Second Anniversary – Writing Contest Results

Many thanks to the 253 international writers who entered this contest. We would also like to thank UK reviewer Paul Gray for his invaluable assistance.

Ty Spencer Vossler

Ty Spencer Vossler

First Prize: Churn by Laura Lindsay
Second Prize: On Her Knees by Tim Dadswell
Third Prize: White by Chang Shih Yen

Judge Ty Spencer Vossler comments: “Oh … my … God! How difficult it was to place the top three finishers in this contest. Each story was unique, deeply satisfying, and well written. Congratulations to every one of the twelve finalists. Each story was amazing, and it was a privilege to have read them. Keep up the great work. The cream always rises to the top, and you are all there.”

FIRST PRIZE: Churn by Laura Lindsay

Judge’s comments: “This is such a powerful tale. This author has a finger on the pulse of what makes a story great. The idea of using a small child, and a dispossessed man to create tortured relief and retribution—brilliant! This story caused me a physical reaction as if a cold finger had touched my heart. I really loved this! At this moment I am picturing the hanging tree and the rope still suspended from the branches.”

Churn
By Laura Lindsay

Walking. The man had walked most of the night, pausing only occasionally to cough, hawk, and spit. Rain began to pelt the dirt, drops shattering like spidersacs dropped and burst open to reveal a thousand within.

At a crossroads ahead, a child played beneath an enormous oak, digging a small branch into the earth and flicking it toward the tree’s trunk. Now and then, she would spin around to flare her long dress, purple-crimson-purple. As he neared, he saw they were toadstools she was gouging and flicking. A large circle of red-spotted toadstools. Fairy-ring, he remembered from when he was young.

She was chanting something he never got to hear, for one vigorous flick made her lose her balance on the rain-slicked mossy roots below her and she landed on her backside.

“Here!” he called. “I’ve got you.”

He rushed forward, but she was up in a flash. Her scarf had come loose and out tumbled strands of web-white hair. She quickly tucked it back up and brushed herself off.

“The faeries done it,” she explained her fall. “Mam says I mustn’t disturb them.”

“You’ve not hurt yourself, then?” he asked.

“Oh, no,” she assured him. “They do it all the time.” She paused, eying his satchel. “Are you supposed to be here?”

Her look told him she was quite sure he shouldn’t be.

“You ought not stand there, you know.” She pointed at several cut ropes above her. “You’re beneath a hanging tree. That will bring bad luck if you’re traveling.”

Ignoring her omen, he sat beneath the tree, loosened his shoes for a needed rest. He asked, nodding at the ropes, “What was that about, then?”

She hesitated. “I wasn’t there for it. Mam made me stay home. She never lets me go.” Her voice held a trace of sulk.

“You’re out here now, though.” He ran a hand through his hair, picked at the long grasses, and looked around. “Your Mam, she lets you play at the hanging tree?”

“Nobody hanging today,” she shrugged. “Anyway, Mam wants me to wait for the churn.”

“Someone is bringing you a churn? Out here?” It seemed an unlikely place to meet, but he couldn’t remember small village ways.

She laughed at him. “No. The churn. The ground-churn. She wants me to wait for them to come back.” She began poking toadstools again.

“Who is coming back?” His heart began pounding, hard, in his throat. He coughed. Perhaps more were being hanged today. Not his business, not really something he wanted to see.

“Them as was hanged. Sometimes it takes days. Could be weeks, even, Mam said. Bit of a time-muddle. But the rain will bring them back up again. She’ll get them, all the same.”

Flick. Flick.

He didn’t want to ask the question, but found himself doing it. “Why does she want them?”

She pointed where willow trees thick-lined the bank, brookside. Their long branches combed through the waters like nets. “She needs to make more willows to help find the lost babe below. Mam won’t stop until our babe is found.”

There was a pride in her voice. She added, as an after-thought, “He was a seventh-son. That’s why they drowned him. They were afraid. But Mam knows them who did it. Getting them takes time, is all.” Her smile made him scratch.

It hadn’t been much of a rest. The traveler thought perhaps it was a choice moment to be moving along. He tied his shoes tightly. “I will leave you to your work and waiting, then. You sound quite certain they’ll come back.”

“Well, you did.” She wrapped her arms across herself, smug. “Don’t you even know who you are?”

He tried to rise. It hadn’t occurred to him to wonder before who he was. It hadn’t seemed to matter. Walking had been all that was important. He found now he was unable to stand.

“Ah, no point in gettin’ up. You’re on fae ground. They’ll hold you here now for Mam. You came back so quickly. I wasn’t sure. I’ll let her know you’re back.” She turned and ran.

Her words hovered, lost in a hot flood of thought and images: a silent crowd of hooded men—he had been among them—carrying the stolen newborn to the creek, plunging the child into its icy heart, the anxious shouts of many men, and later, hands laid upon him and the cut and twist of rope on his neck.


SECOND PRIZE: On Her Knees by Tim Dadswell

Judge’s comments: “The greatest aspect of this amazing period piece is that the horror that is so beautifully described transcends the time in which it is written. The reader finds that, in the 21st century, little has changed. Someone is always left to clean up the messes that the “upper classes” create.”

On Her Knees
By Tim Dadswell

Like an oncoming tempest, Annie returns to her hovel and deposits a basket on the scullery table. Cheeks flushed, she comes over to the fireplace and sinks onto a rickety chair, opposite her husband, Robbie.

‘I’ve had enough!’

Robbie senses they are about to have a discussion. He puts down his knife and a piece of wood, from which a doll’s face is emerging.

‘What’s wrong, hen?’ he asks, like a hermit crab peeking out of its shell.

‘Blood everywhere! I had to stay an extra hour to scrub the flagstones by hand!’

She raises her skirt.

‘Look at my knees! Like a blacksmith’s hit ’em with a hammer!’

‘You poor wee thing! Shall I kiss ’em better?’

‘You bampot! What good’s that? I told the housekeeper, I’ll want another penny for my trouble!’

‘Do you think they’ll pay it?’

‘No. I’ve suggested us maids should form a league with the gravediggers and the kitchen staff. Between us, we could bring the castle to a standstill. But whenever the other lasses meet someone important, they turn into giggling ninnies—they’re hopeless!’

‘So what were they fighting about this time?’

‘The crown, of course! The state of this country, it baffles me why anyone would want to be king. Imagine, never having a minute to yourself and every so often, someone tries to kill you. They must sleep with one eye open. No wonder they start seeing ghosts.’

‘Who started it?’

‘There’s a rumour those three hags have been back on the heath making prophecies. It only takes one person stupid enough to believe them for Auld Nick to come a-calling.’

‘Yes, once someone gets an idea in their head, it’s hard to shift it.’

‘Are you trying to tell me something?’

‘Not at all.’

A burning log spits in the grate. Robbie adjusts their old, blackened fireguard as Annie continues.

‘One of the thanes cut off the King’s head and carried it all around the castle. It’s not so long since the Queen killed herself. I can’t say I miss her. Always following me around she was, looking for spots I’d missed.’

‘Why are they all so quick to turn violent?’

‘It’s the fencing and jousting when they’re young. When you and Pa argue, you don’t stab each other. You meet in the tavern, drink ’til you pass out, then by the next morning it’s all forgotten.’

‘Or we settle it with a game of skittles.’

‘I know. It’s like I always say, the servants are more refined than the so-called upper classes.’

‘So are you going to burn your mops?’

‘No, we mustn’t be rash. It’s a decent living, including the perks. I’ll give ’em two more years, then we’ll move into a cottage by the sea. We’ll keep a goat and a few chickens.’

Her inner turbulence subsiding, Annie’s complexion resumes its natural pallor.

‘Robbie, in my basket there’s a bowl of roast peacock, neeps and tatties. Warm it up.’

‘All right, hen.’

Annie stretches and gives an almighty yawn. For Robbie, this is an encouraging sign. After eating her meal, he knows she will take a nap. Just to be sure, he adds a splash of mead to the bowl. When she wakes later, she will expect him to have washed the dishes and gone to the tavern. She will be half right.

Craning his neck around one side of the scullery window, he can see the dark outline of a hut on the edge of a wood. In the window is the steady yellow flicker of a candle. Robbie is constantly surprised at the patience of the Widow McNeil, from the market stall next to his. He hangs a lantern where she will see it, anticipating a warm and tender welcome.


THIRD PRIZE: White by Chang Shih Yen

Judge’s comments: “White is such a beautifully written narrative. The use of black and white to describe loneliness, alienation, and displacement is brilliant. I imagine this as the opening chapter for a novel.”

White
By Chang Shih Yen

When Lin woke up, she could already feel the cold. Reluctantly, she threw back her blankets, got out of bed and slipped her bare feet into warm, pink, fluffy slippers. Going to the window, she opened the curtains to look at the world outside. It was so cold that the window had completely fogged up making the outside world a silver blur.

Lin opened the window and the cold air stung her face. It had snowed the night before—the first snowfall this season. A few centimetres of snow lay on the ground. The view was so beautiful. It was as if the land was covered in a white blanket; everything was white for as far as the eye could see. Lin leaned out the window and looked down on rooftops dotted with snow. On winter mornings like these, it was always so silent, as if the whiteness was a sponge that absorbed the noise from all around. The snow coupled with the silence to create a scene of exquisite beauty—so pure and yet so strange to Lin who came from Malaysia. She would never see such a scene in her native country.

However, Lin knew that numb fingers and icy feet would be the price to pay for this beauty. She looked towards the rising sun, a bright orange ball casting its light in all directions. Lin knew it was going to be one of those cold, sunny days. The winter sun was deceiving. Even though the sun shone brightly in the sky, its rays brought little warmth. Already Lin could feel her ears and nose slowly freezing, so she pulled her head back and shut the window.

Quickly, she washed and got dressed. Then, she went to the kitchen and poured herself a glass of milk. She took a few sips before stopping to stare at the milk. She knew it sounded crazy, but she had never noticed before that milk was so … white. Suddenly, she felt a craving for a cup of kopi-o, strong, black coffee that went down hot and bitter. If she could only have a plate of hot wan tan mee too, yellow egg noodles with lots of black sauce. YUM! That would be heaven! Lin could almost picture all that food right there on the table in front of her and she could almost taste it.

Lin found her thoughts turning to the kopi tiam, her family’s coffee shop in the village back home. It was a ramshackle wooden shop with a crooked porch, but somehow it was still standing, having survived the searing sun, monsoon rains, gale force winds, property developers, and even the Japanese Occupation. Her grandmother owned the coffee shop now, but in truth she had inherited it from a long line of ancestors. Sometimes Lin wondered what she was doing studying here in this foreign country. Some days she thought it would be easier just to go home and enter the family business.

As Lin took another sip of milk, she thought about how her grandmother made the best drinks in the world. Perhaps the reason why her grandmother’s drinks tasted so good was because of the old-fashioned way they were prepared. Water was boiled not on a gas or electric fire, but over a charcoal fire. Ice cubes did not come from a machine. Instead, her uncle crushed huge blocks of ice by hand. Armed with a small, sharp steel rod, her uncle looked like an ice sculptor pounding at the ice, ice chips flying in all directions and glistening in the sunlight.

Lin shook herself out of her daydream and looked at her watch. She would have to hurry if she wanted to make it to class on time. She thought of all the white faces she would see, speaking a foreign tongue. She sighed; she really wished to see another yellow face in the crowd, someone with dark eyes and black hair, someone else who spoke her language. Then, she would not feel so alone.

Lin hurriedly gulped down her milk. Putting on a scarf, gloves and a woolly hat, she headed out the door. She was the first person out of the house that morning. Her feet were the first to break the fresh snow. As she headed deeper and deeper into the white landscape, she left a trail of footprints behind her in the snow. As the whiteness enveloped her, she looked like an explorer to a strange, new land.


SHORTLIST

Fish Tacos
By Sara Marchant

We were eating fish tacos at the dinner table when my husband starting talking about the vintage Alaska camper he was refurbishing and I felt my wifely boredom threshold plummet. When my husband starts talking ‘camper’ this is what I hear: “Blah, blah, original wood paneling blah blah, oiling the retractable ceiling, blah correct sealant for age, blah blah de blahditty blah.” Each blah sucks a little more patience from me. Each item listed is cash poured into an ugly monstrosity that will sit on our property until my husband either finishes it (not likely) or loses interest and moves on to the next never-ending project of doom. People talk about their eyes glazing over from boredom? When my husband starts with the camper talk I feel my retinas burn with homicidal intent.

“You’re not paying attention.” My husband stops listing his camper’s accomplishments to accuse me. He has a fish taco in each hand. The quicker he eats, the sooner he can get back outside to ‘Alaska.’

“It’s not that I’m not paying attention,” I say. “It’s that I don’t care.”

He doesn’t look like I’ve stabbed him or spit on his dog or licked his glazed doughnut—his eyes light up with excitement. “You’ll appreciate the camper when we’re living in it,” he says.

“After the zombie apocalypse?” My mother, unusually silent until now, interjects.

“Exactly!” My husband reaches across the table to pat her on the arm (Thanks, Comrade!) with the back of his hand, spilling taco contents on the tablecloth. “After the zombie apocalypse when we’re living rough you’re gonna be happy to have the ‘Alaska.’ ”

“Your first mistake is thinking I want to survive,” I say. I uncurl my thumb from my taco to jab it at my own chest. “Number one zombie right here.”

My husband laughs, having heard this plan, but my mother is upset. “I’m against cannibalism,” she says.

“You’ll get over that pretty damn quick when you’re a zombie,” I tell her. “You walk so slowly without your cane—which you refuse to use!—that naturally I’m going to eat you first when I am a zombie.”

My mother puts down her taco.

“Don’t worry,” my husband nudges my mother’s elbow with his own, urging her to pick up her dinner once more. “I’ll chain her to a tree so she can’t eat anyone. We’ll throw her a chicken now and then when she gets rambunctious.”

This is the first I’ve heard of taking our chickens with us when we’re ‘living rough’ after the zombie apocalypse. With severe disgruntlement I imagine what the camper will be like with three adults and twelve chickens and two dogs (and maybe the horse?) living in it. Oh wait, I forgot. I’ll be outside; chained to a tree, eating live chickens.

My mother reads my mind. Even with what I suspect is incipient dementia she frequently does that. “I don’t want my zombie daughter chained to a tree.” My mother is teary-eyed.

This needs to stop. I telegraph the directive to my husband using the marital Morse code of grimace and eyebrow. He grins and then leaps to his feet, wiping his fish-greasy hands on his pants instead of the table napkin provided for him. He has rejected my telegraph asking for peace terms. By leaving the room he breaks the connection altogether. My teeth are grinding again.

“Don’t worry.” I refill my mother’s water glass. “It won’t happen. Remember when the ladder fell out from under him and he sliced his face open? The jacks holding the camper up are none too steady and soon he’ll be working on replacing the undercarriage.” (How happy my husband would be to know that I have been listening to all his blah blah. It’s a shame he took off.)

“If the camper crushes him to death we’ll have a Viking type funeral and bury him in it. Or burn it like a pyre. I’ve always wanted to shoot flaming arrows.”

This does not appease my mother, merely horrifies her further. Together we clear the table, wash the dishes, and box up the leftover tacos. She makes a few trips to the window to check on my husband’s welfare.

“Back in my day all we had to worry about was the A-bomb,” she mutters at one point. “Zombies and Viking funerals, it’s all just too ridiculous.”

And then the summer sun dropped down behind the sheltering mountain and things got really weird.


Orphan Warriors
By Rebecca Manawatu

Ben.

“What does Next of Kin mean, Grandad?”

Me and Grandad are walking along the beach, as we do now, every evening after dinner. Grandad hobbles over the sand, on his crutches. The crutches we fixed shoes to, so they won’t get stuck.

The cows eating grass in the paddocks above the beach look down their cow noses at us, like we are the most boring things they ever seen. They don’t recognize me, Paddock Warrior, from last week, when me and Beth scared the shit out of them.

“It means next closest relative, I think,” Grandad finally answers.

“Really! I think that means Beth belongs to me, Grandad.”

Grandad doesn’t say anything. We kept moving slowly along the beach, curving, like it’s moving downwards, to disappear of the whole world.

“I think they made a mistake. Whoever it was that decided Beth should go with her Aunty, to Auckland,” I stopped and turned to Grandad, “I am her next of kin. I am her next closest person.”

Grandad hobbles on. Not answering. Which means I am wrong.

And being wrong right now makes me sad. I think when two best friends both become orphans, maybe the people deciding who Next of Kin is, should be informed. It might help them make the right decision.

I almost cry, but I stop myself. No one else could, if what has happened to me happened to them.

Except, Beth.

Beth probably packed her bags herself, and left. Flew to Auckland with her Aunty and probably has new city clothes, and rocks into her Aunty’s office, calling people—people wearing ties who sit at desks with laptops and stacks of important looking paper—“Kid.”

As she winks at them.

That will be Beth, she will be rockin’ the whole orphan thing. She will be holding back a sea full of tears, and letting the sounds and lights of a huge city make her better.

Beths cares a lot, and her heart will be feeling as squashed as mine does, but she is tough. Toughest kid I ever met.

*

Beth.

I have never flown in an aeroplane before.

I can’t believe they tell adults to put their own oxygen masks on before attending to children. My dad wouldn’t do that, he would hold his lungs full of any air they had in them and whip my mask on, before whipping his own on, and then, if it looked like we were really gonna go down, he would spot a place for us to leap to, from the plane. And we would leap out, and away from the crashing plane, and land somewhere soft, like the sea, or some bushes, or one of those haystacks, that in all my years on this earth, all my years on our farm, I have only ever seen on TV. But one of them perfect-for-landing-in-haystacks would appear.

For us. And Dad would spot it, even from way up here.

He would tell me, “We gonna jump, at a count of three. OK?” And I would nod. “One. Two …” And we would be smiling at each other as he said it.

Me and dad would be the only ones who would survive, because my dad, who would never need to put his own oxygen mask on first, would make sure of it.

I look at my Aunty and she smiles down at me. A smile as perfect as these women telling us where the emergency exits are, and that her oxygen mask should go on first. At least she has stopped crying.

I am sure, if push comes to shove—if shit gets real—I’ll be the one putting her mask on. Before I even look for mine.

As the tears burn my eyes, thinking of how my dad is not here to jump out of a crashing plane with me, knowing I would have to do it all alone, I think of Ben.

His lips always trembled, and eyes were always shining, but still, hardly ever did I see him really let those tears out.

Ben. River Warrior. Beach Warrior. Anything he needs to be the warrior of, he will be.

Bravest kid I ever met.


Queens Boulevard
By Vincent Panella

Paul awoke in the back of a stolen Oldsmobile Starfire whose rapid acceleration from a red light shot fear into his heart. He’d been trying to sleep despite a stomach churning from alcohol. The Olds accelerated with neck snapping speed and sucked air like a straw from the bottom of a glass. The car headed west on Queens Boulevard with three boys in front and four squeezed in back, the radio tuned to the Symphony Sid Show and King Pleasure singing, My Little Red Top, its simple lyric of love driving some of them to sing along. Oh My Little Red Top/how you’ve got me spinning! With unceasing acceleration the Olds changed lanes without regard for the vehicles slipping by in a blur as they neared Calvary Cemetery, where Paul’s grandparents were buried. He now felt a heavy touch of shame at being drunk in a stolen car in the vicinity of his ancestors, the salt of the earth, dead not two years, one having followed the other because life alone was untenable. In his mind’s eye Paul saw the gravestone beyond the cemetery’s boundary with its giant statue of Christ welcoming his flock to eternity.

Then a red light, but seen too late. With a screech of brakes a tire exploded, the Olds skidded sideways, struck the curb and pitched out of control. The steering wheel spun both ways in the driver’s hands. Although the boys knew that a crash was imminent, these ‘assholes’—Paul’s father’s word—yipped and yelled for the driver to go faster, displaying not a particle of fear at the impending collision. Paul realized that his father’s description was apt. These friends were crazy and reckless and stupid to celebrate as the smaller car, which they struck from behind, obeyed the Newtonian laws Paul had studied. The Olds knocked it across the intersection like a pool ball.

After a brief pause the driver of the little car got out, a wiry type in his early thirties wearing a leather bomber jacket. Smiling, he approached with his open wallet held forth like a crucifix in a vampire film. He jiggled the wallet so the police badge flashed as he neared the car to assess what he had inside.

“Who is this mother fucker?” the driver asked. His last name, Paul would never forget, was Freud, his nickname ‘Ziggie.’

The man in the bomber jacket pressed the badge against the driver’s side window, and his open jacket revealed a pistol in a belt holster, a small, nasty looking thing whose grip protruded like a cow horn, black and mean. He opened both doors on the same side, and with a theatrical gesture as if introducing the boys to an audience, invited them to step outside.

“Hands on the roof of the car, fellas. Then we’ll see some I.D.”


Plates
By Tricia Lowther

Please don’t ask for the Strawberry Sorbet.

Jade waits for the young couple at Table 4 to order dessert. He’s plumped for the chocolate mousse, more fool him, but the woman with him is dithering. Jade’s sure she’s seen him around the University, although he shows no sign of recognising her, not the first time that’s happened.

She’s noticed that Crawley’s customers often look through her rather than at her. It probably doesn’t help that the boss, Baxter Crawley, or ‘Creepy’ as most of the staff call him, appears to hire his workers from an identikit; young, slim, female students, most of them working their way through college, most of them long haired blondes. Jade has twisted her own dishwater tresses into a banana clip tonight, to keep the back of her neck cool.

“I can recommend the Blackberry Soufflé,” she suggests, as the young woman ‘ums’ a little more. Not the Strawberry Sorbet though, don’t ask for that.

Jade sneaks a look to check management aren’t watching before gingerly lifting her right heel out of its cheap black stiletto for a few seconds and rubbing it up against her left leg. She has a blister starting. She’s eager to get her feet back into her comfy trainers and get home. Baxter insists that female staff wear high heels, apparently it makes for a “sophisticated dining experience”.

Creepy wouldn’t know sophistication if it bit him on the backside. Jade likes her boss about as well as she likes the way the restaurant serves it’s trendy meals–she is soooo fed up of seeing meat dishes served in dog bowls, salad on garden trowels, and, until tonight, the apex of puke-makery; chocolate mousse served in tiny toilet shaped dishes. His latest idea though, is one even Jade isn’t sure she can dismiss with her usual composure.

Low wages, late nights and sore feet she can deal with, and drunken leering customers are a cinch to an adept in the art of the withering put-down, but having to serve up baked potatoes in plant pots is a bit much. “Can I have it on a plate?” is not a comment she’d expected to empathise with when she applied to work here.

She guesses this couple are still getting to know each other. She wonders if Crawley’s was his choice. He’d have been better off taking her for a burger. So far it’s been awkward. His date looked mystified when her Coke was served in a measuring jug. The seafood on coral starter went down better, but when the peppercorn sauce on her main course spilt from the roof tile it was served on and dripped all over her dress, she looked ready to cry.

At last she’s made her choice, “Strawberry Sorbet for me please.”

Jade raises an eyebrow and shakes her head slightly in an attempt to subtly convey her thoughts—NOOO! Think about it! Red stuff!—but she can’t do much without eye contact. The woman looked through her, not at her.

Jade weaves her way back through the tables with a tiny toilet in one hand, and a menstrual cup in the other. She looks down as her customer’s faces turn almost as red as the sorbet. At least it’s nearly time for a break. She wonders if any of the other eateries on the high street are hiring.


Breathe
By Jane Turner Goldsmith

This is what you didn’t know.

You didn’t know, when you pushed him out into the world, when he shot out all shocked and waxy, protesting at the indignity of life and he took breath and you gave that great sigh—of relief you weren’t to know was premature—when even his father wept, after you and the squirming bundle managed to sort out the latching on, and he suckled and you breathed out another sigh of false relief and the nurses stood back and allowed you to imagine his life, but really just the next twenty minutes; because you didn’t, you couldn’t know, and so you held your breath.

You didn’t know, then, that sixteen years later he would be late home after going into the city, long after the agreed curfew. He hasn’t responded to the text that you didn’t know you would be able to send, not sixteen years ago, to have this instant contact with him that is supposed to reassure you but only really adds to the worry, and so he is out in the world, that baby, he must have had a car accident on the way (though it was one of the parents, wasn’t it, taking them?). Or no, maybe they were at the train station, he and his two mates and there was a gang, even though there were three baby-sixteen-year-old mates together, there was a bigger, tougher gang and your boy was mugged, held up for his pocket money or his smartphone, and so he therefore can’t reply to the text. Or he hasn’t been where he said he would be, he was down Hindley Street and he got king-hit outside a rough pub and now he’s comatose in intensive care and you haven’t been told because they haven’t identified him yet, because he had no ID because the muggers also stole his ID and so no one (except you, if you were there, perhaps you’d better go there now) can identify this beautiful, long-legged, wild-haired child-teen, this lanky-gangly youth lying on life support in a hospital bed, life forces leaking away, tubes and drips coming out and going in, the smell of death, nurses running here and there, because it’s a Saturday night (now Sunday morning) and they can’t look after all those beautiful babies, not all at once. Or it was a bomb, an armed hold-up, a drive-by shooting, a terrorist attack, he’s been taken hostage, he will disappear without a trace—

You weren’t to know what happens next. You are still holding your breath.

When he gets home you will read out loud to him the doctrine of the evils of the world, the things he must avoid, that somehow you managed to avoid (those things, they didn’t exist forty years ago) all those sexual predators who might hit on him—did he go to a bar? Not the Mexican eatery he said he would, is he out drinking? You don’t think he drinks but they all do, don’t they? All those innocents, babies, they will all try it and is that what’s happened? He’s out at a bar and he’s been hit on and because he’s drunk he thinks it’s kind of a game, fun and forbidden, and he’s full of sixteen-year-old bravado, he doesn’t know he’s being lured, he’s agreed to go with the guy—

It’s 1:38 a.m. There is no response to your text. You didn’t know this was going to happen, sixteen years ago. You can’t sleep for another—

The front door rattles.

You breathe out one of those sighs you think is relief.


Inspector Singh’s Dog
By Peter Jordan

Inspector Singh hadn’t slept well. The yearly statistics were in, but he already knew. The crime rate had risen year on year since his promotion, and by fourteen percent in the last year. They just didn’t respect authority, these hooligans. He got up slowly, careful not to wake his wife, and showered before walking downstairs for breakfast.

In the kitchen he opened the back door and called George’s name then took two eggs from a brass bowl. Normally George would be waiting at the back door for him. The inspector considered this, placed both eggs carefully back in the bowl, and walked outside. Beneath the shade of a Parajita tree stood the large felt-roofed kennel but there was no sign of his dog.

Singh walked back into the house and shouted upstairs to his wife (who always slept late), ‘Where’s George? I can’t find George.’

His wife didn’t answer.

The inspector walked back outside, a little quicker this time, then around the walled garden calling his dog’s name. Nothing.

He stopped, looked to the large cast iron gates, then dashed back inside for his car keys, before driving to work in a hurry.

Singh had studied at the London School of Economics and, after graduation, returned to India to marry. Although the marriage had been arranged through his family he was pleased with his young bride: she was very pretty, if a little fragile.

Upon return from honeymoon he joined the Mumbai police force. Quickly, he made it to the rank of inspector, bringing his meticulous administrative skills to the job. But his men, and the criminal fraternity, thought of him as soft; it was Inspector Singh’s subordinates who dealt with the local gangsters. The inspector was merely a figurehead.

His promotion facilitated the move to their new house. In the months that followed, Singh bought an English Bulldog. When the pup first arrived it was already a sturdy animal with a massive head. Singh, much to his wife’s disapproval, called the dog, Jaws.

Each morning after the inspector left for work his wife brought Jaws into the house and he lay on the sofa with her as she read. It was Singh’s wife who renamed him George.

When Singh arrived at his office he summoned Detective Malik. There was very little happening in the local underworld that escaped Malik’s attention. As the inspector related George’s mystery disappearance Malik took out a notebook and, when he thought it appropriate, scribbled notes. He then stood up straight and told the inspector he would have the case solved by the end of the day.

An hour later Malik reported back: George had been found hanging in a large Banyan tree in a neighbour’s garden. Singh’s fury was matched only by his grief.

He told Malik to draw up a list of suspects.

They were rounded up.

The inspector sat on a high-backed chair of black bamboo and watched as the men were interrogated. They gave the names of other men. They, in turn, were brought in until the cells were full, but no one knew who had committed such a despicable act.

Within days the men were released.

In the coming weeks the crime rate plummeted. The marketplace—normally such a hive of criminal activity—was now a much quieter place. As Singh drove past the traders on his way to and from work they stood behind their colourful stalls, staring. However, the crime remained unsolved.

Months later, Singh sat down with a single boiled egg for breakfast to read The Mumbai Times. A particular article caught his eye.

A recent scientific study states the number of pariah dogs has soared by seven million in recent years. The increasing number of feral dogs has drawn leopards into the city to prey upon them. Even the largest dog is no match for the leopard, which dispatches its victim with a single powerful bite to the back of the neck. The leopard will often place the dog in the bough of a tree, before returning later to feed.

Inspector Singh placed the newspaper on the table, took off his reading glasses, and called upstairs to his wife. But she didn’t answer. She was still asleep.


Growing Pains
By Elissa Miller-Crispe

I missed her. Usually when I was sitting right beside her, listening intently to her hopes for the future. The more she spoke, the more I felt myself grasping for the remnants of her. Maybe she was already gone.

We had grown up together. I had on many occasions even been jealous of her beauty, her talents, her potential. She was going places. She was going to do great things. But never did I resent her for that. I was proud. I was so glad for her. I remember waiting backstage after her first show; we were only kids, but as I handed her what I knew would be the first of many congratulatory bouquets of flowers, I imagined doing so after her first performance on Broadway. We were going to celebrate her every victory and her every success for the rest of our lives. Never did I expect her to do anything other than ‘make it’.

But now here we sat, a pair of twenty-somethings sprawled out on her family’s front porch, past midnight, draped with a heavy a shadow of apathy. She cast a familiar angry, hurt and melodramatic complaint towards the sagging, grapevine-laden beams above our heads, a trail of cigarette smoke curling lazily in its wake. Yet another selfish boyfriend was about to be kicked to the curb. As always, his actions were indefensible. As always, I listened in sympathetic silence, inwardly mourning her inability to avoid disastrous relationships, her failure to act on her dreams.

It had taken almost a decade to recognise the powerful undercurrents of insecurity that led her to attract, fall for, and subsequently break up with a string of terrible men. Their inability to commit became a symbol of the abandonment and rejection she now expected, an expectation she applied to her hopes for a performance career. Years had passed without her meeting a single audition deadline. There was always an excuse, but her reasoning usually led directly back to the same basic fear: “They won’t want me anyway.” And while she looked instinctively to me for support and sympathy, as time went on I could read a growing accusation in her eyes: ‘Why does this never happen to you?’ For I was becoming yet another symbol of her abandonment. While she remained in the sheltered world she had occupied from childhood, I was slowly, unconsciously, developing my own dreams. With each passing year, the distance between us increased as she watched me ‘pegging my tents further and further south of Hadrian’s Wall.’

Yet her whispers still carried on the wind, my hearing attuned to her calls, her cries for help, her occasional hollers of dredged up enthusiasm; moments of mania shining out enticingly from the darkness. But an ever-present weight on our relationship was the knowledge we both tried to suppress: that I would continue to move, to carry myself further south, while she staunchly guarded that now-useless wall.

My movement itself a betrayal.


The Woman
By Francis A. Beer

The woman stood at a distance.

Her fine orange hair rose in a bun with stray strands falling over her neck.

Her silhouette was erect, her spine straight like a ballet dancer starting her exercises. Her stomach had a small roundness, and her breasts squashed beneath a muddy blouse.

Her pale skin, like thin parchment, covered high cheekbones. Tiny sand freckles spoke out between the fine lines of her face.

The slightly flared nostrils of her thin nose barely moved as she breathed in and out.

The distance shortened a bit. Her precise movements had a regular, orderly rhythm, suggesting a trained surgeon in the middle of a procedure. Her hands moved precisely up and down, forward and backward, as though to music.

She spoke.

Her teeth were small, slightly irregular, no longer white.

Her tongue was small, pointed.

There was an accent, perhaps Eastern European.

Her name tag said Ludmilla. Not a name that went with her graceful person, he thought.

“Where are you from?” he asked.

She looked up, startled.

“What?”

“Where do you come from?” he tried again.

“Russia.”

She kept up the exact motions of her procedure.

“What did you do?”

“What?”

“What did you do for a living?”

“I was teacher.”

You must have been a good teacher, he thought. Firm with the children, courteous to the parents, respected by colleagues.

“What did you teach?”

“Languages.”

“Where?”

“Russia. The Soviet Union.”

“No,” he said. “I mean at what level. Young children, high school, university?”

“Middle school,” she said.

He looked at her.

She looked back. Full in his eyes.

She grunted. Deep, guttural, from the back of her throat.

“I was not checker.”

He swiped his credit card, picked up his bag of groceries.

“Good luck,” he said, and moved away.


My Kingdom for an Adverb
By Fernando Meisenhalter

It’s my first day as a Spanish instructor.

“There is no need to know grammar to teach a language,” the supervisor says.

“Oh,” I say.

“We all speak our native language anyway, don’t we? And we don’t know its grammar. We just speak it.”

“I will prove this to you,” he says. “Tell me what no is.”

“No?”

“Yes, no.”

I have no idea what he’s talking about.

“Well, no is no, I guess.”

“Yes, but what is it?” he says, “a verb, a noun, an article?”

“It’s a negative,” I offer.

“Yes, but grammatically, what is no?”

I panic. First day on the job and I’m already flunking the test.

“I don’t know,” I say.

“See?” he says. “You don’t know. Hardly anyone knows.”

I’m a bit relieved to be in the majority for once.

“No,” the supervisor says, “is an adverb.”

“It is?” I say, duly impressed.

“People use the word no all the time, don’t they?” he says. “Even though they don’t know what it is.”

“I see.”

“You have used the word no, haven’t you?”

“Yes, a few times,” I say.

But the truth is that I’ve had a hard time saying no. I couldn’t say no to my girlfriend, which is how I ended up here, in the States, living in San Francisco with no money, desperate for a gig, hoping to teach Spanish for seven bucks an hour, eight if I make it past the probationary period.

“See?” he says. “You don’t need the grammar to teach a language.”

Unable as I am to say no, I assent with my head.

I leave the office feeling like a fraud, a grammar-less immigrant, posing as a teacher, working in a rundown building in the financial district with windows so cruddy they probably haven’t been cleaned since the Eisenhower administration.

I grab my teaching materials, go to the classroom, to my first student, a pale man with glasses who says he wants to learn a lot of Spanish vocabulary.

“I want to meet pretty Latina women,” he says.

“Sounds like a worthy goal,” I say.

“I want to learn lots of words, so I can talk to them.”

“Have you taken Spanish lessons before?”

“I’m from the Midwest,” he says, as if that should answer my question.

“The Midwest,” I repeat.

“Yeah, it’s horrible,” he says. “Everyone there looks like me: pale, boring, all the same. Not like California. This place is like fireworks compared to Indiana, and there are plenty of pretty Latinas around.”

So we go over words and expressions he thinks apply to women, such as French-kissing, mating like rabbits, and the missionary position. The man has a solid memory, quickly absorbing everything.

“Está caliente,” he says. “She’s hot.”

“I wouldn’t say that,” I say.

“Why not?” he asks.

“Because está caliente in Spanish means she’s in heat.”

“Oh,” he says. “I’ve got to write this one down.”

He repeats terms in Spanish over and over until he’s able to say them like a native. I congratulate him on his rapid progress.

“You’re a fast learner,” I say.

“I’m motivated,” he says.

After class I meet with the supervisor again.

“The student loved your class,” he says. “He said you taught him just the vocabulary he needs for his job.”

“What kind of job does he have?” I ask.

“Accounting,” the supervisor says. “He’s such a gentleman.”

“Sir,” I say. “I don’t think I can do this, I don’t have the training.”

“Nonsense,” he says. “You have a university degree.”

“A degree from the Third World,” I say. “Good only for cleaning toilets.”

“Nonsense,” he says. “The student requested you. I need you here. Or do you have a better offer?”

I don’t, so I remain silent.

“See?” the supervisor says. “This is the perfect job for you.”

“I suppose,” I say.

“Welcome then to the International Languages Success School,” he says. “You’re officially a member of our team.”

He smiles, and his resolve gives me a strange feeling of hope, a glimmer only, but such glimmers are all we have, they are the only guide we possess to finding our way through the obscurity of this world.

I decide to give this job a shot. I shake the supervisor’s hand and we close the deal. I have my doubts, true, but also I have never been good at saying no.


LONGLIST (Alphabetical)

Theron Arnold, Captured—Release
Raji Ayodele, Of the Artist’s Regret
Cath Barton, The Tea-Time Visitors
Jessica Marie Baumgartner, Unfinished
Laura Besley, A Stranger Among Us
Aubrey Boneck, When He Came
Leticia Garcia Bradford, Death by Avocado
Louise Burch, Fairies at the Bottom of the Garden
Steve Calamars, 1 Bedroom, 1 Bath
Phil Canalin, Star Music
Michael Carey, The Silent Concourse
Laura Cleary, Uncomfortably Close
Ray Clift, Just Suppose
Patsy Collins, To You, My Darling Daughter
Alex Cothren, Kale and Quinoa
Steve Coverdale, The Lovers, the Dreamers and Me
Kelly Coyne, Untitled
Meaghan Curley, Pinterest
Arka Datta, The Moonwatcher
John Paul Davies, The Dead See Through Me
Carol Davis, Apples and Oranges
KS Dearsley, Catch of the Day
Connor Dry, The Man Inside the World
Julie Durdin, Out of This World
Christine Durst, Bad Faith
Mike Freveletti, Important Deadlines
Morgan Fox, Really Big Guy
Bear Gebhardt, Breakfast Surprise
KJ Hannah Greenberg, The Routes They Use
Saam Hasan, Game
Philippa Hawley, Pied Beauty
Alyson Hilbourne, Age Shall Not Wither Her …
Dierdre Hines, Miss R
Julia Hones, It Is Never Too Late
Caroline Hurley, Appeasement
JR Ingrisano, The Last Story
Sam Johnson, The Plate in Carol’s Grandmother’s Head
Markus E. Jones, Straight Piping
Reginald Kevin Keith, Cipher
Teddy Kimathi, Different Shades of Yellow
Hugh King, Personal Survival
Ilona Klein, The Psychochondriac
Taylor Kobran, In the Air
Melvin Kuriakose, The Way to the End of Suffering
Patricia Latter, Speaking Out
Eric Layer, Surrender
Larry Lefkowitz, My Brother Jesus
Liam Lowth, Gorilla
Madeleine McDonald, Counting the Souls of the Dead
Bob McNeil, A Presaged Day Ago
Gwenda Major, Playing Nicely
Dan Malakin, Get Sated!
Susheela Menon, Eclipse
Laura Merritt, Wolf Towel
Sara Mikula, Soggy Books and Canned Beets
Damhnait Monaghan, Stupid Dog
Sherri Fulmer Moorer, Flicker
Alan Morris, First Kiss, Last Kiss
Ellen Birkett Morris, Emoticon
Nick Nelson, He Was Always Smiling
Michael M. Pacheco, Something Askew
Sam Palmer, Flat Land
Andi Pearson, The Next Bus
Syche Phillips, Baby Love
KR Powers, Snow Globe
June Lorraine Roberts, The Hong Kong Deal
Tammie Saiki, Old Friends
Ian Schwartzberg, The End
Chloe Schwarzen, Peace Tattoo
Jennifer Shannon, Stove Light
Madison Shuemaker, The Tragedy of Margaret Finch
Kennedy Sievers, A Casual Encounter
Dr. Moshe Sonnheim, The General’s Leg
Carissa L. Stevens, Expatriate
Mike Stich, High Stakes Poker
Laurie Stone, Shadow
Jennifer Stuart, Greatness
Mike Stich, High Stakes Poker
Fred White, Second Chance
Candice Williams, Bereavement
Anthony Wobbe, To Mock a Killing Bird
Kirby Wright, The Black Bicycle
Sean Ng Ming Xuan, Schrödinger and Jelly
Brian Yansky, Shadows
Daniel Zero, A Different Hell Entirely
Nikki Ziehl, The Missing Shoe

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