LISP 1stQ20 Winning Stories
Flash Fiction Winner
The Tale Of A Tail by Aarni Tuomi
Anrat woke up startled. He’d been working late, nodding off on the office couch. Last night’s party had really taken a toll. It had been Marcus’ birthday, and he’d made everyone stay up until 4 am. Forced, more like, that fucker. It was like he was going through some existential crisis, suddenly woken to the mortality of it all. Anrat had felt the same, of course, a few years back. But he’d learned what Marcus would have to learn, too: that there wasn’t a magic restart button. You just had to make do. Accept it, and move on.
It was still pitch black outside. Oddly quiet for a Friday. Usually, the izakayas downstairs drew in all sorts of folk, but now there were only a few stragglers, flocking around the dim light of Hiyoshi station. The last train must’ve just gone. The only reasonable thing left to do was to line up with the rest of the salarymen and get comfortable.
Anrat got up to wash his face. God, he looked tired. That dream had really done a number on him. He’d had a tail. A smooth, round thing, about an inch wide and three feet long. A soft extension of his tailbone, wrapped around his waist as it had always been there.
He felt a shiver run through his body and instinctively reached down to his waist. Nothing, of course, just the rim of his trousers. Soft fabric cool to touch. He felt relief, but something else, too. Disappointment?
The dream had seemed familiar, but somehow off. Marcus had been there, too, a short, wispy tail wiggling between his legs. He’d been smiling, caressing a baby. Curious eyes peeking from beneath the covers, giggling as Marcus pulled a face.
A face covered in thick, amber hair.
Short Story Winner
Sixteen by Kate Wickers
Agneza traces her finger in and out of the sixteen bullet holes that lie in a perfect diagonal across the stone masonry from the window to her front door. She was just a baby in 1991, three days from her first birthday, when out of the blue after her parents had been told the raid was over, the 16th bullet had shot through the stone and into her Mother’s head, where she stood trying to rock Agneza to sleep. She was the 16th civilian casualty on the 16th of November. Today is Agneza’s 16thbirthday. The day she believes she will die.
Her father is giving instructions to Kruno, the local handy-man. “You’ll have to dig deep to get to the roots,” he says. “But get rid of it all.”
“Ah but Tata, I like it,” says Agneza, rubbing the variegated leaf between her thumb and finger. “How can you call your house Ivy Cottage if it goes?”
“Girls eh? Always romance over what is practical,” he says to Kruno, who has four daughters of his own. “It’s causing damp in the walls. It has to go.”
Agneza sighs, “Okay, Tata. Whatever you say.” It’s not really of any consequence to her, whether it stays or goes. She won’t be here to see it.
“Nearly time to leave you forever, Baka,” Agneza says, peering around her Grandmother’s kitchen door and breathing in the smell of the lavender that hangs to dry above the wood burner. “But promise me you won’t be sad.”
“Do we have time to roast the lamb for your birthday before you go?” her Grandma asks, waddling over to kiss her on each cheek.
“Can we do it outside on the spit? It’s still warm for November.”
“For your last supper, we can do anything you like.”
“And are you making me a cake?”
“Of course! With sixteen candles!”
Agneza wraps her arms around this small woman with a back bent from too many years of sweeping the mortar dust that she still imagines is there.
“I don’t want to die a virgin,” she whispers to Dajana, during their lunch break at school.
“Then let him do it for goodness sake. He’s been at you for months. Let him walk you home through the woods today.”
“Then Ivo will think it’s his birthday.”
The girls giggle and nibble at the cherry torte Dajana’s mother packed
them as a treat for Agneza’s birthday.
Dajana sighs, “Your life is like a book. So romantic.”
Agneza reaches into her bag and pulls out her diary. “I want you to have this. I expect they’ll want to write about me once I’ve gone, so look after it. You are the guardian of my innermost secrets but don’t read it until I’m dead. Promise?”
Dajana nods, “But there’s something I want to ask you. How do you think you will die?”
“I’m not sure,” says Agneza, putting down her cherry torte. “Like a princess in a fairytale. I’ll just go to sleep and won’t wake up.”
Dajana is quiet and Agneza is sorry that the conversation has turned this way and the festive birthday atmosphere is over.
“But I could, for example, just choke on a cherry stone,” she says grinning, picking up her torte again.
“My mother would never forgive herself. Better you don’t finish that slice.”
Ivo glances nervously at Agneza and then over his shoulder once more. Agneza wants to laugh. She can see he’s excited but tries not to stare.
“Relax,” she tells him. “No one will see us.” She hadn’t expected to be the one in control.
“You’re sure about this?”
“You will be my first and my last.”
“My mother says you’re a drama queen.”
“Your mother washes fish in the market. What does she know?”
“But what if you get pregnant? If you’d given me some warning, I would have got something.”
“You forget! I won’t be here.”
“Come on Agneza, you don’t really think you’re going to die?”
“I don’t know but I hope it’s ecstasy,” she says, pulling him towards her.
Walking home she doesn’t feel as different as she hoped she might, just a little stickier than usual. Ivo had tried to make it special. He’d sucked a mint before he’d kissed her and put his jacket on the floor. He murmured that he loved her too, like an actor in a bad film. What they don’t show in the films are the stains that are left behind. There’s one on her school dress, dried to a crust, that she must wash off before anyone sees. She covers it with her bag. It’s five o’clock and the sun is low, enflaming the terracotta roof tiles on the cottages below, as she winds down the cobbled streets polished by centuries of footfall, past the late brown-tinged dying blooms of oleander, to her cottage by the quay. Suddenly she feels tired of it all and wants the day that she’s anticipated for years to be over. She better had die in her sleep because how else would it happen? Nothing exciting ever happens in this boring place. She feels cheated that she can’t remember the scenes of despair that others speak of in the days after two thousand bombs blew the city apart. All she’s known is the beauty that the tourists come to gawk at. They stuck everything back together so well she wonders if her mother was ever really here. It’s only the bullet holes that make it real.
“Agneza! We’re going to be late. I promised Baka fresh rosemary for the lamb.”
She glances at her watch. Only five more hours left of the day and she plans to be in bed by eleven. She fastens the clasp of the necklace her father has given her for her birthday; a silver heart that belonged to her mother.
“I gave this to her on her 16th birthday,” he’d told her this morning and Agneza had tried not to see the tear he’d quickly wiped away, or hear the crack in his strong voice as he chose to ignore the inevitable and told her how bright her future would be.
“Coming Tata! Stop shouting!”
“Am I smart enough for you?” he asks, standing to attention for her to inspect as she runs down the stairs.
“Who will look after you when I’m gone?” she says, picking a bit of imaginary fluff off his shoulder.
“Oh, I’ll muddle by, I expect.”
“I am so glad to hear you will. I’ve been worried.”
“Yes, I’ve seen the lists you’ve left around.”
“Just little reminders of things you mustn’t forget when I’m not here.”
“Agneza, you have always been a dramatic girl. If you have a sniffle it is flu, a headache and there’s a tumor behind your eyes. A storm can never be a storm, always a hurricane.”
“Better to expect the worst.”
Her Father wraps her up in the blanket of his warm arms and whispers, “Darling daughter, the worst is over. It can never be as bad again.”
He doesn’t comment as she stops by the door to trace the bullet holes with her finger, counting each one in a whisper, but she knows that this habit irritates him. The house looks naked, almost embarrassed, stripped of the ivy.
“…. fourteen, fifteen, sixteen……”
Her father strides on. “Catch me up,” he calls over his shoulder.
After the war, Tata had wanted to fill in the bullet holes but an official from UNESCO came and told him that they were part of the city’s rich heritage. “We must keep some,” he had said. “No good papering over all of the cracks.”
And then she sees it, for the first time. Another hole. It’s apart from the rest, a meter away at least and out of line with the others. She stoops and sticks her finger in to check. It is exactly the same size as the others. Was it really there, all those years, underneath the ivy? “Seventeen,” she whispers.
She counts again, not quite believing that she has had it wrong all these years. “Oh shit,” she mutters in acceptance when she reaches the seventeenth bullet hole once more. She scrunches her eyes tight as she thinks of sex with Ivo; imagines Dajana reading her diary; and how embarrassing it will be when she does not die.
Flash Fiction Finalist
Gladys, Gladys by Zoe Crowest
I need to tell him the latest, oh how he will laugh. He phoned to say he was on his way twenty minutes ago, I can hardly contain myself. He will really laugh.
I hear a knock at the front door, that’ll be him. He always pops in on Sunday mornings. I flick the kettle on and cut the ginger cake. It’s his favourite.
‘I can’t stay long,’ he says, looking stressed. ‘We’re pitching to a huge client tomorrow so I’m needed in the office today.’
‘Surely you’ve time for a cup of tea with your old mum?’ I ask.
‘Yeah, of course,’ he concedes.
He mumbles his appreciation whilst eating the cake when I decide to tell him.
‘Poor old Gladys will be next,’ I begin. He knows I’m referring to my depleting friendship circle – they’ve been dropping like flies. Only a few of us have made it to 90 years’ old.
‘She’s started repeating herself more than usual; she’ll tell me the same story three times in the space of an hour. Even if I mention I’ve heard it before, and quote the ending, she carries on. Still, one must feel sorry for these loopy dears, isn’t that right, love?’
My son nods in agreement. He’s very proud of how capable I am. He asks for another cup of tea – I knew he’d want to stay longer.
‘Oh, I must tell you about Gladys,’ I say, handing him a cup of tea and slice of ginger cake, his favourite.
‘Yeah, you told me mum, she’s repeating her stories,’ my son replies abruptly.
‘Oh yes, very much,’ I say. ‘I think Gladys will be next, you know. Funny thing is, if I mention she’s already told me, she still carries on with the whole story. It’s most curious.’
Flash Fiction Finalist
A Wake Observed by Traci Mullins
Thank you for coming.
You squeeze a blue-veined hand and place a small, sad smile on your lips, even commanding your eyes to pool.
“He was such a good man.”
You look so earnest as you nod, your soul veiled with just the right shade of sorrow. You lie so well. You always have.
“Mama, please make him stay out of my room.”
She knows why. She always has. Won’t meet your eyes. You are not there.
You spend your childhood floating on the ceiling. You can see, but he can’t touch.
Pat-pat. Kiss-kiss. Dry lips brush your dry cheek.
“I’m so sorry for your loss.”
Thank you for coming.
Your mother plays her part, grief-mask in place as you pass another blue-veined hand toward hers. A baton.
She hates him. Hates you more for making her hate him.
You pass the hands, one clammy, another bejeweled. The rough one reminds you of his.
“You must miss him so. You look like him, you know.”
Your mother sneaks her hand toward yours, the brush of her fingers like a lover’s under the table.
You glance her way. She holds your gaze.
Hands entwined, you resume your lines,
Thank you for coming.
Short Story Finalist
Stardust by Bob Thompson
The road seemed to go on forever. Since leaving Salt Lake there had been little for her to do except sit back and watch the vast skies as day turned to night and the sun was replaced by tresses of stars. The bus was comfortable enough and the motion rocked her to sleep. She dreamed of sunny days to come in California.
The intercom woke her with a start “Sorry folks, we have to change drivers so there will be a break of about an hour before we set off to Sacramento. There is a place to eat over the way.”
The passengers, all four of them, spread themselves out around the Tahoe Moon diner. The waitress was slow to get to her table but she didn’t mind. “Coffee honey?” She nodded sleepily. “Did you want anything to eat?”
The waitress filled a mug with hot brown liquid and put it on the table. “Do you mind some company?”
She shrugged. The waitress sat down opposite her. “My feet are killing me. I have been on the go all day. I am Marge by the way.” She held out a hand inviting it to be shaken.
“Hello, Marge. I am Barbara”
“I couldn’t help but notice your dress when you came in.” It was true. They were both wearing the same creamy beige tunic with red piping around the pocket and collar. “It could be the same material. I bought mine at the dime store. I wear it when I am working. I wouldn’t want to wear anything smart not with all the greasy food and suchlike.” She placed her hand over her mouth in horror “Jeez I didn’t mean… I mean yours looks smart on you.”
“It's fine. I wear mine for work too.” The truth was that her journey was unplanned. She had gone from the Cinema directly to the bus station without thinking of a change of clothes. “I am an usherette at the Roxy in Centerville.”
The service hatch opened and an angry red face poked through. “I don’t pay you to sit around talking”
“You don’t pay me at all you old goat” the waitress growled “I am on my break”
The hatch slammed shut. Barbara was alarmed “I don’t want you to get into any trouble”
“That’s Al. Ignore him. He knows no one else would work for board and lodging only. Besides, do you see anyone that needs serving?”
She looked around the diner. Apart from the passengers, there were only a couple of lorry drivers eating. “It seems quiet”
“So, do you get to see all the movies when they come out? We have to wait for them to make it as far as Tahoe but I love that Marlon Brando. He can ring my bell anytime he likes. Do you have any favourites?”
Barbara didn’t hesitate “There is only one for me – Rock Hudson. I just love him.” The waitress pulled a face. “Nice looking man.”
“So how come an usherette from Centerville is in an all-night diner in Tahoe?” she asked, “you don’t look like the kind of girl that ought to be on an overnight Greyhound.”
“I am on my way to Hollywood.”
“That is kinda crazy” The waitress shook her head slowly. “Ten years ago I set out from Marshalltown Iowa to go to Hollywood. I figured myself as an actress waiting to be discovered but this was as far as my money would take me. I guess it is too late now.”
“Why, you are still young and attractive. Why give up on your dream?”
“You think so? Do you plan to be a movie star?”
“I might, but first I am going to see my boyfriend. He lives in Beverley Hills. He wrote me a love letter inviting me.”
“How romantic. Is he handsome?”
“What is his name?”
The waitresses expression became quizzical. “Rock? As in Rock Hudson?”
“Yes. Rock Hudson.”
“Your boyfriend is Rock Hudson? Wow. No wonder you said he was handsome. He is a real dish.”
Then silence. The conversation stopped dead as the waitress studied her hands.
“You say he wrote you a love letter?”
Barbara fumbled in her bag “Yes I have it here”
The waitress took it reverently, smoothed it out on the table and began to read it. After a while, she raised head and stretched back in her chair before letting out a low whistle.
“Did you write to him?” she asked
“Yes. I said how much I admired him and how much I loved his new movie.”
“and he wrote you this letter back?”
Barbara nodded. Something about the expression of the waitress was beginning to scare her.
“Honey. I don’t want to rain on your parade but this is a standard letter that the studio sends out to all his fans.”
Barbara didn’t want to hear this but she was drawn onwards. “No, it is to me. It has my name at the top”
“Yes but if you look closely, Barbara is slightly out of line with rest of the letter. That is because the typist didn’t line it up accurately enough with the printed letter. “
This was bad. Worse because in her heart she knew what the waitress was saying was true. She ploughed on, her voice beginning to waver with emotion “but he says he loves me.”
The waitress put a sisterly arm around her shoulders. “Are you sure? Doesn’t it really say that he would love you to look him up next time you are in Beverley Hills?”
Fighting back the tears she carried on trying to believe what had been so crystal clear in Centerville “he invited me…”
“It’s just a turn of phrase. It doesn’t mean that he expects you to come and see him. I doubt that he even saw the letter let alone signed it. Besides, there is another reason that he can’t be your boyfriend.”
She hesitated and Barbara looked up at her.
“We might be a backwater up here but we do get all the news from Hollywood, just a little later than other folks. I have a girlfriend in Santa Barbara who sends me old copies of the Enquirer. They are full of rumours about who is seeing who including your Rock. There is one story that keeps cropping up. It is always denied by the studios but it keeps coming back. There is no delicate way to put this. He prefers trousers to skirts.”
Barbara absorbed this information so at odds with her vision. “You mean he is a homosexualist?”
“The worst kept secret in Hollywood.”
Now the tears really began to flow as the brutal reality of the situation hit home. Barbara hugged the waitress, sobbing. “I am such a fool”
“Don’t worry” the waitress comforted “It is what happens when you get that damn stardust in your eyes. You can’t see straight. You can’t think straight. Why is it that I left Iowa? I had a steady job in an OK town – hell, I even had a steady boyfriend – yet off I set for Hollywood convinced I was the next Lana Turner”
Barbara sniffed loudly “I don’t know what to do”
“It seems to me you have a choice. You have a ticket all the way to LA. Just keep going. Never mind the Rock Hudson thing. You can still make it if you are strong - or you can cash in the ticket and go back to your old life.”
The very phrase chilled her. Her old life was what she was running from not what she hoped for. “I couldn’t go back” she stammered.
“I understand. I still send postcards of Hollywood to my old friends in Marshalltown telling them how well I am doing. How sad is that?”
Barbara shook her head “I am so confused. I need time to think”
“I have had all the time in the world here to think and I still haven’t decided anything.”
The bus driver put his head around the door “Bus will be leaving in ten. You folks had best finish up.”
Reaching in her bag Barbara handed her a slip of paper. “You go”
“You go. You still have a plan. You can be that actress.”
The waitress looked at the ticket dumbfounded.
“If I take this. What will you do?”
“Stay here. I can serve table well enough.”
“Al won’t even notice.” Marge stood. “I don’t know how to thank you. I will write you here when I am set up and send you the fare. You might have worked things out by then.”
“All aboard for Sacramento” the driver yelled. With a final hug, she was gone. Barbara, the waitress, watched as the bus pulled away.
Al’s red face poked through the hatch “Don’t just stand there. Serve some refills. What do I pay you for?”
“You don’t pay me at all,” she said and picked up the coffee pot.
Short Story Finalist
Snapshots by Joe Howsin
I’ve had this new hobby now for a few months. I go to car boot sales, charity shops, auction houses, anywhere people go to dump their old crap nobody wants anymore. I search through the rubble of their discarded past, their raggedy old stuffed toys, their board games with half the pieces missing, their coffee stained old books with dog ears on every page and dog bites on the hardback covers. There must be something about Dickens that’s nice to chew. I sort through the lot. Meticulously. Laboriously. But not at random.
See, I’m actually looking for something very specific. For whatever reason, people like to write on their stuff, or at least they did when people still used pens; they write their names, the date they bought the thing, and sometimes there are even little messages. “For Sally, with love, from Mum”, “Happy Christmas Richard, from Jude”, “Get well soon Billy xx”. This is my favourite kind of find. You can’t wash the ink off these things, you see, and you can’t wash off the feeling that produced the ink either. Those previous owners, they linger, in a way. So, when I buy, say, a ladybird picture book from 1998, I’m not just buying a bit of old tat, I’m buying my way into someone else’s life, someone else’s history. Makes me feel part of something bigger. Like religion, or patriotism. Not that I believe in that sort of thing.
Sometimes, I like to add a little something myself, before I pass it on. Way I see it, the little messages are like the start of a story, so I try to keep them going. Like that game we played at school, with all of us in a line, adding bits to the tale as we go. I don’t remember what that one’s called anymore. But it makes me wander. What if, for example, Richard liked his Christmas present, and what if he didn’t. Likewise, I don’t know if Billy ever got any better, and I don’t know how much Sally’s mum paid for that My Little Pony colouring book. Were they tight on money at the time? Was it a happy day anyway? It gets to me sometimes. The uncertainty. So, I carry on the tale: “Thanks Jude, hope you enjoyed the Christmas cake!”, “Don’t worry about me. When I’m better, we’ll all go to the park”, “Thanks for the colouring book mum, but I’m 25!” I don’t know why, but thinking that these stories can now continue, with me as a part of them, it makes the world feel a closer place.
Well, it did. I’ve stopped my little hobby now. I’m not sure if I’ll ever go to another car boot sale, or see another one of those little messages, ever again.
It began (or ended) in this antique shop in [scribbled out] just near [scribbled out]. Poky little place it was. If dust mites were customers, the place still wouldn’t pull a profit, as I’d imagine they’d have better taste, or just more sense. More than me anyway. The only reason I was even in there was because I’d just had some bad news, and more than ever I needed to feel a part of the world, share in other people’s lives, feel some presence other than my own. So, there I was. I browsed the shelves, the glass cabinets, the old knickknacks and curios. Nothing special, and not what I needed. The shopkeeper was a nice enough kid though, she’d recently taken over running the store from her dad, who had fallen ill. Nice of the girl to do that, to guard her father’s little kingdom for him, but she wasn’t much interested in the stock. Even if she had been, the place was so chocca block that I doubt she’d have been able to inventory even half of the junk all by herself.
Just as I was about to give up hope, I spied an old suitcase which was opened up like an oyster in the corner of one of the darker rooms at the back. I hadn’t noticed it when I’d done a sweep of the place and, come to think of it, I’m certain there hadn’t been anything like it there before at all. Anyway, I took a look inside. Well what pearls I did find. Photographs. Old ones. Dozens of them, maybe even hundreds. All black and white with a thick colourless border around the image. They ranged in size from about half the size of my palm to bigger than the span of my fingers. There were landscapes, from all around the world, of nature and great buildings. And there were people, oh, the people. Wonderous they were, all-in old-fashioned dress like they were in this gigantic elaborate costume party, and all doing these amazing things, these wonderful, ordinary things. A family, at the beach. A couple of school girls about to leave for their first day. A young lad kicking a ball around with his dad. A Mum, in her curlers and fluffy dressing gown, on Christmas morning. I couldn’t believe my luck then. The privilege of sharing those moments. I had the biggest family, and the widest circle of friends, in the world in those moments. The times I shared, the things I did, the places I went, all with a full bill of health. Fit as a schoolboy. Without a care in the world, with all my family around me. It was beautiful.
But then it got better.
I turned one of the photographs over, and there it was. A letter, delivered to me, here, from so many years ago, and from so far away. “Family trip to Blackpool. May 1929”. Nineteen twenty-nine. Spring. A family holiday. Blackpool. My heart ached. I felt the love of that day seep into my fingernails, swing along the hairs on my arm, fly through the dusty air into my nostrils. The sand. I felt it on my fingertips. The salt from the sea. I tasted it on my tongue. The waves, the children playing, the husband and wife laughing, I heard it all. I picked up another picture, and there was another message. “Tommy’s first football match, September 1936”. The leather of the football on my boot. The scent of the cut grass. The cheers from the side-lines. I picked up another. “Julian and Martha’s wedding day, April 1899”. The incense in the church. The suit I was wearing. The bells.
I picked up another. And another. Most detailed the place, the date, the occasion. Some were more. “Yours, always”, “My darling”, “I love you”. The last one I picked up, the last I would ever pick up, was an image of a little girl in hospital. She smiled at me from her bed, as her hair invaded the pillow behind her, and the needle spread into her arm, releasing some fluid from a bag suspended above her little head. I turned it over, and I sank. Nothing. There was nothing. I had nothing. I had been wrenched away from them all. Who was this girl? Was she not deserving of love? Like all the rest? Like everyone? Like me?
I felt into my jacket pocket and found, like I always did, my inscribed pen. I gripped it tightly and wielded its exposed point in my hand. I levelled it at the blank white space and wrote: “Get well soon. We can get through this together. Love, [scribbled]”. I felt relief in that moment. I felt peace, peace alike which I’d never felt before. They were all back with me again. We were all complete. I set the picture back down into the suitcase, but as I turned away to leave, I stopped dead in my tracks. I was frozen. Slowly, I turned back around and faced the suitcase. I picked up the picture, the last picture I had touched or ever will touch. My ink was still wet. I looked below what I had written and read, in a delicate, slanting cursive unlike my own, “Thank you”.
I bought that photo right then. It was 10p. I knew then that it was the last of its kind that I would ever need. Then I went outside, back into the world, and walked to the hospital. When I found my room again, the room I had left so soon after my diagnosis, I saw them. They were all there, all standing in front of me. All together. They had tears in their eyes, but smiles on their faces, and they were all looking at me. Pretty as a picture, my friends, my family.
Short Story Semi Finalist
Aim High by Ian Plenderleith
Shaun Tasker and I lived in the same town and we went to the same school, but that's all we had in common.
Shaun didn't have that much going for him. No parents, no manners, big eyes, weird ears, could barely read or write, his school uniform so under-sized that you could see his skinny pale legs above the frayed grey socks with their knackered elastic. No good at football and cricket. Always in trouble for fighting and stealing and disrespecting the authority of the master.
Contrast that with me. Two parents, 'brainy', normal eyes, unremarkable ears, brought up to say please and thank you, trousers a perfect fit, fresh socks every day, no hard yellow stains on the armpits of my shirt. An undisputed pick for the football and cricket teams. Never fought, dared not steal, and only once spoke out of turn to a teacher. My dad got to hear about it and gave me such a bollocking that I thought I was going to end up in the children's home with Shaun Tasker.
One day, though, one winter, Shaun had his moment.
We'd had two inches of snow, and at school that meant hours of impromptu sport. Snowballs were thrown just hard enough to hurt, but not quite hard enough to draw blood. It was a grand time for settling scores. If you looked at the wrong person, or were chased and caught by a rough mob, you'd be pushed over, your coat torn off, your shirt pulled up, and your body rubbed with snow while a gathering crowd jeered you to humiliation. Damp misery would be your companion for the rest of the day.
I disliked snow unless it lead to the school's complete shutdown and we were all sent home. That day I was walking down the side of the main school building in front of the sports field, intent on avoiding the cold, the ice, the discomfort, the possible pain. All around me was the scrunch and glee of weather-inspired violence, free of mercy and morals. I was between two points - the cafeteria where I'd just eaten, and the warm classroom where I'd sit with my clique on wet days discussing all the people we despised, and the hatefulness of teenage life.
Above me to my right, from a second-floor window in the maths department, came a cry of, "Oi, Dickson, you wanker!"
When I heard my name, I stopped and looked up. So did several other people. Shaun Tasker had just launched a projectile he'd handcrafted from accumulated snow on the window-sill. It was now flying straight through the air towards me. I could see that it was coming for my head, but I refused to believe that from such a distance it would hit its target. We'd all seen Shaun's attempts to throw a cricket ball in games last summer. I made the decision to stand absolutely still, to be cool and calm and let the aggressor's munitions hit the ground. Then I would raise two fingers to Shaun Tasker and walk on.
The snowball had other plans. It welted me bang on the ear, sharp ice stinging my skull and numbing the entire right side of my head. The laughter around me was loud and universal, for it had been an admirable strike. I fought back instant tears. My fogged eyes and the sensational shock of the hit could not depress the sound of Shaun's cacophonous triumphalism. He stood at the open window, arms raised in self-exultation and broadcasting his hysterical screech that celebrated the unexpected pinpoint trajectory. Sidekicks thwacked his back in congratulations, chiming in on the associated glory of having stood beside him as the frozen bolus was propelled towards its justified victim. And there was I, Dickson, the wanker, just like he'd said I was. I'd been hit fair and square, with no mandate to launch a return strike. Throwing a snowball back at him would have been a peevish, feeble response.
Among the still appreciative crowd, and standing not ten yards away, was Sasha Freeman, a girl in my class I'd been writing unsent love letters to for almost a year. Recently, she'd smiled at me twice, and I thought that soon I would try and talk to her. She had seen the snowball hit me and was laughing, which was understandable. To a neutral, it was first grade slapstick.
Sasha wasn't laughing in a mean way, like most of the others, but there was no hint of concern on her face, either for my raging ear or for what I might be going through. How could she know what was going on inside me given that I had never sent the letters?
I began to walk away, through a passage of sneers. "He's nearly roaring!" someone cried. Soon the entire school knew about it, or at least a compact version of what had happened. Shaun Tasker hit Michael Dickson with a snowball and he started bealing! Even kids two years younger walked past me in the corridor pretending to bawl and whining, "Ooh mummy, I got hit by a little bit of cold snow." I ignored the taunts until spring, when they finally fizzled out. By then, I had destroyed all my love letters to Sasha Freeman.
Some years later I was out drinking with some class-mates, celebrating the fact that we had just finished school and were all about to leave our town for good. I went to the bog and a few seconds later Shaun Tasker walked in and stood beside me. I hadn't seen him for some time. He'd long since left our school, and presumably the children's home too. Nowadays, he wore trousers that fit.
"Alright, Shaun," I said. He looked over at me, distrustful, then cracked a big smile.
"Dickson!" he exclaimed. "Remember that time I lobbed a snowball and it smacked you in the head?" He leaned back and then jerked forward again, spurting out a comic-book noise to approximate the sound of snow on skin. Spittle flew across the urinals, narrowly missing my favourite shirt. Then he hooted out loud, just like on that winter's day five years past. "Got you right on the bonce, didn't it? Ha ha, that was ace, that was."
By now, we'd both zipped up and were heading back towards the door, Shaun still in fits. As we walked into the bar area, I put my arm around him.
"It was a brilliant shot, mate," I said. "I hardly saw it coming and then Zap! Cracks me up every time I think about it. It's probably the funniest moment of my entire life." Then I laughed too. Not a natural cackle like Shaun's, but a loud, fake laugh. Good enough, though, that only I knew it was fake. I was a decent mimic after a few pints.
I gave him a condescending jab in the ribs as we parted ways, then walked back over to our table. "Who was that you were getting so pally with?" Sasha wanted to know.
"Kid that used to go to our school. Shaun Tasker. Remember him?"
"Nope, can't say that I do."
Shaun was now standing at the bar, looking over at me. All the joy had drained from his face. To avoid his eye, I leaned to my left and gave Sasha a throaty kiss.
"Bloody hell, you two," someone said. "Get a room."
When I'd withdrawn my tongue from Sasha's mouth I looked back over to the bar, but Shaun was no longer there. At that second, I was struck by an intense sensation of burning shame that was concentrated on just one part of my body.
"Are you okay?" Sasha asked, peering at the side of my head. "Your right ear's gone completely red."
Now, whenever I think of Shaun, it tingles just enough to remind me - Oi, Dickson, you wanker.
Short Story Semi-Finalist
Sacred and Profane Dances by Annie Dawid
He called us “the three primas,” and we loved our title, dancing furiously in the converted garage/studio, old mono record player on the floor humming its Debussy beneath the sound of rain drumming an antithetical beat on the tin roof. As we pirouetted, sweat hit the mirror, and we fouettéd again and again, our taskmasters driving us relentlessly until, sore and stiff, we hobbled the fifty feet to the dining hall for meals. It rained all summer, except the day of our outdoor performance, a miracle at the time, as if the gods – definitely Dionysian -- were rooting for our triumph.
Cristóbal named us, and we thrived, working hard to please him, but Carol frowned whenever she heard him say it. “Primas!” she’d snap in disgust. She’d been one herself. Carol and Cristóbal were our bad and good cops, respectively, both shrieking “Cheeks! Cheeks! Cheeks,” urging us to tighten our gluteus maximus muscles as we jetéd around the floor, pretending to cover real distance on the wide lawns overlooking the lake, the stage for our performance on Parents’ Day.
We were 17, 16 and 13, all from pricey East Coast suburbs of one sort or another. Amelia, the eldest, me in the middle, and Maria the baby, definitely the most talented and least serious among us. In private, we called ourselves “the three cheeks.” It was my third summer at Blue Mountain Lake Camp of the Arts, Maria’s and Amelia’s first and last.
I was told Cristóbal and Carol married one another at 18, both escaping repressive families – his in Columbia and hers in Kansas – for the dancer’s life in New York City. They stayed married all their lives, though both had partners of the same sex and did not resemble any married couple I’d ever observed within the affluent boundaries of West Egg. What did we know about sexuality, other than that everyone had some? Until that summer I’d been ugly and invisible, but suddenly, at 16, I’d been born anew in the country of desire. Male counselors flocked to me to flirt, all of them several years my senior. I barely understood the process, except that the borrowed yellow leotard on my braless body attracted attention every time I wore it, when my black ones grew unwearably stinky, and laundry day was still to come. In leotards and sweatpants from breakfast through dinner, I wore no makeup, no perfume. After meals, I fed horses and mucked out stables, which, that wet summer, remained ankle deep in mud.
Amelia and I shared the “counselors-in-training” room in the Main House, once the centerpiece of a grand estate. As a veteran, I knew how to enter or escape the room by means of a low, flat roof and mostly sturdy trellis, evading the ears of counselors in the adjacent hallway. One midnight in late July, as Amelia and I lay on our narrow cots discussing our difficulties with the lack of practice in our actual performance space, the window slid up. A sheet of light rain briefly sprayed Amelia, whose bed abutted the wall overlooking the roof, before a male body appeared, silhouetted in the frame. Artie the clarinet counselor, who had so admired my yellow leotard just that afternoon, was followed by Josh, who taught painting.
“Shhhhhhh!” Artie placed a forefinger on Amelia’s lips as she rose in alarm, ready to scream. “We’ve come to give you messages.”
Since he’d climbed into the room onto Amelia’s bed, he stayed there, while Josh, after slipping on the wet slate tiles, managed to hoist himself in and cross the narrow aisle to mine. Unexpected yet entirely natural, somehow, this nocturnal visitation, some previously unrealized instinct informed me that Artie was in the wrong bed, so I said his name and stretched my arm toward him. As if in a pre-arranged pas de deux, he accepted my hand, sliding his smooth fingertips up my forearm, and followed it back to me, while Josh exchanged my bed for Amelia’s.
Had the married counselor couple down the hall heard the sounds of our strenuous massage session, what would they have done? Inquired about birth control, perhaps. Since arriving, I’d been in love with the man of the couple, who had a curiously female name – Lynn – and a delicate grace to all his gestures, a quietness of speech. I liked his wife too, Jody, with her lean runner’s body and no-nonsense candor.
No one in the Main House was very old: Lynn and Jody the elders at 25, if that, Artie and Josh both 21 that year and reveling in their freedoms. It was rumored, and later confirmed, that Artie spent the remainder of that summer not only with me but with Pierrot, the drama counselor, alternating nights. And Josh, as the proverb went, chased everything that moved. Rain prevailed, keeping the grass a rich green; outdoor amorousness was difficult while not impossible, and the summer purred with yearning from beginning to end.
During the first week of camp, sensibly accepting that Lynn adored his admirable Jody, I had turned my attention to Don, one of two maintenance men. So shy he could barely speak, his reserve drew me to him, long dark hair an enticement to my empty hands. We didn’t have our first conversation until the day he quit, he and the other maintenance man having decided to spend the summer driving cross-country instead of fixing outdated plumbing seven days a week, deep in mildew most of the time. Amelia and I stole away to their quarters to say goodbye, the old boathouse a flight of stone steps below the rest of camp. When I heard Greg Allman’s mournful voice singing “Melissa,” I launched, myself, weeping, onto Don’s lap.
The lack of future summoning our inexperienced selves to action, we kissed and hugged and held hands all the way to the parking lot. As their Karman Ghia bumped up the dirt road, I cried from the grieved the taste of his affection and its immediate loss.
Parents’ Day dawned cloudless and warm. My family didn’t make the seven-hour drive to visit, which I preferred, since I felt free without them, needing my annual escape to the North Country to breathe. Josh had designed our costumes as loose togas silk-screened with Matisse-like cutouts in bright oranges, yellows and greens against the white. We were barefoot, black leotards beneath, no tights or leggings to constrain us. Instead of the tinny sound of the phonograph in our studio, Debussy boomed out over the P.A. system, the same that woke us every morning with a cowbell, unfurling the French composer’s creation over the hundred or more acres of Blue Mountain. When the first chords began, harpist Nicanor Zabaleta fingering strings from the air, it seemed, the deep blue sky itself offered up the first movement, the danse sacrée.
We three primas jetéed out from behind a copse of maples in Cristóbal’s original composition, our legs stretching wider and wider as if to encompass the lake, reaching and reaching. It all made sense now, the way he made us move, how we heard “Cheeks! Cheeks! Cheeks!” echoing inside us, our elders’ wisdom absorbed at last. I fell, rolled and recovered. The audience clapped spontaneously as I rose to join the others in the danse profane, all three of us unable to do anything but smile and leap and enter Debussy’s romance in the air.
Eventually, Artie undertook the deflowering he’d come for that night in the Main House. During Christmas break from college, he ushered me into his bedroom in his parents’ home in Queens and locked the door. Though I’d prepared with a just-acquired diaphragm, he used a condom too, and while his father played ragtime on the piano 25 feet away, I whispered an unceremonious goodbye to virginity. The event was far less memorable than the full-body message I’d received back in Blue Mountain, while Amelia experienced hers in the other bed, a thunderstorm serenading us for hours, the window remaining open.
Six months after my evening at Artie’s, his piano-playing father would hang himself in the basement with a dog leash, where Artie would discover him, searching for a carton of sheet music he never found. Artie never slept with men again, possessed by the notion that his brief bisexuality had somehow engendered his father’s suicide.
At 50, I finally own the Debussy after years of trying to identify and locate the very orchestration we danced to in the sun reflecting off Blue Mountain Lake. After Artie, there were many men, a few women, until I came to know myself as a happy loner and loving mother of one son. The harpist still summons romance from the air, only this air is Colorado dry, my open, treeless acreage soughing in high altitude wind. The snow-topped Sangres dwarf us here, so unlike the Adirondacks’ soft green mounds, gentling dancers and spectators alike in a respite from the rain.
Short Story Semi-Finalist
Augustus + Theresa by Allston James
It began when Vilma rang me to say she had chanced upon a cache of letters
from the 1890’s, correspondence between her great-great-Aunt Augustus and her
friend from childhood, Theresa, the two having grown-up together in East Sussex.
Vilma discovered the correspondence, a large bundle tied with a black silk ribbon,
behind a loose walnut panel in a guest bedroom of her Aunt Molly’s country house
in Sussex. “These letters, Alma, it’s as if we had written them!”
True. The pages were genuine tributes to friendship and deep passion.
Composed in looping 19th century syntax, replete with acrobatic phrasings, in the
end, they were unambiguously . . . evocative. Hot, actually. Whilst the letters
included the flotsam and jetsam of everyday domestic life—family, children, civic
stuff—deep sexual longing permeated the exchanges. Astonishingly beautiful,
keenly explicit. “I close with kisses, these honeyed words blotted with the warm press
of honeyed mons.” I stared at the slightly blurred ink and found need to bring the
cream page to my lips, the fingers of my free hand lazily entwined with those of
Vilma. We shared the rare correspondence with no one.
Theresa’s family had come south to East Sussex from Scotland when she was
seven, perhaps eight. Bit by bit, Vilma and I were able to tease out a picture of their
lives near Crowborough from childhood forward, the correspondence commencing,
it seemed, when Theresa and her family returned to Glasgow, around the time of
Theresa’s seventeenth birthday.
Over a period of a week, Vilma and I absorbed the letters, which numbered
close to a hundred, often finding we had fallen asleep in one another’s arms, the
pages and envelopes strewn across the bed like brittle rose petals. Dark red bits of
ancient sealing wax speckled our blue sheets as it fell away at the slightest touch. In
some letters, a piece of ribbon, pressed Columbine, Dog Rose, Kingcup. In one, a lock
of chestnut, in another blonde.
In truth, the letters had arrived at a point in time when their power to
rekindle our own passions came as a startling and welcome thing and unfolded for
us as boldly as a revelation.
Augustus and Theresa’s reunions were infrequent over the years,
constrained by marriage and geography, but the spirit of their letters was that of
two souls in alert, steady awareness of one another’s being. On one Christmas Eve,
Augustus wrote, “The miles, months, and hours stand as nothing, Dearest Theresa.
True, they are coarser than all the sands of Araby some nights, but in the end, my heart
unfailingly hums our common chords and I catch the pitch of your sweet breath just
when the music might threaten to drift away. There—I hear it this instant. Do you?”
There was sporadic mention of “TFP, which we finally discerned stood for
“The Final Place.” Over two decades, the two women had surreptitiously crafted a
plan to be buried side by side at the base of a pair of ancient Yew trees in Ashdown
Forest in East Sussex, the place where they had made the transit from childhood
In the final letters, Theresa returned to the subject of their shared desire to
be buried together, “love by love, where first we did lay.” How exactly this was to be accomplished the correspondence never revealed, but there was a pen and ink map,
meticulously drawn, of Ashdown Forest and periodic mention in the letters of the
secreted treasures the two of them had left at this spot in the trees over the years.
Stones from rivers, Roman coins, a child’s strand of garnets, a silver Celtic cross—all
in a latched box of engraved sterling they referenced. The detailing of TFP was
exquisite, rendered in blue-inked whispers and long distance smiles, all evidenced
in their graceful slanted script. There had been a plan.
We discovered that Augustus, living in London, had been married briefly but
bore no children. There was frustrating reference here and there to “the terrible
accident” that must have cost her husband his life. Vilma and I shivered when we
saw that Augustus’ London address had been a townhouse in Marylebone, a short
tube ride from our flat near Russell Square. When we went to find her number on
Aybrook Street we were hardly surprised to discover that it had been displaced by a
sleek glass and steel architectural firm, matching the fate of nearly every other
We surmised that Augustus must have been charged with holding the letters
of the two women, perhaps gathering them on one of their last meetings.
“If families had restricted their access to one another’s company,” I said to
Vilma, “they ensured that their letters, at least, would be together.”
“I will choose to believe it so.”
There were several letters, written just prior to the arrival of Theresa’s third
child in Glasgow. The final letter in the decades-long correspondence, one from
Theresa’ alluded to a dark premonition.
“As you will remember, the course upon which both Nora and Claudia traveled
into this world was one not in far remove from distress. The pain and discomfort, in
their marked degrees, were terrible, be assured, but in the searing days and hours
before and during their respective arrivals, I could still manage to envision a bright
and explosively bountiful summer garden awaiting mother- child and it was that Light
that invested me with Courage and Strength of a quiet and abiding kind, subsuming
“With this latest—and final—impending arrival I can only attest that all
balance has abandoned me, and I kneel trembling, poised on the verge of a black and
And then silence.
Like the headwaters of a great river, there was nothing beyond.
Vilma and I, through our determined web sleuthing, ascertained that in fact,
the two friends had not, as they desired, been buried together. Records showed
them separately interred—Augustus in London’s Brompton Cemetery next to the
husband who had preceded her and Theresa in Glasgow’s Western Necropolis
beside her husband, mother, and father in an ancient ancestral plot dating back to
the 1600’s. The weathered stone revealed her two daughters were buried, one to
each side of her grave. The date of Theresa’s final letter—the ‘black and awful
abyss’—preceded the date on her gravestone by a mere three weeks. Vilma traced
the wet, eroded letters of her name with a finger. We wondered if the child she had
been carrying survived. “Perhaps we are that child,” Vilma offered as we left the
“Perhaps we are.”
How had these two women thought they might fulfill their plan to be
buried—‘as two, as one, dearest found hearts’— in Ashdown Forest? On whom, if
anyone, might they have been counting to insist on fulfillment of this dream after
their respective passing, to see it through? Obviously, in the end, it had not mattered
what they contrived. The cold, gray evidence of ancient graveyard stones asserted
that familial desires had prevailed, overriding any instructions, written or
otherwise, that the two lovers may have laid out for their internment.
The truth, in the end, was undeniable. The lovers had gone into the ground
many, many miles apart—first Theresa, in April, 1899, presumably in childbirth,
followed mere weeks later by Augustus in May. Both were dead at age thirty-eight.
There had been no mention of illness in Augustus’ letters, so with no authority, we
wondered—an accident, or perhaps something else.
“Alma, there is something crushing yet sadly grand in their unfulfilled wishes,
isn’t there?” Vilma mused as we worked out the truth of the gravestones’
“Certainly. Grand. Sadly grand.”
We took the train back to London, then drove south to East Sussex, where,
map in hand, Vilma and I found the twin Yews in Ashdown Forest, lush twisting
ground vines sheltering the darkly tarnished sterling box containing its garnet
strand, Celtic cross, and stones, pale, smooth and egg-shaped. With great care, we
spread the soil we had scooped from the graves in Glasgow and London, sprinkling it over the box and letters, again bound by their black ribbon, all of which we
secured under two feet of black English loam, the forest’s summer overstory casting
everything in deepest emerald.
Vilma is thirty-six and I thirty-nine. From where we presently stand, I looking
down from the sill on our city garden and Vilma, her lips at rest upon the nape of my
neck, we know that when our time here is done, prayerfully many decades hence,
our wishes will be honored—ashes gathered, forever commingled deep inside
Ashdown Forest along with dreams of our long-ago sisters-lovers, Augustus and
Flash Fiction Semi-Finalist
Spoiler by Andrew Boulton
Me and the boy are watching Raiders of the Lost Ark. I’ve seen it so many times it feel like it’s never been new. The boy, typically, has never seen it.
It’s my favourite part. The bit where Indiana Jones (who is an archaeologist and an adventurer and a lover of women, and actually a murderer, I suppose) is swimming towards the Nazi submarine to rescue a woman and a precious artefact.
And I tell the boy that this is my favourite part, which is a mistake because as soon as I say it the boy does that long blink he does when the bad magic is in him.
And because the boy has done his long blink, Indiana Jones isn’t swimming towards the Nazi submarine anymore. He takes a sharp right and swims neither after the Nazis or back to the boat the Nazis were going to blow up.
We keep watching and even though the film should only have another 40 minutes left we watch for more than three hours. Just watching this man swimming towards nowhere. Getting slower and more tired, sometimes disappearing under a wave for thirty seconds or more until, finally, he doesn’t come back up.
And the film ends, and that music plays, but now it seems much slower and sadder, like it isn’t music for a film about a man who rescues a woman and beats the Nazis and recovers a precious artefact, but music for a film where a man swims nowhere and drowns.
I liked it, says the boy. I liked the twist.
Short Story Semi-Finalist
La Viuda by Kay Rae Chomic
For Vanessa’s last day and night in San Miguel de Allende she planned to drink the water, eschew sunscreen, eat a salad, pet stray dogs, walk home after dinner by herself, and leave the window wide open as she slept. She’d say goodbye to the friends she’d been avoiding all week—winter friends—who thought Danny and she had been married and now believe she’s a grieving widow.
Walking to Pueblo Viejo, her favourite restaurant, Vanessa carefully placed her footsteps to avoid what the locals called gringo traps—unpredictable gaps and holes in ancient cobblestone sidewalks. She pulled open the restaurant’s thick wooden door, and saw Libby, the punctual one, at their reserved table. Libby, a retired expatriate from New Orleans, never took her sun hat off. “I’d give you a big hug, but your sunburn looks hot.”
“Yeah, I forgot my SPF 45 today. Where’s Jake?”
“We decided it’d be a girl’s night out.”
“Not necessary, you know.”
“Yes, it is. We’ve been eager to see you, and there’s always more sharing when men aren’t around.”
Not by Vanessa, though, who needed to cut ties without revealing the truth. She felt a light touch on her back. The waitress.
“Qué quieres beber, Señora?”
“Agua y un mojito, por favor.”
“Water? You’re living dangerously,” Libby said.
“Well, it’s my last night.”
When Bella and Nicole arrived, Nicole took charge and ordered four shots of mezcal and shrimp jicama tacos for starters and cactus soup for Bella, the vegetarian. “This dinner is on me gals, and don’t try to fight me. The staff has been informed.”
Vanessa was used to Nicole’s generosity. She and Bella came to San Miguel every February to recharge their Vitamin D, then return to their Minnesota winter.
Bella took Vanessa’s hand with a mournful look. “You look terribly thin, honey.”
“Probably won’t last.” Vanessa shrugged.
“How was your immersion class this week?”
“Kind of terrible. I skipped a lot of it to cry in my room and sip mezcal.”
“Good therapy, and…perfect timing,” Libby said as the waitress placed their drinks, orange slices, and sal de gusano on the table.