This was my entry for the Adult Fairytale competition in Writing Magazine. Sadly I didn’t win but bright side – it makes for an easy blog post this evening! I’d love to know what you think. What are your favourite tips for writing better short stories?
“We shouldn’t be here”
Gary tried to tune his girlfriend’s voice out as he peered through the dirty glass. The shadowy innards of the garage cast odd shapes; a smoking dragon, a chest full of treasure.
“We could’ve just made an appointment with the estate agent. If I thought you were going to break in I wouldn’t have told you about the place!”
Silly woman. He only wanted to have a quick look – it’s not like anyone would see them. He rattled the door handle experimentally. The handle squealed, agreeing with Emma, but eventually the door opened with a ‘pop’ of swollen wood.
“It’s unlocked – bonus!” He edged inside, swallowed quickly by the gloom. He sensed Emma hesitating behind him, and then he heard her picking her way through the mess. The thick smell of moldering cardboard and rusting metal pinched his nose, piles of junk teetering as they passed. A little way into the garage, a small pile of blankets was covered in brown, warty mushrooms. Emma wandered over to it, and Gary turned, mentally measuring up the space; his bikes would go along that wall, he’d put a rack up for his helmets here-
“Hey, check this out,” Emma called. “The mushrooms – they’ve grown in a fairy ring!” She squatted down, squinting at them, as Gary rolled his eyes. She was into childish stuff like that – fairies, magic. He kicked one of the taller mushrooms, which fell to bits.
A coughing, spluttering noise made them both jump, and Emma scrambled backward.
“What’re yeh playin at?!” a voice croaked. Three clusters of the mushrooms… stood up. They were like small, brown garden gnomes, fungi growing out of their beards, skin gnarled like tree bark; one even had a long, thin mushroom growing out of his nose, and it was this one that spoke again.
“What’re yeh doing here?”
Gary’s heart stop-started in his chest, like the busted engine on his Honda.
“Humans, Hack,” said another of the creatures, plucking a small mushroom from an ear and eating it. The smallest one waved knobbly hands at them.
“Humans? Not seen a human fer 650 years! Hello!”
“H-hello,” Emma mumbled. “Erm… what… sorry – who are you?”
Gary inched closer to a pile of rusty garden tools, his hand grasping at the air.
“Now, there’s no need for that,” said Hack, clapping once. Gary’s muscles seized, freezing him. “We won’t do you no harm! I’m Hack, that there is Spit, and this lil fella is Glob. We’re Goblins! The friendly sort, mind.”
Gary strained, but he couldn’t get any closer to the rake.
“There’s no use fighting it human, you’ll only bust yer pancreas, and then how would you be able to complete The Quest of Transcendent Riches?”
“…Riches?” Gary croaked.
The biggest goblin grinned, his teeth like little chips of wood. “Yes! Spit, explain to them!” Hack plopped down in the middle of the ring, beetle-black eyes on his smaller comrade.
“You complete the Quest of Transcendent Riches to obtain the keys to the castle and its… its riches. Simple really.”
“What castle?” Gary asked. Hack gestured, and he could move again.
“This castle,” Spit replied.
Emma shifted. “But this isn’t a castle, it’s a 3 bed semi with parking-”
“Shut up a sec will you!” Gary waved a hand at her impatiently, “You’d really give us this house?”
“Castle,” Glob muttered. Spit nodded solemnly.
“All you have to do is obtain three artefacts for us.”
Gary needed to blink; his eyes were crusting over. This couldn’t be real. He watched as the largest one, Hack, picked a mushroom from his nose and examined it. As if he could tell what Gary was thinking, he fixed Gary with a beady stare, and purposefully crushed the fungus in his knotted hand. When he opened the hand again, a gold coin appeared; in the same motion, he flicked it up, and Gary caught it. It felt heavy, solid. Gary looked up.
“And we wouldn’t have to pay stamp duty or anything?”
The goblins exchanged puzzled glances, then Spit shook his head. Gary sucked his teeth thoughtfully. There was that new bike Ducati were launching…
“What are the three artefacts?”
They huddled, whispering, their voices like rustling leaves. They appeared to reach an agreement, and lined up in front of the couple.
“We need the box that shows the right path!” Glob squeaked.
“We need the pen of never-ending ink!” Spit spat.
“We need the key that opens any door!” Hack croaked.
Emma hummed worriedly. “I don’t think we should get involved, Gary. I’ve read some pretty dark stuff about fairy creature quests-”
Gary glared at her, and her voice died. “Go back to your books and let me handle this, okay?”
“I’ll do it,” he said to the goblins.
“Excellent!” said Hack. “Just bring us the artefacts by 4.20pm today and the keys to the castle are yours.”
The gnarly creatures began to melt back into the grotty blankets.
“One thing,” said Spit, as his shoulders sank into the fabric. “Now you’ve agreed to participate, you’ve entered into a binding magical contract with us. So if you don’t bring the items today, we’re going to eat you.”
Glob licked his lips before he disappeared.
Gary stopped to catch his breath by a lamppost, and checked the time. One hour to go before the deadline. Emphasis on dead, he cringed.
“Any ideas?” Emma puffed beside him.
“Shut up,” he moaned. Several onlookers skirted around them, shaking heads, wrinkling noses. They’d been running up and down the street, spurred on by the memory of hungry looks, the sliver of spittle hanging from a chin. He sank his head into his hands.
“I’ve got nothing. I don’t know what to do.”
Emma straightened her coat, and drew in a long breath.
“Let’s just take the items one at a time. What was the first one? A box that shows the right path…”
He let her talk. It was pointless – if he couldn’t think of anything, how was she going to? The riddles were obviously talking about ancient, magical objects. Not the kind of thing you’d find on a high street in Slough.
He mumbled something to that effect.
“That’s it!” Emma exclaimed. “They’re ancient, out of touch with the modern world!”
“So they need a box that shows the right path – like a sat-nav! Modern technology is going to seem magical to them – we might still pull this off. Look, there’s the Tech Store, let’s go.”
Five hundred quid! That was the cheapest sat-nav they’d had!
“This had better work,” he grumbled.
“Pen of never ending ink… hmmm….” Emma was saying. “Hey – what about a laptop?”
Gary felt faint. “A… a laptop?”
“Think about it! You can write endlessly with a laptop – it never runs out of ink. I bet that would work.”
“I can’t afford to buy a laptop today Emma…”
She waved away his concern. “You’ll give them your laptop from home, it’ll be fine. Now, what about the last artefact?”
Gary slumped silently as he watched her consider. She gripped his hand and dragged him across the street, stopping in front of a cash machine.
“Empty your bank account, Gary!”
She gave him an impatient look.
“The key that opens any door – they say ‘Money opens all doors’ ”
Gary frowned. “Why would Goblins need cash? They can turn mushrooms into gold.”
Emma hesitated. “Well… I don’t know… do you have any other ideas? It’s already 3:40 – we’ve barely got enough time to pick up your laptop and get over to the house as it is.”
Gary swallowed. Like the Goblins would do if they failed.
Hack, Spit and Glob gathered around the ‘artefacts’ that Gary produced. It looked like the proceeds of a robbery, he thought worriedly. Glob hefted the sat-nav – it was as big as his head, but he lifted it easily. Spit tapped the keys on the laptop, and Hack rifled through the wad of cash, knobbly fingers flicking.
“These artefacts are…. acceptable,” said Hack, smiling toothily. Gary let out a breath.
“But I’m afraid it’s 4.22.”
Spit and Glob’s heads whipped up, hounds scenting blood.
“What?! We got here at 4.15!” Gary spluttered. They advanced, woodchip teeth wet with saliva. He grabbed Emma’s hand, backing away. He could throw her to the goblins, and escape in the confusion. His back hit the wall. He shut his eyes and tightened his grip on Emma, getting ready to do what he had to do.
He heard hysterical laughter, cracked an eye open, and saw the three goblins rolling around, mushrooms flying.
“Ahh, priceless!” Hack choked. “Just a little goblin fun – don’t worry, yeh passed.”
The other two were collecting up the ‘artefacts’, shooting insolent grins at Gary.
“I’ve… I’ve passed? Thank… god.”
Spit and Glob were melding back into the blankets, loot disappearing with them. Hack took up position next to them.
“Wait! What about the house?”
Hack winked at Gary as he sunk, forming a perfect ring with the rest of the mushrooms once again.
In the centre of the ring, a key glittered.
“Yes!” Gary stepped into the ring, reaching for the key, fingers quivering. He was going to buy a new bike, and do up the house, and-
He felt pressure, rising up his leg, like he’d stepped into a pool of water, only it was still rising, up to his waist, his chest, his neck, his-
Emma sucked in a breath as Gary vanished. “Well,” she said. “That was easier than I thought.”
“You did well, getting the cash. That key riddle was a bit of a stretch,” said Hack, counting money out as he re-emerged. “Here’s your share. When’s our next mark getting here?”
Emma checked her watch. “Not long – she’s meeting me out front soon.”
“You better get to it then.”
She nodded, glancing at the remains of the mushroom ring.
“Where did you send him?”
Hack grinned slyly. “Want to find out for yourself?”
“No thanks, I just work here,” she grinned back. “Ask for seven things this time – this next one is loaded.”
“Right you are.”