Sinister Melody

Dead of Winter ~ Third Place
David Pugh

Black and white photo of a cobblestone street. The cobblestones are wet, slick and shiny. Light shines down the center of the image, illuminating the pattern of the stones. The sides are in shadow.

Photo Credit: Andy Magee/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

It is early morning and lazily falling snow gathers in drifts at every windowsill, doorway, and curb of the city. Warped sheets of thin metal clank against the spouts of precarious brick chimneys. Iron horseshoes and wooden wheels, reinforced by steel, clatter along uneven cobblestone roads. Dense chunks of ice crash against the wooden piers of the harbor, sloshing in the frigid waters. In the harbor, a ship is being prepared for departure. Picture windows in stores fog with the discussion of price. Noses sniffle and mittened hands catch spontaneous sneezes. Wrapped in scarves, jackets, and woolen hats, residents of the city bustle in the narrow streets between towering grey buildings. No matter their destination, the residents pass each other and greet their neighbors, despite the cold.

A young woman hurries through the snow-covered streets. She hunches, her head down, clutching something to her chest, walking against the rending winds of the winter storm. Candles in windows guide her way. Their lights are faint, but enough to orientate her on the way home. She has walked these streets more times than she could count, but in the grey of the storm standing upright was a struggle all its own. Snow crunches under her boot and she slides off a patch of ice on the cobblestone street.

She stumbles, nearly dropping the something from her arms, and attracts glances of concern from a group of women conversing outside of a nearby shop. Their conversation changes instantly as they offer to help and draw near to her. She finds their presence reassuring, had the fall been worse, and smiles. However, now is not the time for attention so she shakes her head. She meets their gaze, returning their rehearsed smile with her own, and continues toward her destination.

Finally, a building with three candled windows all in a row guides the young woman around a corner to face an ancient brick building. She stops in front of its wooden door. Her feet feel unstable beneath her, and she wonders if anyone else is around. She struggles to balance herself as she removes an iron key from the pocket of her coat. She knows that if she falls again, someone will be there in a matter of seconds. Without looking up from the patch of ice beneath her feet, she slides the iron key into its lock. The lock clicks open, and she disappears inside the ancient brick building.

One mittened hand softly clicks the lock back into place. She gives the knob a twist and a slight pull to confirm that the door is locked. Flakes of snow that cling to her hair melt fast in the humidity of the house. For a moment she coughs, adjusting to the stark change in atmosphere, and she braces herself against the wooden door.

The young woman is short and slight, her face whipped red by the chilling winter air. Her woolen coat, mittens, and scarf are threadbare, and age worn. She sets the something down at her feet and, with considerable effort, she sheds her winter clothing. She piles them in a soggy heap on top of that something on the floor and stands, thinking, in a sweat drenched sundress.

Her name is Melody Geary, and she finds no comfort standing in the foyer of her home. Her mind races with thoughts of her husband, Daniel, and the condition she may find him in, in the bedroom at the top of the stairs. She hears the open window slamming against the side of the house. She shudders and lights a candle sitting in a ceramic dish on a small end table and moves into the dining room, turning her back on the staircase and the something buried by her winter clothing.

She still hears the words of Dr. Randolph.

How, exactly, has he been unwell? Has he been eating much? Has he slept through the night?

Today’s visit had been the third this week and each time his voice was calm and free of skepticism. His questions were specific and, usually, impersonal, but this time he had expressed interest clearly beyond professional in Daniel’s case. Melody smiles at the thought of preferential treatment. She had always found his presence comforting; he never failed to care for them.

Dr. Randolph had always been adamant about seeing his patients directly, but this had been different. In his cramped office, he kept a safe distance from Melody, listening intently as she described the rash that has developed across Daniel’s shoulders.

Judging by your description, I believe I am familiar with this ailment. Though I’ve never had the opportunity to catch it this early. Oh, no! Do not bring him! Give him this, it should stop the spread. Though its side effects will likely be… significant.

Melody shuts her eyes and tries to imagine the lives of her neighbors, blissfully unaware of Daniel’s current state. Faintly, she hears the city beyond the whipping winter storm. The light snap of a whip and the rhythmic clomp of horseshoes against the snow-covered stone streets. The idle chatter of the passengers, and the courteous greeting of the carriage driver to passersby. She hopes they have not noticed Daniel’s absence.

Are you okay, dear?

The face of Mrs. Sanderson, who she had passed only moments ago, flashes in her mind.

Be careful out here! You can’t see five feet in front of you, let alone ice covered in snow. I can take that package for you, come inside and warm up.

She had joined them for tea many times on her walks home. Mrs. Sanderson hosted bridge every afternoon. Melody had no idea how to play, but she would sit and chat with them. She spoke freely about Daniel, or work, or medication from Dr. Randolph, or any other topic that day had brought her. None of the women had thought much of Dr. Randolph. They all found his treatments dubious. Melody would laugh and give a noncommittal comment. She would continue to follow Dr. Randolph’s advice, though she wondered how those women stayed in such good health without it. Their days all seemed to pass so easily to Melody. All of them blissfully unaware of this affliction that may move to her, or any of them any day.

Melody hears the open window upstairs slam again and is brought back to her surroundings. In her dining room, a long table, dressed in a moth-eaten runner, is covered in a thick layer of dust. At one end of the table sits a plate of crumbs and a chair with its back to a window. She pulls the chair away from the table and moves to sit, hovering just above the seat. She sways like the sudden stop in motion is a surprise to her, before righting herself and moving with renewed purpose. She lifts the plate of crumbs, her hands linger on the plate, unsure if something may sit beneath it. After a moment’s consideration, she moves the plate to the nearby sink without a glance back at the table.

Cold water rushes into the disgusting, scum-ringed sink. She places the candle on the counter and painstakingly removes melted wax from the ceramic dish. She rinses the crumbs from yesterday’s dinner plate before dragging a mildewed rag across its surface several times. Melody continues this menial distraction, trying her best to ignore the sounds of breathing.

Deep panting and the sound of rustling leaves crash behind her, escaping the rusted vent cover, clawing at the stray hairs that curl around her ears. She scrapes away at the clean plate and speaks to the calling breath.

“Soon, Daniel, we will be free of this. We will both continue our work. The days of us barely seeing each other, me going to dinner at Barbara’s or you to play cards at Waldorf’s will return. And none of them shall know of this misstep. These days we’ve spent locked here together. Your degenerating health. Our lives will continue as though they had never stopped. No one ever needs to know of these days I have wasted here with you. Let us finally be rid of this.” And she hurries back to the staircase.

She tears through the heap of winter clothes until she finds the something, beneath them all. A large glass jar filled with amber stones. She stares into the pristine surfaces of the stones as she steps onto the first stair. The bare skin of her hands as they hold the glass jar tingles with anticipation with each step. The stones glow with a strong light that guides her up the stairs with a feeling of ease—a naïve hope that could only come to someone who has placed her full confidence in another, never noticing the tingling has spread up her arms, toward her elbows.

As she draws near the landing, she thinks back on Dr. Randolph’s instruction.

No, no! It would be best not to move him, in this state. I suggest you give him these. This medication is unique. All you must do is uncork the jar in the same room as Daniel and the effect will be instant. They produce a strong smell that should stop the spread of the rash in a matter of minutes. Just be sure that no one sees them! This is a foreign treatment and I suspect your neighbors may not appreciate the idea. It may ruin my reputation.

Melody swore she had seen a gleam in Dr. Randolph’s eye as though he had waited to hear her words. He spoke with a chuckle as he covered the jar in a sheet and sent her on her way. He insisted she take detailed notes of the results and leave them under his door the following morning. He was on his way out of town; an old patient of his living further up the coast had taken a poor turn and he was forced to tend to them. The situation seemed rather serious, but he had left in a state of elation, almost manically, reiterating his instructions until she was out the door.

For days, she had stopped at the third step from the top, only pushing a tray of food onto the landing. She would call to him and tell him to get it and the importance of keeping his strength up. Now, shrouded in the amber glow, she steps onto the landing. Scattered on the floor, the untouched sandwiches have turned blue and green with mold. From behind the door to her right, their bedroom door, she hears it all more clearly than downstairs. Rustling leaves, the slamming windowpane, and the breathing. That horrid breathing that has plagued her for nearly a week. The chill of the metal knob shocks her, but only enough to enliven her anticipation. With great effort, Melody opens the door to find her husband, Daniel, exactly as she had left him.

A rotten smell fills the air and the bed sheets and floorboards beneath Daniel are frozen solid. He sits, shoulders hunched forward, on the side of their bed facing the open window. What remains of Daniel’s hair, and the leaves that sprout from his scalp, blow in the winter air. His skin is so thin that the muscle and blood pumping within are visible. Snow blows in the open window, the flakes that land on Daniel melt instantly and soak into his waxy skin. The moisture absorbs into the network of veins that pulse rapidly.

With the horrible sound of snapping twigs, Daniel moves to face her. His neck bends straight backward, like a stem that is unable to support its bud, and he looks to Melody. His eyes protrude slightly, rolling in their sockets with the movement of his head. The waxy coating of his skin had tried, and failed, to form over his eyes only to dry up around his yellow eyeballs. The exposed irises turned a faded grey and cracked, pieces sloughing off in the frigid gusts.

Leaves sprout along the ridge of his collarbone like a ruff; they sway in the frigid air with a startling resilience. The thin skin cracks and falls away from his mouth exposing his brittle and yellow teeth. They chatter together senselessly; the muscles contracting on memory alone. His arms bend backward at the elbow and, his fingers growing like vines, reach out to her.

Along a vein in his shoulder, a clot forms before her eyes. Through his thin and waxy skin, the clot forces its way into the cold winter air, emerging as a fresh bud. It opens and thick petals of a vibrant blue unfurl. They flap before settling against the skin, appearing unbothered by their harsh environment.

This medication is unique; all you must do is uncork the jar in the same room as Daniel and the effect will be instant.

With a smile of assurance, Melody uncorks the glass jar.

They produce a strong smell that should stop the spread of the rash in a matter of minutes.

Melody inhales deeply.

Just be sure that no one sees them!

For a moment, both Melody and Daniel are still. She smells nothing.

Suddenly Daniel’s face contorts mournfully, his mouth opens as though to scream. The waxy luster of the skin fades as it shrivels, clinging to the withering muscle below. The blue petals shrivel and curl before falling to the frozen floorboards. Daniel’s whole body wilts into a silent heap on the bed.

This is the closest the two have been to each other in days. In his current state, she found it difficult to identify him. Despite the vegetation, most of Daniel’s features were still there. High cheekbones. Weak chin. Crooked teeth. Until this moment, she has not considered the details of this affliction.

I believe I am familiar with this ailment, though I’ve never had the opportunity to catch it this early.

Give him this; it should stop the spread. Though its side effects will likely be… significant.

Just be sure that no one sees them!

It may ruin my reputation.

She feels her face flush with guilt she had not felt since childhood. Surely, she could not be at fault; she had only followed Dr. Randolph’s orders. It was impossible for her to have known.

“Are you there, dear?” comes a familiar, but distorted, voice from the open window. The voice is a series of snaps and rustling, like the sound of wind moving through a lush forest. It sounds distant, from far beyond the threshold of the window, but fills the room. It is calm, even toned, and Melody grows tense. Still clutching the glass jar, she does not notice the glow of the stones fade. She moves to the window to see who is addressing her.

Outside Mrs. Sanderson and her neighbors, lying flat against the frozen stone, stare up at her. Through the violently whipping snow, she sees vibrant blue petals blossom from each torso. They sway as though the violent storm is nothing more than a spring breeze. Their mouths gape open as the strange voice comes once more.

“We came to have a word with Daniel. We heard his call.”


David Pugh studied film at Indiana University. Enjoys pizza, Tekken, and slasher films not exceeding 93 minutes.

Quiet Child

Dead of Winter ~ Second Place
DJ Tyrer

Photo of a house fire at night. Most of the image is in darkness, as bright yellow-white flames shoot up from a house and smoke billows around the flames. In the foreground, the tops of other house and trees are silhouetted. Power lines bisect the image horizontally from the left disappearing into the smoke and flames.

Photo Credit: Peter Hill/Flickr (CC-by)

“Quiet, child,” said Uncle Andrew as he withdrew from the room and flicked the switch, plunging it back into darkness.

Nella closed her eyes tight and pulled herself deep down beneath her duvet. It was cold, but that wasn’t the reason why she sought its comfort.

She cried into it. Always the same, always the same two words.

“Quiet, child.”

She bit the duvet, filled her mouth with it till she almost choked, tried to stifle the shuddering sobs that shook her entire body.

Uncle Andrew never believed her.

As the sound she was making softened, Nella could hear the soft sounds that she tried to imagine were those of sleet dashing against the window panes, but weren’t. The sibilant whispers that sounded as if they came from all the corners of the room, as if there were many hidden people speaking too softly for her to hear, or a single sound that echoed quietly about her, again and again, moving ever closer…

She didn’t know what they were, where they came from, who made them—she had never dared open her eyes to see—but she knew that the whispers were bad.

Nella had first heard the sound the week before her parents died in the fire that had destroyed their home, left the beautiful old building a pile of charred rubble.

At first, the sound had been so soft she could barely hear it.

“Can you hear it, mummy,” she had asked, eyes wide with the mystery of it, and her mother had shaken her head and said, “What, dear?”

“That sound. It’s like a breeze in the walls.”

She had imagined that there might be something marvellous hidden within the walls of the house, a doorway to a world like Narnia, somewhere where she might have adventures, a place of dreams—not nightmares.

“I don’t hear anything, darling. It’s probably the wind blowing through the air bricks in the cellar. It’s nothing to be frightened of.”

Her mother had stroked her hair and Nella had quickly fallen into a deep and pleasant sleep. She hadn’t been frightened of the sound, not then. But, she should have been.

Slowly, the whispering sound had grown closer, as if she were hearing people having a quiet conversation in the hallway, moving closer to her door. At first, Nella had thought it was her parents. Then, she had begun to wonder if it was ghosts. Her best friend had told her the house was so old it ought to be haunted and she wondered if she was right and became a little frightened as the sound came nearer, as if the ghosts were drawing closer to her bedroom door, nearer to coming inside.

Her father had laughed good-naturedly when she told him and said, “There are no such things as ghosts, not outside of storybooks. When you die you’re dead and that’s the end of it, you don’t come back in a white sheet to scare people.”

Even now, as she trembled in her bed, that made Nella sad. She hoped her daddy was wrong and that she might see him again, one day, that he might even come back and save her from the whispers.

But, even as the sound grew louder and louder, her parents had been unable to hear it. It was as if the sound were one for her and her alone, a message she couldn’t understand, or a threat or taunt she couldn’t decipher.

Then, came the night of the fire.

The whispering sound had been louder than ever, and there was something in it, a deeper sound, a little like a chuckle that made her feel sick to her stomach—and then the smoke alarms had begun to shriek and she hadn’t been able to hear the whispers any more.

Nella had run from her bed and down the stairs to the telephone in the hall as her parents had always taught her and called the fire brigade, before running out of the house into the snowy night. As she went outside, she heard a crashing sound like the time her cousin booted his football through the side of the greenhouse and a moment later the smoke alarm died, to be replaced by a deeper, more terrifying sound.

Nella had been terrified. She didn’t want to be alone in the darkness with the twitching reddish shadows that danced across the lawn and the houses opposite. She wanted her mummy and daddy.

They would, she knew, be right behind her.

Only they hadn’t been.

Looking back at the house, Nella had seen the flames flailing through the shattered window of her parents’ bedroom, had watched as they danced further across the house, shattering more glass, causing the roof to collapse and the walls to fall in.

The fire engine had arrived with its blue, swirling lights, adding them to the dance of light that spun about her.

A policeman had taken her away. Later, a woman she didn’t know told her that her parents were dead. A fault in the wiring for the Christmas tree lights, she said.

She didn’t notice the holiday pass.

Nella had sobbed for what felt like years. Then, when her tears had run dry, she fell silent, too tired to speak or think. Too scared. For, behind the sadness, she knew that the whispers were somehow to blame.

Her Uncle Andrew and Auntie Susan had taken her in and she hadn’t heard the whispers in their home, had thought herself free of them, had maybe even come to believe they were nothing more than a bad dream.

Then, in the distance, as if far down in the cellar beneath the house, she heard them…

“Uncle Andrew! Uncle Andrew!” she had cried, running into his study. “Can you hear it?”

“What?” he had asked, testily. “I’m very busy, you know.”

“There’s a sort of whispering. I heard it at home. Before the fire.”

“Quiet, child,” he had said, for the first time. “You’ve just been having nightmares. It was a terrible thing you experienced and it is, I suppose, to be expected, but you need to move on and put the past behind you.”


“Quiet, child. Now, go away and play. I’m busy.”

She had gone and tried to talk to her aunt, but Auntie Susan had been just as busy and said the same thing. It was the same every time she tried to tell them what she could hear—the strange whispering, growing louder every night.

Now, it was so loud, it seemed to be all around her, swirling about her bed.

How she wished it would go away!

She didn’t care that Uncle Andrew would be cross with her. She couldn’t bear to be alone in the night any more.

Nella threw back her duvet and opened her mouth to scream, but as she did so, she thought she caught a hint of movement in the darkness, like a figure stepping up to her bed, and heard a sibilant voice hiss, “Quiet, child.”

No sound came from her mouth.

Nella tried again. Nothing!

She pulled the duvet back up over her head and held it tight against her face, as if it would ward off whatever lurked about her bed. And, as she did so, she thought, for just a moment, she caught the sound of a deep and unpleasant chuckle.


Nella woke to the sound of Auntie Susan calling her name.

She threw back the duvet and saw grey morning light through her bedroom window. Somehow, she had survived the night. She shivered at the memory and tried to pretend it had all just been an unpleasant dream.

“Nella, it’s time for breakfast. Hurry up, you’ve got school.”

It was Monday. That meant she was starting at her new school.

Nella sniffed and blinked away tears. She was going to miss her friends. She didn’t want to go some place new.

But her aunt called again and she had to get out of bed.

She washed and dressed and stumbled down the stairs to the kitchen.

“Good morning,” said her aunt with a smile as wide as necessary for the day.

Nella opened her mouth to reply, but no words came out.

Her aunt looked at her. Nella looked back, uncertain, tried to speak again, but still was unable to make a sound beyond the slightest rough hiss of air.

Panic began to well up inside her, the same terrifying panic she had begun to feel when her parents didn’t come to her from the burning house and the policeman swept her away. She tried to shout, to scream, but no sounds came, save an increasingly strangled hiss.

“Nella? Are you okay? Are you choking?”

Her aunt grabbed her and tried to look in her mouth, but Nella pushed her off and shook her head.

She tried again, but still there was no sound. She pointed at her throat.

“Sore throat?”

Nella screwed up her face in thought, then nodded. It was a little sore, now.

But she remembered the voice the night before, the one that wasn’t her uncle. “Quiet, child.”

She thought of one of the bad words her father said when he hit his hand with a hammer or banged his head, then put her hand up over her mouth. Only, she hadn’t really said it, her aunt hadn’t heard it.

“Don’t worry, I’ll call the doctor,” said Auntie Susan.


The doctor had said something about it being to do with her sadness about the fire and her parents dying and having to start a new school. There was a long word that began with ‘sigh’ and made her think of the sibilant whispers that explained it, but she didn’t understand it.

“It’s the time of year. Keep her home for a day or two and she’ll probably be fine. If not, I’ll arrange for her to see a specialist,” the doctor had said. There was a long word for that, too, that also began with ‘sigh’. It was probably because a sigh was the only sound she could make, now.

But, no matter what the doctor said, Nella knew it had nothing to do with sadness and that her voice wouldn’t be coming back. She also knew something bad was coming. She tried to draw it for her aunt, but she just shook her head sadly and seemed to think the pictures were do with Nella’s parents.

It was so frustrating!

That night, she went up the stairs like a princess being sent to face a dragon, only with no prospect of rescue. Her friend, Ali, always said princesses should rescue themselves, but Nella had no idea how she was supposed to do that.

Glumly, she climbed into bed and gestured to her aunt to leave the night light on beside her bedroom door.

“Is that why you’re so down?” she murmured. Nella was grateful that she didn’t turn it off.

The whispers were still there, but further away, in the passageway outside her room, or in the walls. The light, faint as it was, seemed to keep them at bay.

She almost relaxed. If she couldn’t hear them properly, then that had to mean they couldn’t hurt her or her aunt and uncle. As long as the light kept them away, they would all be safe.

The whispers continued to hiss softly in the distance, as if prowling about her room seeking a way in.

Go away and let me sleep, she thought, and she said a silent prayer.

Then, the night light died and, in a moment, her bedroom was dark as anything.

Nella sat straight up and screamed, but she couldn’t make a sound. Nobody would hear her. Nobody would come.

Quickly, she lay back down and pulled the covers over her head.

The whispers were all around her. She thought she heard sounds of movement, swishing and footsteps, but it may just have been the growing noise of almost-voices as they hissed and squawked all about the room.

She could almost make out words. And, amongst them, she could hear her own voice, whispering cruel, hateful things.

The whispers hadn’t just taken her voice away, they had stolen it for themselves.

There was a hissing and a sound like tuh-tuh and she could smell something burning.

She could hear the deep chuckling sound, a mocking laugh that was growing in noise.

“Tonight’s the night,” she heard her voice say. “Tonight’s your turn.”

She couldn’t breathe. She was choking.

She threw back the duvet.

Flames danced where her night light had been.

Nella tried to scream.

“Quiet, child,” said her voice. “It will all be over soon.”

“Soon,” hissed other voices, not calming, but cruel.

“Quiet, child. Quiet, child. Quiet, child.”

The flames drew nearer.

Nella thought she heard her father’s voice, her mother screaming.

Then there was a crash and the door burst open and her uncle was beside her bed, pulling her up into his arms.

She was screaming.

“Quiet, child,” he said, and he carried her through the flames.


DJ Tyrer is the person behind Atlantean Publishing and has been widely published in anthologies and magazines around the world, such as Chilling Horror Short Stories (Flame Tree), All The Petty Myths (18th Wall), Steampunk Cthulhu (Chaosium), What Dwells Below (Sirens Call), The Horror Zine’s Book of Ghost Stories (Hellbound Books), and EOM: Equal Opportunity Madness (Otter Libris), and issues of Sirens Call, Hypnos, Occult Detective Magazine, parABnormal, and Weirdbook, and in addition, has a novella available in paperback and on the Kindle, The Yellow House (Dunhams Manor). Facebook.

The Facilitator

Dead of Winter ~ First Place
Alex Grehy

Black and white photo of a London street looking up at walls of buildings, new and old, from the position of someone on the street. The perspective makes the buildings appear to lean in, blocking the sky except for a sliver in the distance, where low sun glints off the bottom floors of a tall, nondescript glass building. The image has a gloomy, foreboding atmosphere.

Photo Credit: It’s No Game/Flickr (CC-by)

“Don’t give them money, it only encourages them.”

Phoebe cursed under her breath as Simon, her work mentor, caught up with her. Their office culture was oppressive, nothing went unobserved, but she’d vainly hoped that out here, on the street, Simon might curb his acid tongue.

“Yah, they only spend it on booze and drugs. Better to give to a homeless charity instead,” drawled Reese, who’d walked up from the station with Simon.

Phoebe assumed their arriving together was a coincidence. There were only so many trains that got everyone to the office in time, though there was hot competition to be the first in and last out.

“Like you’ve ever given anything to charity.” Simon sneered.

“I put a few pennies into a collection tin when they were rattling outside Harrods. A posh store like that wouldn’t let any riff-raff organisations collect outside their doors,” Reese said, walking on towards the entrance of the looming glass and steel tower block where they all worked.

Phoebe hung back and turned to the shapeless heap of quilts that engulfed the homeless person sitting on the pavement.

“I’m sorry, I’m sure they don’t mean to be rude. Here…” Phoebe fumbled around in her bag and tucked a £5 note under the trailing edge of a duvet. As she turned away, a small, clean hand, a woman’s hand, flashed out from beneath the heap and snatched the note away.

Phoebe shivered. She’d not felt warm since moving to the city—even in the summer a keen breeze whistled through these streets. She’d read somewhere that the architects had unintentionally created wind tunnels when they crowded the skyscrapers together, making the most of the precious mile square of prime city centre real estate. Not that it would be any better inside—her building’s air conditioning was fierce and then there was her colleagues’ relentless sniping.

As she drifted through the door, she heard Reese’s shrill voice penetrate the open office floor like a rapier.

“Phoebe’s off daydreaming again!”

Phoebe saw people look up from their cubicles and laugh. She scuttled to her desk, her flaming cheeks hidden by a curtain of hair as she leaned forward to turn her computer on.

Phoebe had complained to Simon about the teasing, but he’d just laughed, calling it harmless banter; she needed to suck it up, grow a pair. Macho bullshit, she’d thought, but not said. Her company prized individual performance over team cohesion, believing that competition led to achievement. It had a sour reputation. Over the water cooler, in the company gym, in the in-house bar and restaurant, her colleagues whispered of staff pushed too far, driven to despair by pressure and stress. There were tales of self-harm, violence, suicides.

Yet it was a global leader in, well, it was hard to say what it led—marketing, public relations, sales, stock trading. Complex and compartmentalised, the company slithered through boom and bust like a snake in the jungle. Staff who survived the rigorous culture, who wriggled into executive positions, became wealthy.


“Hi there, how are you today?” Phoebe addressed the heap of quilts piled on the pavement as she tucked some cash under the corner of the nearest duvet. It had become her daily ritual, though she found it hard to explain why. She was doing well in work, the money was small change, but she didn’t give to any other street beggar. Maybe it was the proximity to her workplace, that she felt safe enough to open her purse and plant some money in this one anonymous heap camped in the shadow of her company’s edifice. She’d never seen the recipient’s face—just the incongruous clean hand, reaching for the money.

“It’s been noticed you know,” Reese called from the pavement behind her. They’d shared a commuter route for over a year now, but Reese was arriving later and later these days.

Phoebe straightened up as Reese approached.

“Hold this a second,” Reese instructed, handing Phoebe her bag. “Don’t let the hobo steal anything.” Reese slipped off her commuting flats and replaced them with high-heeled court shoes.

“What’s been noticed?” Phoebe asked.

“Your obsession with this pile of rags. If Simon doesn’t like the company you keep, he’ll demote you. Our firm has a reputation to maintain.”

“That’s not all they notice,” said Phoebe in a stage whisper, but Reese had already overtaken her and pushed through the building’s entrance.

I’ve seen Simon check his watch when you walk in. I’ve seen him check your productivity logs. I’ve also seen him turn his lusty little eyes onto the new intern—you’ve let your standards slip, Reese. Phoebe shook her head and smiled, allowing that it was ok to be a bitch in the silence of your own head. Except her head was rarely silent these days.

“You can hear, can’t you?”

Phoebe looked down. The voice had come from the heap of quilts.

“Hear who? You? I didn’t think you’d spoken before; I mean, I thought you were asleep…”

“Or passed out, from the drink and drugs your friend thinks I’ve imbibed.”

“Uh, she’s no friend of mine, we just share an office, and she was just generalising, I mean, a lot of people in your situation do give in to… stuff.” Phoebe waved her hands around vaguely, trying to explain in gestures the impossible relationships between her and the people she spent the most time with, yet knew the least about.

“Hmmmm, yes, you’re no friend to her. You, who can hear her thoughts, who can see her struggling and does nothing. Is that why you leave me a pittance every day? To prove to yourself that you’re still a real person, with values, even when your soul is being washed down the drain?”

“How dare you judge me? I felt sorry for you.”

“No, you didn’t. Everyone can feel them, but only you and I can hear them. We’ve got more in common than you know.”

Phoebe turned her back and stomped into her office building, her thoughts a maelstrom of confusion.

How dare she? Why do I have to be kind all the time? Why can’t I cope? She always looks so together, taking time to speak to homeless people when I don’t have time for anything? What am I even doing here?

Phoebe stopped abruptly, only halfway to her desk. Not all those thoughts belonged to her.

“Phoebe’s daydreaming again!”

Reese, shrill as ever, never missed an opportunity to heckle.

I don’t know what I’m doing. Maybe this is all I’m good for, taking people down, so they don’t notice how useless I am.

Phoebe looked around; these were definitely not her thoughts.

She strode over to Reese’s cubicle. Reese ducked her head down below the partition. When Phoebe peered over, Reese was resting her head on her keyboard, but Phoebe noticed the tissue in her colleague’s hand, stained with mascara and tears. The two women didn’t say anything. Phoebe returned to her own cubicle and drowned the whispers in her head in a flood of work.


The next day, Phoebe emerged from the underground station and trembled as a cold wind bore down on her, sweeping discarded newspapers and takeaway boxes along the street. There was always a breeze between the buildings, but today it was a gale, though the air had been still enough in the suburbs where she lived.

She pulled her heavy winter coat around her and tucked her chin into the faux fur collar, which may be why she walked straight into a woman walking towards the station.

“Steady on there.”

Phoebe felt a hand grasp her arm, helping her to regain her balance.

“Thank you. I’m so sorry, I didn’t see you.”

“No, you didn’t, you’ve never looked, but you can see me now.”

Phoebe looked down. The hand still clutching her arm was clean and small, yet for all its delicacy, she couldn’t pull away; no, she didn’t want to pull away. She looked across, at the woman’s face.

“It’s you, the hob— tram— homeless person that lives by our building.”

“Oh no, I don’t live there. I have a nice apartment a couple of miles away, in one of those blocks they built at the start of the concrete revolution in the sixties, back when they thought living in high towers would bring us closer to heaven.”

Phoebe looked at the woman in disgust. “You mean you’re some sort of professional beggar. What sort of scam are you running? If you can afford an apartment, you don’t need my £5.”

“No scam. I inherited the apartment when my mother died. That’s not all I inherited; she was a medium. She said I should listen to the testimony of the dead and, lately, I’ve come here to wait for you.”

“For me? Why? Look, I’m fed up with your hustle. Let go of me and don’t let me see you round our building again or I’ll call security.”

The woman tightened her grip.

“No hustle. Look, if I’m not mistaken, today is your awakening. This wind, I’ve never known it so strong—the dead are being drawn here, towards the day of the long dark. You are drawing them.”

Phoebe shook her arm loose.

“I’ll be outside when you need me,” the woman called as Phoebe walked away briskly. She was shaking, annoyed that she’d fallen for some scam. Then she remembered to check her bag—the woman had been close enough to pick her pocket. Distracted, she barely noticed a police car and an ambulance, blue lights flashing, skidding to a halt in front of her building.

Over the hubbub, she heard Reese’s voice in her mind.

Yes, yes, yes, yes, up, up, is this high enough? Got to be sure. Oh shit, they’re here to stop me. Now! yes yes yes.

Phoebe looked around, she couldn’t see Reese anywhere, then she saw a flash of red fabric and heard a thudding crunch as an… object… hit the pavement in front of her. She looked down and saw Reese’s ruined body, her face strangely untouched, though it looked as if the back of her head had been caved in by the impact.

Phoebe heard Reese’s voice in her head again.

Yes… up… high enough? Here to stop me. Now! yes yes yes followed by the sound of the impact then Yes… up… high enough?

Reese’s last thoughts replayed in Phoebe’s mind.

Phoebe sat on the kerb, shaking her head, trying to quiet Reese’s voice. But there was no silence in her mind. Reese’s voice was replaced by that of a stranger. Got to get that train, can’t be late for the meeting, if I don’t seal this deal I’m… then the squeal of brakes. Then the voice looped around. She shook her head again and realised that there were hundreds of voices in her mind, clamouring for her attention.

A cold wind buffeted her as she lifted her head. All around she saw shadowy figures falling from buildings, being crushed by the impact, then rising from the pavements and floating up before falling again. Rushing shadow commuters were mowed down by the traffic, bodies horribly mangled, then they rose again to run endlessly toward meetings they would never attend. The urgency of their thoughts made her stomach clench with anxiety, even as she cried over the futility of their deaths. She buried her head in her hands, pressing the collar of her coat against her ears. But blocking the street noises only made the voices in her head even louder.

A voice, a real voice, addressed her.

“Ma’am? Ma’am? Are you alright? Are you able to stand up? We need to clear the area so that our emergency teams can get to work.”

Phoebe stumbled to her feet, leaning heavily on the paramedic’s arm. All around her, real people, solid people, went about their business as the shadow ghosts whirled around them. The breeze of their passing tugged at tightly-buttoned coats, sweeping scarves and hoods from commuters’ heads.

“I’m ok, I just need a cup of tea, or something.”

“Did you see the fall? Did you know the deceased?”

“Not very well, we just worked in the same building.” Phoebe wrung her hands; Reese’s last thoughts were playing on repeat in her mind again.

“Ok, may I take your name and contact details? I’m sure the police will be in touch when the scene’s been cleared. You look frozen, get that tea and warm up.” The paramedic took Phoebe’s business card and handed it to a nearby police constable.

As Phoebe headed for a coffee shop across the road, she felt an arm link in hers. She looked down, it was the homeless woman.

“That was a hard awakening. Let me buy you a cup of tea, and a cake, the sugar will do you good, and let’s talk,” the woman said.

“Shouldn’t I be buying you the tea; you’re meant to be broke.”

The woman laughed and held up a handful of crumpled £5 notes.

“I’d say you’ve already paid.”


Phoebe stirred a sachet of sugar into her tea while the woman sipped a hot chocolate festooned with double cream and marshmallows.

“How are the voices now?” the woman asked, her voice soft and soothing.

Phoebe listened for a moment. “They’ve quietened down, like they can’t get through the door.”

“They tend to stay around the place that they died. You chose a good spot to rest—no one suffered an untimely death in this building. A few heart attacks, the original owner literally died of old age when he took a break, but nothing violent. Don’t you think it’s time you drank that tea?”

Startled by the matter-of-fact tone of the woman’s voice, Phoebe stopped stirring her tea and took a sip.

“What’s your name? Who are you?” Phoebe asked.

“My name is Eadie and I’m a listener.”

“A listener?”

“Yes, one who hears the dead. Not all of them, just the ones who had too much on their minds when they jumped under a train, or off a building, or just died through not paying attention to their surroundings. They repeat themselves over and over, for all eternity, as far as I can tell.”

“Fine. But what do you actually do?”

“Do? I listen, that’s all I can do. You’ve heard them. They’re trapped in their last thoughts; I can’t move them.”

“And that’s my life now? I have to listen to them, for all eternity?”

“No, you’re something else. I can sense it. You can do more—you’re the Facilitator.”


Phoebe strode towards the office building, assailed by the chill wind of the dead, their last thoughts ringing in her mind, repeating their hopeless litanies over and over and over again. She walked quickly, pausing briefly to tuck a £5 note under Eadie’s heap of blankets. A wry chuckle drifted from the heart of the heap, but the hand still emerged to grab the money.

Phoebe swiped her ID card at her building’s door and stood for a moment, blinking. The company had spared no expense in festooning the foyer in Christmas lights. Tasteful, of course, and arranged with the artistic care of a professional PR specialist, down to the cutesy paper baubles painted by toddlers in the local school. Nonetheless, she savoured the brightness. Outside, the shortest day already seemed to be racing towards sunset, even though it was barely nine a.m.

At her desk, she cherished the silence in her mind and the warmth of her sheltered cubicle, but she couldn’t concentrate. She’d met with Eadie most evenings, trying to understand the woman’s strange gift, and her own. She recalled the conversation they’d had just a week ago.

“My mother said there was only one Facilitator born in every generation.”

“What happened to the last one?”

“Mother didn’t know; she felt the Facilitator awaken, far away, but before mother could find her, the Facilitator’s presence vanished.”

“Do you think the Facilitator could shut off the thoughts? Control what she was hearing?”

“I don’t know. Mother said we would just have to mind our business until the next one—you—came along and facilitated the Reckoning.”

“What is the Reckoning?”

“I don’t know.”

“What do you know?” Phoebe had snapped.

“I know that you can hear the dead as well as I can. Instead of opening your beak like a needy baby bird, why don’t you try to learn for yourself. Reach out to the previous Facilitator—she’s probably dead, given how old she’d be.”

“I can do that? No, don’t tell me, you don’t know.”

“You’re right, I don’t know much. The Reckoning has something to do with the living and the dead when the veil thins at sunset on the Winter Solstice. Which is coming soon, whether you’re ready or not.”

Phoebe had spent the week reaching out to the previous Facilitator. She knew that they’d been far away from London, and that they were likely to have been in a big city.

Phoebe was surprised. She thought ghosts would congregate around mystic or holy burial sites, or in spooky churches in the woods. Eadie had laughed out loud when she’d voiced that opinion. The explanation was simple—cities were simply where the most people were, and where the most people died, though Eadie sometimes heard echoes from farms in rural areas, where agricultural accidents were common enough. The weather’s going to break. If I don’t fix the blockage in the combine harvester blades the crop will be ruined. The round bales weigh a ton, there’s no way they’d roll and crush anyone.

The Facilitator had awoken in Liverpool with no one to guide her, Phoebe now knew. The previous Facilitator’s final thoughts swirled around her mind.

I can’t believe I’m talking to the fucking Liver Birds, but they protect Liverpool, so protect me, make them stop, stop, stop! Then Phoebe heard the scrabble and scream as the Facilitator lost her balance and fell. But instead of the immediate looping repeat that Phoebe had expected, she heard a strange echo…

Why did you abandon us? Who will listen to us if you do not? Why weren’t you more careful?

She’d done a few searches and found the Facilitator’s name in a small report in a local newspaper published fifty years before. If Judy Smith’s alleged suicide hadn’t caused travel chaos for Christmas shoppers flocking to the city centre, her death might have gone utterly unremarked.

Eadie had promised that Phoebe wouldn’t go mad, that, if all else failed, there was a way to manage the voices. Though she also said that Phoebe wouldn’t like the solution.

The day passed too quickly. By four p.m., Phoebe couldn’t pretend to work any longer. The news channels on the screens all around the office were broadcasting weather warnings—gale force winds, risk of structural damage, travel disruption, transport agencies advising people to return to their homes as soon as possible. She looked around—most of her colleagues had already left, but if they’d said goodbye, she’d never noticed.

She stood up. A chill breeze teased at her hair and followed her as she walked to the cloakroom. She wrapped her coat around her as the breeze strengthened, then she heard a voice, Simon’s voice, in her head.

Fucking idiot, why did you jump? You knew it was just a fling, you stupid tart. You could have just left, I’d have given you a great reference, oh yeah. But you had to go and kill yourself. You almost got me sacked.

Phoebe looked around. Simon wasn’t there, but the breeze fluttered around Reese’s old workstation, strong enough to shake the cubicle’s partition. Loose sheets of paper fluttered into the air. As Phoebe approached, the computer on Reese’s desk turned itself on. In the screen’s crepuscular light, Reese’s ghost straightened up then ran to the stairwell that led to the roof. Phoebe fancied that Simon’s voice followed her.

Phoebe ran from the office. What did it mean? Was Simon dead? He couldn’t be—she’d seen him just an hour before. She guessed he’d left with the others, though he was more likely to sit out a storm in a wine bar than at home, with his wife and children.

As she stepped into the street, she was assailed by voices in her head, but the looped laments of the dead were muted by other loud, piercing cries.

How could you have left us? Did you not love me? Did you not love our children?

Didn’t I tell you to be careful? I knew your obsession with work would kill you!

How could you be so selfish!

How could you be so greedy? Fat use all your money is to you now!

A gale howled between the buildings as the dead crowded the streets in the darkness of the longest night.

“Come here, quickly!”

Phoebe staggered to the heap of quilts and squirmed into a soft, warm cave created by Eadie’s outstretched arms.

“What do you hear, Facilitator?”

“You mean you can’t hear them?”

“I only hear the dead. What do you hear?”

“I hear voices berating the dead. They’re being horrible, asking questions, accusing. It’s maddening. How can you make it stop? How can I lay them all to rest?”

“Do you think the dead want to rest?” asked Eadie.

“The dead seem to be oblivious, as preoccupied in death as they were in life,” Phoebe replied. She wrapped her arms around her head, the voices were so loud, she was afraid her skull would shatter under the pressure.

“Listen,” said Eadie. “I think I understand. You’re the Facilitator.”

“Yeah, ‘one who makes easy’, according to the dictionary. But nothing’s been easy, or obvious, so far.”

“It didn’t make any sense until tonight. I think you’re hearing the living. They’re calling to their dead. You’re here to make it easy for them to reach their dead.”

“Isn’t that your job?” Phoebe replied through chattering teeth. The ghosts of the dead were passing through the quilts, threatening to tear their protection away and expose the two women.

“No, I’m a medium—the medium through which the dead talk to the living. I’m not a two-way radio. But maybe together we can achieve something.”

Eadie grabbed Phoebe’s hands.

“Open yourself to the living. I’ll reach out to the dead. Maybe this connection—” Eadie shook Phoebe’s hands. “—will let them reach each other.”

The women stared into each other’s eyes and concentrated. Around them, the swirling wind coalesced into a cyclone, ripping the quilts away. Phoebe didn’t even flinch.

I need to get to the meeting, this traffic’s such a pain, maybe if I just dodge between these buses… Eadie chanted a ghost’s last thoughts. Phoebe replied with words from the living.

Your meeting was nothing, even your boss said so. What about meeting with your kids? You never rushed for any of them, you stupid fuck.

I need to get to the meeting, this traffic’s such a pain, maybe if I just dodge between these buses…

Eadie’s eyes were wide and filled with tears. “He hears, but he’s not listening. He doesn’t want to listen.”

“Try another,” said Phoebe.

Yes… up… high enough? Here to stop me. Now! yes yes yes followed by the sound of the impact then Yes… up… high enough?

“Reese, oh no, Reese, I’m so sorry!” Phoebe shouted, struggling to raise her voice above the howling of the wind and the insistent whine of Simon’s rage.

Fucking idiot, why did you jump? You knew it was just a fling, you stupid tart. You could have just left, I’d have given you a great reference, oh yeah. But you had to go and kill yourself. You almost got me sacked.

“No, Simon, shut up, you’re being an arse, let her rest.” Phoebe shouted.

“It’s ok,” Eadie whispered. “Reese is not listening, none of them are listening.”

Phoebe pulled her hands free and threw her arms around Eadie’s shoulders. The living were not listening either. This might be a Reckoning, but it was not a reconciliation.


The police found them the following morning. Eadie was dead. Hypothermia, the coroner later reported.

The paramedics thought Phoebe was also dead, her body was cold to the touch. But in the warmth of the ambulance, she revived. She recalled the doctor’s quip—‘You’re not dead until you’re warm and dead.’

She’d snorted then, little did he know—the dead were never truly dead. Eadie’s voice echoed through her head, her last pleas looping through her mind.

No! No! Why won’t you listen? Why won’t you hear their hurt and heal them?

A month later, Phoebe found that she had inherited all of Eadie’s possessions—a generous amount of money, enough to save Phoebe from the tyranny of work; Eadie’s modest apartment, one room filled with quilts; and a note.

Not all alcoholics are mediums, but all mediums are alcoholics. That’s the secret, get drunk, just enough to silence the voices, that’s the only way to get some rest. Be careful, don’t drink too much, death is not your friend, take it from me.


Phoebe peered out from her nest of quilts—the morning light hurt her eyes and her head was thumping from last night’s binge. It was safe to say that red wine was not the best way to drown the voices of the dead. Effective, yes, but not the best.

Commuters passed by, eyes sliding away from the heap of quilts, unwilling to see the apparent plight of the homeless person at their heart. No one left £5 notes for her, but she grabbed the few coins and bottle tops that were sometimes thrown at her feet. She saw Simon walk past, aiming a kick at her heap of quilts, his voice grating.

“I thought that the old biddy had died; honestly, poor people breed like rats, we’ll never be rid of them.”

She listened. On cue, Reese’s thoughts cut through her mind.

Yes… up… high enough? Here to stop me. Now! yes yes yes followed by the sound of the impact then Yes… up… high enough?

At dawn every day, Phoebe came to the city centre to listen to the dead. She felt she owed them, and Eadie, that much. At dusk, she returned to Eadie’s apartment, showered, ate, binged on alcohol. She experimented with different drinks, desperate to find the best blend to silence the hurricane of voices when the Reckoning came again, next winter.


Alex Grehy’s (she/her) work has been published worldwide and she is a past winner of the Toasted Cheese Dead of Winter contest. She is a regular contributor to The Sirens Call and the Ladies of Horror Flash Project. Her essays on her experiences as a “Lady of Horror” have been published in the Horror Writers Association Newsletter and The Horror Tree blog. Her sweet life is filled with narrowboating, rescue greyhounds, singing and chocolate. Yet her vivid prose, thought-provoking poetry and original view of the world has led to her best friend to say ‘For someone so lovely, you’re very twisted!

Closing Doors

Beaver’s Pick
Maithreyi Nandakumar

Photo of a chiffon scarf loosely hanging/fluttering in front of a window with light shining through the panes. The focus is on the scarf in the foreground; the window in the background is out of focus.

Photo Credit: glasseyes view/Flickr (CC-by-sa)

The doors around her kept swinging in the breeze. She tried to slam them shut but they were stubborn and wouldn’t close. How could they when everything needed so much maintenance?

Dharini went to make herself some tea and sat on her chair that faced the garden. Some of those doors had rickety hooks to hold them together and had never been strong. When she was in this big old house at night, the sound of their banging kept her company, reminding her of all the people in her life who had come and gone or disappeared. The French window opened into a wilderness, full of thorny brambles and deadly weeds. Dharini examined the scratches on her forearms—she ought to have worn a long-sleeved top before tackling the overgrowth. She struggled with the bindweed wrapped tightly like a thick plait around the wild roses and imagined it winding around her. Here she would stand, take root, become a mummified tree with bindweed blooms to decorate her body. She moved backwards to pull more effectively and fell on top of the wilful plants and lay there, stuck. By the time she extricated herself, her clothes had ripped, and her hair literally had been through a hedge.

Dharini sighed at the brilliant sunshine that was yet to subside on this long summer’s day and it hurt to see everything turned on high volume—the light, the birds, the noise inside her head that made her thoughts play on a loop, in that familiar cycle. She had learnt to live with it, to ride the darkness within and allow those doors to keep on swinging.

First thing that morning, she’d walked to the collection centre of the post office to pick up a parcel that had come in her name. They must’ve tried to deliver when she hadn’t bothered to answer the doorbell yesterday. She trudged all the way up the busy roads, across the zigzag traffic lights, past the shops selling cheap plastic buckets and mops, under the thundering railway bridge, and then that bleak stretch with care homes, walking past expensive vehicles and their bad-tempered grunting in the stationary traffic.

As she stood in the queue, she kept hearing planes up above—some were labouring against gravity, as if climbing an invisible mountain, some sounded like racing cars at peak volume. Dharini waited, sweating in her dress, thighs chafed from the walk, wondering who would have sent her anything. It made her more than a little nervous. When it was her turn, she glanced at the man serving customers, one of her tribe—a painted red streak on his forehead, and clearly unimpressed at her dishevelled appearance. Dharini produced her driving license as ID and collected the box and shuffled out before she blurted out a request for a knife to prise it open then and there to examine the contents and possibly leave them behind. She squinted at the sender’s address, but the box had a dent where the label had been damaged.

All day it remained on the kitchen worktop amongst the overflowing stuff that she had not bothered to put away or declutter. She reached for it and held the lightweight parcel on her lap. She shook it and heard a vague rustle—it seemed empty. Opening the drawer next to her chair, she took out a dinner knife and jabbed at the thick tape. She knew who it was from as she recognised the handwriting and the packaging technique. In a flash, she was taken back to their holiday in Tunisia. They’d come up with a plan to pack a large cardboard box full of dirty clothes to mail it back to England, so that they could carry the fragile colourful ceramics in their luggage. Dharini smiled at the memory of shopping at the Aladdin’s Cave with its courtyard full of tagines and stunning platters hanging on the high walls.

Why now? After years of abrupt silence, was this an attempted rapprochement?

As she tackled the gaffer tape, she remembered an earlier gift, a marble coaster that read, “A friend is one of the nicest things you can have and one of the nicest things you can be.”

Dharini snorted loudly as the tape burst open along with the cardboard flaps. There was more opaque packaging inside, the contents still a mystery. Using scissors to cut the thick plastic, she pulled out an unmarked envelope and noticed that there were none of the embellishments of before. Dharini’s name wasn’t written in glitter pen with quirky sketches. Inside, the card read To Dharini, Happy Birthday, From H, in a carefully artistic swirl. Dharini swallowed down disappointment at the lack of anything personal or remotely affectionate. No more ‘Dear Dharini’ or ‘Love H’.

So, that night, when she was in bed, she pulled open her laptop and emailed a polite thank you note. “Very kind of you to remember my (landmark) birthday, Dharini.” She shut down the machine and placed it on the floor and fingered the thin piece of indigo chiffon with the pattern of fine fronds—it was a good choice, she’d allow her that much.

Where would she wear it, though? Dharini turned off the lamp and heard the door banging downstairs. She lugged herself out of bed and went down to tie this wisp of chiffon to close the damn thing.


Maithreyi Nandakumar is a writer of fact, fiction, and verse. A former BBC journalist, her stories and poems have been published in print, on radio and online. She’s working on a second novel—a family saga tracing back to a 10th century puzzle and meandering through to the present day. She lives mostly in Bristol, UK but can also be found in London and Chennai.

His Own Blood

Alexis Stefanovich-Thomson

Photo of a lake with trees growing right up to the edge of the water. A female moose, followed by her calf, are exiting the water. The adult moose is large and dark brown; the younger moose a lighter brown. The younger moose is still swimming toward shore while the adult moose has just got her footing on the shoreline. The trees are bright yellow-green and this color is reflected on the lake. Some dead trees, with gray trunks and bare branches are scattered amongst the living foliage.

Photo Credit: E_Bass/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Life jacket on, paddle in hand, seated in the front, he pulled against the water, and they glided on the lake, and his father’s strong strokes pushed them forward past the point, and the world unfolded in front of him. His paddle dipped and splashed and moved the water. Whirlpools came spinning with every pull. They were camping. He was camping. They were here, out in the wilderness, just him and his dad, and his mum was a long long car ride away in the city, maybe sitting down to lunch, with voices coming out of the radio to keep her company, and a chair to sit on and a bed to sleep in. They didn’t have that—just a tent and a bedroll and a sleeping bag. That’s how they would live. Camping.

“Are we going to see any animals?”


“Like what?”

“Frogs, snakes. Loons. Maybe a beaver or a muskrat.”

“Anything bigger?”

“Maybe a bear or a moose.”

“A bear. Is that scary?”

“It could be. But if you’re smart, it won’t bother you.”

“Have you ever seen a bear?”

“A few times.”

“And a moose?”

“No, never a moose. But I’d like to see one. I’d like that a lot.”

They ran up onto the shore, sandy with stray rocks, and he jumped out of the boat, and his feet got wet; he pulled the canoe up, and his dad stepped out and handed him his paddle. They stacked the two knapsacks and his father’s life jacket in a pile under a tree. His father picked up the canoe, jerked it onto his head, disappeared beneath it, and started up the trail. He followed with the life jackets on a paddle, their armholes threaded through the shaft, walking in the cool dark of the forest, hearing the buzz of the mosquitoes as they circled and landed and bit while he had both hands full. Ahead of him, the upside-down yellow canoe moved through the forest with his father’s torso and legs emerging beneath it. The path rose, and he walked more quickly to keep his dad in sight. The wind blew, and all around the trees rustled; the leaves shivered, and the light and shadows trembled and jumped. Downhill, coming into the open, there was a new lake in front of him, and it looked the same as the last, but different. There were dead tree stumps in still water and lily pads, and thin reeds stretching up, reaching too high and drooping over, and sometimes their tips touched the water again. His father dropped the boat half into the water and put the back end between two rocks where it stood high on the shore and safe so it wouldn’t blow away. Paddles and life jackets lay against a tree, and he focused on the mosquito on his forearm and slapped it; a splat of blood jumped onto his pale skin.

“Look, Dad, I got him. I killed him. Look at the blood.”

“That’s your blood.”


“Yes. That mosquito sucked it out of you. What did you think it was doing when it bit you?”

He’d killed the mosquito, but it was his own blood smeared on his arm. He stood still, looking at the bright red splat and the black ball of the bug on the back of his wrist, and frowned before scampering back up the path to catch up to his father.

The smear of blood was still on his arm when they set up the tent on a flat pad of pine needles in an opening in the woods. He unfolded the poles, snapped them into place, following his father’s instructions, and threaded them through the fabric of the tent. His father fit the points of the poles into the holes at each corner, and the tent rose, creating a pocket of space where they would sleep.

Later, at night, lying in bed in the darkness, he heard his dad’s breathing in the sleeping bag next to his; rain pattered on the fly, and thunder rolled in the distance. Sudden flashes of light interrupted the darkness, the plunk of drops on the fly reverberated through the tent, his father snored. They were in this great wilderness, alone in the middle of it, just his dad and him. More noises: footsteps, the splash of the water against the rocks, something walking along the shoreline.

Then light, bright through the nylon of the tent—everywhere all at once. He blinked twice, looked around, and remembered. Through the mesh, he saw his dad sitting by the fire, drinking coffee. Stepping out of the tent in his pajamas, into the wet Crocs waiting on the undersheet, he greeted his dad, and started down the path to the box. The mist swirled on the lake, the path was damp, and the sun, low in the blue sky, threw shadows across the trail. Lifting the lid of the box, he looked out into the marsh and saw them. Two of them. One large moose and a second, smaller, the child; they stood in the mist of the shallow bay. He was looking at the moose—the moose his dad had never seen. Two! He would call him to come and see; he would be the one to find the moose for his dad. He imagined telling his mother that he had found the moose.

“Dad,” he called.

The big moose looked up, its doe eye, large and round, querulous and calm, found him as he stood and looked out on the bay. “Dad,” he called again, louder, desperate, feeling the urgency. The two moose turned as one and took unhurried steps to the shoreline. The underbrush parted; they walked into the green of the forest and disappeared. “Dad,” he screamed in despair.

Footsteps running in the woods; his father calling his name. His dad arrived, but the moose were gone.


Alexis Stefanovich-Thomson is a writer who lives in Toronto with his partner and their two children. He won the 2021 Black Orchid Novella Award for his story “The Man Who Went Down Under” which was published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. In 2022, he won third prize in the Toronto Star Short Story Contest for his story, “The Unfinished Book.”


Savage Science Fiction / Fantasy Contest ~ Third Place
Mark Neyrinck

Scattered colored bokeh on a black background. The lights are mainly white on the bottom of the image, blue and turquoise in the middle, and gold at the top. At the far left, there is also some pink and green. The bokeh overlap, with some being brighter and closer to the camera, and others being farther back and more transparent.

Photo Credit: Olivier H/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

The salmon and turquoise wall-lights irritated Elton at first, but his mind grew accustomed to them. The man in front of him, in crisp, perfectly fitting sky-blue shorts and a yellow polo shirt, cleared his throat. The man’s headband effused a matching yellow and blue stream of lights suggesting sparkly warmth. His hand was outstretched, and Elton shook it.

“Jake, Crypto Team Lead.” He rolled his head around to indicate the room around them. “Pretty nice, eh?”

Indeed, the niceness of the room was palpable. Wooden cubicles, set off against the black chairs and trim, looked as comfortable as could be expected, and well-calibrated.

“Yeah,” Elton said. “The lights are—”

“Oh, you noticed those lights, too? Wow. Even I never did. You’re not just a cryptography star, but nice attention to detail! Won’t be able to slip anything past you,” he chuckled, and multicolored lights swirled madly around his headband, engaging in hijinks.

He started to lead Elton down the hall, but looked back with a smirk. “Elton Fucking Bishop. You don’t smile much, do you?” He pointed to Elton’s headband. “I can still tell from your activity you’re excited. Let’s go down to HR and see if we can dull that a bit.” The lights on his headband swirled again.

They walked in silence for a minute, but Jake stopped. A turquoise pattern wavered on his headband. “Tell you the truth though, it does make me a little nervous to work with someone who hasn’t been wearing a headband very long. I saw you’ve been working on a very promising crypto framework though, and you seem cool enough.” A little red swirl-flourish on his headband. “What was it like to be a headband-holdout?”

Elton had practiced the answer to this question many times. It was an obvious one at Lument, the company that had first introduced neuro-headbands several years ago.

He had decided to basically tell the truth. “Well, of course, I felt isolated,” Elton said. “My best friend finally gave in, and it started to be hard to interact even with him. And people avoid you on the street now if you’re not wearing them. But yeah, I’m still getting used to it, even after a year.”

“Yeah, man, it takes a while,” Jake said, resuming the walk and talk. “I had to get up to speed quickly, ‘cause my girlfriend was an early adopter of the headband. The connection you can get with your partner’s light-patterns is amazing. That was even before they got to be pretty much subliminal for me. You’ll never pry this baby off my head!” The headband sparkled with white fireworks. “And of course you practically can’t get laid without it nowadays, except with another… holdout.” A red and pink counter-streaming wiggle on his head, probably indicating that he had nearly used the word “shut-head” instead of “holdout.” He peered at Elton’s headband. “Whoa, sorry to bring up a sensitive subject!”

Jake was probably fully aware of Elton’s (lack of) romantic history. He slapped Elton’s back. “Just tryin’ to get to know you!” Green dots on his headband wavered and merged together into a green band, which turned solid indigo. He peered again at Jake’s headband. “You look a little overwhelmed, sorry. And you look like you have a question for me.” He stopped walking, and turned his head in invitation.

Elton took a deep breath. “I’m a little surprised myself that I’ve made it to this point of the interview process, as a holdout. There are other cryptographers that could do just as—nearly as—well, with more unquestionable brand loyalty to Lument.”

Jake nodded, and the indigo beam around his head broke into paler dashes that marched from the front of his head to the back. “Someone must have said this already, but we’re really looking for diversity in our employees. We want to bring people in who were hesitant to adopt the technology, so we can understand their perspective, and respect it—or, even try to convince them it’s as great as we know it is. It can really bring people together. And, a little cynically, I think bringing you on board would give us some credibility among previous holdouts.” He paused, surveying Jake’s light display again. “You still look dubious.”

“I’m also concerned you’ll take my true-quantum-random crypto technology and run with it. As I’ve said, I want to be on-board in its implementation, so I know it’s done ethically. No government or corporate back-doors.”

“Yeah, you’ve said so. Yep, that’s another reason we’re so interested in you; we really think the stuff you’re developing is amazing. And we’re totally committed to customer privacy, above all else. I hope you’ve gotten adept enough to tell I’m totally telling the truth!” Indeed, the soft blue background of his headband was almost impossible to mimic except by actually telling the truth.

“Thanks for the reassurance.” Elton thought he might as well ask his biggest question, directly. “What about transparency? Will the thought-to-light algorithm that you use to turn brain signals into light patterns ever go open source?”

There was only a momentary yellow throb in Jake’s light pattern. “Well, that’s not exactly my department, but I personally think we should release a lot more about how it works. You must know, though, that mimicry is a problem, and we can’t just release it all. People make their own illegal electrode skullcaps that go under the headbands… criminals and con artists could fake truth-telling and trustworthy patterns. We have to change things up from time to time to keep up with all that. We officially don’t even admit that we change things up in the algorithm. I hope my telling you that helps you to trust us!”

“Yes, I do see that point of view.” It was well known that they “changed things up in the algorithm,” so Jake wasn’t giving him anything he didn’t already know. Elton started walking again. Passing a Dali painting (maybe original?), he could see, reflected in its glass, dancing green lights on his head, probably broadcasting his incomplete satisfaction.

Jake’s headband went deep blue and steady. “I do like someone around who challenges me. Do you want the job or not? We already pretty much decided we wanted you, but I wanted to meet you and see you’re not a psycho!” A vigorous red swirl.


Elton was surprised at his relief, and even joy, as he left the building with his new job at Lument. The street commuters were, oddly, much more appealing than before. On his way home, random men and women, total strangers, waved at him, and offered thumbs-ups and even high-fives. They didn’t know he had just gotten a job, but could they read that he was particularly happy just from his headband signals? He had scoffed at this behavior before, seeing other glad-handers, but he felt affection to them, now. He even had trouble disconnecting from the joy in his head, and summoning his usual cynicism. He had to concentrate a bit even to notice that there were some shut-heads making their way along the sides of the crowd, some of them even hooded, heads without light.

On his way out of his building to head to the interview, he had seen a homeless man dealing with an apparently decades-old cash register, the man’s headband displaying tranquil forest-green. As as he walked by this time, the homeless man, still cash-registering, looked up at him. The man’s pattern turned to flashing blood-red, and Elton, repulsed, hurried into his building.


As his first few weeks passed at Lument, Elton slept amazingly every night. The efforts he was being employed for were going wonderfully. It did seem it would be possible to integrate essentially unbreakable, quantum-random encryption into their products. Even more, his bosses were refreshingly hands-off, and seemed to agree with everything he was doing. He was also getting along great with his co-workers, making friends, and there were maybe even a couple of romantic possibilities. He knew better than to pursue those, but still, the flirtation contributed to some remarkably happy weeks.

One day, as he was packing up to go home, he was surprised to find a slip of paper under his keyboard, with writing in his own handwriting, and a little Texas flag. “Remember the Algoro!” it read. He had no particular relation or affinity to Texas or the Alamo, but the joke did help to remind him that he had in fact written this himself. He was reminding himself to check up on his concerns about the algorithm. Overcoming some resistance, he removed his headband. He took a deep breath, which helped assuage the discomfort his head was experiencing from not wearing the headband. He scratched vigorously where the headband had been, displaying for anyone looking an excuse to take it off besides just not wanting it on. He thought he detected the lights in the room around him turning a bit blue, and caught a whiff of lavender.

He poked around on the system to see if he had any access to anything related to the thought-to-light algorithm. He got a sense of déjà vu from the exercise. But he had no access. As a new, maybe not entirely trusted employee, all he had access to was some encryption and security code they had used a couple of years ago to fiddle around with, trying to connect that to a suite of new quantum-random chips that he had worked with before, that they had installed in the data centers. His security department was entirely sealed off from the department that dealt with the algorithm that turned electrode signals into light displays. He put his note back under the keyboard.

As he made his way out, he tried to join the commuting throng on the street as usual, but they weren’t having it; people edged away from him or didn’t seem to see him at all. He wasn’t feeling as great as he had the last few weeks, but still felt good enough that it shouldn’t repel anyone. But then he suddenly felt the nakedness on his head. He quickly got the headband out of his bag, and put it on. Some eyes immediately went to him, and he felt a burst of inclusion.

In the happy commuting throng, he caught a woman’s eye. She smiled, and his mind fluttered with the rush of her stunning pastel green and pink headband light sequence. It was like a Beethoven (of whom he was a big fan) concerto. The interaction was soon over, though. He wondered if the headband pattern he managed to produce was nearly as attractive as hers. He scoffed at a serious thought he had, of practicing headband patterns in front of the mirror. He knew that lots of people did that, and it had always seemed a ridiculous waste of time. But as he cleared his thoughts, he now found himself in front of a mirrored window on the street with a few others, watching his headband light pattern. He shook his head and continued home.


Maybe a week later, after lunch, he found a different slip of paper under his keyboard. Written on it was the name of a directory on their system, and an apparent password. He wasn’t sure if it was his handwriting.

He explored what was there, and was shocked to find what seemed to be the thought-to-light algorithm. His head throbbed. In the screen’s reflection, he thought he could see a discordant brown and green pattern jerking across his forehead.

It was a surprisingly small code. Much of it was impossible for him to parse. One thing he was curious about, based on conspiracy theories that he occasionally found plausible before he convinced himself otherwise, was that the ostensibly totally passive electrodes that read the brain signals were capable of feeding back, influencing people’s brain signals in return. He found some hints of code that might be able to do that, but like objects in eye-corners, once focusing on them, he could find nothing of the sort.

He did find some other odd things: hints that the code could rewrite itself, which had been prohibited by the anti-artificial-intelligence charter. But again, when he looked closely, these hints evaporated. He resolved to look at it further, but instead he felt his eye drawn to a file that included “random-top-secret” in its name. This file was totally legible to him. It contained the random-number generating code. It was a bleeding-edge pseudorandom-number generator, but as far as he could tell, it was still entirely deterministic. In the quantum-random chips he was an expert in, there was a truly indeterministic random-number generator based on the random emission of light from fluorescent molecules in the chip. This meant that, unlike the pseudorandom code, even with access to all the code and specs, it was impossible for anyone or anything (except God? ha) to predict the random number the chip would report.

The existing pseudorandom code was ordinary enough that he couldn’t believe it was actually top-secret. As the holder of a random-number-generating hammer in constant search of nails to apply it to, he had immediately had the thought to replace this pseudorandom code with one incorporating the genuinely random chip. Before he was fully conscious of it, he was already well along in his plans to enact this replacement, with the new code nearly finished to interface with the random chips.

“Nice pattern there, Elton!” he heard a female voice behind him. It was Jenny, a colleague in the cryptography group, with glittery hair, carefully spiked to accentuate her headband. Her voice often oscillated quite a bit in pitch, but he had gotten used to it. The voice was closer now. “Whatcha working on?”

His mind jerked back and forth, at first dead-set against sharing his activities, but he found his mind acquiescing, as he peered at her headband and found it a calming, safe, deep green.

He started to speak, but had to clear his throat. He was hungry. How many hours had it been? “Oh, I found this…” he said.

“Oh, thought-to-light code,” she said. Her voice was more monotone now. Then suddenly high-pitch: “Cool!” with an orange headband-swirl, then back to the original pitch. “I’ve looked around in there. Management might actually appreciate some code-tweaking there.” She walked away abruptly.

This was against anything management had said; they were highly secretive of this code. Although her hair would have been considered super-wild several years ago, before Lument headbands, that hairstyle was pretty common now. He never got the sense that Jenny was at all rebellious; no reason to doubt her encouragement was truthful.

Before he knew it, he had finished the code to integrate his chips, and had pushed the changes. It all felt inevitable.

Jake came by; today’s polo shirt color was green. “Nice job on the cryptography integration! We thought it might take a year, but it just took a month! But don’t worry, there’s still a lot we need you to do around here; you basically have a permanent job here. But I’m gonna take the last few hours of the day off, and we should celebrate tonight. Still figuring that out; I’ll text you. See ya there!”

Jenny passed by just then, too, giving a thumbs up to the celebration idea. “Woo! Go Elton!”

What? He was working on that, but he himself thought there could be months left on the cryptography project, with all the tests that remained to do. He tried to call up the code that he was working on, but his password wouldn’t work. This was of course quite alarming, and he had an urge to call someone about it. But as he found himself mesmerized by his screen’s reflection of a forest-green light-waver that was happening on his forehead, he calmed down. Instead, he made a call to install more quantum-random chips, since the load on them was probably already too high. All this was more than a day’s work, and he got up to go. The walls throbbed tranquil blue and green.

Again, he was excited to join the commuters on the street, and head home to prepare for the celebration tonight. There were fewer than before, but today he saw absolutely no one without a headband. Now, instead of a cacophony of erratic light-patterns on each head, their light-patterns all streamed together, a glorious flow-symphony of blue, salmon, and outbursts of glitter-green. He set off a happy orange throb on his own head. People were arm-in-arm, and some of them kissing. It was like a war had just been won. He probably kissed a few himself on his way home. As he arrived at his building, he did see an antique cash register out of the corner of his eye, but failed to remember the homeless man that he had seen fussing with it.


Mark Neyrinck does some research, art, and writing related to science!  Email: mark.neyrinck[at]

The Cloudrider

Savage Science Fiction / Fantasy Contest ~ Second Place
Robert Hanover

A black-and-white landscape. The sky, with scattered clouds that get denser near the horizon, fills most of the image. Mist obscures the foreground on the right hand side and envelopes the promontories on the left. The promontory in the bottom left corner is overbuilt with a large, irregularly-shaped stone structure with many small windows that steps up the cliff. A tower extends from the top.

Photo Credit: Artetetra/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Oren’s steed galloped over the river shallows, racing the sunrise. Clouds coated the night sky. In this, the early stage of his journey, he knew to follow the river. With luck and the wind at his back, he would reach Altilia in time.

Just one hour earlier, Oren stood in the great hall of his family’s manor, roused from a warm bed long after nightfall, listening to Commander Rykan of the palace guard reveal to Oren’s father a horrible truth. The king was dead. Killed in his chambers. Stabbed in the chest while his guards lay slain in the hall, their blood licking the stone walkway as the king’s blood seeped into his bedclothes. The perpetrators escaped, but Commander Rykan knew who did it. The king’s brother, Pyran, next in line for the throne after the untimely death of the prince the previous winter. All over a squabble with a neighboring king.

Oren’s home, the kingdom of Gildamar, bordered the land called Altilia to the east. Upon visiting Gildamar one summer, the Altilian king, a man named Minar, fell in love with a noblewoman named Reen, and she with him. The Gildamarian king’s brother, Pyran, had his own sights set on marrying Reen, but she left Gildamar with Minar when he departed. Upon their return to Altilia, Reen married Minar. She became the queen consort. Her firstborn child would one day be the ruler of Altilia. None of this sat well with Pyran, and he begged his brother, the Gildamarian king Benquo, to attack their neighbor and bring Reen home. Benquo’s refusal became his death warrant. In the haze of his lust for Reen, Pyran would not be stopped.

“He’s ordered the army of Gildamar be assembled,” Rykan said to those standing in the great hall. “He plans to launch an offensive in the coming hours. Perhaps sooner. He’s ordered the palace guard on full alert. He intends for us to accompany him to Altilia and fight alongside him as he wins back Lady Reen.”

Oren’s father, Hydrel, listened but did not speak. As Rykan spoke, Hydrel stroked the long gray beard that hung from his chin and ended in a thick braid. Oren watched to see how his father would react. He would have his own beard one day, when he grew older, and he wondered if his own fingers would find it in moments of great distress. He imagined they would.

Rykan continued. “The moment Pyran summoned me from my chambers and told me of his plans, I knew I could not follow him. I knew our already uneasy alliance with Altilia must face no strain. We cannot allow an unprovoked surprise attack on our neighbor. I had to disobey Pyran. I had to tell someone of his plan. He left me no choice.”

“And what, pray tell, do you suggest we do, Lord Commander? If, as you say, Pyran has control of the army, then stopping him would be impossible. What he has set in motion will not be easily halted or even delayed. If he means to win back Lady Reen by starting a war, who am I, but an old man in the twilight of my life, to try to stop him? You need soldiers, Lord Commander, not ancient wizards.”

Oren winced at his father’s response, for he knew the true reason Rykan sought help from their family. Hydrel knew it too, but Oren understood why his father might play dumb in an attempt to ward off the coming request.

“You are correct, Lord Hydrel. We cannot stop the plan Pyran has started, but we can warn the Altilians of what’s coming. We must. Someone among us must ride to Altilia. If Gildamar launches an unprovoked attack and catches the Altilians by surprise, King Minar will send out their dragons, and every man, woman, and child in Gildamar will be burned to ash. You must help us, Lord Hydrel. You’re the only one who can.”

At this, Hydrel scoffed, turning his head away from Rykan but never letting go of his beard.

“In another age, perhaps you would be right, Lord Commander. Perhaps I would be the most sensible choice to put an end to this senseless violence before it gets started. But, as surely a man of your experience can see, I am not the man I once was. I possess none of the thirst for heroics anymore. That thirst was quenched long ago. It saddens me to say it, but I can no longer ride the clouds.”

“Your service to the kingdom will remain in the annals of our history for as long as the kingdom stands, Lord Hydrel. But the time to rise is now. Your son, Oren, can ride the clouds. I’ve seen him do it. Oren can warn the Altilians and save us from certain destruction.”

Oren watched in horror as every eye in the room focused on him. Sure, he’d ridden the clouds before, but only in his training. Never when he had to. Never with his life on the line. Or the lives of others. It made sense Rykan would want a cloudrider to make the trek to Altilia. With the goblinlands between the two kingdoms, no one else could complete the quest alone. But…

“…I’m not ready,” Oren said. “I can’t go.”

Oren studied his father, waiting for some reaction to Rykan’s suggestion, unsure what his father would say. Hydrel stood beside a burning lantern. The flickering light cast shadows dancing across the wrinkles on his face. When he spoke, his voice sounded gentle but firm. Like always, everyone in the room gave him their full attention.

“Sometimes, actions that must be taken do not take account of a person’s readiness. They announce themselves and demand to be heard. You can do it, Oren. The question is not in your skill or ability but in your willingness and confidence in yourself. Are you willing to take this challenge on?” He paused. When Oren didn’t respond, Hydrel continued, “You’ll have to pass over the goblinlands. No other route will allow you to reach Altilia in time. You’ll have a head start on the army, and a single rider of your skill will outrun the sun. You can be there before morning if you leave immediately. You can ride my steed.”

Oren nodded, hoping his nervousness would not be evident to those nearby. Before he could raise any further objection, Rykan hustled him from the room and to the stable where his father’s faithful steed awaited a rider.

“I wish to ride my own steed,” Oren said. “Over there. Windracer.”

Rykan glanced from steed to steed and then to Oren. It was clear he trusted Oren’s father and his judgment. He wouldn’t have sought Hydrel out for this most important task otherwise. He was also a man who followed orders. Oren feared his request might be denied. Instead, Rykan led Oren to the steed he preferred, his own steed, Windracer.

“Tell the Altilians all you’ve heard tonight. Hold nothing back. Tell them I sent you. And tell them to brace for attack but respond in kind. I am hopeful a proper warning and time to establish a defense will preclude the use of their dragons. I pray to the gods of war that I’m right.”

Oren saddled Windracer and climbed on. Rykan slapped the steed’s hindquarters, and together rider and steed took flight into the darkened countryside with nothing but the land and their wits guiding their path.

Before reaching the goblinlands, Oren eyed the clouds overhead. With so much of the sky covered, he had plenty of targets. Wishing to test his magic before he needed it to survive, he lowered his head, closed his eyes, and recited the incantation. One hand held Windracer’s reins. The other gently stroked the steed’s mane. Oren waited to feel the lightness. When it didn’t come, he opened one eye and felt dismayed to see his steed still on the ground. It would be a short journey once they reached the goblinlands if they couldn’t ride the clouds. A short trek with a grisly end. Oren rode on, more unsure of himself than ever before.

The goblinlands that lay between Gildamar and Altilia owed no allegiance to either side. Centuries earlier, the goblinlands stretched from sea to sea, encompassing the land now called Gildamar and the land now called Altilia. Over time, the Gildamarians claimed more and more land to the south while the Altilians claimed more and more land to the north, squeezing the goblins into the land in between. For many generations, the goblins survived on their own, living off their remaining land and the occasional highjacking of wandering travelers. What happened to those travelers often served as a warning to others not to pass through the goblinlands on your own. Dismembered bodies were sent back to their kingdom of origin, their hideous remains a sign of what could happen to the next wayward traveler.

The first goblins Oren saw came from a cave near the roadside. Where there was one, there would be many. Swarms would descend on Oren if he couldn’t escape to the clouds. For the second time that night, he closed his eyes and whispered the words his father had taught him, the words uttered by generations of cloudriders before him. His idle hand reached out and caressed his steed’s neck. He felt himself growing lighter. Wind whipped through his cloak. Afraid to break the spell, Oren kept his eyes closed. But he was doing it. He was riding the clouds.

He didn’t get very high on this, his first cloudride outside the training grounds behind his family’s manor, but he reached far enough into the sky to escape detection by the goblins. For the first time that night, he felt like he might actually be able to complete his quest. He might actually be able to save Gildamar and Altilia from all-out war. He continued to feel that way, right up until the moment he reached the top of Mount Fidal and the final pass of the journey to the valley that held the mighty kingdom of Altilia.

Standing atop Mount Fidal, Oren looked down on Altilia. What he saw shocked him. The city was burning. There were fires everywhere. Huge black plumes of smoke reached up to the clouds. Oren didn’t know what to do. With what had happened in his own kingdom of Gildamar earlier that night and now this, it was clear something more was happening. Something terrible. He had made it this far. He kicked Windracer’s hindquarters, and he and the steed descended the mountain.

Inside the city, Oren realized the situation was far more dire than he saw from the top of Mount Fidal. Entire city blocks were burned to ash. Buildings large and small lay in ruin. The smell of burning wood filled his nose. He found no survivors.

As he wove through city streets strewn with the wreckage of whatever awful thing had happened here, he had one goal on his mind. He had to get to the castle and—if she was still alive—he had to save Lady Reen.

As he rode, he scanned every house and shop for any sign of life. As the minutes passed, the horrible truth that their entire world was under some sort of attack became apparent. But from what force? And why? He got his answer when he spotted between two clouds a dragon diving toward the city with flames bursting from its mouth.

Oren kicked Windracer into a higher gear. If Lady Reen had not been killed already, Oren knew only he could save her. He’d never ridden the clouds while carrying another before, but he knew it could be done. His father had done it once. To save a younger Oren when a cave troll attacked their caravan. Of course, the clouds may not be the safest place with a dragon flying amongst them. Even if he had to go the whole way back on foot, carrying Lady Reen on his back, he would do it. He would not leave a fellow Gildamarian behind.

At King Minar’s castle, Oren found the front gate toppled. He raced into the courtyard, where he found many from Minar’s palace guard burned and dead. They would’ve stood no chance against a dragon, but they died defending their king and their home. Who would do this? And why didn’t the Altilians unleash their own dragons in defense? Perhaps, Oren thought, the attack caught them by surprise the same way his father and Rykan feared an attack by Gildamar would. But this was more than an attack. This was destruction.

Inside the castle, Oren found the first door in Altilia still standing. The door to the castle’s keep. Oren dismounted his steed and pounded his fists against the door. If anyone survived the attack, they would be behind that door. From his own time spent in castles during his training, Oren knew the keep as the last refuge during a siege. He had to get inside, where he prayed he would find Lady Reen.

“My name is Oren, son of Hydrel of Gildamar. I come in peace. I mean no harm.”

He heard movement behind the door. As it swung open, Oren braced himself for attack. Despite his reasons for being there, Gildamar and Altilia still had a complicated history, and the response to a Gildmarian trying to access the keep of the Altilian king would almost certainly be met with bloodshed, even in a time of so much bloodshed.

When the door finally opened, Oren stood face to face not with surviving members of the palace guard or even with Lady Reen. Instead, he stood face to face with the king himself, King Minar, whom he recognized only from memory of having seen him once long ago during his visit to Gildamar that set many of the night’s events in motion.

“Your majesty, you’re alive?” The words blurted out before Oren could think to bow. The king didn’t seem fazed by this. He held a short blade, which he extended immediately toward Oren’s throat, nearly piecing his skin.

“What in the name of Atil are you doing here, Gildamarian?”

Oren realized in sudden horror that the king may think this the very attack Oren had ridden to warn him about.

“Your majesty, I assure you Gildamar is not responsible for what happened here tonight. For what’s happening. We have no dragons in Gildamar. You know this. I don’t know who is responsible, but it isn’t my people.”

Minar watched Oren carefully, finally lowering his sword and stepping back into the keep. Over his shoulder, he said, “But it is your people, Oren, son of Hydrel. The one riding the dragon over our heads, the one destroying the great kingdom of Altilia, is originally from Gildamar. She’s also the queen consort of Altilia. You likely know her as Lady Reen.”

Oren and King Minar talked for several more minutes, each learning more of what the other knew before coming to the same awful conclusion. This was a coordinated attack, years in the making, between the new king of Gildamar, Pyran, and the woman he loved, Reen, to destroy Altilia forever.

“What about Altilia’s other dragons?” Oren asked. “You can ride one. You can stop her.”

“The others are dead. She made sure of that before she started her assault. There’s no one left to defend Altilia. No one can take down a dragon from the air. How would you even get up there?” Oren looked at the king, who didn’t seem to remember Oren’s lineage.

“Your majesty, I might be able to help.”

Together, they laid out a plan. Minar even offered Oren his family sword, but Oren refused. He had his own blade, while not as sharp or well made as Minar’s, it would get the job done if he could get close enough.

He rode out. Back in the courtyard, he heard the dragon before he could spot it. And, for the first time, he spotted Lady Reen riding atop it. The dragon dove at the castle, flames hotter than anything ripping through stone. Oren closed his eyes and recited the words he knew now he’d always feared growing up. For whenever he spoke them, it meant his life was in danger, that he needed to act to save himself and others. But it was his calling. He was a cloudrider. One of many in a line as long as time. He could do this. He was ready.

The dragon rose back up to the sky. Oren followed. Windracer danced over the clouds.

Oren thought they might get behind the dragon, attack before Reen saw them coming. He twisted the reins and maneuvered them to make an attack. At the last moment, Reen looked over her shoulder and spotted them coming. The dragon dove, turned, and came back up facing them. Oren braced himself for the flames. He hugged Windracer’s neck and told her he was sorry for bringing her here, for what was about to happen.

The dragon opened its mouth. Oren felt the heat of the flames. Windracer rose higher. The fire shot out but below them. Windracer whinnied. They were safe.

With newfound courage, Oren gripped the reins tighter and urged Windracer even higher into the clouds. They rose and rose until the dragon appeared beneath them.

“Trust me, old friend. I know what I’m doing.”

Oren leapt off Windracer’s back and plummeted toward the dragon. As he fell, he drew his sword. Lady Reen grew larger in his sights. He was close.

He landed on the dragon. The impact knocked the air from his lungs. He nearly dropped his sword. Reen turned to face him. She looked shocked to see anyone alive. That shock was the last thing she felt. Oren buried his sword deep in her gut.

“For Altilia,” he said, and he meant it. No longer would their two peoples, whoever was still alive, allow petty squabbles to separate them. They would be one. And when the history books told of this day, they would tell about the one who saved it.

The cloudrider.


Robert Hanover writes horror and fantasy fiction. He lives in Pennsylvania, where he works by day and writes under the darkness of night. Email: rhanover158[at]

In for a Penny

Savage Science Fiction / Fantasy Contest ~ First Place
Susan Smith

Corner view of a room with high ceilings. On the left side is a tall multi-paned window with inside shutters and window seat over a radiator. A book is open on the window seat. The walls have wide crown molding and wainscotting. On the right side, maroon draperies cover the wall from below the molding to the floor. Part of a chandelier is visible in the top right corner. A pale blue upholstered armchair is in front of the draperies. Behind it is a rocking horse tricycle. An upholstered ottoman with a blue blanket and pampas grass tossed on it is in front of the chair. The chair and ottoman are on an area rug with a pattern that looks like tile. The floor is unfinished wood.

Photo Credit: Sweef/Flickr (CC-by)

“Hey, hotshot,” Mike was already there when I arrived, several drinks lined up on the table. He handed me a glass as I sat down. The bar was busy that night, electro-pop thumping through the speakers, neon strip lighting oscillating between red and blue.

“So?” he asked. “How is working for the Magic Bureau? Did you have to wipe any warlock arses yet?” He gave me a dig in the ribs, causing me to spill half my drink.

“Ew. No, I told you, I’m just in the records department. No meeting of the actual powerful and mighty.” Something I was grateful for. The thought of coming face to face with one of them filled me with more than a little dread.

“Still, you’re rubbing shoulders with the elite now.” He threw a shot back and slid one across the table to me.

“I haven’t finished this drink yet,” I protested, waving the now slightly-emptier glass at him.

“Well, speed up!” He threw a second shot back.

I drained my first drink and he gave me a joking thumbs up.

“Go on then—any gossip?” he slid his chair conspiratorially closer to mine. “Did you hear any rumours about what any of them are up to?”

“I can’t tell you that!” I picked up my first shot, swirling the lurid green liquid around the glass.

“Come on, I can see it in your face. You found out something pure gold, right?”

I struggled to hide a grin. In truth, reading through some of the personal files had been more than an eye-opener. “Okay, okay,” I lowered my voice. “This is just between you and me though, right?”


“I’m deadly serious.”

“Scout’s honour.” He smiled.


The following morning my head thumped in rhythm with the buzzing of my alarm clock. I slapped at buttons until it fell silent. Midweek drinking was never a good idea. I groaned and, knowing that calling in sick on my second day of work was not an option, dragged myself out of bed.

Forty-five minutes later, my shoes squeaked across the polish-scented floor. The sight of the atrium was never going to get old. Sunlight streaming in through the thirty-foot-high windows, spiralling colonnades stretching up to the ceiling.

I made my way towards the elevators, pinching myself that I was actually working there. It had taken four years of evening classes to get the relevant qualifications and then another two before I was successful at an interview.

As the elevator door slid open, I was met with the impassive stare of a tight-jawed security guard.

“Good morning,” I offered, stepping to one side to let him out.

He didn’t move, but instead reached forward and took a tight grip behind my right elbow, leading me inside.

“We ask that you don’t make a scene.” He kept his voice low and calm, but he had an air about him that suggested non-compliance was not an option.

I watched as he hit the button for the top floor—the executive suite.

“Is—er—everything okay?” I ventured, my stomach flipping from more than just the speed of the elevator.

The look he gave me suggested it wasn’t.

The bell pinged as we reached our floor, and as the doors glided open, I found myself frog-marched down the thick pile carpeted hallway.

“We’ll take it from here.” The company CEO in her several-thousand-dollar power suit and shoes ushered me into her office, where two other executives were already sitting behind the long dark oak desk I’d been interviewed at only three weeks before.

“Sit.” She pointed to a chair in the centre of the room.

I sat. Somehow I got the impression they weren’t about to offer me a promotion.

“Trust,” she began, seating herself directly opposite me. “Trust and discretion is at the forefront of this company. And you,” her hands clenched into fists, “have betrayed us in one single goddamned day.” She spun her laptop round, showing an array of headlines plastered across the internet.

Ancient Warlock Family Legacy Lie

The Great Galdini’s Half Human Heritage Revealed

Fraud—Purebred Propaganda

“Posted anonymously late last night, picked up by the media first thing this morning.” The CEO slammed her laptop closed, a murderous look in her eyes. “As you are the only person to have accessed his file in the last six months, do you care to explain?”

I felt sick. I knew exactly what had happened. How could Mike have done this to me? “I didn’t…” My voice faltered. Whether by my hand or not, it was my fault. “Are you going to call the Police?” I asked meekly instead.

“And ruin our reputation by revealing where the leak came from? No. This has been dealt with internally.”

“Has been dealt with?”

“Mr Galdini asked who was responsible, and we told him.”

“You—you told him it was me?” A literal boulder lodged in my throat.

“I would suggest you relocate.” She gave a justified smile. “Though I’m not sure even the moon would be far enough.”

After that I was escorted off the premises, my whole body numb and heavy. I had to get out of the city. My mind flitted between fear of what would happen if the warlock found me and anger that Mike had leaked what I’d told him. He’d deny it, of course, but come on. I tell one person outside the company and suddenly it’s headline news? There’s no way that was a coincidence. I cursed him out loud. When I got somewhere safe, we’d have more than words.

I could feel myself beginning to panic. I had nowhere to go. Maybe my cousin’s house in the north? But then would that be putting them in danger? I leant against the wall of the Bureau for a moment, the cool of the bricks sending a shiver through my body. My future was screwed, that was a certainty. The job I’d worked so hard to get was gone. Calm down, think. I took two deep breaths. Then two more. First step, I’d need supplies.

Thirty minutes later and laden with a large bag of food, I shouldered open my apartment door. Fifteen minutes to pack essentials, then I’d be on the road. I kicked the door shut behind me, wondering how many changes of clothes I should take.

“Good morning.”

I froze in horror as the warlock melted into view in front of me.

In desperation, I threw the bag of groceries straight at him, then turned and grabbed for the front door handle. As my fingers took grip, the metal of the handle began to liquefy, dripping between my fingers and seeping through the gaps in the floorboards.

I fought the urge to vomit as I turned back to face him.

He pointed me towards the armchair. “If you’d be so kind as to take a seat?”

I obliged, picking my way between the scattered food and supplies now littering the floor. As I sat, it occurred to me how much I’d never liked the chair, with its faded blue and white pattern, threadbare armrests. But I’d had little money when I’d moved in and the people across the street had been throwing it out. And now, it was the chair I was about to die in.

Mr. Galdini stood and regarded me for a good minute, his eyes burning into me. “Have I wronged you in some way?” He said at length. “Caused you to hate me? To seek revenge?”

“No,” I mumbled, not daring to meet his gaze.

“Then why?” he snapped, the room seeming to reverberate with his voice.

“I’m sorry,” I gabbled. “This was all a big mistake. If I can just explain, you see, it wasn’t—”

He held up a hand for silence. “My reputation is ruined. Not only am I the laughingstock of the whole world, I am now deemed a half-breed. Do you understand what that means?”

I nodded. It meant ostracization from both sides. I glanced towards the window and the fire escape beyond it. Could I make it if I ran? Could I get the window open in time?

“You won’t make it.” He seemed to read my mind and a moment later, invisible cords started winding around my chest, binding me to the chair. I struggled against them, but with no avail. It was one thing to accept that you couldn’t untie knots, it was another thing entirely to not even be able to touch them.

“Any other secrets of mine you’re planning on exposing? Any further humiliations?”

“No, I swear.”

“What else did you learn about me?”

“Nothing.” The cords were making it hard to take more than shallow breaths.

He considered for a moment. “I can’t take that risk.”

“You’re going to kill me?” The words came out barely above a whisper.

“That would be far too merciful.” He knelt down in front of me.

I wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or more scared. “Then what?”

“I’m going to wipe your memory. Stop you from doing any more damage.”

“My memory? Of working at the Bureau?” Losing only a couple of days wouldn’t be so bad.

“I’m going to wipe the lot.” He reached forward and clamped his fingers painfully tight on my temples.

“What? Please, no. Please.” The thought of knowing nothing, of losing everything I’d ever been terrified me.

“Be quiet, I’m concentrating.” He began murmuring a spell under his breath and black tendrils of fine smoke began to encircle me.

“Please don’t,” I begged. The room began to grow darker as the cloud of magic grew thicker. My thoughts scrabbled for a way out of this. Losing my memories was as good as dying. There has to be something. And at that moment, one treacherous idea came to mind. A bargaining chip. “Wait! Stop!”

“I can do this with you unconscious,” he growled.

I spoke quickly. “You know Magda the Invulnerable? You have a feud with her, don’t you?”

“I do. She is someone I hate more than you.”

“Well, it—erm—turns out she’s not, you know, invulnerable.”

He gave a half-smile and the black mist began to fade as he let go of the spell. “I’m listening.”

Two hours later and a hundred miles down the road, I heard the news break on the radio, the excited chatter of yet another exposé. I switched stations, flicking through until I found one that still had music playing. I cranked the volume up and sang along as the endless green blur of the rolling hills streamed by.

Integrity, I decided, was overrated.


Susan Smith is a graduate in Creative Writing from the UK, with a passion for both reading and writing science-fiction and fantasy.


CL Bledsoe

Close-up of a dog lying down. The shot frames its head on a diagonal with the nose at bottom left. The dog has a black nose, golden brown eyes, and variegated thick fur in brown and black with a streak of white between the eyes. The dog's eyes are turned toward the photographer.

Photo Credit: Oscar Gende Villar/Flickr (CC-by)

Big Daddy and Momma June had been locked in their room for three days, watching the same two damn VHS copies of movies they’d dubbed from TV—watching one while the other rewound in the tape rewinder they’d bought when the movie rental place went out of business—when Tawny decided she’d had enough. She’d run through all the food in the house, including the slightly rusted can of tuna, even though it was in oil, and the only thing she hated worse than the fishy tuna taste was the consistency of the oil. She’d finished off the saltines with that yesterday. This morning, she’d eaten only a can of cranberry sauce—opened it and spooned the red gloop directly into her mouth. It had taken her till today—till the hunger and boredom overwhelmed her fear of Big Daddy’s sudden, inexplicable rages at being disturbed—but she’d been in to bang on their door more times than she could count since the cranberry sauce with no response, other than a grunt the first time. It was damned infuriating.

She tried one more time—banged on the door and was met with not even a grunt. She returned to the kitchen, tried all the cabinets and opened the fridge again to reveal spindly, bare shelves. There was a pot of honey on the scarred table and nothing else in the room. Then she went to her room and got her Bible from beside the bed, opened it to Leviticus where the twenty dollars Grandmother had given her was nestled, and dropped the book on her bed without another thought. Grubby light filtered in through the window above her headboard; she could get the screen off in no time and fit it back in from outside, but she thought, screw it, and went out the front door, letting it slam behind her. She stood under the sagging eave, listening, but no angry bear charged out to yank her back in, so she set off.

The driveway was a dirt track that crossed a ditch on two two-by-fours. She walked across one of them and emerged on the ugly asphalt of the highway. There were no cars. The sun was hot and rising toward the center of the sky.

She’d been walking for maybe a half-hour when she heard the three-wheeler approach. She’d been hearing the thing all day, going back and forth, and it wasn’t like three- and four-wheelers were particularly rare in those parts. She glanced back when it was still pretty far away, saw it coming down the highway, and stepped off onto the grass but kept walking. The thing thundered up behind her and seemed to hesitate to pass—she refused to look. After a moment in her blind spot, it pulled up into her peripheral vision and quieted some, rolling beside her as she trudged through the grass. Whoever was riding it wasn’t saying a word. She wouldn’t look, but she was working so hard not to that she didn’t look down, either, and stumbled over a clump of grass.

“Why don’t you just go on by so I can get out of this grass?” she said.

“Ain’t nobody stopping you from walking on the road.” The voice sounded slick as oil, low but not scary low. Confident with a hint of annoyance.

“I don’t wanna get hit.”

The three-wheeler shuddered to death and was silent. She stopped walking, and before she could catch herself, turned to look at him. He was skinny, dark-eyed with a thin mustache that managed to make his upper lip look dirty. His skin was the creamy yellow of not enough sun, which was strange, seeing as how he was out riding that thing around without a shirt on.

“You ain’t even s’posed to have that on the road,” she added.

“You gonna arrest me?” There was no hint of a smile, just innocent eyes. She shook her head, and there came the smile, spreading his lips to show his teeth. “I was just kidding. Where you going, girl?”

“Get me something to eat.” She looked down and focused on a clump, pretending it was the one that’d tripped her earlier, and kicked at it.

He looked down the road. “Five miles to Forrest City.” He turned back to search her face, like he thought she might not know this.

“Yep.” She sighed and started walking again.

“How ‘bout I give you a ride, Goldilocks? Unless you’re scared of this big, bad wolf?”

She laughed. “You ain’t that big.”

“But I’m bad.”

The laugh was real, this time. “How old are you?”

“How old are you?”

His eyes were playful and her feet were already bothering her.

“I ain’t got no money for gas,” she added.

“Me neither.” He kicked the three-wheeler back to life, and she came over and climbed up behind, wrapping her arms around him. His smell crept into her nose, a little bit sunshine and grass, a little bit musty dog. It was comforting, like an old dirty shirt she wanted to sleep in.

The roar of the thing made it hard to talk, so she kept her face down so no bugs hit her anywhere important and eyed the scenery as well as she could. The scrub on the side of the road gave way to pines that didn’t look to be much older than her. Trash caught her eye more than anything, and she resolved to bring a bag to pick up cans next time. She could sell them to the recycling center, which they happened to be passing right then. It was such a good idea, she cursed herself for not thinking of it before, and almost asked him to take her back.

After Mr. Bershrom’s trailer, where everybody took their recycling, there was another stand of trees and then the gas station that marked the real beginning of town. The boy pulled up to the parking lot and cranked the thing off.

She climbed off.

“There you go,” he said. “Name’s Wolf by the way.” He offered a hand.


He nodded and grinned, hand still out.

She took it. “I’m—“ she started to say, but he cut her off.

“I know you. You’re Goldilocks.” He pointed at her hair.

“Tawny,” she said. She started off, away from him, toward the gas station, not hesitating until she heard the crunch of his feet on gravel jogging after her. She picked up her pace as he settled in beside her. She didn’t look at him; she imagined him straining to come up with something to say, his mouth opening and closing, which explained the quiet throat-clearings and grunts, exhales and subtle lip smackings. It was exquisite. She savored his awkwardness until she got to the door and realized he wasn’t following anymore. Then, surprise got the better of her, and she turned to see him grinning.

“Reckon I’ll hang out till you’re done.”

She shrugged and went inside. The bell dinged, and the air was a different kind of dusty in there. She found a barely-functioning red basket near the door and went down the aisles, filling it with cans of Vienna sausages and a sun-faded box of saltines. There was a crash from somewhere in the back, and she glanced up long enough to see Ms. Watkins, the heavyset woman behind the counter, head into the back to investigate. There was a rack by the register with marked-down and damaged items, and she found a dented can of potted meat and one of black-eyed peas that she added to her basket. There were some homemade baked goods on the counter. She selected a large chocolate chip cookie, moved it to the center of the counter, and stacked the rest of her purchases neatly beside it. Several minutes passed. She glanced toward the back room, and then again, and then called out, “Ms. Watkins?” There was no answer, so she looked around the empty store and moved toward the door to the backroom until the front door dinged open, and she turned and saw Wolf, grinning. He sidled up to her without missing a beat.

“I like your basket,” he said.

His words were rushed like he was out of breath. Maybe just nervous, Tawny thought.

“I’m waiting on Ms. Watkins. She went in the back.” She pointed.

“Why don’t we just go?” Wolf licked the side of his mouth like he was trying to dislodge something stuck there.

“She knows me.”

“Did she see you come in?”

Tawny searched her memory. She hadn’t spoken to the woman, had just come in and started shopping. “I don’t think so.”

Wolf shrugged. “So let’s go.”

Tawny looked toward the back and then to Wolf. He was already turning, heading toward the door. She watched him until he put his hand on the handle, and when she heard the bell ding, she turned back to the counter. “Wait,” she said, but he was through the door. She slid her selections to the side and launched herself over the counter until she could reach a plastic bag, grabbed it, and threw her things into it. She hesitated for a moment and grabbed a second cookie and ran for the door.

Outside, Wolf was astride the three-wheeler and stomping on the starter. She ran across the gravel, forgetting decorum, and hopped on behind him as he got the thing started. He spun a wide, sliding wheelie in the gravel and headed back out of town.

After about a mile back up the highway, he took an abrupt left into the desiccated scrubland.

“Where are you going?” She screamed into his ear, but he didn’t respond. She repeated it, and when he again ignored her, she stuck her finger into his ear. He slapped it away but didn’t slow or answer her. She glanced to the ground, which was passing quickly. They were on a gravel road, which looked too potentially painful to dive off into. Also, she wasn’t sure she could clear the three-wheeler well enough. So she settled in, and when they took another sudden turn onto a dirt track, she reconsidered diving off. But now, the gravel was replaced with trees and the occasional log. She didn’t want to get stabbed.

Finally, they left the pines and crossed a clearing. At the far end, was a blackened fire pit which seemed to be their destination. They pulled up to it and slid to a stop in the grass and dirt. Tawny climbed off and backed away as Wolf hopped up onto the three-wheeler and twirled around to smile at her.

“My lady,” he said, offering her a hand.

“What?” Tawny said, not approaching.

Wolf jumped, pulling his legs close to his chest, and cleared several feet to the side of the vehicle. “Thought we’d have a picnic.” He stared into her eyes, intense in a way that made the hairs on the back of her neck prickle, and then spun around and moved to the fire pit.

Or rather, the blackened, bare area where fires were mostly relegated. A thick log, thicker than any standing tree in the area, lay on one side. On the other, nearer side, a stump from a different tree served as a less-comfortable-looking seat. Wolf headed right for the log.

“Too hot for a fire,” he said as he sat down.

Tawny didn’t know this place, but she knew they weren’t far from home. And then she had a thought: she didn’t actually give two shits about going home, back to where her dad and his girlfriend were doing whatever they were doing. She approached, and as she got almost to Wolf, she saw, past him on the edge of the tree line, an old, moldy mattress, sheltered somewhat by the trees. She paused, but didn’t let it stop her, came and sat beside him.

“What’ve you got?”

She dug out some Vienna sausages and offered them to him, but he wrinkled his nose and shook his head. She shrugged, opened the saltines and pulled out a sleeve, and arranged these things on her lap.

“Want a cookie?” She offered him one.

He hesitated, his fingers curling and uncurling until he reached and gingerly took it from her proffered fingers.

“Oh,” he said. “Is that chocolate chip?” He shook his head. “I’m allergic.”

She dug out the other—a peanut butter one—and offered it.

He carefully unwrapped it, taking time to find the edges of the shrink-wrap plastic and separate them. She found it mesmerizing, but she was also starving, so she pulled the tab on her can of Vienna sausages and drained the liquid out, tore the plastic of the saltines open and laid the sleeve on her leg. When she was munching her first Vienna on cracker, she noticed Wolf was still unwrapping his cookie.

“You need help?”

Wolf shook his head, distracted, and finally got the plastic off. He then shoved the entire cookie in his mouth with ravenous noises that dropped Tawny’s jaw. He chewed with his mouth open, bits of cookie falling out, and the thing was gone in a moment. Tawny swallowed and turned back to her own food as Wolf smacked his lips.

“That smells like shit.” He tossed the empty plastic into the fire pit.

“So don’t smell it.”

“Too strong. I can’t avoid it.”

“Well, go sit somewhere else.”

“It stinks so bad, I’d have to drive about a mile away to not have to smell it.” He looked at her with a scolding face.

She dug another pale, pink Vienna out with her fingers, set it on a cracker, and bit it in half.

He sneered.

She chewed demurely and swallowed, and he seemed to remember his manners, because he looked down.

“Why do you eat that stuff, anyway?”

“Hungry,” she said. “No food in the house.”

“Why not eat something better?”

“Can’t afford nothing better.”

He pondered this as she finished the last of the meat products. “But you didn’t actually pay for it. You could’ve gotten anything you wanted.”

“I didn’t notice the already-cooked steak and potato, did you?”

Wolf chuckled. “I mean, you could’ve gotten more cookies or some chips or something.”

“I need protein.” She stuffed another cracker in her mouth and coughed a little, wishing she’d gotten something to drink. “And I did get that second cookie.” She produced it, and he watched with hungry eyes as she ate it. Finally, after a couple bites, he turned to stare at the woods and the sky and anything else.

His hair was a rich brown that spilled down over the back of his neck to his shoulders, parted at the bottom in a thick ducktail. It was a pretty shade that reminded her of a dog her cousin had, named Gunner. Her folks wouldn’t pay to feed a dog, or a cat, or anything else, hardly even her, so she’d had no pets. She’d always loved that dog, and used to make any excuse she could to go to her cousin’s and see it. It didn’t hurt that her cousin’s family was so much better off, lived in an actual house instead of the trailer Tawny’s family rented, and always had food in the house. Her cousin had a three-wheeler, too, come to think of it. When they became illegal and everybody else was upgrading to a four-wheeler, they’d picked it up cheap from some boys near Marion. She’d even ridden it a few times, though never driven it, since they were so difficult to steer. She glanced at the three-wheeler.

“Where you live?” she asked.

“Around,” Wolf said carefully.

“I ain’t seen you before.”

“You with the census?” he asked.

She laughed. “What’s that?”

“It’s…” he waved his arm. “I don’t know. It’s something my dad says.”

“I’ve heard it before,” she said. Had it been from her cousin’s dad? She carefully finished her cookie. “He nice, your dad?”

Wolf shook his head. “Always yelling. Made me sleep outside.” He glanced at her, shyly. “You’re nice, though.”

“Thanks,” she said because she didn’t know what else to say. And then, “I’m all right.”

He shook his head, looking at her seriously. “No, you’re nice. Always have been. Not like that Darla. Her heart waxes and wanes like the moon.”

Tawny rose to her feet, the sleeve of crackers spilling into the dirt.

“How do you know Darla?” she asked.

“Same as I know you. From around.”

She shook her head in slow half-arcs. “I never seen you before.”

He smiled with a twinkle in his eyes. “You have. You just didn’t know it.”

“I want to go home, now. Take me home.” The part of her mind that ruled curiosity was locked down dead, replaced by a cold worry that was quickly shifting to fear.

Wolf held up his hands, smiling again. “Hey, everything’s cool. We can go back, if that’s what you want. Or we could talk a little more.” He squatted down, palms still up toward her, and picked up her crackers and offered them to her. She’d backed toward the three-wheeler, and when he stepped closer, she backed almost into it. He stopped and simply held the crackers toward her.

“What you think’s happening, here, Goldilocks? We was just talking. No need to get antsy.”

“Where’d you get the three-wheeler?” she asked.

“It ain’t mine.” She raised an eyebrow when he said that, so he added, “It’s my dad’s.”

“Who’s your dad?”

A pained look spread over his face like a cloud shading water and was just as quickly gone. “I don’t rightly know his name,” he said. “I just call him Dad.”

“What’s his last name, then?”

He opened his mouth and closed it. “Wolf,” he said. She narrowed her eyes, so he added, “Wilkins.”


“It’s true.”

“I’m a Wilkins. How come I never heard of you?”

“I’m adopted.”

She gave him a disbelieving look. “You know me, but I don’t know you. How could that be?”

He shook his head.

She glared at him and then turned and walked past the three-wheeler and on up the dirt track.

“I’ll give you a ride back,” he called after her.

She didn’t stop or even turn her head. She heard him kicking the thing started. It sputtered and then roared to life. She heard it throw dirt, and soon, he was rolling beside her. She crossed her arms and kept walking, refusing to look at him.

“Did I say something wrong?” he yelled over the engine.

She kept walking and didn’t answer. He jerked the thing forward and then braked. She kept walking, and he did it again. She was pretty sure it would stall out if he kept doing that, but maybe he was trying to get her to say that or talk to him, so she kept going.

“It’s a couple miles,” he said. “We don’t have to talk, just let me give you a ride. I got your things.” He held out the bag of food she’d forgotten behind her.

She walked a few more steps while he rolled along beside her, and abruptly stopped. She still didn’t speak, but the look on her face said that she’d decided something. He sat up, and she stepped over and climbed up behind him. They sat there for a moment, then he handed her back her food. She clutched it in one hand, wadding it up tight in case she needed to hit him with it. He cleared his throat nervously and she tensed, ready to bolt. He jerked the three-wheeler forward and thundered up the track.

“Not too fast,” she said.

He slowed, which made her feel a little better.

She smelled his musk, which really did smell like dog. His hair was thick and looked soft, also like a dog. It was a funny thought, one she might’ve had when she was a kid. It felt good to hold on to the thought for a moment. She imagined throwing something and seeing if he’d dart after it, maybe whistling to see if he went stiff. They left the trees behind and hit gravel and then, soon after, slowed as they emerged onto the highway. He looked long down one way and the other, clearly stalling, until she nudged him and he pulled out and went left.

“Good boy,” she muttered, pretty sure he didn’t hear her, but it made her giggle anyway.

It wasn’t long until her trailer loomed up. He pulled up to the little bridge and stopped short, killing the engine. The funny thoughts were gone, now. Tawny climbed off as he turned to watch her describe a wide arc around him.

“You sure you want to go back in there?” he said as she stepped onto the bridge.

Maybe two feet below her, a trickle of ditch water flowed. When she was a little kid, she used to fish in it with her mom, before things went bad. “What the hell else am I gonna do?” Tawny muttered.

“Come with me.”

She turned with a smirk but held her tongue because the look on his face was tender. Vulnerable. She opened her mouth twice and closed it before finding something soft enough to say. “What’d you say your name was?”

He winced. “Wolf,” he mumbled.

“Right.” She wanted to say more, but her face was already flushed. She wasn’t quite ready for it to live in the air outside her mind. “Wolf,” she repeated. “Who’s adopted by my aunt and uncle but I never met before.”

He looked down.

An idea was trying to voice itself in her head, but she still couldn’t say it. So, she turned and crossed the bridge.

“There’s nothing worth having in there for you,” Wolf tried again.

She spun on her heel, angry. “I don’t know what you think you’re doing,” she said, full red in the face, now. So bothered she couldn’t even say why.

“I’m just trying to help you,” he said.

“I don’t need help.”

“Of course you do.”

“I don’t know you. You shouldn’t even be here,” she said.

“You do.” He nodded, slow and wide-eyed. “You just don’t believe it.”

She shook her head.

“You know me. And I know you,” he said.

“Gunner?” she whispered.

“Call me Wolf, now,” he said, grinning.

That made her ball her fists up. “You’re a dog,” she yelled. “A fucking dog.” He winced, but she kept going, drunk with the thrill of speaking it. “Not even one of them purebred fancy dogs, either. Just a mongrel. And you stole that three-wheeler from my uncle.“ She pointed. “Should’ve fucking known.” The tears came, which made her even angrier.

“How could you know?”

She looked at him, wanting to chastise him for thinking he was so smooth, but the words died on her tongue as she realized the warmth of his tone.

“I’m sorry I deceived you,” he said.

“What kind of fucking dog talks like that!” she yelled. “’Deceived?’ Fuck does that mean?” She knew her words were idiotic, but the anger seemed like her best option, so she went with it.

“It means to lie—“

“I know what the fuck it means! I ain’t stupid! Why the hell wouldn’t you just say lie?”

He was quiet, and so was she for a long moment.

“Should’ve known the only person, the only boy that would take any interest in me would be a damn dog.”

“What’s wrong with that?” Wolf said.

She scoffed.

“Really. You think you ought to be like them in there?” He nodded toward the trailer. “Want to know what they’ve been up to? I can smell it, all chemicals and sadness.”

“I reckon I can figure it out.”

“Your uncle, he’s not a good man.”

She looked in Wolf’s eyes, which were suddenly full of anger, but he didn’t elaborate.

“But you were kind,” he said. “You always scratched me behind my ear.”

That made her laugh a little, and it was good to get some of the tension out.

“You’d rub my belly.” The way he said it was almost plaintive.

It reached to something deep inside her she’d never shared with anyone else, a vulnerability she’d forced down in this world of razor blades. “How?” she asked. “How’d you do it?”

He shook his head. “Not how, but why.”

She looked back to the trailer then to him. “What are you saying? You want me to move in your doghouse with you?” she snapped. “We gonna live on squirrels you catch?”

“Don’t you like squirrel?” He grinned.

She wanted to grin, too, which made her mad. He had those sad eyes on her, so she revised her question. “I mean, you got a people house or something?”

“I’ve got some money,” he said.

She put her hands on her hips. “How’d you get money?”

“Don’t worry about it,” he said. “We could go someplace nice. Someplace new.”

She shook her head, looking back to the trailer.

“We could have some fun,” he added.

She crossed the bridge, afraid to look back at him.

“What are you going to do tomorrow, when they’re still locked in that bedroom? Or the day after?” he said.

She got to the door and paused with her hand on it.

“You can be happy, now. I can make you happy,” he said.

She pulled the door open.

“I don’t know if I can come back,” he said. “I don’t know if I can… stay… without you.”

Everything in her ached to look back at him. But she didn’t.

“Don’t, then,” she said, quiet, but she knew he heard. She pulled the door shut and dropped to her knees. After a long while, she heard the three-wheeler start up and spit gravel as it raced away.


Raised on a rice and catfish farm in eastern Arkansas, CL Bledsoe is the author of more than thirty books, including the poetry collections Riceland, The Bottle Episode, and his newest, Driving Around, Looking in Other People’s Windows, as well as his latest novels Goodbye, Mr. Lonely and The Saviors. Bledsoe lives in northern Virginia with his daughter. Email: clbledsoe[at]


A Midsummer Tale ~ Second Place
Tierney Acott

Image of Sydney red gum trees looking up through the gnarled branches and leaves to the sky. The branches are reddish, the leaves yellowish-green, and the sky pale blue. Low sunlight on the left is casting shadows on the branches and leaves.

Photo Credit: Bea Pierce/Flickr (CC-by-nc)

The surf rolls in on a beach in a suburban stretch of coastline. Pinks and yellows streak the sky as the sun dawns over the ocean. A few surfers on the beach stretch and wade into the water. At the end of the strand is a small cove, surrounded by sandstone rock face. At the foot of it, three brown-skinned, brown-eyed children are pulling on snorkels and fins. The small girl, Zara, about six, is fastest and plops her way to the surf. Her brothers, Ollie and Leo, follow her.

She twists through the surf, torpedoing through each crashing wave, bubbles tickling her face and chest. A school of small, glittering silver fish pass beneath her and she waves to them, making a note to look them up in her brothers’ book. She swims all the way out until she’s level with the breakwall with the red and green lights at the end, then she pops up, searching for her brothers.

Her eyes are then drawn to another pair: atop the sandstone cliff face, amongst the bush vegetation, are two majestic, twisting Sydney red gum trees. Little white flowers cluster among their branches. She sees them every morning from her bedroom window, but in the golden glow of early morning, they look ethereal, bursting with magic.

A swish of saltwater into her open mouth brings Zara back to the present.

She swims back to shore, riding each tumbling wave.

“Hey, where are you off to?” asks Leo.

“I forgot something at home,” she calls as she passes them.

On the beach, she tugs her feet out of her fins, collects her flip flops, and scrambles up the overgrown path to the coastal road, barefoot and hobbling to avoid pebbles. She dips and dodges branches on this practiced route. She walks on the curb, balancing, until she stops in front of the Sydney red gum trees.

She gingerly runs her fingers along the trunk of the taller red gum tree. The bark of the tree is peeling away. She breaks off a piece. The tree shudders, sighs, and a few flowers fall to the ground. Then, a face emerges from the patterns in the bark on the trunk. The eyes from dark spots in the bark, and the long sloping lines gave the face a gentleness. Zara’s eyes widen.

“Oh thanks, mate,” the tall tree says with a sigh. “You’ve no idea how long that was itching. Almost makes you jealous of the trees with termites.”

“Careful what you wish for,” the shorter, more gnarled gum tree answers. It has a craggy face, like Zara’s father and his friends: skin cooked and shriveled from the sun and the fires they fight.

Zara laughs nervously.

“Look at the giggling little ankle-biter,” says the tall tree. “Oh! Manners. I’m Poppy and this is Summer.” Poppy gestures toward Summer with one of their branches.

“I’m Zara.”

“It’s great to finally meet you, Zara,” says Summer. “We’ve seen the way you treat creatures.”

Zara nods importantly. “I try not to hurt anything.”

“We’ve noticed,” says Summer, gently. “Which is why we want to give you a gift.”

“For me?” asks Zara.

“For you,” says Poppy.

The three of them stand looking at each other, Zara with her goggles pushed up on her forehead and snorkel dangling from her ear. A breeze makes its way from the scrub vegetation to the south and toward them. An aliveness sweeps across the cliffside as bushes and trees dance in the wind. When the breeze hits Summer and Poppy, they both shimmy and a flower falls from each of their trees.

“Whoa.” Zara bends down to pick them up. Attached to the flowers are seeds. “Can I plant this?”

“It’d be our pleasure.”

“We like dry sandy soil, you know, a good loam,” says Poppy. “You can take a few scoops from the sand here.”

Zara, clutching the flowers in one hand, darts across the coastal road to a red brick house with a white gate and a tall bottlebrush tree in the corner of the garden. She drops her flip flops and fins on the path and snakes round to the garage, which is filled with toys: surfboards, diving gear, a dinghy on a trailer. She finds where her mum stores the gardening stuff behind the dinghy. It is dark and shadowed—redback territory. She moves slowly, carefully. She finds a small ceramic pot and a trowel. She extracts them carefully, so as not to disturb any nesting spiders.

Then she quickly carries the pot, trowel, and flower back to Summer and Poppy.

“I found a pot!”

Zara carefully takes the seeds out of the flowers and sets them on the ground. Then she fills the pot two-thirds with sandy soil. She gingerly plants the seeds. She fills the rest with sandy soil and pats it gently.

“Ar, great work there, Zara,” says Poppy.

She sets the flowers down on top of the soil as an ornament. Then she stands suddenly. “I’m going to go water it now,” she says and turns to leave.

One of Summer’s branches swoops down and stops her running off. “Hold on there, little lady.”

Zara turns, and Summer’s branch retreats.

“You can water it, but don’t water it too often.”

Zara nods.

“Don’t like too much water,” says Summer.

“Makes us feel bloated,” Poppy says and chuckles.


Winter passes without its usual storms. Shelf clouds still approached from the south, dark grey and blue, and lightning still cracked and forked down to the ocean, but only a light drizzle ever fell to the earth. All the fanfare of years past, but none of the satisfying restoration. Zara, too young to remember the heavy rains of an east coast low, asked if it was going to rain anytime dark clouds blotted the sun.

Now, along the coast, the trees were brightening into a dull green and the sun a strong, golden hue. Zara, in shorts and a singlet, reads The Lorax on her bed. A sapling sits in the ceramic pot on the window ledge, watching Summer and Poppy out the window. This is Charlie.

“I want to be big and strong like those trees outside,” says Charlie, pointing at Summer and Poppy.

Zara looks up from her book. “You can’t rush it.”

Charlie winces, trying to grow faster. “Maybe if I eat more…” says Charlie.

She squints up to the strong summer sun basking through the window. Though it is late morning, the sky is not blue, but a hazy white.

Zara giggles. “I don’t think that’s how it works.”

“Why not?”

“Well, those trees are big and strong because they grew slowly and well.”

Charlie harrumphs, sulking for a few seconds before asking, “Can we go out and see them?”

Zara closes her book and slides her legs off her bed. “Sure.”

Zara picks up Charlie and together they go downstairs and out the front door. The air is still, hot, and dry. Even with the hazy sky, the footpath is roasting and Zara hops onto the grass, crunchy from the heat.

Charlie is bouncing in excitement. Zara pats her soil, so she doesn’t fall out.

“Look!” exclaims Charlie. “There’s a bird.”

The bird caws. It’s a magpie.

“It sounds like one of Ollie and Leo’s droids,” says Charlie.

Zara laughs. “It totally does.”

As Zara crosses the street. Charlie points to the bottlebrush tree, which is in full bloom. Every branch is covered with thick clusters of vibrant, red needles. Charlie, in awe, shouts, “It looks like it’s on fire!”

Zara clamps her hand over the sapling.

“Shh!” says Poppy.

Summer hears and whispers conspiratorially, “We don’t say that word.”

“What word?” asks Charlie before— “Whoa! Look at the ocean in real life!”

Poppy and Summer exchange relieved glances.

“I want to live here when I grow up and be just as big and strong as you.”

Zara holds Charlie up to Poppy. Charlie’s little sapling leaves reach over and touch the trunk.

“Oh, wow,” says Charlie. Then she touches her own trunk and gets all misty-eyed.

All of a sudden, apropos of nothing, Summer perks up.

“Oh, oh! It’s coming,” she exclaims, then turns to Charlie. “Get ready, little Charlie.”

Poppy joins in on Summer’s excitement, the surface sand at their roots hopping with anticipation. Out in the ocean, the texture of the surface of the water sharpens and grows dark. It approaches them.

“What? What’s happening?” asks Charlie with a thinly-veiled nervousness.

“It’s the Southerly!” says Summer.

“The what?”

“It’s the Southerly wind that comes from Antarctica,” says Zara matter-of-factly.

“Oh, I’d love to go to Antarctica one day,” says Poppy.

“It seems pretty cool,” says Summer and winks at everyone.

“It’s definitely the perfect temperature. Cools us off on a beautiful hot day.”

Zara looks at the trees as if they’re out of their minds. “You know Antarctica is a land entirely of ice and—”

“Here it comes!” shouts Summer.

The Southerly wind floats across the scrubland along the coast, rippling branches as it makes its way toward them. When it hits Summer and Poppy, they dance and rollick, whooping and cheering. Charlie giggles and joins in. Zara holds Charlie’s pot high above her head, so she can get as much breeze as possible.

“This feels amazing!” says Charlie.

“Doesn’t it?” says Summer.

“It’s the best part of every day,” says Poppy. “Especially the scorchers.”


In the biggest window of the house, a Christmas tree is visible. Handmade ornaments hang on the branches. Zara and her brothers open the gifts scattered at the base of the tree. Outside, Poppy and Summer watch the festivities. Halos surround the morning sun and the sky is orange and hazy.

That afternoon, as the sun slides west, it takes on a red glow. The front door squeals open and Zara steps out. Her brothers run out in their swimmers and head down to the ocean. Zara pulls the door closed and hurries over to Summer and Poppy, holding something behind her back.

“Summer, Poppy. What are you up to sarvo?” says Zara.

“Happy Christmas, sweetheart!”

“Thanks, you too!”

Summer leans down to murmur to Zara. “Tell me, Zara. Why do you have a decapitated tree in your living room?”

Zara’s eyes widen, then her face crumples in confusion.

“Means the Christmas fir tree,” says Poppy.

“Oh. It’s fake.”

Summer sighs in relief. “Oh, thank God.”

“I have gifts for you.” Zara reveals what was behind her back: a pair of red ribbons. “They’re ribbons,” says Zara.

Poppy and Summer swoon, flattered.

“Oh wow,” breathes Summer. “Gorgeous.”

“They’re beautiful,” croons Poppy.

“I gave Charlie a little one too. See?” she says and points to her window. Charlie sits on the windowsill of Zara’s bedroom looking outside. She has a small red ribbon around one of her little branches. “That way, no matter what, even if she’s still in a pot inside, you guys know that you’re family.”

Zara ties the ribbon around a branch of Poppy’s. Then she ties a ribbon around a branch of Summer’s. Summer gets emotional. Red sap oozing from her bark. It looks alarmingly like blood.

“Don’t go weeping, Summer,” says Poppy. “We need all the water we can get.”

Zara frowns. “I thought you hated water.”

“We don’t like a lot of it,” says Poppy. “But we haven’t had a rain in months. We’re parched all the time.”

“I can help!” says Zara and runs back across the street to her house. She goes around the side of the garden, where the hose lies coiled on the ground like a red-bellied black snake. She turns on the tap and runs across the street, dragging it behind. She stands in front of Summer and waters her roots. Summer gasps and sputters as her roots drink the water up. Zara begins to do the same for Poppy. Poppy also feverishly drinks the water.

The front door bangs open. Zara’s mum, a woman with dark hair and brown eyes, looks aghast.


Zara innocently turns toward her mum. The stream drifts away from Poppy.

“Wait, no, bring it—” gasps Poppy.

“What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?” says Mum through gritted teeth as she marches across the garden. She pushes open the fence gate with enough force it swings round and slaps the other side. When she reaches Zara, she takes the hose from her and folds it in half, stopping the flow.

“We’re in Level 3 water restrictions!”

Zara’s eyes fill with tears.

“You can’t be using the hose for anything! Only Tuesday and Saturday mornings. That’s it,” says Mum. “Do you understand me?”

Zara nods.

“We can get in serious trouble. Lucky none of the neighbors saw you.”

Mum takes the hose back across the street. Zara turns to Summer and Poppy.

“I’ll come back Saturday morning.”

“Ah, don’t stress yourself over it, love,” says Poppy.

“Just make sure the little one gets enough water,” says Summer.

Zara sighs and slumps down next to Poppy. She leans against her trunk.

“It’s okay, sweetheart,” says Poppy.

Zara looks down at the waves crashing below.

Mum turns around when she reaches the fence. “Zara, this is not okay. No bickies, sweets, or TV for a week.”

Zara’s lip trembles, but she nods.

“You know better,” says Mum.

Zara draws in the dirt with a stick while Debra, a blonde-haired, tan woman and neighbor, passes by in front of the house and stops to talk to Mum across the fence.

“Happy Christmas!” says Debra.

“Oh, happy Christmas to your family too! Lovely day isn’t it?”

Debra registers the hose in Mum’s hand. “Hey, you’re not watering, are you?”

Zara looks over at Mum. A few drops of water fall from the end of the hose. Mum hides them from view with her leg.

“Oh, no. No, I wouldn’t do that. Just tidying the lawn,” says Mum.

“How’re your plants doing? All of mine are dying.”

“Yeah, the hydrangeas are looking quite pitiful. Can’t seem to hold a bloom.”

“Your parents are down near Victoria, right?” asks Debra.

“Mm. Yeah.”

“How’re they doing?”

“They’re safe at the moment.”

“That’s good.”

“It’s just hard because if it were to sweep through, you know, how fast can they evacuate?” says Mum.

Debra clucks her tongue. “I know. It’s awful. Henry’s dealing with the same thing. His parents are up near Byron. They’re in a care home. I don’t think they’ll try to evacuate at all.”

“Oh, that’s awful.”

Behind Zara, a magpie flies and lands on one of Summer’s branches. It calls out, drowning out the end of Mum and Debra’s conversation. Zara looks at the bird. It has brought food back for its chicks. She watches the parent feed the three little birds.

Poppy whispers. “Do you like our new tenants?”

“As long as they don’t swoop me,” says Zara, eyeing them warily.

“Nar. We’re teaching these magpies not to swoop. They’ll be nice magpies.”

“That’s good,” Zara says, watching Debra wave goodbye to Mum.

The magpies keep calling out to their parent, who flies away for more food. The three chicks jump around in their nest and practice flying. One falls out of the tree. It shakes its head clear, then trots over to Zara. She holds out her hand and it hops onto her palm. Zara winces slightly at first, but then relaxes.

A few minutes later, the parent magpie returns home. The chick tries to fly back into the nest, but misses it and careens into the brush.

Zara, Summer, and Poppy gasp. A moment later, the bird flies up and lands in the nest.

“He’s a wild one there,” says Poppy.

“Ah, but isn’t it gorgeous watching him take his first flight?” says Summer.


Zara wakes up. She waters Charlie with the cup on the windowsill. Charlie writhes around in the pot. She looks out the window at Summer and Poppy and the coast beyond. The sky is orange; the sun, still low in the sky, is shrouded in an aura. A few tankers troll past on the horizon. Zara checks the calendar on the wall: Saturday, December 28.

She runs out of her room, out of the front door, and around the corner of the house. She turns on the hose tap and hurries across the street, dragging the hose behind her. When she gets to the red gum trees, she unleashes a sparkling spray of water.

She waters Poppy first, then Summer. They both feverishly drink up the water. They are massively dehydrated.

After a few moments, Summer says: “Right. That’s plenty.”

“You sure?” asks Zara.

“Yeah,” says Poppy. “We don’t want to take more than our share. We’ll soak up the rest of this water over the next day or so.”

“Okay,” says Zara.

“Thank you,” says Poppy.

“You’re a real lifesaver,” says Summer.

“It’s alright,” says Zara with a shrug.

She takes the hose back to the house and puts it away. Inside, she flicks off her flip flops and walks around the corner to the kitchen. Mum sits at the breakfast bar reading the newspaper and drinking a coffee. Ollie and Leo eat four Weet-Bix with a dazed, sleepy look on their faces. Zara sits down at the table, plunks two Weet-Bix in her bowl, and uses both hands to pour milk from the carton. She looks out the kitchen window at the trees in the backyard and the clothes drying on the line. She chews methodically, wondering if those trees are alive too. Are they also thirsty?

The sky begins to darken. Zara doesn’t notice it at first, but eventually, she asks: “Is it going to rain?”

Mum continues reading the newspaper. “No, I don’t think so.” She turns the page. “Wish it would.”

Her phone sits on the countertop. It buzzes silently, hidden underneath the newspaper. On the screen is a NSW government alert: Evacuate immediately. If you don’t, you will die.

“Luckily the Southerly will keep the fires west of us,” says Mum and turns the page of her newspaper.

Moments pass.

Ollie wrinkles his nose, frowns. “The smoke smell is really bad today.”

Mum abruptly looks up from the paper and out the open window. She registers the darkness in horror. Her coffee spills as she leaps from her stool and staggers to the patio door.

Outside, a fiery blaze dances on the hills on the horizon. Charcoal black smoke rises above it, blowing toward them. The scrubland and trees on the hill are heard crackling in the heat. There are high pitched noises followed by explosive booms.

“Mother of—”

“Are they bombing the fire?” asks Ollie, stepping out onto the patio.

Mum turns around. “Get in the car. Now!”

Ollie pivots and legs it out of the kitchen while Leo and Zara scramble out of their chairs. At the front door, Zara hurries up the stairs to her room. She hears the front door open and realizes how thirsty she is. Parched like Summer and Poppy. Zara lifts Charlie’s pot from the windowsill.

“Zara! Now!” Mum calls from downstairs.

Zara’s throat is sticky and she can’t call back. She rounds the corner of her bedroom door as Mum shouts again, more frantic. “You can’t bring anything! There’s no time!”

At the bottom of the stairs, Mum takes her free arm. “Hurry!” says Mum.

Zara turns toward her flip flops.

“Forget the shoes,” says Mum, pulling her out the front door.

They run out of the house to the drive. Leo and Ollie sit in the red station wagon. Zara climbs in the back. Mum reverses out of the driveway.

“Mum,” says Ollie. “You left the front door open.”

“I know,” Mum says, doing her two-footed dance switching to drive.

Zara twists around in her seat to see Summer and Poppy. They are blowing, keeling over in the strong west winds, which are sweeping black smoke out over the ocean.

“Where are you going?” shouts Summer over the roar of the wind and bushfire on the hillside.

“Take us with you!” shouts Poppy.

Zara’s eyes well with tears. She clutches Charlie tight. Finally, she manages to choke out a few words and says in a whisper, “I’m so sorry.”

The red station wagon speeds along the coastal road. It drives up a hill just outside town. As they crest the hill, they see a long snake of cars with burning red rear lights. The car slows to a stop. Mum looks to the west where the fires are quickly moving down the hillside to the shore. Embers blow well-ahead of the fires. Houses and trees distant from the fire line ignite into a battalion of smaller ones. A rogue ember blows as far as the coastal road and slides across the windscreen.

“Mum?” whispers Leo, his eyes glued to the ember where it floats out over the cliff faces. Mum chews her lip, but says nothing.

The sky grows even darker. Cars file in behind them. People honk. Zara holds Charlie close to her and watches in horror as the small fires join to make bigger fires, like water droplets on the walls of the shower. Mum squints ahead. Amidst the ever-darkening sky, she begins to make out fresh smoke plumes ahead, on the other side of the traffic jam.

She curses. Her feet tap in panic as she reverses the car and accelerates down the coastal road.

“Are we going back home?” asks Leo, his voice cracking from fear.

“We’re going to Plan B,” says Mum.

“When there’s not enough time?” asks Ollie.

“When there’s not enough time,” says Mum.

Leo and Ollie are terrified into a wide-eyed silence. Mum brings the car to an abrupt stop in front of their house, in between Summer and Poppy.

“Are you back for us?” asks Summer.

“Get out of the car,” says Mum in a frighteningly calm tone of voice. “Hurry.”

Zara exits the car and follows her brothers.

“How bad is it?” asks Poppy.

Zara stops to answer, but Mum takes her hand and pulls her ahead. She nearly drops Charlie. Zara and Mum follow Leo and Ollie down the overgrown path to the beach.

“Zara, we need to hurry,” says Mum as Zara trots two paces behind her.

Up ahead, Leo stops his running, clutching his side. “Mum, I have a cramp.”

“Keep running.”

Zara struggles to keep up, falling further and further behind. She is barefoot and she keeps stepping on rocks. Mum backtracks, picks her up, then Mum runs down the path to the beach with Zara looking over her shoulder, watching the fireline approach the house. Leo staggers next to Mum, massaging his side.

When they reach the sand of Cove Beach, Ollie stands there, sweaty and timid, as if he had shrunk. There are a few other families down on the sand. The fear is nearly as thick as the smoke. Mum, still holding Zara, and Leo jog to the end of the path and meet Ollie.

Mum, panting, says, “To the breakwall.”

They trot and lurch down the length of the beach toward the breakwall. The boys cough, and Zara can hear a wheeze inside Mum’s chest.

The sky is now so dark it could be night if it weren’t for the glow of the inferno approaching. Loud bangs echo across the water as trees on the hillside explode. Zara watches as the magpie family flies toward them. Two fall from the dark, smoky sky, and into the surf. Two more pass overhead. They do their droid call. One of their wings is singed.

When Mum, Zara, Leo, and Ollie reach the breakwall, they travel the length of it, hopping from large boulder to large boulder. They stop at the end next to the maritime red and green light. They pant, cough, sputter. Soot and sweat cake their clothes. Mum sets Zara down and wraps her family in a hug. Ollie begins to cry—first a whimper and then as involuntarily as breathing.

They watch the fires. The fire line engulfs their house. And like a monster with an insatiable appetite, it continues. It approaches Summer and Poppy. Embers shower them. They try to lean away from it. Their red ribbons are sucked toward the fires. Their branches bow in the wind and vacuum created by the bushfire.

Eventually, the fire captures them. Zara cries and shields Charlie’s eyes as Poppy and Summer are burned.

Still the fire doesn’t stop. It sweeps down the scrubland and the overgrown path to the beach, where it stalls. The families on the beach run out onto the breakwall.

The temperatures are hellish. Everyone is sweating and covered in soot. Leo steps down onto a submerged rock to cool down. Zara watches as both Summer and Poppy’s trunks explode. She cries even harder, her tears ploughing streaks on her dirty face. She blocks Charlie’s view, so she doesn’t see.

Ash from Summer and Poppy soars into the atmosphere. It floats over the breakwall. It floats higher, across blue seas, infecting blue skies. Across New Zealand. Across the breadth of the Pacific. The ash begins to fall near the tip of Cape Horn and the Drake Passage. It lands on the Antarctic Peninsula.


Zara, a few years older, digs a hole. She is in another coastal region of New South Wales. It has a similar overlook of the ocean, but lower to the sea, without the bluffs. Next to her is a large pot with a small tree in it. Tied around its trunk is a red ribbon: Charlie.

“Is it hard to dig a hole?” asks Charlie, bending over to look in the hole.

“There are harder things.” Zara pants. After a few moments, she stops and asks, “Ready?”

Charlie nods. Zara uproots her from her pot and plants her in the ground. She pats the soil down around the trunk.

“What do you think?” asks Charlie, standing straight.

Zara smiles at her. She reaches up and, like a fussy mother on the first day of school, tightens the ribbon on Charlie’s trunk.

“I think they would approve.”


Tierney Acott is a writer primarily out of compulsion. She has written many feature and short length scripts, several of which have been shortlisted in various Los Angeles and London-based writing competitions. These include “Coupla Kooks”, a feature finalist for several festivals and selected as a table read for the Richard Harris International Film Festival 2020, and an independent comedy pilot, “The C Word,” which was inspired by Tierney’s experience with thyroid cancer. Her first novel, I, Frances, was written for her M.Phil in Creative Writing at Trinity College Dublin and was longlisted for Britain’s Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition in 2016. Her latest novel, Nigel, was longlisted for Britain’s Comedy Women in Print 2020 Prize. Email: tierney.acott[at]