JJ Steven - Runner up

Competition: 750-word short story competition

Jamie Steven has been a writer since he learned how to hold a pencil. He adores worlds that include magic, secrets and mysterious characters, and when he’s not writing he’s almost certainly thinking about writing. This is his first entry to a writing competition and he is delighted with his place as runner-up.

JJ Steven

Family Secrets

Deep down, Faith had always known there were family secrets. Wilkins’ Magic Emporium was her father’s other baby, a wonderful building with spell books on the tables, bottled dreams on the shelves, jars of every weather condition at the counter. Faith adored it. It was a warmth in her chest, a home for her heart. So, when her father offered her a graduation gift, she longed for one thing only: the chance to finally work in the Emporium.
Eventually, her father relented, and granted his daughter’s wish. There was, however, one condition. Faith was only to work dayshifts, and was to leave before dark.
The days were just as Faith had imagined: magnificent, riveting, a learning curve she mastered quickly. She sold potions and charms, met witches, warlocks, dabblers and beginners alike. In quiet moments, she poured herself a thunderstorm vial and tied it around her neck. She tried, to no avail, to teach herself to float pencils. Summer stretched out before her, and every day in the Emporium was a joy, a gift.
And there were the nights. More specifically, there was Alexander.
Alexander was an unnerving creature, and from the moment she saw him, she considered him more of a creature than a person. Dark eyes, pale skin, slim as a blade, Alexander was made of angles and almost mechanical movements. And he watched. In the brief moments between dayshift and night, his eyes were almost always on her, and even when they weren’t, she felt that he could see her too closely.
‘What’s nightshift like?’ she asked him once.
‘Your father was very clear,’ he said, ‘You’re dayshift only, and only until he returns from his business trip.’
It was the longest conversation they’d had, and Faith grew accustomed to the routine. She’d sail the store through its daylight hours, and would be ready to leave by the time Alexander appeared. The less time he had to watch her, the better.
After a week, she’d had enough.
The next day, Faith left at nightfall as usual, but crept back to the Emporium hours later, and crouched by a window at the back. Cloaked in darkness, she peered inside at the nothing much. Same old storeroom, same old store beyond it, the door sitting ajar.
But then, movement. Alexander’s figure between dim lights and thick shadows, somehow belonging to neither. Faith looked harder and saw a second figure. The two of them moved towards the storeroom and Faith ducked down, listened hard, and only stole glances occasionally.
The man, older than Alexander, sat upon a rickety chair. He said things like ‘It won’t hurt?’ and ‘They definitely won’t come back?’ Alexander asked if he’d ever had blood taken.
‘It’ll feel like that,’ he said, ‘but everywhere.’ The man fell silent.
Faith saw Alexander’s back to her, his long fingers meticulously laying syringes upon the table, producing a jar from a briefcase. She couldn’t see the man’s face, but he shifted nervously in the chair. He said things like ‘Did the money reach your account okay?’ and Alexander said nothing.
Faith watched Alexander plunge the needle into the man, heard his cries of pain, his awful, broken voice. The needle filled slowly. She couldn’t see clearly, but was it…black? That couldn’t be his blood. Alexander transferred the substance from syringe to jar, and there it was – thick black sludge that writhed. He trapped it inside the jar.
Moments later, the man left, dazed but grateful. He knew there was something to be grateful for, but he couldn’t remember what. What had Alexander done to this man, to his memory? She had to alert her father. She fumbled for her phone, but the window shot open above her. Alexander grabbed her, pulled her roughly through it. She tried to punch, to kick, but Alexander was swift and nimble.
‘Did you take his memory?’ Faith demanded at last, ‘I saw it! I saw what you did!’
‘We don’t take,’ Alexander said, ‘We remove. And we don’t remove the memories people like to keep.’
‘Who’s “we”?’ Faith asked, but she never got her answer. Alexander lunged at her, needle in hand, those awful eyes, those skeletal fingers. It happened too fast, and she felt the sting of it in her neck.

Faith had always known there were family secrets. Wilkins’ Magic Emporium was her father’s other baby, and Faith adored it. But no matter how much she pleaded, her father never let her work there. Not even once.

Judges Comments

The combination of sinister atmospherics, taut storytelling and a great twist made JJ Steven's Family Secrets stand out as the runner up in our 750-word short story competition.

Within  750 words, JJ has convincingly created an enchanted world – WIlkins' Magic Emporium – and by the end, darkly reinforced its internal logic with a conjuror's sleight of hand. As in all the best fairytales, a condition is imposed, and when Faith breaks it and follows her curiosity to discover what is concealed in the shop at night, she has to bear the consequences. It's compellingly written and very well plotted and executed, with everything building up to the final reveal.

Beyond the effective plotting, much of the pleasure in Family Secrets is in the rich atmosphere JJ creates, and the vivid, well-chosen language he uses to sketch his characters. Alexander was made of angles. Faith poured herself a thunderstorm vial. Later, the horror of what happens to Faith is conveyed in images: those awful eyes, those skeletal fingers.

Family Secrets demonstrates that a lot of story can be packed into a small amount of words, and that amplifying the pivotal scene in the narrative allows the set-up to be brief and the end to be a short, sharp, and in this case creepily unpleasant shock. 

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