We’re delighted to reveal our first 10 shortlisted stories of 2024. The prompt was BARK and the word count limit was 250 and we love what these 10 writers have done with it. No telling if you are one of them though as it has to remain anonymous for the final voting!
You can vote for your favourite using the form at the bottom of the page and voting closes at 23.59 GMT on Monday 29th January.
Barking up the Wrong Tree
Max found a quiet table and ordered a pint of best with a saucer. He was getting a few strange looks from the regulars, but the sign outside clearly stated that dogs were welcome. He’d never been on an internet date before. Jemma, the girl he’d been chatting to online, had suggested they meet up and go for a drink. She arrived ten minutes late and looked nothing like her photo. He reckoned it was ten years out-of-date. Still, his was taken when he wasn’t much older than a pup.
“Hi Jemma, over here,” he tried not to sound too eager.
“Oh!” she said, “oh gosh, I mean …wow, um… this is awkward.” She blushed furiously. “I didn’t realise you were a dog.”
Max sighed. He’d come across this sort of prejudice before. “I thought my profile picture was a pretty good clue,” he said sarcastically, “and you said you liked dogs.”
“I thought you were using an avatar, just being mysterious, and I do like dogs. You’re a handsome dog.”
Max struggled to stop his tail from wagging.
“I can’t see the problem. You said you like curling up in front of the telly to watch films, so do I,” he whined. It was obvious she was leaving. “And what about our long walks?”
“I’m sorry, it’s not you, it’s me. I’m looking for someone a bit more, um, human.”
She left. He slurped his beer from the saucer. Next time he’d use Tinder.
The thing about good brisket, my father used to say, as he spread tallow onto butcher’s paper and swaddled his meat-hunk like a baby, is that you need a good bark. I followed him around the whole day and watched him tend to the thing, poke and prod it, apply a salt and pepper coating with care, nurture the smoker, adding fresh wood chunks to the smoldering pile. A brisket is a responsibility, he said, unwrapping his dark, steaming beauty. He told me even jazz kind of came from somewhere else but barbeque was like crime movies — it was a distinctly American art form.
I remember fat running out when he cut the thing open; I remember the pink ring hidden just beneath the bark, rosy like a baby’s cheeks; I remember he always cut off four chunks of burnt ends: one for our dog, two for himself, and one for me; I remember the meat dissolving on my tongue, a soft, sweet smoke tickling the back of my throat. I remember thinking one day maybe I could set the bark and dad could guide my hand as I spread the tallow. I can’t quite mark the moment that thought became a memory, when hope turned wishful thinking, the whole thing sour and naive. But I never made brisket or ate one as good as his, never heard him say Just a little more pepper or Wrap it tighter there, son.
Clearing Out Dad’s House
It was the first time she’d woken without the sinking feeling of loss that, for days, had tightened her throat and made her shiver under the downy quilt.
In the grey dawn, Zoe wondered what had broken her sleep.
Yes, she’d been dreaming of Crumble, the golden retriever who’d shared most of her
That bark again. It sounded just like his voice when he’d jump around, trying to bite snowflakes.
Reaching toward the window, Zoe tugged back the curtain to reveal a snowy scene that hadn’t been forecast. She peered left and right looking for the dog, but nobody was in sight, though the joyful barking continued.
A snowdrift threatened to topple onto the mat at the front door.
Even with thick green army socks, Zoe’s feet were swamped in Dad’s old wellies, but she hadn’t brought more suitable footwear. She put on his grey woollen coat too and as she lifted the rough lapel to her cheek, was engulfed in the aroma of woodsmoke, nutmeg, and peppermint.
Smiling through tears, Zoe took a great step over the snowdrift and went out to find who was barking.
After ten minutes of fruitless wandering, her mind drifted into list-making mode. Empty the fridge. Find out when is bin day. Search for a local charity that will collect.
She was ready to tackle the dreaded chores.
As Zoe turned to close the front door, she saw faint pawprints alongside her own treads in the snow.
Let me tell you the story of a woman who uprooted herself from that God-forsaken town, from people with small minds and even smaller ambitions. Worked day and night, juggling study and bar-tending, balancing books and babysitting drunks. By twenty-five, she had transplanted herself into the silky, dark soil of the corporate world. By thirty, she owned her own company, had three hundred people working beneath her in various branches.
Success made her grow taller, closer to the sun. Yet, no matter how beautiful her natural foliage, she knew she could look better. She plucked her velvety green leaves and exchanged them for silver ones. She even added a few gold leaflets, which glinted like coins in the morning light. When her mother died, she had to go back to that half-horse town and meet the little people with their humdrum lives. She couldn’t understand why no one spoke to her. She sat alone at the wake; resplendent, but outcast. People passed her sandwiches out of politeness, smiled shyly, but didn’t engage in small talk.
Little did she know, it wasn’t because they had anything against her. They meant no harm at all. They didn’t speak because they simply didn’t recognise her.
Let me tell you a story of heart rot setting in. A wound in a bark is no small thing.
For Sale – Vacant possession upon completion, many original features
I pushed the door open. The house released stale air with a sigh. It was empty but not silent. Silverfish swam and swarmed behind wisteria wallpaper. Tiny claws scrabbled behind skirting boards. The scratched wooden floor stretched before me. I remembered the times I’d teetered out on ridiculous heels. I’d imagined making an entrance somewhere, heads turning, people noticing me.
I walked into the front room and ran a finger over the mantelpiece. Sunlight flowed through the stained glass panels and made tapestries of the threadbare rugs. Crimson roses and turquoise diamonds glowed briefly until extinguished by passing clouds. I drew a heart in the dust. A faint scent of bluebells welcomed me and I breathed in the familiar sweetness. Memory gifted me my mother’s smile as she sprayed me with cologne. I heard again her laughter as I sneezed.
Reluctantly I turned around to face the stairs. There it was. I could feel it in my chest, the reverberation of heavy thuds shaking the house as he tumbled. The scent of bluebells faded; replaced by the sour tang of beer and the echo of old Charlie’s frantic barking. A large tartan slipper caught my eye. It was still wedged between two broken spindles. Fragments of the past, muted and blurry but insistent as moths, buffeted against my face. Then the sound of a hesitant cough shattered the spell.
“Saying goodbye?” asked the woman with the clipboard.
“Laying a few ghosts,” I replied. I walked past her, into the sunlight.
He can’t see me from where he’s standing. I’m in the perfect position, hidden behind the laminated table menu.
His blue striped shirt, which I washed and ironed yesterday, is sticking to his chest, the top three buttons all undone.
A flame theatrically explodes and lights up the kitchen area. He laughs; loud enough for everyone in the café to hear.
“Laughing,” I mouth to myself, as if speaking into a hidden microphone. I really can’t recall the last time I heard him doing that.
I lift my head and watch him twirl round, wiggling his shoulders and performing a couple of synchronised dance steps with a young barista.
I feel my lips move again: “Dancing!”
A new song starts up, asking who’s letting the dogs out? He holds a spoon in front of his lips and barks along to the tune. The young girl at the cash desk is also yapping, like an unleashed groupie. I catch myself grimacing, but manage to suppress the urge to growl.
He’s bouncing up and down now, waving his hands in the air, wagging an imaginary tail.
I slip a fiver under the mug and sneak away, unnoticed.
“How was work?” I ask.
“Boring,” he replies.
Pointing the remote at the TV, he settles deep into his armchair.
I let out a private sigh, switch on the small table light, open my book and stare down at the words.
We won’t speak again until it’s time for our hot chocolate.
How to Mend a Man with a Cover like Bark
They stretcher him across oceans of muddy battlefield; discarded flotsam.
Around him, everything, even blood and bone merge to mud, clagging his torn nostrils, his ripped mouth. Trees, their bark blackened; branch and trunk split, observe him. Quagmire of limbs, trunks, torsos. Man and nature, shattered.
He wakes in a hospital bed. Light pricking through bandages over his face. His breath comes in stutters. The torture of battle, irritates like crawling insects beneath his skin. The bed creaks as he moves, or perhaps his bones do. His bruised body triggers memories of falling from a tree as a child. Nineteen now, he’s child no more.
As bandages are removed, people turn away. In the mirror he comes face-to-face with the bogeyman. His eyes sting, hot tears dripping down the scarred pulp of what had been handsome features. He curls in on himself, a hibernating animal seeking escape.
The mask-maker comes to him. A vision emerging from shafts of light. She’s young, aproned in white. Her fingers tremble as they touch his crevassed face, tendrils seeking out the grain of the youth he’d been.
After she’s gone, he sleeps; dreams of running through woods.
She ties the wooden mask with care, making sure the edges don’t chafe. Her touch is sunlight. In the mirror his reflection raises a shaking hand to the mask. He caresses the gleaming wood, smooth under his touch, contouring cheek bone. A protective plaque covering his scars.
Half man, half tree. Able to face the world.
Lost in Time
One thirty in the morning. The world to ourselves. Just you, me, and our forever hug.
A full moon sends slivers of silvery light through the kitchen window blinds. But the truth in your eyes reflects the darkness of this moment. From nurturing you to nursing you, life’s rollercoaster is flat lining. But then… did I see you blink?
As the curtain comes down on our famous final scene, is there one more encore?
No… my lying eyes are taunting me, as yours fade like footprints in melting snow.
I hug you tighter still. Like the harder I hold will prevent you from slipping through my fingers towards memory.
But then… did I hear you sigh?
Or was it a wheeze, like the sound of an old set of bellows?
Now my ears join my eyes in cruel sensory acts of betrayal.
Your loss about to become my lost.
So, it’s time for the unrehearsed final speech; the epilogue to our life story. But the words get caught in my throat, losing their fight to escape against a tsunami of guttural sobs. I lean forward in your basket to do ‘noses’ one last time. Yours is cold like a winter’s morn, mine snivelling like a child having had its favourite toy confiscated.
One thirty-five in the morning. The world to ourselves. You, me, and your final breath hanging in the air like a bubble about to burst.
And a personal apocalypse.
Public Notice of Removal
In the fall of 2020, they only fought at night in the park, and, because of that, Biz realized she was a light sleeper. It wasn’t like she didn’t try: earplugs, white noise, copious amounts of weed. All futile when they started hurling insults against the tree trunks and concrete benches. From them, she learned the neighborhood had bad acoustics and closed shelters. It’d go on until the cops came with their car doors that barked shut. The uneasy, muttered silence they brought was what she came to hate the most, her imagination clicking into black and white scenes of 60’s dogs and firehoses.
She should have moved as far from them as she could while staying indoors, but instead, she crept closer. First, the right side of her bed. Then, the kitchen chair. Next, the balcony door. The night she made it out onto the tiled veranda that overlooked the park, something had changed. During the in between of Biz’s waking and sleeping, the canopy of oak trees had been razed to the ground. The benches, removed.
The people, gone.
In the twilight, the twisted figure of a wolf, planted squarely on the remaining matted grass made her freeze. It did not howl, just stared out from oiled pupils and it took her minutes to realize it was plastic, the kind she’d seen on the Esplanade to ward off geese. Later, when she closed her eyes and chased sleep, all she could see was its snarling, silent face.
Sounds She Won’t Miss, Now Arthur Has Gone
That ever-present barking cough. The habitual sniffing, whether or not he had a cold. The tutting when he caught her with her hand in the biscuit jar. The clicking on and off of his ballpoint pen as he did the crossword. His tuneless humming. That ever-present barking cough. The crunching and chomping as he ate a packet of crisps. The clanging of spoon against teapot as he chivvied the teabag along. The scraping of his knife on the plate as he finished every last scrap of his dinner. The clattering from the kitchen, as he rearranged the contents of the dishwasher to his liking. That ever-present barking cough. His dreadful imitation of her Scouse accent. The drag of his slippers across the carpet. The creaking of the bedsprings as he sat down to remove his socks. The smacking of his lips before something good, including sex. The disappointed sighing after something bad, including sex.
The ‘Sweet dreams, Duck,’ every night, before he turned off the light. His snoring. The beeping of machines, those last weeks in the hospital. The platitudes of strangers. That bloody ever-present barking cough.
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