Excuses by Joy Tong
Interchange by Freya Kelly
The Carnival by Dominic Botherway
Imperfections – Joy Tong
Lightning and Thunder – Tess Burgoyne
Mother – Anna Mapley
Mr Pop’s Ice Cream Parlour – Ella Mitchell
Nothing – Lucy Anderson
Otori and the Tokusawa Demon – Shauntae Clince
Sana’a – Dannielle Bruce
Tables Turned – Luc Botherway
The Art of Water Divination – Russell Boey
The Dream Blanket – Anna Featherstone-Wright
The Silent Hand – Simon Brown
Tornado – Emily-Rose Young
When it rains, it pours – Tegan Moffatt-Rooney
Wolf – Louise Rippin
NFFD Adult Competition
Joy Tong, age 15
“Dad, do you have three dollars on ya? Because you can get three frozen cokes with that!”
A small boy is zipping down the pavement, his bike a black and blue blur against the road, words tossed over his shoulder light as air. The father is treading slower on his pedals, helmet glistening like the beads of sweat running down his arms, jandals flopping so loosely you’d think the spinning spokes would have bitten them off.
He murmurs something ahead. An even smaller boy is huffing, his entire being a whirlwind of motion as he struggles to keep up, face lined in determination.
Alma watches. She doesn’t really see, and she takes a bit longer to make the connections. Some find it unsettling because her rheumy eyes linger too long, trying to process youth and all its novel by-products. The rocking chair sways on the porch underneath a watery March sun. The first in a week of storm. What was it this time?
Cyclone Debbie? Samantha? Alice? Cold, now hot. How quickly these things come and go. Just like the three little figures, now much further up the road. She takes a cane from the front door.
She’d like a frozen Coke, please. Pardon? Yes, that’s all.
Grasping the frail plastic and creaking herself behind a table, Alma takes a cautious sip. It doesn’t really taste like anything she knows anymore. The boys from before are laughing and frolicking at their benches, half-empty drinks forgotten. It’s a different life and it’s not one she belongs to. She can only watch these boys play and move on, repetitively, and she is still here. Unnoticed. Watching. Everything is always distant. These days there’s a film over her sight, like her eyes are preparing themselves to glaze over.
The cold seeps through her fingers.
Asha Clark, age 12
I would like to express my dissatisfaction with the accommodation you have provided me in hell. My room doesn’t meet the standards I was expecting because of a number of reasons.
First, there is a dead, rotting corpse in my closet. This is a clear breach of minimum hygiene requirements and my health could suffer.
Secondly, for some reason there is a blood stain on my carpet but most of all, clearly on my bedroom wall, someone has drawn a pentagram with their blood. I have no understanding why the cleaners didn’t clean my apartment beforehand.
Another problem with the accommodation is the fact that many of my neighbours have amazing five-star rooms with free room service and Sky TV! On the surface, I was a bad enough person to secure a good place here in hell and get better treatment than this. I made so many people miserable because I complained about everything. Is that not deserving of at least a good room? I mean ‘Mr Serial Killer’ up in the penthouse has an amazing suite and what in hell did he do – kill a few people? Psh! I made people lose their jobs over my complaining. My wife even filed for divorce! I even made a co-worker homeless because of my complaining about his service, which I do kind of regret since he killed me because of it, before committing suicide… And look at the room he has got!
Thinking about this, however, I feel you purposely gave me this room to give me even more to complain about, kind of like my own personal hell… Hang on – you did, didn’t you!
The Brass Angels
Russell Boey, age 16
Six a.m. precisely. With a dull creak, a trio of hands drag across a rusted blue-green surface, scraping off a red cloud. It billows out like some stranded jellyfish, floating away into the void.
Gears whir into life. Electricity flows into eye sockets, steam pouring from brazen veins and welded limbs as God wakens to face the morning. His metal hands clamp around a gaudy sceptre, bright gold, the head of its sovereign tip a cheap action figure. Steam flows from His knees as He stands in His shining palace, luscious velvet laid beneath His unfeeling feet. His automated eyes blink once and twice, seeing nothing save for the Apparatus, pipes and beating hydraulics, hissing with light and smog. His legs creak as He steps forward, to look down from Heaven.
Around Him, shaking dust from their metal wings, angels rise from their eight-hour slumber. They move stiffly, mute and deaf, hands outstretched as if in a plea or a salute. They trundle forward to stand beside their master, shining Him with diamond dust and golden fibres while He lazily holds his noble sceptre.
He glances down from spires of gold and ivory. Outside, a great clock ticks onwards, hints of azure hue still untouched, a hateful scream as the second hand drags over the iron and the rust covering the mechanical monstrosity. Music to His metal ears. The rust continues to be swept away. If it, too, screams, the noise is lost to the vacuum.
He gestures with his sceptre. The angels shuffle towards the Apparatus, their outstretched arms operating pistons and levers with clockwork ease. The clock screams as the hands move onwards, friction close to melting point.
The angels pull, and on cue: sunrise.
Youth Micro Award
What Happens Next
Jacinta van der Linden, age 17
She finds herself in a corridor awash with noise, laughter echoing through her like a drumbeat. It is a whisper of what they’d had, reminiscent of childhood and innocence, idyllic in its ease.
He takes her hand.
Together they dance, ballerinas in a minefield of words and gestures, fearing the misstep that will make them implode.
Very Highly Commended
Cake and Ice Cream
Jana Heise, age 12
There’s something about music.
I told you that when we met. Cake was playing.
Music makes me feel… I never finished my sentence. I asked you to dance.
There’s something about how the sound twists through the canal of your ear. Rhythmic. Beautiful. Like a river, turning, churning fast, slow, until, finally, it’s melted into your brain.
…she wants a car with a cup-holder armrest…
You told me you preferred R.E.M.
R.E.M – rapid eye movement.
When you lie on the precipice of sleep, the space between life and nowhere, you whispered into my ear. Silky, smooth, so different to John McCrea’s harsh voice.
And then the sound undergoes a metamorphosis, changing into something infectious, spreading, racing through your body to the tips of your fingers, the tips of your toes – a wave, another, rippling, making you move, sway, spin, drop.
You smelled of freshly cut grass and apples.
And then there’s the bass. Mighty. Strong. Not merely sound – it echoes beyond that, ricocheting through your ribcage, like it can’t be stopped, continuous, forever.
We left together that night. We shared a tub of ice cream, cookies and cream, sitting legs interlocked on the counter of your record shop.
And with every thud, with every hum, you feel it in your core.
The music was invincible.
We were invincible.
I grin. Your knee touches mine as it sways, suspended off the side of the record shop counter.
Ice cream in the freezer.
Ode to Joy
Monica Koster, age 15
I wake to the smell of rain seeping through the cracks in my window. A sigh of wind sweeps through the room, mixing with the scent of musty carpet and burnt toast. I fumble my way to the side of the bed. My fingertips trail along the wall’s lumpy surface as I shuffle down the hall.
I walk through to the living room. My hand swings out, knocking something off the cabinet. I bend down and bring the object to chest height, tracing the edges. My fingers explore the wooden surfaces, and a rectangular shape forms in my mind. It’s a photo frame. I imagine the smiling faces slotted into this block of wood and my own lips curve at the thought. I place it back on the cabinet. I hope it’s the right way up.
I approach my radio, feeling for the braille. Click. The sweet sound of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony floods the air around me. It rushes over my body and around my head, piano to forte, legato to staccato. It lifts the hairs on my skin, brushing shivers like paint strokes to paper, rescuing me from the ebony darkness I am forever chained to… just for a few precious moments.
I collapse in my armchair. I can always rely on Ludwig to bring me some relief. After all, we have both been robbed of something precious. He lost his ears, and I, my eyes. However, we have something to repair what has been broken inside of us. We have music.
The Worry Troll That Lives in my Head
Annick Laird, age 15
Ah finally in bed…
“Hey have you locked all the doors?”
So, my brother just got a new bunny…
“Make sure that he takes care of it!”
“Don’t let Mum get any of her cigarette smoke in the house! Oh, no! Will you get lung cancer from second-hand smoking? Oh, no! You need to get some fresh air!”
Yes, OK! I get it!
“That cough of his might make you sick! Make sure he covers his mouth!”
Mum pays the toll for my worry troll. She can’t stand him. I know he’s just looking out for me, but sometimes he can get a little annoying. My family aren’t very fond of him and he doesn’t trust them one bit.
“Make sure she remembers to pick us up after school.”
Yes, OK, I’ve told her three times.
“Yes, but she might have forgotten since five minutes ago when we first told her.”
“Did she lock her car? It would be a shame if her car got stolen”
Oh, she hasn’t! Good one, troll!
Sometimes he can be very useful. He does tend to live in the moment, though. I don’t think he worries about the future. I should probably get on with my homework…
“Nah, just do it tomorrow…”
Well, OK then.
Long story short, he’s a bit of a nuisance. But I can tame him… After all, he does live in my head.
Joy Tong, age 15
It’s midnight and an essay is due tomorrow – no, today – and there’s a blank screen in front of me. I stare and for some reason nothing happens. Where’s that music history essay on the life of Johann Sebastian Bach? Why is there an unfilled document looking pointedly back at me? Last week’s composition, too, is waiting, empty, on the piano. I’m supposed to raise my grades with these assignments. I have to; otherwise it’ll all be for nothing.
There are student loans, bills that Mikey’s never going to pay. I don’t particularly want to know how many months those have lain there.
Three in the morning now. I’m inspired. Oh, not to write that essay. I meant I’m inspired to the point where words and notes are blurring over, yet my fingers need no sight. The music is bouncy, starlight in the dark, yellow leaves in the forest. I don’t know where they’re coming from. Is it Bach? Has his soul come to bless me?
I hear the front door jolt and I shut up. Immediately. Mikey doesn’t like it when I play.
Six a.m. This room stinks. Stinks of crushed dreams and too much Red Bull and Mikey’s Tommy Hilfiger socks. Probably the one thing Mikey owns more than, what, twenty dollars? Except me. He said I’m a solid thirty-five if I try hard enough. And I do try. But when Mikey’s eyes are bloodshot and his voice in the evening reeks and my vision is swimming I can’t tell how little I’m worth.
I’m really, really low maintenance. I don’t need much.
You know what? I give up. The essay can wait. My happiness can wait. Love can wait. I’ll give them all the same excuse this time. Just like I do every other damn time.
Freya Kelly, age 12
The Highbury train is a skeleton: strip-light, glaring bright, hollow-boned with tickets and cheap scent.
Doors slide open in a death-rattle, and a girl floats in with snow drifts and soft eyes. Flower-tangled fluttering, tripping feet in heeled boots. The conductor’s eyes crease, handing over a slip of paper to match the white fallen leaves on the floor. The girl finds her notebook and a tiny packet of gumballs, and contents herself with sketching and nibbling, slash pencil delicate and sweet break jaw ache.
The train stops, opens, tumbling exit. Petal confetti, jasmine sweet – these things linger as she leaves. The announcer’s empty voice echoes, cutting through bustling suits and slouching teens making penny bets on pigeons and tennis balls.
A man, blazing mohawk, tattoos climbing, tweaks his piercing absently – cold metal, giving skin white picket teeth. Eyes watch from corners; children are gathered in with a sharp word, a strong arm.
The girl stands on her toes. Watch as she waves, lights up soft glow blush cheeks running. The man, mask in pieces, spills forward. Meet in the middle, no-man’s-land, fire soft, ash-earth reborn.
Him. They blur; melt. Colours shift and spiral, drink her in, parched.
Dominic Botherway, age 10
Late afternoon, a mist rolled in. It’s pitch-black now. My school uniform grows damp and heavy. Cold and shivering, I stumble up the road towards home. I know my way from the familiar gates on my side of the street. The other side is invisible. A haunting laugh from an unseen window breaks the silence. I keep my head down and walk on.
A glare blinds me. Barely missing me, a car skids and smashes into a telephone pole. The wires stretch out like octopus tentacles, snapping and grabbing with electricity. The pole falls heavily with an earisplitting THUD, caving in the car.
Hot metal, torn rubber and shattered glass spray everywhere. My hand is cut by a flying object. The wreck in the fog is illuminated at first by the headlights, then by a flicker of flame under the bonnet. The mist is gradually lit up like an expanding ball of wet candy floss. A drunken driver tumbles out of the car. I see that his legs are shredded, blood oozing from him like red paint from a split can. I take his arm. He collapses. I drag him and set him on the footpath. He slumps like a soft toy with his back to a rickety fence.
Smoke bleeds then billows into the mist; a fire rages out of control. Sparks jump like acrobats in the circus and ash falls like confetti.
I jump as the town’s fire siren sounds suddenly. It’s a sound that’s both thrilling and dreadful, like getting on a rollercoaster. Sirens deafen me as an ambulance, police cars and fire engines screech to a halt. Costumed people are everywhere. I think of my school project on kaleidoscopes, an ever-changing cacophony of colours – white, red, orange, blue. Like a carnival.
Selected long-listed stories
All the Unseen Sky
Winter. Snow-flurries and a funeral.
Rosebuds turn to ice beneath the beating of the wind, brittle as broken hearts. Brittle as the freshly chiselled epitaph on the lonely gravestone. Beloved, it says, as the snow piles up around it, and around the black-coated figure with dying flowers in his hand.
Spring. Green and grey.
A lonely telescope looks up into the sky. Starlight glances off the lens to illuminate the stillness of a brown garden. The figure pays the dead lawn little attention, as he has paid it no attention for the last months. He toys with the focuser on the instrument, long fingers meticulously trained to slow elegance while the lengthened monocle scans the sky. He heard once that the moon smiled. But on its face he sees only pockmarks born from the misfortune of growing old.
When he departs the telescope, the eyepiece seems moist.
Summer. The seasons fly.
A time for memory. The sounds of sleeping birds. Nights pressed against the telescope’s eyepiece, laughing and taking turns to map the sky out on a canvas wide as the world. How grand the universe had been – spanned out before them like their lives, which, perhaps, they might find engraved in the secrets of Heaven.
Nights spent dreaming of endless fire. Starlight. Now, forget these joys and turn to a sunless day.
If the days of lives are written onto heaven, then perhaps the space between them is not so far after all. His last thoughts are of starlight, and how it bends with an ironic twinkle through the water, growing further and dimming into the vacuum and the night.
Tired cold and a funeral.
They call me Ash. Born from the ashes of civilization, I know you. I have watched humanity grow and expand.
Oak trees despise me. With their grand appearance and sleek, smooth branches for easy climbing. Who can blame humans for taking more notice of them? Everyone shuns me.
I cannot blame them, for I bear the mark of God’s disappointment. His wrath let out to me. My trunk ugly and deformed. My wisdom forgotten. My past remembered and my origins hated. Fungi has grown on me, the bruises of past battles.
I used to be a symbol. I could be a survivor. I still can be sacred and forbidden.
One day, many years from now, the diggers will come. The oak trees will be felled. I will stand untouched. For that is my punishment – to live while dying slowly on the inside. My saviour will come. The green saplings on my body prove that.
They called me Ash.
All alone in my room it’s silent as ever. Only the warm light coming from my green desk lamp fills the darkness. Heavy textbooks weigh down my eyelids as well as my thoughts, my heartbeat throbbing in my ears with each shallow breath. I’m lucky I can enjoy the tranquillity for even this long.
I hear an argument growing louder downstairs. It’s only a faint rumbling through the walls but I’ve heard it enough for my ears to perk up. As usual, I lean back in my chair and listen. My dad is shouting at my mum but I can’t make out the words. There are thick streaks of anger in his voice like every muscle in his body is quivering with aggression.
Mine quiver with fear.
I cower lower into my chair and clutch the armrests while I listen to my mum’s whimpering. She’s wailing now in the same way she always does and I hear a loud slap. A sound that echoes through the house like a thunderclap. This happens all too often, but still, it never fails to shock me.
With my mum still screaming and my dad still swearing, I slink out of my room and down the stairs to see what is happening. My instincts remind me that the sensible thing to do, the safe thing, is to stay in my room.
But I don’t listen. I can’t sit alone up there and wait while my mum’s wailing pierces the walls.
I peek into the living room to get a glimpse of the beating. Storm clouds are brewing behind my dad’s eyes, his fists flailing like great hurricanes. But I smile and watch as my mum wails again with delight. She slaps the timer quickly once more and moves the bishop into place.
When we pull up alongside the kerb in our battered, orange Chevy, the tyres squeal. We’re herded out of the car like a bunch of rowdy cats and my dad clutches all our bags so that his knuckles turn white. Frantically, we scurry up the grimy, unsealed driveway towards a cream-coloured building with boarded windows.
We do most things frantically in our family.
My first thought is that the curtains are the least depressing thing about the motel. They’re faded and yellow and they’ve been half eaten by moths, but they have daffodils printed on them. I guess that means they have some kind of subtle charm. That’s probably what my mum would say about them.
Our curtains at home are heavy and red like we’re trying to collect dust and my nose itches on the weekends when everyone’s home. Still, could be worse. There’s only one bed in our room, so we draw straws for it. I get the longest one.
Lucky me, right?
Someone once told me it’s really hard finding where a bed is squeaking, but I didn’t really believe it. I think it was my dad who told me, although that’s probably why I don’t. However, lying there on that damp and stained mattress, I find that it’s perfectly true.
Can’t get the damn thing to stop squeaking. While my mum and dad and sisters are all fast asleep there on their mattresses, I am crawling round the outside of the rotting, wooden frame looking for a loose joint or something. Anything.
So, in the morning, when the maid with sunken eyes and the broken, yellow teeth comes bearing a bowl of mouldy peaches, she finds me with a thousand moths.
Wrapped up sleeping in the curtains.
She struts as if she recently won an Oscar, though her expression suggests that she just stepped in dog poo. She reeks with confidence. The smell slaps you in the face as soon as you look at her. Overpowering and a bit stale.
She plasters a fake smile on her face as salt pours from her lips. Why weren’t you there? Why didn’t you do this? You need to be perfect, like me. She whines when things don’t go perfectly in this world which, by the way, revolves around her.
Everywhere she goes she carries a spotlight which she shines on herself. We are all just extras in her show.
Her ambitiousness leads her to betraying in hope of rising. She wears a T-shirt that states: ‘I am your worst nightmare.’ It’s true. I have never seen a more accurate label. She constantly sings of her achievements, but seems to lose her voice when it comes to her failures.
I will frolic in the field of freedom when I stop working with her.
The four-year-old was pleased. The story earned her a sticker.
The sky was blue, the grass green. I sat alone in an empty yard.
The-seven-year old was dismissed with a grunt.
Blue stretched out to form the sky. The grass was green and wet where I sat alone.
Ten-year-olds often played outside. She sat writing inside.
Aqua made up the blanket of atmosphere above my head, the grass acting as a mattress. I alone stood out amongst the green.
The thirteen-year-old slumped; it wasn’t good enough yet.
Sapphires littered the space up high, decorating the open area in natural beauty astounding. Shattered emeralds cut into the lonely legs positioned on top of them, drawing yet another hue into the mix.
Fifteen years old and she was staring at the same sentence in her head.
I looked up into the dazzling sky of azure. ’Twas bare except for me in the overgrown field of jade. I was unwittingly alone.
The-eighteen-year-old Shakespeare fanatic hadn’t achieved her goal.
A peerless individual perched in an acreage of malachite, observing the heavens transition between cerulean and ebony.
Even with the thesaurus’ aid, the twenty-one-year-old wasn’t satisfied.
Alone I sat,
Surrounded by peacock feathers,
The sky getting painted indigo.
Twenty-four turned out to be the year of poetry, and another failure.
I felt lonely staring up into the big blue abyss, grass tickling my legs as I moved to get comfortable amongst the sea of shamrock.
Twenty seven: her kids giggled at her words.
The sky was blue. The grass was green. I sat on the grass.
She laughed, putting the pen down, aged thirty.
That’s all we are now. I sit next to him on the bus. No other seats were available and I don’t dare look at him…
I miss him… I miss the way he would rest his hand lightly upon my cheek and look into my eyes… It was in those moments where I felt the most loved… I will never feel more loved. I miss his stupid jokes, and that look he’d give me when he knows I’m going to laugh but try not to. I hate how we went from ‘we are’ to ‘we were’.
He looks happier now… He’s always smiling. I’m glad he’s happy. I just wish it was with me.
I smile… but it’s only genuine when it’s for him…
I am still in love with him.
We sit next to each other, still pretending to be strangers.
That’s all we are now. She sits next to me on the bus only because she had nowhere else to sit.
No words are spoken…
She knows everything about me. I know everything about her.
I’ve seen her in her darkest moments. Hunched over the toilet emptying her stomach. I’ve seen her makeup smudged across her face from crying. I’ve seen her with her knees pulled up to her chest and shaking… and yet she was always so damn beautiful.
I’ve also seen her at her happiest. Her beautiful smile that would illuminate the gloomiest rooms now has left, and in its place is just two unmoving lips left in a straight line.
I miss her.
I know she sees me smiling… But does she realize my smile isn’t genuine unless it’s for her.
I am still in love with her.
We sit next to each other, still pretending to be strangers.
Love is a farce. A lie we tell ourselves so the tears will finally let us sleep.
The only pleasure she had found was in the tracing of her spine, smooth caresses of the thigh, swoops of her breast. Her lips shattering over cheekbones and those hollowed caves just underneath, hazel eyes, ribs like tree branches stark across chests. The stars had kissed them then. Fire ignited beneath the sighs, a dance lit only by the moon. But this was not making love, for love is not pleasure.
Rose petals in a rusted bathtub. Wine dripping into mugs. Toasts to herself and him, in a head-back one-shot tumble-down-your-throat sort of night. Though he’s long gone, she aches after him in the silence, so the bottles stack up and cover the kitchen counter, bathroom floor, unmade bed, she spills it all into her maw while groping blindly towards the idea of pleasure. She’d been taught an unyielding hunger – she was incomplete without him and his love to fill her up, the void of her body screaming more, more, more.
There is no reprieve.
She waits until the world tilts, the cardboard cut-out frame not quite slide-perfect fit against its grainy photograph. Its sepia is a shifted un-comfort, filter askew, one lens in clarity and another a-blur. The colours bleed in later and flare its plumage. Then the ecstasy hits.
Tears. They’re lullabies she hisses to herself at night.
Yet she moves on. A sunrise. Eat slices of horror films for breakfast. Brew coffee in pain. Tape your heart back together. Cover your hangover in powder a few shades too light. Give your supermarket-bought eyeliner wings. Rinse and repeat. A centre of all movement, twiddling thumbs, chewing lips.
It is reprieve.
Lightning and Thunder
Lightning raced across the sky after the rolling of thunder. I lift my head up into the pouring rain. The lightning means more. More than just an electric current. More than a brief flash of blinding light. To me, the lightning and thunder are locked. Locked in an endless, deadly dance.
The gods, feuding, Zeus unleashing his magnificent glory, so superior to us mere mortal beings, the power of lightning. The flash of his eyes as a war brews. The thunder is the deep, booming sound of his unyielding anger. The fury, the wrath of the gods that will never be quenched… Just as long as one believes.
Imagine them, residing on Mount Olympus, sitting on their thrones of gold, shrouded in clouds.
The moon hovers, illuminated in the iridescent light of the striking lightning. My thoughts turn to Artemis, the moon goddess. As various triggers raced across the sky, the stars, the clouds, the night itself, my thoughts also flitted between gods and goddesses.
“Love! Come inside before you catch a cold!” The sound of Mum’s voice shocked me. I realised I had been outside in the rain for over an hour. Time for tea. I got up from my perch, and walked slowly inside.
“Dreaming about gods that don’t exist, again, sister?”
My brother’s sneer snapped a fine string inside me, and I rounded on him.
“The gods are there! They show themselves to those who believe!”
“And when has a god ever presented themselves to you?”
This snipe made me flinch. I turned on my heel, marching up the stairs and into my room. To my surprise, Poseidon was sitting cross-legged on my bed, my Greek mythology book in his hands. Tears streamed down his face as he laughed. He looked up, and smiled.
Water slivered from the coils of white rope, slipping onto the smooth golden skin of the beach. As the water trickled down, a shiver ran through the land, a reminder the biting, bitter days were drawing closer. The blue skies looked down and darkened as the fishermen cursed the cold breath. It began to rain, drops running down onto the pink reefs below. They spat out the salty tears and the fishermen quaked.
Stepping into the colder months, the land drew a blanket of snow around her shoulders, the skin of the beach turned grey and the cold breath turned into cries of icy anguish. Families huddled around fires, warming their hands and holding each other close. Singing songs to pass the dark days, they drew comfort from one another, neglecting the suffering of the land. Loneliness echoed throughout the coves as they drew away, while she bore their burden.
Under her blanket the land grew restless, stirring in her coma of cold. Opening her blue eyes, the dark lashes of clouds broke apart revealing gold irises, coughing the last shreds of winter into the air her breath warmed. Fishermen smiled as her grey skin became gold and her tangled mass of white waves were smoothed. Children’s laughter filled the air as they ran to the beach, throwing the heavy winter coats joyously to her feet. Worrying mothers allowed themselves to smile. The sky twinkled with joy as an elderly man patted the grass, admiration filling the lines of his wrinkled face. “Thank you,” he murmured, basking in the sun’s glow. Warmth filled the land’s heart as she looked at the people on the shore and felt the tickle of bare feet dancing on the sand. Hot, joyous spring tears fell from the sky as her children squealed in delight.
Mr Pop’s Ice Cream Parlour
Mr Pop runs the ice cream parlour. He’s an elephant. As crazy as it sounds it’s true.
How did he end up in an ice cream parlour you say? Well, it’s simple. He flew there, in a plane, made of purple carrots. The pilot’s name is Bunny. She’s a cat. She’s Mr Pop’s closest friend, and when she’s not flying, she’s taste-testing the ice cream. Her favourite flavour is Potato Chip and Apple Juice Crunch.
Tara is Mr Pop’s best customer. She comes every day to get ice cream. Her favourite flavour is Grapefruit and Chilli Gumdrop. But one day, Tara didn’t show up.
“Bunny?” called Mr Pop, “Have you seen Tara? She hasn’t come for her ice cream!”
“No, Mr Pop, I’ll go and look for her,” Bunny replied, and with that she started up the carrot plane and went to find Tara.
Mr Pop was extremely sad. He had looked everywhere – on the table, in the fridge, and even under the counter – but his special customer was nowhere to be found. Bunny came back awhile later. She couldn’t find Tara either. Mr Pop decided to close the parlour. But then he realised something: the sign already said closed!
Immediately after realising his mistake, Mr Pop changed the sign, and soon customers were flooding in, eager to get their ice creams. Can you guess who was first? Tara of course!
“What flavour, Miss?” said Mr Pop with a grin.
“Grapefruit and Chilli Gumdrop, please, Mr Pop!” exclaimed Tara.
“Of course!” Mr Pop replied, “And for you Bunny?”
“Potato and Apple Juice Crunch for me, please, Mr Pop!” she exclaimed.
“Sounds good to me!”
In the end they all sat down and enjoyed their ice creams. Mr Pop’s Ice Cream Parlour was open, and ready for business once more.
This is a story about nothing. This is not a story, but a guessing game. I guess people will read it. I guess it will keep me busy. I guess (I hope), someone will get offended.
This is a story about you. This is not a story, but a wake-up call. So take out your Nike sneakers and your bluetooth speakers. Take out your Vodka Cruisers and your aux cord and the trashy songs you pretend to like. Tell everyone how much you hate your teachers, your parents, the cops and the world. Smoke cigarettes… because burns on a stranger’s couch are the closest you’ll ever get to leaving a mark on the world.
Take out your iPhones – your digital commentaries. Tell the internet how angry you are at the government for all those things everyone else is angry about! And when the fools want a war, you stay right where you are. Sitting at home… preaching peace in front of the TV… beer in one hand… cock in the other.
This is a story about life. About us, the legions, running around empty, together in loneliness. Something is missing: something important. So we spend our time and money adding things we don’t need to lives we don’t want. We add cars, Starbucks, shoes, and boxed wine. And for a second, it works… before we’re torn back into heartless lethargy to resign to the rat race and all its glory.
This is not a story. Or a guessing game or a wake-up call. It’s just the internal monologue of an external generation. This is the truth.
They say the truth will set you free. But the way I see it, freedom is whatever lie sounds the best while you’re falling asleep in the morning.
Otori and the Tokusawa Demon
The cold, black water of the garden pond reflected the image of the full moon. On any other night it would be muse for a haiku or the memory of a lover’s first kiss, but not this night. Tonight was the night of the Tokusawa Demon’s death. The koi hid at the corners of the pond and the only sound was the small splash of the waterfall. Through all this silence, a small band of assassins crept through the once peaceful garden lead by Otori, his right eye scarred in a battle once lost to the very prey he hunted that night. The air was thick and heavy with tension and murderous intent. The lord Otori had been sent to kill was one of near-legend status; no one would blame them if they fled. Of course, trained assassins have more pride than that. Otori led, stepping onto the nightingale floor that had been made to creak and groan loudly upon contact. The house was awoken. Otori turned to the four assassins behind him with wide eyes as desperation soaked into his very core. His night of revenge was killed by the cruel song of the nightingale. The hiss of blades being summoned from their sheaths echoed off the walls as the lord rose from his slumber. Lord Tokusawa unsheathed his third arm, a sword that had come to know the taste of blood many times over. Adrenaline surged through Otori as he faced the man so savage he’d been labeled a demon. Many people had tried to slay him, all had failed or fled. Otori was one more name to the list of the dead, but in his heart was honor. Otori cursed the Lord as his blood stained the nightingale floor that had betrayed him.
It was a Sunday night when the first bomb fell. It made the city shake and the roof threatened to collapse above me. I jumped from my bed and ran outside. The streets were on fire, houses had come falling down on top of sleeping families, the body of a child lay burning in the middle of the street, a mother was being dragged away in tears. I was deafened by screams of terror. My eyes watered from the smoke while I stood, paralyzed, on the street.
I heard a boy screaming for help; I could hear the pain in his voice. I took a few steps towards the sound of agony, not feeling the glass embedding itself into my bare feet. Then I could see him. He had tears streaming down his cheeks and blood starting to escape from his mouth as he cried out in his pain. But that was not the worst part. He was trapped under a pile of rubble, his waist and legs covered.
I cried out to him, “I’m coming!” and made my way, carefully, to where he was. He did not stop screaming and crying while I began heaving debris off him. I had hauled perhaps seven huge pieces of rubble from him before I felt a hand on my shoulder. My heart sang with relief, thinking I was receiving aid, but when I turned around it dropped. The man turned and aimed his gun at the boy. I flinched as the shot rang out and the boy’s cries stopped. I squinted through the smoke and only just made out the stripes on his uniform. He was from my own country.
Up the mountain early. The carpark is full of racers, parents, coaches and gear. Dark but clear, everything outside the cafe is hard, frost-bitten.
It’s minus three. The cold and stillness remind me it’s race time and cause my stomach to cramp. My first race back since Mario cut across my lane and sent me flying last year. I’m pumped.
Warm up – legs and core burning. The sun cuts into the basin and a mist follows its lead over the tops. I’m in my race suit. I turn back for my poncho, jacket and pants. Skis on for early load. The snow is groomed and chipped with a corduroy finish. It’s perfect for racing.
Visibility at the top of the course is poor. Dual Slalom today.
Dani checks the kids on my team.
“Ready to race?”
“All healed and good to go. Is Mario here?” I ask.
“Because I’m going to wipe that smug look off his face today.”
“Calm down, but yes beat him.”
“Oh don’t worry, I will!”
The starter shouts: “Racers ready. Go!”
I’m in the final now. Push, skate, pole plant. Pressure and release. The sound of fingernails on a chalkboard as the edges bite. Seven gates fly by. Mario is beside me, not in front. I’m in this. He’s late into the 8th red gate and I can sense he’s coming for me again. I flinch. My body takes me wide, way wide. Off balance, I check hard and scrub off masses of speed but I make the blue gate. The race is lost and I’m gutted.
Mario glances behind him, straddles the next gate and flies out of the course. Is he hurt, I wonder, as I win. I will not gloat but in my mind, I fist pump the air.
The Art of Water Divination
When I was a boy, we would cross a wooden bridge and feed the ducks.
Dad and I strolled down cobbled streets and cut into the park, trees all waving jovially in the wind, armed with a tight-fitting plastic bag filled with bread slices and heavy coats to ward off the winter cold.
There was a bridge, never very solid, that led over to a beautiful old lake. It creaked some sonorous melody as we stepped over it. A solitary willow hung at its side, silent tears unheard as its branches reached to touch the surface of the water.
There we sat by the lakeside, grass beneath us, and tore chunks of the bread from the loaf. In the murky water, verdant with algae, the birds paddled. I would pull my coat tighter while Dad threw the bread towards them, and watch as they cast ripples along the skin of the lake, artworks of some time lost to time.
While the last pieces of bread bobbed in the water, Dad knelt in front of me and said: “This is the world you will share. Do you understand?”
And I nodded, and stared into the green lake, and thought that within those voluminous depths, carried by the green algae, there were surely some mysteries beyond the ken of men.
When we pass the lake now, I keep my boy’s head pressed into my coat so that he does not see it. But I turn towards the rotted bridge, consumed by the bitter wind, and the barren willow. Somewhere, the rotted carcasses of ducks lie upturned beneath the water, feathers blackened by the filth.
This is the world I will share. I hold him against my coat until we have passed by.
The Dream Blanket
Change the dreams, change the dreamer. And how to change a dream? The keeper knew.
The keeper knew the blanket, and the blanket the keeper. The blanket made dreams, and the keeper kept the blanket. The keeper knew that.
When the keeper kept the blanket well, dreams were good, and when he did not, they were not. When he washed the blanket, dreams were clean, and when he didn’t… Moving on…
The keeper had a nosebleed. He did not often have nosebleeds. He did not like them, either, and liked them even less when he saw that he had bled onto the blanket.
A bloody blanket made bloody dreams, and blood stained, so he acted fast.
He put the blanket in the washing machine. He waited.
When it came out, it was spotless, but it was also black. He’d left the darks in with it. Now it was dark, and so dreams were dark.
Now, the blanket made nightmares.
The Silent Hand
Even though it stopped working years ago, the wristwatch is my most prized possession. I keep it on the old oak shelf above my bed, right next to a small cardboard elephant I made when I was four and an old 1951 edition of The Catcher in the Rye. Never has it moved from that place since you gave it to me.
The gold plating has all but disappeared over time and the steel underneath is dominated by rust. It isn’t much use to anyone else unless it’s seventeen minutes past four because those hands aren’t going anywhere. I’m sure it’ll be worth less than nothing if I try to sell it.
But why would I? It’s more valuable to me than anything.
Perhaps it wouldn’t be if you hadn’t passed away on that cold Sunday evening so many years ago. Or maybe if Grandma had stayed in Britain when she was young. If she’d never boarded that ship with nothing to her name but the clothes on her back.
What if the Germans had won the Great War?
What if that big tobacco company hadn’t suddenly thought it was a good idea to increase its advertising budget? Maybe then you wouldn’t have taken up smoking and you would be sitting here right now with me listening to the tick-tock-ticking of tiny hands.
And what if I’d decided to stay in school for one more year and I hadn’t been there with you when you died? What if I hadn’t thought to check my wardrobe one last time out of sheer accidental intuition. Before I moved out forever.
Then I would be standing here, without this watch. Without this memory of you. So when I hear the warm silence of that tickless watch, it sounds like music.
It is mild. Too mild. The air is thick as a winter blanket. I walk, step by wary step. Gravel crunches under my feet as I trudge home from school. Even from the gate, our house looks different. As the door creaks open, I throw my bag to the floor. There’s a frightened knot in my tummy. Something is wrong. The light leaches from the day. I step further into the room. Chaos!
Dad is rushing around, his face red. Rufis is tucked under his arm barking nervously.
“Dad?” I cry. “Dad, whats going on?” I ask, walking across the tattered carpet towards him.
“Evie! Get to the basement! I need to find Olly!”
“There’s no time!”
I run like my feet are on fire. Down the rickety steps to the dusty basement. I jump in. My hands are shaking. Hurry, Dad, hurry! I feel like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz.
I wouldn’t be so scared if I had Toto.
A whirling sound begins. It gets louder and louder. I hear screaming and crashing. Please let them be okay. I put my hands over my ears to stop the ringing. If Mum was still alive she’d know what to do. I hear an awful scraping and crashing. Metal pieces of the garage are blowing around. I huddle up in a ball. The roof is falling in.
Pain is everywhere, now I know it’s not a dream. BOOM!!!
I wake up on the concrete. There’s blood everywhere. My body screams as I stand up. Our street is a smokey, upside-down world. Even my heart is upside down.
Where are they?
In the eerie silence, I hear a muffled bark. A small boy is crying. And the sound of someone calling my name is like heaven.
When it rains, it pours
The rain pounds on the concrete, stirring up the dirt and grime of the dark alleyway. The gathering puddles make the area smell like mulch, making the man turn his head in towards his jacket and breathe in the leather. Smoke curls around him, fusing into the cracks in his jacket. His hair is greasy and his clothes smell like an ashtray. He flicks his cigarette into a puddle and pulls away from the wall to collect another smoke from his pocket. He fumbles with his lighter and attempts to light his ciggy with sweaty, shaking hands. The end blazes cherry red and he breathes in the sour heat. It warms his lungs, giving him a false sense of security before it’s taken away on the exhale. He can feel the object, now warm from body heat compared to when he first stuck it in the waistband of his pants. It digs into his lower back, a constant reminder of why he’s standing there in the first place when it was shoved into his hands with an order.
To his right, a door opens and the low bass that thrums constantly is made louder. The light from the inside of the building casts a shadow over him, he turns his head and spies another man, lighting his own smoke. He pulls away from the wall, drops his ciggy and reaches around and grabs the object in his pants. He holds the gun in his quaking hand before lifting slowly and moving his fing-
The world can be a scary place, especially when you don’t know who or what you are. It becomes confusing, disorientating when everything that ever made sense in your world is suddenly ripped from under your feet.
Caked in mud, clothes barely clinging to her body, the young girl, lying in the middle of the forest, felt exactly that, her breath, ragged and uneven.
The sound of bones grinding together, of flesh ripping and remolding, filled the otherwise silent air. Strangled screams fell from the lips of the contorted body, shuddering and heaving as it found its footing in its new flesh. Screams quickly turned into howls, snarls of pain erupting from the hideous beast that now took the place where the girl once had lain.
The monster hiding in the depths of a child’s skin had emerged and it was ready to feast.