That Sad Smile

This piece of creative writing is for the purposes of the Creative Writing Ink writing challenge. With weekly photo prompts and no word limits, this challenge offers a fun, interactive way of encouraging new writers.


A cool, bitter wind swept through the tunnels, whipping back my hair and threatening to extinguish my precious candles. I leant over the flame before me, protective, as I fiddled with the matches I held in my sweaty palms. Lighting them was proving uncannily difficult, for, with every new flame that I placed about the circumference of the small, little cave, the more violently my hands began to shake.

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Credit: Héctor Martínez

At long last, however, the flame leapt greedily from wick to match, and I scurried off around the circle to the next open space, guarding the flame with my hand. Before I could reach my destination, however, another gust of wind swept through the cave and my little flame withered, and then died.

Sighing, I turned back to the nearest candle, heart beating wildly. If I took much longer, I might miss my opportunity altogether. I only had tonight, for this moon would not wait forever. In a few hours, it would dip below the mountain ridges behind the northern plains, and it would be too late. I’d have failed.

A new kind of determination gripped me as I plunged my match into the flame and withdrew it sharply, watching the flame quiver, and then separate in two. I rushed back over to the space along the wall, dipping the flame towards the unlit candle waiting there. Grinning with relief, I then turned to the last, and final space along the wall. With the flame still clinging to the match in my hand, I forced it down and watched as, finally, the last candle was lit.

I got to my feet, looking around at the twelve lights gleaming at me from the edges of the circle. Then I paused, hesitating. I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that I should just walk out of the cave, leaving my little circle and abandoning my hopes. I’d waited too long for this, though; I couldn’t let it slip past me when I was this close.

I marched resolutely to the entrance of the cave, where I stripped off my shoes and socks, shrugged off my jacket and lifted a hand to let my dark hair fall about my shoulders. I had to do this. It wasn’t a choice anymore. Making sure that my clothes were outside of the ring of candles, I swallowed, let out a long breath, and then scurried back to the centre of the circle.

The stone was cold on my bare feet as I sat there, cross-legged. It was distracting, but I was glad that I’d made them bare; I felt so much closer to the ground now, as if the stone itself was providing me with its own strength. I gritted my teeth, focussing my mind.

I reached out with my thoughts, finding each burning flame and watching it crackle. Then, I wandered further. I left the circle, and then the cave. I carried on right past the labyrinthine tunnels and the moonlit fields beyond. I searched further and further, until I saw her. I opened my eyes.

My mother sat opposite me, eyes wide and mouth smiling. She reached out to me instinctively, but I backed away, grimacing slightly.

“I’m sorry,” she murmured, sitting back immediately. “I- how am I here?” I smiled, but didn’t answer. She was very pretty, with her dark hair and long, curled lashes. That had never quite come through from the photographs. I wondered what she would look like now, if her life hadn’t been halted so abruptly. I supposed there would be flecks of grey in that dark hair now, and lines bordering that smile. The eyes would stay the same, though; she would have the same eyes, and she would have the same smile.

“I miss you,” my mother whispered, her eyes looking rather watery. “Thank you for bringing me here.” I nodded, but I still couldn’t speak. My throat felt strangely constricted. I’d spent so many years writing my mother letters that I could never send, dreaming of speaking to her, or even looking at her, but now, when she was right in front of me, I couldn’t say a word. Something was wrong. It was as if the world knew she shouldn’t be here; whilst she was smiling, her arms slightly outstretched, I couldn’t help from noticing that she was pale and ghostly, her smile tainted by a flicker of sadness.

I was almost glad when a gust of wind blew out half the candles. As their smoke rose into the air, my mother faded, that sad smile disappearing into nothing.

Riverbank Guardian

This is my third attempt at Sammi Cox’s weekly writing challenges! Each weekend, she posts both a word and a picture for writers to attempt either her prose or poetry prompt. This week, the word was “guardian” and the prose challenge was to write a fairy tale story in 150 words or less!


Wandering along the riverbank, the basket of flowers at her side, she smiled to herself. There were monsters in these parts, twisted beasts that liked to leap from the milky waters to drag unsuspecting victims under the surface. There were bat-like creatures that lurked in the trees, too; creatures whose bites would be fatal to a little girl like her. She had nothing to fear, though, for, as she trotted onward, she sang.

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Credit: Sammi Cox

It was a simple tune: a melody that went up and down with each footfall. She knew it as the song of the grotesque, the strange, phantom-like creature that existed only to protect those in need.

Way up above her, a shadow swept along in her wake. It followed her music, answering its call.

Snarling at the monsters as it passed, it knew that it would protect the little girl as if she were its own.

Story Starters: A Collection

My biggest problem as a writer has always been sticking to one story after I create the initial opening; it’s too tempting to move onto something new and more exciting! Here’s three story starters, varying in length, that I’ve, at some point, abandoned.

1) This opening story sentence is for the purposes of the writing competition at: Writer’s Digest, with the brief of a maximum word count at 25 words, and the picture prompt seen below.

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A snowy owl swooped low above the forest, invisible against the white trees, and ignorant, for little did it know of the danger lurking there.

2) The flames roared high above them, great waves of smoke towering higher still. They choked and coughed as they ran, ducking and diving around the broken infrastructure that now surrounded them. Time was running out; they were already scorched and burned in more places than they knew, the agony of their wounds occasionally causing them to contort their steps as they raced onwards. Great chunks of wall and ceiling were crashing around them, too, wires dropping down into the fiery mass and sparks exploding from every direction. The reality was that they had entered hell itself, and every runner accepted that fact with a bleak resolution. There was no turning back, and, chances were, there was no escape. Hell had become the endless corridor of fire that they now faced, and they were all too aware of it.

3) The sirens were louder than they should have been. Even before her body crumpled and collapsed onto the pavement, they were there with us, ringing in our minds and pounding in our hearts. Craig was bent over her, muttering to himself and beating the ground with his fist. Little Pete was at his side as usual, waiting for the directions that would never come again. I didn’t need to crouch over her as they did, though, because I knew. In reality, I think we all knew, even before we’d hit her; we’d known even before she’d been lit up in front of my car headlights and Craig had fought to avoid her. There was no use checking her pulse or breathing rate. There was no point, because Kelly Holmes was dead, and we’d killed her. We were murderers.

“We should run,” Craig breathed, turning to face us in the half-dark. “The sirens don’t mean anything. They could be hours away yet.”

“I agree,” Little Pete piped up instantly, not even allowing a breath between Craig’s suggestion and his own sycophantic plea for attention. I shrugged, but I doubted that they could see the slight movement in the darkness. I wasn’t going to run. I didn’t want to run. I was a murderer. I had to stay and face the police, no matter how devastating that would be.

“Dan,” Craig persisted, ignoring Little Pete. “We need to go, now.” I swallowed hard, feeling braver in every new cry of the sirens.

“Then go,” I whispered, looking not at Craig and Little Pete, but at Kelly. She was beautiful even now, her long, dark hair a mess about her shoulders and back, and her slender, ghostly form almost shining in the light from the surrounding street lamps. I’d known her since she was little, from when we’d played together in my back garden. She was dead now. She would never breathe again, never laugh, never smile. She was simply gone.

“Dan, they’ll get you!” Craig whispered, his voice slightly incredulous. I could not look at my best friend, though. He wasn’t like me. He wasn’t feeling this like I was. He felt only fear, whereas I felt only loss, grief and a furious, biting sense of self-hatred. I had done this. “Dan, you know what that means!” Craig persisted, shaking my shoulder now.

“If you want to run, run,” I snapped, looking at Craig at last. “Save yourself. You better hurry up, though. It’s been too long already.” Craig stepped back slightly, confusion edging its way into his fear clouded mind. He looked at Little Pete then, suddenly lost and vulnerable. Pete looked back, and suddenly they were no longer leader and disciple, but two scared boys: criminals.

Without another word, they took off, running in the opposite direction from the houses and sirens beyond them. There were fields not too far off, and after that, the forest. If they made it that far, they were safe. It was said that fugitives and criminals caked the trees themselves, living amongst the branches and leaves on the earthy floor. I used to have nightmares about the place, but for Craig and Little Pete, it had just become the last hope. Maybe, just maybe, they would be okay.

I looked back at Kelly then, and my heart shuddered to a halt, too.

Lean into Me

This piece of creative writing is for the purposes of the competition at Ad Hoc Fiction. With only 150 words and this week’s prompt word, “lean”, this competition gives its winner free entry into the Bath Flash Fiction Award, which boasts of a prize of £1000! 

An avalanche of emotion ripped apart my soul and threatened to throw me from the Earth’s orbit. I rocked and fell forwards, landing face down in the dirt where no one could see me. They tried to pull me up again, but it was no use.

I didn’t want to see them, I didn’t want to hear their voices, because they didn’t look like her and they didn’t sound like her. No one ever would again, because she was gone and I was alone.

Then soft hands were about my shoulders, gentle, but firm. They pulled me up and hugged me close, a gentle whisper telling me not to open my eyes.

“Lean into me,” she whispered, and, as I was reborn into my childish state, I clasped onto my mother with both hands, sobbing into her chest. I was alone, but I was home.

Lost in the Magic

This is a short story from a while ago, inspired from the prompt word: “oils”.

Marie sat alone in the depths of the dusty attic, her legs crossed and hands tucked neatly away inside her lap. A flickering candle stood before her, the only light to half illuminate her pale features. She was no stranger to the grimy beams and forgotten relics of the family attic, though.

When she had come up to the attic for the first time, small and gullible though she had been, Marie had found a collection of toys from when she was younger. She’d entertained herself with dolls and trainsets, until she’d found the one thing that she really loved doing.

It was in front of her now, the candle acting as a paperweight for her masterpiece. She had a paintbrush in her hand and oil paints dripping from the half-lit scrap of paper. Painting was her passion; her world. Through it, she could escape to as many different worlds as she saw fit. Even as her parents raged below her, another argument having broken out, Marie felt safe.

Today, it was a mountainside that she created, green grass contrasting with the icy peaks above. She wished that she was at that mountain now, its wind whistling through her long, auburn hair, and sheep bleating in the distance. That was her paradise, and she longed for it.

Marie painted long into the night; at that moment, she forgot the troubles of her family and the stress she was under. She was free, and she was safe.

The next morning, Marie’s mother woke to find her daughter’s bedroom empty. The house was searched for hours on end, Marie’s brother even daring the dusty depths of the attic twice, but Marie was nowhere to be found.

All that they could find, left on the pillow of the nine-year-old’s bed, was an oil painting, splashes of inky liquid covering the scrap of paper. It was a picture of a beautiful mountain scene, with ice neatly covering the peaks. There was a little girl stood in the foreground of the painting, a candle in her hand, and a smile stretched across her pale features.

What You Don’t Know

This short story is for the purposes of the writing competition at: Creative Writing Ink.

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The summer breeze ruffled their hair and made their skin blush as they approached the shore. It had been far too long since the Caputo family had set their eyes on the sea; Maggie hadn’t even been born when they had last visited. Mrs Caputo watched her youngest daughter run on ahead at the first glimpse of golden sand, her raven hair loose in the wind and bare arms waving as she danced forwards. Mrs Caputo sighed, watching the girl as she shouted at her siblings to join her. How she did worry for her; she didn’t understand the world as her brothers and sisters seemed to. She didn’t respect order or authority, having thrown her bonnet into the wind as soon as the family had first stepped outside. She was beautiful, yet, at the same time, although Mrs Caputo despised herself for thinking it, she was also wrong in some way. It was almost as if her brain didn’t function like it should, too busy dreaming of fairies and far off lands to contemplate her future.

The family set themselves down by the shore, Duncan and Cedric setting up the picnic, whilst Annie and Rosie, the oldest children of the Caputo family, and twins, supervised Mr Caputo’s descent to the floor. He whined as his daughters pulled him down, his back cracking horribly as he went. Mrs Caputo, however, was busy gazing at Maggie as she drew closer and closer to the water’s edge. She was jumping in the waves, screaming with delight as the water lapped at her legs.

“Cedric, dear,” Mrs Caputo said, turning to her youngest son. “Please go and tell your sister to be careful, there could be glass, or anything left in the sand there.” The boy grunted, his lack of enthusiasm visible from his every feature. Still, though, he dragged himself from the card game that he’d been engaging in with Duncan, and raced down to the shore to join his sister.

“Maggie!” he shouted, grabbing his sister’s hand when she did not respond to his cry. “Mags, listen to me.” Still, however, the girl did not respond, shaking off his hand and instead raising her head, looking directly out across the sea.

“Don’t be silly, Alex,” she giggled, still not looking at her brother. “He’s got the same hair as me!” She laughed again, then took a few more steps forwards, the water now reaching her thighs. “Don’t be mean!” she retorted to thin air, a painted smile across her face.

Cedric was still standing on the shoreline, nonplussed. Out of all of his siblings, it was Maggie who he understood the least. She had always been strange, talking about things that the rest of them couldn’t understand, or couldn’t see. His mother thought that he did understand her, at least more than the others, for he was the closest to her age. He supposed that their mother took his abashed silences for some kind of understanding, but that was wrong. He loved his sister out of duty, but, really, he didn’t have a clue who she was.

“Who’s Alex?” he asked quietly from behind the grinning child. The name appeared to trigger something in her, for she whipped around, blinking and looking rather confused.

“Alex is my best friend,” she said simply, furrowing her eyebrows slightly. “I’ve told you about her before. This is her first time at the seaside, too,” she paused, almost scowling at her brother now. “She’s always been here,” she said, quieter now. “You ignore her almost as much as you ignore me.”

Cedric’s eyes widened at this. His sister was turning back to the sea again, walking steadily forwards, her arms slightly outstretched, as if clutching at something just in front of her. Words seemed to escape him; he’d never seen such deep emotion, such deep sorrow in his sister’s face before, and it scared him. He didn’t like the idea of her being alone, even if, now that he really thought about it, she probably had been.

“Cedric! Cedric, what did I tell you?” Mrs Caputo snapped furiously, suddenly at Cedric’s side and pushing him backwards. “Maggie, dear, it’s not safe out here. Come back to the sand now, please,” she asked calmly, but really her heart was hammering in her chest. The water was half way up to the girl’s shoulders now, her legs and midriff completely consumed by the dark waters. “There could be a current, darling. It’s not safe.” Mrs Caputo made a move forwards, attempting to grab the child, but Maggie only took another step backwards. Her mother withdrew, panic clouding her thoughts.

“Alex is fine,” Maggie retorted gleefully. “And she’s a lot deeper than me.”

“Who’s Alex?” Her mother said, turning back to her youngest son. Cedric struggled with his words for a moment, still too stunned by his sister’s revelation that he couldn’t properly take in what was happening.

“She’s…” he paused, his throat constricted. “She’s her imaginary friend.”

“No she’s not!” Maggie shouted furiously, stepping still further back into the swirling waters. Splashes were catching at her shoulders now, and she giggled, despite herself. “Alex is as real as I am, and you don’t call me imaginary, do you?”

Mrs Caputo painted a false smile on her face, holding both hands out towards Maggie now. She sensed that the rest of the family were now lining up besides Cedric, but she didn’t turn around to check. She couldn’t take her eyes off her youngest child. “Of course she’s real, darling. Now let’s come back to the shore and dry off, okay? It’ll be lunchtime soon.”

Maggie looked slightly confused at this, seeming to genuinely contemplate the idea.

“I like the water,” she said, stepping still further into the ocean’s clutches. “It’s warm, and Alex says that we should be deep enough to swim now.”

Mrs Caputo almost lurched forwards at this, but she caught herself. She didn’t want to startle the girl, after all. She smiled that fake smile again.

“But you can’t swim, darling.”

“Alex says it’s easy.” Maggie smiled that strange, distant smile, and reached her hand out to the side, just under the surface of the water, and folded it slightly, as if it was wrapped around another’s hand. “She says you just relax, because people float.” She looked in the direction of her outstretched hand and giggled. “She says she’ll teach me!” she cried excitedly, turning back to her mother.

Mrs Caputo watched in horror as her daughter closed her eyes and leant back into the waters, still giggling with joy. She reacted instinctively, charging forwards, grasping the girl’s shoe and yanking her tight to her. Maggie squealed in anger, but her mother was already dragging her back to the sand and throwing her at her father.

Mr Caputo wrapped Maggie up in a tight towel, and then offered another to his wife. They both kept a hand around their daughter’s as they marched her back to their picnic and set her down on another towel. All the way, Maggie screamed her frustrations.

“Slow down, Alex can’t keep up! She’s still all wet! Why couldn’t you just let me play with her? She’s my friend and were having fun. You ruined everything!” The entire family ignored Maggie’s outburst, the boys helping Mr Caputo with the sausages, whilst the twins began to lay out plates. Mrs Caputo did not move from Maggie’s side, her face stony and eyes tight shut. She’d known there was something wrong with her. She’d known that something needed to be done. The girl wasn’t right in the head, and Mrs Caputo’s own self-denial could have cost her life.

It had happened before. Maggie had only been five years old, and Mrs Caputo had simply dismissed it, thinking it a freak accident. The toddler had had the shared attic room with the twins, and they were always watching her, keeping her out of trouble. Then, one seemingly perfect summer’s day, Rosie had cut herself on a loose nail protruding from one of the floorboards. There had been so much blood that Annie had had to rush her downstairs to get help. Mrs Caputo could well remember wrapping the wound, without once giving a thought for the baby Maggie, alone upstairs. When the twins returned upstairs, however, the screams brought Mrs Caputo straight to them.

There, on a broken part of the roof that was left hanging out at the attic window, had sat Maggie, at least two metres from the window. Her mother had watched the broken roof as it swung and creaked menacingly in the wind, her youngest child laughing, as she squinted up at the sun.

“Maggie, Maggie darling, come back!” Mrs Caputo had called to the child, and yet Maggie hadn’t even turn around.

“It’s fun!” she had called out to the sky, arms reaching up, as if trying to catch something just a little way in front of her. Mrs Caputo hadn’t dared climb onto the roof to collect the child, for she had been certain that it would break instantly under her weight. She’d thus spent several hours attempting to draw the child in, and, when that had proved fruitless, at last succeeded by wafting the tempting smells of bacon and slightly burnt toast out of the window. It had taken at least five hours, but Maggie had returned to her, alive and well.

Mrs Caputo should have known then that there was something wrong with her daughter. She was dangerous: a danger to herself, and a danger to others. Mrs Caputo well-remembered Maggie calling to her sisters as they stood, curious, behind their mother. She’d wanted them to join her; she’d wanted them to put them in danger, too.

Now it was happening again. Maggie saw things that weren’t there, and just as she’d reached out to the sky those few years back, she did again now, on the towel, besides her. Maggie reached out to the girl that wasn’t there.

Mr Caputo served the sausages round to the family, and provided them all with a large hunk of bread. It was far past lunchtime at this point, Maggie having had been stood in the water for much longer than Mrs Caputo had realised. They thus all tucked in with great energy, gnawing at the bread and swallowing the meat whole. Maggie, however, did not touch the plate that sat balanced across her legs.

“What about Alex?” she asked accusingly, looking to her father. “Doesn’t she deserve to eat?” Mr Caputo’s mouth opened, half a sausage falling back onto his plate. He looked to his wife for guidence, who sighed.

“Alex isn’t really here, darling. I know that you see her, but she isn’t real,” Mrs Caputo swallowed, taking in the instant hatred that looked horribly out of place on her daughter’s small features. “It’s okay,” she said, using softer tones, now. “We’re going to get you help now, Maggie. It’s okay.”

Maggie didn’t say anything to this, but she did start eating, a sign which Mrs Caputo took to be her success. The family didn’t linger after lunch, but packed up the car once more, and prepared for the journey home. Mrs Caputo’s mind was, as it should have been long before now, set. She was going to go to the doctor, and she was going to tell him the truth. Even if he tried to take Maggie away from her, she knew that she couldn’t fight it. She had to do what was best for the child now. Whatever the cost.

Mrs Caputo turned in her seat to smile at Maggie, and then froze. There was no one there. She looked to the back of the car, where Mr Caputo and the boys were still forcing the damp towels into the tiny boot. Annie, Rosie and Maggie had all gotten in the car behind her. They were supposed to be there. The panic was back, and, without pausing, Mrs Caputo was running back to the sand.

She could hear screams, and her heart seemed to both freeze and accelerate simultaneously. Maggie was running backwards and forwards on the sand, her long hair flowing out behind her as she raced, and her white petticoat flying wild and free, dancing in time to her laughter.

“Mother, mother!” Maggie called at the sight of her. “Alex and I are playing chase, it’s so fun!” She didn’t stop in her game, and yet Mrs Caputo’s heart still seemed incomprehensible, despite the child’s joy.

“Where are Annie and Rosie?” She asked quietly. Maggie stopped, turning to her mother, and still, infuriatingly, grinning.

“Alex was teaching them how to swim, it was amazing! And guess what, mum? She was right, people do float!”

Mrs Caputo nodded solemnly, looked to the water’s edge, and felt her heart explode.

What had she done?

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December 2016.