Fourteen - a free short story

 

Last year I had a great time at Chillercon hanging out with my horror mates. One evening, a few of us were hanging out in the hotel lobby chatting away having had a drink or three. I can't quite remember how but we started to play a game which has stuck with me to this day. Below is a fictional re-imagining of that game undertaken by different players. Enjoy!

Oh, and other than that conversation with friends, please remember that is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.





Fourteen

 

by Phil Sloman

 

Seaside rain is different to rain elsewhere in that it is almost always unwanted. At the beach, the expectation is of sun-kissed sands covered with happy bathers eager to buy overpriced ice-cream which drips down the sides of cheap brown cones. All the while, gulls call raucously from above. When the rains come none of that is possible – except the gulls –and the air of holiday and eternal joy is banished.

This was the case at Maudling-by-Sea where rain streaked the grubby hotel windows. The hotel itself – we shall call it The Grand though it is anything but – has stood in this spot for over a century, dating back to Victorian times when people visited to take the air. There are 347 rooms in the hotel. There is nothing significant about this number unless you happen to be a member of staff - especially if your job is to clean each room - or if you are someone who collects such trivia for your own undoubtedly good reasons. Nor is it a number you should bother to commit to memory in case you think it will have bearing at a later point. It will not. Write it down, by all means, or make a note to check back here at the end but it is simply a number with no particular role. No, there is a much more significant number to come.

Now, the Mitchells were booked into room 275.

This, again, is not a number to trouble yourself with.

The hotel advertises itself as a family room. As such, there is a double bed alongside two single beds crammed into a space slightly bigger than your average living room with the added luxury of an adjoining bathroom replete with the feeblest of showers known to man and a toilet which flushes intermittently and only with great patience on the part of the user. All of this is tolerable when the sun is shining and when the family can explore the limited delights of Maudling-by-Sea. But that isn’t the case today. Today, with the arrival of the rain, they have decamped to the bar before one of them kills the other.

Settled downstairs in the bar, Beth looks up from her phone.

“What are you doing, girls?”

“Counting,” says Mary.

“Counting?”

“Yes, counting.” It is Lucy who replies this time.

“Whatever for?”

“Just because,” say the twins in unison.

“Just because?”

“Yes, just because.”

Beth decides to leave things be. Karl has left them in the hotel bar so he can get some “fresh air” which we all know means he might be anything from five minutes to half an hour depending on just how many cigarettes he smokes.

“Three!” squeals Lucy.

“Three what?”

“Just three.”

Beth rolls her eyes and goes back to her phone.

This is far from the holiday she had hoped for. But then that is Beth’s lot in life. Moments of joy between long bouts of disappointment and weariness. Maudling-by-Sea has done nothing to change that.

On her phone are pictures of friends enjoying beach holidays where the sun shines down with extreme gusto. They are sitting on sun loungers holding hollowed out pineapples filled with a combination of spirits, cocktail umbrellas and straws.

“Having the time of my life!”, “Life’s a beach!!!” and similar phrases caption each image.

Beth reflexively taps a thumb to the screen and gives each one a heart symbol without really meaning it before scrolling to the next image and then the next. That could have been them in the sun by the pool getting shit-faced if Karl had remembered to renew the passports in time. Like he said he would. Like he promised. But that was Karl.

“Four!” exclaims Mary.  

Beth ignores the girls and continues to scroll through her feed with levels of jealousy rising. Frustrated, she looks around the room which mirrors the greyness outside.

An anaemic thirty-something stands behind the bar, wiping down the counter with a dirty wet rag, their eyes shaded and sunken from lack of sleep coupled with an inevitable shattering of expectations earlier in life which will always haunt them.

In the far corner sit an elderly man and his wife on a faux-leather couch, both wearing matching raincoats despite not having been outside today. A pint of beer and a glass of wine rest on the table in front of them. Drinks they bought an hour ago which they have been nursing ever since. Beth is confident they haven’t said a word to each other the whole time they have been sitting there.

A television screen flickers in the corner, the weather interfering with the reception in spite of the reassurances the satellite company had given the landlord, the image distorting momentarily then resetting. Beth makes out horses bunched together with jockeys on their backs, whips cracking as the jockeys spur their mounts onwards to the finishing line. Closer and closer they get. It’s going to be neck and neck to the line. A man is standing up in the bar fixated on the screen, holding a copy of The Racing Post all screwed up in a tight roll. He forgets himself and brings the paper down against his own right buttock in mimicry of the jockeys and their whips, urging on the favourite, pound signs growing in front of his eyes, the horses about to reach the finishing post.

A roar of frustration as the television flickers off, he throws his paper to the floor, stepping forward to hit the television with an unflinching hand in an effort to coax it back to life.

“Five, six, seven!”

The girls are focused intently on the entrance to the bar. A mother and her two sons have entered. Beth gives the mother a knowing look then returns to her phone. The mother and sons settle at the far side of the bar in a vacant booth, picking up sticky menus to see what culinary delights the hotel has to offer them.

On Beth’s screen is a video of a cat playing with a ball of wool. She smiles then flicks to the next one, and the next one, and the next…  

“Eight!”

“For the love of God, what the hell are you girls doing?”

“Counting.”

“Yes, I know that. But what? What the hell are you counting?”

She sees the girls exchange uncertain glances; their smiles flattened. Beth doesn’t mean to lose her temper like that. It simply happens. She’s just tired. Oh so fucking tired. She wants to relax. To have time to herself. Like Karl. Karl who always seems able to nip out for a cigarette, or just needs to go and do this or that, who always gets to have time with his friends whenever he wants.

“Sorry,” she says, deflated, “what is it you are counting?”

“The people,” says Lucy. “The people who come through the door.”

“Oh.”

“Yes,” says Mary, “we’re waiting to get to number fourteen.”

“Why, what happens with number fourteen?”

“They die,” says Lucy, the weight of the words lost within a child’s nonchalance.   

“That’s a horrible thing to say, Lucy.”

Lucy rolls her eyes. “It’s just a game, Mummy.”

“Nine, ten,” pipes up Mary, perhaps too eagerly, as two hotel staff walk into the bar carrying boxes of crisps to the barman.

Lucy grips Mary’s arm tightly in anticipation.

A figure walks past Beth, a blur in the periphery of her vision. She recognises him as the gambler when he reaches the door then exits. “Eleven,” she mouths unexpectedly. She places her phone face down on the table.

“How do they die?”

“They just die,” says Lucy.

“Perhaps they explode,” says Mary, gleeful at the thought.

“No,” Lucy’s tone is stern, a voice of authority. “They just die, like a ragdoll falling to the floor.”

“Oh,” say Mary and Beth as one.

“Twelve, thirteen.” Lucy taps the table as she counts reels off the numbers, like a metronome, watching the hotel staff leaving now their delivery has been completed.

“Does that count?” asks Beth, wide-eyed. “They’ve been through already. Does it count?”

The girls don’t answer.

In the corner, the old couple are stirring from their seats. He is holding their now empty glasses ready to take to the bar. She is picking up her bag and clamping it under her arm.

Beth can feel her heart racing. She doesn’t mean it to, after all this is simply a child’s game invited by the twins. Two bored eight-year-olds with nothing better to do with their time. But what if it isn’t? What then?

In the distance she sees Karl in the hotel lobby and holds her breath. If she were closer, she would smell the ciggies on his hair and clothes. He’ll go to kiss her later and there will be the taste of spearmint chewing gum with a hint of ashtray tinged with disappointment.

The elderly couple are at the bar now. The man has placed their glasses on the countertop. He is asking the barman something Beth cannot hear. Perhaps something about the local area. Or maybe where they can find the toilets. Either way, the barman replies and points to the door and the lobby beyond.

In the lobby, Karl is halfway across its chequered floor, barely twenty steps from the bar’s entrance. There is a wet trail behind him on the black and white tiles where he has traipsed rainwater inside.

The couple are walking slowly to the door, arm in arm, very much in love even after all these years. Beth is looking to the couple, then to Karl, then back to the couple, calculating who will make it through the door first. Calculating exactly what it could mean. What it could mean for her.   

“Karl, come quick,” shouts Beth standing up, planting her arms squarely as she leans upon the table, not caring what anyone else in the bar thinks.

“What?” shouts back Karl, stopping.

And still the old couple creep forward.

“Are you sure it’s fourteen?” Beth asks the girls.

They nod, their faces uncertain, trapped within a game they no longer want to play.

“I said come here quick, Karl. I’ve something to show you.”

“Look, just give me a sec. I can’t hear you, right.”

He starts walking.

The couple are inches from the door now. Even if Karl were to run he’ll not make it before them.

Beth can only let the game play through now. She slumps down into her chair.

“Excuse me, mate.” It’s the barman. Signalling to the old man. Holding up a hat. “This yours?”

The old man places a hand to his head, feeling the bare withered skin. He sighs, heading back to the barman, his wife moving with him.

“S’alright, mate. Wait there. I’ll bring it over.”

Revised calculations spark within Beth’s mind. What if the girls missed someone earlier? The hotel staff went through twice, once each way. Did they count as two or four?

The barman is handing the hat over. Time is running out.

“Karl!” yells Beth.

“Daddy, don’t,” scream the girls in unison.

“Hold your horses, all of you!” shouts Karl. And he’s moving now, driven by an inner force, white tile, black tile, white tile, black tile, step after step after…

“Fourteen” whisper the girls as Karl passes through the door.

 

END

Thanks for reading. If you enjoyed Fourteen then please do consider checking out my latest collection No Happily Ever After: No Happily Ever After eBook : Sloman, Phil: Amazon.co.uk: Kindle Store

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