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Shells - Read the joint runner-up in our Frankenfic competition

Posted on 7 October 2019

To celebrate Mary Shelley’s birthday on Friday 30 August, we asked you to get creative ahead of our production of Frankenstein this October, and we were overwhelmed by your response! Inspired by Lord Byron’s writing challenge to his friends, which led to the creation of Frankenstein during the summer of 1816, we challenged you to write your own horror stories, and received an amazing 23 entries.

Submissions varied from intimate family dramas to gruesome body horror, and from the comic to the genuinely terrifying. It was a tough decision for our judges – who included Coventry Geeks co-founder and writer Amy Turner, and YA author Lauren James (The Next Together, The Loneliest Girl in the Universe, The Quiet at the End of the World) – and a shortlist of 11 stories were read out at a special event at Fargo Village’s Big Comfy Bookshop on Wednesday 2 October.

Recently, we published the winning entry, James Rose’s A Mind of My Own. as well as joint runner-up The Magician by Damon Conlan. Also in joint second place was Philip Ellis’ Shells – a touching family drama with an undead twist – which you can read below.

Horror Storytelling at the Big Comfy Bookshop

Shells

By Philip Ellis

.
The house is dark when Shelley gets home, but she has barely crossed the threshold when a light clicks on and she can see Jack’s baleful glare.

‘Where the hell have you been?’ he asks.

Shelley rolls her eyes and takes off her shoes.

‘Just out,’ she says. He follows her as she walks into the kitchen.

Shelley is far from a child. She’s 21. But she has acquired some rather new qualities lately. Special needs, you might call them. She pours herself a bowl of cornflakes and begins to devour them with gusto.

‘Want a bowl?’ She asks, with her mouth full.

‘No.’

Cereal, with lots of milk, has become a dietary requirement. Strengthens bones. There was an incident a few weeks ago where Shelley snapped her little finger. Jack has started buying calcium supplements and fish oil in bulk — he has no idea how much more brittle she is going to become. For all he knows, fragile bones could just be the beginning. There’s no guidebook for this, no online diagnosis that could possibly help him figure out how to look after her. How do you care for someone who’s already dead?

~

Loving Shelley wasn’t always easy. Never much of a daddy’s girl, she was often moody, argumentative, or downright hurtful. And like all addicts, she could be manipulative, would say anything to get what she wanted. But she was his daughter. His only child. No matter what stormy weather Shelley brought into his house, Jack withstood it.

Until the day he came home from work and found her in the doorway to the bathroom, with no pulse, sick drying on her lips, her eyes glassy and unseeing. She’d named her poison, and then taken it all.

‘Shells?’ He cried, lightly tapping her cheek. ‘Shelley?’

He tried to wake her, shook her and screamed her name until his voice was almost gone, but she didn’t stir. And so he simply held her in his arms, murmuring in her ear as if she could still hear him.

‘Stay,’ he said. ‘Stay with me.’

He lost track of how long he sat there on the floor with her, pleading. The sky outside dimmed, soon the house was in total darkness, and still he pled.
‘Stay. Stay. Stay.’

And then, a rasping voice in the black:

‘I feel like shit.’

Years of habit prompted him to say: ‘Language,’ then: ‘Shelley?’

It was a miracle. Or something like it. Shelley coughed and sat up, shrugging off his tearful embrace, grimacing at the vomit down the front of her dress.
‘I need a shower,’ she said as she stood. ‘Could I get some privacy please?’ She slammed the bathroom door in his face. It was only when she couldn’t feel the hot water of the shower on her skin, no matter how far she turned the tap, that she realised something was wrong.

And so now here they are: a single dad and his undead daughter. Talk about your modern families.

~

‘I don’t mean to nag,’ Jack says as Shelley pours a third bowl of cornflakes. ‘I just worry when you’re out alone. What if you got into some kind of trouble, or an accident?’

‘I’m fairly sure I’m immortal now,’ Shelley says.

‘We don’t know that,’ says Jack. ‘We don’t know what you are these days, I just…’

‘I know, you just worry. But you shouldn’t. I’m fine.’ She smiles, and kisses him on the cheek before leaving the room. Her lips are cold and papery against his skin, and he represses the urge to shudder.

Jack can’t not worry. When Shelley was born, he felt that rush of love he’d heard so much about, but also terror. He and Beth had been so sure they wanted to bring a child into the world, but from that moment, the world seemed full of things that could hurt her. Hot stoves, sharp furniture corners, careless drivers. This only got worse as Shelley grew up and became inexorably drawn to the things that could do her the most harm.

And now he has so much more to fret about than dealers and bad boyfriends. She still goes out for hours on end without telling him where, but when she’s home, there’ll be periods where she just sits in a chair, not moving, staring into nothingness. Jack timed her once; nearly two hours. She only snapped out of it when he clapped his hands, loudly, right in front of her eyes. And even then, the way she looked at him — it was as if she didn’t recognise him.

He wishes more than anything that her mother was here, but Beth is dead. The real kind of dead. She doesn’t leave empty crisp packets on the sofa, or stay out all night, driving him sick with worry. She’s just… gone.

~

Autumn was always Shelley’s favourite time of year; the crunchy leaves, the hot chocolate, and most of all, Halloween. As a little girl she would beg Jack to tell her ghost stories at bedtime; the scarier the better. Tales of goblins and ghouls, of spirits returning to haunt the living when the walls between the worlds were at their thinnest. They don’t seem quite so far-fetched any more.

This year is different. Shelley doesn’t even seem to know what time of year it is: she drifts from room to room in just her nightie, apparently not feeling the cold. No matter how much Jack tinkers with the boler, the house has an unshakeable chill. All of his plants have wilted. The bread he bought on Monday is rotten by Tuesday morning.

Something is wrong.

Halloween comes, but the trick-or-treaters don’t. Jack sees them through the window, stopping at every house on the street except this one. They don’t even look in its direction, as if some instinct propels them onwards and away from here. The sweets he had purchased especially will go to waste now. Jack has never had a sweet tooth, and Shelley is barely eating any more.

Then, after the pumpkins and fake cobwebs have been cleared from the street porches, comes All Souls Day. It is on this day that families remember the dead. And it is on this day that Jack walks up the stairs and finds his late wife stood on the landing.

‘Beth?’ For a moment he believes it is another miracle. But then he looks closer. Her eyes are the same cornflower blue he remembers, but something about them feels off. Like cheap paste worn and passed off as jewels.

‘You are not my wife,’ he says.

The spectre smiles.

‘No, I am not,’ she replies. ‘This form is borrowed. I admit, it does not entirely suit me.’

‘Where is Beth?’

‘She cannot cross over,’ the woman says, ‘but she gave me her face, for a time. A child should be carried home in the arms of her mother.’

The blood drains from Jack’s face as he realises what she is saying. He knows who this woman is. He might not have seen her at the time, but she sat with him on that dark floor as he held Shelley. His desperation, his sheer force of will, had held her at bay then. But now she is back.

‘Death,’ he says.

She smiles, and although it doesn’t quite reach those empty eyes, it’s not unkind.

‘The child has no place here,’ she says. ‘She is trespassing.’

‘No,’ he says, and he steps in front of her, blocking her path to Shelley’s room. ‘I won’t let you take her.’

‘You cannot stop this,’ she says. ‘You can only delay it. And even then, not forever. Your love granted her a reprieve somehow, held fast onto her thread after it was cut. But this strange second life must come to an end.’

‘She’s right, dad,’ comes a voice from behind him. He turns; Shelley stands in the doorway, and it hits him anew how unlike herself she looks. Her hair is lank, her complexion almost grey, her eyes wide and pale atop dark circles. He hears something rattle as she breaths in and out, like dice in a jar.

‘Look at me,’ she says. ‘This body. It’s not… mine any more. I’m squatting. Like a guest at a hotel who should have checked out a long time ago.’

‘It’s fine,’ he says, ‘we can fix it. Somehow. You came back from the dead, for god’s sake, anything is possible. We’ll find a way.’

‘I don’t want to find a way,’ she says. ‘I want to leave. But I don’t think I can, unless you let me. You’re the one who brought me back… dad, you have to let me go. Please. Let me be dead.’

‘I… I can’t,’ he says.

Death still stands at his back, wearing his wife’s face. She places a hand on his shoulder, and it feels just enough like Beth to break his heart all over again.

‘Take me instead,’ he says. ‘I beg of you. Please.’

‘No more bargaining,’ says Death. ‘It is time for her to come home.’

‘But she is home,’ says Jack. ‘This is her home.’

Death smiles her sad smile again.

‘Not any more,’ she tells him.

And he knows it’s true. With each new day, Shelley is less alive, less herself – and Jack fears the emptiness that he will see in her eyes once everything else has faded away. But even more, he fears the emptiness that will overtake him if he loses her entirely.

‘I don’t know who I am if I’m not your dad,’ he says.

Shelley wraps her bony arms around him, leaning her head on his chest like she used to when she was little. It’s like being embraced by a mass of coat hangers.

‘What happens to you, when you go?’ He asks. ‘What happens to me?’

‘I don’t know,’ she says, as the spectre takes her by the hand. ‘I suppose we’ll both find out.’

And then he is alone on the landing, his cheeks wet with tears. He stands there for a long time, uncertain of what to do next. And then, after what feels like an eternity, the doorbell rings.

‘Trick or treat!’

The shadow has passed, he realises. Things are back to normal. Or as normal as anything can be in a house where the dead live. He wipes his eyes and heads downstairs.

‘Well don’t you all look grand!’ He exclaims to the costumed youngsters on his doorstep, passing out sweets to them one by one. ‘Although technically you’re late.’

Jack closes the front door, and turns to face the empty living room. He’s glad this house isn’t an object of fear anymore. It will make it easier to sell, he decides. It would be perfect for a young family. He goes upstairs, and begins to pack a bag. If he’s to get on with whatever remains of his life, he will have to do it elsewhere. He knows, now, the danger of staying too long.

He wonders where exactly Shelley is now. Whether Beth was there to greet her. How long it will be before he sees them both again. And what on earth he is going to do in the meantime. The prospect of being alone scares him, but it is the good kind of fear; the sort you feel as you begin your ascent on a rollercoaster.

Jack leaves the house keys under the welcome mat, and gets in his car. He will call an estate agent in the morning to make arrangements, once he has arrived at his destination. He still needs to figure out where he’s going, but he knows wherever it is will be only temporary.

Nothing lasts forever. Everything is borrowed — even life. The human soul is like a hermit crab, stopping here or there for a short time, before leaving to continue on its journey, searching for a place to call home.