Short Stories – March 2018

Well, although I’ve decided to take a break, possibly an extended one, from writing daily short stories (don’t worry, normal daily articles and art posts will continue πŸ™‚), I thought that I’d collect links to all 24 of the short stories I posted here this month in case you missed any of them (like I did with the nine stories I wrote in February). You can also find links to lots of other short stories on this page too.

I’m still amazed that I managed to write a total 33 short stories in a row (the most I’ve managed before is fourteen stories) and the highlights of this month’s collection include: ‘Floor Seven‘, ‘Stage Fright‘, ‘Rusty‘, ‘Expo‘, ‘Haunt Of The Horror Comics‘, ‘A MΓ€rchen In March‘, ‘Village‘, ‘Demo‘ and ‘Last Refuge Of The Splatterpunks‘.

Anyway, here are the stories πŸ™‚ Enjoy πŸ™‚

Haunt Of The Horror Comics“: This is a short story, set in mid-1950s Britain, about a couple who visit a corner shop shortly before horror comics are banned.

Culture: This is a random character study – set during the ’00s – which follows a goth who visits a goth club for the first time. Originally, this story was supposed to be a sarcastic comedy, but it ended up going in a slightly more serious/literary/poignant direction instead.

Floor Seven“: This is a creepy horror story, set in 1990s America, that I wrote because I wanted to try writing something that evoked the grungy claustrophobic gloom of many classic mid-late 1990s Hollywood horror movies, TV show episodes and videogames.

Expo“: This is a random story, set in 2000/2001, about a games journalist who visits a videogame trade show/exhibition in London.

A MΓ€rchen In March: This is a vaguely Lovecraftian horror/fantasy story (with some very mild thriller elements too) that was inspired by the recent snowy weather. It’s a little bit more of a descriptive and “serious” story than usual, but it was interesting to write.

Background Music: This is a somewhat rambling, semi-autobiographical “stream of consciousness” style piece that I wrote about having random daydreams during heavy metal concerts. It probably isn’t my best story, but it was kind of fun to write.

Food Court ’95“: This is a slightly random and mildly comedic vignette, set in mid-1990s America, that I wrote when I was tired (so, it’s probably filled with historical errors, Briticisms etc..). It basically just involves a punk and a frat guy sitting in the food court of a shopping centre and trading sarcastic and/or cynical dialogue with each other. Still, for something I wrote when I was tired, it turned out relatively well, I guess.

Heist: In the distant future, two criminals are trying to hack their way into the vault of a storage facility. But, there’s a problem! The security robots are closing in on them and they’ve only got one plasma pistol between them.

Frat House Blues ’95: Here’s the long-awaited sequel to “Food Court ’95“. Ok, I actually wrote this because one line in “Food Court” made me wonder what Roy and Lucy’s Friday night would actually be like. Needless to say, it includes lots of sarcastic dialogue and a couple of ’90s pop culture references (including a potentally anachronistic one).

Plain Sight: This is a descriptive urban fantasy/magic realism story that I had a lot of fun writing πŸ™‚ But, even after trimming something like four paragraphs from it, it’s still marginally longer (at 1000-1100 words) than many of my other stories. Then again, this might be because of the genre – I mean, fantasy fiction isn’t exactly known for brevity…

Common Factor“: This bizarre cyberpunk story was the result of both spending too much time reading “Snow Crash” by Neal Stephenson* and watching multiple Youtube videos about obscure musical instruments. (*due to major scheduling differences between these short stories and my daily articles, my review of this novel won’t appear until next February. Even so, there will be a review of Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age” in December ).

Rusty: …And this cyberpunk comedy story is what happens when I play “Doom II” for the first time in about two weeks (how did I get that out of practice so fast?) and then find an absolutely hilarious pirate-themed music video [Explicit lyrics] on Youtube. This short story is also something of a spiritual successor to this cyberpunk story I wrote in 2016 too.

Trance“: This is a cyberpunk story that includes no electronic technology whatsoever. And, although I tried to write something like this in 2016, this one actually technically fits into the criteria of “cyberpunk without electronic technology“.

Chess: Somehow, this ended up being a story about… chess.. of all things. It’s kind of a mildly “literary” story, with some comedy elements.

Stage Fright: At a heavy metal concert, something evil is lurking in the audience! This gloriously cheesy 1980s-style comedy horror story was sooo much fun to write πŸ™‚ I wrote the first draft of it on the day that the new Judas Priest album came out, so no prizes for guessing what I was listening to when I wrote it.

Order: In a dystopian future, someone is questioned about membership of a mysterious secret society. And, yes, I’m surprised that it’s taken me this long to write any dystopian fiction. And, if anyone is curious, the meme mentioned in the story also makes a secret appearance in this article I posted in February.

Last Refuge Of The Splatterpunks: An old 1980s horror author discovers something terrible about one of his old books and decides to drown his sorrows at the pub with a fellow ’80s horror author. And, yes, this story was inspired by something I saw when looking online for modern splatterpunk fiction that brought out my inner grumpy old cynic and literally made me say something like “In my day…“. And, well, I only discovered splatterpunk fiction during the 2000s!

Village: A couple get lost in the countryside and find themselves in a small village – but, the village isn’t on the map! This gothic horror story, set in the late 1980s/early 1990s, was inspired by a recent visit to a small village called Southwick.

Grim: A man is shopping in a run-down shopping centre when he notices that a certain robed, scythe-wielding fellow is following him.. This story, set in the 2000s, was kind of fun to write (and I’m seriously surprised that it’s taken me this long to use the Grim Reaper as a character) although it was a little bit rushed, and it probably shows.

Demo: Ok, I mostly wrote this cynical nostalgia-themed comedy story so that I could include an “extract” from one of the fictitious 1980s splatterpunk horror novels mentioned in this story. And, yes, it was really fun to write πŸ™‚

Letters: Sometimes, the local paper is accidentally delivered to Joanne’s house. Normally, she doesn’t mind, but she has noticed something happening with the “letters” page…. Although this story was a little rambling, I can’t believe that it has taken me this long to write something in this genre πŸ™‚

Deadline: This random Lovecraftian/magic realism/2000s nostalgia story was something I wrote when I was in an uninspired mood. It probably isn’t my best work, but I’m still surprised that I managed to write something.

Snow Beast: Wow! I can’t believe that it has taken me this long to write a monster story πŸ™‚ This story was inspired by the recent “mini beast” snowstorm here in the UK, and it can also be read as something of a prequel and/or companion piece to this story from 2-3 weeks ago.

Blank: I had writer’s block, so this story is the ultimate lazy cop-out (a story about a writer getting writer’s block). It’s a bit like the story a couple of days ago (“Deadline“), but with more comedy and commentary about the horror genre. The final two paragraphs of this story turned out vaguely ok, but the rest of it isn’t brilliant.

Advertisements

Short Story: “Blank” By C.A.Brown

Note: This will be the last short story in the series. Stay tuned for a series retrospective tomorrow evening πŸ™‚

The snow outside the window looked as pristine as the computer screen sitting in front of Phoebe. She let out a deep sigh and reached for the crumpled tube of biscuits on the edge of the desk. There were only three left. No, forget that, there were only two left.

Phoebe sighed again. She had to write something. Her publisher had said as much in their e-mail. But, putting words on the screen seemed almost as sacrilegious as leaving a trail of dark footsteps across the perfectly iced ground outside the window.

A smile crossed her face. Hadn’t there been an art gallery somewhere that had shown off canvases that were just covered with white paint? Hadn’t people paid millions for them?

Phoebe remembered a comedy book that one of her uncles had bought during the 1990s. It had been titled “Everything Politicians Know About Real People” and it consisted of two hundred empty pages.

For a second, she wondered whether she could get away with changing the title and adding a few extra pages. But, she remembered that her uncle’s old book had already been re-badged as a four hundred page tome called “Good Pop Music 2010-18: A Definitive Guide” that she’d seen on the internet a few nights ago.

Phoebe opened up her document folder and looked at the titles of her previous books. “Beneath Dark Spires”,”Post-Mortem” and “Spectral Signs“‘. She ate another biscuit. Why was this kind of horror fiction so popular these days? She ate the final biscuit. When did horror become so… sophisticated?

Of course, she knew that horror fiction had always been like this. Whether it was that copy of “Dracula” she’d never got round to finishing, or those hilariously formal Dennis Wheatley books that she’d found in a charity shop when she was a teenager, the natural state of horror fiction was one of sophistication. The horror fiction that she really loved had been an anomaly, a mutation, an aberration.

There wasn’t much history to go on, of course. But, when she was growing up, she would always see these books on market stalls, in charity shops and in the kind of second-hand bookshops where you can still smell the dust. They would have midnight black covers with wonderfully realistic paintings of skeletons, zombies and creatures. They read like music. Great crashing crescendos of blood and guts, counterpointed with gentle bucolic descriptions and functional dialogue between functional characters.

It took Phoebe a surprisingly long time to work out that if lots of these crumpled, dog-eared paperbacks were being sold second-hand, they must have been new once. Sure enough, on the internet, she had seen mention of a “horror boom” during the 1980s and 1990s. Apparently, lots of shiny new copies of these books used to festoon newsagents, motorway service station book racks and other quality literary venues.

It just wasn’t fair, dammit! By the time Phoebe had read enough of these books to want to write a horror novel of her own, the only new horror novels were sophisticated ghost stories, clinical police procedurals, gothic vampire stories and Stephen King. Lots of Stephen King. Well, at least some things remained the same.

So, with a heavy heart, she had written a tragic vampiric tale of lost love and eternal mourning. Then she’d written a clinical police procedural. Then a sophisticated ghost story. Everyone loved them. She’d even got good reviews from the critics in the broadsheet papers. She still felt guilty about that. Good horror, she thought, should disgust and appall pompous critics.

And now, with the three popular commercial genres used up, she found herself staring at a blank computer screen. Her eyes drifted to the perfect snow outside once again.

Then, without even thinking about it, her fingers flew across the keyboard “Crimson splashed the unholy altar. Gary’s agonised screams tore the sepulchral air. Above the splashing and screaming, the robed men kept chanting. Like an amateur production of Julius Caesar, they raised their dripping daggers in unison..

She stopped. She blinked. It was the best thing she’d written in three years. She kept writing. A smile crossed her face. She finished the prologue in less than an hour. Her computer pinged at her. Another e-mail from her publisher. With a heavy sigh, she started the first chapter: “In the pristine laboratory at New Scotland Yard, D.I. Stevenson carefully examined the body for forensic evidence..

Short Story: “Snow Beast” By C. A. Brown

Beneath the thick snow, the creature moved silently. If anyone looked closely at the heavy mounds and snow drifts, they wouldn’t have noticed so much as a flake moving. After all, this ancient beast had millennia upon millennia of practice at creeping beneath the snow.

Above it, the snow beast could feel crunching footsteps from the surface creatures. The movements were fast, the pressure heavy. It wasn’t as bad as the giant beasts that the creature remembered encountering as a hatchling.

It had only seen these once, when it had strayed from the burrows. A pair of vicious teeth had cut through the snow like silver things cut through snow melt. Taking a deep gulp of air, the snow beast had risen from the deep snow and taken a look.

A giant, two-legged feathered creature had towered high above the snow beast. For some reason, the thing that the snow beast remembered the most were the arms. Compared to the giant tail and the huge snapping jaws, the arms were tiny.

Then, there had been a sound like death and something dived from the thin snow high above. It was another creature. The head looked like an elongated bone and the arms were like nothing the snow beast had seen before. Wide things dangled from them.

The snow beast dived. The snow beast stayed below the surface. The snow beast felt scared. It didn’t like this feeling. It got good at staying below the surface.

When the snow beast returned to it’s burrow, it did not tell the other snow beasts of the things that it saw. After all, the elder snow beasts had probably seen such things before. It was, the snow beast now understood, why they kept pulling him away from the top of the deep snow.

Then, after some time, the other snow beasts left. At first, the snow beast noticed that one of them had been gone hunting for longer than usual. Then another one left, then another, then another. Not wishing to be the last one left, the snow beast had gone out hunting. The snow beast had decided that it would be a long hunt. Maybe the other snow beasts had the same idea. After all, hunger roiled in the snow beast’s belly.

The snow beast found food, then more food, then even more food. When the snow beast decided to return to the burrow, it could not remember which direction it was in. So, the snow beast had followed the collapsing trails that it had left. As it traversed the maze, it found more food. It slept sometimes.

Then, after lots of food and sleep, the snow beast found the burrow again. It was completely empty. There were no other tunnels leading away from it. The snow beast pounded the rocks below, but no echoes replied. The snow beast slept. The snow beast felt hungry. The snow beast left again.

Sleep. Food. Sleep. Food. Sleep. Food. Sleep. Food. The snow beast noticed that these things happened more quickly, like the food was easier to spot and the sleep didn’t last as long. It also realised that it knew exactly how far away from the surface to stay. The snow beast wondered if it had become like one of the elders.

After more sleeping and eating, the snow beast felt another two-legged beast above it. This one was lighter and smaller. As time went on, the snow beast realised that there were lots of these beasts. Perhaps they were the young of the giant feathered beast with the tiny arms. The snow beast stayed deep below the surface.

But, then, the snow beast couldn’t find food. The snow beast felt tired. It had even begun to forget what other snow beasts looked like. So, against all of it’s instincts, it had decided to rise to the surface once again when it heard one of the small two-legged creatures. It was so hungry that it had started to wonder what it must be like to be food.

When the deep snow parted, the snow beast stared out into the thin snow. The two-legged creature had long arms and small teeth. It looked at the snow beast and it didn’t swoop or bite, it ran. The snow beast burrowed and followed the noises. A smile crossed it’s slavering jaws. For the first time in many sleeps, something was scared of it.

Short Story: “Deadline” By C. A. Brown

Against the night sky, the falling snow almost looked like the screensaver on Diane’s computer. Even in the gloom, the snow was as white as the breeze block walls of her halls of residence room. She grinned. It almost looked like something from a dystopian sci-fi movie.

It was harshly beautiful. There were no other words for it. The only thing missing was music. As she jabbed the computer mouse, the screensaver disappeared and her half-finished English Lit essay about Edgar Allen Poe stared back at her. She sighed. The department’s deadline was tomorrow. But, how often does it snow like this?

For all she knew, it could happen every winter. Maybe this small town was famous for snow? The university prospectus had included a few beautiful snowy photos. Maybe she should just finish the damn essay and enjoy the snow next year or tomorrow or whenever? But, she found herself minimising the essay and opening Media Player instead.

A second later, the grimly melodic tones of Cradle Of Filth’s “Nymphetamine” echoed through the room. Diane watched the furious flurries of snow for a few minutes, wishing that she’d brought her DVD of “Gremlins” with her to uni. No, she thought, I’ve got to stay focused. She sighed and rifled through the stack of photocopied pages on her desk.

Even though it was two thousand and six for heaven’s sake, the university still insisted on references to physical books in essays. Given how much photocopies cost at the library, she was sure that it was probably a way of extorting money from poor students. Either that or the beardy old lecturers hadn’t heard of the internet.

Finding the right sheaf of stapled photocopies, Diane flicked through it until she found the passage she had highlighted earlier. No doubt that it was slightly longer than the scary copyright warning posters in the library allowed. Still, if they were charging 10p a page, then the posters were probably just for show. But, given that her halls room looked like something from a dystopian space prison, she wouldn’t have been surprised if there was some kafkaesque network of contradictory rules and goals at play.

Taking a deep breath, she focused and fired out another few paragraphs. Then she checked the word count. 1230 words. She shrugged. After she added a concluding paragraph, it would only be a hundred words shy of the limit. It would lose her a few marks, but she’d probably still pass. Anyway, it was snowing.

Diane got up and walked over to the square window. She gasped and staggered back. The view was different. Instead of snow-capped halls blocks, twenty dilapidated refinery towers stared back at her. The snowy ground below was an uneven moonscape of pits and mounds. She blinked and rubbed her eyes. The view didn’t change.

Common sense told her to stay put. To knock on everyone else’s doors and see if they had noticed it too. But, it was 3am. Everyone else on the floor would be out drinking. If only she’d been sensible enough to join them. Still, the deadline probably didn’t matter any more. And, she thought, how often do you get to explore somewhere like this? If she took a few photos, then no-one would question her sanity either.

Finding her jacket and an old Cradle Of Filth hoodie, she grabbed her bag and digital camera before walking out into the hallway. It was as silent as a tomb. She walked over to the kitchen and checked the windows. The refinery towers stared back at her once again. One of them moved. She took a couple of photos.

When she reached the stairwell, she noticed that the carpet was missing. She took a photo of the cracked grey tiles. Common sense urged her to turn back, but she kept walking down the stairs. Finally, she reached the thick wooden door. Diane took a deep breath and flung it open.

The halls blocks stared back at her. The snow was light on the ground. The towers were nowhere to be seen. She checked her camera. The photos were still there. She blinked. A smile crossed her face. Clutching her bag, she strode out into the snow. The university library would be still be open. Something about H.P. Lovecraft seemed like the perfect thing to fill up the remaining hundred words of her essay.

Short Story: “Letters” By C. A. Brown

It all started in the local newspaper, of all things. Although this wasn’t something that Joanne usually read, the paper got delivered to her by accident every now and then.

Every time it arrived, she’d glance over it just to remind herself why she didn’t get it every day. And she always looked at the letters page. After all, it was like a website comment section, but with more articulate writers and less venom.

But, then, she noticed that the same few people kept getting their letters in the paper. It had started when some crackpot’s letter about building a giant portcullis in the channel “to show the EU we mean business” had somehow got past the editor. She’d rolled her eyes, thought “who wrote this?” and remembered the name.

When the next paper arrived four days later, she noticed that he not only had the top spot on the letters page but that he was fervently arguing in favour of bringing capital punishment back “in order to sort out those inconsiderate types who check their mobile phones in the cinema.”

She also noticed a frothing, ranting letter from another person who was arguing that there should be hefty fines “for non-attendance of weekly church services, to restore this land’s moral fibre“. She made a note of the name.

Sure enough, when a crumpled copy of the local paper arrived on Joanne’s doormat two days later, not only were letters by these two people featured – but one of the other ranting letters was shockingly badly-written. Normally, she despised it when people got pedantic about things like grammar and spelling. But, this letter made the comments below online videos look like eloquent treatises by comparison. She made a note of the name.

She had almost forgotten about the paper when the next one landed on her doormat eight days later. Half of the front page had been torn off and the third page was stained with what looked like dried ketchup. No doubt that the delivery boy had stopped off at the chip shop and needed somewhere to ditch the paper he’d accidentally ruined. Still, Joanne didn’t complain. It was a free paper.

Taking a deep breath, Joanne flicked to the letters page. Sure enough, the three people were still there. But literally every letter was just like them too. There wasn’t a single cheerful letter about something mildly funny happening, a mention of a kind local person or a random piece of retro nostalgia. It was just two pages of solid ranting, foaming and frothing.

For the first time in quite a while, Joanne decided to go out. The emotion caught her completely by surprise. But, even the soul-crushing stage fright of appearing in front of random strangers seemed reassuringly normal compared to the stuff that she had just read. So, after changing into some of the few vaguely semi-formal clothes she kept lying around, she stepped outside.

When she briefly glimpsed a distant person slowly strolling down the street towards her, she realised that this had been a bad idea. They’d have to pass each other and this could involve eye contact or, even worse, some kind of cheery greeting. Would they pass each other too closely or too distantly? Whatever happened, it would probably be wrong. It would make her feel like some kind of freak for the next couple of hours.

With a vaguely practiced motion, she fumbled through her bag for something whilst turning around. If this person was looking, it would just seem like she’d forgotten something and had to return home to get it. A perfectly normal thing to do. Even though she was sure that she was horribly out of practice at the old handbag-turn, it seemed to work.

Then, as she took the first quick steps back along the street, Joanne let out a long sigh of relief. On the corner of Grantfield Road, she saw two gaunt skeletons merrily feasting on something. She glanced over her shoulder and, sure enough, the random person strolling along the road was none other than… what was the right word for it?… A former human? A reanimated body? No doubt that “zombie” was considered front-page scandal rude. But, she thought, would they even care?

Whistling a cheery tune, she strolled back home, occasionally waving at the shambling, soulless beings that she passed. None of them cared whether she was “normal” or not. Best of all, there was another copy of the paper lying on the doormat when she got back. As she opened it, she realised that all the horror movies she had ever watched had got everything totally wrong.

When the zombie apocalypse hits, Joanne thought, looking for survivors is the last thing you want to do. After all, most of the people who can go for weeks without noticing that the dead have risen from their graves are the kind of people who write angry letters to the local paper. Thankfully, she thought, not all of them are. A warm smile crossed Joanne’s face. Without even having to pretend, she had become the most normal person on the planet and it was awesome.

Short Story: “Demo” By C. A. Brown

Note: This story is a stand-alone companion piece to this story.

If there was one thing that Kirsty missed, it was demo discs. Back in the day, videogame magazines used to come with discs filled with the first levels of seven or eight different games. Sure, it was meant as a promotional thing. But, she thought, there was something democratic about it. It was like catching an episode of a drama on TV, rather than only being able to see it in an online boxset. It was democratic.

She was about to mention this to James, but he just sat back on the sofa and pulled out his phone. He tapped it a couple of times and stared at the tiny screen, absorbed in something. Probably some trendy article about “de-cluttering” or whatever.

So, she read a book. It was an old paperback horror novel from the ’80s that she’d picked up in a charity shop for 50p. The cover read “SCYTHE MANIAC!” in dripping red letters and showed some dude with glowing red eyes standing in front of a midnight sky and swinging a scythe at the reader. Within a few seconds, she’d lost herself in the story….

Above the roar of the combine harvester, Farmer Green focused his attention on the spinning blades in front of the windscreeen. Rage roiled inside him. The sheer cheek of that supercilious little man from DEFRA insisting that.. he… went on a safety course! He’d been working the harvester since he was a lad and had not suffered so much as a scratch from the efficient, slicing blades.

Grumbling to himself, Farmer Green heaved the steering wheel. His gnarled fingers nearly slipped on the hasty gaffer tape repair to one segment of it. No doubt that the silly bureaucrat would probably moan about that too. But, the trendy people at the harvester company had stopped making spares. Even though, he thought, this venerable old machine would probably outlive any of the fancy bleeping gadgets that those slick salesmen kept pushing on poor farmers like him.

And then Farmer Green saw it. Behind the yellow haze of chaff, the shadow of a man stood in the field. The farmer’s face went beetroot red and he stamped on the brake as hard as his old legs would allow. If it was that stupid lad from Wilson’s farm again, then there would be harsh words spoken. Balling his fists, he waited for the harvester to judder to a halt. But, when the clouds of chaff fell to the ground – there was no-one there.

He rubbed his sweaty brow and blinked twice. Maybe it was all just a trick of the eye? Maybe he was imagining things in his old age? Letting out a sigh, he started the engine again. But, before he could even put foot to pedal, the window beside him exploded in a shearing shower of sharp shards. The tip of a scythe shot through the hole like the beak of a hawk swooping in for the kill. The razor point slashed…

Kirsty was interrupted mid-sentence by James shouting ‘Alita! Is the internet down? Alita! Dammit!

The silent smart speaker sat on the table next to the TV. A green light stared back at him. He tapped his phone frantically. He walked over to the router and poked it a few times.

Finally, he turned to Kirsty and let out an exasperated sigh: ‘Typical. We get one bloody peaceful afternoon and they decide to repair the internet or whatever. What the hell are we going to watch, read or play?

Short Story: “Grim” By C. A. Brown

The trick is not to flinch. He’s used to people flinching. After all, his job is to catch people by surprise. If the bony bastard could smile, then I’d bet that he has a permanent grin on his face. Or he would if he hadn’t tangled with the wrong person.

But, I’d twigged that he was following me. It isn’t that he cares too much about stealth. After all, he can only be seen by the person he’s going to meet. But, I would bet anything that he enjoys the thrill of surprising people. Unfortunately, there isn’t really that much research data to go on. People don’t exactly submit reports. Still, when I saw a reflection of a scythe in the window and heard rustling robes in the crowd behind me, I knew that the Grim Reaper was near.

Instinctively, I ducked into a tiled alleyway. It was more out of embarrassment than anything else. Sure, the kind of people who still go to run-down semi-abandoned shopping centres are probably used to seeing random people having conversations with people they cannot see, but I didn’t want to test that theory. Not only that, I wanted him to think that I was running.

After walking past a few abandoned cardboard boxes, I ducked behind a spindly plant and waited. For a minute or so, I wondered if I was imagining the whole thing. Strange as it sounds, that scared me more than the idea that I was being hounded by the oldest being in the universe. Sure, no-one would have known. I was careful about that. But, it would just be embarrassing.

So, when I heard a quiet rattling sound behind me and a solemn voice saying: ‘Over here.‘ I actually let out a sigh of relief. Nothing but silence greeted me in reply.

Remembering not to flinch, I slowly got up and turned around. He was taller than I’d expected. Don’t ask me why, but I’d expected a hunched sack of bones. He stood at least six foot tall and, if there had been any meat on those bones, I’d have said that he’d been working out. Then again, people probably run all of the time. It’s probably a good workout.

Nonchalantly, I said: ‘Hey there.

Silently, he stretched a bony hand towards me. Putting a businesslike smile on my face, I shook it firmly. Surprisingly, it was warm. The emotionless hollows in his skull just stared at me. Keeping the smile on my face, I said: ‘So, are you up for a game of chess?

A rattling rasp of derision filled the alleyway. ‘Chess. It is always chess. Years ago, people asked me to play so many different games. But everyone I meet these days wants to play this… chess. If I ever meet the soul that invented that infernal game….

Ah, I’ve got just the thing for you. Follow me.‘ Keeping a stiff upper lip, I walked out of the alleyway and into the crowd. As I heard the tapping footsteps behind me, I looked at the people around me. All of them seemed to be going about their everyday lives, oblivious to the monster in their midst. I felt nothing but jealousy. In that moment, I’d gladly swap places with even the roughest hooligans or the most miserable suits that passed me by.

Finally, the sound of bleeping, trilling and tingling filled the air. A riot of neon and screens flashed at me. We’d reached the amusement arcade. Taking a deep breath, I strode over to the “HOUSE OF THE UNDEAD” machine. Normally, I’d be annoyed by the skiving schoolboys who were hogging the machine, but I was glad for the delay.

With cheers and shouts, they pointed the red plastic guns at the screen and blasted away at the 3D monsters and zombies with practiced ease. I’d expected Grim to be patient. After all, he has all of the time in the world.

But, a second later, his dark robes swept past me and he stood in front of the screen. He must have made himself visible, because the two players suddenly froze with fright. In a low voice, he hissed: ‘Shouldn’t you be sss…studying?

They fled in terror. I almost collapsed with laughter. I hadn’t planned to, but it was just a reflex. Once I caught my breath, I rifled through my pockets and muttered: ‘Damn it. You haven’t got any 20p coins, have you?

I saw a… coin machine… over there.‘ He levelled a bony finger at a squat little machine opposite us. Grumbling to myself, I wandered over to it and fed a few quid into it. When I returned with a paper cup full of coins, Grim rubbed his hands with glee. Sighing, I fed a couple into the machine and picked up the plastic gun.

He was better at it than I’d expected. Ok, he hadn’t realised that if one player wins a co-operative game then both players win – but, he was a natural. As the polygonal zombies lurched towards the screen, he got perfect headshot after perfect headshot. Meanwhile, I was reduced to firing at them wildly.

Then, as we turned the corner of some grotty sewer, a scaly green sea monster leapt out of the water and lurched towards us. Cartoon blood spattered the screen. Grim flinched. I missed. A second later, the screen read “GAME OVER. CONTINUE 10…9…8…

Hissing at the screen, Grim said ‘That wasn’t…. fair. We didn’t even have a chance. No matter what I did, I couldn’t have won. This game is rigged.

I shrugged: ‘Now you know how everyone you meet feels.

His jaw dropped open. He still held the plastic gun. His teeth chattered nervously. He stared at me with haunted, empty eyes. I smiled. It turns out that it was possible for one person to win a co-operative game.