dive computer showed we were at forty-five metres. That was deep – further than recreational divers should go without specialist equipment. Mike was grinning, relieved. He stuck up his thumb. ‘Back to the surface?’

I hesitated. Of course I wanted to, but I’d feel an utter idiot back on the boat. Mike would be sweet, tease me gently, but secretly he’d be disappointed. Another wasted dive because of his stupid wife. I scanned the room again. Nothing. There was no rational explanation for the gruesome apparition, aside from nitrogen narcosis. Now I knew what it was, I’d be ready, and so I gestured for Mike to continue.

He swam down the corridor towards the far door.

The next room was a dead end; a square steel box containing only a single chain hanging from the ceiling. Mike gestured for me to turn back and I was mid-way through a clumsy twist when the screech sounded again. It filled the small space with rattling intensity. Arriving from nowhere, a sudden icy current dragged us further into the room, but, in a flurry of bubbles, Mike pushed me through the doorway into the crew’s quarters. Grabbing onto one of the bed frames, I turned to see Mike kicking hard. Behind him, the chain was rising against the current, reaching towards his feet. We fought the inexplicable flow of seawater to swim back into the hold.

I arrived at the opening first, which, somehow, remained cloudy with sediment. Two strong hands grabbed my waist and shoved me out of the wreck, into the open ocean.

The immediate stillness and warmth engaged my brain, preventing me from darting terrified to the surface. A sudden ascent from scuba diving was dangerous. It could kill.

Mike.

I turned back to the deck hoping to catch my husband before he swam too high. He wasn’t there. I looked up, around, behind.

He was gone.

The deck was calm. A pair of goatfish weaved between the deck bollards. There was no hole.

How could that be? It had been right here. Frenzied, I scoured the deck for any small opening. There was none. I dashed down into the bomb-hit section, darting in and out of the exposed rooms. No blue wetsuit. I swam the outside length of the wreck. Nothing.

I moaned, unbidden, into my regulator. It was a familiar guttural sound. My lungs tried to draw in oxygen, but abruptly the air stopped, as if a plastic bag had been placed over my mouth. I checked the tank pressure. Empty.

There was no choice. I shot up to the surface.

Partway through clambering onto the boat, a shooting pain racked my arms and legs. Sobbing, I crawled over to the VHF radio, but the world was spinning like a ship’s compass. Decompression sickness; I’d ascended too quickly. The air that only a moment before had tasted so full, again felt weak and diluted. I managed to reach the cabin, my legs now dead weights, and made the SOS call. Save our souls.

I lay, looking at the sky.

A chain clanked onto the deck.

*

Catch up on the Halloween Short Story Competition Shortlist by clicking on the links below:

Day 1Rapping at my Chamber Door – by Leah Cooper

Day 2Swing Me – by Tabitha Potts

Day 3Call Me Mr Moogle – by M Sheldon

Day 4‘Mummy Are You There?’ – by Kirstie Turner

Day 5 – Runner UpThe Gag Reflex – by Gary Little

Day 6 – Runner UpThe Booth – by Roger Jackson

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STORGY Halloween Competition Illustration by HarlotVonCharlotte