First Page Challenge, 1st place winner: "Cloudland"
By Rob McInroy
The American girl got off the bus on the High Street. She wore a jacket too thin and carried a rucksack too heavy. There was a smell in the air, acrid against the heavy damp of the atmosphere, like a fire choking on its own smoke. The girl stopped an old woman and asked directions to the library. There, she sat in the reference section and pulled out the telephone directory, checked for the name Jack Duguid and made a note of the address. A librarian in a kilt loaned her a town plan and she copied it into her notebook and marked the route to Jack Duguid’s house.
She stayed in the library until it closed at five o’clock, then gathered her belongings and walked outside. Her breath fogged the air. Hunger scratched her stomach. She swung her rucksack over her shoulder and walked downhill, past the Meadows and the bridge over the railway cutting until she came to a little row of houses at the end of Broich Road. Beneath the streetlight she checked her map and looked at the Duguid house. There was a precarious gate and a narrow path and a dark doorway. She stood outside and shivered. Inside, nothing moved. She watched for half an hour until darkness fell like a rebuke, then she turned and retraced her steps. Behind her was a patch of green and, at the rear, nicely darkened, a wooden shelter. Ash Harker installed herself in the shelter and watched fog swirling beneath the street lights and ice crystals forming on the pavement.
In this manner night turned. Crieff, last Friday before Christmas, 1984. A north wind blew itself towards the Ochils, trailing frost and snow. The town clung to the Knock hill. Here, five thousand souls slept. Street lights cast shadows over doorways unemployed until morning. A police car passed the shelter three times but didn’t see the troubled watcher within. A sheen of ice covered the pavements and empty roads. Night, time of dreams, unfolded itself. Ash began to shiver, her fingers sore, feet numb. Silence hung black as a blanket. The hours cycled and Ash counted each on its way. The dead sat with her.
Rob McInroy has won four short story competitions in the past year (Hissac, ChipLit Fest, Writing Magazine and the Bedford International Writing Competition). His short stories have been placed or shortlisted in a further sixteen competitions in the past eighteen months. In 2018 he was a winner of the Bradford Literature Festival Northern Noir Crime Novel competition with Cuddies Strip, a novel based on a true crime in 1930s Perthshire. He comes from Scotland but now lives in Yorkshire, England.