include_once("common_lab_header.php");
Excerpt for Take Thirteen by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

This page may contain adult content. If you are under age 18, or you arrived by accident, please do not read further.

Take Thirteen


Flash Fiction Collection


Very Short Stories


by


Caroline Wood


Smashwords Edition


Copyright 2019 Caroline Wood

Contents


Pulling the Wires

Small Bananas

Dispatching Neville

Reborn

Red Wall

Package Deal

Nightshifts at the Care Home

Moving Pictures

Splinter Man

First Day, New Job

Dummy

Background Checks

Letters to a Murderer


Other books by the author

Pulling the Wires


They completely took me in the first time, what with all the special effects and everything. Very convincing. Things flying around the room, voices wailing out of the walls. Exactly how I'd imagined the spirit world. I thought I'd finally found the right place to foster my new gift.


A year later, I was back, craving more. It was identical. Don't get me wrong, it was still amazing. And newcomers had their eyes popping out. But I'd expected different spirits coming through, new contacts from the other side. Not a stage show. I said so at dinner, which wasn't up to much if I’m honest. The looks I got told me I’d said the wrong thing. The spirits think they’ve got to entertain us, so the regulars said. Think they need to perform so that we'll stay interested. I told them I was already interested without all the high jinks. That didn't go down well, either.


I play along with it now, like the others. They teach you how to talk in tongues, there's a trick to it. Same with the healing, and the seances. I even help with the yearly shows. Switching the sounds on, checking wires on the flying trumpets. It means a lot to the people that come along, as it did for me that first time. You don't want anyone disappointed. And anyway, the out-of-season hotels depend on the trade. It's big business with all these spiritualists turning up for the long weekends. One day, there might be a genuine link, a spirit getting through for real. I cling to that dream. I didn't get into all this for the razzamatazz. But it's got to be worth all the showbiz if we get contact from the other side. Hasn't it?

Small Bananas


He'd protested about the small bananas. Had drafted a formal letter. His solicitor must have thought him deranged but took instructions for the money. The Respondent, the solicitor wrote in her letter, was punishing her client with food. Small bananas in the Petitioner’s lunch box had caused him distress.


The real distress, dispensed over two years of living in the divided house, came from the silence. It came from malice and bullying. From the locks he’d fixed to doors, restricting her to the spare room. He controlled the heating, the water, and hid the phone. He ignored her when she spoke, an expert at playing deaf. Disrupted her sleep with loud music, and destroyed her mail. His flip-side, polite and friendly, presented the neighbours with pleasantries. Such a good man, they said. She was the perverse, irrational one. He figured his torment with scientific precision. Took everyone in with his charm.


His desire for her to leave matched his need to resemble the discarded one, the pitiful spouse. Serving his financial schemes, it would secure his possession of the house. Her accommodation would be institutional once he'd finished his work to crush her. She clung to the ordinariness of their past life, cooked his meals. Trying to reignite his love, she forgave his coldness, excused his venom. Continued preparing his food, ironing his clothes. Until the click in her brain. Almost funny, the awareness that he hated her. And that no amount of food would dilute his contempt. She made a new shopping list, her favourites at the top instead of his. Then, she purchased with care, him in her mind, like an effigy. She selected meagre rations and dull fare for him. The ingredients of bland sustenance.


The small bananas had offended him. Had undermined his sense of power. The great man, about to break her with his vengeful tactics, took umbrage at the size of the daily offering. The feel of it in his hand insulted him, made him feel impotent. Strong enough to deliver cruelty for months, he had toppled at the small bananas. She laughed in the spare bedroom. Restrained at first, and hushed. Scared to sound like the troubled creature he’d painted with his finest hurt expression. Then, with such intensity that her tears smudged the ink on the solicitor's letter, making it run.

Dispatching Neville


It was her first time out alone for years. She’d got the train to London, found the right bus, planned it all herself. Then she'd walked to the posh address. It would even impress Neville that she'd managed without him. But he'd never know.


Elegant and grand, the house was intimidating. An entry-phone by the front door made her nervous. Pressing the wrong button, electronic screeching obliterated her voice, made her sweat. At last, the door swung open, and she said hello to an empty hall, that seeped wealth. Thick carpet cushioned her hesitant feet, and the heavy door closed behind her. Silence erased the distant hum of traffic and sirens.


Engraved signs led to his office. She followed, feeling like an amateur burglar. Gaunt and solemn, the man gave a dry recital of his services. He pushed a page across the desk. Prices were unspoken, a necessary crudity. She disguised her gasp with a small cough, determined to conceal her shock at the massive costs. She pointed to the second figure, stealing a look at his sunken face. With no change in his solemn demeanour, he said, "We can accomplish the outcome you desire in seven days."


Seven more days of Neville. His jabbing finger and sour smell. His thudding on the bedroom floor. Yelling at her, finding fault with everything she did, every word she uttered. Exhausting her and making her ache with misery. She slid her finger up the page, tapped the top figure. Kept her eyes down.


"Expiry," he said, not looking at her "will occur directly, madam."

Reborn


It doesn’t matter that you’re not a real baby. I couldn’t love you more. They say that adopted children are more loved because they are so wanted. But I wanted you even more than that. I chose you, paid for you, had to wait while they made you. You’ll never know how hard that was. Or walking around with a pillow tied to my stomach. The unkind comments about my weight, my age. Any fool could see that I was supposed to be pregnant, not fat.


Then people kept asking if you were my grandchild. I wanted to be sarcastic. Hard, I’d say, not having had kids of my own. But I smiled instead. I loved you too much to cause any sort of bother. I didn’t want you traumatised from your early days. I know you’re not going to grow up and can't get upset. But I’ll still always do my best for you, while you stay exactly the same. You'll always my baby.


Before I discovered I couldn’t have little ones, I had the usual plans. How I'd look after you, how I'd dress you up, and what I'd call you. But I only pictured you as a baby. Couldn't bear the idea of my baby growing up, going to school, being a teenager. Leaving me. What would be the point of that? A baby was all I'd ever wanted. Now, here you are. With the hair I chose, the dimple I selected, and the constant smile on your plump little face.


Real or not, you’re mine to dress up, cuddle, and love. People can point and laugh, but they can't change you. If we have to take the pram out at night, that’s all right. You’ll be safe and sound, wrapped up in the best blankets, the warmest clothes. And only I will hear you if you cry.

Red Wall


Red sauce all up the wall. How funny. Great that you think it’s so entertaining. Stupid dad shaking the bottle with the lid loose. Yeah, go ahead, laugh till you cry. Choke on your chips and giggle so hard that you can’t speak. We all love a good chuckle. Don’t we?


Will it be as funny later on? Let’s see. I’ve already got my cogs turning. You must know that from before. Didn’t stop you both vomiting out your half-witted laughter, though, did it? Played into my hands, as usual. Never learn, do you? Must be dense. Wonder who you get that from? Not me, that's for sure.


You’ll be dreaming when I get my payback. Pictures playing in your brains while you’re curled up in your stinking little beds. Ah, how sweet. Keeps your mother going, thinking that you’re safe. What does she know?


I always love the waiting, the longer the better. Four in the morning will be spot on. I’ll be sharp as a razor by then. You’ll both be dopier than ever. A recipe for success. Nice little wake-up call for you, grabbed by the arms, light in your eyes. Will you laugh at that?


Red sauce all over the floor now, oh dear. Sticky is it? Never mind, you’ll soon get it cleaned up. Won’t you? I’ll time you from my chair in the doorway. We'll compare it with your other little jobs. Three bottles worth looks like a lot more ketchup when it’s tipped out, doesn’t it? Very funny.

Package Deal


I face up to it now and then, but it’s difficult. A corpse in the loft isn’t something you want to dwell on, believe me. When I say corpse, it must be more like a mummy by now. It’s been a lifetime. For me, not for the babe. Turned to dust, I suppose. In my memory, it’s the same as the day I put it there. Born dead, poor little scrap. Not his fault. Nor mine.


I was too young to deal with it. More fearful of the trouble I’d be in than anything else. Nanna and Grandad did their best to bring me up right. I couldn’t let them down by causing more worry. I'd planned to leave the babe on a doorstep in the town. But then it arrived, so abrupt. Didn’t cry. And that solved the problem. I wrapped it up so many times, nobody would guess it was a baby. Newspapers and cardboard, thick curtains - it made a big bundle in the end. I shoved it behind Grandad's chests, his boxes of old photographs. Then I pushed it to the back of my mind.


But in the dreams, it gets found. People come round, search the loft. They go through the stuff, find the babe. It takes ages and seems like they'll give up and go away, but they never do. When they peel away the layers of paper and cloth, the babe opens its little eyes. And it cries.

Nightshifts at the Care Home


I love working nights, down in the laundry. "Get that done by morning," they say, going off duty. Like it’s some sort of hardship. Little do they know how much I enjoy it. I can be anyone I want. Man, woman, or a bit of both. The residents don’t know, let alone care. All asleep. Or roaming the corridors, starkers, while I'm decked out in their corsets or long-johns. I do a hot wash first, of course. I don't want any problems with unpleasantries.


One character a night, that’s my rule. I've got it all worked out. I'm thinking ahead all the time, getting the laundry done for me and for them. After all, it is theirs, not that they realise. I’ve crept around the wards in a beige skirt, a quilted navy jacket, and three layers of thermal undies before now. Visiting the owners. They haven’t got a clue. One said, "You look nice, Kenneth," as she gave me the once-over. "It’s your skirt, my lovely," I said. She’s past knowing what a skirt is, so what harm can it do?


While I’m dressed up, I’m not me. The day workers miss out on anything like that. They have to be themselves all the time. Wiping bums, spooning pap into mouths. When you see that all the time, it reminds you where you’re heading. I don’t want none of that, thanks very much. I like to step out of my skin, get the clean clothes on and be someone else. Night after night.

Moving Pictures


I love the photos but Jeff wants them gone, says they’re an embarrassment. "Do we have to put our life on display all the time?" he says. They’re our history, the proof of how well we've done. Our holidays, the cars, the boat, me in my ball gown, him in his tux. Who’d know all that without the pictures? He sighs, gives me the long face. I pinch his cheek, tell him to smile. Like in the pictures. "Bloody pictures," he says, "let them go." He knows I can’t.


We don’t talk about it, but he must have seen them move as well. They stand in different positions, move their heads. You’ve got to focus, but if you stare hard, you can spot the changes. I used to worry about the woman. Always in the background, waiting. I’d be on my phone, looking at the pictures, and she’d emerge. A shape, behind Jeff, hard to see. Then more solid. She reminds me of Jeannie, our neighbour where we lived before Jeff got his big promotion. I joke that he was happier then, struggling to pay the mortgage, doing the garden, chatting over the fence. He gives me the long face. "How could I not be happy now," he says? "Got everything you said we wanted. Haven’t we?"


I dust the pictures every week. See who’s moved. Look for the woman. She was further in the background today as if she was walking away, heading off somewhere. I wanted to ask Jeff, but it's silly to bring her up after all this time. He only knew her over the fence, anyway. And he's not home until late tonight. Going off to meet someone important, he said.

Splinter Man


Awaiting admiration, he beckoned with sincerity and those cerulean eyes. But, in a blink, he transformed, undermining their judgement. Made them question their memory. Had they invented him?


They'd had to win him. A hoop thrown over a fairground prize. That flush of delight before the paint peels. He survived unscathed, they plunged into isolated expanses of emotion. Imitating passion, he cheated his way to their hearts, like a virus. Then, wearing his mask of sorrow, he discarded them - shards of shattered china.


A splinter man, he penetrated the surface of their skin and caught in the delicate layers of them. Difficult to see, impossible to remove, he worked his way to their hearts. Withdrawal would bring simultaneous relief and unstoppable bleeding.


Ephemeral as dust, a shadow when you reached him, he tainted women’s lives. Fed off their agony as he unveiled his indifference. I’d love to love you, he’d shrug, but I don't. The collecting was his love, the list of names, the notches. Suggesting much, delivering nothing, he loved to watch the women fade. How accomplished his sleight of hand. He haunted those who coveted him. Aching for capture, their unwanted freedom imprisoned them, a splinter in their sides.

First Day, New Job


"Nobody bothers us down here. You can get your hands on all sorts. Some of it you wouldn’t want, of course. Limbs and tissues for burning. Waste from the operating theatres. Not pleasant stuff in the basement."


"The bowels."


"Oh yes, the bowels of the hospital. Sounds grim, doesn’t it? Dark corridors with bones, buckets of blood, and amputated legs. But it’s not like that. Strip-lights buzz non-stop, it's too warm, and stale air hangs in the green passages. Don't ask, why are they always green? Supposed to be a relaxing colour. Try relaxing down here, that's what I say. There are trolleys with linen and bedpans. Metal containers with hazardous waste, but nothing nasty to see. No gore or stained bandages." He extended his arms, an underground air hostess. "The lifts at each end take you up to the main part of the hospital. The card shop, flower stall, and visitors. We've got access to both with our white coats. You can go a long way in here with a white coat." He straightened the front of his thick, cotton coat, checked the buttons and the collar. "Trust me, you won't get questions wearing one of these. Go anywhere you like. As long as you've got your white coat on, you'll be invisible." He paused, shook his head. "No,' he added, "not invisible. It's better than that. You'll have automatic entry, authority, respect, and even a bit of fear."


"Not the mortuary, though, I bet?"


He laughed. "Thought so. You should have said before. We get a lot like you. Yep, the good old mortuary included." He bent to rummage in the large nylon bag at his feet, took out three folded white coats. "Take that new one-off," he gestured at the buttons. "You'll do better with these. They're boil-washed but used. Got the right type of stains on them." He smiled as the new worker took the armful of coats. "A lot like to start off on the mortuary. It's the obvious place, I suppose." He shrugged.


"Not you?"


"Like I say, it's a good start. Me, though - I prefer the wards. I like getting my hands on the living. There's a lot more you can do with them. And if they think you're a doctor..."

Dummy


You all know about the dummy taking over the poor old ventriloquist. If that’s what you’re expecting here, you’re in for a disappointment, chums. This dummy is well named, not an ounce of cunning in its stupid little wooden head. I mean, look at it, with that lunatic smirk and those shiny red cheeks. Who's going to fall for the idea that something so ugly and daft could dominate an adult? And what is it about the story that appeals anyway? Do people want to buy into the idea that they are being manipulated by some big warm hand up their backs? Does it give them a get-out-of-jail-free card? So that what they do is not their fault? Nice try, chums.


You know as well as I do that you are as nasty as you think you are. And everyone else knows it because they're the same. Self-serving, egotistical, and savage as a new-born. You want what you want, right? So you go all out to get it and sod the others. But to seem acceptable, you tell yourself that you were compelled to do it – whatever it was. The petty crime, rule-breaking, selfish acts, and greed. You had to do it, no way to avoid it. And what about the moments you could have helped someone? You were in a hurry, had things to do, places to be. You can't waste your time sorting out other people's problems, can you? Can't hang about listening to people wittering on. You feel bad about it, of course you do. But circumstances forced your hand. Yeah. Like the hand up your back, working the levers. Turning your head away from your responsibility, making you stare cold-eyed at what you don’t want to see. And making you laugh like a maniac to distract from the sawdust at your core.


The dummy ain't controlling you, chums. It makes no difference how much you try to sing while you drink a gottle of gear, or perform other worn-out acts. There's no repulsive little puppet in a tailcoat forcing you to do anything. The only swivelling eyes are yours, scanning the world to see what you can grab from it.

Background Checks


I was meticulous. Where to meet, what to wear, I planned it down to the smallest details. If a job's worth doing, mum always said. You’d think all that effort would go down well. But oh, no. The police seem to think you’re some sort of freak if you do a bit of research. I always thought that preparation was a good thing. Get some background knowledge, clue yourself up. Scrutinize the subject. Oh dear me, no. They called it stalking. And I never even met any of the women. Didn't have the chance once the police turned up.


No matter how much I explained about the project, the records I kept, they didn’t want to hear. Gave me strange looks. Asked what was wrong with me. They need to look at what's wrong with themselves, that's what I say. They can risk going out with women they know nothing about if they like. That's their choice. Or gamble on women who might be oddballs, money-grabbers, or worse. I prefer my way. Landing me in a cell for the night shows there’s something wrong with society today. As mum would have said, ignore them, Malcolm. Take no notice, they don't understand thoughtful boys like you. And she was right. I've always gone over things in my head, staying up late in the back bedroom. Binoculars aimed at the houses opposite, or the lane at the edge of the park. There were always decent women to watch, going about their business. Not minding that I was doing my careful studies.


Locked up in here, my mind drifts back to those evenings. I wonder what they did with all my records? The intricate details of who and what I'd seen. I remember, as well, mum, bringing me hot chocolate and a digestive at nine. How she'd leave it on the threshold before she went to bed. "I don't know what you're up to, Malcolm," she'd say, "and I don't care. It's enough to know you're not roaming the streets, getting into all sorts of trouble."

Letters to a Murderer


I’ve told mum not to open your letters. It’s not on. Her telling me to stop writing was the final straw. We had words about that. I don’t like upsetting her but, as you said, I’m an adult and I have the right to my privacy. And to manage my financial affairs. Mum said that, with you being a murderer, she wanted to protect me. I don’t need protecting, I told her, not at the age of fifty-seven.


You know I don’t believe you did those killings, Shareena. It’s obvious you were set up. Both times. And it's hard to prove something you didn’t do. I'm trusting the system to do the right thing. I've not shown mum your pictures, but when she meets you, she’ll see you’re not taking advantage of me. Send me some with your clothes on. Bet you never thought I'd ask that, did you? But mum would like to see you in a nice skirt and blouse if you're going to be her daughter-in-law.


I try to forget how lonely I was before our letters. I was a different person then. Too much drinking, and all those takeaways I ate. My room was like a landfill site with the empty cans and pizza boxes, mum said. Not now, though. I've got myself sorted, because of you. Three times a month, your letters light up my life. I cherish every word, even what you don’t put down. The between-the-lines messages of love. You can't say it outright from where you are, I know that.


I know they say you tortured your victims, but reading your amazing letters, I can't believe it. Someone so beautiful could never lock those men up and leave them to die like that. You couldn't have put the rat poison in their food either. It's not the sort of person you are. And there's another way to look at it. If those men promised you money and then didn't deliver, don't they only have themselves to blame? I'm not saying for one moment that you did kill them, Shareena. But if you had, it would be understandable, that's all I'm trying to say.


The End


Other Books by Caroline Wood


Thank you for reading Take Thirteen. If you enjoyed this book, you may like to read my other books, which are available on Smashwords.


Noah Quince

Darkly comic and disturbing, Noah Quince is the story of obsession, control and a misguided search for love. Terrifying discoveries in his house, rumours about his neighbour, and the disappearance of little boys, cause Noah's life to spin out of control. His ordered existence begins to unravel into chaos, fear and madness. And what's in the cupboard under Noah Quince's stairs? Laughter collides with fear as Noah's story seeps into your reluctant consciousness.


Grave Misgivings - a collection of short stories from the dark side of human nature - ordinary people leading extraordinary, secretive, strange or just downright odd lives. Here you'll find misfits, outsiders and loners - all with a story to tell, a life to delve into… Grave Misgivings deals with everyday madness, love, death and taxidermy. It peers through keyholes to allow glimpses of the best, worst, and weirdest of human behaviour. Small acts of kindness bringing joy to dull lives, coldness that destroys love, and unexpected encounters with death are some of the themes. Nothing is quite what it seems. Beware the sting in these twisted tales.


The At Least Game

A family. A secret. An unlikely reappearance from the past. And a killing. Who would shatter the dullness of a quiet cul-de-sac like this? And why?


Download this book for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-15 show above.)