shhh. shhh.

Sarah keeps having nightmares. More than normal for kids her age.

Sarah runs. She runs and runs down an alley, chased by the same monster that haunts her in all her other nightmares. It's a humanoid figure, its skin entirely covered in black marker, as if it tried to scratch itself out of existence. And the chanting. It's always chanting. As it chases Sarah down the alley, it says over and over,

shhh. shhh.

Sarah keeps running. It's getting harder and harder to breathe. Finally, light. She can see the end of the alleyway. There's someone there. It's her mother, back turned, walking away. Run. Sarah tries to sprint, but the dark figure catches her, and tightly clasps its hands around her mouth.

shhh. shhh. shhh.

Sarah tries to scream out to her mother. Mom! There's no sound. There's no air. She can't breathe. She screams harder. Mom! Please stop! Mom! Her mother doesn't stop, but the figure's chanting does. The figure lets Sarah go. It's silent for a while. Then, it softly mutters,

i can't do this. i can't do this.

The figure slinks away back into the alley, with what should be its face buried in its hands. It almost looks as if it's weeping. Sarah looks behind her. It's gone. Sarah looks at the end of the alley. Her mother is gone. Sarah holds her breath for a moment. Finally, she inhales. Finally, she screams. Finally, she wakes up.

There's something sitting on her face. She pushes it away.

Oh, she sighs with relief, it's just a pillow.

. . .

originally posted on /r/WritingPrompts

Behind The Scenes:

Wow, I reflected on the Nothing To Hide demo, my storywriting skills suck.

Practice. That's what I need. So, I'm going to try to write once a day, starting today, starting with this short story. I wrote this in about an hour, in response to this writing prompt:

You are in an alley being chased by something dark. Just ahead there are people walking by the street. You try to scream but there is no air left in your lungs. You manage to draw a full breath but when you open your mouth to scream all the air is gone.

I wanted to avoid the obvious horror angle. To be honest, the above prompt is a somewhat cliché horror premise. And I should add some sadness. Everyone loves sad stories. Sadness... lack of air? Suffocation? A parent smothering her child! Brilliant! I shouldn't be this excited to write about a distraught mother pushing a pillow onto her sleeping daughter's head.

See? That's me giving away a punchline.

That's another thing that sucked about the Nothing To Hide demo. It's more hamfisted than a kinky night with Porky Pig. All the press who gave the game praise had some form of the disclaimer, “the story may not be subtle, but...”

That's what I attempted with this story. I wrote the ending first, and initially, I was going to make it more on-the-nose, with Sarah walking out of her room to find her mother drinking and crying. Later, I cut that down to just Sarah discovering the pillow, and not even realizing what just happened. I leave it up to the reader to connect the dots.

I also found myself evolving the story as I wrote it. I was going to follow the prompt and write that a crowd of people were walking past the alleyway, but the story would feel cleaner and more compact if I used that moment to hint at Sarah's anxiety of her mother abandoning her. I wrote the monster last. I couldn't come up with anything better than the scratched-out-with-marker skin idea.

One thing that sucks about the story I wrote -- I mean, I wrote it on a time limit -- is that I used a lot of the same words... uh... a lot. Especially the first paragraph, which is the reader's first impression of the story. Oh well.

All in all, constraints are good for creativity! I would have had a much more on-the-nose unsubtle story if it weren't for time/space limits. And while the roughness of the story shows, the more I practice with this quick short storywriting, the better I'll get at the craft.