Well done to all who made the longlist and congrats to the 10 writers of the stories below who have now gone through to the shortlist. No telling anyone which is yours though!
As the voting is now open for the People’s Prize vote and it needs to remain anonymous.
Vote for your favourite at the bottom of the page by 23.59 UK time on Monday 24th May. Winners of the cash prizes (decided by our judging panel) and the People’s Prize vote will be announced on Tuesday 25th May.
Good luck everyone!
A Change of Heart
The man is disappearing, eyes without a face. The woman bends over a cactus. Thorns stud her words with succulent punctuation. Her resolve is half-hearted, her panty lines are visible. She lives with the man in perpetual orgasm. Toes never uncurl. The man offers her things from the bottom of his heart: a mixtape, scuffed up Skee-Ball, Red Bulls, a losing lotto ticket. A singular pigeon bobs out of his chest. A child appears with a clipboard and a megaphone. She does the intake forms; takes the chamber’s measurements. Blood stains the woman’s dress.
The wilting lilies leave a yellow-powdered kiss on my bathrobe as I push them into the green bin. Next I dismantle their cardboard honour guard of pastel blooms, foggy lakes and backlit trees. Long-memorised words are buried deferentially on a cushion of tissue boxes.
Whisky fumes make me gag as I flush the rusty liquid down the sink. The bottle prevents the blue bin closing.
Later, showered and freshly clothed, I place my steaming coffee cup on the sunlit garden table. Inhaling the sweet fragrance of lilac, I watch a resplendent Red Admiral alight on the blossom.
She loved butterflies.
Marianne awoke to find she’d turned into a washing machine. Fortunately, she was upright, and able to manoeuvre herself into the kitchen. But without hands she could hardly be expected to make breakfast.
– Could you make the toast, today, Kenneth? I’ve turned into a washing machine.
– Course, love. Do you want marmalade?
– Oh, go on then. And a nice cup of tea.
Kenneth carefully folded the toast into the detergent tray and poured the tea into the fabric softener compartment. After making his own packed lunch, he set off for work, pleased with himself for helping out.
Fact: The larvae of holometabolous insects bear no resemblance to the adults.
When I held your hand, people stared.
All her father, you said.
Like it’s a curse.
Fact: When a larva becomes a pupa, it will stop eating and moving.
If you couldn’t love me, I’d become as light as the feather on your felt hat.
Fact: When the adult leaves the pupa, it relaxes under the sun while its exoskeleton hardens.
When I finally ran, you yelled that I wouldn’t last a week. Yet here I am now, sorting through your belongings.
Me and You
Your paw on my shoulder, you sitting upright on the bed like a Victorian paterfamilias except for the tip of your tail wafting and your alert ears.
The bed has bars instead of a headboard. You sleep underneath it.
After they put us here we exchanged vows, to be each other’s. Was that wise, I don’t know. My past lovers were all quite samey and you’re so different. I long for slippers and hearth, you dream of insects.
Squeaky-wheel me across the floorboards, unpeel the shadows from my feet and rub me into happy velvet patterns, on our imaginary ottoman.
My husband fiddles paper birds from discarded poetry, setting them on the dresser.
I am prosaic, dusting the tiny figures, mouthing the broke-beaked singing words half valleyed in the folds.
He is the prophet-poet, scaffolding miniature worlds, whispering secrets.
Here, on the brisk, cutting edge of his scant attention, I feel I am unfolding. Like a piece of his origami, being unmade.
I protest loudly, not wanting to be read. Not wanting my intimate inner creases exposed.
Furious, my husband tinders a lucifer, burning me down to smoking ashes.
But I’m a foolscap fledgling phoenix. On sulphurous flames I rise.
Sad Song of the Backwards Selkie
I thought you had to be born a selkie, or whatever it’s called this way round.
I had no idea all it might take was one drunken, midnight skinny-dip (under the witchy aurora light), someone nicks your clothes, and next thing you know, you’re a lolling, legless heap of blubber on a rock. Whiskery muzzle bloody with fish guts.
The tourist boats pass by and I call out, strain to clap my stubby flippers together. But they only laugh and snap photos.
No idea that I’m screaming, Can’t any of you help me?
Warning them, I was once like you.
The Swan Song
Five orphan cygnets, the last of their down just cast, manoeuvre round the ice, hoovering the riverbed for pondweed.
They’re coming of age.
As am I.
Mother would strap my hands behind my back. ‘Don’t pick the scabs. They’ll bleed.’
Every night my sisters loosened the knot, kissed my oozing wounds, sang to me. In our cottage, hidden by an awning of staked down elder branches, they succumbed one by one.
Smoke from their funeral pyres shields the sun as I heave father’s dinghy into the swans’ wake and drift downstream, my sisters’ harmonies echoing on through the crackling flames.
The Year of Solitude
The beer had turned lukewarm on the walk over and his jacket sat in a film of rain across his shoulders. He shuffled crablike to avoid the shoulders of people he didn’t know.
Company colored the room “newly lit cigarette”, a cacophony of mouths wide and laughing in a way that made him wonder about the air quality.
His armpits dampened and instead of the toilet, he found a closet and sank into the hardwood dark. Silence touched his arm.
What he’d give to turn into a house plant here. Exhaling, inhaling, normal, natural. Tendrils calmly withered in the pitch.
“Don’t bug me,” I tell my daughter.
Swatting that aside, she signs me up and chooses my username: Butterfly.
Men in the late stages of life—antennae bent or missing, holes in wings and the elbows of their cardigans—flutter across the laptop.
“Try it, Mum.” Salve on the pain of breaking up after thirty years.
I type “Hello.” Buzz, buzz, buzz. I’m swarmed like a porch light at night, as if I’m the last flower, the last nectar they’ll ever find.
Too much. I log out and caterpillar to the couch to cocoon and ponder who I’ll become now.
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