Perfection short story

The following is a 2750-word Western short story that I wrote for a creative writing module at university six or seven years ago. At the time I’d just watched Lonesome Dove and a whole bunch of re-runs of Rawhide, and was quite into W. Somerset Maugham, hence the description-heavy opening and dialogue-heavy development. I tried to get this published in a number of general and Western-themed fiction magazines and e-zines, but without success. I tried to capture the language and inflection of nineteenth-century cowboys, but being a Brit, I’m not sure I managed to successfully pull it off. As always, let me know what you think in the comments.

Perfection by Gillan Drew

Colonel Horrigan reined in at the mouth of the valley, running his eyes down the gentle western slope, past the river, and up the steeper eastern rise. In the evening light, the forest lining the ridge to the left cast long shadows down a lush meadow that drank at the banks of the river. To the north, beyond where the valley curled out of sight, snow-capped mountains climbed up into the sky.

            He glanced over his shoulder to where, far across the landscape, the dark blur of the herd grazed their evening’s fill. Already a plume of smoke was rising into the sky, the wagons circling for protection and comfort, his boys climbing down wearily from their saddles to catch some precious sleep around the campfire.

A single dot broke from the blur and approached across the grassland, a dot that soon resolved into a stocky, one-armed man riding a palomino, his black hair streaked with grey. The rider pulled his horse short alongside the Colonel and whistled through his teeth.

‘That’s a sight to behold,’ he said.

The Colonel said nothing. He stared transfixed at the mountains.

‘You know, when you passed up on them other places, some of them, well, they wondered why that was, but now –’ The rider whistled again. ‘Perfection Valley.’

‘This ain’t Perfection, Captain,’ said the Colonel. ‘Bright and early, we gotta get up and get movin’. Same as every day.’

The stocky Captain licked his lips and spat into the dirt. ‘Colonel, them boys are gettin’ a might edgy, wonderin’ why we keep passin’ up such prime grazin’ land.’

‘Them boys’ll do as I tell ‘em,’ said the Colonel. ‘That’s what they get paid for. Any of ‘em wants to dispute it, he can come collect his wages. I got no truck with any man wants to leave, but he works for me then he follows my orders.’ He turned in his saddle to face the Captain. ‘Besides, Jack, you’re supposed to be keepin’ ‘em calm.’

‘I’m doin’ that, Bill,’ said Jack, shifting uncomfortably in the saddle. ‘But it ain’t easy when we been on the trail so long and ain’t showin’ no signs of stoppin’. And I ain’t got no authority with them townsfolk. Them’s the one’s kickin’ up most of the fuss.’

‘Townsfolk,’ snarled the Colonel. ‘Shouldn’t have brought ‘em along.’

Jack stood in his stirrups, eased himself back onto the hard saddle. ‘When are we goin’ to stop, Bill? To be honest, it’s gettin’ so’s I’m startin’ to agree with ‘em.’

The Colonel looked ahead again, towards the darkening sky. ‘We’ll stop when we find Perfection, Captain.’

*          *          *          *

‘I’ve seen that valley, Jack,’ said the cowboy, the light from the fire dancing in his eyes. ‘Beautiful-est lookin’ thing I’ve ever seen. Grazin’ land aplenty, wood for homes, enough water for all of us and more. Mountains nearby for miners and prospectors and whomever else. What’s his excuse this time?’

The Captain spat into the fire and took another swig of the whisky from out his tin mug. ‘Colonel don’t need to explain himself to the likes of you, Al Davies,’ he said. ‘He’s the man what owns this herd and he’s the one what decides where it’s gonna end up.’

‘You owns some of it,’ said another cowboy. ‘You could stop here.’

‘Me and the Colonel, we go way back –’

‘Yeah, we know,’ said Al. ‘Right to the Alamo.’

The cowboys laughed, and even Jack managed a smile.

‘Where he goes, I go,’ he said. ‘He’s never steered me wrong.’

‘Got half of his column tore up by them Injuns, though, didn’t he?’ said another cowboy. ‘Ain’t that how you lost your arm?’

‘You don’t talk about that what wasn’t there,’ snapped Jack. ‘Now you boys got a problem with what the Colonel’s doin’, you go talk to him about it. But I doubt he’d take too kindly to two of his hands askin’ him outright.’

‘I heard tell he shot a bunch of his own men in the war. That true?’

‘I ain’t saying as it’s true,’ said Jack. ‘I ain’t saying as it ain’t. It’s whether you wants to take the risk. But I wouldn’t. He can’t abide bad manners in nobody, specially not –’

‘– the likes of us,’ said Al.

‘Right,’ said Jack. He looked into the fire and took another large swig of the alcohol, feeling it burn down into his belly. Over at the other end of the campsite, the settlers were making one hell of a racket.

‘Way I sees it, only way we’re gonna stop is if you talk to him,’ said the other cowboy suddenly. ‘You got a right to ask, at least. He ain’t gonna shoot you for askin’, what with you goin’ way back, and all.’

Jack shook his head. ‘You boys want to be careful.’

‘He can’t shoot us,’ said Al. ‘Ain’t lawful.’

‘Way out here, he is the law,’ said Jack. ‘You’d best not be forgettin’ that.’

‘Oh, I ain’t forgettin’ it,’ said Al. ‘I just ain’t likin’ it, is all. And I’m not the only one.’

‘Is that a threat, Al Davies?’ asked Jack.

‘S’not a threat,’ said Al, holding Jack’s stare. ‘It’s a warning, is all. He’s gonna drive that herd till it’s just skeletons, and all of us dead with it. Only way he’s ever gonna stop is with a bullet. Now you’d best not be forgettin’ that.’ He looked around at the other cowboys. ‘We boys had better be gettin’ some sleep. Sounds like it’s another long day tomorrow.’

Together, the cowboys walked into the surrounding darkness, leaving Jack alone with his thoughts.

*          *          *          *

Lifting himself stiffly up from his chair, Dr. Waterstone raised his hands for silence. Seeing it was not working, the doctor loudly cleared his throat and the hubbub fell and then rose again like a wave on the shore. ‘People, people, please,’ he said in a clear baritone, his voice rising above the clamour. He studied their faces in the glow, the anger, the fear and frustration. ‘I must urge you to remain calm. I assure you that the Colonel knows what he is doing.’

The population of Perfection, or rather, the people that would comprise the population of Perfection when it was built, were gathered around a fire that spat into the night like an animal. They were a rag-tag bunch, some dressed in dirty smocks and tatty dresses while others were bedecked in smarter clothes, albeit dusty and starting to wear thin. In the darkness they were barely distinguishable, a writhing mass of shadowy figures tinged with the touch of the flames. Many were on their feet, standing in clumps; some were pacing endlessly back and forth, kicking at the ground, while others simply stared despondently out into the night.

To one side of the fire, John Anderson thrust a finger in the doctor’s direction. ‘We don’t start building, ground is gonna be too hard to dig and we’re gonna be spendin’ the winter in our wagons. And winter comes awful quick in these parts. How you gonna reassure us about that, doc?’

‘Yeah,’ said a woman standing close by. ‘We got three little ‘uns, you know that, and Alice ain’t gonna survive the winter if we don’t start gettin’ firewood together.’

The voices of the townsfolk rose once more and the doctor again lifted his hands. ‘The Colonel is aware of our concerns,’ he said.

‘Yeah, sure he’s aware,’ said Anderson. ‘But he ain’t doin’ nothin’ about it, is he?’

‘What would you have us do, John?’ asked the doctor, his manner bred from years of experience at the bedside. ‘Where would you have us go?’

‘We don’t need to go nowhere,’ said another man. ‘We build our town here.’

‘And I suppose we don’t need the Colonel’s herd,’ said the doctor, using the rhetorical devices he had practised at school back East. ‘I’m sure we can gather together enough food to see us through this late in the year.’

‘Of course we can’t,’ said Anderson.

‘Then I ask the question again. What would you have us do?’

The company fell silent a moment, before a woman called out, ‘I say we build our town and to hell with the Colonel. He knows we need his beef, he wouldn’t leave us here to die.’

There was a general murmur of agreement, an eruption of ‘yeah’ and ‘to hell with the Colonel’. They fell silent as a voice called out of the night.

‘You’re wrong if you think the Colonel won’t leave you here,’ said the one-armed Captain, striding into the dim circle of light. The settlers backed away from him as though he were a snake. He gazed around at the people, daring them to meet his eyes. ‘You people remember, you asked to come with us, not th’other way ‘round. And if the Colonel says we ain’t stoppin’ here, then we ain’t stoppin’ here. No arguments.’

‘We’ll starve if he leaves us,’ said Anderson.

‘Then you’ll starve,’ said Jack.

There was total silence around the fire. And then a woman said, ‘Your Colonel’s a bloody tyrant, Captain.’

Jack turned on her, a woman in a pretty blue dress and wrapped in a blanket against the cold. She stood nobly erect, held his eyes by the fire. A child clutched at her legs, looking up at her with tears on its cheeks.

‘That he is,’ the Captain replied. ‘So he wouldn’t think twice ‘bout leavin’ you behind.’

‘With his one-armed lapdog riding shotgun in his saddlebag,’ the woman spat. ‘You ain’t a man. You’re as bad as he is.’

Clearing his throat once more, Dr. Waterstone took a step closer to the fire so that they could all see him. ‘Captain, I think we would all feel a little happier if you explained to us why Colonel Horrigan finds this valley unsuitable for his purposes?’

‘Colonel don’t need to explain things,’ said Jack.

‘He needs to explain to me,’ cried John Anderson, and the Captain spun to face him. The settler lifted a young boy in his arms. ‘He needs to explain to me why he’s riskin’ my son, my wife. Yes, we agreed to come with him. We didn’t agree to riskin’ our families.’

‘There ain’t no guarantees in this life.’

‘Then be it on your head if anythin’ happens to my family,’ said Anderson, lowering the boy to the ground and advancing on the Captain. ‘And be it on your damned Colonel’s head.’

Around the fire, the settlers roared their approval. The one-armed Captain, glaring around into their angered faces, pointedly rested his hand on the butt of his pistol. The meaning was not lost on the settlers, but it was several moments before they were ready to listen once again.

‘You people had courage comin’ out here,’ he said. ‘All I ask is you keep that courage just a bit longer. Now go to bed, all of you. We got an early start in the mornin’. Go on, be off with you. You ain’t got no choice in this.’

As they grudgingly spilled back to their wagons, the doctor looked at him. ‘They have no choice,’ he said. ‘But you do, Captain.’

*          *          *          *

Colonel Horrigan spun as he heard the footsteps rustling through the grass behind him, whipped out his gun and clicked back the hammer before he saw that it was Jack. ‘You know better than to sneak up on a man, Captain,’ he said.

‘Weren’t sneakin’,’ replied the Captain, holding his arm out to the side to show his hand was empty. He stared at the Colonel’s weapon, still aimed at his chest. ‘What, Bill, you don’t trust me no more?’

‘Should I trust you?’

Jack smiled on one side of his face. ‘Surprised you even have to ask that.’

‘Ask myself all the time,’ said the Colonel, re-holstering the pistol. He slid back around on the rock he had taken for a perch, raised his pipe and placed it between his teeth.

Slowly, deliberately, the Captain eased himself onto the rock alongside him. He took out his tobacco and pipe, stared out into the dark as he tamped it down into the bowl. Overhead there was a break in the clouds, and a vast array of stars pierced the gloom like pinpicks in a sheet of satin. Out in the valley he could just make out the river, a shade of deeper darkness flowing into the night.

Lighting his pipe, he shook out the match and flicked it into the long grass. They smoked in amiable silence, the only sounds the wind soughing through the grass and the gentle fizz of the smouldering tobacco.

The Captain sighed out a mouthful of smoke. ‘Why ain’t we stoppin’ here, Bill?’ he eventually asked. ‘It’s everythin’ you said you wanted. Makes no sense to keep goin’.’

The Colonel sucked on his pipe. ‘It ain’t Perfection.’

‘We got to stop, Bill. People gonna start dyin’ if we don’t.’

‘Not my problem.’

‘They got kids, Bill.’

The Colonel looked at him. ‘You turnin’ on me too, Jack?’

‘I ain’t turnin’ on you,’ said Jack. ‘But I ridden with you through thick and thin. I think I deserve to know why this ain’t Perfection.’

It seemed the Colonel would not answer, but looking out at the distant valley, he said suddenly, ‘You ‘member back before the war, Jack, when we was garrisoned in that town in Iowa? That little farm with the pastureland, where Jenny lived?’

Jack frowned a moment before he recalled. ‘Jenny Ramsdale’s place? Jeez, I ain’t thought of there in years.’

‘You ‘member the way the grass smelled in the mornin’? Way the sky looked, so big you could get lost in it?’

‘I ‘member the way Jenny looked,’ Jack chuckled nervously. ‘‘Member the way you looked at her, too. She was a fine woman.’

‘She was.’

‘Shame them days are gone.’

The Colonel continued to stare out into the night, as still as a statue. ‘I loved them days, Jack. Best time of my life. You still had your arm. I was young and Jenny was the sweetest kisser in the world.’

The Captain smirked. ‘‘Memberin’ how you was with the ladies, you would know.’

‘I hadn’t yet seen the things I’ve seen, or done the things I’ve done. I loved them days, Jack.’

‘They was good days.’

‘They was perfection.’

Something sank in Jack’s belly as he sat on the rock beside his friend, puffed silently on his pipe as the truth washed over him. He finally understood what the Colonel was looking for.

‘Bill,’ he said cautiously. ‘You know them days are gone, right? You know we can’t never get ‘em back?’

‘Perfection is out there, Jack,’ said the Colonel, his eyes on the dark stain of the mountains jutting up into the night. ‘We just need to find it.’

‘We can’t never wash our hands clean of what we’ve done.’

‘We go on in the morning.’

‘Even if all them people die?’

‘I don’t care about them people,’ the Colonel snapped. ‘They can go to hell. I don’t care how long it takes, we’re gonna find Perfection.’

‘You ain’t never gonna stop, are you?’ said Jack.

‘Not till I find it,’ said the Colonel, putting his hand to his pistol and staring into Jack’s face. ‘And I’ll shoot down any man tries to stop me. Even you.’

Taking a deep breath, the Captain slowly stood up beside his friend. ‘There ain’t no such thing as perfection,’ he said.

*          *          *          *

The horses whinnied and tugged at their reins when the gunshot rang out in the darkness.

Slowly at first, and then more quickly, like a stream suddenly bursting its banks, the travellers emerged from their many wagons. Here and there, men clutched rifles and pointed them about with worried eyes; women clutched their children to their breasts, and somewhere a baby whimpered in fright. But there was only one shot.

The Captain told them it was self-inflicted, though few believed that. For the first time since losing his arm, Jack wept, screamed out his rage into the night sky.

In the morning, the settlers buried the Colonel, and in the afternoon they began to build Perfection around his bones.

The End

Copyright, Gillan Drew, 2018

That Day short story

This 3000-word story about how secrets and tragedy can combine to tear families apart was an experiment to see if I could handle an emotionally complex plot in the short story form. Rather than simply focusing on a single event from one point of view, I wanted to explore the long term effects of something over time. I think it’s fairly successful, though various attempts to get it published were unsuccessful. Let me know what you think in the comments.

That Day by Gillan Drew

Like a wound that needed protecting they had covered it up, hidden it, and let it fester. Over the years it had become infected, started to smell, but still they refused to acknowledge it. It had eventually scabbed over – itchy and sensitive to the touch, but bearable. Just so long as nobody mentioned it.

It was Ben that decided to rip it open once and for all.

They sat around the table, John, his father, to the left, Mary, his mother, to the right, and Ben, the son, at the head. A fourth chair stood empty across from him. The windows in his father’s kitchen were tall, a pale autumn sky doing nothing to counter the dimness of the room.

To an outsider, it would have been surprising to see them there, ready to discuss what had happened that day. But Ben had given them little choice.

‘I really don’t think this is necessary,’ said his mother.

‘Nor me,’ his father echoed. ‘So much time.’

‘Water under the bridge,’ said his mother. Her hair was immaculate, the years buried beneath foundation and blusher.

‘It’s necessary and it’s not forgotten,’ said Ben. He placed his hands flat on the table to show he meant business.

‘I never said it was forgotten,’ said his father, shifting in his chair. His nose was red, his cheeks a rat-run of broken purple capillaries. ‘But why dig it up now? It’s all in the past.’

‘That’s the problem,’ said Ben. ‘It was never in the past. We never talked about it, like it never happened.’

‘We didn’t need to talk about it,’ said his mother.

‘Oh yes we did,’ said Ben. ‘This is long overdue, and neither of you are leaving until we get this thing out in the open. No matter how much it might hurt.’

‘Are you sure this is really necessary?’ asked his mother again. But she knew she wouldn’t be allowed to avoid it any longer.

*          *          *          *          *

So nice. So nice to just sit and relax for a change. To close her eyes and feel the sun roaming over her skin like a lover, touching, savouring, loving. The gentle caress of the breeze, the sighing waves that lapped at the shore. Even the raucous cries of the seagulls couldn’t take this moment from her, the lapse into pure, sensual relaxation.

Too soon it would be over. Too soon, she would have to return to the world she had created – husband, kids, noise and stress. Put some more sun cream on, don’t get sand in the sandwiches, where are the spades, how many times have I told you, come on, stop bickering. But here, now, this was her time. What she wouldn’t give to leave it all behind, to live for herself and no one else.

She pushed thoughts of others away, sank deeper into that comfort and embraced it with all her soul.

She didn’t notice the screams at first. They didn’t pierce the barrier she had erected to block out the noises of the beach. She only gradually became aware of them, only gradually realised that she had heard them all along and filtered them out. Only now did she notice that it sounded like Ben, amidst a multitude of shouts, cries, splashing.

It took several moments for the idea to form that she really ought to sit up and see what the matter was. It took several more for the idea to resolve into an intention, and another few to finally summon the gumption to lift her head.

A bustle of people, craning to catch a glimpse. A lifeguard in the shallows. And –

Bolting upright, Mary watched the man dragging the boy from the water. Time seemed to stand still, her heart stopping in her chest – David, eyes closed, body limp; the lifeguard, the sun glistening off the droplets on his skin; Ben close behind them, his face contorted and barely recognisable.

The next few minutes were a blur, a whirlwind of images, sounds. The lifeguard pounding on little David’s chest, Ben screaming as he clutched at her, burying his face into her shoulder, the expressions on the faces of the crowd who watched the pantomime unfold. Even at the time she knew that for them, it would be a story, an anecdote; for her, it was brutal reality.

And the last vignette, John, his face white, bloodless, his eyes so dark and raw. Spittle on his lip, his mouth twisted unnaturally to the side. The words that echoed down to her over all those years: ‘You were supposed to be watching them!’

*          *          *          *          *

‘There was nothing I could have done,’ said Ben’s mother, and stared across at her ex-husband. ‘Even if I had seen what was going on, I couldn’t have stopped it. I couldn’t have made it out there in time.’

‘Nobody blamed you, Mary, least of all me,’ said his father, though his refusal to meet her eyes gave the truth to his lie.

Sniffing loudly, his mother raised a tissue to dab at her eye. The mascara was untainted, the makeup smooth and unruffled. ‘There was nothing I could have done,’ she repeated and looked imploringly at Ben. ‘What else do you want to hear?’

‘I’d really like to know why you left,’ he replied.

‘Oh Ben,’ she said, and shook her head to straighten her hair. ‘Marriages end, you know that.’

He leaned forward in his chair, his elbows on the table. ‘I came home from school and you were gone, without a word to explain it.’

‘I lost my son,’ she said stiffly. ‘I had my reasons for leaving and I won’t have you judging me.’

Searching her eyes for any sign of affection, any hint of love, Ben could find none. ‘I’m not judging you,’ he said. ‘I just want to know why.’

‘You should ask your father,’ said his mother, casting her eyes at the ruddy-faced old man across from her.

‘Don’t bring me into this,’ he grunted. ‘It was as much a mystery to me.’

‘As if you’re blameless,’ she snapped. ‘Still the same, trying to pass responsibility for what happened that day.’

‘I wasn’t even there,’ he said.

‘We were all there,’ said Ben and his father turned his eyes on him.

*          *          *          *          *

‘I don’t care, I told her that if they’re going to offer us that little then they’ll have to go back to their RCC because we’ll be renegotiating our contract.’

‘Was that a seagull?’ asked the voice, tinny over the phone’s speaker.

‘Yep,’ said John, watching the bird hopping across the sand. ‘I’m currently standing on a beach and topping up my tan.’

‘You on holiday?’

‘Uh-huh, with the missus and the boys.’

‘Then why the hell are you answering your phone?’

John laughed. ‘Couldn’t leave you all on your lonesome now, could I?’

‘I know where I’d rather be,’ said the voice.

Whereas John didn’t. He’d always wanted a wife and kids, to give them the life his own father had failed to provide. It was as if he could erase his own crappy childhood if he made theirs the best a child ever had. Which, of course, entailed long hours of work and only the briefest glimpses of his boys. But that was acceptable – no child of his would wear hand-me-downs.

In truth, he preferred it this way. Deep down, he didn’t feel he was cut out for this fatherhood thing. He’d seen first-hand what bad parenting could do, and he was reluctant to get too close, in case of what might happen. Mary could take care of it.

And he liked his job. It fulfilled him, more than the love of his wife and the smiles of his sons. Anyone could breed – it took a special kind of person to provide for his family. That was the role he had created for himself, and the role he thrived in.

He was caught off-guard by the sight of the ambulance pulling onto the sand, blue lights flashing. It was so incongruous in a place surrounded by children eating ice-creams and teenagers throwing Frisbees.

‘You still there, John?’ asked the voice, but he wasn’t listening. He was staring towards the shore, to where the crowd gathered at the edge of the water. Staring down. He’d seen a drowning before, the way that people converged on the scene like mourners at a graveside – he’d been one of them, aching to get a morbid glimpse of the body.

Scanning the beach, he picked out the windbreak he’d put up, the towels and bags, but couldn’t see his family.

‘John?’

He had the self-possession to say, ‘I’ll call you back,’ before he slipped the phone into his pocket and ran towards the sea.

*          *          *          *          *

‘I wasn’t even there,’ said his father, his fingers drumming on the table top.

‘And that’s the point,’ said his mother. ‘You were never there.’

‘I was trying to keep a roof over your heads, that’s what I was trying to do. Can’t you understand that?’

‘You should have been in the water with them, playing with them, like fathers do.’

‘You were supposed to be watching them,’ said his father, rising from his chair.

‘Oh that’s rich.’

‘I want you out of my house.’

‘Dad,’ Ben cautioned, his hand in the air between them. He noticed his father’s fists trembling at his sides, his rheumy eyes searching the sideboards for a bottle. ‘Come on.’

‘I’m not having this, you two picking me apart.’ He looked at his son. ‘That’s what you want, isn’t it? Someone to blame?’

‘No,’ said Ben. ‘No blame. Just –’ He took a deep breath, puffed out his chest. ‘You were my hero. Before. And then – what happened to you, dad? Why did it all go so wrong?’

‘Hero?’ said his father, lowering himself back into his chair and stroking his arms. ‘I was never a hero. And who are you to talk of heroes?’

*          *          *          *          *

They were getting further out, out of their depth. Ben liked it. It made him feel brave and naughty at the same time, his toes floating free of the sand as the waves lifted him up in the water. David splashed alongside him, eager to stay with his older brother, and still they went further. Ben was the stronger swimmer and taller, a thought that never occurred to his ten-year-old self, but fifteen years later, he watched the scene in his memory and screamed at him to turn back.

There was no other word to describe the day than glorious. As the years unfolded, Ben had been back there a million times in his mind, but he didn’t think he was embellishing. The sun sparkled on the sea like a scattering of diamonds, and the water, such a rich blue, stretched out before them to meet the cloudless sky. The only sounds were laughter, shouts of exhilaration. It was, he thought later, the last moment of innocence before the fall.

‘We’re too far out,’ said David as he treaded water, his blonde hair matted to his scalp. ‘We should go back.’

‘Chicken,’ said Ben, rolling onto his back and staring up at the sun. He loved his brother, wanted to share this with him, this feeling of daring the world to come and take them on. Together, they could do anything.

He lifted his head, saw David was struggling but keeping up with him as he gently kicked his legs, heading for the horizon. He was so proud of his little brother. What a team. It was glorious.

‘I’m going back,’ David spluttered. ‘We’re too far out.’

‘No, don’t,’ said Ben. ‘Don’t be a spoilsport.’

‘We’re too deep –’

‘Chicken,’ said Ben, puckering his lips and making farmyard noises. ‘Bock, bock, bock.’

‘Don’t.’

‘You’re such a little chicken.’

‘I’m getting out,’ said David.

‘Wait, don’t get out,’ said Ben. ‘I didn’t mean –’

‘No, you’ve ruined it now,’ David snapped.

The words cut into Ben because he knew they were true. He’d gone too far, as usual, ruined the fun, had turned something beautiful into something ugly. Remorse swamped him. If only he could get things back the way they were.

He grabbed his brother’s arm, was about to apologise, was about to make things right – that’s how he rationalised it in hindsight – but David screamed at him to get off, and swinging his arm he struck Ben across the nose with the back of his wrist.

Anger, white hot, at himself, at his brother, at the fact the perfect day had been tarnished, flashed like lightning through his brain – he pushed his brother’s head under the water. Just to scare him, to keep him out deep, to keep him with him. Only until David calmed down, only until Ben could make it right. Only that long.

The first thought when David stopped struggling was to hold him under another five seconds, just to show him he could. It had only been thirty seconds, all in – he’d only wanted to calm him down. So he let David back up to the surface, ready to make up, ready for the two of them to swim back to the shallows in laughter, throw the ball to one another and make the most of the rest of the day.

Seeing David’s face – blue, blank, empty – Ben froze. Stared. Shook his brother. Cried out to him. Tried to wake him. His body limp, a dead weight.

That was when Ben started screaming. And he never stopped.

*          *          *          *          *

‘I told you. I told you both. I told you what I did. You didn’t want to talk about it.’

‘What was there to say?’ asked his mother. ‘It happened. We couldn’t change that by talking.’

‘I thought I was evil. My whole life I thought I was evil. I thought I was possessed and we never talked about it.’

‘Look –’ his father started, but Ben interrupted.

‘It’s okay, dad, I’m not blaming anyone. I’m just talking. I’m just saying how I felt.’ He looked from one to the other. ‘I felt like you both hated me. Mum, you didn’t even look at me after that. You didn’t hug me and tell me it was all going to be okay. You just walked out. And dad, you went off to work every day and you left me alone in that big empty house. I was ten.’

‘I was keeping a roof over your head.’

‘Of course,’ said Ben. ‘I’m not disputing that. But –’ He hung his head, staring at the table top. He had no idea what else to say. All these years wanting to talk about it, there was nothing to say.

‘What did you want us to do?’ asked his mother.

‘Punish me!’ Ben cried, lifting his head. ‘Hit me, scream at me, tell me I was a bad boy. Act like I actually did something. That it mattered. And let me tell you how sorry I am. I killed David. I ruined everything and I’m so, so sorry.’

‘Did you do it on purpose?’

He looked at his father. ‘That’s not the point, dad, that’s not what I’m saying. You’re not –’

‘If you didn’t do it on purpose, then what would have been the use of punishing you?’ asked his mother.

‘It would’ve – we would’ve – we would’ve acknowledged it, that it actually happened and – that I – do you get what I’m saying?’

But they didn’t. And in fact, nor did Ben. All the years, stretching behind him to that day, he didn’t know how to articulate all he thought and all he felt. So they sat in silence.

If David had been there, he would have told them that they were all to blame, and none of them were. These things happened. It was nobody’s fault. He bore them no ill will at all. He loved them and forgave them.

He would have told Ben that the pain of losing her boy had hurt Mary so much that she had steeled herself never again to love anything she could lose, even her firstborn, and that she pampered and pleasured herself on the outside to cover the emptiness within. He would have told him that losing David had broken John’s faith in himself, in his role as mentor and father, and so he ran from all responsibility and smothered his sorrows with alcohol. He would have told Ben that people so wrapped up in their own grief could never provide the solace he sought, that he had to be able to forgive himself and be accountable to himself and no one else.

But David wasn’t there. And all of this was left unsaid.

‘I wish I could go back to that day, change things. Everything, our whole lives, you two, me, it all comes down to that day, those stupid, reckless thirty seconds.’ He looked down at his hands. ‘Can’t we – can’t we somehow, in some way, get back any of what we lost? Even if it’s just pretence, can’t we pretend, just today, that we’re a family?’

His parents said nothing. After a few minutes his mother slowly rose from her seat and slipped out of the room, her perfume lingering a moment before it too dissipated into the ether as though it had never been there. And then his father, not sure of the right thing to say, said nothing and left.

Three years later, Ben died. Yet his dying had begun that day at the seaside, just as surely as it had been finalised by another day in November, around a table with his parents. He was killed by the silence as much as by the train he jumped in front of.

THE END

Copyright, Gillan Drew, 2016

That Day

A Moment of History short story

I wrote this 1500-word piece in a single sitting for a sci-fi short story competition. While this was unplaced, one of the other stories I entered, Out of Time, won. I much prefer this story, with its military-SF setting and desperate, apocalyptic theme. Let me know what you think in the comments.

A Moment of History by Gillan Drew

He stared out the window at the grey sky, urging the clouds to coalesce into rain. The vapid high-altitude mist mocked those in the city below, teasing them with the promise of a salvation that never came.

‘Come in,’ he said in response to a knock at the door and his Executive Officer walked into the room, saluting as she stood to attention. ‘At ease, XO. Take a seat.’

‘Sir,’ she replied as Commander Collard lowered himself into his chair, trying to hide his weakness. Her uniform was crisp and neatly pressed, as usual. He wondered how she managed to get it laundered given their problems. In fact, he didn’t want to know.

‘Have my latest orders been broadcast?’ he asked.

‘That’s what I wanted to see you about,’ she said, her face betraying nothing.

Sighing, Collard rubbed his forehead and leaned back. He knew he wasn’t going to like this one bit.

‘What’s on your mind, Pullin?’

She hesitated just a second before she said the single word he knew had to come sooner or later. ‘Mutiny.’

‘The outlying forces?’ he asked, and fixed her with a pointed stare. ‘Or everyone?’

Pullin let the words hang in the air a few moments before replying. ‘You can’t decrease the ration any further, sir.’

‘Can’t?’ said Collard, trying to project anger through his weariness. ‘The last time I checked, Commander Collard gave the orders, Lieutenant-Commander.’

‘We’re dying of thirst, sir. I can barely see straight as it is. You can’t reduce the ration any further. We’re at the limit of what the human body can handle.’

‘Do you think I don’t know that?’ Collard cried.

His executive officer leaned forward almost conspiratorially. ‘If you give the order, sir, I don’t believe it will be followed. And I think it would place you in danger.’

‘Bring them on,’ Collard snapped. Standing in annoyance, he turned to stare out over the city. ‘I’d rather have an enemy to face, a thousand enemies, than this. I wasn’t prepared for this.’

‘Nobody was,’ said Pullin.

The settlement was on a small moon in the Plantari System, a two year transit from the nearest inhabited world. The topography was principally a rocky, dry tundra, suitable for mining operations and agricultural transformation, for those prepared to work hard at it. And plenty had – there were more than a million people in the city and the satellite towns, and all were looking to him for leadership now.

The problem had been caused by the civil administration. They had been warned, after excessive irrigation work, that they were draining the aquifer faster than it could be refilled. But it was an election year, and votes were more important than introducing unpopular measures that might have averted the drought. So they made speeches and downplayed the problems and banked on rain refilling the wells before disaster. Nature wasn’t obliging.

When the scale of the problem leaked out, the council folded and Collard’s small military force imposed martial law. A million people planetside and help two years distant. Collard had dragged them on for several months by halting mining, reducing farming to subsistence levels and rationing drinking water, but the figures were inescapable – there was only enough water for a fifth of the population. The rest would die.

‘Sir?’ said Pullin, recalling him to the present.

‘Mutiny,’ said Collard. ‘It’s an ugly word.’

‘It’s an ugly situation. We’ve already had a number of incidents.’

‘I’m well aware of the incidents,’ said Collard. There were reports that troops had been stealing water rations, but all attempts to get to the bottom of them had failed – his soldiers had closed ranks, a clear sign that their sense of duty was failing. And the reports had been coming in for weeks.

He looked at the Lieutenant-Commander. ‘What would you advise I do?’

She shifted in her chair. ‘We’re the only ones with weapons,’ she said. ‘And we control the rations, sir. If we took enough water for ourselves, we could try and suppress the worst of the disorder until rescue came.’

‘You mean we should look after ourselves and watch as the rest of them fight it out.’

‘The strong would survive. And nobody could blame us. There are just too many of them.’

Collard shook his head. ‘And how would history judge us?’

‘The people who’ll read that history aren’t here dying, sir. We all respect what you’ve tried to do, but you’ve taken it as far as it can go. You can’t save them all.’ She cleared her throat. ‘What are your orders, sir?’

She put special emphasis on the final word. It was his decision and his alone.

He knew she was right. If he kept going as he was, if his troops stopped following orders, then the planet would tear itself apart. Even if his troops didn’t mutiny, none of them could survive on so low a ration. There were too many people, too few resources – whatever decision he made, hundreds of thousands would die.

‘Okay,’ said Collard. He spoke slowly, trying his best to avoid the horrible conclusion he’d come to – once he’d said it, there would be no turning back. ‘The best prediction is that we can only save two-hundred thousand. If we allow the planet to fall into anarchy, a lot fewer than two-hundred thousand will be here when the rescue ships arrive.’

‘So what are you proposing?’ his executive officer pressed.

Gazing out over the city again under the tantalising grey clouds, Collard prayed for more time, a distraction, something – but nothing came. ‘We pick a section of the city. Two-hundred thousand people. We barricade it, we reinforce it, and we save it. The rest won’t last more than a few weeks. We save the maximum number of people possible.’

Pullin thought on it a moment before she nodded. ‘It’s the right decision.’

‘Don’t patronise me,’ Collard snapped. ‘I’m condemning eight-hundred thousand people to a horrible death. Do you have any idea what they’ll do to each other before the end?’

The officer swallowed and looked away. ‘Which section of the city?’ she asked.

Shaking his head, Collard pressed a button on his desk and a holographic representation of the city was projected into the air between them. ‘Here,’ he said, indicating where the city tapered along a ridge, creating a natural bottleneck at either end. ‘We’re outnumbered but we can hold this position. Barricades across these roads here, here and here, a company of men on each. Make sure there are two-hundred thousand inside. No more, no less. And nobody through until it’s over.’

Now the decision was made, it seemed so much easier giving orders. Collard hated himself for that.

‘I don’t want any of the politicians who got us into this mess inside the safe zone,’ he added. ‘If they’re in there, relocate them.’

‘What about their families?’ Pullin asked. ‘Shall we relocate them too?’

Relocate – as good a euphemism as any for condemning them to die. Collard closed his eyes. ‘Forget that last order. Someone has to be held accountable. Not just us.’

‘We’re doing the best we can under the circumstances, sir.’

‘I’m not sure everyone will see it that way,’ Collard replied. He turned away, not wanting to look at her. ‘Get it done, XO.’

‘Yes, sir,’ Pullin replied.

He heard her chair scrape across the floor as she stood, saluted and made to leave. But she stopped before the door.

‘Something I’ve missed?’ he asked, with equal dread and hope.

‘The troops on the barricades, sir,’ Pullin replied. ‘Once the population figures out what we’re doing, it’ll erupt. If warning shots don’t keep them back…’

She trailed off as she didn’t need to complete the sentence.

‘They are authorised to open fire on unarmed civilians, should the need arise,’ said Collard.

‘And we’ll have that order in writing?’ Pullin asked.

Collard’s stomach knotted. ‘You’ll have the order within the hour,’ he replied. An order that would remain in the records till the end of human civilisation. An order with his name on it authorising a breach of every rule and regulation he believed in. How would future historians regard it? A crime against humanity? Or a necessary expedient?

But as Pullin had said, they weren’t here.

‘Thank you, sir,’ she said and left.

Collard turned to look out over the city again, his legs weak. The sky continued to taunt him with its unfulfilled promise of rain. And down below, the people had no idea of the storm he was about to unleash upon them.

Sinking into his chair, he put his head in his hands. He hoped that future generations would take what happened here in Plantari as a lesson: too many people, too few resources. But there was little hope of that. It was the reason humanity had taken to the stars in the first place. It was a shame they hadn’t learned from their history.

The End

Copyright, Andrew ‘Gillan’ Drew, 2015

A Moment of History

The Dream

I wrote this story in late 2015 for a competition on the theme ‘heart’. It was about my fears at becoming a new father. I have submitted it to various places and have received much positive feedback. However, several places have said it is too sad for them. I thought it was too good to leave wasting away on my hard drive as it might actually help people in the same situation. Let me know in the comments what you think. 

The Dream by Gillan Drew

The new parents looked up as the midwife entered the room, the little bundle in her arms wrapped in a white blanket.

‘Here she is!’ she announced cheerily. ‘Who wants to be the first to hold her?’

‘I’ll have her,’ said Stephanie, over on the bed. She wore a light blue dressing gown over her hospital smock – it made her face, pale from blood loss and the ordeal of the birth, look grey in the strip lighting.

‘Be sure to support her head,’ said the midwife, a broad fifty-something with a Geordie accent.

The girl took her baby, careful to place the little one’s head in the crook of her arm, and looked down into her face.

‘Hello,’ said Stephanie. ‘I’m your mummy.’

‘Do you have a name picked out for her?’ the midwife asked.

‘Yes: Cora.’

‘That’s a lovely name.’

‘Tom chose it, didn’t you, Tom?’

Slumped in a chair in the corner, his face as pale as his wife’s and black bags under his eyes, Tom merely grunted.

‘Do you want to see her?’ the midwife asked.

Tom shook his head. ‘I’m good,’ he said.

‘You’re sure?’

‘Really,’ said Tom.

Stephanie rocked the baby in her arms. ‘How much does she weigh?’

‘Eight pounds,’ said the midwife. ‘A good size.’

‘You hear that?’ the girl said, nuzzling close to her daughter. ‘You’re a good size. No wonder mummy found it so hard to get you out.’

It had been a horrible labour, coming on the end of a horrible pregnancy. Nine months of morning sickness and mood swings had given way to twenty-six hours of agony, which culminated in an injection into Stephanie’s spine, followed by a ventouse suction cup on the baby’s head and, ultimately, forceps. She was still numb below the chest, unable to get off the bed.

Looking over at Tom, Stephanie smiled. ‘She has your nose,’ she said. ‘My good looks, of course. She’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. You need to come look at her.’

Tom shook his head again.

Unfazed, Stephanie pushed up the woolly pink hat on Cora’s head. ‘Dark hair! Like your daddy.’

‘They normally lose that in the first few months,’ said the midwife. ‘Then it grows back the colour it’s going to be.’

‘What colour are her eyes?’

‘I imagine they’re blue,’ said the midwife. ‘They normally are with newborns. Do you want me to have a look?’

‘No, that’s okay,’ said Stephanie. Reaching inside the blanket, Stephanie pulled out Cora’s hand. ‘Look at those little fingers,’ she said. ‘They’re so perfect.’ She looked over at Tom again. ‘I can’t believe we managed to make something so perfect.’

Tom looked away.

‘Please come and meet her,’ said Stephanie, and for the first time her voice started to crack. ‘Please don’t be like this.’

‘You really should come and hold her,’ the midwife urged.

‘Why?’ Tom asked. ‘What’s the point?’

Stephanie let out a sob.

Sighing, Tom studied his feet for a few moments before his shoulders sagged. ‘Fine,’ he said, standing in one swift movement. His legs ached from all those hours standing by the bedside, flitting between hope and despair.

‘Thank you,’ Stephanie whispered, her eyes glazing with tears.

‘I won’t be holding her long,’ he replied. ‘I’m only doing this for you.’

‘You’re doing it for all of you,’ said the midwife as Stephanie eased the little bundle into Tom’s arms.

‘Careful of her head,’ she said.

‘I know,’ Tom replied. He’d practiced for months on dolls and teddy bears and in his dreams – he knew exactly what to do.

He was struck by how light Cora was. Stephanie had put on almost two stone during the pregnancy, and the baby was only a quarter of that. And she was no bigger than a rugby ball, when Stephanie had been huge – still was, he thought, as though Cora was still inside, still waiting to be born.

There was a tight band about his chest and the lump in his throat burned, but he wasn’t going to cry. They were watching him. They were expecting something of him. So eventually he had to look down, had to engage with this, loathe as he was to do so.

Stephanie was right – his daughter was beautiful. Between the rough white of the hospital blanket under her chin and the pink hat pulled down almost to her eyes, she had the face of an angel. Long, dark eyelashes, full lips, and she did have his nose. Her skin was impossibly smooth, free of the slightest blemish. And her purple fingernails, so delicate, her fingerprints, the little dimples of her knuckles – he could have lost himself contemplating the mysteries of how they’d been able to create something so complex, so pure.

The hands those hands would hold, the fingers that would intertwine with hers. The smiles that would crease those lips. The things she would see, smell, touch, taste. The life she would live – what a life.

The ticking of the clock on the wall, the distant hum of the traffic on the spur road, cut into his thoughts. Years later, he would still be haunted by their indifference.

‘Talk to her,’ the midwife urged.

‘What should I say?’

‘Whatever your heart is telling you to say.’

He turned away from the others, gently squeezed his baby girl, gazed into her cherubic face, half Stephanie’s, half his, and he wet his lips.

‘I would have been your dad,’ he said quietly, rocking her softly from side to side. He puffed out his cheeks, fought back the tears. ‘I would give anything to have been your dad.’

‘You were her dad,’ said the midwife. ‘You are.’

‘I would have been,’ said Tom. He sniffed, tried to compose himself. ‘So what happens now?’

‘Well, I can leave you alone with her, if you’d like. There’s some paperwork to be filled out, I’m afraid, but we can sort all of that out later. For now, take some time as a family.’

Tom nodded and the midwife opened the door. ‘I’ll be back to collect her in a few minutes.’ She hesitated in the doorway. ‘The way to look at it,’ she said, ‘is that she was just born sleeping. That’s all. She was born sleeping.’

‘Do you think that helps?’

‘I do,’ said the midwife, and closed the door.

The look on Stephanie’s face broke Tom’s heart, and it was all he could do not to break down.

‘Is it true?’ she asked. ‘Is she just sleeping?’

Tom clenched his jaw. The lump in his throat was choking him. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘She’s just sleeping. We’d best not wake her.’

Taking a deep breath, he placed Cora on the bed alongside her mother, watched as she gazed lovingly down at the little baby and gently stroked her cheek.

‘You’re so small,’ she said. ‘So beautiful. And mummy loves you very much. I’ll be here when you wake. I’ll be waiting for you forever.’ She looked at Tom. ‘Tell her you love her.’

Wiping his eyes, he managed to say, ‘I love you, sweetheart.’

‘And you’ll be there for her when she wakes up.’

‘My heart will be waiting forever for you to wake,’ he said, before, overcome, he buried his head in Stephanie’s belly, as he’d done a thousand times since they found out they were expecting.

When his sobs had finally subsided, he felt her fingers in his hair. ‘What do you think she’s dreaming of?’ Stephanie asked, so softly he almost didn’t hear her.

He looked at Cora through his tears, so peaceful, so serene. ‘I think she’s dreaming of us,’ he said. ‘She’s dreaming of all the love we’re going to give her, all the things she’s going to experience. We’re digging a sandcastle and she’s decorating it with shells. She’s playing with her toys and laughing because I’m making funny faces, and she’s cuddling her mummy and smiling because she knows she’s safe. She’s dreaming of castles and mountains and forests, horses running across the plains, and we’re always with her. Her heart is full, fit to burst with the love we share.’

He felt exhausted, battling to get the words out against the pain searing in his neck and chest.

‘Her heart is full,’ he repeated.

Stephanie continued to stroke Cora’s cheek. ‘It’s a good dream,’ she said.

‘She’s safe there, and happy, and she never has to grow up.’

Stephanie smiled, though there were tears streaming down her cheeks. ‘Then maybe it’s okay if she never wakes up. She can live forever in her dream.’

‘Yes,’ said Tom. ‘And she can visit us in ours.’

‘Then I’ll never want to wake up.’

‘Me neither,’ said Tom, and lying down on the bed beside his wife and daughter, he closed his eyes to sleep.

THE END

Copyright, Andrew ‘Gillan’ Drew, 2015

Welcome to The Struggling Writer

Welcome to The Struggling Writer. As the name and tagline suggests, this is a site about a struggling writer, namely me, Andrew ‘Gillan’ Drew. Almost forty, writing fiction all my life and increasingly fed up at getting nowhere, I figured that here would be a great place to share some of my work, discuss some ideas, and go off on frustrated rants about anything to do with writing, publishing and the wider world around me.

Come for the blog, stay for some stories, and hopefully be moved, entertained and provoked in equal measure. Click on the menu above to access my fiction and feel free to comment.

I look forward to engaging with my fellow writers.

Gillan