Take your subverting expectations short story. Shift the location, take risks. Come up with a scene that is frightening or upsetting, or just beyond the bounds of what you’re comfortable with.
I didn't know how far I could go with this one. Have I gone far enough, or is it obvious?
• A teenage girl climbing a rock cliff with a man below her
Trying her very best not to be noticed, Liv quietly worked her way through the seething Bank Holiday crowd. What is it about Boxing Day that it seems to bring out the very worst in people? Retail therapy they call it, when what they really mean is that one day is more than enough for most families to tire of the magic of Christmas. Barely twenty-four hours with the shops shut and most people can’t wait to flee the claustrophobic confines of their tinsel-bedecked homes. George Bailey had many other problems to deal with in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, but the toxic combination of cheap alcohol, crappy gifts and simmering resentment wasn’t one of them. She could practically smell it coming off the crowds now, the cloying stench of hangovers, regret and unalloyed consumerism. Liv also seriously doubted that Bedford Falls ever experienced this kind of a crush outside Debenhams. Zombies, the lot of them.
Her dad loved that stupid film and, as a result, the family watched it every Christmas Eve before the adults rolled off to the pub and then on to Midnight Mass. Liv cherished the precious few hours after the film finished and before the adults rolled back into the house. Silence and a chance to read and to just revel in being alone. Blissful silence and the chance to hear the ringing bell when the next angel got his wings. However long it lasted, it was never long enough. It was practically a Christmas tradition now that she pretended to be asleep as her parents giggled and fumbled their way around her room in search of her stocking shortly after they rolled back into the house.
Santa Claus is coming to town. A merry blooming Christmas to you.
The morning after always brought with it fuzzy heads, but that had never yet stopped the opening of fizz at breakfast. Well, it’s Christmas, isn’t it? Although she was only fourteen, Liv usually had a flute pushed into her hand so that she could raise her glass in toast to the season alongside everyone else. Cheap prosecco seemed to her like a pretty good way to ruin an orange juice. The very thought of that sour smelling, sickly sweet cocktail made Liv wrinkle her nose in disgust. Ugh.
Liv paused as she worked her way past the crowds outside Next and risked a glance back over her shoulder. There he was: tall enough to be clearly visible as he walked urgently past Argos. He was looking around, craning his neck to get a better view. Liv didn’t think that he had seen her yet, but the sight of him gave her renewed purpose and she ducked inside John Lewis, through the sudden blast of hot air blowing down around the door and into the shop. The crowds were thick here, surrounded by reduced Christmas gift packs of fancy-looking wine and biscuits. Liv headed towards the escalators, but her progress was slow as the people around her thronged together, competing for a bargain they wouldn’t have looked at twice only two days ago. Frustrated, Liv turned again and saw him as he passed the doorway, pausing before turning into the shop. Her heart seeming to skip a beat and, more urgently now, she pushed herself against the crowd in an attempt to disappear.
She’d been a happy child, more or less. As happy as most people, happier than some. Although she was barely fourteen now, Liv somehow thought of herself as older. Her earliest memory as a child was of her father gently brushing her hair after a bath and then tucking her into bed to read her a story. Liv had always loved reading, but above all else, she had loved being read to, by her father most of all. She loved the way that he would do all the voices in a story, working to make every character come to life, whether they were a mouse, a goblin or a Gruffalo. The scary stories were the best of all, not because Liv liked to be scared, but because she loved to be comforted. Her father would take her in his arms and smooth her hair, telling her that everything would be alright. Even now, she wasn’t sure whether she was really scared or just pretending to be. She was too big for stories now; her body was changing. Sometimes, in spite of everything, she still longed for someone to scoop her up again and to tell her that everything would be alright.
But it wasn’t alright. Liv didn’t like the stories now. The past is a dangerous place filled with secrets and questions that can never be answered.
She looked again. He’d seen her, and was pressing through the crowd, eyes fixed on her. She involuntarily gasped out loud and reeled backwards. The man standing beside her stopped browsing for a moment to look down his nose at her disapprovingly. There are unspoken rules to being in a crowd like this, and nobody likes to see these rules broken. He was small and tweedy and smelled of pipe smoke, but after a quick glance at her, he quickly turned his attention back to the port and stilton gift set he was admiring. He tutted to himself and Liv moved on, arms in front of her now as she swam her way through the press of people, breast-stroking her way towards the escalators. If she could just get upstairs now, she could dip out of the exit on the first floor and hope to lose herself in the seething throngs in the rest of the shopping centre.
Being small gave Liv some advantages in the crowd as she ducked and weaved her way through the throng. It wasn’t advantage enough, though, and being tall and strong brings other advantages. He was now elbowing his way towards her and was gaining fast. She ducked and began to push frantically towards the escalator, realising too late how exposed she would be as she began to rise up above the fray on the step. As she stepped on and began to lift up and away towards the first floor, he stopped and smiled at her as their eyes locked. Then, he simply stepped onto the escalator, about ten steps below her, and they both rose slowly up towards home furnishings.
The shop was busy, but the escalator itself wasn’t all that crowded. Had he wanted to, he could easily have worked his way up to close the gap between them, but he did not. He just stood there and watched her with a slight smile on his face. Liv looked down at him and tried to calm herself enough to think straight. Escape seemed unlikely, but surely there wasn’t much he could do in such a busy shop, was there?
Too soon, the escalator step she was riding reached the first floor and discharged Liv, unwillingly, to begin its journey back down. Huge, flat screen televisions were broadcasting the Boxing Day football and what looked like an episode of the Blue Planet. A humpbacked whale with its calf breached the surface of the ocean and plunged back into the depths in glorious 4K high definition. Liv barely noticed. She only had eyes for the man beneath her, cresting the climb and walking confidently, but slowly towards her. She didn’t have the strength to run any more. Instead, she waited. He crossed to her and reached for her hand, his other hand reaching up to stroke her hair. Her skin crawled and it was all she could do not to physically recoil from his touch.
“You nearly lost me that time.”
“You won’t be getting such a head start next time, I can tell you that for nothing.”
“Yep. I reckon you will.”
Liv looked up at her father with a face filled with a mixture of fear and resignation as he took her gently by the hand and began to lead her home for her bath and for her bed.
Pandemic Legacy: Season Two
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