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On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.

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When he bought the old house, no-one had lived there for years. It was run down, leaking, and nature had intruded. The work of making it habitable again had taken several years.

He didn’t mind. He’d camped on the grounds, getting up at dawn each day and working until he had to rest. Sometimes he would drive into town, but only for supplies and other necessities. Entertainment was a book and a campfire, and of course his own thoughts. When his thoughts became too intrusive, he would work, or read, or sleep. When his thoughts were quiet, he might venture to drink, but only in moderation. Too much alcohol was a route back into his thoughts, and that was counterproductive.

Week by week and month by month, the house was slowly transformed. Watertight and safe, insulated, and with restored light, heat, and power. No phone line, of course, even though it was in a dead zone for cellular service. He had no need of such things. The town wasn’t so very far away, and he could go online from there, sitting in his truck on the outskirts.

The interior of the house started to take shape. Walls repaired and properly primed, broken things fixed or replaced, and the bare minimum of modern conveniences installed or serviced. It was spartan, but it was clean and sound, and in due course it was ready for the finishing touches.

He had very little furniture, and no particular plans to acquire any more. The house was now full of potential, and almost empty of anything else. The kitchen, master bedroom, and both bathrooms had everything they needed but nothing else. The cutlery drawer had only three knives, three tablespoons, three forks, a couple of teaspoons, and a small assortment of serving utensils, so that he needed to wash the dishes once once per day. The crockery cupboard had even fewer items, because there would be no houseguests or cohabitants to accommodate.

The lounge had an armchair and a couch, but no television. Instead, there was a bookcase, and a reading lamp, and open space. The dining room was an office, and the second bedroom was a gym. The third bedroom was storage, but only in theory. The garage was a workshop, and held more items than the rest of the property combined.

He had spent days wondering how to decorate the rooms and the hallways. When he was buying groceries, he had even briefly gone to the hardware store and browsed the paint colours, but it had only solidified his convictions. He bought the largest container of paint they offered, and lugged it out to his truck with some difficulty, and then he went back in and bought another one.

The house was a canvas for its owner, but this owner preferred his canvasses blank. He painted it all white, so that each room could be anything, but especially so that it could be nothing at all.

There were no paintings or prints or photographs on the walls, or anywhere else. In the master bedroom, the single wardrobe was sparsely populated, and on the ground floor there were two identical black rucksacks; one beside the front door and one beside the rear. Their contents were identical too, and each had a vacant padded pouch for his laptop. If he needed to leave suddenly — or just if he wanted to — he could just grab one of the bags and go, without ever having to look back.

The day might come when it would be necessary, but there were other possibilities too. Each room, though almost empty in appearance, also concealed — or openly displayed, hidden in plain sight — a viable weapon. Nothing that was illegal to own, nor anything that would arouse suspicion upon casual inspection. But ready at hand, should the need arise.

There was a path through the woods at the rear, or rather a series of branching paths, so as to avoid any one particular route becoming too worn-in and readily followed. He ran one of the routes each morning, chosen randomly, to cement the geography in his mind and also to condition his body.

It would be an ideal house for children, and perhaps it had been at some point, but that was no longer its destiny. He had been married once, but he no longer was. Life brought change at its own pace, and it seemed to care very little for the plans and desires of human beings.

At last, he finished the bulk of the work, content to keep minor tasks as ongoing projects which would help to occupy his time and his thoughts. A house was never really finished until the life of its owner was finished too, and then it was reset as a project for someone else. This house would serve for a good few more years, and its only purpose was to be a sanctuary and a retreat, simultaneously within the world and also set aside from it, keeping the tide of humanity at bay and at arm’s length. He had seen all he wanted to see of mankind, and his quiet, solitary existence was all he desired from now on.

He kept his routine outwardly rigid and predictable, just in case anyone was paying attention. He was paying attention too, and if somebody should ever come to the house with ill intent, it would be their worst and final mistake. Until and unless such a day arrived, he would live in peace — but carefully. He would read, and he would work on whatever needed attention, and he would occasionally drink, and he would sleep. And then he would awaken and do it all over again.

The house was his world, now. Its white halls and featureless rooms were the backdrop to the long, slow, unremarkable denouement of a life that had been very different once, and was now to be forgotten as efficiently as he could manage.

He would think as little as possible, letting the blank walls be a barrier for his mind, living only in the present moment and the possible paths that each day would take. The past, even so recently as yesterday, did not exist at all.

But if it chose to reappear, he would be ready.


I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions, I’d love to hear from you; I'm @mattgemmell on Twitter.

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