Short Fiction - Short Story

Benjamin Britworth

Rufus had almost finished his speech. He licked his lips, tracing outward to taste the salty roughness of his kissers. With a hiss he drew breath, trying to work out where he'd lost his place. The audience sat bated, hanging on his silence. If only he could stop and hand over to the oh so plucky winner, but he couldn't. Not yet. It was too strange a place to wrap up. He might be able to switch to thanking everyone? That wouldn't do either, not in the middle of a sentence.“Errm,” he stuttered, his voice echoing across the hall. The quiet was intolerable, the tension palpable. He had to give up- No, wait! He saw his line and picked up his speech. Relief flooded his system...
Rufus hated public speaking, only daring to do so mad a thing on the rare occasion his agent insisted. He supposed it was worth the anxiety if only for the free publicity, and boy, did he need some of that. His recent book release had been fair, but it wouldn't sell itself. He had scuppered all chance of that with a fumbled radio interview and a sticky situation involving a charity event. All in all the launch had been an unmitigated disaster. That was why his agent had taken the liberty to sell his soul (and his books) for him and post him off as the celebrity judge of a cheap-malarkey short story competition in the country. The Wendlethorpe annual. Oh, what a delight!
He inhaled, whacked on a smile, thankful to have found his place, and continued, “Yes, ahem, to reiterate, I have indeed found it an absolute honour to guest judge this year's Competition. Honestly, picking a winner has been one of the hardest choices I've had to make in a very long time.” Only because the stories were all so bad. “The other judges and myself spent hours coming to this decision, carefully reading every entry. We picked a winner on quality, complexity and consistency.” Lies, all lies. “And what a job that's been.” Titters from the audience, Good, at-least they got my joke. “So without further ado I must get to the point we've all been waiting for, that is, this year's winner.” A collective rustle. “So, this year's winner is...” He held a dramatic pause. The audience fluttered excitement. Somebody coughed. Was he stretching it too long? It felt like he was stretching too long. He yielded, “Mr Timothy Felberton, with his story 'I am not He, the sheep dealer of Brigadee'. Mr Felberton, would you please come up!”
Applause, applause, and more applause rung out as the lumbering dullard waddled to the podium. His great weight was made only more terrible by his spindly legs, which jittered and jiggled like jelly beneath him. He yawned a smile, not worth the teeth by their count, and his pea-sized glasses slid down the ridge of his slick nose. Rufus felt sick to see him, sick as a dog, but he didn't say anything, he couldn't, that was the game he was set here to play. He had to be nice. He couldn't be rude. He couldn't scream and shout. He just had to say 'well done', walk away and swallow the nearest glass of wine.
Mr Felberton reached the stage and wheezed up the three tiny steps. At the top he bent for a second, regaining his breath, then grinned again, his dirty tombstones exposed. Rufus grimaced internally, yet stuck his hand out to shake Felberton's pudgy paw.
“Congratulations Mr Felberton,” he said, “Would you please read your short story aloud and we'll prepare your prize.”
“Certainly,” Felberton said, and nudged Rufus out of the way.
Rufus was a tad peeved to be shoved, but was all too grateful not being in the spotlight any longer to make a show of it. He backed away, took his seat next to the decrepit town mayor and did his best not to cringe as the dreadfully dull story was read aloud. It was about sheep; sheep being taken to market, sheep being sold, sheep being given away, sheep, sheep, sheep. It only took a few seconds before Rufus found it hard to focus. He wished he was back home with his wife in London, and that he didn't have to listen to anymore of this bumpkin's twaddle. Selling books really wasn't worth this much trouble. Perhaps if he did one of those game shows, or a literature documentary? That would be a darn sight better than having to sit through-
“Mr Angle...?”
“Yes,” Rufus said, jolting back to reality.
“Mr Angle, the prize giving, if you will.”
A bottle was jammed into his hand. He realised Felberton had finished talking and that everybody was watching him.
“Oh yes, er, sorry,” he said, and stood to give Felberton his prize.
The man cranked another smiled. Rufus hoped he would never have to see bad teeth again after today.
“Congratulations,” he said, and lumped the bottle into Felberton's hands.
Finally it was over, the crowd applauding one last time.
“Wine, tea or coffee?” he was asked.
“Wine,” Rufus replied, Definitely wine.
He took the glass and chugged it back. The 'wine' was more vinegar. He winced. It had been a long time since had tasted anything so cheap.
Somebody saw his expression, “Is everything okay, Mr Angel?”
“Angle,” he replied, gagging on the drink.
“My name's Angle, not Angel.”
“Oh, pardon me,” it was the withering town mayor. She fluttered her eyelids, “An easy mistake, only you look like an 'Angel' to me.”
She tittered. It was creepy. Rufus grimaced and swerved away, finding anywhere else to be, and anyone else to talk to.
Felberton reared out of the crowd, announcing, “I've read all your books, you know, even the early magazine shorts. You could say, 'I'm your biggest fan...'” he laughed. Misery. “No, but seriously. I think we need to discuss your use of swearwords. It's very tedious having to keep reading them. It's an overuse, really...
Rufus felt faint. Prison would be better than this. In prison you could be mean, in prison you could fight the crazies. Would it be appropriate if he got another glass of the vinegar-wine already? He checked his watch. No, if he didn't want to look like an alcoholic he had to wait at-least ten minutes. Nobody buys the books of an out-and-out alcoholic, do they? Well, except maybe those of Hemingway, but Rufus was hardly selling as many books as him right now. So, like a buffoon, he waited, anxiously tapping his fingers against his glass while Felberton belched bile all over him and his work. It was better than the fawning mayor, of that he was certain.
As Felberton blustered on Rufus felt himself drifting. His eyes soared about the room, taking in all the peculiar people the little town had to offer. That was when he saw the woman across the way. She was unusual, even by the rest of the crowd's low standard, and stuck out like a sore thumb. Something was off about her demeanour. It was a strangeness he couldn't place, like a malaise consumed her, a coldness permeating her thin flesh to knit her bones. When Rufus spotted her she turned away, however he was quite certain that in seconds before she had been giving him quite the glare from beneath her wild mop of hair. It was embittered, as though he had personally insulted her. Have I insulted her? he wondered. He couldn't imagine how.
“Another glass?” Felberton said, distracting him.
“Yes, yes of course,” he replied, glad someone else had suggested it.
The second glass wasn't as pungent as the first, and it slipped away easily enough. As did the third. Strangely, Felberton became quite amicable to talk with, and Rufus almost enjoyed hearing about all his sheep's idiosyncrasies. Rufus grabbed another glass.
The first of the group started to drift away, then more. The chill evening air slinking in to replace them with dewy damp. This, in turn, drove away the elders, the peculiar town mayor amongst them, thank Goodness.
A few more departed.
And another two.
Then, all of a sudden, it was just a couple of the other judges, Felberton and Rufus left. All of them several glasses down.
“Good show this year, eh, don't you think?” said one of the judges to Rufus.
“Yes... Yer. Though really I'd have to have seen last year's show to make a comparison.”
“We had Anthony Hallow last year,” the judge reminisced, “He was fantastic. A wonderful man. Very energetic and smart...”
Was there something suggestive in that, Rufus wondered, his mind turning. Was this man saying Anthony Hallow, a children's author, was better at this judging malarkey than he was? He clicked it over, then suddenly was tired. He wanted to get home. He didn't care anymore. It didn't matter.
“I'm going,” he said, cutting the conversation short.
The man appeared surprised, then he said, “Oh, well, if you're sure...”
“Yes, yes. I need to be getting... going back to London.”
“Ah, of course. It's certainly been a pleasure having you.”
“I'm sure I'll be back soon,” Rufus lied, “Maybe I'll come to watch next year's competition-”
“Or even enter?” the man joked.
Rufus laughed- tried to laugh. He failed, it sounded more like a cough. Never matter, he didn't care, he needed to be going. He picked up his coat from the stage, throwing it around his shoulders like a cape. The stragglers watched him go, and he stuck up a hand, bidding them a silent farewell. So long, he thought, May I never return. With that he stepped through the door and into the dark of the night.
The air showed his breath, a fog of his own making rising before his face. His wife rode through his mind. How he wanted to be in her arms- at home- in the warmth. He picked up the pace, his feet crunching across the gravel of the car park. The wind rustled through the trees, and he thought to himself, The wind always 'rustles' through the trees. It never blows or puffs or tinkles... it always rustles. He shivered. It was cold; colder than it should be.
The car keys were fishing distance away at the bottom of his pocket. A jangle of a chore to retrieve. His neck ached. Too much wine perhaps; or too little sleep; or reading too many stupid stories about sheep? He clicked his head from side-to-side. One-two, one-two. The snapping sound echoed into the night.
A distant guffaw drifted from the hall, it sounded like the laugh of the man who'd set this whole event up... the culprit who said Anthony Hallow was a better writer than he. Rufus was sure the people left behind were talking about him, muttering about his bad attitude and how much he'd drunk. It didn't matter, Screw em, screeeeew em!
“Screw em,” he said out loud, without intention. The words picked up against the trees and whispered back, “Screw em,” they hissed, “Screeeeeeew em!”
Rufus stumbled along on the gravel. Uneven ground was not a drunk's friend. Wait, he wasn't drunk, he was tipsy at most. Four wines weren’t enough to get anyone drunk – maybe five – and they'd been small glasses, all barely filled halfway.
The ground jumped to bite him. He tripped, catching himself but missing his keys.
“Whoops,” he said, the keys clattering to the floor.
He bent to pick them up, squinting in the dark. The buggers were there all right; he just couldn't see them...
“Looking for these?” said a tame voice.
Rufus straightened up, his jacket flapping off his shoulders to fall in a crumpled pile by his feet. The woman stood before him, her face shadowed, her eyes darker still. She was very close; too close. He shifted out of what little light there was to block and she was revealed, her straggled fiery locks haloing her drawn expression. She was calm and collected, yet her eyes were layered with an unsettled glint. In her hand she held his keys.
Rufus found himself taking a careful step back, saying, “Yes. Those are mine, thank you.”
He held out his hand, waiting. She didn't hand them over. Instead she pawed them, her fingers knotting through the metal and plastic.
“You are Mr Angle, aren't you?”
“Yes, I am,” Rufus replied, curt.
“I saw you in there, at the prize giving.”
“I'm sure you did,” he said, trying to shut down the conversation. “Please can I have my keys?”
“You were very good,” she muttered, ignoring his request.
“Thank you,” he said. Then, before he could stop himself, he added, “I aim to please.”
“Do you? Do you really?”
Rufus grinned, the only thing he could think of doing, and said, “Yes, I do... Look, I'd really like my keys.”
The woman hotfooted away, almost as though he were going to snatch the keys from her. Rufus didn't move, although he dropped his clownish grin. The situation was turning sour. Why hadn't she passed over the keys? What was wrong with her? Was she ill?
He pressed her, “It's rather late and I'd like to get home...”
“I'm sure you would. Lovely home? Lovely family?”
“Just give me my keys,” Rufus demanded, and took a step forward, swiping for her hands.
She hopped away, clutching the keys to her chest, shouting, “No! No, I can't! Not unless you change it.”
“Change what?” Rufus asked, entirely nonplussed.
“The winner of the short story competition. It was wrong. You know it was wrong. The winner you picked was wrong,” her tone was hurried and unsettled.
Rufus suddenly felt a lot more sober. “The winner...? Of that damn competition?” he scoffed, “Mr Felberton's work may not've been great, but it was better than all the other junk submitted-”
“No! That's not true. Other work was better. My work was better. My story was amazing.”
Rufus found himself gawping. She was raving, quite mad, probably the local idiot... some bible basher, or a drunk-
“Your work was better?” he asked, “You really think so? What's your name then, let's see if I remember you... that'll be a start-”
“Fitz, Matilda- Tilly tubby-chubby Fitz! You remember, I know you do.”
Rufus feigned thinking, tapping his fingers on his chin, before saying, “Nope, not a clue. Sorry-”
She growled, actually growled, her head twisting from side to side, “Don't lie to me! You know. Don't mock! It was the story about the abattoir- my abattoir! Here, I have another copy. You can look now. You can read it properly.”
She reached into her carpetbag, frantically searching. Rufus made a grab for his keys, hoping to get them while she was distracted, but she noticed and jumped away, muttering, “At-ta-ta, no, no, no! Don't you dare, don't even try!”
Rufus sighed, and rolled his eyes again. He was irritated; she was just another budding author desperate to get her story out there, a crazy one to boot.
Finally she found the crumpled sheaf of papers that made up her story. She pulled them loose and slammed them on the bonnet of Rufus's car, scratching the keys against the paint. Rufus winced, hoping it wouldn't leave a mark.
Jamming one splintered fingernail on the papers she said, “Look. Read them. You know the story. You know it's good. I know you really want me to have won. You were just... scared.”
What the hell, Rufus thought, then tutted, I'll look over the darn thing if it gets me my keys. He lent forward and picked up the papers, giving her a wry snort. In the faint security light he read the title, 'What Goes Around'.
Squinting over the first few lines drew it back to him. The story was an awful piece about how to kill cattle; more a list of instructions than a story. He shivered, and looked up, saying, “Sure thing. It's good, it was one of my top picks, but Mr Felberts just topped you.”
She shook her head, her expression stony, “You're lying. You can't even remember Mr Fel-ber-ton's name, I bet you couldn't remember his story. Mine is better. Mine reads from the soul. Mine is what I do every day, every waking hour, of my life,” her finger pumped her chest, angry red welts rising up her cheeks, “You don't even know the trouble, the stress, the pain, of pouring your soul into a piece of work like that. I've tried so many times, so- many- times and nobody ever listens, nobody ever looks at my work! You don't care- you don't look- you mock me-”
Rufus was laughing. He dropped the pages on the bonnet of his car, and said, “I don't know the difficulty of writing, huh? I'm a Goddamn writer you moron. I spend my life struggling and suffering for this moronic art... Look, this has been super fun but I need to get going. If you don't give me my keys now I'm going to call the police and tell them a crazy lady is holding me hostage-”
Imnotcrazy!” she yelled, almost screamed.
“Okay, sorry, right, you're not crazy, but you are holding my keys hostage and I'd really like to get home.”
“We all want to go home! I want to go home, home with my deservĂ©d prize,” she was raving, actually raving, her head skittering on her neck.
“Give. Me. The keys,” Rufus said, pushing forward.
“No, no I can't!”
“Give them to me! Give them!” Rufus was angry, snatching and running.
“No! No! Nooo!”
There was a second, a moment, when he could have stopped, when he could have caught her, but he missed it.
She fell. A splintering crack came from where her head hit the ground. There was silence.
Rufus stopped in his tracks. His stomach turned. What was anger turned to fear and bile.
“Hey...? Hey...?”
Silence. No reply.
Rufus felt sick. Had he pushed her? He didn't remember pushing her. Could it look like I pushed her? He didn't push her. She had fallen. That was all.
He lent down, hoping.
Petrified silence.
His hand found her shoulder. She seemed still. He twisted her, pushing her onto her back. Nothing. Heat beat? Nothing. Breath? Nothing. Anything? Nothing! Nothing! Nothing!
There wasn't even a cut where her head hit. No blood, not a bruise. Just nothing. She was broken. Stopped. Like a bulb blown out.
Rufus felt his chest go tight, felt the blood stall in his veins. God, oh God.
His keys were there, could he take them and go? Just leave? Run away...
No, he couldn't. Somebody would know. Somebody would connect the dots and call him, and he wouldn't be able to stop himself from talking, and the police would find out, and he'd go to prison, and God, oh God!
“Oh God,” he said aloud, and then his voice climbed and cracked, “Help... Please, help!”
His feet were back peddling, not his doing. He was moving away, stepping back, fleeing back to the hall and the few remaining people and the safety of excuse.
“Help me! Help!”
“Help you?” somebody said, appearing in the hall door. It was the man he had been speaking with right before leaving.
“Yes, I need assistance. The woman over there, Tilly Fitz-”
“Tilly Fitz?” said the man, his brow furrowing.
“Yes, that's her. She's hurt,” Rufus said, anxiously beckoning the man, “She fell, tripped on something.”
The man's expression blackened and he stepped forward, passing Rufus.
Did I sound sincere, Rufus thought, his hand finding his mouth and covering it, Am I believable?
The man was by his car, searching in the dark. Rufus watched with bated breath.
After a painful second the man straightened up and said, “Are you having a laugh?”
“A what?” Rufus asked, lifting his hand from his mouth to speak.
“A laugh? Are you having me on?”
“A laugh…? No.”
“Well, what are you on about then? There's nobody here...”
Rufus rushed forward, “She should be there. She wasn't moving.”
He saw the ground by the car was... clear. Tilly Fitz was gone, and so were his keys.
The man tsked, giving Rufus that look drunks often get, turned and walked to his own car. Rufus stared after him, anxious. Then he refocused on the ground. It was too dark to see signs of the struggle... had she been bleeding? He couldn't remember, he didn't think so. There wasn't any blood; no darker stains against the blackness. No, she wasn't bleeding. Had he just misread her heartbeat, had she been playing dead? He couldn't focus. He'd drunk way too much.
The man pulled out his car, reversed and drove away, his red taillights casting vulgar shadows.
The last stragglers exited the town hall, laughing and chattering. It was two women and Mr Felberton. They pulled the door to and locked it.
“You aww-right, Mr Angle?” one of the women asked.
He must have looked a state.
“Yes, I er, I lost my keys is all.”
“I do that all the time... want us to reopen the hall? You could have dropped them down the back of the stage.”
“No, no, that won't be necessary-”
“That's aww-right, will only take a second.”
“No, really. I, er, I dropped them in the dark, out here. I was looking around.”
“Oh,” replied the other woman, “We'll soon have them found!”
The three came to join him and set about the futile task of searching for the keys. After just a few seconds one of the women popped her hand up, the keys held within.
“Found em!” she announced, and dropped them into his hand.
“See what I said, didn't take a minute,” added the other.
“No, not at all...” Rufus replied, and, somewhat perplexed, he thought, How did I not see them there?
He couldn't be sure.
The women and Mr Felberton were leaving.
“Cheerio,” they said, almost in unison.
“Bye,” Rufus replied uncertainly, “Oh, and thanks.”
Their car left the lot. Rufus watched them go.
He peered over at his car. It was lanky and heavy, silent and dark. The same could be said for the gravel. No sign of a scuffle, no movement. Did Tilly Fitz really exist? The trees beyond the car park rustled. Chill air brushed the nape of his neck.
He had to be getting home, home to his wonderful wife.
He unlocked the car and climbed in.

Date: 26/10/14 Time: 2:25 AM Crash Investigator: Henry Burrows
Case Number: 44-235
Vehicle#: 1
Driver: Rufus Percival Angle – of Greater London, England Sex: Male Age: 46
Injuries: Fatal Next of Kin Notified? Yes   Hospital: Lincolnshire County
Alcohol Related: Yes
Charges: None

Narrative: Vehicle# 1 found by witness# 1 [see case report: form B for contact] on A158, near Wendlethorpe exit, shortly after 2 AM. Driver fatality on vehicle# 1 impact with tree. Significant alcohol found in driver's bloodstream on testing: suspected cause of crash.

Other notes: Driver was a public figure: police press report to be drawn up. Vehicle# 1 has multiple keyed scratches outside of impact zone. Several on the left rear door forming what appears to be the word 'liar', although this is speculative.
Investigation pending.

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