Matt Gemmell

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An action-thriller novel — book 2 in the KESTREL series.

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Weekly Short Story: Nine Mile Burn

writing, fiction & once upon a time 5 min read

On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including science fiction, horror, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published three ebooks and one paperback anthology 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, or use the form below. Unsubscribe any time, from the link in every issue.

Today’s brief tale is inspired by a road I drive a few times each year, on the way south to visit my wife’s parents. It’s generally winding, going through several small settlements, but there’s a particular stretch that’s arrow-straight with hidden dips and various places to stop. We often see cars parked and their owners readying for a hike.

One particular time, though, there was no-one to be seen at all. The weather was dreich, and the landscape had an unsettling quality in the low visibility. It gets a person wondering about the places where the barrier between life and what’s beyond it has been worn thin.


The dawn was full of mist when I pulled over to the side of the road, switched off the engine, and stepped out into the place where I died.

I looked in every direction, knowing the tarmac stretched for miles ahead and behind, and the hills for much farther to the left and right, but I could make out almost none of it. Just the heavy moisture in the air, hanging like a stage curtain still drawn because something isn’t quite ready to be seen yet.

There was a hamlet out there somewhere. Not far away. I had seen the signpost only minutes ago, at the turning I hadn’t taken. Nine Mile Burn, it said. A burn is a stream or a small river, and there were many criss-crossing the land in this area, but I couldn’t see any of them either.

If you keep going, driving for another half hour or more, you reach a larger place that’s appropriately called Biggar. That’s where I was, helping out at the local school as they prepared for their Christmas show. I was running stage lights across the ceiling of the assembly hall, standing on a ladder. As it turned out, the breakers hadn’t been switched off after all. I remember a momentary perception of something being wrong, and then I have a flash of memory of the face of a paramedic.

The electric shock threw me from the ladder, they said, straight across the hall. I was unconscious, arm-veins blackened to the elbows, and unresponsive. The ambulance arrived quickly, and set out for the city. It took them only twenty minutes to reach the lonely expanse I now stood looking at.

My heart had stopped somewhere between a parking area I could barely see, and the stone bridge just up ahead, swallowed by the mist. They restarted it, of course. It took almost five minutes. They did it just where my car was now.

I drew my jacket tighter around me, stuffing my hands into the pockets, but I wasn’t cold even though I knew I should be. I could smell the car’s exhaust fumes, somehow not dispersed yet, as if the moisture was holding them down and keeping them nearby.

I heard a birdcall in the distance, out over the grassland and towards the hills, and then an answering call. It was the only conversation for miles. The sole patch of sky directly above was slate grey and undifferentiated; I couldn’t have guessed the altitude of the cloud cover. I had the impression of being boxed in, despite being out in the open.

It was still early, but it could have been any time of day. I took a deep breath, and I found that I could smell the mist, too. Sharp and aggressively clean, carrying the scents of grass and stone, water and air.

It’s not a bad place, I thought, without really knowing why. There are worse places to die.

Another birdcall, this time unanswered. No other movement.

Surely another car ought to come along soon? It was the major route into the city if you didn’t have time for the scenic coastal way. Delivery vehicles would have been on the road for hours already. Even the rural public transport services would be running by now.

I found that I didn’t really want to see anyone else, though. Not even a comforting glimpse of human habitation. It was peaceful here, in this strange pocket of weather, pressing down and all around. It was quiet, and still, and it was easy to imagine that everything beyond the mist was still, too; finally at rest.

Without conscious preamble, I rolled up my right sleeve to inspect my forearm. The strange pattern of darkened blood vessels, and the burn mark that had begun its long healing process into an ugly scar. Still there. It had been one of the contact points for the current, grounding itself through the stepladder I stood on.

And through me, I thought.

It was so easy to see why we had believed it to be the power of the gods, in simpler times. A flash and a bang, the smell of scorched flesh, fire and death. But then we learned to harness it, thinking it made us safe. Really we just allowed our own arrogance to bring the danger inside our homes, too.

I shook my head at my own melodrama. It had been an accident, that’s all. Foreseeable and preventable. The result of carelessness, and nothing more. I had been lucky.

I looked around at what little of the landscape I could see, and wondered how many others had died in this place. I knew it was a morbid thought, but it was difficult to keep the image from my mind: every square metre of countryside, at one point or another, being the place of someone-or-other’s passing. Enough millennia had elapsed for it to be true. But this particular spot, here in the narrow strip of verge at the side of the road, was mine.

I turned to look at it, suddenly eager to connect with the one visible piece of human encroachment I’d brought with me — or that had brought me with it, more accurately — but the car wasn’t there. In its place, I saw the ambulance.

I could hear two voices inside, intermittently, but I couldn’t make out any words. They were steady but with a note of tension. There was a continuous electronic tone, like the whine of silence but more insistent. Then more noises, and suddenly the vehicle’s big engine became louder as it lurched away from the verge, tyres gripping the tarmac, and rapidly picked up speed. Its flashing blue lights bounced off the moisture in the air, making it seem like the illumination came from all around.

I watched it leave, until I abruptly grew tired of watching, and I turned away. The verge was empty, and there were no more birdcalls. I should have been cold, but I wasn’t.

It’s not a bad place, I thought, and I felt a sense of peace I’d never known.

I stepped off the verge onto the soft grass beyond, and I walked into the mist.


That’s all for today. I hope you enjoyed this brief tale. If you have any thoughts or questions; I’d love to hear from you; you can find me on Twitter.

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Have a wonderful week, and thanks for reading.