Grand Fiction Challenge 2020 !!

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Thread: Grand Fiction Challenge 2020 !!

  1. #1

    Red face Grand Fiction Challenge 2020 !!

    Welcome to the Grand Fiction Challenge, 2020!

    Please note that this is an invitation challenge, based on involvement with the 2019 challenges.

    Halfway House.

    rcallaci, Folcro, Sam, Ralph Rotten

    Submissions period: 1st to 14th February (deadline is 23:59 EST)

    Judging period: 15th to 28th February

    First Place
    Year of

    Second Place
    Half a year of

    Third Place
    Month of

    People's Choice Award
    Month of FoWF

    Word limit: 1,000 words, not including title.

    All entries anonymous. Send them to me by PM, and tell me whether you want them to be posted in the secure thread or the public one. You will have a two-day grace period to make edits before I post your entry.

    Any questions, please PM me or ask in the Coffee Shop thread.

  2. #2
    The Halfway House

    In these days of Lyft and Uber, the ancient cabbie's mystique has faded. But in Stepney there are still cabbies who know the old secrets, and so I hailed taxi after taxi, seeking always those with white-haired drivers. And each time, with my left hand I proffered the seven-sided silver florin with the double-eagle on the obverse, and I asked to be taken to the Halfway House.

    The first hundred times, I was met with a blank stare or polite query, upon which I apologized and sent the cabbie on their way. But late that night, on the one hundred and first attempt, I chanced on a taxi driven by a veritable man-crone. The wizened driver nodded his bald, liver-spotted head, and took my florin, and croaked in a voice hoarser than a raven's: "I know the way."

    I clambered into the cab, and asked him questions, but that patriarch of cabbies never spoke to me again. He drove along a street I didn't know. He turned left seven times in succession, and we passed under the Liminal Bridge. When I saw a grotesque, misshapen werewolf in a duffelcoat shuffling along the pavement, I knew we were in Other-London. And I thrilled and marvelled at the wonders through the windows, glancing excitedly about me as we drove.

    Beneath a gibbous moon, Other-London heaved and seethed with Reason's rejects. Atop Big Ben, the Slenderman wrestled with Spring-Heeled Jack. Men in flat caps were chupacabra-baiting. But we were bound for a stranger place than these.

    The Halfway House is halfway to everywhere. Halfway to our world, halfway to the Dreamlands, halfway to Narnia, and halfway to Hell. The proprietor, Ursula Grouse, says Halfway House is the centre of the multiverse. Maybe it is. In any case, you can do deals in the Halfway House that can be done nowhere else. It's the place where you can exchange your destiny.

    I ought to explain that thirty years ago, I sold my soul to the demon Caulvorax. Selling your soul, for most people, would be a terrible trade, but my soul had been soiled by deeds of such extreme foulness that I could not expect a pleasant afterlife in any religion, and I had received, in dark knowledge and material wealth, good value for it. But now, after thirty happy years, I sought an exit.

    Of course, these Faustian pacts are notoriously hard to escape. Demons are excellent lawyers, and I'd found no loophole in my contract. Only a complete fate transplant would get me out of it. So my aim here at the Halfway House was to swap destinies with someone. And by "someone", I really meant, anyone at all.

    I thanked the driver and got out. The Halfway House was a timber-framed building, made of black oak beams with white infill under a thickly thatched roof. Crooked brick chimneys and box-glass windows made the whole structure feel cottage-like, though it was built on a much larger scale than any cottage. None of the floors were level, none of the walls were straight, and none of the corners were square. Rambling passages ran at random from room to room.

    Ursula Grouse met me at the door, and I explained that I needed to exchange my destiny with someone who wouldn't ask what that destiny was.

    She frowned. "You'll see why that will be an issue," she said. "Most of my customers are looking for transparency in these matters, and they're reluctant to accept the risk of an unpleasant surprise. I may be able to arrange a more... confidential exchange, but that would be at additional cost. And of course, the trade would be with someone else who also doesn't want to disclose. In other words, you wouldn't know what you were getting any more than they would."

    I nodded. I had expected as much. I was probably going to come out of this with a painful condition leading to a prompt and agonizing death.

    "I'd like to meet him," I said.

    "Her," replied Ursula, and she named her price. It was an eye-popping sum, which I paid without quibble.

    Ursula Grouse kept me waiting for forty-six minutes and then conducted me into another room, which contained a huge fireplace and two leather Chesterfield armchairs. Seated on one of those armchairs was a lady in crimson, with dark hair, wing-tipped brows and scarlet fingernails. She looked like someone you'd hire to play a vampire in a movie.

    I began to speak, and she held up a finger. "Please do not introduce yourself. There will be no names," she said.

    I nodded, and waited. Awkward silence.

    She broke it. "Shall we trade?"

    "Iím intrigued," I said. "We've agreed to confidentiality, and I shan't ask you for reasons or details. But if I'm getting your destiny, I should just like to know a little bit about you."

    "And I you," she said. "Perhaps you should speak first?"

    "Very well. I'm fifty-nine years old, and I'm a wealthy Englishman who lives in Paris. I also have a flat in Vienna. I'm not a sociable man and I have no family or particular friends. I have a very large collection of books, some of which are extremely rare."

    She nodded. "I'm older than I look, and I have no family either. I have a difficult job that I no longer want but I can't resign. You would be taking that over. Apart from that, my life is comfortable and easy."

    I looked at her and wondered what the catch was. But then I shrugged. An unknown catch, or eternity in Hell? "Let's do it."

    So we called for Ursula Grouse, who gave us each in turn the orichalcum athame. We cut our hands and dripped blood on the contract, then I spat into her blood and she spat into mine, sealing the exchange.

    And then the lady shed her mortal guise. She was Caulvorax, and I realized I had agreed to spend eternity in Hell doing her job.

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  10. #10
    The Last Dragon Whisperer (1000 words)

    ‘Mrs Mudge seems like any other ancient old woman - crooky back and weird black clothes wrapped around her like a shroud.
    She never tries to talk to me and I like that. Usually, old women want to know things – like how old you are and stuff - but Mrs Mudge is happy to poke about behind the garden fence and leave me alone. She mutters a lot, which is another thing I’ve noticed about old people. She walks around doing it all the time. She stares at the ground a lot too but that might just be her crooky back.
    My dad reckons she’s a bit mad but mum says she’s just senile, which is like mad but more medical.’

    Emma looked up from the small notebook. “This is priceless! Why did you stop? I’d have loved to find out more about the strange Mrs. Mudge.”

    Eric shrugged, “Where did you find that? I’d forgotten all about it.”

    “It was with these old photos from the attic.”

    He leafed through the pictures sadly, so many memories and so many people no longer around to share them. He stood up and waited for the twinges from his hip and knee to subside before flicking on the kettle.

    “I’m sorry,” Emma said, “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

    Eric turned with a wry grin and shook his head. “No, don’t worry. It was just that diary; it took me right back to Boundary Cottage and that weird old woman next door.” He handed his neighbour a coffee and grinned. “She gave me a few nightmares at the time. I was a kid with too much imagination.”

    “Your imagination is wonderful; fifty years as a sucessful advertising executive surely prove that!”

    Eric smiled and sat down with his coffee. “Kind words and help with clearing the attic, you know how to make an old man happy!”

    Emma grinned at him. “So tell me about Mrs Mudge.”

    “It was so long ago. I was about ten and we’d just moved in. It was a lonely place with the two cottages side by side in the angle of a crossroads. Halfway between hell and nowhere – that’s how my mother described it.” He gave a small smile. “I was a curious kid and spying on my neighbour seemed pretty interesting at the time.”

    She smiled. “Now I’m curious. Why the nightmares? You don’t seem afraid of her in the notebook.”

    “She caught me watching her.” Eric was quiet for moment as the memories cascaded over him, before he went on. “I remember the fear that lit my gut as she turned towards me and solemnly beckoned me from my hiding place. I shuffled out and stood by the fence. I can see her eyes now, black and shining like coal. She told me the houses were on the boundary between knowing and not knowing and asked me if I had ever seen a dragon.”

    “Oh, wow. I can see why your parents thought she was a bit crazy. What did you do?”

    “Not much, I was rooted to the spot. She said she had a pet dragon that could answer all the questions of the universe and beyond. I remember thinking you can’t go beyond the universe but I didn’t say it.”

    Emma shuddered. “No, I wouldn’t either.”

    Eric went on quietly. “Then she told me that dragons were tiny things. She said they would come to people that trusted in the truth and would lie in a human palm and roll and stretch like a little silver cat. Then she asked me if I ever spoke to dragons.”

    Emma waited for him to go on but he seemed distracted. He carried the cups to the sink before he spoke again. “You can imagine the whole episode frightened the hell out of me. I stopped watching Mrs Mudge after that but that’s when the nightmares started. We moved away not long after that”

    The next day, Eric woke thinking about Boundary Cottage. He looked on Google maps and was surprised to find it still there. It looked the way it had in those nightmares - the two houses knocked into one and with the big picture windows that had looked so strange to him as a youngster.

    His actions became almost automatic as he started his car and set off towards Boundary Cottage.

    As in the dreams, the front gardens had been paved over for parking. There was no answer at the door so he wandered round to the back of the house.

    The whole garden had been enclosed by a terracotta wall and the tangle of shrubbery that had been Mrs Mudge’s garden was covered in fancy paving. A huge gas barbecue and hot tub rose between the tables and chairs and the two potted olive trees were the only living things to be seen.

    Eric sat down at the edge of the paving. He had forgotten his medication and his chest was cramping up. A small movement in the olive tree beside him caught his attention. Without thinking, he reached out a hand and a tiny creature crawled onto his palm. Its grey skin sagged around its tiny frame but, between the creases, Eric caught a flash of silver and his heart leapt painfully. He remembered Mrs Mudge’s description of her dragons but this was a poor imitation of that. Despite its desperate condition, the creature began to glow and Eric relaxed as warm understanding washed over him. Gradually, the tiny creature’s breathing slowed and stopped and then it faded away and he was left staring at his empty palm. Content, Eric allowed his mind to drift as acceptance embraced him.

    The house owner found him there dead, hours later. It was, as she told the police later, not something you expect to find in such an idyllic place.

    Eventually, the garden was restored to its pristine condition. A small dead leaf, falling from the ornamental olive, the only thing that moved.

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