A little Friday horror inspired by the Search Engine Stories prompt – Everybody Loves A Winner.
Have a great weekend, everyone!
Andy Rose was jealous of the most popular boy in school. Stephen E Champion.
‘I bet Champion’s not even his real name,’ he would say to anyone who would listen. ‘He’s made it up just to make himself sound good. And what does the E stand for anyway? It’s just so pretentious.’
‘The E was his father’s name but he’ll never say it aloud because it makes him too sad,’ said Andy’s friend, Lorna. ‘His father died when he was a baby. ‘ Lorna had tears in her eyes as she pondered Stephen’s melancholy fatherless fate. She was a little bit in love with Stephen. Andy knew this and his jealousy for Stephen turned to hate. For he was a little bit in love with Lorna.
Andy watched, glowering in the darkest recesses of the playground under the blue gums as Stephen laughed and chatted with his inner circle. He was as shiny as the chocolate coins Andy’s mother left out in red and green bowls for visitors for Christmas.
Lorna hovered, waiting for a break in the circumference of the circle. Andy dreamt of snipers on the rooftop or a mushroom cloud settling over Stephen’s head, turning him to dust.
‘You hate him, don’t you?’ It was Edie, a sometime friend of Andy’s. Sometime, in that sometimes she talked to him, sometimes she didn’t. He called her moody, she preferred whimsical.
‘Who doesn’t?’ Andy replied. ‘Nobody likes a Mr.Perfect.’
‘That’s where you’re wrong,’ said Edie. ‘He’s a winner. Everybody loves a winner.’
‘Well, I don’t,’ Andy said. ‘I can’t stand him.’
‘You’d love to know what it’s like, wouldn’t you? To be that popular. I can see it in your face.’
‘You don’t know what you’re talking about, Edie. I’m happy as I am.’
‘If you say so, Andy.’ She handed him a feather. It was pure white with tiny little specks of black at the tips. ‘But if you change your mind there is a way you can find out what it’s like. Take this feather and go down to the river at night. Go the spot near the old bloodwood tree. Ask for Mr Freddie. Tell him what you want. He’ll help you.’
‘You and your mumbo jumbo,’ Andy said. ‘What a load of crap.’
Andy watched Lorna hover all week, laughing on the outside at everything Stephen said, at everything his right hand man said, at everything the right hand man of his right hand man said. He felt sick to his stomach about it.
Andy kept the feather on the table by his bed all week. It gave him strange dreams of the river at the end of the road, murky green, speckled with golds and oranges in the sunlight like finely ground glass. He didn’t want to admit it, but he felt like the river was calling to him, drawing him in with visions of a different life.
That night he tucked the feather into his jacket and walked down the path at the end of his garden, listening to the fruit bats squabble in the trees, feeling the wind come up from the river like a song.
The river was calm, the water thick as paint. Andy walked along the bank, squinting in the mossy gloom for a sign of the old bloodwood tree. He thought he hadn’t come far enough along the river when he saw it, looming, the spread of its branches dazzling even in the dark.
Andy took out the feather. He waved it around, not knowing what else to do.
‘You want something from me, you bearing one of my feathers.’
The voice was behind him and in front of him. He turned around in circles but could see no one.
‘Where are you?’ Andy asked, his mouth so dry he could barely get out the words.
‘I am everywhere and nowhere.’ The voice seemed to be coming out of the river itself. A tiny series of bubbles rose to the surface as if someone lurked beneath, holding their breath. ‘Tell me what you seek.’
‘I think I’ve changed my mind,’ Andy said. ‘I’m just being silly. I’m going to go now.’
‘The river has called you. She urges you to look within her waters.’
Andy looked. The surface of the water was dim, unmoving, but soon a picture appeared. It was Stephen E Champion, gloating, smug. He was in bed with Lorna.
‘That bastard,’ Andy shouted. ‘I’ll kill him.’
‘Don’t you want to know what it’s like to be the golden one?’ The voice was coming from the trees now. It weaved in and out of the massive roots thrusting through the ground, sinuous as rope.
‘I’d rather he just dropped dead, quite frankly,’ Andy said. ‘Can you arrange that?’
The voice was silent. The surface of the river turned blurry as if a hand was splashing there. A picture of Lorna appeared. She was crying. Stephen E Champion was standing beside her, holding the hand of another girl. Lorna was holding a bottle of pills.
‘She’s not going to kill herself is she?’ Andy cried. ‘Oh no. Oh no. Not because of him.’
‘You can change this,’ said the voice. ‘You can change her too, before it is too late. You can make her turn from the one she loves without harming herself.’
‘How? How do I do it?’ Andy asked.
‘You must wish it. Throw the feather into the river then wish it.’
‘I want to be just like him. I wish I was just like Stephen E Champion.’ Andy threw the feather into the river. It floated softly, like a leaf.
‘The river cannot grant such a wish. You cannot be just like him. You must be him.’
‘You mean I actually have to become him to help Lorna? You’re out of your mind. There is no way I actually want to be him, not even for a moment. That’s it, I’m out of here.’ Andy began to walk away, stumbling on twigs and fallen tree limbs.
‘Then the girl is doomed.’
The ferns by the river rustled. A bird flew low beneath the clouds, its melancholy cry piercing Andy’s heart. He thought of Lorna and of how much he loved her. And of how much she loved Stephen.
‘Alright, alright, I’ll do it.’ Andy strode back to the spot where he had thrown in the feather. It had disappeared. ‘I wish to be Stephen E Champion.’
‘ There is one condition,’ said the voice. ‘There must be an exchange. You for him. Him for you.’
‘Are you saying that if I become him, he becomes me? Oh God, that is just insane.’
‘It is the only way.’
A picture of Lorna appeared on the water. She was lying down on the floor. There was a pool of vomit beside her, an empty bottle of pills. Her lips were grey blue.
‘Alright, I’ll do it. But just for a few days.’
‘Come back three nights from now. The river will change you back. Now wish it.’
‘I wish to be Stephen E Champion.’
The night clouds were plucked from the sky and landed in the water. A wind encircled Andy’s feet, binding him in chains. He felt nauseous, panicked. And then the world went black.
Andy felt like he had been sleeping on cotton wool. The bed was as big as the ones you saw in hotels. The room smelled clean and fresh. There was a book on the nighstand. Andy opened the cover. Written in self-assured, flowery script was the name Stephen E Champion.
‘Shit. Shit. Shit,’ Andy said. He got out of bed and walked into the bathroom. He had his own bathroom. Steeling himself, he looked in the mirror. Stephen E Champion’s face looked back at him in all its perfect beauty.
‘Oh my God, this is really happening.’ Andy felt the panic rise. ‘What am I going to do?’
There was a knock at the door. It opened. Stephen’s mother stood there. She was impeccably dressed. ‘Oh, good, you’re up,’ she said. ‘I have to go to work now. I thought you might need this.’ She handed him some money.
‘This is two hundred dollars,’ Andy stammered.
‘I know my darling. You deserve it. Don’t be late for school.’ Stephen’s mother blew Andy a kiss and left the room.
The day passed with rays of false sunshine. By the time the home bell rang Andy was completely intoxicated, he was basking in the glow of Stephen’s popularity. Teachers loved him, his classmates loved him and sucked up to him in equal measure; even the janitor offered to help him with his woodwork assignment.
Then there was Lorna, all over him like he was Brad Pitt. Andy was ecstatic. Until he saw himself sitting on the benches by the playing fields, drooping, shoulders bowed. It was obvious that Stephen did not like being Andy.
Andy wondered if he should go and talk to Stephen, to himself, but decided it was too weird. He saw Lorna lurking by the school gate and remembered what he had done this for. He had to convince her Stephen wasn’t worth it.
The next morning when the bell rang for Assembly there was an announcement over the loudspeaker.
‘I regret to inform the student body that one of our senior students, Andy Rose, killed himself last night.’ The Principal had a little catch in his voice as if he really cared. Andy had always thought the Principal didn’t like him. ‘Counselling will be offered to any student having difficulty coming to terms with the loss.’
Andy sat in class all day. Numb. He looked all over the school for Edie but one of the teachers told him she had transferred to another school. Lorna wept like her heart would break. ‘He was one of my best friends,’ she cried. Andy, Stephen – he didn’t know who he was anymore, put his arm around the girl he loved and felt like weeping too.
That night he ran to the river.
‘Where are you?’ he screamed. ‘Where are you? I want to go back to being myself. I don’t like being someone else.’
‘That is not possible.’ The voice was right beside him. Andy could see it belonged to a man, small as a child, with a wizened, pinched face.
‘Are you Mr. Freddie?’ Andy asked.
‘Some call me such a name,’ Mr. Freddie replied.
‘You’ve got to help me, Mr. Freddie,’ Andy said. ‘I don’t want to be Stephen anymore.’
‘ Even the river cannot allow it.’ Mr. Freddie plucked a leaf from the bloodwood tree and threw it on to the dull river surface. ‘The other life is gone. There is nowhere for you to go but where you are. What is done cannot be undone.’
‘But there must be a way. Please , you’ve got to help me.’ Andy tried to grab Mr. Freddie, to emphasize his need, but the little man slipped away.
‘Now you are he,’ said Mr. Freddie, from the trees. ‘It is the only way left to you.’
Andy sank to his knees. Desolate, burning with regret. He lay on the ground, listening to the sigh of the river, wishing it would burst its banks and swallow him whole.
He heard leaves crunching behind him and hurried to his feet, hoping Mr. Freddie had returned. It was Lorna.
‘There you are,’ she said. ‘I’ve been looking for you everywhere.’
She took his hand and they walked along the riverbank, slowly, like weary travelers. The river flowed like blood through the night.
‘I love you, Stephen,’ said Lorna.
‘I love you too,’ said Andy.