QandA with Author Kateri Stanley

How will Stripe cope with the revelations that challenge everything she has ever known? — Forgive Me by @sal_writes

Can you, for those who don’t know you already, tell something about yourself and how you became an author? / What is something unique/quirky about you?

Hi there. I’m Kateri Stanley, a fiction writer from the West Midlands, in the United Kingdom. Like most writers, I started creating as a kid, scribbling characters that would never see the light of day and I posted fanfiction online as a teenager. I wrote novelettes, novellas and dabbled in the online audio community creating scripts which were brought to life by talented, aspiring and professional voice actors. 

In 2015, I started writing my debut novel, Forgive Me. A dark themed sci-fi horror. 

I uploaded earlier drafts on Wattpad (recommended to me by a friend) and I received brilliant feedback from beta readers. After working on several drafts over the years, I submitted the novel to literary agents. It got rejected. Many times. I came across an indie press house, darkstroke books. I really liked their eclectic choice of books. I sent them a sample of Forgive Me, they wanted to see more… and they published it!  

I’m attracted to stories about unusual, heart pulsing situations or a character’s emotional state. These could range from the ordinary to the ominous. It doesn’t matter what the genre is. When I’m creating, I’m on the same ride as the reader. I want to see how the plot unravels and how the characters uncoil themselves from the drama. 

Writing is therapeutic. I love creating my own rules and laws. I become the engineer of my own world for a reader’s escapism. It’s also provided me many opportunities to explore negative experiences and emotions I’ve engaged with in my life. 

A funny fact for you. When I was online dating, a potential suitor read a short horror story I wrote called Eat Her Alive. It disturbed him so much he didn’t know how to talk to me so… I got blocked. I saw this guy on the train going home from work and I’ve never seen someone walk away so fast. 😊 This short story is available to read on my website if you’re curious. 😉 

Tell us about the main characters 

Susan ‘Stripe’ McLachlan, an investigative journalist for Titan News is in the middle of a media storm after the recent publication of a controversial article. Stripe is the kind of person who should be on crime podcasts. Her work’s praised and heavily criticised, causing some to send her death threats. Stripe is deeply passionate about her job but cannot seem to shake off the public and personal association tied to her name. It’s the reason she’s hounded by keen documentarians for interview requests. 

In the 90’s, there was a string of heinous murders. The serial killer, nicknamed the Night Scrawler by the media would sneak into people’s homes, butcher them with an axe in their sleep and scribble lurid messages on the walls in their blood. One of the victims of this uncaught killer was a member of Stripe’s family, her father.

After the comedown of her recent article, Stripe is commissioned by Isaac Payne, a business entrepreneur to advertise his website. At their first meeting, he’s nervous and he stammers a lot when he speaks. Why should he be anxious around her?

This tall, dark haired, ice blue eyed guy intrigues Stripe. As she learns more about her new client, Stripe digs up fresh secrets about the murders, arousing her suspicions. After an awkward confrontation, she wakes up in Isaac’s bed — with a chain around her ankle.

What inspired you to write this book?

Forgive Me is inspired from a myriad of subjects. I won’t talk about all of them because we’ll be here all day, haha.  

The first bite of inspiration was from an interaction on MySpace ages ago. I used to do online roleplaying; I know it’s nerdy but it was brilliant writing practice. I co-wrote a creepy story where my character had been kidnapped. This collaboration planted a seed in my mind and in 2015, on the way home from work, I thought about a man watching a woman from a tree outside her home. It was dark, erotic and emotional. So, I put pen to paper and the story developed from there. 

Music and movies. I listen to music when I write. It helps me concentrate. Certain songs have helped me channel a character’s feelings and in a way, choregraph an action scene. I keep a playlist for each project. Wes Craven’s Scream inspired one of the scenes in this novel and I watched a pretty distressing moment from Cold Mountain. It angered me and I used this to type out certain scenes.   

Urban legends and creepypastas. If you’re a horror fan, you may have heard of the Candyman, Bloody Mary, Laughing Jack, Jeff the Killer, Ticci Toby etc. My first experience with horror was not from a movie or novel, it was creepy stories told to me by my friends or family members. I wanted to recreate this atmosphere in my work. 

Curiosity – like all fiction writers, I wrote Forgive Me because I had to know what was going on. 

Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?

It’s tricky. If Bret Easton Ellis, Anne Rice and Thomas Harris hadn’t dived in with their original creations, we wouldn’t have the sinister characters of Patrick Bateman, Lestat de Lioncourt and Hannibal Lecter. 

I’m a big believer in writing what interests you. This also means writing what scares you, if you’re questioning something etc. 

I want to be as original as I can as a writer but I don’t want to bore or switch off a reader. I want to deliver an amazing thrilling experience. Sadly, I can’t please everyone. 

Have you written any other books that are not published? 

I have three short stories available to read on my website. 

Hard Way Home – a supernatural/mystery thriller. Jackie works in a dead-end job at the Shop and Drop and is secretly planning her suicide. News breaks out that her hero Brandon Rivers, notorious drug troubled lead singer of grunge rock band Fall Into Place has escaped Holy Cross Hospital. On her way home from work, Jackie is attacked by two drunken men, but is rescued by a mysterious stranger who she discovers looks exactly like the infamous musician. From his stance, to his voice, to the iconic Egyptian eye tattoo on his neck. The only thing that is different is the colour of his eyes and when questioned, he insists that he is not Brandon Rivers but has come to give Jackie an important warning. This story marks my first original idea for fiction and was heavily based on my first experience dealing with a deep spiral of depression. You can also watch the trailer which had a director and an actress star in it! It was my first experience where something I’d written was brought to life for the screen. 😊 

Eat Her Alive – a supernatural horror. Eric Rolla didn’t expect his life to end so soon after a night out celebrating with his friends. He didn’t ask to be made into the undead. After bumping into you one evening (yes, you the reader), he wants to tell you his story, but you may not like what he has to say about his new life. This is the story I mentioned earlier that got me blocked when I was online dating. XD 

Shelter – a YA semi futuristic drama. Sadie Richardson didn’t see the big deal of sneaking out of school until she is given the ultimate punishment, detention in the freezing sports hall of Kinterton College. Along for the ride is the notoriously mean-spirited Jack Keeling and voiceless Reese Talley. Two souls she’d rather not spend the duration of her sentence with. But just when things can’t get any worse, Sadie hears the siren. A beta reader told me to turn this into a full-length novel. I’m still thinking whether I should or not.  

Forgive Me
by Kateri Stanley
Genre: SciFi, Horror, Thriller

A secret video tape. A painful truth. A quest for revenge.

Investigative journalist, Susan ‘Stripe’ McLachlan, is constantly hounded by eager documentarians for interview requests about the Night Scrawler murders. One of the victims of the mysterious serial killer was a member of her own family, her father.

At the peak of her career, her services are sought by Isaac Payne who commissions her to write an article for his website. Usually, her projects delve into more uncomfortable, questionable topics, but there’s a deep, almost hauntingly familiar pull about her new client that intrigues her.

As she learns more about Isaac, Stripe digs up fresh secrets about the murders, arousing her suspicions. After an awkward confrontation, she wakes up in Isaac’s bed — with a chain around her ankle.

Isaac shows her harrowing footage on an old VHS tape. The contents hits close to home…closer than Stripe ever imagined. Now, she has to wrestle with her own moral compass and unpick the truth from the web of lies that turn into a crescendo where memories created from misery and suffering cannot be silenced.

Will Isaac ever lay the past to rest? And how will Stripe cope with the revelations that challenge everything she has ever known?

Goodreads * Amazon

Read an excerpt:

Chapter One

Summer 2017

I see the click and switch when you turn off the television. I hear your heartbeat when you climb up the stairs. I can feel your soft bare feet on the carpet as you walk into your bedroom.

The night is peculiarly tranquil when I come to visit you. I try to keep my tread light as I step across the arms of the branches. The closer you are to me, the more I want to see you. I should know better. I shouldn’t be here, but I guess I’m just like any hot-blooded man. I’m weak. I’m drawn to you. I can’t stay away.

I hold on to the branches, easing my way across so I can see you. I smell the perfume you wore today, the wine you drank lingers on your lips. My heart pounds in my chest. One single snag and I’m done for. You’d know I was here, creeping around, spying on you.

I wouldn’t visit during the day because you of all people should know that I was made to be hidden, to pounce when the moment is right. I’m not here tonight to track and trace. Remember, I wouldn’t ever… ever harm you.

You waft out from the darkness, staring from your bedroom window. You tap your finger against your chest, you’re worried about something and I know why.

The authorities are hunting for me.

I know you’ve been tracking my every move. You’ve been searching and reading and ringing people. You’ve kept a keen eye on the news. The stories are rife. I know what they call me. But they don’t know the true tale or what my makers did.

I know about the urban legend. Some say I’m as tall as a tree, others say I wear a gas mask when I mutilate my victims. Some of the details make me laugh and frankly, some of them make me sad.

If I were to rewind the clock and undo the past, then I wouldn’t have met you. You wouldn’t know what you know and we wouldn’t have…

I tremble as I think about it.

That kiss…

Your words, your skin…

Do you remember it? Do you ever think about it?

Hang on, forget what I said. Look, I took something precious from you many years ago. I stole it, ripped it from your heart. If things were different, I’d be inside this house, beside you, loving you – but you probably hate me. I don’t blame you at all if you do – and if you don’t, you should. I wish I could leave this alone, but I have something to do and I can’t ignore it, not this time. Neglecting the wounds will just make the infection worse.

Something screams from inside the house and you move from the window, disappearing into the darkness. Worry bubbles up from my core. I hope it’s not anything insidious or I’ll slash it to shreds.

Minutes trickle by and you haven’t returned. Where have you gone?

Scream or make a gesture and I’ll help you. If something bad is there, tell me and I’ll get rid of it.

Where are you?

My heart slows when I feel your presence. Your heartbeat echoes in my ears. You’re calm, but there’s another beat. You emerge from the darkness again and I can’t breathe as I see it.

Perched against your chest, nuzzled by your shoulder. You cradle it so dearly. I want to cry at the sight of it.

No…

No, don’t.

Pull yourself together.

But there it is, there she is… The little life clings to your robe.

She has a crown of dark hair and ice blue eyes. I wish she didn’t have those features. I’ve never been so… scared of anything before. I can imagine you laughing right now. When it comes to something like me – I’m what people are frightened of. I’m the entity teenagers tell, at sleepovers, to scare their friends. I’m the one bereaved family members try to summon with their Ouija boards.

Her cry is sickly. She has a fever. She’s been having nightmares, I can tell. I hope she doesn’t dream about me. That’s the last thing I want.

You sway slightly, moving from left to right. You hum under your breath, a melody I remember from years ago when you first found me. You cup her tiny head in your palm, breathing tentatively as you sing. You’re a wonderful mother.

You cradle your daughter. Our daughter.

Her little cry begins to simmer. She’s falling asleep again, she feels safe. She’s in the best place.

You rock her and stare out of the window.

I’m here, but you can’t see me. I wonder how you’d react if you knew I was here. Would you be repulsed?

I want to be able to knock on your door like any civilian and have the courage to do it. But we don’t live in that world. If it existed, it wouldn’t be full of monsters like me or others we have come across together. You know what I’m talking about.

If she ever asks who her father is, or where he might be, make something up. Say I was a soldier who died serving his country, or I passed away from some natural disaster. Please, don’t tell her what I am or what I’ve done. I don’t want our child growing up hating me, and I don’t want her childhood wrecked like mine was.

She may grow curious in the future. If she ever starts to ask questions, you’ve got to promise you will stop her. Don’t let her investigate.

I can tell you know new things because your face shivers with concern. You must understand, not everything written about me is true. Some of the details in the news must make you sick, but I’m not responsible for its entirety.

As our baby girl falls asleep on your shoulder, a flame of a smile dances across your lips. You look out to the trees where I’m hiding and for a flash, your gaze locks with mine. You know I’m here, don’t you?

You stare at me for just a second, then your eyes dart down to our child. The innocent beauty is consumed by her dreams. She won’t be having anymore nightmares, not for tonight anyway. I’m just sorry for you and our little one.

Your eyelids start to hover. You must go to sleep. I’ll be back, sometime. I’m not going anywhere. I wouldn’t leave you but… if things do come to desperate measures, I just hope I won’t need your help. You’re the only one who understands what happened to me.

You still stand there, watching, on guard. The way you’re stationed reminds me of a time when things were different, when you stood before me, your expression wild and curious, when the innocent girl revealed she wasn’t scared of a monster. When she…

No, I won’t go there. That time is long gone now. Those moments are in the stars, unreachable and distant.

I remember waking up and finding you gone, your scent all over me like droplets of morning dew. Now I know why you ran, but I don’t understand why you’d keep digging for answers.

You move to the side of the window and pull the blind. All I can see is your silhouette.

I feel your footsteps as you put our daughter to sleep. I hear the switch of the baby monitor and her little whimper. I sense the sweep of your gown falling against your legs when you wrap your limbs into the bed covers. I close my eyes for a second, I wish your arms were around me.

My hunger and desire grow like the sun in the dawn. I can taste your skin all over again, hearing you gasp and pant against my neck. But I can’t stay in the past anymore. I’d willingly drown in that memory if I could.

I feel you falling into your dreams. You do it so easily.

I wait for a while until I’m certain you’re both at peace. I climb down quietly from the trees and focus on the house. Please, stay out of this from now on. I know how your mind works. Once you grab a theory hot in your blood, you will hunt and seek it out until you get answers. Maybe, the news will churn out viler content and you will stay away, for good.

I walk across the front garden, fleeing from the house. I say a prayer for you and our child. I love the both of you so much.

Forget about me, please. But, now and then, maybe when you’re alone.

Remember me.

Chapter Two

Winter 2015

Stripe McLachlan strode out of the meeting room feeling like she could soar. She nailed her assignment before the deadline and it was the correct length. After the editing team worked their magic, it had been live for a couple of days and the readers were lapping it up.

She skipped back to her cubicle, carrying a steaming mug of coffee, and found an email from her boss blinking unread.

Another scoop! Hi Stripe,

I’ve got something different for you this time. Please find the necessary info attached.

See what you can make of it

.

Well done on the Charles Libby project. You should check our Facebook page, the comments and likes are reeling in, not all of them are encouraging but you know the drill. Keep putting your stripes on.

By the way, you were personally asked by the CEO to scope this out. One thing about journalism is getting your name out there.

Have fun! Kind regards, Carla Dixon Lead Editor Titan News

She smiled, thinking the stripe line was pretty cheesy, but she’d managed to impress the ice queen, an unofficial nickname for the boss of the floor. Stripe clicked on the link embedded in the email and her screen flooded with the pleasant face of Isaac Payne.

Dishy, she thought as she read his biography.

He was the founder of a website called Virtisan. It had gotten some intrigued hearts beating, not as big as Facebook, MySpace or YouTube, but it was doing well from a statistical point of view. The request was to write an article to advertise his business.

Yawn. This isn’t my field at all. I’m not into marketing. She usually wrote meatier, darker stories with interesting backgrounds and peculiar lead characters. Just like her last assignment, the tragic life of Charles Libby. The project had taken three months to complete and she was traveling back and forth to New York, and conducting research and interviewing in Los Angeles. Charles Libby had survived an abusive family who also happened to be practicing Satanists. His story was a chronicle of good morals. He’d pulled through some pretty horrific events.

She scanned the Titan News Facebook page, scrolling through as she sipped her coffee, laughing under her breath at some of the comments. There was the occasional ‘bitch’ swirled into the mix with people participating in virtual punch-ups about her work.

Stripe picked up her phone and dialed the number on the Virtisan website. “Hello, can I speak to Isaac Payne?” A young kid of eighteen or so answered on the other end. “Yes, I’ll hold. I’m Stripe McLachlan.” She laughed when she heard their judgment. “Yeah, it’s a weird name. You should ask my parents why they gave it to me. I’m an investigative journalist from Titan News. Mr Payne asked for me personally. Thank you.”

As she waited, she tapped her mini Batman figure with the foot of her pen. Even though she didn’t find the subject of Isaac Payne particularly lip-biting, it was a merit. She’d been requested by an outsider because of the texture of her articles, following what Carla had said, she was getting her name and services out there in the big wide world.

Her call filtered through to the CEO, and their conversation exchange seemed pretty rudimentary. Isaac Payne was polite, and appeared to be nervous which she found a little odd especially as he’d requested her help. They’d agreed to meet up at his home in Washington as he wasn’t working at the main office. It would be an hour’s drive, but Stripe could handle long journeys. She was trained for it. Not a juicy story, but it’ll pay the bills.

Another email flooded through to her screen, and her heart sunk when she saw it.

Interview request – Night Scrawler documentary

Dear Miss McLachlan,

I hope this email finds you well.

My name is Max Lewis. I’m a writer and an independent film maker. I’m currently shooting a documentary about the infamous murders back in 1996 and 1997. I was wondering if I could interview you-

Stripe stopped reading and flipped back to the main menu. It’s been years but it still hurts. She clicked on the bin icon hovering over the email and watched it disappear from her screen. She logged out of her computer and texted Carla that she was off on the job. If she needed her, she was available by phone. Then she disappointed her mother, sending an apology text that she wouldn’t be able to attend her tea party and unfortunately couldn’t meet the attractive doctor who was going to make an appearance.

She jabbed Isaac Payne’s address into Google Maps and switched on her audio book. She liked to drive to the sound of a warm voice. A nice story usually made the journeys fly by. It was imperative to be surrounded by language, crafting and moulding her linguistic skills was a constant fixation in the world of a journalist.

She arrived at Isaac Payne’s home. He lived on the heel of the Washington State Park reservation. As she parked up, she gazed at the endless sea of trees which stood towering and intimidating. The sight before her was breath-taking. This place feels lonely. Why would anybody want to live here? She understood its therapeutic attraction. It was an ideal place for a weekend retreat, for a company to participate in team building. She couldn’t live in a place like this full-time. It reminded her too much of the cabin she used to stay in with her parents when she was a kid. Stripe lugged
her equipment out of her car. Don’t go down there. You don’t want to roam, not now.

“St-Stripe McLachlan?” a voice drifted from behind her.

She turned, gazing up at Isaac Payne, the person who’d asked for her.

Isaac was tall, statuesque even. She wouldn’t have been surprised if he worked out or took part in athletics. She could see the light touch of muscle under his crisp blue shirt, it matched the colour of his eyes. His dark brown hair was short and shiny. He clearly took pride in his appearance. She observed him, a wave of familiarity washed over her for a moment. She wasn’t sure where it had come from.

“Hi there, I’m Stripe. It’s nice to meet you.” She walked up to him, holding her palm out. It was always good to make the first gesture when meeting clients. “Sorry, I was just surveying the beautiful surroundings. How come you live so far from your office?”

“This place helps me think,” Isaac replied. “I don’t want to be constantly reminded of computers and a concrete jungle when I want to relax.”

“I agree. What made you want to live here particularly?”

“I like nature.”

“You must be drowning in house bills.”

“It’s worth it for the view.” Isaac smiled. “Please, come in. Do you need help with carrying your equipment?”

“No, I’m fine, thanks.”

Isaac welcomed her inside, graciously taking her jacket. He was making a good impression, most CEOs were old, with life experience etched around their eyes, especially the people Stripe had encountered.

He offered her a coffee and she asked where she could set up her recording materials. He moved to the kitchen and Stripe was taken back at the interior layout. It matched the pristine representation of perfection, like the inside of a home furniture catalogue. The place was immaculate, and she saw the laptop on the work surface.

“You and I must think alike,” Stripe said. “I like to work in the kitchen too.” She looked around and saw the giant trees from outside. “It’s nice how open this place is.”

“It’s one of the reasons I wanted to live here, apart from the views,” Isaac said. “The acoustics are good too. I like the noise of rain against the windows. It’s quite soothing. Do you?”

He’s a sweetie. “Yeah, sure.”

Stripe clocked Isaac’s apprehension, especially when he saw her gear. They looked daunting to the untrained eye. He agreed to wear a microphone. She laughed at him, not intentionally, he reminded her of a deer in headlights. “Don’t be nervous. I don’t bite.”

Isaac smiled with unease, especially when she leaned close and attached the microphone to the collar of his shirt. Stripe began with an exercise as he was clearly nervous. She asked him random questions like his favourite basketball team and so forth. They got into the rhythm and the topic of his education sprang up.

“I studied engineering at NYU,” he replied during their conversation.

Her heart froze for a moment and she lost track of her thoughts.

“Are you okay?” he asked. “You seem concerned.”

“Yeah, I’m fine. It’s just that I…went to high school with someone who also attended NYU.”

“Who was it?”

“A friend of mine. Cameron…Storms?”

“Name rings a bell. I don’t recall him.”

“It was a she.”

“Oh, yeah, sorry. I remember her now. We… weren’t friends, but she was in the same class as me. She… was a tough cookie.”

“Yeah, she was,” Stripe said, butterflies waking up in her stomach. “Wow, it feels weird talking about her. We’d promised to stay in contact after high school finished. I wrote her a letter but she never got back to me. Probably busy with college, living the high life in the Big Apple I guess.”

“That’s a shame.”

“Anyway, fuck her. This time is about you. Let’s get on with the interview.”

Isaac laughed, showing his teeth. “You’re not a typical journalist, are you?”

“Never heard of a typical journalist before.” Stripe smirked. “You’re not like most CEOs I’ve met.”

His cheeks blossomed a rosy pink and he hid his face fleetingly with his coffee mug. “My colleagues call me Lurch when it comes to my managerial side.”

She frowned. “I’ve seen The Addams Family. Why would they call you that?”

“Because of the way I look. I didn’t get my height and pale complexion by choice.”

“Oh, okay. I can see the association now. Anyway, I always found Lurch to be a gentle giant. He looks terrifying but, on the inside, he’s as sweet as a puppy. I’d take it as a compliment.”

“I do. I’m very lucky that I get on with my co-workers and I hope they know that I appreciate them.”

“You’re very kind.” Stripe grabbed her notepad and announced that her recorder was ready to work. “So, how come you wanted me to interview you?”

“I read your article about Charles Libby. I thought it was wonderful the way you wrote about his life. It was really moving.”

That’s one for the memory banks. “Thank you. I’m glad you enjoyed it. So my latest article made you request for my help?”

“I like your writing style and I felt it would work great for introducing my company.”

“It’s only been out for a couple of days,” she said, laughing under her breath. “The Charles Libby story was pretty dark. Are you absolutely sure you want me to write for you? We’ve got plenty of other journalists back at the office that would do a better job, maybe match the voice you’re looking for as you want to pull in more revenue. I like to map out my articles as if I’m telling a story.”

“I’d like you to write it, Stripe.”

“Are you absolutely sure?”

“I’m certain.”

“Well, I’ve given you a fair warning.”

Isaac smiled, sucking up his coffee. “You have, and I’m happy with your work representing my business.”

“Some critics out there would say you’re making a big mistake.”

“Fuck them.”

Stripe smirked at his remark. “How did you start Virtisan?”

“I got the idea back in college. I was at lectures and seminars during the day, then coding in my dorm room until the early hours of the morning. It took a really long time to get off the ground.”

“I bet it did. Starting your own company isn’t easy. How did it grow?”

“After I graduated, I was working as a computer programmer for a cybersecurity software company and I casually mentioned it to a colleague of mine. They thought it had potential. We brainstormed it, took the idea to a couple of conventions, and I managed to get backers for it.” Isaac adjusted his shirt and cleared his throat. “I wanted to create something where people
wouldn’t feel lonely, where there was someone to talk to, and where they could display their creativity.”

Stripe glanced from taking notes. “How does it work exactly?”

“As easy as setting up an email.” Isaac reached over the work surface and grabbed his laptop. “Do you want to create an account?”

“Sure, go for it.”

Isaac tipped the screen so she could see what he was doing. He helped her through the signing up process. Throughout the conversation, she noticed his eyes would linger, but she shook it off.

Mind back on the job, girl.

“So what would you say is a hobby or pass time of yours?” Isaac asked.

“I like movies.”

“Any particular genre?”

“Horror, science fiction or the occasional crime thriller. You?”

“Not a movie person myself, but I watch them when I have company.” Isaac turned back to the screen. “So I add horror in the search bar and here are your results.”

Stripe saw an endless collection of stories, articles, videos and pictures. “Wow, it’s like a library.” She took over, swiping her finger on the keypad. Her skin came in contact with Isaac’s wrist and he pulled away, muttering something lightly under his breath. She felt a pleasant sensation when it happened. “So what makes this different from any other search engine?”

Isaac smiled, as if he’d been waiting, eagerly excited, to answer. “Everything that you see on here, the content you’re looking at, users have created themselves. It’s nothing like a search engine, more a virtual art gallery.”

“Makes sense with the website name.”

He smirked. “I’m impressed.”

“A hybrid of the words, virtuoso and artisan. Am I right?”

“You’ve done your research on me.”

Of course I did. “Is it a platform for artists?”

“Precisely. But it doesn’t just have to be artwork. It can be anything, from music, news, and journals, to movies. I wanted to make something where people could express their artistic skills and have a podium for publication. It’s a great place if you’re starting out, or if you’re looking to network, or want to get feedback.”

“So if I were an aspiring songwriter, I could upload songs on here?”

“Absolutely, by sound files or sheets of music. Some of our active users are musicians.”

“What about copyright? What if someone steals my work?”

“Unfortunately it’s the internet. Stealing happens, and the web isn’t policed. But it’s something I will not tolerate. Every user who uploads their work has to read and sign a declaration that it is original and theirs. I implemented a piece of software where it scans the internet to see if the work has been uploaded before to catch any thieves. If they were uploading stolen work from another source, they’re permanently banned from the platform.”

“Amazing. I wish I’d had access to something like this back in high school.” Stripe typed a word into the search tab. When she saw the results, she was shocked. I was hoping nothing would come up

.

She clicked on a particular image. The artist had drawn a masked man, his face blurred in the context of a Rorschach test. He was carrying an axe dripping with blood.

“What got you into journalism?” Isaac asked.

She blinked from concentrating. “Oh, I-I’ve always had an interest in people and history. I knew from a young age I wanted to go into the field. Ideally, I’d love to be freelance one day. Do it all my own way but I’ve gotta learn the ropes like any other profession. I knew it was my ideal career when I hit a particular dark curb in my life…” Her voice trailed off as she looked at him. “My dad died on the night of my senior prom.” She motioned towards the painting on the screen. “We reckon this guy got him.”

Isaac’s face drained of colour. “Oh, I…didn’t know. That’s awful. I’m so sorry.” He clicked off the image and went back to the homepage. “I really didn’t know. Carla didn’t mention it and there was nothing on your bio about it.”

Stripe laughed politely. “It’s okay, don’t worry. It’s not something I want people to know about from the get-go. I’m hoping sometime in the future that I could write my own story, maybe make a documentary, but there’s plenty of them swimming around right now. I don’t think I’m ready for something that intense just yet.”

“I feel stupid,” Isaac muttered. “I’m sorry.”

“Why are you apologising? It’s nothing to be embarrassed about. It’s better than being walked up to on the street by some jackass asking me if my daddy was killed by the Night Scrawler.”

“People actually do that?”

“Back in the early years yeah. I think murder and death is an entertainment to some people. When they’re watching it on screen or reading it in the newspaper, it’s like a movie or a sitcom. They don’t really believe it’s real, the power of the screen or page separates them. When it comes to a good crime thriller, people want to know about the murderer, not the family members of the victims. We take a back seat, we’re not interesting. But it’s something I’m okay with talking about now. I’ve had my therapy and it was a long time ago.”

“Did they ever catch the Night Scrawler?”

Stripe shook her head. It’s been years, but it still hurts.

Chapter Three

Spring 1989

Her parents had told her not to venture into the wood. She was never a child to wander off, and she knew the trails like an old friend. She never spoke to strangers and routinely looked left then right before crossing the road. But that was the thing when you’re a kid, nobody trusted you.

Her family visited the same cabin every year. The morning sun was out. Her favourite time to venture. She wasn’t brave enough to go out in the dark just yet. She sung the song her nana had taught her. It was about a princess and a soldier who had fallen in love. They had to keep their romance a secret from her father, the King – a jealous man who wanted to marry her off to a rich noble Lord. It reminded her of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, they loved each other so much, they were willing to take their own lives to be together. It was so powerful yet so sad.

Her momma was asleep in the cabin and her daddy had been called out due to an emergency at work. She never ever got to see him much these days. He was always busy with his job. She wasn’t entirely sure what her daddy did, but what she did know was that he wore loads of long white coats and carried a black suitcase with a great big lock on the buckle.

She turned her attention to the fence which separated her from the wilderness. She knew about the brown bears and wolves in the wood. The cabin site was constantly patrolled by men in green cloaks carrying rifles. She stared towards the unknown. It wouldn’t be harmful to climb up and have a little walk, or could it?

A branch snapped in the distance and the sound made her recoil from her adventurous idea, but it increased her curiosity. She followed the echo; the cracking grew louder and closer to her.
Then she saw something emerge from the clearing.

Don’t talk to strangers, she remembered, holding her breath.

A pair of arms, then legs drifted from the bushes. It didn’t have scales, sharp claws or slobber dripping from its teeth. It wasn’t carrying an axe or wearing a gas mask either. There was nothing remotely monstrous about the figure.

It was a boy.

A child, just like her.

His skin was grey and his clothes were caked in soil and leaves, as if he’d been swallowed by a hurricane. He had a rucksack on his back reminding her of a lonely traveler. The glare he gave made her retreat momentarily, then she saw his hands. They were painted in vibrant crimson streaks.

“Do you need help?” the girl asked.

The boy stared at her, his fists clenched at his sides. “I’m lost,” he said.

“I can get my momma to call someone to take you back home.”

“I… don’t have a home.”

“Why are you so dirty? You’re not meant to be out there. It’s forbidden! The lumberjack will get you!”

“He doesn’t live out there,” the boy said, his eyes darkening as he moved out of the clearing. “You wouldn’t want to be out here. There are monsters everywhere.”

“I’m not scared,” the girl replied with defiance. He was just a kid. “And I’m not scared of you!”

He leaned on the netted fence, peering down at her. “Is that right?”

She froze when she saw his face more clearly. Mud caked his skin. there were purple bruises and cuts on his cheeks. He must have been only a few years older or so. Had someone hurt him?

She didn’t answer his question, he was being mean. The girl stared back, she remembered bright blue glittering orbs hovering before he pulled her closer, his lips finding hers through the netting. He breathed her in, sucking out her energy. His mouth tasted of soil and spit; making her squirm. Her body trembled from his embrace and then she stumbled backwards as he pushed her away.

“Why did you do that?” the girl whispered intimately, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand.

His lips curled into a gratifying smile. There was no response.

“What’s on your hands?” she asked, fear aching in her throat.

The boy glanced at them, the substance was shiny, fresh and new. He hissed like a snake, his face transforming into pure malevolence.

It made her flee back to the cabin. She huddled into the bed with Momma, telling herself she was safe. Maybe her parents were right, perhaps children shouldn’t be trusted.

At breakfast, she told her story about the strange scary boy with the red hands.

“You read far too many of those horror comics,” Momma whispered softly. “You were having a nightmare, darling. Don’t be frightened, we all have them from time to time.”

“But I wasn’t dreaming,” the girl protested. “I was outside, and I saw a boy.”

“I’m locking the cabinet when we get home, Susan. I know you keep going into daddy’s study to read those comics. You know you’re not meant to.”

Arguing with her wasn’t working. Momma had a response for everything. After she’d wolfed down her pancakes and maple syrup, she’d come to a conclusion. Maybe Momma had been right the whole time; she must’ve been dreaming. She certainly had the imagination for it but her supposed dream didn’t explain the hems of her nightdress being dotted with dirt. Maybe she’d sleepwalked, she’d done it before.

The girl was never told that one of the patrol men was found later on in the day. His head had been ripped clean off. The police put his tragic demise down to a ravage attack from a wild bear or wolf, they were known to freely roam wooded areas.

***

Excerpt from Forgive Me by Kateri Stanley. Copyright 2021. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved.

 

Kateri Stanley graduated from The Open University with a degree in Arts and Humanities and worked for the National Health Service for 8 years. When she’s not writing stories, you can find her binge-watching films, creating playlists for her projects and dabbling in the occasional video game. She currently resides in the West Midlands, United Kingdom with her partner. They are hoping to be cat parents soon.

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