Short Story Award 2015 (Prize money kindly donated by Lady Egan)
First prize (£250): The Naked Mile by Caleb Azumah Nelson
Their bed was a queen size, far too expansive to hold the drowning couple and their failing relationship. Often, as they were now, they slept with rigidity, back to back, lest one of them graze the other with a touch they believed unwanted. Helen spoke, the words possessing a slight muffle, as if not addressed directly towards him.
‘Get up,’ she said, short. ‘You missed your run. You’re going to be late for work.’
‘Hmm.’ The prospect of tardiness was not as repulsive as he thought it would be.
‘Come on, get up. Shower, breakfast, work.’ She outlined his routine to him and he swallowed the resentment at the monotony his life had gained over the four years they had been married.
‘I’m going for my run,’ was the first thing he thought to say.
‘You can’t. You’ll be late for work.’ He heard the sheets beside him rustling and knew she was sitting up.
He didn’t want the accompanying lecture which came with this new position, so he muttered a “fine” and went to take his pre-shower pee. Eyeing a small pile of clothes, Adam realised he would not have been able to take his run this morning anyway; his running kit, a luminous blue and yellow mesh vest with matching shorts sat atop, his specialist shoes were not far from the bundle. He couldn’t have worn his kit dirty. Why not? He wondered. He looked at the clock in the bathroom. No time to run, said the rulebook of logic. He considered for a second, then pulled on some dirty compression wear, as well as the vest and shorts. The look completed by an odd pair of socks – one black, one white – and a pair of plain black specialist running shoes. He re-entered the bedroom. Helen had returned to her previous position, semi-foetal. She looked towards him, then sat up, shocked.
‘Adam, what are you doing? You’ll be late for work.’
‘I’m going on my run,’ he said.
‘Your kit isn’t even clean,’ she said. ‘You can’t run in dirty kit.’
‘You’re right.’ He nodded in agreement. ‘You’re right.’ He tore off the vest to reveal a rippling torso, followed by the skimpy shorts of runners and the compression tights. Only the socks and shoes remained.
‘What are you doing?’ Helen whispered.
‘I’m going on my run,’ he said.
‘But you’ll be late for work.’
‘You’re never late.’
Adam shrugged. She let out an involuntary bleat as the world she knew – Adam, by extension, part of this world – was slashed into uneven pieces.
‘Won’t be long. Usual few miles,’ Adam said, bounding on the spot to prepare himself for exercise. Helen opened her mouth and closed it, several times, as if trying to inhale some understanding. There wasn’t much else to say. Adam was going for a run. That’s all.
He descended the stairs three at a time, filled with a daring he’d abandoned in his youth. Keys: check. He tried to place them in his pocket, automated, and the bunch of three clattered to the tiled floor. No matter. Helen would let him back in.
With this last thought, Adam thrust open the door, took one sure step outside, and then another. The door clicked shut behind him with a barely audible tick. He had the overwhelming urge to turn back, to hammer and slam until Helen came running, to clothe himself. He wanted to leap overboard from this ship of resistance he did not remember boarding, and hope not to drown in whatever tremulous ocean awaited. He was caught in an existential tug of war – to resist or comply, that is the question. The two forces at work jerked and pulled, but in the end, it was his physical being which made the decision for him.
He tripped over the cracked slab Helen had been telling him to fix for months; he tried to balance himself with short, stabbing steps, and before he knew it, he was at the end of the path, running. In this action lies simplicity, for it does not require any planning or debate. One merely puts one foot in front of the other, and repeats. To run, one only needs to continue moving forward.
Adam’s footsteps slipped and slopped with every step. A squeak occasionally interrupted the proceedings. At the end of the road, he collided, phallus first, with his neighbour.
‘Morning, Jeff,’ Adam said, when they had untangled.
‘Good God, Adam, what the fuck are you doing?’
‘Running,’ Adam laughed.
‘But…where are your clothes?’
‘At home. I can’t stop; I need to take advantage of this wonderful day before work. I shall see you later on perhaps? Come round for dinner?’
‘But it’s Tuesday.’ Jeff said, mortified. Wednesday night was dinner with the neighbourhood clique. Adam laughed again, rich and throaty and joyous, and departed.
He was right; although only in its incipient stages, the day was progressing beautifully. The sky was a solid block shade of powder blue, with fat dollops of cumulus cloud dotted like servings of cream. UV rays aided in the rapid production of sweat on this man’s garmentless body, but a thin breeze dried the droplets on his skin. Dulwich was deserted, and blankets of blossom welcomed him on every street his feet pounded. He laughed again, the joy morphing to wonder. How had he ever missed this?
‘What’s your name, sir?’
Adam had never been inside a police station. He panicked.
‘And where do you live, Just Dave?’
This time the panic was debilitating. A torrent of addresses danced on his tongue, none his own, the words so jumbled he was unable to articulate any of them. The only place he could think of was Mordor, but wisely, decided not to say this.
He sat in a rusting steel chair, by a desk, opposite a policeman approaching obesity. They had wrapped him in a cream sheet – with his pink flush of activity, he resembled a raw pig in a blanket. They had not even bothered to handcuff him. Most likely because when they had pulled up, he had entered the car of his own accord.
‘Listen, I don’t think your name is Dave. We had a woman call her husband in earlier – which you match the description of.’
Adam continued to stare at the man. He was having difficulty focussing. The thought currently stewing away in his mind was whether the policeman would be able to keep up with him on a run or not.
‘Okay, let’s try this again. Is your name Adam Johnson?’
‘Of 77, Burbage Road?’
‘What do you do for a living, Mr Johnson?’
‘I’m a hedge fund manager.’
The man’s forehead crinkled. ‘Bit young, aren’t you?’
Adam shrugged. More details were exchanged. The policeman informed him his wife was waiting outside. Adam rose with his new acquaintance.
‘Look,’ the policeman started. ‘I don’t know why you were doing what you were doing, but you’re lucky to escape with just a warning. Take my advice – wear some clothes. It’ll make your life easier.’ The policeman handed Adam over to his wife like a delicate trophy.
They walked in silence, out of the police station, to the oversized family car which hardly saw the road. The vehicle had been purchased when notions of a family had entered their lives with such ebullience; notions which sadly, remained just so. When they had both sat down and secured seatbelts across torsos, Helen spoke up.
‘I’ve called work for you and said you needed the week off, that it was an emergency.’ When he didn’t reply, she went on. ‘This happens, you know. Mid-life crisis. It will pass.’
‘Mid-life crisis,’ Adam said. ‘I’m thirty years old. Are you saying I’ll die at sixty?’ He turned to her.
‘Don’t be so literal and melodramatic,’ she said, starting the engine.
Two days into his involuntary holiday. Adam and his wife sat at their dining table. He piled scrambled eggs onto his plate. She observed, nursing a bleak cup of coffee in her hands, the steam rising from her mug, vaporous hands tickling her eyelashes.
‘You not ‘ungry?’ He asked with eggs and toast bulging from his cheeks.
‘Why do you hate me?’ Helen asked.
Adam shook his head and swallowed, with some difficulty. ‘I don’t hate you.’ He returned to his eggs, slicing through the soft yellow mess, inserting another forkful into his mouth.
‘Do you hate me because I can’t have children?’
Adam choked. The toast turned to cardboard, the eggs a thick glue, which he would never digest, let alone swallow. He glugged down a glass of water, hoping to buy some time.
‘I don’t hate you.’
‘Don’t you want children?’ She knew the answer.
There was no reply to this, other than, ‘I don’t hate you.’
At this, she burst into tears and left the table.
Why does one ask questions that they already know the answer to? It is as if the question answered by self lacks validation, could potentially be falsities of the mind, and all one requires for confirmation are words, signs, signals, be it answers or non-answers.
He remained at the table, cutting through his now tasteless eggs. A thought nibbled at his consciousness, and then began to gnaw its way in, until Adam could no longer ignore it. When he had accepted the idea, he couldn’t believe he had tried to ignore it in the first place. Why had he not had this idea earlier? He abandoned the eggs, now as chilly as the frost lying on his relationship, and left for the city centre.
Two hours later, he returned with a dog. The beast woofed upon entry.
‘Adam, is that you?’ Helen called from the kitchen, as he neared. ‘Did you close the door, I thought I heard a-‘ She stopped dead at the sight. ‘Oh my…shit. What is that?’
‘Helen, meet Luigi,’ Adam said, like a proud father. ‘Our new dog.’
‘Adam – it’s huge.’
Luigi, was indeed, oversized, even for their gigantic dwelling.
‘He’s a mastiff,’ Adam informed.
‘Why did you buy a dog? We didn’t talk about buying a dog.’
‘Well, you mentioned children earlier, I thought this might, you know, ease the pain, like a substitute or something-‘
More tears. Helen, once more, dashed from the room to a symphony of her own sobs. Adam was left with Luigi for company, who did not look altogether pleased with him either, and began scratching at their French doors, desperate to be let out. Adam sighed, detached the lead, unlocked the door, and let Luigi run free.
Helen did not return, until the daylight had faded from their thoughts and the night now occupied their lives. A weak bedside light attempted to illuminate their bedroom. Adam lay on the bed, shoes on, supine, motionless. Helen entered the bedroom and collapsed beside him, prostrate.
‘How was your day?’ She asked into the bedsheet.
‘Wonderful. I took Luigi on a really long walk. We went through the big square in Brixton; you know the one with the fountains? There was a guy listening to his iPod there, singing at the top of his voice.’
‘What was he singing?’
‘I think it was Adele. He seemed quite upset. I think he had his heart broken. It was really emotional. Wonderful voice though.’
‘That’s not normal.’
‘What do you mean?’
Helen inhaled, then turned her head when she realised there was nowhere to release the air. ‘Singing in public like that. It’s not normal.’
‘But what’s wrong with it?’
‘What’s right with it? No one wants to hear that.’
‘You’re wrong. Lots of people were listening. Luigi and I enjoyed it.’
‘Why is he called Luigi?’ Helen asked, propping herself up on her elbows.
‘It was either Luigi, or Federico. I fancied something new.’
‘I’m stuck,’ Helen said, sotto voce.
‘Have you got cramp?’ Adam asked. ‘Do you need me to turn you over?’
‘No Adam, I mean-‘ She paused. ‘We’re stuck.’
‘Oh.’ He understood. ‘Let’s go on holiday.’
‘We just got back from Barbados.’
‘It was more fun the first time we went,’ Helen mused.
‘I agree.’ They lay still for some moments, swamped in their own silence.
‘Do you want to adopt?’ Helen broke the unintentional pact.
‘They wouldn’t let us. We’d fail all the tests and interviews.’
Silence descended once more, filled with truth.
‘Do you want to go on a run?’ Adam suggested.
‘It’s eleven pm.’
‘So? No better time than now.’
‘I only run on Fridays. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.’
It was Thursday. Adam rolled off the bed and walked to a set of drawers, perusing frantically through them. He returned, holding out his wife’s sports bra. They smiled at each other. There was affection in this exchange which warmed the dying temperatures of the darkness.
Outside, both parties wearing expensive gear, a healthy serving of the moon providing the pathway with light. A light drizzle had fallen earlier, the slabs of rock still holding on to the moisture. Past their open gate, another couple teetered and tottered, intoxicated to the point of impaired motor function. They stumbled along, hand in hand, both carrying a bottle in their free hands, trying to have a rather loud conversation, in which their love for each other appeared to be the main topic. The exchange carried, even as the shadow stole them from sight.
Helen looked at Adam, Adam at Helen. Helen made the first move, pulling her black nylon t-shirt over her head. By the time Adam had recovered to drop his shorts, Helen had shed her top layer and was working on her undergarments. Within a minute, they were both au naturel, that is to say, stark naked. Only their shoes remained.
‘You’re still as beautiful as the day we met,’ Adam said to his wife.
‘You’re just as big,’ Helen replied, clasping her hand to her mouth, surprised at herself. Contagious laughter erupted, spreading from husband to wife, until their own tears added moisture to the ground. Without warning, Adam took off, darting through the gateway and onto the pavement. Helen followed, still giddy, guffawing.
‘Where are we going?’ She asked.
‘I don’t know,’ Adam said. ‘I honestly don’t know.’
‘Shouldn’t we follow that couple?’ She motioned to the two whom had staggered in the other direction they had taken.
Adam thought about this for a second, then shook his head. ‘They don’t know where they are going either.’
Second prize (£150): Devilsmouth by Joseph Griffin
At six o’clock in the morning Elizabeth got the phone call telling her that there had been a series of murders in a small coastal town in the north, and that the murders had signs of occult involvement. She was told that she would be expected at the scene of last night’s murder by twelve o’clock, and that she would be working with Officer Leo Shelley, who would be picking her up at eight.
Leo arrived at exactly the right time and Elizabeth, who had been waiting by the window, came and joined him in his car. It was a bright yellow Cadillac. Leo smiled wanly at her, his blue eyes were bloodshot and tired looking. Elizabeth wondered what time he usually got up.
‘Hi,’ he said to her.
And with the pleasantries done they began the long drive to the town called Devilsmouth. The roads were quiet, and the archaic tape deck went unused. At Elizabeth’s feet was a small folder which she wanted to ask about but didn’t. Leo remembered it half-an-hour into the drive.
‘Have you read up on the case?’ he asked, breaking the long silence.
‘No,’ said Elizabeth. ‘I haven’t really been told anything.’
Leo nodded, then immediately shook his head. ‘They really should tell operatives what they’re getting into. I guess they thought if they told me I’d fill you in before we got there.’
‘Is it all in this file?’ asked Elizabeth, picking it up.
‘Yes, but if you don’t mind could we stop at the next services and discuss it there? I need breakfast and coffee.’
‘Okay, that’s fine.’
Leo took his coffee black, with no sugar. His breakfast was a quarter-pounder with cheese. Elizabeth wasn’t hungry, but did get a cup of tea; milk, one sugar.
She studied the case notes while Leo had his breakfast. Three weeks ago a local girl’s body had been found washed up on the nearby shingle beach. The body was naked and badly beaten, cause of death was shock and internal bleeding. Before death the girl had been violently raped, which in itself had caused severe damage. Evidence suggested that the assailant was a large male with incredible strength. The girl was last seen walking home after a night out. A search of her home had revealed nothing. There were no suspects and no leads.
Two weeks ago another girl was found washed up in the same place, in exactly the same circumstances, and then another a week ago. Their names were Anne, Nicole and Eliza.
‘Any questions?’ asked Leo, wiping his mouth with a napkin.
‘What makes us so certain that this is occult?’
‘The lack of mundane evidence.’ Leo sighed. ‘It may well be a perfectly ordinary serial killer-’ Elizabeth raised her eyebrows. ‘Well, as normal as psychopaths come. The point is that you’re right. This may not have anything to do with the supernatural, in which case this is a waste of our time and expertise.’ He finished his coffee. ‘I wouldn’t bet against it though.’
Leo smiled, ‘Because the ordinary copper isn’t half as incompetent as Agatha Christie makes out.’ He stretched and asked if she was ready to go, she was, and they went.
It took another three hours to reach Devilsmouth. En route there was some conversation, a very basic getting to knowing interspersed with long but comfortable silences. As they approached the border of the town Leo pulled over and phoned inspector Thomas Harris, who was the local leading the case, and arranged to meet outside the local hospital. Once done they stopped again at a McDonalds and Leo got himself chips, another cheeseburger and a milkshake. Elizabeth briefly wondered how he managed to keep his Olympian figure, before she remembered what he was. After that it was a ten minute drive to the hospital on the edge of town. The inspector was waiting by his car, a very sensible Toyota, and was smoking underneath a no smoking sign.
He looked irritated at having been made to wait but offered a handshake to Leo nonetheless. He ignored Elizabeth and offered Leo a cigarette.
‘I don’t.’ The inspector shrugged and asked Leo how the drive down had been, still ignoring Elizabeth.
‘Sorry to be so professional, but could we see the body?’ she interrupted. The inspector looked shocked, ‘The small talk can wait.’
For a few moments the inspector looked at a loss, before asking in the voice of an insecure man trying to banter his way back into dominance: ‘What’s the rush?’
Elizabeth sighed. ‘Three girls are dead. Brutally murdered. There are no clues to the identity of the killer, and you and your men are making no progress. The pattern of the killings indicates that the killer will take another victim tonight and so far nobody knows how to stop it.’ She looked the inspector in the eyes. ‘The rush is fairly self-explanatory I feel.’
Leo could barely keep his face straight as colour drained from the inspector’s.
It was cold down in the morgue and the air was stale. The inspector was quiet as the pathologist showed the body to the Leo and Elizabeth.
Leo turned to her, ‘Anything?’ he asked.
‘I’ll need to read deeper,’ she said quietly. She nodded slightly to the inspector and the pathologist. ‘And I’d rather not do it in front of them.’
Leo nodded and asked them to leave. The pathologist protested that it was against regulations until Leo showed his warrant card. The pathologist stared in horror at the tentacled monstrosity printed on it, then left without a word, accepting that he was out of his depth.
‘I’ll be waiting outside,’ the Inspector said, and quietly shuffled out. Now alone, Leo pulled back the sheet covering the girl’s body while Elizabeth fiddled with a friendship bracelet on her wrist.
The girl’s body was a ruin. Covered from head to foot in bruises and lacerations, it looked more like an unfinished sculpture made of flesh and bone than a human. The face looked like it had been made by Picasso.
Leo turned to look at Elizabeth, who was still standing and fiddling with her bracelet.
‘Elizabeth,’ he said gently, making her look up into his golden eyes. ‘I know the method is… horrible… but it’s the only hope we have of stopping this,’ he gestured to the corpse, ‘happening again.’
Elizabeth nodded and stepped up to the body. Leo felt bad about having to guilt trip her. He could only imagine how bad the Reliving must be. And he didn’t even want to do that.
Elizabeth climbed onto the slab and mounted the body, her legs either side of the corpse. She bent down and tried to open its mouth, but the rigor mortis kept it firmly shut. Leo stepped up and forced the jaws open with a loud crack. Elizabeth winced, closed her eyes and steeled herself. Then she bent and covered the corpse’s mouth with her own. And stuck her tongue far down its throat.
She walks home by herself from her former best friend’s house. It’s midnight, and very cold. She had planned to stay the night at Rachel’s house, but after finding out that her boyfriend had been sleeping with her supposed best friend she had changed her mind.
She had screamed at Rachel that she never wanted to see her again.
Leo watched uncomfortably as Elizabeth writhed unconsciously on top on the corpse. It was a disgusting sight, even for the likes of Leo with his iron stomach. He kept watching though, knowing he needed to be ready when she came back to her senses. What Elizabeth was experiencing right now was horrific, worse than what he was having to watch.
There’s a footstep behind her, and she turns to look.
The creature is about eight-foot tall, covered in slimy scales and had bulbous red eyes. It stands on two legs and has two tree-thick arms hanging down by its sides. She can see the lumbering rise and fall of its chest, and the lustful look in its eyes.
She screams and runs.
Elizabeth broke from her perverse tryst with the corpse and almost fell from the table. Leo stepped forward and took her in his arms. She was frothing at the mouth, and she flailed violently as though trying to fend off an invisible attacker. She scratched him across the face, drawing blood. Still cradling her in his arms he knelt to the floor and waited until the fit ceased. He was more worried about her hurting herself than about anything she could do to him. Nothing she could do would really hurt him. The scratch would probably heal by the time she came round.
The creature gives a frenzied scream as it finishes. It rolls off her and lies there, spent. She feels numb, and knows she is dying. Good, she wants to die. She turns her head to get one last look at the monster that has violated her and sees that its form was changing. She now looks at a short, balding man with an ugly face. She dies crying.
Elizabeth woke up in Leo’s arms and wept silently for a few minutes. There was a horrible taste in her mouth, and her body felt like it needed to be washed clean.
‘You gonna be okay?’ asked Leo softly.
She nodded. ‘I got what we needed.’
They went to the B&B they were going to stay at and Elizabeth took an hour-long shower and washed her mouth out a half-dozen times. Leo waited in their bedroom, sitting motionlessly on the bed, eyes closed. They would have gotten a room each but there was only one available. When Elizabeth came out of the shower wearing nothing but a towel he kept his back turned to her, picked up the sketchbook by his feet, and asked her what the assailant’s human form looked like. By the time Elizabeth had dried herself, Leo had finished his impression of the killer, which he showed to Elizabeth, his back still chivalrously turned to her.
‘You’re quite the artist,’ she said. ‘It’s very accurate.’
‘I have my talents.’
Leo stood up and prepared to go. ‘What’s the plan tonight?’
‘I’ll sleep on the floor, you get the bed,’ said Leo, his voice a perfect deadpan. It took a second for Elizabeth to realise he was joking.
‘I meant with our killer.’
‘I know,’ said Leo. He told her the plan, and she nodded, which he didn’t see because his back was still turned to her.
‘And I don’t mind sharing the bed,’ Elizabeth said.
That turned Leo’s head.
He saw her sitting there wearing nothing but a towel and looking very lovely. She had a bemused smile on her face. Leo turned his back again, as much to hide his embarrassment as to preserve her modesty.
‘I wasn’t propositioning you Leo,’ she said, her voice on the edge of laughter.
‘I didn’t think you were, Elizabeth.’
‘Call me Lizzie.’
There was a full moon that night, but it was covered by dark clouds. Devilsmouth had few streetlamps, and they were the old kind that gave out a sickly yellow light that didn’t travel very far. It was the perfect town for night-time murders.
Leo and Lizzie sat in the back of the inspector’s car and waited for someone to radio in that they had sighted the killer. The orders were not to approach, and let the specialists deal with him. That was Plan A.
Plan B was that Lizzie get out of the car and wander the streets alone, hoping to draw out the killer. She was armed with a rape-alarm, and was to use it as soon as the killer appeared and then run as fast as she could. Leo would then come running and deal with the killer.
‘Do you have a gun?’ the inspector asked, clearly not realising what Leo was.
‘Don’t need one.’
On the radio a report came in, saying that the killer had been spotted on Shakespeare Avenue. The inspector started the car and drove, without the siren. They wanted the element of surprise.
Shakespeare Avenue had two dead cops in it. They hadn’t followed orders, wanting the glory of bringing in the killer themselves, and severely underestimating him. They hadn’t been told the target was a shape shifter, but they wouldn’t have believed it anyway.
The killer, in his beast form, watched the inspector’s car approach with contempt, then threw one of the cops’ bodies into the windscreen. The car veered and crashed into a wall. The monster was about to run off into the night when it spotted the woman in the back, and changed its mind.
As it approached the car, its member becoming horrifyingly virile as it walked, Leo stepped out of the car and took of his coat, standing alone in the dark.
The creature stopped, more in puzzlement than anything else. Then watched in mounting horror as Leo grew taller, broader, and more muscular. Golden fur began to cover his skin, his teeth lengthened into fangs, and his fingernails into claws. His face became feline, and his blond hair turned into a thick mane.
Leo was not just his name: it was his nature.
The monster turned and ran, like all rapists he was ultimately a coward. Leo pounced and landed on its back, tearing at it with his claws and sinking his teeth into its throat.
As it died the creature turned back into the form of a mutilated man. Leo spat on him and turned back to the car.
Lizzie stood there holding his coat in her hands. The inspector looked like he would never speak again. Leo began to turn back to his human shape, as Lizzie approached. His clothes had been torn apart by his transformation and he was naked.
Lizzie chivalrously kept her eyes on his face as she handed him his coat.
‘Thank you Lizzie,’ he said. He was feeling a little cold.
‘You’re welcome,’ she said. ‘It’s been a long day. Now let’s go to bed.’
Third prize (£100): The Wire by Olivia Andersson Hjelm
He used to tell her about the day she was born. The thin hair on top of her soft head, so pale you could barely see it. How he used to call it a ray of sunlight; that he, for a long time, would refer to her as sunlight. She had grown up loving him and occasionally hating him, in that burning irrational way that children can love and hate.
One day she had come home crying, because someone at school had cut it, her ray of sunlight, out of spite during break time. Emma could still remember the red spark of anger in Frank’s blue eyes when she had told him. The next day Frank had attacked Emma’s bullies in the corner of the school yard at break time, and the bullies never bothered Emma again.
And now, years later, she was here. Facing it. The wire.
They had an agreement. They had decided it from the start, months ago. She knew exactly what she was supposed to do. Frank had made her go over the details of the plan over and over again. But, now, in this moment of choice, she was not sure if she could go through with it – to keep her promise.
She clutched her phone close to her ear, the hand holding it shaking. Calm down – she told herself. As the tone rang her brother’s voice echoed in her mind, just as he had said it before they parted earlier this morning: Emma, calm the fuck down.
And then, the tone ended and through the phone she heard her brother’s voice for real.
“Hey, I’m busy, I’ll let you speak to Will.”
He was gone before she could say anything, and then she heard Will’s breaths through the device. It comforted her and made her insides shiver at the same time. He always had that effect on her, pulling up something raw and emotional from the depths of her body.
“I can’t do it,” she said, her voice weak and quiet.
It was a pause, silence, until Will’s response.
“Em, you have to. I’m sorry, but you have to. You know your brother is counting on you, everything depends on you. There was an agreement. I wish I could tell you otherwise but that would be a lie.”
His words pierced through her. Will, responsible and sensible Will. She had known him all her life, the best friend of her brother. She had loved him all her life. Will and Frank were like night and day, one dark while the other was blonde, opposites that somehow fitted perfectly together. Where Frank was impulsive and hot tempered, Will was pensive and calm, inseparable ever since Will’s family moved to the house next to Emma and Frank’s when he was only two years old.
“Em, don’t worry too much about it. You got this.” His voice softer, tender almost.
As she opened her mouth to say something, to let him know just how she felt, how she had always felt and how she wanted them both to quit this, now, to leave Frank, finally, she heard Frank in the background along with some loud bangs, and she knew it had started. The rebellion, Frank’s rebellion. Or, that’s what he liked to call it.
“I have to go, you’ll be okay, I promise.” Then a breath, the sort of hesitation people go through before something truly meaningful comes out in the open. “Em, I just wanted to say, if anything would happen tonight, I would like to tell you -”
The line went down. Naively Emma clutched the phone closer, as if that would bring Will’s lost voice back to her hearing. But there was only silence.
It was cold. Dark. The ceiling so high she could barely see it, narrow circulating stairs of steel reaching up, they seemed to go on forever. Grey. Empty and quiet. On a weekday, this factory would be busy, filled with men and women standing by the endless conveyor belts, their eyes as dead and empty as the factory was this late Sunday night.
A loud slam of a door in the distance interrupted her line of thoughts, flinching she quickly threw herself down on the dirty cement floor and crawled behind one of the still belts. Heart beating fast, she tried to discern any movements in the massive space. Nothing. Only the sound of her own hastily drawn breaths, the air cold and malevolent in her lungs.
The wire, black and thick, was hanging heavily from the ceiling, reaching from one end of the room to the other. It was moving slightly, as if there was some invisible wind inside that Emma could not feel. Staring at it, Frank’s voice was back in her head: You go in there, break in through the back door with the keys we got for you, you find the control table, and you shut it off. Everything. But make sure the wire is down. It has to be shut down.
Silence must be the worst sound in the world, she decided as she hid under the belt, knees scratching on the rough floor, waiting for whoever slammed the door to reveal themselves, to make another sound, to find out if she was still alone inside the factory or not. After what felt like a lifetime, she carefully stood up. She was alone.
Her heart was thumping in her chest, loud in the silence around her, as she walked through the big room, past the conveyor belts and past the countless smaller wires and flexes. The wire stared down at her, dauntingly. Soon she had to make her decision.
It was Frank’s idea, of course. It was always Frank’s idea. Always Emma did as he told her, he was her brother and she did love him. Even if she was not a member of Frank’s group, gang, whatever you would want to call it, occasionally he would need her help. It could be crawling into small spaces that Frank’s boys were too big to fit into, or simply keeping some shopkeeper’s attention while they raided the shop. Exactly why she was needed for this job, she did not know. Frank would not tell her when she asked. It seemed like it could be done by anyone of the gang members. If anything, they would have done it better probably. Emma was not easily scared and by now she was used to doing things that were illegal, but something about this factory made her nervous. He had made it seem easy enough, to break into the city’s factory and shut down the wires, especially the main one that controlled the whole enterprise. The wire. The black one. The big one. It. Apparently shutting it down would send a message to the city council. Meanwhile Frank’s gang would divide and break into the other smaller factories around the city, vandalize. All this to send a message. Rebel against those who Frank thought did them wrong.
It was not easy.
Her phone rang, the loudness of it made her jump. Will’s cell: it said on the screen. Instead of Will’s comforting voice, the only thing she could hear was shouting voices, bangs and sounds of running steps. Then, the sound of a shotgun firing off.
In her factory, in her end of the city, there were voices. Coming from the rear of the room, not yet visible, men’s voices. Instantly she threw herself back down, crawled behind the conveyor belts. Knees bleeding, heart thumping in fear for herself, Frank and Will and all the other boys she had grown to care about.
She saw the guns hanging from the belts on their trousers. Black and big, bigger than the ones policemen usually carried. They were walking fast, not talking anymore. Clearly in search. But how could they possibly know she was here? She had locked the door carefully behind her when she went in. Breathing as quietly as she could, she kept on crawling away from the policemen. When she reached the entrance door, she looked behind her. The men were far away, facing the other direction. The wire still in the ceiling, still working perfectly. Taking a deep breath she stood up, put the keys in the keyhole, turned them and opened the door and she was out. The cold air hit her as the door slammed behind her. She started running. They would be after her soon, they always were. But she always got away.
Indeed, they were behind her, shouting loudly. She did not listen nor let it slow her down, she was busy running, her hair loosening from the ponytail. They were fast, but so was she. She turned around the corner of the big grey building, saw the hole in the fence that she had gone through earlier, got ready to go out through it again, and looked back one last time at the policemen. What she saw made her stop promptly. Her persecutors had got a new prey, more important than her. With their guns in the air, they were running in the opposite direction, back to the factory, chasing two tall young men: one dark and the other blonde.
Frank and Will. Will and Frank. Frank, Will and Emma. Always found in trouble.
Without hesitation Emma turned around and ran after, the adrenaline pumping throughout her body. Within a matter of seconds she was back by the entrance door that had been left open. Slowing down, she could hear Frank yelling back at the policemen, the footsteps echoing along the high walls and ceiling. She ran inside.
Frank and Will were running side by side through the wires and flexes, past the conveyor belts, the policemen close behind. She exhaled. Right then, Will looked back, eyes widened when he saw her, he opened his mouth, reached his arm out to touch Frank. The shot came first. She screamed. It went past, just missed him, and the policeman that had fired it swore. The other one looked back too, at Emma. Frank was the only one that did not acknowledge her presence. He was going up one of the stairs now, seemingly on his way to the control table. The policeman had his gun up in the air again, aiming once more at Will, who had slowed down a bit, for a millisecond frozen by the sight of Emma.
“Look out!” Will shouted, and it brought her back to her surroundings.
The other police man was moving towards her now, his gun lifted. She pushed past him, ran on light feet forward. Will was on the stairs too, and got his hand out to help her up the narrow steps when she came close enough. Familiar warmth when their skin touched, she breathed for the first time. They ran up the stairs, Frank already up on the bridge of steel between the stairs, closing up to the control table.
A striking feeling of pain when her head yanked backwards, the policeman had got hold of the end of her hair and was pulling it and her down with it. Her scream echoed once again, faintly she trembled back down the steps, letting go of Will’s hand. Through blinking, she saw Will pull out his pocket knife, and without hesitation draw it through her strands of hair, right above the policeman’s grip. She felt the pressure go, and heard the policeman stumble down the stairs behind her as she got pulled back up by Will.
“Leave it, Frank! Let’s just get out of here!” he shouted.
But Frank did not listen. Frank never listened to anyone beside himself, not even Will. And he was close to his goal now, he was by the control table, looking down at the hundreds of buttons. Emma could not breathe, could not think. Will continued to pull her with him. Frank; impatient, stupid, brave Frank; pulled up a small gun from the back of his jeans, aimed it at the control table.
Both Emma and Will screamed before the shot. The wire caught fire as the control table exploded, and Frank disappeared behind the thousands of sparks flaming up. Emma sobbed, tried to rush forward but Will grabbed hold of her and pulled her with him, flames chasing them through the factory. The wire was down.
Short Story Award 2014 (Chancellor’s Fund)
This Award started with a donation from the Chancellor’s Fund and has run annually up to 2014, with Matt Erskine winning in its inaugural year (2013) and Raef Boylan claiming the full honours in 2014. We’ve seen some really interesting stories over the years, including Young Adult inspired fiction from Raef himself and an experimental (and extremely successful) second person depiction of the life of a wall in a family home by Dan Bowen.
We would like to run the Award again, but we do rely on the Chancellor’s Fund for the prize money. We will try for funding again this January, and advertise it here if we get it! Here’s the reasons why it’s worth entering…
1. “It’s all about the money”
If there’s a better way to earn yourself £250, I don’t know it. Winning first, second or third place will win you £250, £150 and £100 respectively. Just think – you could probably buy a whole Waterstones bookcase with that kind of money!
2. Getting your work published
What’s the point in writing a short story if it’s just going to sit in your desk drawer or on your hard drive? You need to get your work out there and try and this is a great way to get your work published in a magazine that has a built-in audience. The runners up will have their work published online but the out-and-out winner will also have their story published in the annual magazine, normally released in September.
3. You never know, Hollywood might make your story into a film…
Many big films were inspired by short stories: A.I., I, Robot and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to name a few. Okay, I admit it’s unlikely that your short story will be made into a Hollywood Blockbuster. I guess all the film studios are busy making buddy-cop comedies and sequels no one asked for…
4. “What else you gonna do?”
You’re obviously all very well prepared, your coursework is done and your revision is on schedule. (Otherwise you wouldn’t be reading our blog, right?) But even if you’re not quite up-to-date on your uni work, what better way to wind down after a full day in the library than creating your own world through fiction?
5. Because poetry isn’t your thing…
So maybe you thought about entering our other award, The Fred Holland Poetry Collection Award? I bet you checked out the competition guidelines and read about the £1000 prize. Perhaps you even got as far as drafting a stanza or two before deciding you prefer prose to poetry. That’s fair enough – go for it! Of course, you’re more than welcome to enter both (if we can run it this year that is – we’ll keep you posted, here)!