Vote for your favourite from these fab stories to win the surprise People’s Prize. Our judging team are busy re-reading to choose the winners of the cash prizes. Voting is open until 23.59 (UK time) on 23rd January 2023. Results will be announced on Tuesday 24th. Good luck everyone! The prompt this month was ‘warning’
In This House, We Don’t Burn Sage
We burn paper: loose-leaf, Monopoly money, recipe cards with hearts over each “i”. We pour circles of salt, use floured fingertips to trace her silhouette on our walls, a curl of hair, a kink of skirt. We pray to St. Peter, Hathor, Hecate. Spread honey over the step that keeps creaking, check in the morning for footprints, cold spots, a sick-sweet smell — the telltale signs of a ghost. We play Pa’s records backward, watch as he whiskeys himself to sleep. Sneak into Ma’s bedroom, slip a planchette under the pillows, our arms around each other, chant: Come home, come home.
My mother believed the number 4 represented hope, a solid number stretching North, South, East and West, a joyful number promising Spring would follow Winter, Summer arrive before Autumn, which is why on that drizzly afternoon of our first date, when I rushed out to buy decent coffee, and glancing at the clock noticed the time – 4.44pm; and when the bill at Waitrose came to £4.44; and having added the final touches to my make-up my watch revealed it was 4 minutes and 44 seconds before you were due to arrive, I finally believed that this time might be different.
Hope In A Box
They can send you hope in a box. Direct to your door, from a warehouse on the edge of town. Next day delivery; via a driverless capsule, weightless and free of charge.
You can open it once inside. Light spilling from within, flowing into your body. Fresh starts and future aspirations, pulsing in your skin, swirling through your veins.
They can offer you a subscription package. A daily box of hope, with access to similar product samples – nostalgia in a can, melancholy as a spray. Enough to make you feel everything is ok, just as promised on the label.
Oh Emily, I Prayed!
She pulls her corset tight, quietens the bird perching in her soul, lest his fluttering be heard. She walks with her parasol-pleased company over the bosomed hills towards the church. It’s a holy day.
In the family pew, she feels the tiny heart, fit to bursting, throws back her slender white throat to sing. No words come forth but the Lord himself is listening, urgent wings ushering spring. It’s a fine day.
A devout man waits anxiously; his raven plummage gleaming. She nods easy consent and they fly. They will never stop at all, not this blessed day.
The Hum Of Maybes
The tattered, mottled bedroll holds me snug, tucked deep inside the secret porch, a refuge from the bedlam, old papers crunch around my feet and thighs and then the dark crawls in, enclosing me, while muffled footsteps hurry by, taxis swish and buses trundle down their tracks. Across the street I see the shining toyshop window where puppets never sleep and Hornbys chug their rounds.
My knotted mind unwinds and drifts through humble, homespun dreams. I sense the hum of possibility, the echo of longing, the buzz of chance still burning, still there behind my tired eyes. Tomorrow. Tomorrow maybe.
A Nail-biting Life
Scrubbing her hands, finger by finger, taking care round her cuticles. Draw blood and she’d be sent home.
Nails bitten short. At least she won’t snag the slub, no docking of wages for her. Never mind that her mum says her she won’t catch a lad. Boys can wait.
‘Get going. Heads down, feet on pedals.’
Ten hours of guiding slipping red silk through machines, sewing side seams, necklines and hems. Last girl in the line fixes the fancy labels, counting, nodding. One thousand fine dresses for princesses with boys to kiss.
Later she paints bitter aloes on her nails.
The First Time Afterwards
The hairdresser wears sleeves of words wrist to shoulder, twisting and writhing from beneath spaghetti-straps. She’s a pantoum, a villanelle, an elegy.
Lewis reads her as she shears him. Her stories spiral with dazzle and despair, reaching him – almost. Looking up he sees her watching in the glass. She nods briefly, a shared second, connected.
After they make love he leaves her in his gelid bed, stands in the empty room next door takes in the décor, wallpaper animals crossing two-by-two, ghost photographs of mother and child on the dresser. He wonders if new starts are possible after such sadness.
Sellotape snags on metal serrations. He stretches the strip along the fold. Admires the glitter pink stags leaping across the paper, bought in the precinct.
“Our Ellie loves deer, has a fluffy one on her bed,” he’d told the assistant as she rolled the wrap into a tube.
He writes the label.
Happy Birthday, Sweetheart. Love Dad
Carries the gift past the calendar hanging on the kitchen wall, unturned since the day she disappeared. Days, months, years sliding away.
Opening the door, he places the present onto the doorstep. Gazes out far beyond the view.
“You’re going to love it.”
Blue and yellow lights illuminate the towering artificial tree in Sofia Square.
Olek clings to her. ‘I wish Daddy was here.’ His breath mists in the cold.
She composes herself, worried that her voice will crack. ‘Next year, hopefully.’ To distract Olek, she points. ‘Look. The tree is lit by that bicycle generator because of the power cut. Let’s find out who is pedalling it.’
They walk over, staring up at the tree. She thinks about Marko in his combat gear, all those kilometres away, tensely watching for quite different lights above in the night.
When she saw the swirling moonscapes, the clouds and craters that said embryos— embedded—she named the triplets, Faith, Hope and Charity, anticipating the love.
A mothership, she floated, only flimsily attached while they cut, peeled her open, floated, far out in aching black space, unaware of their arrival.
She anchored in an insecure berth, shocked by the red screwed faces with greedy mewling mouths, furious at the persistent, selfish cries. The plague of milk spots, the kicking chicken legs and red, swollen genitals. Ugly, hateful, spiteful little things. Pestilence, Gluttony and Wrath. In secret she named them again.
House Of Dunes
I wade through heavy sand. Room to room.
It drifts over window ledges and props doors permanently open. It has settled where I used to sip tea and cook Qormah.
It ripples in strips of sunlight.
It’s been a long time since the nebula of dust tumbled over the city, choking us, working its way into our scalps, coating our throats. Horses nearby charged into wire fences, tangling, dying.
And now, I reach for a lumpy object: a doll left in our hurry to get away. Pressing the gritty thing to my chest, I wonder if my daughter will remember it.
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