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.
He lived in a van these days. A far cry from how it had been in the old days.
There had been a house. Upstairs and downstairs, and a garden at the back. A place to park at the front. And within the house, a wife, and a life. Those days were gone.
He hadn’t kept anything from his old life. The van was comfortable inside, but it wasn’t what you’d call cosy. A little too utilitarian and spartan for that, even though he’d spent more than a year converting it from a panel van into the camper it was now. A fairly recent model of Sprinter, longest wheel base and with the high top, it had been a parcel delivery fleet vehicle when he got it at auction after it was in an accident. The damage was all to the upper bodywork, and since he planned to cut holes in it for windows anyway, that wasn’t a problem. He’d saved thousands on the usual price.
He’d gone for the usual side-kitchen setup, murphy bed at the rear right side, no real garage space but lots of storage — too much, if anything. He even had a basic wet room cubicle, and more than two metres of worktop that could serve as a desk too, dropped via an electric motor. Solar panels and a roof deck, a bank of leisure batteries, three kilowatt inverter and DC-to-DC charger. Diesel heater. Cellular signal booster. Outlets and lighting. A sink with hot and cold water, all the necessary tanks and pumps, and an induction hob. A lot of money went into it, but it was still just a fraction of what he’d taken away from the sale of the house, and the car, and everything that had once gone into either of those things.
You could put an actual financial figure on a whole life, apparently. The way lawyers do.
The van worked for him, because he had a lot of places on his list to visit. If you paid attention to the right sources of news, you could find the subtext, and follow your intuition, and invariably you’d end up in a little out-of-the-way village or town where the people all shared a certain demeanour. A wariness of outsiders, but also a sort of private desperation. He went to these places because he was searching for something, but what he usually ended up doing was trying to help.
There was a section in the wall behind the murphy bed that kept the necessary books and accessories. Those of summoning and banishing, of protection and of destruction. Supplies that were generic — if usually blessed by a truly-believing clergyman, who were in increasingly short supply — and some that were intensely personal to him.
He wore one such object at all times, the only part of his strange collection of tools and charms that he always kept with him. It was also the first thing he’d acquired after his wife’s death.
The villages and towns were similar enough, sometimes rural and sometimes coastal, but with commonalities that he had learned to notice as soon as he arrived. There were certain personalities that would always be found, not least being the local church minister and his or her entourage. More often than not they were a hindrance, at least at first. It didn’t matter. They came around in the end. Professional peddlers of the brand-name supernatural didn’t much like to accept the existence of the real thing, but they also couldn’t deny the evidence of their own senses forever.
He preferred summer to winter, and autumn to everything else. Not too warm, not too cold, and with enough hours of daylight that he could sit outside, or on the roof, or just with the rear and side doors open in the early evening, and breathe the air that was still unspoiled. Going back to a city, which was periodically necessary, made him feel like his lungs weren’t working properly.
Maybe they weren’t. But it was all psychosomatic.
This particular village was of the coastal kind, and had a nice parking area down on the harbour for tourists, including campers and minibuses. He had instead chosen the clifftop beauty point, installed for visitors to take their social media snapshots. It had been profitable for the place, until the atmosphere clinging to the rocks and the lanes and the people here had driven all the tourists away again.
He was the only one parked here now, and the sun was setting slowly and spectacularly out over the water. Steam rose from the coffee he’d boiled water for on the two-burner hob, and he briefly considered having something for dinner, but then dismissed the thought just as quickly. It was usually better to have as little in your stomach as possible before tackling these matters. He was sitting on the step of the open side door, letting the ocean breeze ventilate the van’s interior for a while since the rain was off.
He sighed, then stood up, turned around, and stepped up into the vehicle. The coffee cup was deposited in the sink, and he didn’t bother to close the side door before lowering the false wall that held the bed, and reaching behind it to open the panel there. He took out an Egyptian-style looped cross, solid iron, cold and heavy in his hand, and at least twenty centuries old. It was a comfort, more than most of the local residents knew yet, but some of them would learn before the night was done.
The wind was cold now, and when he went outside again he didn’t bother to look out at the sea. Instead, he locked the van and walked around it to the landward side, looking up the slopes of the dark hill that stretched back from the clifftop. Somewhere up over there was an ancient tomb that used to be a popular sightseeing spot, until the tourism agency quietly removed it from their maps and guides. Younger travellers had a way of visiting such places after the sun had gone down, and then they had a way of disappearing. It had happened more and more often lately, and the thing that lived there clearly had an ever-expanding appetite. It was unwise to let the situation continue unchecked.
He stashed the unusual cross in his jacket’s deep hip pocket, knowing that it didn’t matter at all that it was a cross in overall appearance; the loop was the important part. The attention of certain creatures became fixated on such loops. Round and round the contours went their minds, and it made them temporarily less dangerous. It was a weapon of distraction, and one of the most ancient examples. The rest would depend on how well it worked.
It was getting darker, and he drew his coat tighter around him. The fading light of the day caught the silver around his wrist, the bracelet’s bright metal offset by a red shape and an inscription that looked obsidian in the growing shadow.
Do Not Resuscitate.
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.