Safestore's Halloween Spooktacular Writing Competition
We were absolutely overwhelmed with the number of entries we received for our Halloween Writing Competition. Many thanks to everyone who joined in. We’ve just finished reading all of the entries and it’s been an incredibly difficult decision with a lot of discussion in our Marketing Department as the standard was spookily high.
A few notable mentions before we announce the winner
(Click on the links to read the stories in full)
And the winner is…………
Thirty-Seven Degrees by Rob Stringer
Donovan watched the fizzing in the sink, and left the plastic tumbler upside down on the drainer.
“Waste of good champagne,” said Anika over his shoulder.
“I think it’s prosecco.”
“What’s the difference?”
“About forty million bubbles,” said Donovan, then noticing his manager’s surprise, added “My ex made me do a wine tasting evening once. Not really my thing.”
“Mine neither, but hey, it’s tradition.”
They looked over to Reg, who stood quietly beside the company pin board – a safety notice, a sponsorship form, an advert for a 2010 Ford Fiesta. Colleagues patted him on the back as they left the kitchen: Kathy from Customer Support, and her boyfriend Jack with the big black plug earrings. Reg turned slightly to nod his thanks at them. He was tall and stooped, with hair in grey tufts behind his ears.
“He’s like a dog preparing for his final nap,” muttered Anika.
“That’s what retirement is, Donny. Morbid. Mind I never catch you handing in your notice. I plan to keep you here, for ever, and ever and ever.” Anika winked and left.
Donovan was washing his lunchbox when he realised that he and Reg were the only ones left in the room.
“I’d…best head off too. Best of luck.”
“Wait… I need to speak with you.”
Donovan paused. They’d barely shared ten words in the three years since he’d joined the company – not out of any bad blood, it was just that Reg was more the kind to keep to his desk; a desk which was always empty but for the photo of his late wife. He was always there when Donovan arrived in the morning, and always stayed a little longer in the evening.
“Can’t be long,” said Donovan. “Got the afternoon off. Promised my daughter I’d pick her up and do a pumpkin with her.”
The older man nodded.
“That’s a nice thing. Just five minutes.”
Reg traced his way past the rows of brightly coloured, numbered doors. As Sales Advisor, Donovan was mostly upstairs and on the phone or meeting customers, but he knew the kind of stuff that was in the units -– garden furniture hibernating over winter; archives of folders from offices that needed room to breathe; boxes of ornaments from families redecorating their new houses.
Reg turned a corner into a darker corridor that Donovan didn’t think he’d ever been down, and stopped. The placard on the door next to them read 0004.
“Points for dramatic effect,” said Donovan.
Reg stared at Donovan.
“Your girl,” he said. “She’s a big responsibility.”
“She is…What’s this about?”
Reg touched the door.
“You know I’ve been here eighteen years.”
‘Oh god, thought Donovan, ‘He’s having a breakdown.’ He’d heard about this happening, when people retired and didn’t know what else to do. Donovan steadied himself and prepared some words of comfort, hoping Jack or someone else might be around to rescue him.
“Yeah I know, since the company opened. You were in security before that, right?”
“I’ve always respected the importance of keeping things safe. No matter what. That’s what we do, and it’s one of the most important responsibilities you can have.”
Reg looked at him square in the eye for the first time.
“Even if it means not knowing what it is you’re keeping.”
“How do you mean?”
“What if I asked you to look after something, but you could never know exactly what it was?”
“Is this a test?” asked Donovan. “We always know what’s in the units. People could put all sorts of things in there – flammables, weapons… I even get people asking to keep their dogs when they go on holiday.”
“Maybe you’re not the right person.”
“You’re just creeping me out a bit.”
“I need you to do something, for one of our customers. Our best customer.”
“Is this a joke? Some sort of retirement prank.”
“When I started, we had just a few units. About a week after we opened, a young woman came in. Said she needed to store something very precious. Said I was not to see it. I was new, and I didn’t…I didn’t know better.”
“I need you to take this.”
Reg reached up to his neck and removed a chain with a small key attached.
“Does Anika know about this?”
Reg shook his head.
“OK… So who is she?”
“There’s a name on the system. But she doesn’t want to be contacted. She pays us every month, on time. We’ve never had reason to complain or question.”
“But…eighteen years. Are you sure she just hasn’t forgotten? Forgot to cancel the direct debit?”
“Will you do it?”
“Fine,” said Donovan. Then he put the key to the padlock. “Though I think we ought to know-“
“No.” Said Reg firmly, putting his hand over the lock. “You must never ever open it. That’s rule one.”
“There are rules?”
“Rules. You must keep the key with you at all times. That’s rule two. You said you understood the responsibility. This is what it means.”
“OK…” said Donovan, looping the chain round his neck, humouring the older man. “Any more rules?”
“Yes,” said Reginald. “The room must always be kept at thirty-seven degrees.”
“Celsius? That’s hot. What is it? Tropical plants? We can’t store them either.”
“Do you understand?”
“Fine. Thirty-seven degrees. I need to go.”
“Donovan, I need to be clear you understand.”
“Don’t go in, keep the key, thirty-seven degrees. Got it.”
As they left the units, Donovan watched Reg head back up to the office to collect his things. He seemed to walk taller, as if a weight from his shoulders had lifted.
“Give it big eyebrows, like Mr Hobbs who does PE.”
“OK, cheesecake. Big eyebrows.”
Donovan pencilled chunky eyebrows on the pumpkin’s skin. Sasha was playing with the unwanted stringy bits and seeds.
“They feel all…ughhh,” she said.
“You look all ugggh,” said Donovan.
“Can we do cutting now?” she said, reaching for the kitchen knife.
“No,” Donovan said grabbing it away from her. “That’s for daddy to do.”
“Can I show mummy?”
“She’ll see it in an hour.”
“I really think she’ll love it. And I want to put a candle in so that it goes all glowy in the dark. And I want to take it trick and treatering tomorrow.”
“It’s the day after tomorrow, remember? And I think it would be too heavy.”
“Oh. I can put it outside mummy’s door instead.”
“Sure,” said Donovan. “Why not.”
A little later, the table was covered with chunks of orange around a grinning, toothy pumpkin.
“What’s that thingy daddy?”
“What’s what, cheesecake?”
“This thing on your neck.”
She was fingering the silver chain.
“Oh, just a thing for work.”
“Can I see it?”
She was already lifting it over his head.
“Just for a moment.”
“I have a key too, for my um doll house but it’s even smaller than this and you use it to – ow!”
She lifted up her arm where she’d leant on a pair of scissors. Blood seeped from a thin cut. When she saw it, she started to cry.
Donovan had stuck a Peppa Pig plaster on it and calmed her down by the time the doorbell rang.
“I can’t trust you with anything”, said his ex.
“Art. Famous paintings?”
“Too hot for them.”
Donovan’s sister had called just as he’d microwaved a ready meal. The table was still covered in pumpkin flesh.
“Violins. Or guitars or something,” Maggie suggested.
“Still too hot.”
“What’s her name?”
“Clara Van der Lys.”
“Hold on.” Donovan heard Maggie’s fingers flying over her keyboard. “There’s loads about her. She doesn’t seem to do anything, but she’s friends with celebs. She lives in a big house out in the Cotswolds – when she’s not in Monaco. And I need to know the number of her plastic surgeon.”
Donovan wasn’t surprised. It wasn’t the first time he’d witnessed his sister’s Google-stalking prowess.
“Whatever’s in there must be worth loads,” Maggie said.
“Well I’ll never find out.”
“You could though.”
“Are you suggesting I go in?” he asked, taking a mouthful of lasagne.
“I’m not saying you should steal it, but surely it’s worth a peek. Who’ll know?”
The béchamel burnt Donovan’s throat as it went down.
The next morning, he couldn’t take his mind off unit 0004. He waited until lunchtime, when most of his colleagues were in the kitchen, then made his way to the units.
Jack was on the forklift. Donovan gave him a nod, hoping desperately that he looked like he was meant to be there, then turned into the dark corridor.
He removed the chain from his neck, slotted the key into the padlock, and opened the door. The heat smothered him, like getting out of a plane in Greece. The room was empty. ‘She’s paying to heat a room’, he thought.
Then he saw it. A small, rectangular wooden box in the middle of the floor. It was patterned all over with shapes and scrawls that nearly looked like writing.
That’s when he heard the scream. For a moment, he thought it had come from the box, but, no, it was from out in the corridor.
He ran out, locking up behind him, fingers shaking, then sprinted round the corner where he found Jack up against the wall, his foot stuck behind the forklift truck.
“He said it just turned itself on and came straight at him.”
“I don’t believe it.”
“That’s what he said, Maggie. It’s gonna take a few weeks to heal.”
“Even so, it’s not your fault.”
“It happened the exact moment I went in the room.”
“Oh come on, it’s just a coincidence that’s all. It’s not magic. It’s just an expensive box. You’re just getting freaked out cos of Halloween tomorrow.”
“Yeah I get to take Sasha trick or treating.”
“Lucky her. And you won’t even need a mask.”
That night, the thunderstorm was relentless, and Donovan couldn’t sleep. He kept thinking about Jack, then his mind leapt to the day before when Sasha leant on the scissors.
The thing is, he could have sworn he’d put them on the other side of the table. And she’d been injured just as she was taking the key from his neck. He just thanked god it wasn’t something worse.
And despite his sister’s assurances, he couldn’t help but think there was something strange about it all. One coincidence, sure. But two?
He picked his phone up from the bedside cabinet. 3.15am.
He touched the key round his neck again. What if he contacted the client? Reg advised against it but it wasn’t a ‘rule’ was it?
He typed her name into the browser and hit ‘search’.
Maggie was right. Clara was beautiful. He looked at a picture of her at a gala dinner. 1999 it said. She looked about 20. Flicking through, he found another of her at an awards ceremony in 2015. She looked exactly the same. Surely no plastic surgeon was that good.
Lightning flashed through Donovan’s window.
Donovan made a strong coffee, picked up the phone on his desk, and dialled.
“Reg, it’s me.”
A silence, broken by the sound of a child laughing somewhere on the other line.
“I don’t appreciate being called at home, Donovan.”
“I’ll be quick. I just need to know. Things… have been happening, and I need to know why.”
“It’s your responsibility now. You agreed.”
“I know. But it was yours too, and…you stopped me from opening that door because you knew something. Something happened to you once didn’t it?”
“It did didn’t it? Bad things happen if you break the rules. Why?”
“What’s in that unit belongs to one person, and one person alone,” Reg said. “I’m spending time with my family. You should do the same. Don’t call me again.”
The line went dead. Donovan rubbed his eyes, looked at his screen and browsed through his unopened emails. A couple from clients, a timesheet reminder, something from IT about the storm…
He clicked it open.
Several services are currently down. This was caused by an electrical spike from the storms early this morning…
Dread filled Donovan’s stomach. He crossed the office, knocked on Anika’s door and was welcomed in.
“You look like hell. Are you alright?”
“This ‘spike’, what’s it affected?”
“Just some of the servers – it’s no problem.”
“Did it affect the temperature control? In the units?”
“No. Why do you ask?”
Donovan leant against the wall in relief.
“No. No reason. It’s fine.”
“I mean obviously in freak incidents like these the IT chaps take it offline for a few minutes while they check everything, but-.”
“Just for a minute – it’s hardly going to affect anything.”
Donovan could hear his manager calling after him as he sprinted through a corridor to another open-plan office and the server room. It was locked. Anika had caught up, puffing behind him.
“They can’t do it!” said Donovan. “It needs to be thirty-seven degrees!”
“But they’ve…they’ve already done it Donovan. This morning. It’s all sorted.”
Donovan gaped at Anika who shook his head back at him.
“Honestly, I’m not sure you should be in. You don’t look well. Take the rest of the day off, eh? Get some rest. No harm done.”
Donovan looked around the office. People were staring. There were no screams, no alarms.
He nodded at his manager. “Yeah. OK. Not sure what came over me.”
His sister was fine, and the school said Sasha was busy potato printing bat pictures, though Donovan hadn’t been able to explain to either of them why he was checking in on them. He knew how stupid he’d sound.
A chill wind was rattling the last of the rusty leaves on the trees that fringed the car park. He touched the key again, satisfied that it was still in his protection. Perhaps it had been coincidences, he thought. The unit temperature might have dropped for a few minutes that morning, but all was well. Maybe he was just feeling under pressure. A rest at home would be good before picking Sasha up later.
He spun round to see a man standing just a few feet from him. Kindly smile, neat greying beard, long jacket over a smart suit.
“I’ve come to collect my belongings.”
“Oh – I’m actually going home, but one of my colleagues-”
Donovan froze. The man smiled patiently.
“’I’m not sure we have you connected to that account, Mr…”
“I have the paperwork here, Mr West. It’s signed by Ms Van der Lys.”
Donovan knew that with everything that happened, he should feel shocked, that after eighteen years somebody was now coming forward to collect the contents. But something about the man’s demeanour and his warm smile made Donovan relax. This was all completely fine. In fact, hadn’t Donovan been expecting him?
“Of course. I have the key. If you’d like to follow me, I’ll take you -“
“But we just went there together – remember?”
The man pulled something from his pocket. A small ornate wooden box. Donovan’s hands shot up to the chain around his neck. It was gone. His head felt like he’d stood up to quickly.
“Of course we did. I remember now. Sorry, I’m just tired.”
“You look it. You should go home. Take your daughter trick or treating. It’ll be a nice night for it.”
Donovan blinked. He was standing in front of a Fiesta with a ‘For Sale’ sign in the window. Next to it was his own VW Polo. He couldn’t remember crossing the car park.
There was a nagging feeling like he was missing something, but when he tried to remember it, it faded.
He’d probably just forgotten to take the bins out that morning.
Yes, that was it.
Donovan unlocked the car door.
“Sasha, cheesecake, wait for daddy – your mask’s wonky – hang on, Auntie Maggie’s calling.”
Sasha was whooshing around the pavement on her broom outside the house, under the glare of the streetlight.
“What’s up sis? – we’re just leaving.”
“Did you hear?”
“Your mystery client, Van Der Lys. I looked her up again this morning – I know, I know, but I was just thinking how it’s not fair that someone should be so rich and pretty and all that and I was hoping to discover that she’d have some sort of problem – like, I dunno, debts or drugs or something. Anyway, I didn’t find any of that, but-”
“Van Der… I think that account closed today. Sasha! Put that down, you don’t know where it’s been.”
“Too right it’s closed. She died this morning. Hypothermia.”
“I know right? And no one knows how she could’ve gotten that cold while she was in her bed. Did you ever find out what she was storing?”
Words floated through Donovan’s mind. Something about keys, boxes, thirty-seven…
“I don’t think so.”
“Scary, isn’t it,” Maggie continued. “You can have all the money and beauty you could ever ask for, and then one day-”
“Sasha, I said put that down – sorry Maggie. I have to go. Speak soon.”
Sasha came running up to the door.
“Daddy – the pumpkin!”
Donovan got a box of matches from a drawer in the hallway, and bent down to light the candle. Sasha waved her hand in front of its glowing face.
“I don’t get light,” said Sasha as Donovan shook out the match’s flame.
“What do you mean?”
“Well you can put your hand in it and it doesn’t weigh nothing but you know it’s there. A little candle can fill a whole room.”
“I suppose. What did you do to your arm, cheesecake? The Peppa Pig plaster?”
Donovan locked the door, took his daughter’s hand and joined the other ghouls and monsters on the street, while the pumpkin flickered behind them.
We had numerous reasons for picking ‘Thirty-seven Degrees’ as the winning story; it was full of suspense, incredibly detailed, well thought out and superbly written. We love the plot twist and wanted the story to go on…does anything happen to Donovan?! Is he okay?!
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