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 27th March 2023. Results will be announced on 28th. Good luck everyone!
10 by 9 Feet
A lone sparrowhawk rides the thermals. A twig snaps and I stumble. In the hut he removes my blindfold and unties my wrists. Smiling, he strokes my hair.
The floor is black with ants, the space airless. He pushes strawberries into my mouth and I swallow their sticky sweetness. At night the cicadas scream.
The thwack of an axe. Dead leaves lie crumpled on the makeshift bed. Later, the haunting cry of an owl penetrates the darkness.
The air is frigid and the door is still locked. Through the keyhole the glaring white is endless, silent.
A Matter Of Taste
Malcolm never seasons his food; says he likes bland. Margaret can’t decide if that’s an insult to her, but she can’t deny she’s plain. No Valentine card ever landed on her doormat, declaring undying love. No wolves were ever whistled her way as she passed building sites filled with bulging-bicep men. She knows now it’s insulting, but back then she secretly wanted the chance to be indignant; at least once to receive the male gaze, however objectifying.
Nowadays she watches Malcolm not watching her. Watches him eat tasteless food while she yearns for flavour and for him to taste her.
The abalone pin gleams with peacock iridescence. It rests on her lapel – hand-dived, hand-wrought – as rare as his love which waxed and waned with the seasons.
The abalone pin shines with ory opalescence. She fingers the crooked surface, remembering his crooked smile as she shucked the velvet box to find not-a-ring, but something more, and less, precious.
She wonders how many pins he gave, how many rest next to other chins, other cheeks. How deep he descended, seeking larger, rarer, before he sank breathless to the ocean floor, sea-changed, nacreous, consumed into mother-of-pearl, waiting for the next free-diver.
In A Caravan By The Riverbank, An Old Woman Contemplates Determinism Versus Free Will
All year they come for potions, posies, and palm readings. Winter storms don’t keep the visitors away. In the lavender haze of dusk, a trio of ravens dip and dive on the electric air and a girl arrives, asking about love. The old woman trails a finger along the girl’s fate line and sees her tinkering with a tiny tornado of her own. Two boys, brothers. Choice. Decision. Tragedy. The girl looks up shyly and the old woman shakes her head, for she knows she cannot counsel a foolish heart. She knows love, like the weather, will press on regardless.
Isaac Newton’s Apple Tree Remembers
As a loose-limbed youth he’d sprawl along my tender branches and carve his name into my slender trunk until my blossom would spiral, confetti-white, to the earth.
Look at me, I’d whisper but he was too busy flirting with the breeze.
For years he deserted me, left me to broaden and mature alone. When he returned, he was half-blinded by brazen sunlight and obsessed with gaudy rainbows but this time, as bees lurched from fruit to swollen fruit, I knew exactly how to attract his attention.
Look at me, I whispered, ripe and ready, and let an apple fall. Thud.
I was born in November 2059. The year of the first raid. My mother hid under the kitchen table, placing me, a pink seven pound lump, in a plastic washing bowl lined with a tea towel. When I opened my mouth to wail, she shoved her knuckle in and grimaced. When spring came, they were still after us. I slept in the pouch of my mother’s coat, one hand on me and another picking illegal berries from the other side of the lake. Five years later, in summer, I laid camouflaged by grass and bluebells, always prepared but never afraid.
Barbeques incense the air, voices and laughter drift over our suburban garden.
I forget to protect myself, I get sunburnt.
“Careless”, says your voice in my head.
Flights of swallows twitter their disapproval at the chimney smoke.
Leaves fall. No one catches them.
Skeins of incoming geese stitch storm clouds together.
I make your favourite soup recipe – plenty of salt and pepper.
Icy white mornings make fractal wonders on our window.
Snowdrops shoulder the earth away, green and white heralds of spring.
A year since you are gone, how is it the world is still turning?
Stephanie dragged her gravestone-heavy feet to the washing line. Her mother had called grey mornings like this ‘dead days’ and she could see why, though her mother had been lifeless on the brightest occasions.
Was it worth hanging the laundry this morning? Stephanie squinted, making out a bud of blue under the wadded layers of clouds. She lifted and pegged with granite arms.
Sunshine would come.
Gritting her teeth, Stephanie marched to the shed, shrugging off her mood like a jacket. She rummaged for her stash of sunflower seeds, bought before the winter, hopeful as eggs. Yes. Sunshine would come.
The orchards had been full of apples and pickers. Steve had pulled down a heavily laden branch for her to reach. She pictures a sunburnt hand, broken nails, black hair on the lower arm. The grass was long, already wet with dew. There seemed nothing to say. His fingers ran softly through her hair. His lips brushed her skinny shoulder. His hand cupped her tiny breast. Now she feels her rounding stomach, pushing against the grey school skirt. Where will she be when the apples are back in season? She looks at the half-eaten fruit on the fragile white plate.
Tomorrow Will Be The First Day Of Spring
Four times a year, it would happen – a new season on the way. An unwelcome chill, a fresh smell of leaves, a surprise morning sun, a flower first of many.
Memories of vacations and winters, and everything in-between.
Before the earth split open. Before the oceans fell into space. Before the continents broke into fragments and the moon had to pick its favourite.
Now, every day, you wish for that change. A colour other than dust, a rain that does not burn, a new season undiscovered.
A siren, one day soon. An invite to come out from your bunker.
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