Last month I entered a short story competition for the first time using an extract of The River. This month, for the first time, I’ve created a totally new short story, The Eternity Box, below.
This is the first time I’ve written a short story ‘to order’. It’s been quite hard to drag together several ideas and try to hone in on a plot. I think the end is a bit rushed, but overall I’m happy with it. Please, if you’re reading this, tips on making a better short story and how you cope with ‘writing to order’ would be greatly appreciated.
So here goes, below is my attempt at the Telegraph Short Story Competition for March 2012.
The Eternity Box
“Mummy, why are those people in my room?” asks a young Dawn Lightly.
“They’re just your imagination, don’t worry,” soothes her mother before tucking her in for the night.
“Now, you’ve a busy day tomorrow, so try to get some sleep.”
She kisses Dawn’s forehead then leaves.
In the dark Dawn’s eyes don’t close. For in her room blue silhouettes of a man and a woman walk silently to and fro.
Nine years later Dawn Lightly stands in front of her fellow classmates, having just read aloud her English creative writing homework on ‘What happens at night’.
The teacher, the pupils and those Dawn loosely calls friends sit in stunned silence.
Finally one freckled boy chides, “You’re well weird. No wonder you ain’t got any mates.”
Dawn, having faced similar verbal abuse for years, begins to well up. The story she’s just described isn’t the made-up tales others have told; her story gave a detailed description of the man and woman who wander her room each and every night, shrouded in a blue light so much so that their main features, other than their gender, are obscured.
Seeing no educational merit in Dawn’s work the teacher joins in and berates, “You didn’t keep to the brief Dawn. I want you to come to me during your lunchtime and I’ll tell you the difference between creative writing and free writing.”
With no-one on her side Dawn’s emotions get the better of her and, in tears, she runs from the room.
A week later Dawn and her parents sit in front of a desk, on top of which sits a new BBC Micro computer. Lining the walls are books, files and reference materials. All three sit in silence.
Finally the headmaster enters the room. Instead of sitting behind the desk he perches in front of it, using the latest psychological techniques to try to create an amiable, yet fully under his control, atmosphere.
“Mr and Mrs Lightly, your daughter repeatedly disrupts lessons, distracts other students and frequently talks, draws or writes about people in her room at night.”
From a young age Dawn realised it best to stop talking to her parents about her nightly apparitions. They never believed her and were powerless to do anything about them. Her school-life had, until this very moment, been the only place she was free to be herself. Now, sitting in-between her parents, she feels deep shame.
“Dawn is this true?” her father asks.
She doesn’t respond. By her silence her father learns the honesty in the headmaster’s words.
Once again Dawn feels emotions rising within her; shame and embarrassment flood her body. What will her parents think? What will other people believe? The desire to run away, as she has done so many times before, rises.
But this time, maybe because of a new stage of maturity, or perhaps because of the number of times she’s faced this situation, she doesn’t flee.
Her headmaster’s words, her father’s sadness and mother’s concern become background noise as Dawn concentrates on pushing her emotions down, hiding them away and blocking her true feelings from outside view.
Over two decades later Dawn Lightly sits on her own in a restaurant taking another sip of wine. If she wasn’t being watched she’d have downed the whole glass by now, anything to stop her scathing inner-monologue.
Her own mind, ever since her young teenage years, has become her own worst enemy. ‘Fat, Fat, Fat’ she often thinks, despite her slender frame. ‘Ugly!’ she silently cries when catching a glimpse of her own reflection. ‘Why would anyone want to be with you?’ she curse’s as lonely birthdays role by.
Dawn, well aware that it’s her own inner-criticism stopping her from developing close relationships, has, following the recent death of her mother, finally taken a step to defeating her inner-demons. That’s why today she finds herself sitting amongst the throng of a speed dating night.
As the night nears its end only one more partner awaits. Gliding into the seat opposite Dawn is a man in a well-fitting suit. His hair is slick, not really to Dawn’s taste and his eyes are closer together than she usually prefers, but the first words he speaks match her outlook perfectly.
“Nice to meet you…” the seventeenth stranger she’s met this night quickly looks at her name badge before continuing, “Dawn. I’m sure you’re a wonderful person and many people like you, so please don’t take this the wrong way – this has been an absolutely terrible night, hasn’t it?”
Taken aback by the man’s honesty Dawn too takes a look at his badge and responds, “It’s been Hellish, Stephen.”
Having spent a good portion of her adult life watching other adults eat good portions on shows like Come dine with me; Dawn finally completes what’s she’s always wished to do. She’s made a meal for a man she thinks she’s fallen in love with.
Despite having only known Stephen P. Hector for a short time, his probing questions and caring nature have turned Dawn’s world upside down. Now, as she reaches for the door handle to open it for the man she hopes will, tonight, become her lover she feels a thrill of emotion shoot from her heart to her toes and back again. However, in spite of her body enjoying the convulsions of love she’s distinctly aware of her conditioned incapability of outwardly showing emotion.
Stephen stands with a bottle of wine in his hand, “It’s lovely to see you again,” he smiles.
Dawn tentatively grins, the sides of her mouth only barely rising from horizontal. Inside her skull her inner-monologue slates, ‘you’re so dull, you can’t even smile.’ Hearing this she forces her cheeks to accurately reflect the emotion she feels. The exertion pains her unused cheek muscles.
“Well? Can I come in?” Stephen jokes.
As if a trance is broken Dawn apologises and quickly invites her guest into her humble abode.
Later, with plates cleaned and glasses empty Stephen and Dawn find themselves sitting together, arms and legs so closely bonded to one another they appear as though they’re recently separated conjoined twins, wanting to get back to the comfort they once knew.
After a shared joke Dawn looks into Stephen’s eyes. Her heart screams to tell him she loves him, her brain remembers the few times she’s been burned in the past and stays her emotion.
Strangely, despite the connection throughout the night Stephen doesn’t notice Dawn’s emotional advance. Instead, seeing her attention, he does what he’s always done, he asks a question.
“Tell me more about yourself, about your past. I think we’re close enough now. Any dark secrets or deep sadness I need to know about before jumping in the deep end with you?”
‘You’re a useless fake,’ demeans her inner-monologue.
“You’ve heard what little there is to know about me, Stephen. Tell me more about you,” she asks.
Stephen looks into her eyes for a moment and pauses as if weighing up a terrible secret. However instead of a childhood secret or adult misdemeanour he states,
“My job is… strange. Don’t be afraid, it’s nothing illegal. I tell you what; I’m taking delivery of something in the next few days. It’ll keep me busy for a week or so. After that time I’ll tell you everything. In fact, I might need your help.”
In the two weeks between dates Dawn’s mind is so taken by the secret she’s to be told that she barely notices her nightly visitors, who have visiting every single night since she can remember.
While they’ve walked around, never noticing Dawn and never meandering further than a few metres from one another, she’s worried and fretted about what his secret occupation could possibly be.
Finally the day she’s to discover the truth arrives. With sunrise the apparitions disappear and she sets to meet Stephen at his home.
On reaching his door she knocks only for the entrance to open under the slightest pressure. An absent mind or a forced entry has left the door unlocked and ajar. Tentatively she steps inside, into the unusually darkened house.
She enters the hallway. Blackened sheets and newspapers are stuck to the windows stopping natural light from entering the house.
With every step she takes into the dark her mind races with questions as to the identity of her new lover. Strangely she hears a digging sound from a nearby room. Tentatively she enters.
On the floor are lamps illuminating a large hole that goes below the house’s foundations and deeper into the bedrock. Far below she see’s Stephen, sweating and tired with a shovel by his side. In front of him, mostly uncovered from the ground is a three-by-three metre stone box.
Despite her shock, surprise and immense befuddlement all she manages to do is say, in a slightly raised voice so as to be audible to the distant Stephen, is,
Slightly confused Stephen looks to Dawn, “Oh GOD! I’m so sorry Dawn, I forgot. Erm… please come down and I’ll explain everything.”
Feeling over dressed for the occasion Dawn reluctantly climbs down the nearby ladder, and putting some distance between her and Stephen asks,
“What is it that you do again?”
With a grin Stephen answers directly, “You won’t believe me…”
“Ok… I’m a ghost hunter.”
On hearing this Dawn almost shares the detail of her nightly visits. Instead, before she can speak, Stephen continues.
“Well. Actually that might be a bit melodramatic. Let me explain…”
Slightly saddened at not being able to share her story she gestures for Stephen to continue.
“Some people, me included, have seen ghosts, apparitions or spectres haunting homes, houses, buildings, villages and all manner of locations. A long, long time ago I set about investigating what they were. I found a theory that our reality exists on a frequency like radio waves. Just like you can have different stations operating on different frequencies from the same location, you have different realities sitting atop, or beneath our own. Every so often, like a scrambled signal, these realities bisect one another creating what we see as ghosts and ghouls.”
Taking in his words, but not really understanding, Dawn’s attention is pulled toward the three-by-three metre box. Now much closer to it she sees clearly an unopened door.
“What’s that?” she asks.
“Ah-ha. This is the equivalent of a pirate radio station. This is an object that shouldn’t exist in our reality but has fallen through. It’s called an eternity box.”
“What does it do?”
“No-one knows, but that’s what I’m here to find out.”
“Two weeks ago you said that you needed my-”
“-help? Yes, yes I do. This isn’t the first eternity box to be found. There have been two others recorded. The first appeared in biblical times and disappeared a few days after it surfaced, probably reconnecting with its own reality. The other was opened and investigated in the 17th century. However… something went wrong and the pioneer who entered the box never left. The door to the box closed and then it disappeared. Ever since that date the mansion the man lived in has become one of the most haunted places in Britain.”
“OK… What do you need me for?”
“There are other artefacts from the alternate realities. I’ve studied them all and I think I know where the man from the 17th century went wrong. With your help I can finish what he started. Together we can take information from within the eternity box, information I think will aid us in determining how to control movement across realities.”
Now totally shaken, but still outwardly emotionless, Dawn makes a tentative step backward as if to leave.
“Please Dawn, don’t worry. You’ve already come down the rabbit hole,” Stephen points upward back to the house, “why not take another step?”
With this coercion Dawn stays her emotion once more and stops her retreat.
“Great. You came just in time, look.”
Stephen turns to the box, runs his hand across its newly uncovered surface and, finding a button, he presses it.
The door to the box slides open to reveal a blinding white light emanating from the inside walls. Dawn’s eyes take a moment to adjust, when they do she sees the inside of the box is metal, heavily electronic in appearance and, strangely, slightly larger on the inside than outside.
Inside the eternity box is a raised table-like surface. Stephen’s hands run across the surface, with several taps different areas open and close.
Still questioning her presence Dawn asks, “So what do you need me to do?”
“In a moment an opening will appear in the table. Inside there should be a large rectangular object, I need you to help lift it out.”
“Is that all?”
His mind, busy in concentration doesn’t pay much attention to his recent partner, “yep”, is all he manages in response.
“Why me then? Why did you need my help?”
“You deserve the truth, you’ve followed me this far. I bought this house years ago but couldn’t uncover the box until I found someone like you. I’ve searched for a long, long time for you. You’re the only person who could’ve come in here with me.”
“What do you mean?”
“You don’t feel anything.”
‘I told you!’ Dawn’s inner-monologue erupts.
“Wh-what do you mean? What does my emotional state have to do with anything?”
“I don’t mean it in a bad way, really I don’t. It makes you unique. It makes you special. Other artefacts I’ve found have told me three things. Firstly whoever the eternity box belongs to has four arms and four legs. Secondly the room has a sort-of fail safe. If it doesn’t sense one individual matching certain characteristics it will close and disappear. Because of your inability to emote the room hasn’t sensed you.”
“And if it did sense me?”
“Ah-ha… that’s why it’s called an eternity box. It’s likely that whatever reality the box would take us to would not share the same scientific laws. Constant time, it seems, is unique to our reality. Only three eternity boxes have been found but it’s likely that all the ghosts, spectres and ghouls ever sighted in our world are remnants of people who had the misfortune of entering one.”
Before Stephen can continue the top of the table slides open revealing a large black rectangular object.
“Please, grab the other end,” he asks. Dawn doesn’t move.
“Our relationship. You pursued a relationship with me because you think I can’t feel?”
“Please Dawn, don’t get upset. This is not the time or the place.”
“Was everything we shared a lie?”
“We’ll talk once we’re out of here, please now, please take the other end.”
“No,” Dawn states coldly, having comprehended the images that have followed her throughout her life. She continues, “Tell me Stephen, what were the apparitions you’ve seen?”
“Oh-er, I’ve seen several. But there’s one a see fairly often, a man and a woman. Now please, can we get out of here?”
“I used to see ghosts.”
Stephen suddenly stops moving and just stares intently at down, only once flicking his eyes toward the doorway, contemplating an escape.
“I think I’ve seen them for the last time. Because, from what you’ve told me, I think today, this very moment, I become my own ghost – in a timeless world.”
“Don’t speak Stephen. You should’ve realised I struggled with emotion, I didn’t lack any. Deep inside me I think, feel and love.”
As she speaks the doorway to the room begins to close, having sensed another presence.
“All my life,” she continues, “I’ve been followed by ghosts. No one believed me. I had to hide my emotion, I had to keep images to myself. Because of you, here today, and your blind desire for what’s inside that box my life was ruined. I loathe you…”
With her last words the eternity box closes completely leaving Dawn and her reluctant partner to become lost together, somewhere between worlds, forever.