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.
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
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.
“Yes, counting.” It is Lucy who replies
“Just because,” say the twins in
“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.
Beth rolls her eyes and goes back to
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
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
“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…
“For the love of God, what the hell
are you girls doing?”
“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.”
“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
“Nine, ten,” pipes up Mary, perhaps
too eagerly, as two hotel staff walk into the bar carrying boxes of crisps to
Lucy grips Mary’s arm tightly in
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
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
“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
“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.
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