Byron Writers Festival is thrilled to announce the winners and runner up for the Susie Warwick Young Writers Award Writing Prize.
In memory of Susie Warrick, this award celebrates the art of the short story and supports emerging young writers in furthering their career.
Entrants were asked to write an original short story up to 1000 words on any theme.
Here are the JOINT winners of the year 10-12 category:
Gills by Asia Windeyer
A woman moved in across the street from me two weeks ago. Maybe, it might have been three. I didn’t mean to start watching her, but she never put up her curtains. It was her beauty which seized me first. Superficial, I know. She had hair like a mid-winter fire, stark against the paleness of her skin. It fell in ribbons around her plump face, rippled down her back like a childhood memory of the ocean. Written by Homer, a new-wave Helen of Troy. The second thing I noticed was how she moved, like she never learnt to walk, rather, was schooled in the art of floating, legs gently slicing through the expanse of water below her. If I sit in my armchair in the evenings, it’s not to observe her; she’s simply in my line of sight. Mary would call me a creep, tell me to mind my own business. You drink too much and work too little, she’d say. But she’s not here anymore. I pour a drink and watch her from my kitchen. I’ll stop tomorrow.
I write for the first time since the divorce, pages spilling from my clenched hand. I only stop when the pen runs dry, leaving empty scratches against my notebook. I find the woman across the street on every page. At some point, I named her Eve. The images I conjure are that of her in some beach town ankle deep in seawater, a white dress swelling around her in the breeze, fingers wrapped around the stone of some fruit. A summer so salty it would leave her lips cracked. Her, in my apartment, legs folded atop each other like the beginning of a braid. Yes, she says, I understand. Her emerging from the black ocean floor like some siren, red hair like flattened kelp over her back. Still, I evade her notice. I pour myself a scotch and settle back down into my chair. When I finally doze off, she is what I dream of.
I’ve started to wonder if she’s made of the same stuff as me, blood and bone and musings. There’s something almost fae-like in the way she behaves. She is always alone, somewhere in the midst of her living room. Her apartment is never dark. The sun seems to hit it perfectly in the day, pooling like honey on the wooden floors. She’ll flick on the lights the moment the sun starts to dip and leave them on till sunrise. The hum of false yellow light seeps into the night air, a thin cord connecting the two of us. It’s been a month since she moved in, and I’ve never seen her sleep.
Last evening, she began to peel. It started with a spot on her shoulder, her cerulean-swathed nails removing the dried skin with expert precision. I imagine at first it’s some false sunburn, a cruel side effect of her need for light. But it doesn’t stop. I sit in my chair for over an hour, watching her. She peels off pieces of skin like it’s some ritual, placing them down beside her, folded over like laundry. When she finishes, no inch of her skin is left untouched. For the first time, she looks at me, straight in the eyes. It is as though she has only just realised that she is not alone in the world. Her cheeks flush a pale shade of pomegranate. She stands there momentarily, staring, and I feel as though I’ve been caught. But she simply turns away. For a moment, her skin looks almost green, luminescent as the surface of a lagoon. It’s probably just a trick of the light.
It happens because of the dream. I’m with her, Eve (who’s probably not Eve). Her hair is darker, soaked through with water and wrapped around my wrist like some poet’s idea of a bracelet. Like some untethered thing, she ascends into the sky. Weightless; gravity bends around her figure. She moves her arms, fluid and rehearsed, swimming. The air becomes a pale expanse of water, and from where I stand, sunlight scabs over the liquid roof. Her mouth makes a gentle Oh shape, bubbles breaking away from her lips like an unheard song. I wake in a tangle of sheets, sour with sweat. Half-lucid, I pull on my shoes. Their blue soles are peeling and echo a hollow slap against the concrete as I cross the street. I climb the stairs of Eve’s building, two floors up, three doors across. Her door is a peeling plasterboard, the same as mine. The rusted brass three stuck in the centre is missing a nail, hanging loose on its side like the limb of a marionette doll. Below it sits a peephole, through it her apartment distorts and condenses into a single, circular frame. The light inside is hazy, casting everything in a soft, airy glow. And there, I see her. But it’s not her. It’s not my Eve. Gone is the kelp-like hair, the bird-boned frame and the summer fruit cheeks. Surely it’s a joke, a dream, a magician’s final act. On the floor of her apartment lies a great green fish. It writhes violently on its side, tail slapping against the wooden floors, body an arc of desperation. It takes deep, gasping breaths and I know, somehow, it is her. She convulses, green scales lit up under ceiling lights like shards of broken beer bottles, gleaming with the memory of salt and sea foam. She is drowning in the bone-dry air. A great black eye flicks to me; and it whispers water. I turn around. Three doors across, two floors down. I cross the road. I unlatch the lock to my apartment. I sleep.
I didn’t see her in the window this morning. So I retrace my steps, peeling soles slapping the ground. Two floors up, three doors across. I walk to her door with its bloated wood and swinging door number, eye to the rounded glass of the peephole. All I want is a glimpse of her, my Eve, not the seaborn monster of last evening. The door’s wood is still, breathless, apartment empty. All that is left is four bare walls, the buzz of overworked electric lights and the faint scent of salt in the air.
I go home. I pour myself a glass of scotch.
Brother by Shanti Leimanis-Budden
The peeling paperbarks were shedding their skin as if, like us, they’d basked in the summer sun too long. The path from the farmhouse down to the creek was always a journey of twists and turns, bends around towering trees and rapids through boulders and stones.
You walked with your head tilted back and stared up to where the canopies met the sky. A universe away, giants appeared from clouds and the air cooled slowly. Down in the steaming undergrowth, we approached the creekbank.
Time felt like liquid that day. It sloshed past us, as we bobbed through its waves. We lay in the sun in the creek, and the floating insects and the little water weeds and the dreams of yesterday and tomorrow washed by. We lay on our backs because you’d finally learnt how to float. We felt our faces crisp up as our bodies cooled and the creek kept running over us.
That summer day we swam at the creek until our teeth chattered and our arms went jelly with fatigue. We climbed out and dried ourselves on the bank feeling the sun run across our backs, we covered our faces with our hats and drifted in and out of sleep.
I watched you as you lay there, your back rising up and down.
When I think of you now, that is how I see you: the small bones of your
ribcage opening and closing; the wash of delight still freshly imprinted on your face; the thrill of floating and not feeling the weight of what was to come.
The first day of summer meant that everyone in the neighbourhood rushed to spend the day in sticky chlorine water while their toes wrinkled like sultanas and the hot chips went soggy in their fingertips.
For a small country town the pool was our Opera House. We had three diving boards getting progressively taller. The highest board was closed to the general public, a sandwich board blocking the ladder to the top.
Dad had driven us that day and had hung around with his mates down on the white plastic chairs that were flaking and brittle from years in the sun. They had stubbies lined up with condensation dripping down the cans, rings of water forming that ran along the lopsided tables.
I was digging through my small paper box of chippies and the seagulls were flocking around me screaming for a crumb.
Suddenly I heard your voice, bold and proud.
‘Watch, Kat! I’m going to fly!’
You were too old to think that if you jumped off the tallest board you wouldn’t break your ribs. Too old to believe you could fly.
The crowd had collectively spun like a propellor to look at you and I was screeching at you to come down. Climb down!
‘C’mon you don’t want to jump, you know you can’t actually fly. Please stop. Get down!’
I heard Dad and his mates laughing about the loon at the top of the diving board. I watched as his face baulked when he realised it was you.
‘Get down now,’ he barked. ‘You will hurt yourself. You’re a bloody idiot!’
You stood with your head high and slowly, so delicately, spread your arms. For a second, they looked like wings. You looked so calm and peaceful for a moment I thought maybe you could fly.
‘Call triple 0.’
Blue and red lights bounced along the clear water and the sirens seeped into my brain as we all watched, mesmerised.
You. On your tippy toes. Hands and fingers spread. Board bouncing waiting to release. You. Frail body. Ruffled hair. Grin. Shiny teeth. You.
I noticed the amount of empty beer cans rolling across the concrete in the afternoon breeze.
All these years later and that day at the pool is all I could think about when I heard the news of you on the TV.
‘Local farmer alerted police to a body that was found in the creek at 6:00am. The body is reported to be that of a man in his early twenties. Reasons for his death are yet to be concluded.’
They’d blurred your face, I’d seen that T-shirt nearly every day. I’d seen that body nearly every day.
The police called me. They questioned me about your stability, your drinking, why there were bottles littering the bank.
Dad called three days later asking why I didn’t do anything to stop this from happening.
‘What’s wrong with you, you never said anything… Did you know something was wrong with him? Did you?’
I placed the receiver down on the armrest and let his words trickle out, he was too drunk to know that my ear was no longer pressed to the phone.
The peeling paperbarks were shedding their skin again. There were squiggly trails up the gnarled eucalypts. The path from the farmhouse down to the creek was still a journey of twists and turns, a river of rapids through boulders and stones.
This time I walk with my head tilted back and stare up to where the canopy meets the sky. A universe away, you appear in the clouds. Pareidolia.
I stand on the muddy bank my feet sink into the silt.
I slip my big toes into the water letting the shiver pass up through my hips.
I strip down and fall into the water, leaves flickering past me.
I shut my eyes and push under the surface and for a second I am weightless and I can’t hear my breath or my heartbeat and the creek sloshes into my ears and my nose and I am sinking and falling and floating. Silence. Silence. Silence.
Your bright blonde hair flashes by like a halo and your small toes and fingers brush along my back and your white gap-toothed smile stings my eyes and the water rushes around me and finally I can hear my heart again.
Congratulations, Asia and Shanti!
Below is the runner up:
Mind Blowing – Floyd Whitaker
I just don’t go outside anymore, it’s too dangerous. Not for me – but for everyone else. I am cursed, there’s no cure for what I have. Doctors can’t help me. They don’t believe in the ‘supernatural’.
It all starts with a guitar riff. Ascending and descending. That’s when it happens. Whether it’s from a nearby speaker, someone’s phone or even someone else playing the song on the street. Whenever I hear Mr. Brightside, I am suddenly covered in the maroon, bone speckled, brainmatter of everyone in my vicinity.
Police watch my flat and track my phone. I have completed more witness testimonies than one man could have ever imagined and I have been covered in more brainmatter than JFK’s back seat. The cops will never be able to prove it’s me. They don’t believe in the ‘supernatural’.
Three yards is the rule. I figured that out on the first day, the worst day of my life. Summer 2004. London was alive, I had never seen it more busy. I struggled to make my way through the crowded tube station. A small band in Las Vegas had decided to release a song. To their surprise the song was a hit in the UK. The tube station played BBC Radio One that day.
“And now, here at BBC Radio One, the debut single from The Killers!” the distorted speakers in the roof exhaled.
I was shoulder to shoulder with a businessman on my left and a backpacker on my right. Both my ears were suddenly full of warm chunks and I was on the ground. I heard a faint ringing as I wiped thick red liquid from my eyes. I pushed myself to my knees. The businessman lay on his front beside me, I rolled him over to find a gaping red crater between his shoulders. I fell back in shock.
“Oh my god!”
Swirls of voices surrounded me, crying, vomiting, calling ambulances. I sat frozen, taking in the carnage around me. The mother with three children in front of me? Annihilated – all three of them. The backpacker? Just a headless corpse strapped to a backpack. Not to mention the five other people who were walking several feet away from me. Blood leaked down the tile walls of Piccadilly Circus station and trickled onto the pavement. The onlookers who stood in shock 4 yards away remained intact.
Seven PM. I peer out of the shutters as the sun sets. My apartment is filled with an orange glow. I put my Mum’s freshly wrapped birthday present on the kitchen counter. I have to go, she’s turning 70.
It has been 12 years since my last incident. Not because it doesn’t happen anymore – because Sony makes good noise cancelling headphones. I walk along Westminster Bridge as the sky goes a deep purple and the Thames stops reflecting the sun. The air begins to cool as the October dusk settles into night, while I walk along the river’s edge.
I hand my Mum her present as I sit down at the table. She thanks me. Dim lights bounce off the pub’s dark wooden walls. The green carpet smells like hundred year old beer and memories. “How are you?” asks my sister.
“Not bad,” I reply.
My aunt asks me if I have a job yet. It’s hard to get hired when you’ve had 37 witness testimonies. I can tell they pity me, after all the trauma they have witnessed me go through. The pub has a live band and that makes me nervous. They’ve only played blues so far, but it’s still a high risk situation.
We sing happy birthday as my sister reveals a birthday cake topped with sparklers. “I couldn’t fit 70 candles on the cake, Mum”, she lashed.
The live band begins to play a rendition of Take Me Out by Franz Ferdinand. I get nervous. They’re drifting from blues to indie pop and I realise I’m pushing my luck. “This next ones a hit, feel free to sing along”, a voice echoes through the P.A. I stand up abruptly, bumping the table. I spill everyone’s drinks as the intro to Ruby by the Kaiser Chiefs begins. Everyone asks what I’m doing. The whole pub is looking.
“I have to go, I can’t… I have to-”, I stop as my sister’s eyes begin to throb and blood trickles out of her nose. The pub doors swing open as an army of men in blue and yellow football strips fill the pub.
“I just can’t look, it’s killing me…!” they chant. I get thrown to the floor as the explosion of my sister’s head sends chunks flying across the pub. I scream no, as the Chelsea fans stop singing and gaze in horror as my mother and father’s headless corpses tumble to the floor.
Somewhere inside the hoard, a speaker continues to play. I drag myself to my feet and stumble through the crowd as they part like a red sea. Heads explode around me. Tears wash the blood from my eyes. I make it to the footpath outside. The song stops and the street is silent, except for the approaching sirens. I push past a couple and snake their cab.
“Where to?” asks the cabbie.
“Boyfield Street!” I demand. “No radio!”
“Whatever bruv,” he sighs and turns up the dial.
Indie Rock Mix is visible on his car’s display. He turns onto Westminster bridge. The playlist shuffles to the next song. The guitar riff begins and I roll my eyes. Acceptance. The car hurtles towards the footpath as the windscreen is covered in brain matter. Colliding with the barrier, it flips upside down, barrel rolling. I levitate as gravity is suddenly taken from me. Then we begin to fall. Faster. Towards the darkness of the Thames. The windscreen makes contact with the water and I hurtle forward out of my seat towards the dashboard and out into the cold nothingness. I’m smiling.
A big congratulations to our winners, runners-up and to everyone who submitted their stories to our annual Student Writing Prizes. We received over 130 submissions across the three prizes.
Winners and runners-up were presented with their awards at Byron Writers Festival by Sarah Armstrong, Karen Foxlee and Siboney Duff.
Read more of our posts at www.byronwritersfestival.com/blog