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.
I’d love to have you as a subscriber to the weekly free story. You can subscribe via email here. Unsubscribe any time, from the link in every issue.
Beautiful night for it, Heath thought.
The stars were all visible in the winter sky, along with a sliver of the crescent moon still on its ascent. Trees were just the barest suggestion of darker jagged lines rising in the distance. It was cold, just enough for frost but without any risk of sliding. The plain surface of the roads and pavements had become inlaid with millions of tiny jewels.
The streets were silent, and he wished he had a bit more time to just wander around. Heath had taken a fifteen minute walk to clear his head after dinner, and was headed back home again now to tidy up, get changed, and then wind down for a while with his wife before turning in for the evening.
It had been a long month. Pressures at work, compounded by a bout of the flu the week before, and his wife being embroiled in the latest feud with her overbearing mother, had meant that by the end of each day Heath was completely exhausted. His morning workouts had fallen by the wayside for the time being, and he couldn’t remember when he’d last taken the time to just sit and read a book, or watch something on TV. He didn’t have the energy.
Just another week or so, he thought.
The project would be done by then, come what may, and his mother-in-law was almost as quick to cool off as she was to anger. It was a matter of enduring it all for a little longer, and then things would be better. They even had a long weekend get-away planned, and for once he was genuinely looking forward to it.
The solo walks had been his wife’s suggestion, to help him get out of his own head after work. She’d said that he wasn’t much use to anyone until he’d stopped thinking about the office, and that he might as well get some fresh air and exercise at the same time. She’d said it kindly, as she always did. And of course she’d turned out to be right, as she always was.
The first sign that something was wrong, as in so many situations, was the police car sitting at the kerb outside his house. It was directly in front of his driveway, and there were plenty of other places to park right now, so the implication was clear. Heath broke into a run immediately, arriving at his own front door within a further twenty seconds. He grasped the handle and turned it, and sure enough the door opened easily.
First of all he noticed the smell of an unfamiliar deodorant or aftershave, and he knew it was from the tall male police officer he could already see standing in the living room at the far end of the hall, facing away from him. The glazed living room door was closed, which he thought was unusual for some reason, and it was also why the officer hadn’t heard him come in.
There’ll be another one, he thought. There’s always two.
Heath’s foot came into contact with something, and he glanced down to see a small pile of mail. He thought he remembered dealing with the post earlier that day, but the matter could hardly be less important right now. He hurried down the hall and threw the living room door open. Sure enough, there was a female police officer there too, sitting on the sofa beside Heath’s wife. All three faces registered surprise.
“What’s going on?” Heath asked immediately. “What’s wrong?”
His wife, whose name was Sarah, seemed paralysed for a moment, and then she was suddenly on her feet, and an instant later she was across the room and throwing her arms around his neck. Heath embraced her, giving a confused and warning look to the male police officer, who was now frowning at him.
His wife was sobbing, and Heath was just about to demand an explanation from the two officers when Sarah pulled away from him enough to look at him with dark, red-rimmed eyes. She looked exhausted.
“Where have you been?” she asked, her voice breaking on the final word.
“You… you know where I’ve been,” he replied slowly, not really understanding the question. “Just the usual walk. Down past the golf course and the park. Back here. It’s… a nice night. What’s happened here? Are you alright?”
He expected Sarah to tell him that someone they knew had been in an accident, perhaps her mother, but instead she just looked even more frightened and confused, and even angry.
“Am I alright?” Sarah asked indignantly, and she stepped back from him now. Heath found himself getting irritated. No-one seemed willing to tell him what was going on, and now his wife was picking a fight with him in front of a couple of coppers.
“Sir, can I just ask if you’re injured or unwell in any way?” the WPC asked, and Heath blinked at her for a moment.
“I’m fine,” he replied. “I’m a little tired. And I want to know why you’re here. Right now.”
The WPC exchanged a look with her colleague, and the latter was about to speak when Sarah did instead.
“You really have no idea?” There was still anger in her tone, the kind that’s really just fear and relief and disbelief and other things all compressed into a simpler emotion, but there was also something like caution now, as if she were talking to a child.
Something caught Heath’s eye in his peripheral vision. They’d had the living room extended at the rear of the house about five years earlier, and had taken the opportunity to put a skylight in. It was perfect for looking at the stars on nights like this, and the glare that had distracted him was coming from the moon. Heath glanced up at it, at a loss for what else to do, and then his mouth fell open.
The same stars. The same moon. But almost full.
Heath looked at Sarah, then at the increasingly suspicious faces of the two police officers, and then back to his wife. He watched as concern fully overtook any remaining anger on her face, and she again reached out to him.
“You’ve been gone for more than two weeks,” she said.
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.
I encourage you to share this story with anyone you think would enjoy it! If you’d like to receive a tale like this via email every week, you can sign up to receive them here.
Thanks for reading.