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GKBC International Short Story Competition – Second Place’s Story


A close second to the GKBC International Short Story Competition goes to Gareth Spark’s wonderfully thrilling yarn, American Tan. Very well done, Gareth. Your story is for all to see below.

American Tan
by Gareth Spark


By now, the coppers have the farmhouse surrounded. They shout something through a bullhorn but the last shot took out my hearing and all I pick up is the dull sound of a voice, not words, just the drone of authority beneath the ringing of my busted ears.

My brother, Jimmy, is on the floor beside me. Police marksmen shot him through the face ten minutes ago. He was always a touch crazy. He’d stood in the window with Dad’s old shotgun, firing at them as they came up from the low road. I see his feet from the corner of my eye, Primark trainers wet with blood, toes pointed up at a curtain wandering in the breeze. He was born in this room and now he’s died in it, funny how things turn out. I’ve seen worse in Afghanland, course I have, but this is Jim. I want that image out of my head. I think back to the last time Judy and me were happy and it works for a spell.

Check the chamber of the pistol; one in the spout and after that, I’m done. The room stinks of blood and smoke, hell, my whole life has been blood and smoke, but I never thought I’d bring it here. The picture of Mam and Dad on Jimmy’s bedside cabinet catches the sun and I turn from the glare, push hard against the dusty wall, bleeding where the auld man in the village post office stuck me with a blade. No way out this time, no way at all. Damn it; I’m having a ciggie first.

Jimmy had the idea about a week back, pestered me with it through loveless days filled with cider and skunk. I was trying to get over her leaving like that, and some other things I will not go into, and Jim had troubles of his own. He mortgaged the farm a year after liver cancer dragged the auld man off, and couldn’t keep up with the payments. Now he was in hock to loan sharks from the Borough an’ all and hadn’t a penny to give ’em. He spent everything he had on drink.  They were going to break his legs. ‘Come on, Digger,’ he kept saying, ‘can’t trust anyone else; you ride the bike, that’s all. There’s a couple of grand in it, you can’t go wrong.’ Yeah, Jim, you can’t go wrong. 

We wore tights over our heads as disguise, same type me Mam used to send me to the village shop for when I was a bairn, American tan, she always used to say, get us a pair of American tan. It was a joke. I kept the bike revved up in front of Ruswarp post office; it was a dirt bike. We used it for scrambling round the farm. The sun scorched the village high street, and the tights stuck to the sweat on my lip as the bike turned over, stinking of hot metal and petrol fumes. I saw the steel bridge over the Esk ahead, blue and shimmering in the heat and thought for a moment we might even get away with it. I saw us racing away in that July haze, when I heard the shotgun bark and a woman scream.

I left the bike, crashed into the cool of the shop and when my eyes adjusted saw an old man on the ground. Blood dark as oil decorated the glass counter screen.  ‘What you done?’ I yelled at Jim.

‘He come at me with a bloody sword or summat.’

The old man was breathing blood and his eyelids flickered like the wings of something trapped. A woman with a bairn stood in the corner. She was crying madly, but the little lad was calm. He looked up at me with black bottomless eyes and I turned away. The whole world was shaded American tan and I knelt down next to the auld fella, out of instinct I suppose, wanting to check where Jim had shot him. He gave out this yell and stuck me in the gut with an old issue bayonet. I felt it like a punch and fell back onto the gritty floor. I’m a soldier, been one half my 34 years, and it was natural as drawing breath to swing the pistol round and put two rounds in his skull. I did it without a thought. I struggled upright, the bayonet handle sticking outta my side. I couldn’t feel it. ‘Come on,’ I pressed Jim’s shoulder. He’s booze thin and I pushed him to the door.

‘I never got the money,’ he said.

‘Bollocks to the money.’

He pulled away, stormed to the counter, slipping in the blood on his way. ‘I need that fucking money, Dig, or you know what’s gonna happen.’ His voice was high and strangled with crazy.

The woman wept. Her face was a wet mess of snot and mascara and she pulled the kid towards her as the old man’s blood dribbled over grey lino. My waist was wet around the belt and I saw blood pissing out of me side and felt the pain finally and suddenly. Knew I was hurt bad. Jim came back with a few handfuls of money stuffed into a carrier bag and we were out of there.

Jim drove us back to the farm. By then I was slipping. I’d had a plan, a decent plan, take us up to the moors, hide in Beulah wood until it blew over. I had a story sorted, we were up there camping, had been a week. There was even a tent set up by the beck, where our Uncle took us rabbiting years ago. Jim wasn’t ever able to think ahead, as I say. He thought we could just go home and nobody’d notice, simple get that he is. I peeled the tights off me face and let ’em go into the wind. American tan, the whole world coloured blood red and American tan.

There are reasons, there are always reasons I suppose. Judy left me on my last tour and I couldn’t go back to Afghan when my leave was up, not after last time. I was going to take the money and vanish, start fresh. All of it gone to hell. I drop my last smoke on the wet carpet and it sizzles in my blood. There is darkness at the edge of my heartbeats, something lifting up to meet me. It all goes to hell always.

The coppers are sneaking closer; I can hear ’em now the singing’s going outta me ears, boots on gravel. I think back to the last time Judy and me were happy. It was down in the lower field, an August day a lifetime ago. The field was lying fallow and the sky was a blazing, endless blue above it. The sun was low and we had cold beers and cigarettes and lay listening to the waist high grass move gently in the breeze and I stretched out my hand and she was just a little out of reach, just that little bit out of reach in the long hot August grass. And the world was calm and the sky was empty and everything was measured as a dream and I wish I could hear long grass in the wind once more before I die.


We are still accepting entries for the second phase of the competition if you would like to enter. The theme is CRIME and the Short Story Competition page is here.

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