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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I remember the day it happened. Everyone does.

It was an ordinary morning. My alarm went off, and I woke up, then stumbled through my usual routine, bleary-eyed, until the moment came to draw back the curtains and peer out at my familiar corner of the world. It was just as it had been the day before, give or take. There was the woman from down the road walking her dog. The man on his bicycle, going into the office bright and early, as usual. My neighbour across the way, collecting the newspaper… but he’d come to a halt. The paper was grasped loosely in his hand, but his attention was focused on the man on the bicycle, who was moving into the distance.

Above the cyclist’s head, hovering there about ten centimetres from his neon yellow helmet, there was a rectangular block of colour. It was keeping perfect pace with him as he pedalled, and it was blue. I wondered if it some kind of accessory attached to the helmet, though I couldn’t tell — he was too far away — but as I squinted, there was the suggestion of a word there, overlaid on the solid background in contrasting text.

I glanced over at my neighbour again, who hadn’t seen me yet, and I noticed that he had something above him too. Just over his head, but of course he wasn’t wearing a cycle helmet; he was in his fleece pyjamas, in fact, as he tends to be during his morning ritual. The oblong was above his line of sight, and as he turned his head to contemplate the paved slabs of the path leading from his front door, it smoothly moved with him. It was red, and bright. Unmissable, even though he himself didn’t seem to see it. My hand gripped the edge of the curtain as I read the single word glowing upon it, in a bold, plain font.

RAPIST, it said.

I drew the curtain half-closed, but slowly, so as not to attract attention. My neighbour turned and walked back up his path and went inside his house, with a slightly dazed expression on his face, still oblivious. Then a car went by, and this time the tag (of course: a tag, that’s exactly what it was, and somehow my brain just knew it instinctively) was actually floating above the roof, right where the driver’s head was concealed below. It was yellow.


A middle-aged woman in clothes that had been washed too many times strode into view, attention focused on the mobile phone in her hand, and caring little for who she might bump into. She also had the yellow tag, alongside two more.

HOMOPHOBE (purple), and RACIST (green).

The kindly old man who lived two doors down, on the opposite side of the street, came briefly into view as he crossed from his front door to his garage. He was whistling, and I could hear him even from my vantage point behind the window. He was the church organist. His whole life seemed to be filled with music, which was especially inspiring since his beloved wife passed away six or seven years before. He always had a pleasant word and a charming anecdote. He went by the name of Paul, and I could never remember his last name because it was a difficult one. His tag was black.


The woman walking her dog was returning now, and she was moving more quickly, though it seemed that she was trying not to conspicuously rush. The dog wanted to sniff at each lamp post, and usually she would let him, but that day he looked almost offended as she yanked him onwards every few feet. She had her head bowed, but I could see that her eyes were flitting here and there, watchful and too wide. She had no tags. Nor did the dog. Nor does any animal. Except us.

I closed the curtains completely, and I sank to the floor. My pulse was an audible thump in my ears. And then I heard the sound of my children getting out of bed.

I think I stopped breathing for a few moments. I was thinking of my kids. They had school that day. We would have to go out. We’d need to walk down the street, and pass by all our neighbours, and the kids would meet their friends and their teachers. What else would they see on the way, or when they got there?

My son and daughter burst into the room, and to my eternal shame I frantically searched the air just above their tousled heads, but it was blessedly empty. They said something approximating a good morning, and I probably replied as they dashed past me on their way to the kitchen. Then I heard my wife’s footsteps.

I knew that I needed to go to her, partly to seek comfort but mainly to try and prepare her for what she was going to notice as soon as she looked out a window, or god forbid went outside. We needed to talk, and to plan. To decide what we were going to tell the children, and how we were going to handle what might happen in the world. That thought sent my mind spiralling as I imagined the consequences, and how frighteningly rapidly it could all start to fall apart.

How was this even possible? What the hell had happened during the night? Could it all be just my own delusion?

The softly-smiling face of my wife came into view, and I struggled to pull myself together. I tried to assemble a sentence as she looked at me through a yawn. She blinked to clear the sleep from her eyes, and then her gaze shifted upwards and to the side, just above my head.

Her smile faded.

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