12+ "In space no one can hear you scream. But what if you're deep in the backwoods, in an isolated cabin on a dead-end trail?"
Karen set aside the book. A horror story was not ideal reading for the off-grid log cabin Peter had booked for their thirtieth wedding anniversary weekend, especially as she was alone in bed, listening to wind from a storm whistle through cracks in the doors and windows.
"It'll be great," Peter had said, "leaving the modern world behind and roughing it together, like the old days."
The mythical old days, Karen had thought, biting her tongue.
And then Peter phoned to say his business trip would take longer than planned. "You head up on Friday evening," he'd said, "and I'll join you on Saturday morning."
So Karen had driven on her own into the mountains to the refurbished loggers' cabin. Surrounded by forest, it had no mobile reception or internet but was clean, comfortable and quiet until the storm broke. She selected another paperback from the bookcase, a romance set on the Mediterranean coast, where Karen would have preferred to be, not waiting for Peter in the mountains!
She was heading back to bed when there was a knock at the front door. Karen paused mid-step. Peter has arrived early, she told herself, dismissing the trickle of fear down her spine. The storm must have muffled his car.
Laying down the book and tightening her dressing gown cord, Karen walked to the front door and, leaving it locked, called out, "Peter, is that you?" There was no response. "Peter, this is not funny," she called again, her initial fear replaced by irritation at his silence.
Karen parted the curtain beside the door. It was preternaturally dark outside under the storm clouds, and rain lashed the porch. If Peter were playing another of his pranks, he'd be sodden. However, Karen couldn't see anyone near the door. Squinting, she made out the silhouette of her car in front of the cabin but not Peter's. He must have parked around the side, she thought.
Karen dropped the curtain and stepped away from the door, repeating the mantra she'd taught her adult children when they were young and woke from nightmares.
Take a breath. Let it out. Don't be afraid.
And then there was another knock, louder and more insistent. "PETER!" Karen shouted over the storm, "STOP IT!"
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Peter had parked at the side of the cabin to avoid getting bogged in the muddy puddle beside Karen's car. He dashed through the rain to the porch. It was tempting to play a trick on Karen. But Peter felt drenched, and she'd grizzle about it, anyway. He was relieved to find the lights on inside and the front door unlocked.
"Hi, Karen," Peter called out, wiping his feet and entering the cabin, "I caught an early flight." He crossed to the bedroom and saw two books on the bed. "Karen," he called again.
There was a knock at the door.
© 2023 Robert Fairhead
- The story must be set at a remote house or cabin
- Include three different three-word sentences in a row
- And the words SPACE, KNOCK, WHISTLE, and MYTH (or longer, retaining the original spelling).
SPACE gave me the opening line, a homage to the Alien movie, "In space no one can hear you scream", and the KNOCK could only be at the front door in the middle of a stormy night. From there, I set about writing my first horror story.
I also wanted another thread to run through the story: Karen's dissatisfaction with her marriage and Peter's self-centredness. And for these to combine and leave the knock at the door unexplained and spooky!
Although the Writers' Centre judges longlisted A Knock at the Door for November's Furious Fiction, I wanted to change its ending from the moment I submitted the story. In the original version, Peter arrived the next day. There was no sign of Karen's car (he assumed she'd parked around the side), and the storm had cleared. Feeling pleased with his remote getaway choice for their anniversary, Peter entered the cabin, and the story ended the same as in this version, with Karen missing and a knock at the door.
As I commented in a 2020 blog post about my first Furious Fiction, by its name and nature, the challenge doesn't afford writers time to reflect on their writing. And returning to share my stories on Tall And True or to narrate them for the Tall And True Short Reads podcast, I've always done edits, generally tweaking a word here and there. But in addition to rewriting the ending, A Knock at the Door wins the prize for the most tweaks!
(And thanks to A K Scotland on Twitter for her tip on letting the story do the "heavy lifting" by revealing the status of the thirtieth-anniversary relationship in a revised scene when Karen selects another paperback, a romance set on the Mediterranean, where she'd rather be, not waiting for Peter in the mountains.)
It's also the first story where I've had the chance to use an adjective I learned reading the fantasy writer Steven Donaldson's trilogy, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, as a twenty-one-year-old in 1983, "preternatural". Perfect for describing the dark, stormy night outside the log cabin's front door!
I'm also proud of the three different, three-word sentences, the mantra Karen taught her adult children when they were young and woke from nightmares, none of which needed tweaking from the original version:
Take a breath. Let it out. Don't be afraid.
N.B. You might like to listen to A Knock at the Door on the Tall And True Short Reads storytelling podcast. And here's a link to my first longlisted Furious Fiction story, Stuck in Time, from March 2022, on Tall And True.
Robert is a writer and editor at Tall And True and blogs on his eponymous website, RobertFairhead.com. He also writes and narrates episodes for the Tall And True Short Reads storytelling podcast, featuring his short stories, blog posts and other writing from Tall And True.
Robert's book reviews and other writing have appeared in print and online media. In 2020, he published his début collection of short stories, Both Sides of the Story. In 2021, Robert published his first twelve short stories for the Furious Fiction writing competition, Twelve Furious Months, and in 2022, his second collection of Furious Fictions, Twelve More Furious Months. And in 2023, he published an anthology of his microfiction, Tall And True Microfiction.
Besides writing, Robert's favourite pastimes include reading, watching Aussie Rules football with his son and walking his dog.
He has also enjoyed a one-night stand as a stand-up comic.