One of the Abandoned Boys

Submitted into Contest #152 in response to: Write a story in which a miracle happens — or everyone thinks it did.... view prompt

29 comments

Historical Fiction Horror Kids

This story contains sensitive content

[Content Warning: Claustrophobia]


East Side, London, 1889.


Charlie sobs into the dark. He doesn’t want to be one of the abandoned boys. 


When Patch got stuck, Master Smith left him in there for a week until the landlord complained. They had to break the wall with a hammer to get him out. Charlie hadn’t seen it, but the other apprentices said they found him curled up like he was asleep, but all stiff-like. Patch didn’t sweep any more after that.


Charlie’s knees are level with his chin, his head presses against sweltering bricks, and the brush he was holding is wedged against his backside. 


Stuck.


Wiggling around will only make it worse, so he stays still, thinking. How to get out? 


Little Johnny got stuck once, and he said you just had to suck in your belly real small and push off with your feet. But Johnny isn’t called little for nothing, and besides, he was only five-and-a-half when it happened. It’s usually the older boys who get stuck. 


Like Charlie.


And most of the time, a stuck chimney sweep is a dead chimney sweep. 


His thighs are already cramping up. His left arm is free, so he uses it to push down on one knee, trying to unfold his leg. It won’t budge. His right arm is still pinned above his head, right where it was when he dropped the brush. Somehow it landed behind him, and the bristles poke into his back painfully.


He reaches upward, feeling for a loose brick to pull himself up with. The chimney is so dark he can’t tell the difference if his eyes are open or closed. His fingers brush a soft clump of soot, and it falls onto his face. Already mid-breath, he pulls some into his lungs, and the coughing fit that follows reverberates up and down the shaft. The effort leaves him gasping for air. 


“What’re ye doing up there? Faster, or I’ll burn yer backside raw,” Master Smith hollers from below.


“Help,” Charlie chokes out, but the gloom dampens his words to a whisper. 


Acrid smoke singes his nostrils, and heat licks his bare feet. The fire is meant to make him work faster, but since he can’t move, all it does is scorch the bricks around him. His neck is already blistering from being pressed against the chimney shaft behind. He squirms in panic, but only gets himself wedged deeper. 


“Help,” he screams. “I’m stuck. Master Smith, I’m stuck, sir. Please help.”


The echoes sound like a hundred ghosts are with him inside the chimney. The thought makes Charlie’s stomach churn. What if he isn’t the first sweep to get stuck in here? It’s so dark he would never see a ghost coming.


It takes him a minute to notice that the bricks have cooled.


“Stuck, are yer?” Master Smith shouts.


“Yes, sir. Please, send help,” Charlie shouts back.


There is no reply at first. In his mind Charlie sees the Master contemplating; a fingertip running through his soot-stained beard as he leans on his bundle of sweep brushes. Thinking about how much he’d have to pay to train another chimney sweep. 


“Try and get out,” the Master says.


“I can’t. I’m really stuck, sir. Can someone pull me out?”


“You out of yer mind? Can’t risk losing another one. And yer not even my best sweep. Try and get out, boy.”


Cramps and coughing forgotten, every inch of Charlie’s skin prickles with fear. 


He doesn’t want to be one of the abandoned boys.


“Please, sir. Anybody. Little Johnny, he’ll help me. He will, sir. Please,” Charlie cries. 


But the Master is already gone.


Tears run stark lines through the soot on his face. Snot dribbles out of his nose and into the back of his mouth until he spits it down the shaft. He wipes his face with his free hand, but it only gets gritty specks into his eyes. Blinking really fast just makes it worse.


Charlie cries until he’s sure all the water in his body is gone. His tongue is dry, and his throat makes a rough scratching sound whenever he swallows. Whatever came out of his nose has dried all crusty-like. It pinches his skin whenever he sniffs, which is often. His legs are numb, the bristles in his back feel sharper, and his toes feel like hot pins are poking them. The cramps have spread to his pinned right arm and the back of his neck. 


It was evening when he first scrambled up the chimney; Master Smith said it would be a quick job before Christmas supper. Now, tummy rumbling, Charlie is sure he’s missed all the fun. Christmas is the only day of the year the costermongers give out apples and oranges for free. Carol singers roam the streets and, for once, everyone is smiling. 


He strains his ears, hoping to catch a stray note of music, or any hint of the world outside. All he can hear is his heartbeat and the ragged breaths keeping him alive. But how much longer? He needs food and some water. And he needs to piss.


“Help,” he screams, once, twice, a dozen times more. The chimney shaft magnifies his voice and his fear with it. The echoes are louder now, as if the ghosts are closing in. The bricks are freezing cold. He thrashes about, free hand scrabbling against the walls, but he is no less stuck than before. The walls close in around him, suffocating.


A warm heaviness fills his trousers, spreading to wet his belly and drip down from his toes. Shame smothers Charlie even worse than the soot. If he ever gets out, the others will never forget he pissed himself. Somehow it’s worse than the idea of dying here.


Charlie sobs again as he drifts away. He’s just like Patch.


He’s one of the abandoned boys.


*

O little town of Bethlehem

how still we see thee lie!

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep

the silent stars go by;

yet in thy dark streets shineth

the everlasting light.

The hopes and fears of all the years

are met in thee tonight.

*


Charlie wakes to pain, but he blinks, confused. It is not the pain he expects. He is still stuck, unable to move anything except his left arm, but the cramps throughout his body have faded away to numbness. The brush still pokes him from behind.


The pain that woke him is from his head. Something hard had fallen from the shaft above, bouncing off his head before nestling neatly on his knees. 


He feels for it in the darkness. His fingers brush something firm and rubbery. When he lifts it to his nose, his stomach growls in response.


Bread?


A whoosh echoes from above, like a breath of air, followed by a dull sliding sound. The thing sounds big, but, expecting it this time, Charlie sticks out his arm to block its path. He sets it in between his knees and his chin, feeling all over for the shape. 


A bottle?


"Help," he screams, tilting his head back. "You up there, help me get out!"


Only silence responds, darker than soot.


He calls up the shaft again and again. No response. A sob escapes through dry lips as he looks back to the heavy package on his knees.


The cloth wrapped around the outside is thick and all soft-like. It might be wool. He’s seen it before, worn by the fancy rich people. Charlie’s first thought is that he’s not the biggest apprentice, or the oldest, or even the best, so one of the others is bound to take it from him.


Then he remembers he’s abandoned.


He pulls the cloth across to cover himself. It sits awkwardly, but warms him all the same.


The bottle is big and heavy and has a cork in the top. Charlie rips it out with his teeth, sniffs the liquid inside. It has no smell at all.


Without a second thought, he gulps down so much water that the bottle isn’t heavy anymore. Worried, he shakes it, but the sloshing sound makes him feel better. The bread follows, gobbled up in seconds.


Despite himself, he feels better. His body begins to hurt again, as if it now has the energy to remind him that he’s stuck. The weight of the bottle on his knees is a comfort.


He waits for something else to fall down the shaft. Hours pass. He stays awake as long as he can, but knowing he’ll fall asleep eventually, he folds his left arm over his head for protection. Time and space lose their meaning, since neither of them seem to change.


The next time bread arrives from above, Charlie is awake and waiting. He plucks it out of the air and wolfs it down with the last of the water. A second of regret comes and goes, then, to his surprise, another chunk of bread lands on his knees. 


As he chews, Charlie tries moving again. Still stuck. Worry gnaws at him. How long can someone live all squished-like? What if the food makes him fat and even more stuck? 


He shudders. What if the ghosts are sending food to fatten him up for their supper?


He doesn't scream for help again.


Over what must be days, food and water come through the shaft three more times, but Charlie’s hunger overcomes his fear. He scoffs bread and chugs water until his tummy rumbles again, this time for another reason. He whimpers in shame, unable to hold his night soil any longer. It smears into his trousers and the watery parts trickle down his ankles. The smell has him wrinkling his nose in disgust. 


The pain in his limbs is unbearable now, a deep ache that makes him weak all over. He bows his head, tears falling again, as he thinks about living the rest of his life in his own muck.  


When they find his body, the other apprentices will laugh and point, saying Charlie pissed and soiled himself to the tune of Ring a Ring o’ Roses


Master Smith will shake his head, muttering that he was good for nothing anyway. He’ll find another chimney sweep. 


Charlie will be forgotten, and that’ll be that.


Abandoned.


*


A soft thud wakes Charlie, so soft he thinks it’s his own heartbeat at first. But it’s not inside his chest. It’s coming from somewhere else, all muffled-like. 


Thud. 


It’s louder. He’s awake now, looking about in panic, even though there is nothing to see.


Thud!


The entire chimney shakes. He cries out in fear, and fear turns to anguish when the half-full bottle of water topples over before he can grab it. Since he hasn’t replaced the cork, all the water pours onto his already-sodden trousers. 


Thud!


Charlie buries his finger in his ear, terrified. He shakes his head over and over. When he imagined the ghosts coming for him, he thought it would be all quiet-like, sneaking through the dark. He never thought they would break the whole chimney down and rip him to pieces. 


THUD. 


The next one is even louder. Fine powder spills from the wall to his left, tickling his nose. He wriggles around and something sharp bites his backside.


THUD. 


Something cracks. He shuts his eyes tight and waits for the pain. Which bone did they break? Which part of him will they eat first?


THUD!


He screams and screams and screams and screams. 


THUD! THUD! THUD! THUD!


The bricks to his left shatter, and all Charlie sees is blinding light.

June 29, 2022 08:16

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29 comments

Zack Powell
18:24 Jun 30, 2022

I didn't have claustrophobia before reading this story, but I might now. Boy, this was a spooky one. Something I love about your writing is how honest it is. I'm sure a lot of people (probably including myself in this generalization) would NOT have written the line "He whimpers in shame, unable to hold his night soil any longer" and the few sentences that follow, and I'm so glad you went in guns blazing and totally unflinching and showed us the full gamut of this horrifying situation. I truly respect writers who don't pull any punches. Make...

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04:10 Jul 01, 2022

Thanks for your insights as always. :) Totally agree about the diversity of horror - and for me anyway, the scariest things are plausible rather than supernatural. I'm happy you say the pacing worked, because I never feel sure about it until I get a second opinion lol Re the carol: I'm still on the fence about it. I was going for a "Christmas miracle" vibe with it, but I don't think I built up the Christmas motif enough to make it effective. My mental image was of Charlie drifting away, fade to black... then I guess the sound of carolers si...

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J.C. Lovero
22:55 Jun 29, 2022

Heya Shuv~ Popping by for a quick read and comment on your story. First things first, I love the voice you have here. Charlie was a likeable character. Really cute when you had him describe things with the -like, stiff-like, crusty-like, soft-like, etc. Really felt like we were inside a kid's head and I was here for it! You did a nice job of describing certain "unpleasant" things by showing us instead of just telling us (like he peed his pants). Plus, thinking about being stuck for days and having those things happen to us is a bit terrify...

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09:06 Jun 30, 2022

Thanks mate. I have you to thank for the stronger opening! You're the best. :) Spoiler alert: he got out!

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Hope Linter
00:50 Jul 09, 2022

At first I thought oh a Charles Dickens derivative but your story was very engaging told through the experience of a young chimney sweep, and you portrayed well his shame being worse than his horrible physical circumstances. I liked the c. carol in the middle, like a lullaby in a horror show Great writing

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23:45 Jul 10, 2022

Thank you Hope, really appreciate the kind comment. :) Love seeing different opinions on the carol - I liked it enough to leave it in!

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Kelsey H
08:35 Jul 08, 2022

I am so late reading everyone's stories this week, thanks to Covid for wiping me out! Ok I actually went caving once years ago, and since then have sworn off going in to a dark tight little space ever again for the rest of my life ... so reading your descriptions of this poor child had me cringing a bit. I could visualize it all too well, and his complete fear and helplessness and the conviction no one was coming to help him, it came across so intensely. The narrator came across really believably as a child who has been forced to grow up fas...

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23:50 Jul 10, 2022

Hi Kelsey! Hope your recovery from COVID has been okay! Thanks so much for this comment. I always look forward to your thoughts on my writing. Looking forward to your next winner. :D

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Carolyn Brown
05:11 Jul 06, 2022

Halfway in I noticed silence burning in my ears and the creeping stiffness in my neck. I was really into the intensity of your story. You captured the child's perspective really well, or perhaps the feeling of being helpless and afraid and alone that might apply equally to someone of any age in the same situation. I would worry about peeing my pants because it's something that's a lot more familiar than death no matter how old I get. Same with thinking about getting fat by eating, or protecting my head from pain. All that scary, but fam...

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23:53 Jul 10, 2022

Thank you Carolyn for such a kind comment. I really appreciate it. :)

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Alex Sultan
20:56 Jul 04, 2022

Hi friend - I really liked how you wrote this. It's a good thriller. I could feel the claustrophobia (best word to describe the piece, imo) in it, and I read through the whole thing fast with how you paced. I especially liked the ending, with how you amped up 'thud'. It was clever.

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00:14 Jul 11, 2022

Hey mate, thanks for the comment. :) You know how to write a thriller so this is high praise!

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Rebecca Miles
06:13 Jul 03, 2022

I loved the context of this: so Dickensian! It was like A Christmas Carol mixed with Oliver. Master Smith was like Fagin with his heart torn out and Charlie a little trapped Oliver left pleading less for his supper, more for his life. I thought the fear of ghosts absolutely spot on, given the historical context and characters you'd crafted: again, for me I loved the possible echoes to Scrooge's three ghosts. It cranked up the tension and I liked the ambiguity of the end. I like to think perhaps little Johnny eas there wielding the pickaxe. I...

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00:13 Jul 11, 2022

Thank you so much Rebecca. I love your comparisons to Dickens - somehow they completely flew over my head whilst writing this!

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Charlotte Morse
09:19 Jul 02, 2022

Hi Shuvayon, I loved your story, THE POV and the detail. Beautifully written. As you brought Christmas in I decided it had to be Santa who would save him, while descending that particular chimney! Do you know who did? Was it Master Smith, on reviewing the cost of training another? Was it the chimney's owner?.... Or will we never know? 🤣 Either way a wonderful piece of work! I posted my first story this week, you're such a good writer, I'd love your feedback.

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00:04 Jul 11, 2022

Hi Charlotte, so sorry for the slow reply, I've been off Reedsy for the last week or so. To answer your question: the food and water down the chimney was a Christmas miracle, so I will leave that to your imagination, and the wall breaking down was Master Smith retrieving his "body" thinking he was dead! Of course, I see you've posted two by now and I'll gladly read them both when I have time. Look out for my comments. :)

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Riel Rosehill
08:52 Jul 02, 2022

Oof Shuv I was on the edge reading this. Poor Charlie! 😱 I agree with what Zack said below about your honest writing - this story is so strong! I could not write something soo real and terrifying. Kudos . The Christmas carol I'm not sure about either - but I just personally dislike Christmas carols so take that with a big pinch of salt from a total grinch, I see why you put it there. Other than that I loved absolutely everything about this - and I was so relieved he had the chance to get out at the end! A Christmas miracle indeed. PS: l...

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00:02 Jul 11, 2022

Hi Riel, slow reply but thanks so much for the comment and read! You made me chuckle calling yourself a grinch lmao

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Seán Mc Nicholl
08:12 Jul 02, 2022

Shuv, what a great story!! Tension throughout! And as I read I kept wanting to stretch out, just to make sure I could! Your descriptions are excellent and you portray the inner thoughts and feelings so true to life. For example his fear that ghosts would get him being bigger than his fear of dying in a chimney. (When I was 5 I fell off a jet ski in Donegal - and my fear was sharks getting me, not the obvious risk of drowning!) - so I thought that was a perfect example of the mind of a child! Brilliant story! Well done!!

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00:00 Jul 11, 2022

Hey mate, slow reply, but thanks for this comment! Always appreciate your reads! And so glad you came through that little accident unscathed hahah

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Katy Borobia
21:15 Jul 01, 2022

A horror story with a happy ending and a Christmas setting - what a pleasure!! Your descriptions are intense, detailed, and perfect. I loved Charlie's character. Maybe I'm just kind of a softie, but I also loved the carol. (And I did think Santa was going to save him!) Honestly the only thing I didn't like was the repeated use of the term "all ___ like." I'd use it more sparingly, besides that it sounds a lot more rural American/Canadian than British, but I could be wrong about that. Well done!

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23:58 Jul 10, 2022

Super late reply but thanks Katy, I really appreciate the comment, and especially the critique! Obviously it was in there to make Charlie more voicy, but I was wondering if I went overboard with it at times, so it's good to hear that from you too lol. Something to work on for next time! And good catch with the accent thing, it didn't even occur to me tbh, but that makes sense now that you mention it!

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Michał Przywara
21:03 Jun 29, 2022

Love it! Terrifying. Poor kid. Great opening, and things move at a steady clip. Lots of tension here, as we learn just how stuck he is, as we mark the passage of time. Charlie's got a great voice here, very believable. I like his preoccupation with ghosts, and the prospect of being shamed for soiling himself being worse than dying is fitting. I don't know who or what fed him. Initially I thought it might have been a bird accidentally dropping bread, but then the other things came. Doesn't really matter who though. When Smith lit an enc...

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21:54 Jun 29, 2022

LOL the middle manager thing. Great observation. I’m so happy the voice came through and was believable! Re the bread, you’re pretty much spot on - it’s deliberately left vague. Miracles are most interesting when they’re left to the reader’s imagination, I reckon. Love the title of your new story! Can’t wait to read it. :)

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Claire Lindsey
15:03 Jun 29, 2022

Glad you put a horror tag on this because my heart is still pounding from those first couple paragraphs. The Christmas carol you added lands perfectly, especially when applied to Charlie’s predicament. Not sure what it was about it, but that little segment got me. I was also impressed by how precise your descriptive imagery was—I felt like I was stuck right there with Charlie. One thing that I wondered was why Charlie didn’t try to talk to whoever brought him food. Like asking who it is or pleading for them to go tell someone to get him...

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21:49 Jun 29, 2022

Hi Claire, really appreciate your comment. :) I’m so glad you liked the Christmas carol - I was unsure about it, but the lyrics seemed to fit the theme of a “Christmas miracle” lol. I love your suggestion. It makes perfect sense and I’m gonna add it in when I have time. Thanks so much! Looking forward to reading your latest story later today. 😄

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Claire Lindsey
22:19 Jun 29, 2022

Yes--leave the carol!! I thought the imagery in the lyrics add an extra layer to Charlie’s situation, too (“how still we see thee lie” feels ironically appropriate)

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Aesha Amin
11:23 Jun 29, 2022

I love how it’s so obvious the narrator is a young boy. It really comes out from the way he’s so scared of ghosts eating him up, of being being abandoned (as someone of any age would be but a young boy would obviously mull over it more), of being embarrassed of the most basic bodily functions. I know there’s so much more that stood out just as much as this did, but the fact that you wrote a character so well was amazing to me. Thanks for sharing!

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21:45 Jun 29, 2022

Hey thanks so much! It’s the first time I’ve written a child POV this way so that’s nice to hear. 😄

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