A group of published UK-based authors and illustrators of picture books, children's and YA.
When the schedule came round I jumped at the chance to do something for Author Allsorts over Halloween. I’ve always loved this time of year, autumn and harvest time, with the nights drawing in, the mornings getting a little cooler and you know, the world looking golden red and brown.
I offered to write a short story. The first one I started ended up as something I suspect might one day become a standalone horror. Then I went away and wrote a personal blogpost about the haunted house I grew up in in South Africa. I asked my husband to read it and he freaked out and vetoed me posting it, citing it as too scary. I had Wednesday off so sat down and wrote and wrote and this is the result.
It’s a short story called PROMISE. I hope you enjoy it. Just a warning: it’s a little long. And I’m not even sorry.
“This is the start of every American student horror movie ever, you know that right?” Stefan asked over his shoulder as he pushed the heavy steel gates open.
“Yeah, but, we’re not American,” Monica pointed out as she slowly drove her Mini Clubman through the gates and stopping so that Stefan could close the gates behind them again.
“Plus, we really don’t fit the stereotypes,” Althea said from behind Monica. “And our choice in music is better.”
Stefan got back in the passenger seat of the car and grinned at his sister and girlfriend. “Still, it’s pretty much a classic set-up, don’t you think?”
“Unless you’re secretly an axe murderer luring us here to kill us, then, no, it’s not really a classic set-up.” Althea lightly kicked the back of her brother’s seat, making him jiggle. Monica drove them further down the curving driveway, the beams of the headlights picking out the broken statues and overgrown trees that stood sentry along its length.
“This place is huge.” Monica brought her car to a stop in front of the house with its elaborate steps leading up to a small porch and large doors. “I didn’t realise it would be this big.”
“Perfect place for a Halloween party then, isn’t it?” Stefan grinned at her. “Come on. Eric’s done is homework and he’s paid the security guard off for the night. We’re gonna have the kind of party Exeter will never forget.”
The large doors opened and a tall boy, maybe nineteen, jogged down the stairs. He peered at their faces and grinned when he recognised them. He walked to Monica’s open window, kissed her cheek, waved at Althea and bumped fists with Stefan.
“Hey you lot. I thought you were never going to get here. Come on in. A few others are here already. Park round the back so that if anyone comes by they won’t see cars from the front.”
“Are you sure this okay?” Monica asked, starting the little car. “I mean, the house and everything?”
“It’s fine. My uncle’s company is doing the restoration. As long as we don’t make a mess it’s going to be fine. And the security guard has tickets to a football game up in London and a complimentary hotel room on my dad’s credit card, so he’s definitely not going to tell anyone.” Eric shrugged, easy and confident. “Stop worrying, okay? Come on, night’s starting. Get your arses inside.”
“This place is pure magic,” Althea breathed as she walked into the main ballroom at the back of the house where the party was being hosted. “Can you imagine what it would be like living in a rambling old house like this for real?”
“Drafty,” Eric said, handing her a bottle of diet cola. “And costly. This place has stood empty for twenty years. The old man who owned it died recently and his heirs discovered they have this old place to look after. They can’t pull it down because it’s a listed building and they can’t sell it in the state its in, so they’re having to spend a lot of money to get it restored so they can sell it on.”
“I love it completely. I want to explore it later.” Althea leaned against Eric and tapped the neck of her bottle against his beer. “Thanks for inviting me too.”
A light flush crept up Eric’s neck and he gave her a quick smile, far more shy than Althea would have expected. “How couldn’t I invite you? You’re a friend, right?”
“Yeah, I am.” She straightened and looked around the room. There were around twenty other students there, all dressed casually, even the girls. No signs of high heels or skimpy outfits. It was too cold and the house had no heating. The invite had stated casual and a mask each. “Oh hell, I don’t have a mask. I forgot to get one.”
“Ah, don’t worry. We’ve got some spares stashed behind the bar.” Eric led her to the far end of the room where a wooden counter had been set up with large buckets of ice stuffed full of a variety of beer and wine and some spirits. He ducked behind the bar and came up with a large canvas bag that he held open. “Here we go. Choose one.”
Althea pulled out a pretty feathered mask. She put it against her face and turned to Eric. “What do you think?”
“Perfect. It makes those big eyes of yours glitter even more mysteriously than before.” He dumped the bag and gestured to the party going on behind them in full swing, his cheeks flushed. “Go forth and enjoy yourself.”
Althea dimpled at him as she tied the silk ribbons behind her head before fluffing her hair out over it. “Thanks, Eric. See you later?”
“That would be nice.”
They smiled at one another before another guy, someone Althea didn’t recognise, bounced up the Eric demanding to know something or the other, breaking the moment.
She turned away and made her way into the crowd of fellow Exeter students to find Stefan and Monica. It felt a little surreal, seeing so many masked faces around her, but it was still easy to recognise some of her class mates. She found Stefan and Monica seated at a small table near the back of the room, in front of another girl dressed up as a Goth, all pale skin, black leather and lace, heavy eye make up and dark red lips.
In front of them she had a spread of cards fanned open and she was busy telling them their future. Althea caught Monica’s eye over her brother’s head and shared a wink before turning back to the crowd.
The music was excellent. There was an actual DJ and people were having a good time. The invitation had been specific and strict. There would be booze but also soft drinks to be had. No smoking in the house under pain of being tossed out and banned from all future Eric Okri parties for the rest of his studentship at Exeter. There was no smoking, no drugs to be taken or smoked in or around the premises. Everyone wanted to have a Halloween party and this was the way it was going to happen. You either obeyed Eric’s rules or you got tossed out on your arse.
Althea let herself be dragged into dancing with a bunch of girls who she’d known since her first year. They were laughing and trying to form some kind of line dancing effort and it almost worked until the DJ changed the song and it became louder, more head banging stuff and the girls promptly went into full Iron Maiden mode. Althea laughed at their antics and drank her bottle of cola. She edged back towards the edges of the crowd and saw Monica and Stefan standing up from the Goth tarot girl’s table looking flushed and excited.
“You next?” the girl asked her as she walked closer.
“What? Oh, no. I mean, I don’t really have questions.”
“You sure?” A black eyebrow arched perfectly. “I can tell you do have a few.”
Althea wanted to ignore the girl but she saw a twinkle of teasing in her golden brown eyes and gave her a reluctant and sheepish smile.
“Yeah, well, my questions are a little bit silly and not, you know, big stuff.”
Goth Girl shrugged, spreading the cards out in front of her in an even half moon, before flipping them all over so that the cards were face up, then back again. It was a pretty impressive show of cardmanship.
“It’s just fun, you know? Nothing serious.” She smiled and gestured to the chair in front of her table. “Sit down. My name is Olga.”
“Althea. Yeah, okay, lets.” Althea sat down. “How does this work?”
“Cross my palm with silver,” Olga said. “That’s all it takes for payment.”
Althea dug her small coin purse from her pocket and found handful of coins. She passed Olga two fifty pence coins. “Like so?”
“Perfect.” The Goth girl didn’t even look at the coins before making it disappear on her person. “Now, focus on your question and shuffle the cards for me.”
Althea did as instructed. The cards warmed to her touch and she found that they fitted her hands very well. She shuffled as instructed, holding her question in her mind all along before placing the deck down on the table.
“Split the deck for me. Anywhere. It doesn’t have to be in the middle, just split it.”
Althea chose just above the middle of the deck and set the top cards to the side.
“Excellent. I like your energy. You’re a happy person. That’s good.” Olga’s smile put her at ease. “Now I’m going to take the top part of the deck you chose and put it at the bottom. The next card will be your signifier. It’s you, in this instance. The querient. Okay?”
Althea nodded, sitting forward a little, unable to help the unexpected thrum of excitement humming through her.
Olga flipped the card over smoothly and placed it so that Althea could see it.
“Ace of Wands. A very good card. You’re all about new starts and strong beginnings. You like seeing the right thing done, recognising those doing the hard work. You feel cheated if someone doesn’t get the acknowledgement they deserve. The kind of romance you want is long lasting and permanent. You don’t have time to mess around with anything less than the real thing.” Olga kept her hand on the card and examined Althea’s face. “Am I right?”
“Yeah, yes, you are.” Althea blinked. “Is that it?”
“No, I’m just establishing who you are. The cards help me get to know the people I do readings for. Next up we’ll do a three card reading. It’s the most simple reading and one I like doing in situations like this. Hey, are you okay?”
Althea nodded, pushing at her mask. “Yeah, just a bit freaked out. I’ve not had a tarot reading before.”
“Not many people do. Just remember the cards give broad glimpses of people’s lives, okay? And that, unlike what books and movies say, we determine our own fate, okay? The cards can highlight issues in our lives and things we can work on. Nothing is ever definite.”
“More like a suggestion than a guideline?”
Olga gives a delighted laugh. “Ah, a Pirates of the Caribbean movie quote. I loved Johnny Depp in that movie. You’re my kinda girl, Althea Pope.” She smoothed her hand over the black velvet cloth on the table. “Okay, let’s do the other three cards now. I’m keeping them face down at first. Keep thinking about your question.”
When Althea gave a nervous nod, Olga drew the next three cards and placed them face down on the table between them.
“Past, present, future.” She flipped the first card up. “The Tower. You’ve had something really bad happen to you in the past. I don’t know what it is but you’re getting better. It’s in the past and it’s over. I don’t know if was a bad relationship or something to do with your parents, but it’s done with and you’re keen to make a fresh new start, as indicated by your signifier card. The Tower card also tells me that with all of this behind you, you’re due something new, something better than what you’ve had. A new start is ready and waiting for you.”
Her hand pressed against Althea’s for a moment and it was a gesture of ‘good job’ and solidarity. It made tears jump into Althea’s eyes and she blinked against them heavily.
“Okay, what about now?”
“The Queen of Wands. She’s your focus at the moment. Someone who’s strong and independent, generous and loyal. When I see her I see romance and love, someone new will come into your life, or rather someone who’s been a part of your life will express interest in you and you’ll realise that he or she might be the one. It’s an exciting time with a lot of potential and promise. Both for your studies and your personal life I see people sitting up and taking notice of the research you’ve done, of the person you’ve become. I see lots of papers and research but ultimately it’s what’s making you happy too.” Olga paused and gave Althea a searching look. “How am I doing? Am I saying stuff that’s making sense for you?”
“Ha, yeah, more than you realise, I think.” Althea shook her hair away from her face, unable to hide her smile. “Okay, what next? My future.”
“The Fool.” A brief look of surprise crossed Olga’s face but it was gone before Althea could quite register it. “I see a journey for you. Unexpected. A new start, yet again. The person you’ve fallen in love with will have a choice to make, to go with you or stay behind. It will hurt you, but you’re strong and you’ll make it, regardless of what they decide. It’s important that you let go of the people near you if you want to progress to become this future you. The future you is someone even stronger, someone who will be searching harder and make more interesting decisions than the previous- you.”
Olga sat back and surveyed the spread before her. “This was an interesting reading. Thank you for letting me do it for you.” She swept the cards together with a smile. “I think I’m going to go find something to drink. I’ve been working since I got here. Time for a break, don’t you think?”
Althea nodded and stood up too, her mind working overtime to take in everything Olga’s said.
“Thanks, Olga. For doing this. It was…” She searched for a word. “Interesting, for sure.”
Olga came out from behind her table and dropped a quick kiss on Althea’s forehead. “It was intense but fun. Remember, guidelines, not rules, okay?” She only waited for Althea to nod before she made her way to the far side of the room where the bar was located.
Althea followed her at a slower pace and by the time she got back to the bar where she swapped her empty bottle for a new one opened by a passing student wearing a Phantom of the Opera mask. She nodded her thanks, but her mind was on the tarot reading and she felt the need for some solitary time pressing on the edge of her thoughts.
Eric pushed through the heaving mass of bodies on the floor of the ballroom where the party had been going nonstop for about two hours. The music was excellent and everyone was behaving themselves enough that he didn’t have to get them thrown out. He had a few guys patrolling the grounds and two looking after the rest of the house. He didn’t want anything happening to the house if he could help it. He had the house with his uncle’s blessing as it was understood the party had to happen. He was Eric Okri afterall, and he had a legacy to uphold.
He looked over the mass of bodies twisting under the strobelights on the dancefloor, but he couldn’t see Althea at all. The shy second year girl with her big eyes and quick smile had really snuck up on him. He never expected to like her as much as he did.
They had spent one semester working together on a project for English lit, and although he never made a move to kiss her or ask her out on a date, he could tell something was there, between them.
She wasn’t like other girls. She was incapable of flirting. Her eyes gave her away and in them he saw caution when he sometimes sat a little too close or moved too fast around her. He had taught himself to take things slow around her. Here was a girl he wanted to get to know because she intrigued him and because he felt that she really saw him for what he was.
Others thought he was the king of party central and admittedly, he cultivated that impression, but really, very few knew him for the guy he really was. Someone who liked to hang out with a couple of friends over at his small house in Exeter, have a BBQ in the garden, play some Xbox and occasionally go to the pub. Sure, his family was wealthy enough that they could holiday in places like Monaco or St Kitt’s in an endless social whirl. He preferred the quieter life, where he could write and paint and just be himself rather than someone who was ON the whole time. And he thought that Althea got that. She never seemed intimidated by the fact that he was an Okri.
He accepted a beer from Eddie, one of the guys from the rugby team, and walked out of the ballroom towards the back of the house and the kitchen. It was quieter here and a few people were standing around simply talking or making out in the shadows.
There was no sign of Althea here either. He drifted from one room to the next and was on his way back to the ballroom when he saw her coming towards him from the kitchen. She was moving slowly and seemed thoughtful, but when she saw him she smiled prettily and he was momentarily distracted by the way her lips curved. But then his eyes snapped up to meet hers behind her mask. The feathers really made her look like an exotic creature from another world.
“Hello, stranger. I haven’t seen you all night. Having fun?”
“Yes, it’s a great party. Thanks for inviting me along. Again.”
“Eh, what if I told you I threw the party just so that I could invite you to it?”
“Then I’d call you a liar, Eric Okri. A dirty, filthy liar.”
He laughed and they turned together, as if they’d been planning to all along, and made their way to one of the larger lounges to the west of the house. It was far quieter here and someone was strumming a guitar nearby. There were lights, but they were diffused and indirect, creating a warm and intimate feeling.
Althea sank down on one of the couches, leaving enough space for Eric to sit down next to her. They angled themselves so that they could face one another.
“Eric.” Althea touched his wrist lightly. “Can I ask you something?”
“Yes, sure. Of course. Anything.”
“Why haven’t you ever kissed me?” Her eyes held his. “I mean, I know you like me and I really like you too.”
“You do?” Eric cursed how high his voice went. He had to play it cool.
“Yep. I like how you always brought us snacks when we worked on the stuff for class. How you made sure never to act like a dumb lad around me. How you listened to stuff I had to say and treated me like an actual person.”
“Why shouldn’t I? God, Althea, you are one of the smartest people I know. I’m definitely not your equal when it comes to booksmarts, I can tell you that now. Before you explained the themes in the coursework to me I thought Milton was a dude that took too much opium or something.”
Althea burst out laughing and moved a bit closer.
“Well, you treated me very nicely. Thanks for that. My boyfriend I had in high school was not what you’d call a nice guy. He cheated on me and hurt me. My dad found out and we went to the police. We filed charges.”
“It was bad and I had to have counselling. My parents didn’t want me to come to uni but I insisted. I couldn’t stay at home and we don’t have money for me to take a gap year. So here I am. On scholarship, being an adult.”
“You are amazing.” He reached out to touch her face but hesitated for a second. “May I?” And when she nodded he leaned closer, cupping her cheek lightly. There were millimetres separating them but he gave her that, letting her cross the final few, letting her know she could turn away at any second and he’d let her. When she leaned in all the way and put her lips against his, a jolt of electricity ran through him. Her lips on his felt like coming home.
They sat for ages together in half light, kissing softly and talking about nothing really. He felt drunk, even though he’d only had a couple of beers. He had never experienced anything like this. There’d been girls in his life all his life, but none of them had ever made him feel like this.
“Excuse me, Eric?” Eddie hovered in the door and looked worried. “There are some guys who have started some kind of fight club up on the second floor. They’re not really paying much attention to me or Nicholas trying to get them to stop. Can you come up and break it up?”
Eric looked down at Althea and she gave him a bright smile. “Go, I’m not going anywhere without you. But promise me, when you get back, you’ll come with me and we’ll go away together, before uni starts again?”
He stood up and pressed a kiss to her jaw and playfully bit her ear. “Okay, wait for me and when I get back, I’ll let you take me wherever you want to. Promise.”
By the time the fight club had been broken up and everyone had been sent packing, it sounded like the overall party had dwindled too. The music had stopped and the house lay almost in complete silence.
Using the back stairs to get back down to the lounge where he’d left Althea, Eric found the room empty and the lights were set brighter than they had been before.
“Althea?” he called out and his voice echoed in the stillness. “Hey, I know I made you wait but I’m sorry! Come back, please?” He moved from room to room, checking the kitchen and then ultimately the ballroom. The bar had been abandoned and the DJ’s decks were still there, looking incongruous in the strobing lights.
Complete silence. A feeling of dread crept up along his back on kittensoft paws and hooked into the back of his scalp.
A crashing noise came from the front of the house and he ran towards the sound. The door opened and large dark figures silhouetted against the flashing blue and red lights moved towards him.
“Are you Eric Okri?” the nearest figure asked and when Eric blinked against the light he could see that the guy was dressed in a black police uniform.
“Yes, yes that’s me.”
“If you could step outside, please sir, and join your friends.”
Eric stepped between the two men, out onto the small porch and down the stairs. His eyes fell on Stefan and Monica where they were standing to the side. Stefan had his arms around a sobbing Monica and when he looked up and saw Eric, his expression stopped Eric in his tracks.
“Stef, what’s going on? Why are the cops here?”
“Where have you been, man? We’ve been calling you for over an hour.” Stef brandished his phone before shoving it into his pocket. “I had to call the cops myself.”
“What’s going on?”
Monica lifted her head away from her boyfriend’s shoulder and turned to Eric. Tears were coursing down her face and she had mascara halfway down her chin.
“What about her? Is she okay?”
“We.. we found her. She went exploring by herself and went into the basement.” She took a breath. “ The stairs broke under her and she fell.”
“What? No, that’s not right. We were together not even twenty minutes ago. We were sitting in the smaller lounge, talking. She kissed me. She asked me why I never kissed her before. She thought I didn’t like her.”
“Mate, I don’t know what you’ve had to drink tonight but Althea disappeared about two hours ago. This girl Olga said she said she saw Althea heading for the kitchen to get some water and that was the last time anyone saw her.”
“No.” Eric drew a ragged breath and backed away from Stefan and Monica, shaking his head. “No, Althea was with me. She’s not dead. You’re wrong. Why’re you doing this?”
Stefan’s expression went from hurt and angry to sympathetic. “Eric, it’s the truth. She’s my sister. I saw her body at the bottom of those stairs in the basement. I almost fell down there myself because it’s so dark. If Monica hadn’t lit up the stairs with her phone I’d have ended up down there myself. You could see where the stairs had rotted through and tore away from the wall.”
“But she kissed me,” Eric said, his voice a whisper as he turned around and staring at the dark mass of the house and then back out over all his friends standing around in small groups. They all looked shocked and worried and a few of the girls and some of the guys were crying. There were a lot of police cars and an ambulance too, all flashing lights and movement.
“I’m sorry, mate.” Stefan reeled Eric in by the arm, hugging him hard. “I know she fancied you. I think you would have been good for one another.”
Eric felt Monica’s arm go around his waist and he was drawn into their combined hug. He knew they meant well but all he could think about was how warm Althea had been in his arms, how soft her lips had been and how big and earnest her eyes were when she promised to wait for him. And how he promised that he’d let her take him wherever she wanted.
Althea turned to Olga. “Those two coins I gave you was payment, wasn’t it?”
“They were. You are now allowed to cross over because you’ve paid the ferryman.”
“He promised he’d let me take him away.”
“He didn’t know you were dead. You didn’t tell him.”
Althea’s eyes flashed. “Promises are made to be kept.”
Or is it?
The tarot cards I used are mine and belong to the Rider-Waite tarot deck. It is the most common tarot deck and ideal starter deck for anyone interested in learning cartomancy. I have several decks and although I don’t do readings for others often, I do enjoy playing with them. I find that they are a great way of shaking loose your brain if you’re stuck writing and you want to do a writing exercise.
Liz de Jager
Liz grew up in South Africa and is the youngest of six kids. In the year 2000 (AD) she moved to the UK with her husband and they now live in Kent with their Jack Russell, Sparrow. Liz ran My Favourite Books book blog for several years and wrote articles and reviews for other online sites about comics, movies and best writerly coffee shops in London. During the day Liz is an executive assistant in London, but her mind is always busy with writerly thoughts and how to get her characters into deep(er) trouble. Continue reading…
Books: BANISHED | VOWED | JUDGED
“A page-turner that leaves you flustered and anxious by turns but, most importantly, it leaves you craving more.” — Lucy Hounsom, author of Starborn for Vowed