A Short Story by Steve Stred

Here is a sample of dark horror fiction by Steve Stred. 

Edge of the Woods
By Steve Stred
Originally appeared in Frostbitten: 12 Hymns of Misery

I grew up in a small town, in an area most people don’t know, or have
ever heard of. Even now, when people ask, I have to use a bigger city to
reference where it was, and then add the caveat; “2 hours east,” so they
will have any idea.

At this place that no one has heard of, we had a small school that was
combined grades. Kindergarten to grade 2 all shared one classroom and
grade’s 3 and 4 shared the other room.

There was three times in the day, that all of my friends loved. The first
was the 15 minutes before the first bell. I lived only 5 minutes from
the school, so I would rush over each morning and for 15 minutes we
would all just goof off. The second time was recess. It was also only 15
minutes long, but in those 15 minutes we would still have time to play
soccer or road hockey and when the bell rang to indicate it was time
to go in, we would all slowly walk in, knowing our teacher wouldn’t
reprimand us for being a few minutes late.

   The best time, however, was lunch. We had a full 60 minutes to eat,
and then play, which would revolve around 1 of 4 activities. For 30
minutes we would either play soccer, road hockey, baseball, or our most
cherished activity; tetherball. The tetherball court was to the east of the
school, situated beside the edge of the soccer field and the edge of the
woods. The court had been there for many years before I attended the
school, as the dirt around the metal pole was ground into a deep circle,
making the pole almost an extra 6 inches taller than it normally was. The
cement base was exposed, which would frequently cause injury to us, as
we ran and dove, to try and prevent the ball and rope from completely
winding around the pole.

We had a close group of friends, 8 of us in total, and because we all
equally loved tetherball, we played quick games, only to one point and
it was a winner moves on system. You lose a point, you are out and the
next friend would jump in. This would guarantee that all of us would
play at least one game of tetherball during our lunchtime.

The sad part was, that we experienced longer winters than most areas.
We had snow from October 1st until the end of March and as such, the
tetherball was only operational for the month of September and then
again in May and June. So time on the court was premium, because to
make matters worse, when school ended for summer break, the ball and
rope came down.

This year, we had made the mistake of playing soccer and road hockey
in September and as winter began to fade away, we were all getting
excited and anxious to play tetherball. We still had about a month until
it would be set up, when we were called into an unexpected assembly in
our library. The school wasn’t big and it wasn’t until about 10 years after
I left grade 4 that they had a gym added on. So all of our assemblies
were held in the library, which made for cramped quarters.

“Students, we have a very exciting guest today! He has a few things to
discuss and remind you about, and then later your parents will also have
a meeting with him!” Our teacher seemed super excited for us to have
this assembly, and she watched our reactions attentively.

“Hello students, I am Officer Carson, from the local Police. I am here to
remind you of a few key rules to keep you safe, because as the weather
gets nicer, more of you will be walking to and from school alone.”
I was enthralled with this man.

He wore a slick uniform and he had a cool gun. I was ready to listen to
every word that came out of his mouth. I could tell my friends were all
feeling the same, as I looked around, which made me feel better. I didn’t
want to rave about him later and be teased mercilessly.

“A few things I want to talk about are stranger danger and animal
danger,” he started, “You all know each other’s parents, so they are not
strangers. You also all know each other’s older siblings that drive, so
they are not strangers either. So if someone offers you a ride and you
don’t know whose brother or sister they are or whose parent they are,
you do not get into their car.”

Well obviously, I thought. What type of dork would do that?

“I know I introduced myself just now and that I am new to each of you,
but I should not be considered a stranger. As a Police Officer, I am here
to help you. So if someone tries to grab you and put you in a car or they
ask you for a ride, if you see me, you yell for help and I will come right away.”

Well that makes perfect sense, I thought, plus he has a gun.

“Lastly, the weather is going to be warming up a lot soon, which means
you will be playing outside even more. Keep in mind that wild animals
will be out and about as they look for food, and most of you are the
perfect size for a cougar or a bear to snack on.”

The entire library burst into chuckles as Officer Carson said this part.
We all knew to watch for animals, but it was still a funny thing to say.

“So again, if you see a wild animal, stay far away, find an adult and tell
them, and more importantly don’t wander into the woods on your own.”

Then Officer Carson said goodbye, and left the room and our teacher
instructed us to all head back to our classrooms and begin reading on our
own, while the parents met with the Policeman.

We never gave the Officer’s visit another thought for many months.

We noticed when our parents picked us up after school, that they all
looked around more frequently, and we started to notice that most of us
were no longer allowed to walk to and from school alone.

***

Finally, the day came that we had all been waiting for.

The snow had melted completely and as my mother and I walked up to
the school that morning, I saw the maintenance man finishing up with
the tetherball pole. The rope was in place and the hard rubber ball hung
there, slowly rolling back and forth, waiting for us to smash it at each other.

Recess took even longer than before to arrive. Or so it felt. From the
window of our classroom, we could see the tetherball court by the edge
of the woods. The ball just slowly swung back and forth, enticing us,
begging us; please, kids, come swing me around!

I was about to continue reading my Carmen San Diego book when I
thought I noticed movement at the court and looked again.
Nothing.

I knew nobody was there, but a part of me thought I saw an adult
near the court. I wanted to be the first one to play this year, so my
imagination must be a bit jealous, I thought.

I started reading the paragraph again, and once again I noticed
movement in my peripheral vision. I quickly looked up, but still, there
was no one. But I was now convinced, that someone had been at the
tetherball court, and the ball was left swinging violently around the pole.

I raised my hand and told my teacher I thought someone was sneaking
around the tetherball court. She left the classroom and a short time later
she returned and instructed us all to keep reading.

Outside, the Principal and the maintenance man could be seen walking
across the soccer field in the direction of the tetherball court. They both
looked around and then walked into the woods, completely disappearing.
I found myself holding my breath.

A few moments went by and they both emerged and walked back to the
school. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but they were engaged
in a conversation, and from their expressions, it was clearly of some
importance.

When the lunch bell went off, we were all told we could play outside
today on the playground, but we were not allowed to go around the other
side of the school to the tetherball court.

I was devastated. My friends were super pissed, with my best friend
Matt slugging me in the shoulder so hard I couldn’t lift my arm for the rest of the day.

At the end of the school day, we all were given a letter to bring with us
and give to our parents to read and sign that night.

***

We were not allowed to play tetherball until the following Monday. A
whole week went by, with us having to watch it hanging there every day
from our classroom window. It was rough. But finally, finally, Monday
rolled around and our teacher told us that for that lunchtime, we could
head out there and play.

We didn’t even eat inside. We ran as fast as we could to the court,
bringing our sandwiches with us.

I made it there first, followed closely by Matt. We played a quick 1 point
game, as per our rules, and I was eliminated immediately.

I walked off, heading sadly, to the end of the line and joined in the taunts
and the jeers, as we trash talked our other two friends who now played.
Matt was dominating and kept winning game after game. After 3 other
friends were defeated, I suddenly realized, that I was now second in line
to play. There wasn’t much time left before lunch would be over, but I
was hoping to have one more chance to avenge my loss.

                                                                          (To read the rest of Steve’s story, click the link below.)

 

 

 

9 – Edge of the Woods

One Night, a romantic short story

One Night by Paige Gibson

It’s never what you’d expect, going someplace you’ve never been.

We dressed up for a birthday party to celebrate someone neither of us knew. My best friend had grown weary of me moping around. Her parents were kind enough to give us their tickets to attend a lavish birthday soirée. They already had plans for a cruise that same weekend. They had a life.

The party was in Reno, Nevada. The lights and buzzers were good distractions for the otherwise despondent. Who can dwell on the thought of being unloved and abandoned when bells and whistles are going off? There is no time for self-pity when the slot machine next to you is trumpeting how lucky a stranger is.

Dressed in my favorite amethyst-colored, mandarin dress with its jaw-dropping slit up to my thigh, I was ready to be social. Tanya, my best friend of 20 years, looked hot as hell in her flashy red dress which accentuated her two blessings. It was her go-to dress when she was on a mission to get some phone numbers, as we single ladies call it.

“Thank you for making me come out of my cave.” I hugged her, smiled and was ready for whatever the party had to offer. I had become a hermit after being dumped. It was time to get out from under the burdensome weight of inadequacy.

We stood in front of closed double doors. No one had come in or out. Were we in the wrong place?

Tanya readjusted her boobs, fluffed her highlighted blond hair and popped a mint. “Let’s go.” She pushed the handles down and the doors swung open like an Oscar moment.

I felt like a child opening up the secret panel in the wardrobe leading me into Narnia. Taking that brave first step, I crossed the threshold and froze. There he stood, with the confidence and composure of James Bond. Across the room on the edge of the dance floor, waiting for me. He turned his gaze to greet me and found my smile in the process.

My broken self felt my heart jump into its cage and my eyes instinctively looked down. “Do you see him?” I asked Tanya, making sure he wasn’t a novelty of my overactive imagination.

“Do I see the handsome man standing by the dance floor? Oh yeah,” she said with a sigh. “Come on, let’s find a place to sit. Maybe he has a friend.” Having been single for two years Tanya was ready to pounce on any available man who was willing. Surely in a casino, she would find plenty.

It was a large, Cinderella ballroom. A band played on stage in front of the dance floor. The remaining space held 80 round tables, seating 10 guests each. People were filtering in through an entrance on the adjacent wall. There were still plenty of seats available. Where would he be sitting? Damn.

I looked at the edge of the dance floor again hoping to get a closer look. He was gone. Crap. We sat down at a table with three couples all sporting 20 Shades of Gray. A comfort zone for me.

“Why did you pick this table?” Tanya leaned in to ask. “You couldn’t pick a table without oxygen tanks?”

“You said pick a table, so I did.”

She rolled her eyes. “I thought you’d pick a better table.”

“Sorry.” But I wasn’t. “Where’d he go?” I whispered in Tanya’s ear as I scanned the three tables near my left, “I’ll look this direction, you look that way.” I said trying to be nonchalant. He was walking back from the bar, holding a drink and talking to another man. “He has a friend.” I nodded in their direction, behind us.

Tanya turned in her seat. “Oh, his friend is cute too.”

We waited to see if they would look for us. No luck.

“We need drinks,” she announced. Being a drinker she was more comfortable with a drink in her hand and one flowing through her veins.

I, being a lightweight, had to pace myself. “Let’s wait until we find out where they’re sitting.”

“Hi, I’m Gertrude and this is my husband Harold.”

Some people are more friendly than us. They were a cute couple, especially for being upwards of 60. “Hello,” we said in unison, our trance broken by her friendly voice. “Sorry, we didn’t mean to be rude. There is so much to take in here,” Tanya said.

“This room holds 800 people, but it’ll pack up shortly. There’ll be plenty of men for you ladies to choose from.” Harold grinned revealing white dentures.

Busted. And we lost track of the men.

“Don’t look so obvious,” Tanya said. “Let’s get our drinks now, we’ll get a better view.” She looked at our dinner mates and asked, “Anyone else want a drink from the bar?”

The gray-haired and balding couples graciously declined. No doubt they would gossip as soon as we stepped away.

The bar was on the other side of the room from where we sat. It seemed so far away, considering what I wanted was closer to me. I’m usually a “take your pick of the crop” type of woman, wanting to look around at the best options, but not this time. The best had already been found.

The band, dressed in black suits, played popular hits from the 80’s and 90’s. Stray Cat Strut bellowed as we pranced through the curvy alleys toward the bar. Perfect music for Tanya who still lived in the decade of blue eyeshadow. She was in heaven: 80’s music, gambling and hundreds of men all in one room. Bliss.

Double-fisted rum and coke for her and one Cape Cod for me. We meandered our way back, searching for our beacons. Even before taking a sip, I found myself feeling lighter, that unnecessary boulder of inadequacy slowly rolling off.

Loving this moment in time, of unknown potential, of positive energy that filled the room; I took stock of my appearance. Stomach in, shoulders back. Do the stare-at-my-ass, sexy walk. Try not to trip. Subtle smile. Own the room. Try not to spill the drink.

Back at our table, Tanya leaned in. “They’re sitting two tables away – in front of me.”

The man seated next to her chair pulled it out for her since her hands were full.

“Thank you,” she offered.

An announcement came over the PA, “Dinner is about to be served. If everyone could take their seats to clear the floor.” The band changed to playing mellow elevator music. Most of the seats were now occupied with suits and floral print dresses.

Tanya had the view advantage from her seat, while my angle was better for viewing our table guests. I would have to settle for her commentary to avoid looking like an obvious stalker.

Wow. It dawned on me how fixated I had become. There we were, in a room with hundreds of men, and I wasn’t interested in looking at any of them. How unlike me.

The smell of lemon and garlic filled the air, as plates of bread and salad began to dot the tables. For the first time in months, I had my appetite back. Being dumped by my boyfriend of three years (for an older woman) had the benefit of no appetite, so I easily lost the 10 pounds I’d put on in our years together.

The bread was soft, warm, and slightly sweet. The garlic butter whipped, melted on my tongue. I savored it as if it were my first – kiss. Intoxicating carbs were exactly what my soul was looking for.

Tanya was slacking on her commentary duties, as her mouth was preoccupied. I couldn’t take it anymore. As nonchalantly as I could, I turned my head to the left. His table was full and he was sitting on the far side. Trying to be sly, I leaned back in my chair like a teenager trying to put the moves on a date. He had a smile on his face. I’ve always found happy men more attractive. I leaned forward trying to get a better view. He was talking to an attractive brunette sitting next to him. Instantly my appetite was gone again. Girlfriend? Wife? A sudden, dull pain in my right shin brought me back.

“Hello? What are you thinking?” she whispered.

Gertie and Harold smiled, obviously witness to my portrayal of a sad woman. The couple to their left were still satisfying their hunger. The couple next to Tanya was engaged in each other’s presence. How sweet.

“Look at me,” she said. “What?” My shoulders sagged like a rejected lover.

She stared at my mouth. “You have something in your teeth.”

“What? What are you talking about?” I said, flashing a child-like fake grin showing all of my teeth before I began to giggle. And I giggled myself to the brink of peeing. I couldn’t help myself. Jeez, how much have I had to drink?

As I calmed down, I ran my napkin across my teeth so as not to embarrass my best friend any more than necessary. “Did I get it?” I flashed my teeth. “I don’t know what came over me.” Perhaps realizing my own absurdity. Oh well.

“Glad to have you back,” Tanya said.

The best thing about a true friend is just how well they know you.

She looked at our now silent table companions with an apologetic smile, “Please forgive her. I brought her out of a mental hospital for the weekend.”

Sometimes it’s that simple. That one moment your brain is completely distracted and it derails any self-doubt you were running on. No thoughts of heartache, only feelings of love for friends, new experiences, and possibilities.

The boulder rolled down further.

A server came over bringing us a rum and coke and a Cape Cod. She cleared the table of empty plates. My mouth started watering at what deliciousness was to come.

Tanya looked at the men’s table to see if they sent the drinks, optimistically, of course. “I can’t tell. He turned his head away and is talking to his friend. They are both so cute.”

Odd to me that even in our mid 30’s we still describe men as cute. A term best suited for boys, but appropriate in our current state of cougarness. He had a goatee. To me, it is the single easiest thing a man can do to make himself more attractive. A goatee will make an ugly man average and an average man handsome, but that’s just me.

With chicken and garlic mashed potatoes consumed, we were content. I wondered what dessert would bring. Hot, steamy and succulent? Warm’n juicy? Cold’n hard?

Relaxing in my comfort zone, thankful I wasn’t wearing snug pants squeezing my meal in, a man’s voice broke into my tranquility.

“How are you this evening?” Dressed in a crisp white button-down shirt, a loosened apple-red tie, and black slacks, he stood within an arms reach of me, no longer on the edge of the dance floor.

I sat up straight and sucked my stomach in.

“Just lovely, dear. And you?” asked Gertie.

“Very well, thank you. My name is Justin.” He reached out to shake their hands.

He was talking to the old couples! What the hell!

“Gertie and Harold. Nice to meet you.” Gertie spoke for them both.

“You too. How are you two this evening?” He asked the middle couple.

Seriously, hello, I’m right here.

“Fine and dandy, the name is Randy and this here is my wife Edith.”

“Pleasure to meet you both.” Justin nodded. “And you two?” He asked the couple sitting next to Tanya.

What is going on here?

“We’re good. Have a seat; join us.” Randy offered.

He stood with his shoulders squared and back straight, close enough for me to touch.

“That’s kind of you, but I have plans. Perhaps later.” He looked at Tanya. “Hi,” he said with a coy smile on his face. “And your name is?”

She was as shocked as I was.

“Tanya.” She gave me a sideways glance and her nose twitched. “Nice to meet you.”

He reached out to shake her hand. The lingering traces of cologne wafted past my nose as he reached in front of me for her hand. He was the whole sensory package. His pale brown hair had a professional cut. The color matched his goatee. A few years younger than me, I would guess. I was enthralled and bewildered.

“My name is Justin Bradford. How are you on this fine evening?” He asked as he reached for my hand.

About time. “Superb. And you Justin?” Damn, I can be coy.

“Very well, thank you.” His face asked the question his lips did not.

“Ilyana Turner.” I sat up straighter.

His hand had not let go. “Would you dance with me?” He asked in a gentleman’s tone, but confident.

To read more visit, https://www.amazon.com/One-Night-romance-short-story-ebook/dp/B07632LQJF

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