Horror Suspense Fiction


The arriving dusk of day began to hide the barren foliage of the oncoming winter. It wasn’t a particularly good example of a day. Heavy cloud cover had hidden any hope of the sun breaking through its defensive shield. The passing of each hour, thickened the ground fog, blanketing the dead garden - that once beautifully presented the epitome of springtime bloom and summer blossom - with ghostly shapes and wildly, imaginative apparitions of hidden memories wisping through its curtain.

Lies were easier to voice, these days. I’ll be right there, I won’t be long, I just need to get something from the garden, were a stalling tactic to avoid questions, accusations, and eventually, unsolicited confrontation.

With nothing to look forward to in his hazy days, Steve Mannum - in the last twelve months - had lost complete control of his life.

A high-flying career in corporate finance came heavily crashing down to earth after a drunken tirade at a meet-and-greet investor dinner with a top Japanese banking minister. Blaming it on nervousness was not enough to prevent Steve’s boss, Jerry, from calling a halt to their professional and personal relationship – a union that survived fifteen years of similar behaviours and embarrassments swept under the corporate rug. Steve’s ultimate dismissal helped to prevent several colleagues from resigning. They had unitedly voiced their concerns and reluctance to work with him any longer, so it was a corrective measure that cleared a dark cloud hanging over the office. However, even with the removal of Steve’s self-imposed liquid culture, the loss of a multimillion-dollar contract was too much stress for Jerry to handle, and on a subsequent business trip to Singapore, he suffered a fatal heart attack, dying alone in his hotel room – a half-eaten bag of peanuts scattered across his vested chest, each peanut symbolic of pieces of Steve he picked up throughout his numerous intoxication stunts. Upon attending Jerry’s funeral, Steve was subjected to an emotional barrage of blame from Jerry’s wife that tipped him over the edge of reason, resulting in his spiralling down into a whirlpool of self-abuse.


There was no reply. Steve had become accustomed to the silent treatment. He has no intelligible recollection of the last time he saw his wife. At some previous, inconspicuous moment; she locked herself in the spare bedroom, retreating from Steve’s drunken stupors, disgusted at the man she once loved who dismissed any suggestion that help was urgently needed to save him evaporating from this world in an alcohol-fuelled, dehydration of spirit. Now and then, he would hear her beckoning him into the house using a vocal tone he was resentfully accustomed to. It meant an ensuing argument was looming, so evasion became the priority focus.

There had been other, more heart wrenching casualties along the way. Steve’s loving and caring daughter, Ashlee; had hurriedly found new accommodation as soon as she turned eighteen - just six months ago. Radio silence took place and any phone calls Steve made to her remained unanswered and ignored.

In rare moments of sobriety, Steve suffered mental episodes of self-loathing, verbally abusing himself for his inner and outer failures to control his addiction. To numb the pain, he paradoxically erased the anguish by drowning his sorrows in whatever hard liquor he could find. His preferred drinking establishment was at the bottom of his garden in the self-built, wooden cubby house he once proudly built for his daughter. Nestled in the large old oak tree that had stood there for centuries, his secret stash of bourbon and tequila was sixteen rope ladder rungs up into another world that was as far away from reality that he could physically get. He could rant and blubber, dance, and sing. In his stupor of eighty-proof imbibing, life was a curse and as soon as he could down substantial quantities of his preferred tipple, equilibrium could go to hell - for whatever that meant. Steve was far from being religious, but that didn’t hold him back from praying nightly to Saint Jose and Father Jack to strike him down and end his torment.

In Steve’s inebriated mind, Daddy’s girl days seemed like eons ago and was just a dissipating recollection of happier times when he would visit his daughter’s christened establishment she called, ‘The Ritz.’ This elevated child’s playground of imagination and escape was a home away from home for ten-year-old Ashlee. It occupied her summer afternoons in the days when dolls and make-believe tea parties were a common occurrence in the Mannum household. There was Missus (sic) Goodfellow, a weathered old Victorian doll with a flickering eyelid, Margie the maid, a shy inoffensive character with short, dark curly hair; and Doctor Tran, the cross-dressing female figurine. In the age of gender identity acceptance, Ashlee welcomed all to her domain. Several other small dolls of colour and mutilation were regular guests of Ashlee’s tea parties. Bigotry and condemnation of the male/female/non-binary orientation in society had no place at Ritz teatime. Physical impairments were of no worry as discrimination in any form was outlawed.

Ashlee was a progressive, intelligent young girl, sensitive to the unfairness this world sometimes presented, and more importantly to a young lady, an equal opportunity tea maker. She always played “Mother.” This was due mainly to the fact that she was the only one present that could willingly move. Her tea at these traditional gatherings, comprised of bottled spring water infused with raspberry cordial - a summer garden delight to encourage conversation that regularly involved childish gossip about the other dolls misgivings, what dresses to put on, and how to cure a headache. Doctor Tran always had an opinion on that as the good doctor was always changing clothes to suit the moment. Missus Goodfellow – on the other hand – remained aloof, silently watching and listening to every word spoken. Anything said out of place and she would often interject with the statement, ”We are not entertained!” A doll of few words, she could cut through an unhealthy topic with a stare that was interrupted with the flickering of her left eyelid – an injury sustained one day when accidentally dropped from the sixteenth rung by a clumsy nine year old. Margie the Maid would just fuss about the tree house, dusting and washing the cups between sittings; however, if anything annoyed her, she would let out a loud growling hiss – due to her talking mechanism destroyed one late summer afternoon by spilled tea that eventually rusted her metal parts. A pull on her cord would be enough to silence a room full of snakes.

Harmless toy afflictions they may be, these innocuous oddities were a reminder of the good times. Their continued presence in the tree house were also a painful connection to the ache caused from reliving those memories.

As he stumbled towards the oak tree, Steve downed the remnants of a bottle of bourbon, reached for the rope ladder, and started the ascent to his hidden stash.

“I’m coming boys and girls,” he sang. “The party crasher is on his way.”

After what seemed an eternity of struggling with the swinging ladder, losing his footing, regaining it, and cursing the rotting rope, Steve reached the summit of his quest and entered the house. To his surprise, every doll was there in attendance. As if in a moment of time past, the Ritz appeared to be open for afternoon tea. The table – adorned in a dusty cotton tablecloth - was curiously laid in preparation for just one guest. Ignoring this anomaly, Steve retrieved a bottle of tequila from under a Mexican-style blanket and quickly unscrewed the cap, gulping several long chugs from it, repeating the process twice – each, after a long intake of breath.

The frigid, dark evening had set heavily upon the once beautiful garden. The rising mist had almost hidden the house from view of the oak tree. Not that it mattered. No visible light could be seen coming from the house. It was just an empty nest now.

A horny owl could be heard in the distance, hooting interruptions to a fox barking for its mate in the foggy meadow beyond the garden.

A light inside the tree house suddenly pierced the darkness, followed immediately by conversational echoes emanating from the same space. The Ritz – long forgotten by its young creator - was awash with sounds similar to polite laughter at a social gathering.

“Who’s there?”

A slumbering Steve mumbled incoherently as he slowly returned to a fragile state of consciousness. The vocal cacophony immediately died down, leaving a deathly silence. Rubbing the palm of his hand into his eyes, he squinted at the brightness of the naked electric bulb flooding the room with sixty full watts of energy. Two empty bottles of tequila clinked together, disturbed by Steve’s legs as he painfully pulled himself to an upright seating position in the cramped quarters. His temporary blurred vision scanned the room. A small table divided him from a gang of dolls of all sizes and description. Not sure of whether he was imagining it or not, they appeared to be staring at him as if waiting for instructions. A brief movement caught his eye. A flickering eyelid seemingly struggling desperately to not flick. Interrupting his full view of the doll was a normal-sized teapot, sat in the middle of the table. Steve’s awakening senses detected the aroma of… raspberry.. wafting through the musty air.

“Tea.. or.. Tipple,” asked a deep, female voice.

Further mocking sounds of chuckling murmured throughout the cabin.

“Silly question,” another voice chimed in.

Steve’s eyesight was shocked into instant 20/20 vision. Eyes wide open and darting from side to side in stunned alertness, he held his breath so he could listen more attentively. Unseen to his peripheral vision, the heads of several dolls were now turned to face Missus Goodfellow – her eyelid flickering more intensely as an uneasy tension filled the small space.

Previously undetected, Doctor Tran appeared at Steve’s right side, standing on a three-pronged, wooden stool. Wearing a white coat with a miniature stethoscope dangling from its breast pocket, Tran’s larger than life moustached fluttered as exhaled breath spoke clearly.

“In my preliminary prognosis, you’ve not long to live Mr. Mannum.”

In terrifying disbelief, Steve backed away towards the elevated entrance to the hut, accidentally knocking an empty tequila bottle through the open entry to the small cabin. A moment’s silence was followed by the sound of glass smashing at the base of the tree.

“You’ve lost the will to, you see. No job, no wife, no family.”

“My wife… she’s in the house,” Steve contradicted.

Doctor Tran’s mouth opened into a devilish grin before priming the calculated and roguish question…

“…Is she?”

Still in a state of alarm, Steve backed up further towards the entrance, then noticed that there were many more cups on the table, all filled with a pinkish liquid.

“Figuratively speaking, you could have chosen tea all of your life,” reasoned Doctor Tran. “However, the choices we make define us,” Tran added.

Your choices defined you, cost you everything that you cherished, and gained you… nothing.”

Believing he was dreaming, Steve shook his head, trying to wake up. You’re not real, he thought – realising that they were all staring at him again.

“You’re all dolls!”

“That may be,” replied Doctor Tran…“ But, we were real in Ashlee’s eyes. Your actions forced her to leave home – without us. Who will invite us to tea now? Because of you, we have been left to rot and decay.”

“I couldn’t help it,” exclaimed Steve, regretfully.

“It’s a disease.”

“You never asked for help.”

Listening intently, was Missus Goodfellow – her eyelid flickering away. After a few moments, it abruptly stopped.

“We are not entertained,” she exclaimed.

The terrifying image of the Victorian doll speaking, panicked Steve. Before he could collect his thoughts, Margie the Maid sprang up into his face.


The lightbulb flickered like Missus Goodfellow’s eyelid and in that moment, Steve vanished. The abject startle from Margie the Maid, caused a jerk reaction, and Steve suddenly found himself in mid-air, plunging slowly backwards, sixteen rungs down towards oblivion. In real time, his freefall lasted a mere two seconds before the incandescent lantern-of-being at the back of his eyes dimmed and finally extinguished. However, in those two precious moments at journey’s end, clarity returned to tell the story he could not tell nor would not face.

As a child, Steve showed great promise. Always top or near the top of his class, he displayed great aptitude for numbers and trends. His father – when sober – doted on him. His mother loved him unconditionally. When Steve was sixteen years old, he witnessed his father assault his mother in a drunken rage, resulting in a lengthy hospital stay. Not wanting to press charges, Steve’s mother absorbed the physical pain, eventually recovering to full health; however, the damaging tug to her heartstrings and her deteriorating mental state caused her to be admitted to a sanitorium for wounded angels. Steve’s father assumed responsibility for raising his son; however, his constant bouts of heavy drinking ended mercifully peaceful one night – never again would he awaken to the pain of sobriety.

“Drinking is a disease,” His father would often say. “If I could stop, I would.”

At eighteen years and six months, Steve enrolled himself in college and began studying to be an accountant. Throughout his days before graduation, he visited his mother weekly at her convalescent home. Unable to recover from the death of the only man she loved, she withdrew into a world of estrangement and isolation. Even the weekly visits of her son could not bring her back to cognisant responsiveness. Seeing his mother in that mental state, consumed the very core of Steve’s analytical capacity, and at one late night college party to celebrate the upcoming graduation ceremony, Steve did something he vowed never to do. He took his first taste of bourbon to drown his sorrows, then another and another until most of his days could not begin without a drink. A chain of reactions within his body’s internal chemistry, created an insatiable thirst. By the time he got his first job as an accountant, Steve was already lost in a liquid forest of intoxicating desire for false courage.

Despite his well-hidden secret, Steve flourished as an accountant. In his fourth year at the firm, his forecasting models were noticed by the directors and Steve’s career as a financial analyst was born. He excelled so well that within six months, he headed up the Asia-Pacific team with access to millions of investment dollars. So proud of his accomplishments, he would continue his weekly visits – rain or shine - to see his mother and tell her about his thriving life. She would gently smile at his achievements - all the way through to meeting his future wife, and the birth of her only granddaughter. However, on the days he visited with the tainted breath of booze wafting into her nostrils, she withdrew deeper into her shell, frightened for her sons’ well-being. Taking this as an affront to his chosen happiness, Steve’s visits tapered off, rematerializing in the odd telephone call to her – followed by his own form of radio silence.

Late one night – the one before his meeting with the Japanese finance minister - Steve received a phone call letting him know that his mother had died. This was the catalyst that started Steve’s transformation into a non-functioning alcoholic. It consumed him. It drove away his wife, it lost his privilege as a father, and it steered him to seeking solace in a tree house, sixteen rungs up.

Two seconds is all it took to realise he could have asked for deliverance at any time. Two seconds of a whole life that had just flashed before his rapidly vanishing existence.

Looking up from ground level, Steve’s final perspective was of the lightbulb casting its glow from the tree house.

“I see the light,” Steve murmured. “It’s beautiful…”

A few solemn, peaceful moments passed, broken by chitter-chatter. Once more amongst the tree house guests, comments regarding dress sense and gossip filled the airwaves.

“Tea or Tipple?” echoed the voice of Doctor Tran.

An assortment of voices chanted, “Tea, of course,” followed by relieved laughter vibrating the old oak tree’s barren branches.

Next morning surfaced with clear skies, contradicting the frosty chill biting through Detective Reynolds’ wool coat. Surveying the deceased body of Steve Mannum, a white-overalled forensics officer interrupted his thoughts.

“Cause of death?” asked Reynolds.

“Not the fall,” was the reply.

 “He missed every protruding branch on the way down. But, discovering a couple of fingernails embedded in the rope ladder, it appears in desperation, he attempted to grab onto a few rungs… unsuccessfully...”

“Then what killed him?”

The Forensic Officer shook his head in compelled compassion.

“The alcohol level in his blood stream was over five times the legal limit for driving – let alone, climbing an unstable and swinging rope ladder while completely off his trolley... However, upon hitting the ground, his neck was violently pierced by the jagged edge of the broken tequila bottle there, severing his jugular... Unfortunately for him, he would have realised his own, sad demise… It pains me to say it but… the drink killed him.”

Reynolds crouched beside Steve’s lifeless corpse.

“Death by misadventure,” concluded Reynolds.

Unobserved by the two men, sixteen rungs above their heads, a gang of dolls watched silently from the tree house entrance, looking down at the ground.

Detective Reynolds acute sense of smell picked up a scent in the air. Sniffing energetically, a smile began to form on his lips.

“I smell Raspberries.”

The forensics officer interrupted.

“Yes, I’ve just opened my flask. It’s herbal tea – raspberry infused. It’s hot… and it’s healthy.”

Reynolds inhaled one more intake of the fruit essence before pulling a white sheet over the expired body.

“Reminds me of summer...”




January 12, 2022 07:14

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Jeremy A. Wall
17:26 Jan 22, 2022

Great writing Chris! The close moments with Steve and the Dolls really shined. Compelling stuff!


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Darrell Grant
22:50 Jan 19, 2022

I liked this troubled mans journey though a bottle filled with a deadly imagination.


Chris Campbell
01:59 Jan 20, 2022

Hi Darrell, Thanks for reading my story. The character is very loosely based on someone I know that used to be a bank manager. I went ahead and read your "Ski Path To Justice" story. Liked it very much. It has a Twilight zone feel about it. I like that.


Darrell Grant
02:51 Jan 20, 2022

thanks you


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Heather Z
13:02 Jan 12, 2022

I loved Missus Goodfellow. “We are not amused.” You really crafted an excellent character here. I really enjoyed this story…your descriptions of the dolls…Steve’s descent into the madness of drink…an excellent read. I was wondering what had fueled his drinking in the first place, although that might be for another story. I loved the line, “evaporating from this world in an alcohol-fuelled, dehydration of spirit. You have a way with words and quite an imagination. Awesome idea for this prompt. Great work.


Chris Campbell
22:51 Jan 12, 2022

Thanks Heather, There will be revisions before deadline day. The reason for Steve's drinking might be for another story, yes. He's loosely based on someone I know; however, I tried to hint at the fact that alcoholism is a disease. Perhaps, I'll clarify that a little more in the revision. I think growing up an only child may have something to do with my creative imagination :) Update: I've renamed the story to "Sixteen Rungs" and provided the reason that started Steve drinking. Thank you for the prompt. If you have time, please take a re-re...


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