Michael Thurlston trudged through the dark woods towards the house. The howling wind masked the crunching of his boots on the snow. In his bag he carried only what he needed to survive the journey there. There would be no journey back.
The house looked out over a small lake. His family had once owned all the surrounding land but it had been sold off, piece by piece, until only the house remained. The house was all that was required.
He climbed the frosted wooden steps and took the key from his bag. The key was an ancient thing but the lock offered no resistance. The moonlight streaming through the windows made the candles Michael had brought with him unnecessary. He lit them anyway. He’d been told that ceremony was important.
The walls were lined with dusty portraits. Generations of Thurlston men stared out at the skinny, bearded 30 year-old who lay his coat carefully by the door. Michael took a moment to examine his forefathers. The resemblance was clear, occasionally uncanny. A proud line dating back hundreds of years. A family with a strict tradition. Not one of them was smiling. Michael understood.
Several feet above him, close to the ceiling, the long-dead men in the photographs had gathered to watch the ceremony below them unfold. The spirits chattered away, safe in the knowledge that they could not be heard. The tone was one of approval. “It’s time. He’s come of his own accord, as he should.” Murmurs of agreement echoed in their private realm ten feet in the air.
One spirit stood apart from the others. Matthew Thurlston watched, weeping, as Michael went to his bag, took out a small package and began to unwrap it. As his fingers wrapped around the shiny pistol it was all too much for Matthew. He snapped and howled for Michael to stop.
Below him, Michael looked up. He could have sworn he heard a man’s voice. One that was strangely familiar. But that was impossible. There was no one here to distract him from what had to be done.
Matthew was quickly surrounded by angry spirits, Thurlston men with their dark eyes, Roman noses and widow’s peaks, speaking in unison. “You cannot interfere. He must take his life. From generation to generation it comes to pass. We all did it, you did it. Now it is his turn.”
Matthew begged, pleaded for his son’s life. Finally he asked the question each had once asked. “Why can’t we let him go? Why tell him to do this?”
“Spite” said the assembled voices. “Inherited bitterness. One went first. Then the next. Now we go on. Thirty years to start a family, produce an heir, then his time is done.”
“Not my boy,” cried Matthew, and raced down through the air. He hovered next to Michael and screamed a warning in his ear. Just in time for the bullet to pass through it. Shaking, Matthew dried his eyes and waited to greet his son.
You may have noticed that this title is not in the list of suggested titles. You may have also noticed that this story is a good 2,500 words shorter than the ones I usually put up on here. Well, the story behind this was that I forgot to write a story for a short story competition. The word count was 500 words, and once I realised that I'd missed the deadline I thought I'd try to write the story in 500 words anyway, and not let myself go over even by 1 word. It was a fun little challenge, actually. Resisting the urge to introduce the patriarch who instigated the tradition who would gravely intone the Thurlston rules, I just had them recited in en masse. Rather than give Michael any character of his own, you just assume he has a son because of the rules. I had two ideas for stories, the other one would hopefully be a lot scarier and I will try and get that written this week too.
It might not work at all. I wrote it quite quickly but I did a lot of fiddling with it, making sure the wording was just right. I'm glad I wrote it as it was a nice reminder about how important the words are. Which is an obvious point, really, but when you get used to waffling on it's easy to forget. With a story this short there's no room for skimming. It has to be precise, which is a style I went for in my novel (and the in-progress follow-up, which is moving forward slowly). And I like that. I hope you enjoyed it.