First Prize Winner,
A Blotch by Michal Calo from Israel
The rain outside falls in droplets interwoven into her fingertips prodding the keyboard with pronounced yet uncertain tap-taps. Typing, the mind like the mosaic form of limestone, like a diaphanous moon—a night-crypt of haunting letters and obscure sensations—the heavy material from which a story is kneaded, rolled into thick laces, tied into a braid to be served on the Sabbath. An old folktale told over steaming pots and a soiled apron.
Nothing happens. She gets up from her swivel chair and puts on a Joan Baez album, placing the needle softly on the outer rim of the record. She watches it spin slowly inward, across the ridges and valleys of sound, the soft hiss of worn-out plastic in the background. A scratchy anachronistic tone reverberates in fractal patterns, chafes against her skin, soothing—but blistering. She opens the clutter-drawer and grapples with its contents, shuffling the band-aids, used batteries, humdrum trinkets—finally snagging a black ballpoint pen. From the bottommost cabinet shelf, she finds one of a score of ornate journals she’s accumulated over the years (left with blank leaves)—the one with the leather spine and bluish marble paper-cover. Her fingers awkwardly wrap around the pen, and it quivers, slowly forming words like indiscernible hieroglyphics. Frustrated, she presses harder, and as the pen balks under the pressure, ink splutters across the paper.
Voilà. A miniature Rorschach blotch.
She sits back down in the swivel-chair with a grunt, and looks at the keyboard. Keys: Orpheus’ arcane, pilfered body-parts, white on black plastic (like the body of Christ in a communion wafer). Maybe it’s too on the proverbial nose. Orpheus, re-sculpted as the taps of dancing fingers; and another faint voice steaming from a cavern of bedlamite roars—not Muse, but Medusa.
Second Prize Winner,
Dresses are for Parties by Alicia Bakewell from Australia
She wonders: Does this come in black?
Pastels have made a comeback while she wasn’t paying attention. Every dress on the rack is a
grandmother’s lampshade or a scoop of ice cream.
She thinks: If they don’t have any black ones, maybe white.
In some cultures, white is the colour of death, symbolising a new beginning, the afterlife.
She worries: Can you be sent to the afterlife even if you don’t believe?
That sudden agnostic twinge in the guts of a lifelong atheist. It’s to be expected apparently, embraced even. Support group speak. They say it’s just the spiritual equivalent of getting your affairs in order.
She remembers: I’m running out of time.
The shops are about to close for some holiday or other. Everyone’s in a rush. She puts a hand to her forehead, dizzy. Her levels are low. Soon they’ll stop bothering to test them at all. Every time she books her next appointment, the doctor stumbles over the words see you next time.
No more organising, she promises herself, just the envelopes for her nieces, and this bothersome dress.
She hears: Is there anything I can help you with, ma’am?
It has to be cotton, she remembers suddenly. Nylon or rayon or viscose, you can’t burn those. It’s in the funeral home booklet somewhere, worded more politely than that.
She says: I might come back later.
Later. Ha! An old one from the back of her wardrobe. Something comfortable. A nightie, even. Yes, that will do.
Third Prize Winner,
Fast Jazz by Richard Salsbury from UK
(A Univocalic in ‘A’)
Arms flap and hands slap as Chaz plays bass. Asthma Jack plays sax, larynx ajar. That cat can play – alas, Jack’s always a tad fast. Jack’s a fallback; Chaz’s standard sax man has anthrax.
Sadly, Chaz lacks cash and barman can’t pay band. Man has ass all: a gang attack. Chaz and Jack play anyway. That’s jazz. Chaz’s band always packs Badlands Bar.
Blackjack cards fall. Tankards arc. Fracas. Brawl.
Jack casts sax away and scrams.
Hah! Asthma Jack, always fast. Chaz, angry and adamant, stays and plays. A lawman acts flagrantly and backhands Chaz. Panama hat falls. Chaz sways, stands fast.
‘Aw, man!’ says Chaz – bass has cracks. ‘Payback, jackass!’ Jazzman rams bass at law’s jaw. Snap!
Chaz grabs Jack’s sax and slaps tarmac, past tramp and away.
A dark archway. Cars pass. Spray.
À la barman, Chaz has ass all – sans bass, sans any damn cash.
At dawn, Jack walks past.
‘Bastard!’ says Chaz.
Jack backtracks. ‘Alcatraz flashback, man. Jack’s a daddy, has a baby – always scrams at law’s call.’
‘Blah, blah. Hasty, man, always hasty.’
‘Hark,’ says Jack, all sly. ‘Barman’s gang attack? Blatant crap, man. Barman’s a charlatan, has scads.’ Adds aslant: ‘Had scads.’
Jack fans cash.
What an ass. Chaz, all sarcy, drawls, ‘Abracadabra – a sax.’
‘Nah, man – my sax.’ Chaz jabs a palm. ‘Pay.’
Jack balks. Chaz lacks all sympathy.
‘ ‘kay, ‘kay.’ Jack hands Chaz clams and paws sax.
Chaz walks away. ‘Stay classy, man.’
Jack lags, says, ‘Any plans?’
‘Chaz’ll sashay – a faraway land.’
‘And hazard Klan? Nah. Maryland. Can catch crawdaddy, amass cash as a farmhand. And play jazz. Chaz’ll ask a sax man that can’t play fast.’
Highly Recommended Story
u a girl? by Madeleine Hamley, Germany
The group is set, the roles are cast, bag of chips and energy drink at the ready.
Let’s do this.
I’ve just reached the dungeon entrance when the raid leader posts the voice chat login. I adjust my mike and join the chat, chiming in a quick greeting. As I pull up a portal to bring in the rest of the group, my whisper chat pings.
RaidMan23: u a girl??
Locco88: Yeah, so?
RaidMan23: u have a beautiful voice
I shake my head. One in every raid.
We begin in earnest. First boss – easy. I’m on form, blasting out spells left and right.
RaidMan23: I said u have a beutiful voice
The boss crumples under the combined damage. We line up for the second boss, the raid leader marking out the room for positioning. One of the avatars moves up to my character and starts to dance.
RaidMan23: want to meet up some time
We move in and start hacking away. When the debuff hits I run to my designated spot.
“Hey, RaidMan23 – get in line!” “Oh, uh…sorry.”
It’s too late. His avatar explodes, taking a third of the raid with it. I sigh and resign myself to the wipe, using the break to snack on a couple more chips.
RaidMan23: hey bitch don’t ignore me
Locco88: I’m here to raid, not to chat
RaidMan23: I thout u cunts could multitask
Locco88: Leave me alone
RaidMan23: jeez whatever bitch
A different message pops up.
RaidMan23 has left the group.
RaidMan23: hav fun raiding now whore
I knead my forehead as the voice chat erupts into groans. The raid is halted to find a substitute. I lean back, taking a sip of my drink. At least he’s off my hands.
Highly Recommended Story
The Other Place by Fay Lee from UK
Though they are not here, I sense them all around me and I know they stand sentinel. I wait
at the window, feel the sunbeams bathe my skin and press the solid floor with my feet.
Determination creeps. It starts, in bitterly ironic fashion, in my belly, roars up my throat and
into my brain. The words people wrote flicker in front of my eyelids until I read something
that chimes with my heart; I need these words to fuel me.
Downstairs, I can hear them moving and talking. Living. My eyes open as I listen to the
laughter of those I love, carrying on. Because when the chips are down, we take people’s
hands and we lead.
I feel resolved now I know what I’ve chosen, so I will tell them. I know they will accept it
after last night and if they don’t, they can be angry about it after.
I try and soak up the sun’s warmth. It will be a beautiful day and my garden will be a
complete riot of colour. Maybe I will sit in my garden afterwards, perhaps I could potter
around it. That would be fine.
They come then and join me, so I turn away from the sun and tell them my strategy. They
are not surprised but they do need clarification.
‘I’m tired now. I’m ready.’
So, I walk. To the other, quiet, place in my lovely, noisy, vivid home. The other place pulses
with the hum of people and an intense concoction of emotions. This is entirely unbearable
to all of us. But there is always love.
I crave the peace for my body that I feel everywhere else. It will come, and they will pretend
to be ready. It will come.
Highly Recommended Story
On a Mission by Traci Mullins from US
Alfred yanked again on the door knob. Dammit! He was already running late for work, and he couldn’t get the blasted door open. He recalled that one summer it had swelled with the humidity, sometimes lodging itself in its frame. Still, how hard should it be to open a door? He gave it a kick, pulled again with his admittedly scrawny arms, but it stayed stuck tight.
Alfred went into the bedroom, ignoring Isabel who ignored him while she watched “The Price Is Right.” Heading toward the room’s only window, he judged that he could probably climb out if he pulled a chair over to stand on. First he tried lifting the bottom lip of the window. Wouldn’t budge. He banged on the frame a couple of times, tried again. Dammit! Alfred barked.
Next he tried the window in Edward’s room. Edward, a snoring lump beneath the covers, didn’t move, and neither did the window.
On a mission now, Alfred marched down the hallway and turned right, the patio door in his sights. He pulled the handle to the left and smiled triumphantly.
The shrilling of the alarm didn’t faze him as he made a bee-line for the car, feeling around in his pocket for his keys. Dammit! Where had he put them?
As he came around the side of the house, the front door opened and Tanya’s slow, twangy voice called out, “Hey, y’all, Alfred’s escaped again!”
Tanya approached the old man and gently grasped his elbow, smiling affectionately as she coaxed him through the entrance of Sunnybrook Memory Care. “Come on, Alfred, let’s go back inside and get us a nice strong cup of coffee. I think it’ll be fine if you wait to go to work until tomorrow.”
Highly Recommended Story
Cry of an Angel by Marko Davidovic from Canada
The waiting room reminded Ángel of the dentist’s. Children and parents sat in rows, silent through mutual fear, eyeing each other like cats. Pastel walls muffled distant sobs. Mamá ushered him into a seat among the others while she talked to the baggy-eyed receptionist, who mumbled something about a sign-in sheet.
“It’s OK,” said Mamá, “We were invited.”
“We were invited.” Ángel recognized that tone as the harbinger of Hell’s fury. A sharp contrast to last week when she’d told him that—good news!—he had the “look,” her words laced with sugar.
After a strained back-and-forth, she retired. Heads followed her back to a seat beside her son.
“Practice your monologue, cielito.” And he did—mouthing the words, but not quite processing them. When a man called “angel,” Mamá led the way through a plain steel door.
Ángel had liked acting in his school plays. He’d played Shrek in Shrek and a mouse in Cinderella. And he enjoyed the idea of being a movie star like his friend Graham wanted to be a firefighter. He didn’t care much for the way the men in this room stared, but he said hello anyway and launched into his monologue at Mamá’s sugary behest.
“Good job, angel,” said one. “Now we just need you to cry, please.”
Ángel looked for solace in his mother, who smiled and nodded. He scrunched up his face and blinked, summoning moisture to his eyes but not quite managing tears. Still the men stared at him.
He couldn’t, and it was giving him a headache. He stepped towards Mamá, who raised her eyebrows at him and shook her head.
After a moment of hesitation, he stole another inch.
“Ángel.” No sweetness.
Ángel began to cry.
Chewing Gum by Lili Maylat from Israel
So, you're asking what I remember from that day?
Well, I'm eleven, skinny… no, better say Human skeleton. It's a good expression you know? Because you can see the human but you can also see his skeleton. When I looked at my ribs, I could see them clearly.
Although I was hungry, our body as it formed at the extermination camp fascinated me. At first, we all looked the same but as time went by and more bones revealed I noticed the differences between us. At some point, I could tell who is who by the bones structure. Maybe that's what later made me a specialist in Musculoskeletal Medicine.
To answer your question, when I got out of Auschwitz, I remember one American soldier. He was standing in front of me, chewing. He didn't stop chewing. I was hypnotized by his chewing and didn't notice I was coming closer to him.
He stopped chewing and smiled. He took out something from his pocket and offered it to me. I didn't take it.
He peeled the wrapping and put the thing in his mouth. He was chewing again. He then said: "GUM". He repeated the word again slowly. Gum. The he took the gum out of his mouth showing it to me before putting it back. Yuk.
It was my first encounter with chewing gum. We never had those in Poland.
When he gave me a new gum, I took it. I peeled the wrapping carefully and put the gum in my mouth. It was hard at the beginning and became softer when I chew it, the mint flavor spreading in my mouth. Then I took it out of my mouth looked at it and put it back.
The American soldier laughed and caressed my bold head.
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