I entered a short story contest, a few weeks back, which was Valentine’s Day themed. It was something of an accidental entry, in that I wasn’t originally planning to join in but then I had a whacky story idea and decided to use the exercise for a bit of descriptive-practice. My twist – because I seem to have an inherent need to swim against prevailing currents – was to try to write a Valentine’s piece from an Action and Adventure slant, and to do it in as few words as I could whilst successfully circumnavigating the competition’s mandatory word-hurdles… Well, nothing-ventured, eh?
The main character had to be alone on Valentine’s, the word limit was 600 to 1200 words (I ended up at around 800 after edits) and the mandatory words were: heart, ice cream, toe nail clippers, black and flower (yes; Mistress Suzie can be just plain strange at times).
Anyway, here’s the story:
Forget Me Not
by Anthony Bellaleigh (830 words)
His heart beat furiously against the rough-spun fabric of his shirt as if it was trying to fling itself out of his chest. Above the trench-line, the sky was a swathe of angry black-grey clouds tinged with a barely visible hint of amber that might be from the distant fires but was, more likely, from the pending dawn. Another day was starting: February 14th.
With one trembling hand he reached inside his jacket – his fingerless woollen gloves had done little to hold back the frosty cold of another French winter’s dawn and his fingertips felt as if they had been planted in a tub of ice cream – but he was relieved to find her letter was still there: tucked into an inside pocket. Despite his icy-digits, he could just make out the well-thumbed edges of the scented parchment and, for a second, he felt warm inside.
‘I wonder how Lucy will spend Valentine’s,’ he thought to himself as something whistled overhead, streaking away into the far distance, heading inexorably in a direction that he really didn’t want to travel but knew that he’d have to follow soon…
“Look sharp!” a deep booming voice barked out through the half-light from somewhere to his left, “Keep your eyes peeled!”.
Oh, how he longed for the chance to be at Lucy’s side today! How he longed to be able to return to the so-called trials and tribulations of his earlier life. To days when looming exams made you think that nothing could get more stressful. To days when the worst you could expect for failure was a whipping from your father. To days when…
“Hodgkins! Look alert, I said!” The booming voice demanded his attention. “Jump to it you miserable Toenail! Clippers, get the ladders up!”
Another of his fellows – he knows only too well that he has no real friends here; just those who shoot at him, or don’t shoot at him – moved in front of him as he quickly straightened up and readied himself: pulling shut his jacket to cocoon its precious paper contents close to his chest, and buttoning the fastenings tight as if in some crazy way this fabric could offer shielding from what was to come.
Clippers glanced back at him. Nicknamed after his role as make-do barber for the squad, and generally a quiet and softly spoken soul, this other man’s wide eyes now betrayed only mortal fear and terror. He guessed his own would look much the same. Neither of them smiled.
“Ready?” Clippers asked.
He grimaced and nodded, but could not speak.
Oh, to be back in the schoolyards, to be stealing glimpses of her beauty across classrooms, to be running hand-in-hand across the muddy lanes, and into the meadows. To be grabbing handfuls of wild flowers to present to her whilst hot blood rushes to warm cheeks. To be feeling; not fear, but an animal flush of lust and desire. To be kissing her soft lips…
The last remnants of night vanished in a sudden blaze of white light which turned the trench wall before him into a hard line of black-haven and the sky beyond into a fiery glimpse of Hell. A rippling concussive boom ripped through the air, pounding at his stomach and blasting at his eardrums. And now more blazing lights. And more concussive booms. Until it all becomes an endless, awful, roar of noise. And the white light becomes swathed in red, and yellow, and even black as huge handfuls of earth are grabbed by monstrous invisible hands and thrown skyward…
“Get ready now!” yells the voice.
He places one, unexpectedly steady and supportive, hand on Clipper’s trembling shoulder, and leans forward so he can be heard as he whispers into his comrade’s ear, “We’ll be okay, mate. This push’ll be the one. Just you wait and see. The barrage will clear the way this time…”
“It didn’t before,” Clippers whimpers.
He knows that Clippers is right. It’s never worked before…
Not in 1914, nor 1915, nor yet in this year…
A piercing whistle strikes up from somewhere in the distance. Then another. And another. The chorus builds and the alien sound moves ever closer…
This is it then.
“Now!” yells the booming voice and his own Captain’s penny-whistle joins the piping throng.
Clippers starts up the ladder in front of him, legs shuddering and bouncing the rickety wooden frame as he climbs fearfully toward the reaper who waits patiently for them all: bare inches inches above, bare seconds away…
And he pushes his own reluctant limbs forward and starts to follow as fizzing and whistling sounds and small plumes of dirt announce the arrival of machine gun rounds.
In the distance the barrage continues.
Screams begin to rip through the air.
Clippers disappears over the top.
Disappears into Hades.
And now he is following.
And he wonders as he climbs, how his Lucy will spend Valentine’s Day…
[p.s. Am going to be off-line for a couple of weeks: see you when I get back!]