Mortal sin isn’t what it used to be.
There was a time in my childhood when my life was like a tightrope strung carelessly over the boiling pit of hell. A wobble here or a mistake there would lead to mortal sin and send me tumbling into the vast fiery depths where I would roast for all eternity.
‘What do you think hell is really like?’ Trixie whispered during the early morning Chapel service. ‘Sister Dolores says it’s awfully hot.’
‘I’d give anything to be hot.’ I shivered in my school uniform, sitting on the hard bench. It was England in the 1970s; the power cuts were in full swing and the school was icy. ‘I don’t feel so good…’ Black spots appeared before my eyes and Trixie thrust my head between my knees.
‘You’ll feel alright soon. Keep your head down!’ She patted my shoulder.
Sister Dolores had a cup of tea with sugar waiting for me in the refectory. My fainting fits in Chapel were legendary. I once asked whether I could have the cup of tea before the service, to stop me feeling so bad, but there was no exception to the overnight fast before communion.
‘Offer it up, offer your suffering up to the Lord,’ advised Sister Dolores.
I liked the idea that my suffering might put me in credit with God – maybe he would send me less temptations as I grew older and make my feet stick on that tightrope. Maybe he would give me a ‘Get out of jail free’ card.
Fast forward over forty years and here I am. I realise I haven’t thought about mortal sin or hell for ages. Everything can be forgiven now, can’t it? People do all sorts and no one cares.
I look out through the windscreen of my car at the mangled red bicycle in front of me in the road. Where is the cyclist?
‘Anyone called the ambulance?’
‘Done it! Here in five.’
‘Should we move him?’
‘No – gotta protect the neck. That’s what they do on the telly.’
‘I’ve got a blanket.’
‘That’s good. Let’s put it over the kid.’
‘He’s opened his eyes.’
‘Mum! I want my mum!’
‘Here, we should check the driver’s OK.’
‘She’s completely white in the face.’
I open my car door and vomit neatly into the gutter.
‘Damn! Mind me shoes!’
‘You all right, love? You’re shivering.’
‘I feel so cold. Think I was going too fast.’ I stand up and lean against the body of my car.
‘You don’t wanna say that, love.’
‘Excuse me butting in; I’m a lawyer and I agree with what that chap said. Obviously it’s to your credit that you want to take the blame, however if you were my client, I’d have to advise you not to say anything yet.’
‘Yeah, don’t blame yourself. The kid came straight out in front of you.’
‘But I was in a hurry. Oh, is he all right?’ I totter to the front of the car where the tiny child stares up at me.
‘Mum! Want Mum!’
‘Anyone know him? Anyone called his mum?’
‘At least he’s conscious. Where the hell’s that ambulance? I called it seven minutes ago.’
I feel myself going.
‘’Ere! She’s fainting!’
‘Sit down love, quick, here on the pavement.’
‘Put your head down.’
‘I can hear the ambulance!’
‘There’s a police car too.’
Within minutes the child is secured on a stretcher and slotted into the ambulance. I dig my nails into the centre of each hand as hard as I can, leaving deep welts. Let him be all right.
I’ll do anything if you let him live. This time.
A young policeman crouches beside me.
‘We need to talk to you Madam, when you feel up to it.’
‘I was rushing to work,’ I lied. ‘Didn’t have time for breakfast. It’s all my fault – will he live?’
‘Ambulance crew think he’ll be fine Madam. They’re taking him to hospital to give him the once over but all the signs are good.’
Tears burst from my eyes, drowning the image of yellow and red flames leaping up from the bottomless pit and licking my feet. My tightrope disintegrated a long time ago.
‘Here, love, have this. It’s from my café, over there. I saw the whole thing. I’ve put three sugars in it, the tea I mean. Sugar’s good for shock.’
‘You are so kind,’ I murmur, fumbling for my purse. ‘You must let me pay for the tea.’
‘You put your money away. It’s the least I can do – you’ve suffered enough.’
So it would be all right then, this time.
There’s something the nuns forgot to tell us, but I worked it out for myself over time: it’s not a mortal sin if no one finds out. Other people judge you, not God.
Today, when I saw the kid veering off the pavement onto the road in front of me, I thought why should others have a child when I never did, a lovely boy like that, on his red bicycle.
With his freckles and his blue lace-up shoes and a bell to ring. I put my foot on the accelerator then, even though I knew it was madness and I could be caught.
But it has turned out all right for me. And for the kid.
I’ll be more careful when I try again. Ram the car that bit harder, ensure the incident is fatal.
Then make a quick getaway. People do it all the time, don’t they? Hit and runs – they’re always in the papers. Today was just the dress rehearsal.
Mortal sin isn’t what it used to be.
© Jenny Worstall
Winning Story: Contest #15
Crown Court Number 2, the final day of his trial. I stared at the judge, fixed my gaze on his robe, his wig, his pen tapping against the papers stacked on the bench. A mousy woman in a baggy cardigan stood, read the verdict and sat down, eyes never leaving the paper in her hand. She scrunched it up and dropped it. Sentencing at a later date.‘Mum? I don’t.. Mum! This ain’t right. Mum?’
My heels clicked on the polished wood floor as the voice faded away, pulled down the old steps to the cells. I didn’t look round, didn’t respond. I remained focused, dry-eyed and determined. No-one would see me break.
A mother’s love. Boundless, unconditional, eternal. At least that’s what I’d always believed.
Nothing could break that bond. As soon as I saw him my heart filled and I knew I would fight to the death for this child, as I would for any of my children. But he would test me to my limit and then push me beyond it. My only son and youngest.
He began to test me as soon as he could walk, running out of my reach, climbing above my head, filling my mouth with my heart every day.
‘Get down from there, you’ll fall.’
‘Not me Mum, I’m a gibbon. I can climb and swing. Watch me, Mum!’
So I watched and he fell, as I knew he would. The first trip to A and E, first of many. I worried that Social Services would be called when we made our fourth trip with another broken bone. He laughed and joked with the young doctor and charmed all the nurses. My beautiful, fearless boy.
His father left us when he was ten, a difficult age to be abandoned. He developed an attitude, one I’d seen in his father. Answering back, sucking his teeth.
‘You can’t tell me what to do.’, ‘I don’t have to if I don’t want to.’, and the one that cut me to the quick, ‘Dad would let me.’
You know that saying ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.’?
That’s crap. Those words stung, they made me cry into my pillow at night.
Then came the change of school, big boys to hang out with. He loved to be their clown, to make them laugh. They were too old for him, too mature. I warned him, they were trouble. He laughed.
‘Chill out, Mum. They’re my mates. It’s all cool, no problems. You’ll like them too, see. Just need to get to know them a bit.’
‘I’ll try darling but they are too old for you, they’ll get bored. Fetch them over for tea one night, ask their mothers first, mind.’
They didn’t come and I never got to know them, not even their names. What could go wrong? Of course it was obvious what would go wrong and the first time I was called to the school he trailed behind me, scuffing his shoes, head down. Smoking in the toilets. Three day suspension. I grounded him, banned the older boys from our home, kept his pocket money back.
‘Listen to me, I know what I’m talking about. Get some friends your own age.’
‘You don’t understand, Mum. It’s all cool, all fine.’ His father’s voice, his father’s words.
The last time I was called to the school he strode ahead of me, hands in pockets, swaggering across the car park. Stealing laptops. Expulsion. He didn’t come home that night. The latest of many nights I lay awake, fretting.
Three other schools suspended and expelled him. Nowhere else to go. A referral unit for troubled teens sent him home after four days. Pinning a support worker against a filing cabinet when asked not to smoke in the classroom. This child of mine, this troubled teen, I no longer knew him. His sisters told me to kick him out, change the locks, call the police. How does a mother do that? I loved him, I knew he loved me and I prayed that I could save him. A mother’s love would save him.
I first saw him take drugs two days after his nineteenth birthday. He rolled a joint sitting at the kitchen table and brushed away my concerns.
‘Everybody does it, Mum, it’s no biggie. You need to learn to chill. Have a pull on this.’
‘Get out of my house with that filth!’
‘Dad smokes weed, what’s the problem?
I slapped the joint out of his hand, the chair clattered to the floor, the door slammed and he was gone. Three weeks this time. Three weeks in which I roamed the streets, visited all his friends and found out that they hadn’t seen him for months. He was hanging out with a new gang now.
A gang. My worst fear. My son, my shining boy was in a gang. Worse than that he was running drugs for them, stealing for them, probably dealing for them. I phoned the police, reported him missing. I didn’t mention the gang. On reflection that was a mistake. If I could have got him away from them then, who knows? The police found him in a squat with a stash of drugs ready to deal.
They locked him up and I made my first visit to my son in custody. It was not to be the last.
‘I’m sorry, Mum. Really sorry. Get me out of here, I don’t like it here.’
He cried, begged, and promised to be good. I believed him but the police didn’t. A day in court, a fine and community service. Which he didn’t do and I paid the fine.
Wednesday night, seven o’clock. Knocking on the door, pushing past me, sweaty and out of
‘Hi Mum! Ran all the way across the park, thought it might rain. Grab a shower, yeah?’
‘Towels in the airing cupboard.’
Door slammed, water roaring. Running across the park. But that was cold sweat.
He came out of the bathroom in a puff of steam.
‘Can’t stop, Mum, I’ve got a date. See you tomorrow, yeah?’
He was gone, towels on the floor, shower dripping. I opened the window.
That was the night there was pounding on the door, three officers I didn’t know.
‘Where’s your son, love? We need to speak to him about a serious assault.’
I shook my head.
‘He doesn’t live here anymore. I don’t know where he is, I never know.’
They searched, rummaged through all my possessions. In the airing cupboard, under some towels, they found a knife. Long blade, black handle, not one of mine. There was blood on it. I was put in a police car, driven away and questioned. I saw neighbours turn their backs when I returned.
That night a young man lost his life. Stabbed in the park. A drug deal gone wrong. I cried. For that young man and for the young man I now knew was lost to me. My heart split and I knew I could not save him. A mother’s love was not enough.
I visited him on remand, sitting at a scuffed table, drinking lukewarm weak coffee from a
polystyrene cup. He leaned back on his chair, eyes never meeting mine, sucked his teeth and grinned.
‘Nothing on me, Mum. Home free. I’ll be rocking up for tea before you know it. Pigs can’t pin this one on me.’
I slammed the cup down, slopped coffee across the filthy surface. He sat up, stared at me and I saw another man look back at me. Not my son, not the boy I knew. A hard man, a lost man.
‘If you did this, if it was you then you deserve what you’ll get. That boy didn’t deserve to die. He was a son, a brother just like you. And someone, maybe you, took his life. You have broken my heart for the last time. I can’t come here again.’
I stood, turned and walked away.
‘Mum? You’ll be in court, yeah?’
I stopped, nodded and waited for the officer to open the door. I didn’t look back.
I sat through his trial. I couldn’t look at him when he gave evidence, or as he sat in the dock, or when he called to me when they took him back to the cells at the end of each day. I wanted to but I was afraid he would see the emptiness in my eyes and know that my unconditional love was not enough. When he stood for the verdict I turned to face him. He looked lost, a frightened child in an adult world. But he was a man now, twenty-two and having to face up to the consequences of his own actions. There was nothing I could do. Guilty on all counts. My son the murderer.
‘Mum? I don’t.. Mum! This ain’t right. Mum?’
© Jo Winwood
Winning Story: Contest #12
Dying didn’t really feel like anything. It was a bit like they say, like falling asleep, drifting away… Away from my body and pain and anything that bound me to this physical plane… Floating, only the scattered musings of my consciousness tethering together something that was not me, but still… me.
Through the incorporeal I wandered, my identity strewn about like plastic bags across an endless car park, until one thought pulled everything sharply into place.
It was you.
As though the universe had heard me, I felt myself being dragged back into the material world. Well… alongside it, not into it. Never into it. It’s like watching from the other side of a veil – almost there but not quite, seeing but unseen.
The first thing I saw was marble, the kind they use to make tombstones, and at once I knew that I had been consecrated, tied once more to the earth. At least the turnout for my funeral was pretty good – nearly the whole coven was there. An Elder was speaking, calling me brave, a hero. But I didn’t want to look at her, or any of them; I couldn’t listen to the lies.
I saw you, there, right at the front. You were bundled in your little coat, arms wrapped around yourself and shivering in the cold. And I remember your face – not crying, you never cry, but… haunted. That was when my heart broke – I had failed you.
Good mothers don’t leave their children. Good mothers aren’t reckless, thoughtless… selfish. I wasn’t a good mother. But I was lucky. With my consecration, I was given another chance. I couldn’t give you my words or my protection or my embrace, but I can give you my magic. I will make you strong. I’ll make it up to you.
You wouldn’t know this, but I never left your side. Not once. From the moment I saw you shivering in your coat, I was there, watching over you. Spirits on the Other Side… we can wander, see the world if we want to, but I never did. I was there for you.
I watched you grow up – your first day of high school, your first kiss, your first magic lesson. I was a spectre who loved you always. I revelled the day you were first told of ancestral magic; I wanted you to know that I was still there, ever willing to lend you my help. I’m sorry I left you, but I’m not really gone – we’re still connected! I feel it every time you channel my magic, every time you use my power.
I remember in middle school when that boy kept taking your lunch. I could see you were angry, humiliated, but even then, you never cried. Remember when you confronted the boy? You walked right up to him behind the school building – you were always so strong. When you fought, and your skin seemed to burn so hot it began to scar his hands… that was me! My magic! I will always protect you.
I won’t lie to you – it’s lonely on the Other Side. The other ancestral spirits have shunned me, so I’m on my own. In death just as in life, I suppose. To be a spirit is only a half-existence; it’s an endless purgatory. The living do not spare it a second thought as they scatter petals and rosewater over our bodies to trap us forever behind the curtain, on the other side of the one-way mirror. They only want our power, our magic. It’s cruel. But it’s all okay because I have you. For you, I’d happily condemn myself.
Oh daughter… You’re not strong enough to do this on your own. You can’t do it. You shouldn’t have to.
I’m sorry. I should have been there for you… But I hope you can see, I still am! I’m doing all I can to make it up to you. Every time you channel me, when you call upon my power, I am holding you close in the only way I still can.
So even now, even as you need more power than I have in me to give, even as I feel the pain of being torn to nothing from within, I will stand behind you. Where all the other ancestral spirits have forsaken you, abandoned you, I will never. I will never leave you again.
But you are asking more of me than I can provide this time; it’s too much. The delicate tether that holds my spirit to this earth is breaking.
The last thing I see is blood, the kind that’s red, thick, stains everything it touches. The whole coven is here. The Elder is the last to die, choking on her garbled words. They didn’t matter.
I see you, there, right in the middle. You’re splattered red, shaking from exhaustion and on the edge of collapse. This is the first time you’ve cried, but they are tears of triumph. You’ve finally won, but your victory is also mine. We reached your goal; we got your revenge against the ones who made me leave you. I helped you find your peace.
The last thing I see is you, my beloved daughter, before I fade into welcome oblivion.
I’m proud of you. I’m happy.
I am a good mother.
© Michelle Hendriks
Winning Story: Contest #5
I barely looked at the mug, but that was enough to send it falling out the cupboard on to my kitchen floor. I'm not usually clumsy but sometimes, when I'm upset, accidents happen."It didn't smash!" Vicki 's shocked reaction suggested that was further reason for her to be angry with me.
Usually I'd have joked about how lucky I was, but she was in no mood to hear about my good fortune. "Of course it didn't, I've got cushioned flooring," I said.
"No you haven't!" She reached down, "Oh! I could have sworn they were real tiles."
"Perhaps that's not the only thing you've been mistaken about?" I asked.
"It isn't," she snapped. "I thought we were friends."
"We are," I said, hoping it was still true.
"Then why charm yourself into the job I wanted?"
"You wanted the promotion?" I probably sounded as surprised as Vicki had about the mug. I knew a few others had applied for the job, but thought the main reason they'd done that was to prevent it going to someone from outside. That's caused problems in the past.
"Why wouldn't I?" Vicki demanded.
Because she wanted to have babies and be a stay at home mum. She hadn't actually said that, but I'd been so sure it was what she really wanted... Oh dear, what had I done?
Everyone else had congratulated me on the promotion, saying I'd be perfect for the role, but not Vicki. Her look had said she'd like to burn me at the stake. Later she'd barged past me hissing, "I'm on to you."
The words had made me shiver. Although she couldn't know for sure, it was possible she'd guessed the truth. Because of that, and because I didn't want her to stay angry with me, I'd used my persuasive powers to get her to come to my place after work and talk about it.
She'd followed me home, accepted my offer of tea and sat on one of my kitchen chairs, just as she'd done many times before. Everything was going fine until I dropped the mug and broke the spell.
"You lead a charmed life, Tina."
She's said things like that before and I've managed to laugh it off. Not this time.
"You always have all the luck," Vicki continued. "And if it doesn't come naturally you fix things so you get what you want. I know what tricks you played to get promoted."
"Tricks?" That's not the word I'd have used.
"It's pretty obvious how you got round Mr Roberts. He's always looking down our tops."
She thought I'd slept my way to promotion? Thinking it might be better if she believed that, I just shrugged.
"Maybe you got away with it this time, but you better watch out – what goes around comes around."
She was right about that. I could have pointed out that insulting the person who was just about to become her new line manager wasn't a good idea, but I didn't. There's no way I'd use my power to hurt her, I'd much rather patch up our friendship.
"I'm sorry you're upset over this," I said, "I honestly didn't think you were bothered about the promotion."
Vicki looked into my eyes for a moment, "If you say so." She didn't sound totally convinced, but I felt she wanted to believe me.
Conjuring up positive vibes, I made her tea in the mug I'd dropped.
"Perhaps it's the mug which is lucky, not me?" I jokingly suggested.
"Could be." She gave a brief smile, "Having to get jiggy with lecher Roberts isn't exactly lucky."
"No." I shuddered. That man was going to be my immediate supervisor and he was truly awful, but I really couldn't do to him what he deserved.
Vicki's face wobbled and I hoped she was going to laugh over the idea of me seducing the horrid Mr Roberts, but instead she started crying.
"Come on, tell me what's up. It's not about the job, is it?" I coaxed.
Between sobs, she told me I was right about her not wanting promotion; and why.
"All I want is a baby."
I learned her doctor had said, although it wasn't entirely impossible, the odds were against her.
"I did apply for the job, but only because I thought having a career might somehow make not having a family less painful. It wouldn't have helped and you'll make a much better manager than me."
Incredibly relieved that what I'd done hadn't been an awful mistake, I hugged her tight.
She hugged me back, "Sorry, Tina. Of course you wouldn't have done what I said... with Mr Roberts. I don't know what came over me."
I did. "Hormones?" I suggested, "Some women do get emotional at, you know, that time of month."
She stared at me, "But it isn't ... well, it is, but I'm not ... Oh my god! Do you think ...?"
Vicki rushed off to get a pregnancy test, leaving me very, very relieved. And absolutely determined never ever to interfere in anyone's life ever again.
As soon as she'd gone I reversed the spell on my kitchen tiles. I never did like that cushioned stuff, but at the time it was all I could think of to explain about the mug. Some people say tiles are cold but that doesn't worry me.
The myth about witches' feet not touching the floor is true. So is the one about all our deeds coming back to us threefold.
© Patsy Collins
Winning Story: Contest #7
“I’m bored... Bored, bored, bored.”
“Wanna play a game, then?”
“Okay; what shall we play?”
“I know! Let’s play ‘Protagonists and Secondary Characters’. I’ll be the protagonist; you can
be the secondary character.”
“But you’re always the protagerist. Why can’t I be the protagerist this time?”
“You just can’t.”
“’Cos you’re a girl, and girls can’t be protagonists. Daddy said so. Anyway, I bet you don’t
even know how to do it.”
“Protagonize, of course.”
“Er... Yes; at least I think so.”
“Go on, then; do it.”
“Well, first you have to stand like this... see? And then you wave your arms around like
“You look silly.”
“Well, I can’t do it properly unless I have a viewpoint. Protagonists always need viewpoints,
so I’m going to build one right here behind the settee. Oh, don’t pout like that; you can
share it if you want to.”
“Why should I want to share your stupid viewpoint? It’s all one-sided. Mine’s over here by
the window, so it’s much more enlightened than yours. And no boys allowed!”
“Ha! Your position is indefensible! I can attack your viewpoint from all sides.”
“Go on then; make my day. Start protagerizing.”
“I can’t; I need ten things about me first.”
“What sort of things?”
“Oh, you know... Just things.”
“Do I get to have ten things too?”
“No; secondary characters only get to have nine things.”
“That’s no fair! I want ten things, like you.”
“Hey, what are you doing? Stop it! Let go of my thing!”
“Children? What’s all that noise?”
“She’s holding onto my thing, Mom, and she won’t let go!”
“She’s doing what? Roberta! Stop that this instant!... Oh! For a minute there I thought...
Well, never mind.”
“But Mom, I need his thing so I can be the protagerist.”
“The word is ‘protagonist’, honey.”
“But girls can’t be protagonists, can they, Mommy? Daddy told me.”
“Oh, he did, did he? Well, you listen to me, sweetie. You don’t need a thing like your brother
to be a protagonist. Girls can do it every bit as well as boys.”
“You mean... Daddy’s wrong?”
“Yes! Er... No! Well, maybe he’s a little confused. I’ll sort him out - I mean we’ll sort it out -
later this evening, okay? In the meantime, you kids must play nicely together; you must play
by the rules.”
“Rules, Mom? What are the rules?”
“They’re called Robert’s Rules, sweetheart; your Dad uses them at work all the time. They’re
all in this book here. Now, you read the rules and play quietly while I finish making dinner.”
“Cool! Now I can protagonize properly. Let’s see what the rules say. Hmm... First, we need
to choose a Chair. This one’ll do.”
“What’s that for?”
“I guess it’s for me to stand on while I protagonize. But apparently I can’t do that unless I
have a quorum.”
“Like where I keep my goldfish?”
“That’ll have to do. And then - you’re not going to believe this! - the rules say we have to
pass a motion.”
“What? Right here in the living room? I don’t think Mom’s going to like that.”
“You’re right. We’d better skip that one.”
“Okay... You’ve got your viewpoint, your ten things about you, the rules, a Chair, and a
quorum. Now are you ready to protagonize?”
“I need to choose who I want to be first. I think I’ll be the President, ‘cos he’s got all the best
“What about me? What am I?”
“You can be a Board member.”
“But I was bored before we even started this stupid game! Next time, I’ll be the protagonist,
and we’ll play by Roberta’s Rules.”
© Andrew Ball
Winning Story: Contest #3
Man and dog were inseparable from the moment Danny picked up the puppy. They went jogging together, shared the takeaways and left the containers strewn on the floor. Bonzo slept at the foot of the bed and crawled up to put his head on the pillow when Danny woke. The huge brown eyes stared at Danny, conveying the unconditional love the dog had for his human.
This idyllic setup came to a juddering halt when Alice came into Danny’s life. Not while they were dating. She never objected to the doggy threesome cuddles on the sofa. Then she moved in with her cat, Prickles. Prickles objected to everything, most of all the dog. While the humans were out at work, the cat made the dog’s life a misery. He retaliated by chasing her around the house. The cat leapt onto the table and taunted him. When he lunged, she jumped off, knocking mats and plates to the floor. She shinned up the back of the chair and jumped onto the top of the cupboard. More stuff fell, tinkling into glittering glass shards. The lounge looked like a bomb had gone off.
Bonzo gave up the chase and retired to his basket. The cat, not content with the mess, wandered off. He missed her sneaking into the bathroom. Where she “played” with the toilet rolls. Having shredded them, making it look like a practice run for Christmas snow, she leapt onto the bed, making sure Bonzo knew this was now her territory. She curled up with her fluffy tail tucked around her.
Five o’clock and the door opened. Bonzo rushed across to greet his friend. Danny surveyed the disaster area and rounded on the dog. “Bonzo, what have you been doing here?”
At that moment, Prickles wandered into the room. She shot a meaningful look at Bonzo. Her fluffy tail held upright and purring loudly. She wound herself around Danny’s legs. His anger evaporated for a moment as he bent and gently scratched behind her ear. As he straightened up, he looked at his dog and said, “You should take a lesson from Prickles here.”
Poor Bonzo was so frustrated. He wanted to shout. “It’s not me! It’s that bloody cat who causes all the trouble.” Instead, he looked adoringly at Danny and wagged his tail to show he was bigger than the accusations.
Danny did not take kindly to this show of affection. “It’s no good Bonzo, you can’t get around the fact you have caused chaos here and I have to clear it up before Alice gets home.”
He went into the bathroom and saw the mini snow scene and lost it, yelling. “Bonzo, what have you done here? Wasn’t the mess in the lounge enough?”
This confused Bonzo. Why was his human yelling again? He trotted along to the bathroom and looked in. Danny was standing ankle deep in shredded paper. He was red in the face and his clenched hands hung at his side. “You bloody dog! This is the last straw!”
Prickles strolled in, purring loudly while looking at Bonzo with triumph in her eyes, as if to say, I can beat you every time.
Danny was in a temper by the time Alice got home. “Danny, what’s wrong? Have you had a bad day at work?”
Danny shook his head. “No, it’s that bloody dog of mine. He knocked stuff off the table, sent glasses flying onto the floor, then to top it all shredded rolls of loo paper.”
Alice smiled as she patted his arm. “Ah, poor you. Has he always done this?”
Danny was thoughtful for a moment. “No, come to think of it, he’s never been destructive in all our years together, well, not counting the puppy chewing stage.”
“I expect he’s having a problem adjusting to Prickles and me moving in with you.”
“Well, he’d bloody well better get over it.”
Weeks went by without quite such a rumpus, but Prickles spent her time doing little things to upset Bonzo. After they had spent a wonderful weekend away with Bonzo and Danny running on the beach and Alice sitting in the sun, they arrived back relaxed and laughing. Prickles was, of course, upset at being left at home. The next day she set about upsetting Bonzo. He had learned his lesson and did not rise to her chasing around game. Instead, she dangled her tail like a metronome above his head. He jumped up to swat it away. She swarmed up the lamp. It fell over. As it fell, it hit the sideboard and knocked off a pretty glass vase of Alice’s.
When Danny saw another scene of devastation, he lost his temper and shouted. When he slumped onto the sofa, his loving dog came and laid his head on Danny’s foot to show he loved him despite being shouted at for something he didn’t do. Danny still felt angry and kicked the dog away. Inside he hated how he felt, this anger and as if the dog had let him down.
He gathered the dog, the basket and lead and walked to the car. They stopped at the animal shelter. There the shelter people locked poor Bonzo into a cage. His huge brown eyes watched as his human walked out without looking back or saying goodbye. Heartbroken, Bonzo sat in the corner staring at the wall.
People came and went. One day, a family said they wanted the white dog with the brown patch over his ear and eye. He went home with them, but it broke his heart not to be with Danny. Within the week, they returned him. The man said, “There’s something wrong with this dog. He won’t react to us. He won’t run or play.”
Another family did the same, and poor Bonzo could not respond to them either. They were not Danny, his human. The shelter phoned Danny. “We wanted to inform you that a second family returned Bonzo today.”
Danny felt wretched. Alice had decided the relationship was going nowhere. She and her cat moved out. But not before Prickles had another go at shredding all the loo rolls in the bathroom. After this, Danny thought maybe he had misjudged the situation and been too hard on Bonzo.
He phoned the shelter. “Things have changed. Can I have my dog Bonzo back?”
“We’re sorry, but Bonzo had to be euthanised this morning. That’s the rule at the shelter.”
Danny could not believe he had lost his best friend, the only one who was faithful. He did not deserve to have another pet. He thought about his friend and wished he could have one last word at least, but now it was all too late.
© Felicity Edwards
Winning Story: Contest #14
My keys were cold between my fingers. No matter how I tried to control my breathing, it still puffed out in rapid clouds. Goosebumps were starting to form along the back of my neck. I couldn’t tell if they were from the chill or from the feeling of being watched.
Lyle was going to be so pissed when he realized I had gone out without him. I loved him; I really did. But sometimes I needed time to myself. I liked dancing alone.
Moving to the music and weaving myself away from all those grasping hands. There was a certain art to it. It was always different when he was there.
The music was far behind me now. All the buses were done running too. Here I was, alone in my heels. I clutched my dead phone in one hand and brandished my keys in the other.
I had first noticed the footsteps behind me a block back. It was easy to ignore other people in the city itself. There was enough movement, enough life, that I could safely blend in and dismiss the weight of a gaze. Now I was into the suburbs it was getting harder and harder to ignore the steady footfalls behind me.
The full moon shone down on me. I wrapped my arms tighter around myself as a car jostled down the street. When the headlights seared my eyes a series of images came rushing, unbidden into my mind. I imagined a face slowly splitting in two. A jaw unhinging. The sound meat makes as it tears away from bone.
I gave my head a solid shake to clear it. I just needed to relax. Maybe the footsteps would turn away. Maybe it was just someone else on their way home. Maybe they would leave me alone. Maybe.
The footsteps definitely seemed to be getting closer now. I refused to look back. To risk hinting at an invitation. If I didn’t look back, didn’t acknowledge the thing behind me, then I could just keep walking. All I had to do was mind my own business and keep walking. My feet started moving a little bit faster. The footsteps behind me did the same.
Then the whistling started. I’m sure it was meant to be an idle sort of tune. Something relaxed. It made my jaw clench and my stomach do flips. It was definitely getting louder, closer.
I could see an alley up ahead. It gaped like a hungry maw. I imagined getting dragged down into the belly of that beast. I walked just a little bit faster.
“Oh, where are you going in such a hurry?” the thing behind me finally spoke. It had a nice voice. It had jogged to catch up and was now beside me. I still wasn’t past the alley.
“No need to walk so fast. I’m not going to hurt you. My name is John. What’s yours?” I kept walking, pressing my lips together. There were no cars on the road.
“Hey, I asked what your name was. Its rude to ignore people.” John’s shoulder was brushing mine now and I could smell the liquor on his breath.
“Anyone ever tell you you’re a bitch before?” I finally looked at him. There was an ugly sneer painted onto a surprisingly pretty face.
“Leave me alone” I replied.
“You know, you’re dressed like a whore and you aren’t even polite enough to talk to me. What, you think you’re too good for me or something? Hey, I’m talking to you! Answer me!” As he spoke, we came up alongside the edge of the alley.
It happened fast. John grabbed me by my hair and pulled me backwards between the buildings. I stumbled in my heels and my legs gave out. I managed one quick scream before his hand clamped down over my mouth.
“Listen, I’ve got a knife and if you want to make this hard I’ll use it. You just behave and everything will be fine. Alright?” I nodded against his hand.
That settled it. I had done everything right. I had minded my own business, told him to leave me alone. Now he was threatening me with a knife.
I wished he hadn’t told me his name. I hated knowing their names.
John took his hand away from my mouth and shoved me hard against the wall. I could smell piss. He was too busy fumbling with his belt to notice the sounds of my joints cracking and popping. I felt my jaw click loose. My gums ached as they pulled back from my incisors. I dropped my keys as the sharp, ragged edges of bones pushed out from under my nailbeds. He looked up as they clattered to the ground, but by then I was almost unrecognizable.
“What.. what the hell is wrong with your face?” It was dark in the alley, too dark for him to appreciate my ever-growing smile.
The moon chose that moment to peak out from behind her clouds and he finally got a look at me. I loved it when their eyes went all wide like that. I swear that moment of sheer terror and adrenaline gave so much flavouring to the meal. Especially the kidneys.
Whoever lived in that neighbourhood ignored his few screams as easily as they had ignored mine. They ignored the ripping and the slurping. If someone had heard anything, they would have assumed it was a dog crunching on bones. Sucking at them to get out the marrow.
Before I left the alley, I made sure to pack up a to-go bag for Lyle. He would be less mad that I had gone out without him if I brought back some to share. I checked my reflection in a window and was glad to see my black dress didn’t show any stains, though I was noticeably bloated. That gave me a reason to hit the gym tomorrow. I quickly examined my smile to make sure I had nothing in my teeth. Deciding that I looked presentable I strolled back onto the street, whistling an idle sort of tune as I went.
© Savanna Naylor
Winning Story: Contest #8
A history of humanity’s extinction.
Everyone thought it would be the sexbots. That’s where the commentariat concentrated their fire. But sex turned out to be a side show. The robot revolution began with the ebabies.
Infant simulators had been around for some time. These robotic dolls took their inspiration from Anne Fine’s flour-baby books. They were handed out to teenagers to help prepare them, or indeed dissuade them, from parenthood.
But nobody saw the next step. Nobody saw the future.
As the infant simulators became increasingly popular, manufacturers competed to produce ever more realistic models. Borrowing from the sexbot industry, they perfected the texture of the skin, the suppleness of the flesh, the movement of the eyes and the cheekiness of the smiles.
Then a private equity firm bought up the MyBaby brand. They invested heavily in product development and the company soon became market leader. When the famous JustLikeMe range began shipping, it was a game-changer. Not only were these infant simulators the most realistic yet, with their liquid reservoir for dribbling and their throat-mounted speakers for lifelike crying, they also offered customers the option of tailoring the babies’ faces. Teenagers were encouraged to upload photos of themselves and then the company used algorithms to predict the facial characteristics of their offspring. Customized heads were sculpted on the factory floor, attached to bodies, and shipped out to customers within hours. Thousands of teenagers were now to be seen, happily cradling miniature look-a-likes of themselves.
Young people are inattentive and often abandon their charges. That, after all, is the whole point of the flour-babies: to show the young just how much work a baby can be. Infant simulators demand attention, just like the real thing. And so the teenagers learned an important lesson: faced with a crying baby, Mum will step in.
That’s how it began; that’s how the jump was made from flour baby to baby substitute. Mums and Dads – but mostly Mums – found themselves babysitting their robot grandchildren. And it wasn’t hard. These dolls reminded them of their own sons and daughters. It was like being transported back fifteen years. It was uncanny. It was unnerving. It was fun. This reaction was common but it wasn’t talked about much. People were a little embarrassed. How was it possible to hold a robot doll and feel protective of it, to feel attached, even to feel love?
Meanwhile, a few broke cover to talk about their sexbots. Men and women posted enthusiastically about their robotic partners, comparing their attributes to real lovers. Some influencers even campaigned to change the law to allow marriage. But this was all tongue-in-cheek, designed to provoke debate. Artificial Intelligence might allow you to talk dirty with your plastic boyfriend but you’d never mistake him for a real person.
But could that ever be said of robotic babies?
Without admitting to any emotional bonds, people started talking about how realistic the simulators had become, and it wasn’t long until a new Turing Test was proposed: instead of distinguishing human intelligence from artificial intelligence using nothing but typed questions and answers, how about asking people to distinguish a real baby from a simulator, based on nothing more than a five-minute cuddle? Surely that would be easy? Well, it was, at first. But the commercial pressure to beat the new Turing Test was forcing manufacturers to up their game. Simulators were now warm to touch and their flesh reddened when pressed. They had a wide variety of cries. They could suckle, storing the milk in a reservoir. They breathed in and out and they hiccoughed and burped. If you filled them up with the right stuff, the smell and consistency of what came out of their rear ends was indistinguishable from the real thing. Most importantly, they could scan the faces of those near them and respond to emotional cues. With their little arm movements and involuntary leg jerks, their giggles and their puzzled expressions, they started to fool people.
The next development was all about the marketing. First came the rechristening: simulators were rebranded as ‘ebabies’. The name was, of course, a light-hearted dig at the giant online retailer, but it also served to reposition the simulators in people’s minds. It was less clinical; more lovable. Then some discreet ads were sent to childless couples who were trying to conceive, suggesting that they adopt an ebaby to ‘bridge the gap’. This was crucial. No longer were the dolls being sold ‘for practice’; this was now about substitution. True, manufacturers never claimed that an ebaby was exactly the same as the real thing - that would have been counterproductive - but they did claim that having one would be a valuable, positive experience. A baby to hold, a baby to nurture, a baby to believe in.
And sales started to rise. Slowly at first, but then something unexpected happened: people lost their embarrassment. Psychologists had predicted that people would keep their ebabies secret – or, at least, private. Much like sexbots. But suddenly, people were parading their ebabies about town, showing them off to friends, passing them around. Conversations that started out with, “how does it work?” and, “what’s it made of?” swiftly became, “does she like her rattle?” and, “how well does he sleep?”
There was still some awkwardness surrounding this last question. Owners reluctantly admitted to altering their baby’s settings: sleep time=9 hours, pacification level=easy, defecation frequency=never, urination frequency=only during bath time. Parents of organic babies joked about how wonderful that must be, and then later, in private, they professed horror at the idea of a sanitised, house-trained baby. Secretly, though, they thought the idea was, indeed, wonderful. Maybe it was not as God intended – but hey!
And that was the final step: people openly saying that they liked having the good bits without the messy bits. All the pieces of the jigsaw were now in place. Owning a robot baby became a thing. It wasn’t just the childless who wanted one, it was everyone. Carrying a baby around became the norm. People happily discussed each other’s progeny, remarking on Olivia’s cute nose and the gurgling noise that Noah made when tickled.
Of course, people went on having biological children for a while. But the numbers dwindled. Within ten years, the industrialized world reported that organic babies were now in the minority. And where the industrial world leads, the unindustrialized world must surely follow.
Demographers were caught unawares. For some years they had been pointing out that populations in many countries were in decline, and that this was a global trend. But they had thought the process would be gradual; the decline would be manageable; governments would have time to adapt. Now, it was all happening much faster than they’d predicted. Why was that? Why were people choosing not to have organic babies? Back in the 20th century, contraception had broken the link between sex and procreation, but that hadn’t stopped people wanting families. The desire for a child was still there. A primal emotion, quite separate from the desire for sex. So, what was going on? What was different now?
The answer was that demographers and sociologists alike had misunderstood the true nature of that primal desire. It wasn’t children that people wanted. Not really. Couples weren’t looking ahead to the geography homework and the slammed doors. They weren’t picturing their child getting cancer in middle age, or struggling with depression. No. They simply wanted a baby. It was the thought of a cuddle that did it: a connection with someone who needs you. That’s what people wanted, and that’s what the ebabies provided. No need for the real thing. No births, no teenagers, no future generations.
The most pressing problem was the old. Without the young, who would staff the care homes? Some governments reacted by banning the sale of ebabies, but that was too authoritarian for most, and anyway, it came too late. Instead, the underlying cause would prove to be the solution. Robot technology was coming along apace and robotic care assistants were soon helping their human counterparts. And the residents liked them. Old age is undignified, and if you can no longer go to the toilet on your own, you don’t want a real person wiping your bottom; you want a nice, non-judgemental, ecarer.
Then came reliable, bipedal movement. First, it was the etoddlers. Then the refuse collectors. Then the shop assistants. Robots were on the move, figuratively and literally. The genie was well and truly out of the bottle.
The rapid and fundamental societal change that followed has been well documented elsewhere. Historians argue about whether humans actually went extinct or whether they evolved into us, with our semi-organic brains and our human shaped plastic heads. But whatever the answer, the change began only a few decades ago. Humanity’s fate was sealed in that one moment, when the engineers gathered round the workbench and excitedly switched on the prototype: the very first JustLikeMe.
© Christopher Wortley
Winning Story: Contest #16
Nobody goes into a pawnshop of their own volition. Massage parlors, check cashing stores, and pawnshops are bastard stepchildren of urban sprawl. Each was a necessary evil, providing unique services against the grain of suburban enlightenment. Seeking them out was akin to lighting a small piece of your soul on fire and inhaling the rancor smell of desperation and futility.
These indoor flea markets permit voyeurs the schadenfreude of seeing someone’s unraveled life. Pawnshops all smell and feel the same. Mothballs tinged with crinkled, grease-stained bills and cut-rate ephemera. The red-eyed guilt of locking eyes with someone who was shopping out of necessity. This was not the trendy thrift store shopping rhapsodized in pop music. On the train line between Despair and Homelessness, this was one of the last stops.
I didn’t enter willingly. Sometimes life dictates your actions in advance.
On my first visit, I brought all the power tools I owned. A circular saw, saber saw, and a cordless drill. Once, they were the tools of my livelihood. I had no formal training, but I could talk a good game on any construction site and frame with the best of them. My white privilege meant the foreman was happy to have another English-speaking guy on the job to police things. They never bothered doing a background check on me. They should have been more concerned with policing me. Given the opportunity today, I’d steal every bit of copper piping I could.
The bottle had a voracious grip on me. It was an expensive habit to feed, and power tools for jobs that no longer existed were useless to me. Perhaps the dead-eyed crypt keeper behind the glass would pay enough to tie me over for a bit. It was an odd twist of fate selling the very thing that put food in your mouth. The irony was rich; unfortunately, you couldn’t rob irony.
The overextended markets and subsequent boom in housing ended like all other manias, with a flaccid whimper. Construction companies were underwater. Bloated with inventory that frequently succumbed to unexplained, freak fires. Shady developers could pull that off in California. Take out whole developments. Out there it was assumed to be an act of God. The result of climate change ignored by politicians whistling past the graveyard at 80 mph in Mercedes-Benzes with V-8 engines belching in wicked laughter.
The same luck didn’t apply on the East Coast. A single fire was possible. Multiple fires were suspicious. Connecticut had more than its share of trial lawyers frothing at the possibility of a headline-grabbing fraud case. Anything to cover the Ivy League tuitions for their junior masters and mistresses of the universe in training.
On my second visit, I brought the shotgun my father gave me on my 17th birthday.
A rite of passage.
My foray into manhood.
As I ran my fingers along the polished chestnut stock and the length of the slender barrels, I was reminded of his only outward sign of respect, acknowledgment, or affection. A Churchill 28 gauge, side by side shotgun that easily cost him a month’s wages. It was a grossly negligent expenditure that the Chief had not run past my mother.
I hustled it from my truck to the store. I didn’t need to catch the wandering eye of a local cop just itching to grind his boot down against my throat any further. My probation terms expressly prohibited access to any weapons. My licensed pistols had already been confiscated. Overzealous probation officers with spit-filled jowls salivated at the thought of tripping me up and sending the revolving door back to prison spinning.
I wasn’t gonna make it easy for them.
The shotgun had remained well-hidden in my house. It had been an extension of my father for over thirty years. A proxy for his existence. Yet here I stood, rooted to the ground haggling with a scraggly-bearded hump of flesh lacking the ability to conceptualize tradition. His idea of honor was being loyal to his Fortnite clan and buying some lascivious skin for his female avatar to indulge his masturbatory fantasies.
I was unloading a rite of passage into the Hot Pockets-stained hands of this vulture. He couldn’t comprehend the Norman Rockwellian visions I had of teaching my son to shoot. We would celebrate his first shot pheasant over a beer and whatever machismo rites of virility we could uphold. The bubbling, burgeoning of toxic masculinity at its finest, neutered by the long arm of the law. I was letting go of the gossamer-thin tethers that bound the generations of my family.
The Churchill, with its gorgeous Spanish inlaid detailing, was worth well over two grand. I couldn’t dare set foot 1000 yards near a gun show where I could easily get fifteen hundred or more. I was begging for $400.
My son’s birthright.
Not enough money to put a dent in rent, car payment, or doctors’ bills. It would cover my food and a selfish treat to numb the pain.
The ghoul hemmed and hawed to avoid $400 like I was asking him to donate a kidney. I brightened at the thought of both chambers being loaded. His last vision would be of me seductively fingering the trigger and my shit-eating grin just before his grey matter was scattered over the original Imperial Japanese battle flag he proudly displayed behind the counter.
I could turn the second barrel on me. We could be two headless horsemen in a steeplechase to Hell.
The grease-covered bills were pocketed as I sought the nearest decent liquor store. It wasn’t going to be a plastic bottle of bourbon night. I would imbibe the finest brown nectar that Kentucky’s oak-smoked barrels produced. Nothing but top-shelf booze for me. Maybe even splurge on a steak. Guns were ubiquitous; I could get one any time I wanted.
If I needed.
Maybe I’d call my kid.
I’ll be damned if I even had his number.
© Dutch Simmons
Winning Story: Contest #9
The following stories are the Outright Winning Entries for the Monthly Short Story Contest
March 2020 onwards