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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Seems about right, Harkness thought.
It was just after 7PM, but the restaurant was almost deserted. The occasional waiter wandered by, casting a brief glance in his direction, and there were one or two occupied tables, but most of the vast space was empty.
It was called The Exchange, and it had a sort of faded elegance. Brass fittings, marble floors, thick carpets on the stairs, and an ornate ceiling twenty feet above. There was a mini-grand piano in a far corner with a dust sheet thrown over it, and the menus were bound in well-worn red leather. From some unseen point above, tastefully inoffensive music played quietly.
His stomach rumbled, and he frowned at the glass of ice water in front of him. It had been poured from a tall carafe with cucumber, mint, and sliced lemon, by a young man dressed all in black and sporting an immaculately-groomed beard. The waiter had asked if he’d like to order something from the bar while he waited, but he had declined. There would be plenty of time for alcohol later.
And plenty of need for it, he thought.
Forty years. The idea of it was faintly appalling; four whole decades. Someone ought to do a recount, but he knew that the answer would be the same.
His name was Alexander Harkness, and he worked for the Housing Department of the city’s local government, which meant that most of his working days were spent either on the phone to residents who had failed to pay some of their due taxes, or sending out robustly-worded letters to the same effect. He had a degree in accountancy, but he had barely managed to use it for two years before finding himself in the safe, sterile, and mind-numbing enclaves of civil service. He’d been there ever since.
Harkness had long ago stopped wondering where all the time had gone. He was content to accept that it had been stolen from him, somehow, by a clever thief – someone who didn’t realise that deep inside, he was really still the same newly-graduated young man, with all his dreams and sense of potential intact, yet somehow older. There had clearly just been a mistake at some point; a miscount. A clerical error.
He was unmarried – pathologically, and perhaps terminally, so – and his last casual girlfriend said goodbye almost a year earlier. Her name was Louise, and when she left, she said It feels like you’ve given up on yourself, Alex. You’re not even paying attention anymore.
She was probably right. And so here he sat, temporarily alone in a restaurant because he was the first to arrive (and had nothing else to do), waiting for most of his extended family to appear. They all lived in another city about an hour away, and they’d apparently hired a private minibus for the occasion. It was his own mother, now in her late sixties, who booked the restaurant.
They were all coming to see him, because tonight was his fortieth birthday. He could feel a headache coming on, and he pushed the glass of water away.
The fact that the family dinner was tonight was mostly coincidence; Tuesday was the only day that everyone could make it through, hence the quietness of the restaurant. His aunt had even managed to find some kind of discount deal for the occasion, which was entirely in character.
“If I have to be forty, I’d rather be left alone to get on with it,” he muttered to himself, but the sentiment was at least a little exaggerated. He rarely saw most of the people who were coming, and even his visits to his mother had been rarer and rarer in recent years. He felt a pang of guilt, and frowned as he traced invisible patterns against the tablecloth.
I should really visit her more often, he thought.
His father had died four years ago, after a long illness, and she’d also lost her own mother not long before that. He’d been the dutiful son for a while, but lately his visits had tailed off. Whenever he thought to call her, there was always an edge of accusation in her voice.
The long evening of enforced jollity stretched out ahead of him. He’d already decided that he would leave at 11PM, at the very latest. He had work in the morning, after all, and his flexible hours were nobody else’s business. Even his silent, shabby, too-small apartment would be a welcome reprieve after several hours of yes, I’m still in the same job, and no, no-one special at the moment, and oh, it’s not so bad at all, really; I like the freedom.
His uncle would insist on talking about politics. His cousin would insist on telling him about the latest in a long line of expensive cars, funded by a thriving legal practice. His aunt would embrace him for several seconds too long, then look at the food prices as if the menu was a letter from an oncologist.
And he… well, he wouldn’t insist on anything. He was the birthday boy, after all, and these occasions were always really about everyone else instead.
Harkness sighed, then pulled his phone from his trouser pocket. He was about to press the solitary button on its front surface when he was startled by a voice nearby.
“Can I bring you anything else while you wait, sir?”
He glanced up at the man who was hovering expectantly just to one side of the table. This was a different waiter; same uniform, but he was an older man, with his black hair combed harshly back. His eyes were dark brown, glittering brightly even in the subdued lighting. His accent was impeccably English, but his ethnicity was unplaceable.
“Oh, no, thank you,” Harkness replied, smiling. “I’m fine. They should be here soon.”
He wasn’t sure why he added the last remark, but the waiter gave a small nod. “Of course, sir,” he said, then he moved away.
Harkness watched the man leave, feeling his quickened pulse begin to settle again. He reached for the water glass and took a sip of the cold liquid, then again turned his attention to his phone. The screen lit up immediately when he pressed the round button below it, and there was a single message notification, from his uncle. He swiped it to unlock the phone and view the message.
There was an accident on the road. Running a little late. Be there soon.
He sighed. Even though it meant the evening would be shorter, it was like delaying going to the dentist – you were better off just getting it over with. He was about to type a reply, when he heard a bark of laughter from somewhere else in the expansive dining room.
He turned his head and saw another occupied table, not too far away. A man and a woman sat across from each other, and it looked like they’d already been served their main courses. Harkness could only see the woman’s back, but the man was clearly visible.
He was an older gentleman; perhaps sixty-five. His hair was silver-white, but his eyebrows were still jet black. He was laughing, probably at some remark that either he or his wife had made, and as he did so he slapped his palm flat against the table surface. With each impact, there was the tinkle of glassware, and the rattle of cutlery.
Harkness frowned. He didn’t begrudge people a good time, but there was decorum to be considered. This was a restaurant, not a bar.
Don’t be so bloody grumpy, his mind whispered, and he was dismayed to realise that it spoke in Louise’s voice.
He gave the older couple one last look – the man was still laughing away, though he’d stopped thumping the table, and his wife was sitting quietly – then he quickly tapped out a message to his uncle before checking the latest news headlines.
Almost ten minutes passed before he became aware of a presence by his side, and he looked up into the pale but smiling face of the waiter who had asked if he’d like anything else. The man looked expectantly at him without saying anything, and Harkness raised an eyebrow.
“Yes?” he asked, and just for an instant, something flashed across the waiter’s eyes. It was almost like eagerness. After a long moment, the other man finally spoke.
“I wondered if sir might enjoy a small appetiser? Or something from the bar, perhaps?”
Harkness blinked. A little pushy in here, he thought, but he forced himself to offer a small smile. “Nothing at the moment, thank you. My party are slightly delayed, but they’ll be here shortly.”
He nodded towards the mobile phone sitting on the tablecloth in front of him, and the waiter’s eyes darted towards it. Harkness watched as a fine line appeared across the waiter’s forehead, as if he was confused about something.
“Of course, sir,” he replied, then they both abruptly glanced around as the older gentleman across the room once again erupted into laughter, this time thumping his closed fist against the table and making his wine glass jump an inch to the left.
Harkness frowned again, his eyes flicking first towards the waiter and then back to the couple. The old man’s laugh had a booming quality – a great big haw haw haw – and something about it set Harkness’s nerves on edge.
“Someone’s having an enjoyable evening,” he remarked, and the waiter once against fastened his glittering dark eyes on him.
“Mr. Henderson and his wife,” the waiter replied, lowering his voice discreetly. “They’re always here.” He seemed to consider something for a moment, then he gave a small bow from the waist, and moved away.
I don’t think much of the staff here, Harkness thought, but he knew it was unfair. The waiter was a little… what? Just sort of off, somehow, but it was a slow evening and the man was attentive enough.
“Pull yourself together,” he muttered to himself, pocketing his phone and looking around the large room. He noticed another area of seating farther back, stretching off at least another fifty feet.
Huh, he thought. Didn’t see that before.
He took another sip of ice water, then coughed and spluttered, reaching for his napkin and pressing it over his mouth for a moment. He looked sheepishly over at the couple, but the man was talking animatedly to his wife, and didn’t seem to have noticed. The waiter was also nowhere to be found.
It was the painting that had disturbed him.
It was enormous – easily twelve feet high, and perhaps as much as twenty across, set in an ornate brass frame. It was painted in oils, and it absolutely dominated the whole rear part of the room.
How in the hell didn’t I notice that earlier?, he wondered, feeling his pulse galloping in his chest. The voice in his mind, which still sounded like Louise, replied immediately.
Because you’re not paying attention anymore.
The painting showed a winding country road at night, under a troubled sky. There was a faint suggestion of a yellow moon, but it only a haze through heavy, turbulent clouds. The road ran through a pine forest, and there were dark shapes in the sky that might have been birds. On the road, there was a carriage, drawn by four black horses. There was no coachman.
The carriage was painted such that it was receding into the scene, getting further away, and only the back and a sliver of one side were visible from the viewer’s perspective. There was a window cut into the rear of the passenger compartment, and there were people in there. Only the backs of their heads could be seen–
just like Mr. Henderson’s wife, who’s always here
–but for some reason the effect was profoundly disturbing. There was a real sense of motion there, but it was the people that Harkness found… troubling.
He squinted, a more pronounced frown now creasing his brow. He couldn’t quite put his finger on what was so very wrong about this decadent construction of oil and pigment, but then all the hair on the back of his neck stood on end.
It was just the backs of three heads, that was all. An older woman wearing a bonnet. A younger woman, her long hair obscuring the side of her face. And a man, without a hat. He was turned fully away from the viewer, but Harkness’s heart still stuttered.
That looks just like my–
He flinched violently, knocking over his water glass, as Mr. Henderson dropped his fork onto his dinner plate with a clatter that reverberated around the whole chamber, just moments before another bout of booming laughter.
“Not a damned clue, Eleanor!” Henderson exclaimed, tears of mirth now visible in the wrinkled corners of his eyes. “Not a single one!”
Harkness looked quickly around, but the waiter was still nowhere to be seen. He could feel a bead of sweat forming on his brow, and he picked up his napkin to dab at it with unsteady hands, then tried to mop up as much of the spilled water as possible.
Settle down, he though. You’re just tired. They’ll be here soon.
Maybe it was time for a drink after all, if he could just find someone to fetch it for him.
He took several deep breaths, then looked over at the Hendersons once more. The man was greedily feeding himself pieces of a bread roll, completely focused on his task, but his wife seemed to have finished with her dinner. Her hands were folded in her lap, and her wine glass was still almost full.
Harkness stared at her, or at least at the back of her head, and the one arm he could see from this vantage point. For a moment he tried to picture how she’d look if she were wearing a bonnet, but he pushed that thought away, irritated at himself. A few moments later, irritation gave way to puzzlement. Another half a minute, and puzzlement became unease.
By the time two full minutes had passed, and Mr. Henderson was on at least his third consecutive roll, Harkness felt gooseflesh rising up along his forearms.
Mrs. Henderson hadn’t moved or spoken. She was in the same position as when he’d first caught sight of her, and now that he thought about it, he hadn’t seen or heard even the slightest sign of life from her.
Not at all. Not even once.
He saw a blur of motion in his peripheral vision, and when he turned his head to find the source of the movement, he was again looking across at the enormous painting. The waiter stood just in front of it, dwarfed by the mass of dark swirls and sickly shades. The man was looking directly at him, his hands clasped, with that same expectant half-smile.
Something’s wrong here, his mind said, and this time it wasn’t Louise. It was an older voice; something more primal. A voice that demanded attention.
Harkness swallowed, and then reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone. He pressed the Home button to illuminate the screen, taking a quick glance down at it even though he was suddenly loath to take his eyes off the waiter. The status display along the top edge of the screen indicated that he had no signal. His throat was dry.
Go outside for some air, the insistent voice in his mind said. Calmly. Just stand up and walk slowly outside. Then we’ll see.
He was on his feet immediately, wincing at the sound the chair made as he pushed it roughly back. Mr. Henderson howled with laughter again, his eyes screwed shut.
Just go outside.
There was the barest hint of a breeze, and as he turned to find which direction the exit was in, he staggered back a step and collided with his chair. The waiter was there, standing within arm’s reach.
The man’s eyes were more black than brown, and his hair was slick under the muted lighting.
Hair oil, Harkness’s mind whispered, and now the voice had an edge of panic.
The waiter just looked at him, his eyes seeming to say that he understood perfectly.
“I… I’m sorry,” Harkness stammered. “I spilled my water. I think– yes, I think I ought to get some air.”
The waiter’s mouth opened; his thin, blood-red lips splitting to reveal teeth that were the colour of ivory, and then the man’s gaze moved slightly, to look over Harkness’s shoulder. He smiled.
“I do believe your party may have arrived, sir,” he said.
Harkness spun around, and sure enough, there was the perfectly normal reception area of the restaurant. It seemed farther away then he expected, but it was there, with the antique revolving door he’d entered through when
Minutes ago? Hours?
he’d arrived. It was dark outside, but he could just make out what looked like the side of a minibus, and then he almost laughed with relief. His uncle and his cousin were there. Others too. They were starting to come in, and Harkness set off across the echoing space to join them.
He could see his mother now, and his pace quickened as he saw her smile of recognition. His cousin’s wife. His aunt. Then his stride faltered.
He came to a halt, but the revolving door maintained its slow, steady disgorgement of new arrivals. The waiter was somehow ahead of him, beginning to take coats and scarves, but Harkness barely registered it.
Just as he remembered; even the same grey suit he tended to bring out for special occasions. Younger than he’d been at the end, and with no signs of the illness that stole away the man he was and left only paper-thin skin and hollow cheeks in its place.
Harkness’s father took off his overcoat, handing it to the waiter even as he put an affectionate hand on his wife’s lower back. She glanced up with an easy smile, then they both looked over towards Harkness, expectantly.
The door revolved again.
His grandmother stepped out, with a tall and handsome man at her side that Harkness recognised only from the faded photographs that once sat on the mantelpiece of her living room. He had fallen overboard after his vessel was hit by a U-boat torpedo, and drowned. The strong line of his forehead had clearly been passed down to his daughter.
The waiter turned to him, his arms full of coats, but said nothing. Harkness realised that they were all looking at him now. The music had stopped. He knew that if he turned around, even Mr. Henderson would probably at last have turned away from his endless meal.
They looked at him under the subdued lighting, but their eyes were bright.
His skin was cold, his throat was dry, and he wanted to run – but there was nowhere to go.
After a moment, his grandmother took a few steps forward. He had last seen her five years ago, lying in a beautiful casket, her cheeks painted with rouge that did little to hide the pallor beneath.
She looked at him with an unreadable expression, and her eyes glittered. She opened her mouth, inhaled, and the sound was like leaves scattered by the first frozen winds of winter.
“We’ve been waiting for you,” 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.
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