The winner of our Tell A Story Short Story Competition for the 13+ age group was Brigit Kelly, with her story The Act of Asking. The judge for this category, novelist Sue Orr, said:
This story unflinchingly explores the dangers of loneliness and isolation without succumbing to cliché; its haunting language and unpredictable imagery grip the reader from the first paragraph. The writer sustains a menacing tension until the very end. Like many good short stories, The Act of Asking resists delivering a tidy resolution – instead, it leaves the reader displaced, enveloped in the narrator’s fog of uncertainty and regret.
The Art of Asking, by Brigit Kelly
Being tired is like when you lie in a warm bath and the water fills your ears and nose and you can see through the bubbles; see the ceiling and the tap with the mould peeling in places, but everything is hazy and nothing is real. You’re in a cloud, and that cloud is a sauna and it’s suffocating you but you can’t tell. This isn’t the tired that comes at night when the sky is thick and black; it is the tired that doesn’t ‘come’ but is always there. The air is a pillow and my clothes are the blankets; I don’t need to lie down because it’s my mind that is asleep.
In the bus I look at my lap. In my ear a tiny storyteller talks, chattering in a voice not unlike my own; the girl glances down, her eyes vacant, her mind anything but. Now the narrator that is me, lies- my mind is vacant. My mind is still. I am indifferent to the real life movie I am in. I call myself miserable because at least that’s an image of feeling, it’s disinteresting to be disinterested.
She pines for the sting of emotion.
But I don’t pine for anything. That’s the thing about indifference- I just don’t seem to care.
She struggles within herself to find calm.
I am always calm. I am a log in a stream; I am half-eaten by bugs and soggy and dense and so heavy. But I am calm, and I still float.
My silent narrator whispers into my ear though the gates and into class.
My silent mind sleeps.
“I was wondering where you were.” Brown eyes stare at me from a face two sizes too small. The girl who spoke is thin. Her arms are sticks and her collarbone is a shelf.
“The bus was late.”
“Again?” Brittle fingers tap jutting elbows.
Silence falls between the two girls; two pairs of eyes search the ceiling, the floor, the walls. Anything but the other.
The girl made of bones puts a box on my desk. “I baked you something.”
“What’s it for this time?”
The eyes of the giver darken and a stretched mouth hardens.
“I’m just being nice. You never say thank you.” The voice snaps like a ruler on a hand.
“Thanks.” I lift the lid of the box; cupcakes sit, quiet and fat at the bottom. Mountains of icing crown vanilla hills.
“Do you like it? The icing was fun to make, so much cream.” Large eyes stare at sugary domes. The stare is big, it seems to eat the cupcakes, to swallow them through looking.
“Do you want one?” But I know the answer. I know that she is drowning. I know that she lies in the bath too- but for her, the water is deep. I wonder if she can see the tap with the peeling mould, I wonder if she can see anything at all.
There is a pause. In my head I see her gasping, mouth gaping like a fish. In my head water froths and bubbles in her throat. In my head her eyes bulge and veins stand out on her forehead; livid blue snakes. She chokes and gurgles and spit dribbles from her chin. I can see her drowning and my mind turns in its sleep.
But it isn’t real.
“No.” She says it fast.
“I had a really big breakfast and I ate like, half the batter anyway.”
A silence falls. Our protagonist longs to open her mouth, to ask the question she knows she must, to let the girl breathe again.
But my brain shuts its eyes and pulls the blankets tight.
A bell rings. I am surrounded by people, people whispering as the teacher talks.
The teacher talks and the girl’s shoulders shake and twitch in front of me. Her head lolls on her neck now, and water streams down her throat. I can hear her choking, sense her lungs collapsing.
But it isn’t real.
The day passes quickly. A blur of images and noises that I can see and hear, but cannot care about. But now I want to wake up. I want to wake up and scream at the girl dying in front of me. I want to scream at her and shake her so that she wakes up too.
I write things down on paper and watch adults write on boards. I write all day and remember nothing. Full pages hide blank thoughts.
The girl made of bones writes too. Blood is in her ears and her lips are blue but no one notices. I notice, but I cannot care. I will not care.
A bell rings. Once again I am surrounded by people, people shouting as the teacher is quiet. I stand in the courtyard with the drowning girl.
The pair teeters on the edge of conversation. Our protagonist’s unasked question dances on her tongue. Her friend speaks first.
“Have you had a cupcake yet?”
Ask the question.
“Yes. It was nice, thanks.”
Brown eyes light up. “Could you taste the cream in the icing?”
“Yes, I could.”
“There was so much.”
Pause. “I should go home. I’m glad you liked the icing. I’m making cookies tonight- I have to do something for my brother’s birthday, I’ll give you some.”
“I’ll give you some. I need to make them anyway.”
But the thin girl is walking away. I am still as I watch her arms spasming and her legs collapsing and her head swelling from the bath water climbing up her throat, but still she walks.
I feel my mouth open. My voice is a whisper.
“Are you Ok?”
But the girl doesn’t hear me. The bus trembles to a stop at my feet. I put my earphones in and music drowns the screams of the people around me.
I hardly notice myself speak.
“Am I OK?”
But for once, the narrator in my ear is silent.
The second place in this division went to Georgie Lovell for The Brave Little Kiwi.
Sue Orr said:
The second prize goes to The Brave Little Kiwi, a story nestled in the tradition of the allegorical fable. The story places nature and environmental issues at the forefront, and the ingenuity of its protagonist – a young kiwi bird – is delightful.
The Brave Little Kiwi, by Georgie Lovell
This story takes place in the North Island of New Zealand, in a place that was untouched for many years, but is now is teeming with new enemies and threats. Welcome to the New Zealand forest floor.
“Mama I got one!” Kit cries.
His mother, Ari, comes over and peers in. “Good job Kit, you found two!” she exclaims.
Kit’s head feathers are covered in dirt but he has clearly had fun, she says to herself. Kit pulls out two fat juicy worms and gobbles them up. “What a great feast we’ve had today!” Kit says with his mouth full.
A sudden wind goes by making leaves rustle as Ari scans the dry forest floor.
“We should head back to the den,” she says cautiously, “You never know what may be lurking out there”. The two brown kiwis turn back and walk home.
“Did you mean Kiore?” Kit asks later “Is he the danger you were telling me about?”
“Shh, someone could hear,” she replies “You don't want to end up like your father, do you?”
“No mama,” Kit sighs and goes to his sleep spot.
“Good, now go to sleep Kit.” Ari goes to her own sleep spot. She watches him fall asleep, his bright eyes slowly closing and soon he and she nod off.
Kit suddenly wakes up and hears a rustling noise outside the den. “Mama?” Kit questions as he peeks outside but what he sees shocks him. A huge rat runs along into the ferns with a gang of slightly smaller ones following. The biggest rat has rugged grey fur and a thick long tail, his black piercing eyes scan for prey.
Kit pulls back into the den, his heart thumping. Was that Kiore? Kit remembers the stories his father told him when he was younger about Kiore. Rumour was that Kiore and his minions would kidnap any little kiwi out after bedtime. That story always kept Kit in bed on time. He really missed his father, such a great brave kiwi he was. Ari always said Kit reminded her of him. All Kit remembers is that his father went out scavenging one day and was never seen again.
Suddenly he hears a voice. “Kit, are you up already?” Ari appears behind him looking sleepy.
“I think I saw some rats outside, Mama” He answers, relieved it was only his mother.
“Rats? I’ve never known them to come this close before!” Ari says shocked.
“Plus I think I saw the big one, Kiore, I think.” Kit looks at his mother and says, “What should we do?”
CRUUNNCH! SNAP! The two kiwis hide behind the entrance. “Hey over here!” A loud manly voice calls, and huge stomping feet plunder through the undergrowth. “Looks like we caught one of 'em nasty rats!” The voice is closer this time.
“Pick it up will you, and reset the trap,” another loud voice calls.
“I got one here too!”
Two big arms reach down and place a strange thing Kit has never seen before.
“Mama what’s going on?” Kit asks, bewildered by all of this.
“Shh, your father once told me about these creatures, he called them ‘The Animals’ and described them just like these very ones outside our den” she replies.
“Wow, what is that they are putting down?” Kit asks.
“I’m not sure but the ones they picked up had rats attached!” She responds.
“Rats? Are they hunting them?” asks Kit. Kit peeks around the corner but quickly ducks back when another hand plunges down. They wait until ‘The Animals’ go before having another peek.
“They’re gone Kit, go back to sleep now it’s becoming daylight” Ari orders.
“Ok, night Mama.” Kit hops back to his sleep spot and drifts back off to sleep.
“Why would a creature of their size hunt something small like a rat?” Ari asks herself, thinking back to what Kit had said earlier. “What if they weren't hunting to eat, but for something else instead.” So many thoughts go around in her head as she lays down to sleep.
“Mama! Wake up!” Kit shouts.
“W-what?” Ari awakens and looks around.
The bright awakening moon shines down through the leaves onto their den and a soft breeze blows past.
“I saw another rat run by and it got stuck in one of the things ‘The Animals’ left!” Kit looks at his mother. “Well shouldn’t we inspect it?” he asks.
Ari thinks for a second then nods “Ok but I’ll go out first.”
The two Kiwi peek outside the den entrance and carefully creep out to the rat, making sure no other rats are around.
“It’s ok, the rat isn’t moving,” Ari assures Kit.
“Is it dead Mama?” Kit questions.
They both stare at the rat. Its furry body is crushed and it is very much dead. Its nose is barely touching a yellow object that smells delicious, but looks like a deadly bait.
“I think the rat was after that yellow stuff,” Ari responds after some time.
“It looks trapped and scared…” Kit mumbles.
Ari thinks for a moment and realises what they are looking at.
“That’s it! It’s a trap! A rat trap!” she exclaims, excitedly looking at Kit.
“Oh, so ‘The Animals’ are putting down rat traps?” Kit asks walking around it.
“Yes but I wonder why?” Ari ponders.
Kit looks at the dead rat and wishes it was Kiore in the trap - the meanest, scariest rat of them all. The one that took away his father.
“Hey Mama, do you think one of these traps could capture a bigger one like Kiore?” he whispers.
“Possibly, but if we are going to use one how do we get a trap near our den without getting caught in it?” says Ari as she looks around for a solution.
“We could push this one here that already caught a rat and then when ‘The Animals’ come they will put down a new one that we can trap Kiore with.” Kit says not realising he just came up with the cleverest plan a Kiwi had ever thought of.
“That’s a brilliant idea Kit! But we need bait and I’m sure Kiore is smart enough not to go after something so small…”, Ari admits.
“I know what to do!” Kit smiles and looks at his Mum, “I’ve got a plan!”
The two Kiwis started on their plan that could save them from extinction.
The next night Kit gathered grass and leaves to cover the trap.
“Good, they shouldn’t be able to tell it’s a trap until it’s too late,” says Ari as she scans the forest. She looks back at Kit, “Do you remember the plan Kit?” she checks.
“Yes mama, I know what to do”, he replies for the second time.
“Let’s begin then, the sun will rise soon.” She hops off to her hiding spot and Kit walks carefully around the trap into the open forest.
“Ok Kit you can do this,” he tells himself “just follow the plan.”
He takes a deep breath and shouts, “Hello Mama? Where are you?” Kit walks out further carefully avoiding the trap. “Where are you? I’m so lonely guarding OUR EGGS”. He listens and hears a rustle in the ferns.
“Oh well, I guess I’ll go back to guarding the EGGS all BY MYSELF!” Kit takes a few steps back and hears multiple rustles. He turns back to the den just as three rats jump out, one of them being Kiore. Kiore snarls at Kit and has a sly grin on his face.
“Eggs you say? Why don’t you show me your nest and then I’ll leave you alone.” Kiore snarls again as he slowly gets closer. Kit sees the moon fade and takes another step back.
“If you want our eggs you will have to get through me first!” Kit yells and runs into the den, dodging the trap. Kiore smirks and sprints after him not seeing the hidden trap. As he runs on all fours, a snap is heard as the trap works its magic.
“AHHHHHHH!” Kiore screams as he plunges into the invisible trap. His rat minions run forward to help but get stuck in another trap ‘The Animals’ had put down. Kiore tries to wriggle out, but the trap has him stuck for good. Suddenly a small rock falls out of nowhere and hits Kiore right on the head. His eyes roll back and close and he slips into an unconscious state. By now, the moon is gone and the sun has almost risen and giving light over the forest.
“Good job Mama!” Kit calls, looking up to where the rock fell.
“Thanks, but get inside the den quickly, it’s nearly daytime!” Ari calls from her position up on the mound. Kit runs inside and waits for Ari who walks down the steep dirt mound and runs to Kit.
“We did it Mama! We did it!” Kit cries, hopping up and down.
“Not yet we haven’t,” she says as she looks out. “Wait behind here Kit.”
“Ok Mama” Kit replies and hides just behind the entrance.
“They will be here any mo-”
CRUNNCCHH! SNAP! Two huge feet come hurtling down to the ground.
“Oh that’s them.” Ari continued.
A gigantic hand comes hurtling down and picks up the trap with one of Kiore’s rat minions.
“Got a few of em’ over here!” the voice calls. Next, another hand reaches down and picks up the unconscious rat leader, who looks almost dead.
“Ooh wow, this is a biggy!” the voice calls again. ‘The Animals’ pick up the rest and reset them before leaving.
“Good job boys,” a different voice calls, “Let’s go home.”
They wait until the animals go and then hop back into their sleep spots far from the entrance.
“Now we have done it Kit”, Ari says as she drifts off to sleep.
“No more big attacks of the rat gang, for once we are safe.” Ari looks at Kit, she is so proud of him and what they have accomplished. He is so brave, just like his father, she tells herself
“Goodnight Mama” Kit whispers.
And finally, third place went to a joint effort by Georgie Lovell and Milly Purcell. All names and identifying information were removed from the stories before judging, so Sue had no idea that Georgie Lovell was behind bothe the second and third place stories. Sue said:
Third prize is awarded to A Short Story – an action-packed mini thriller peppered with wry humour and the classic tropes of the horror genre. This story, like the winning one, refuses to let the reader off the emotional tightrope, even in its final line.
A Short Story, by Georgie Lovell and Milly Purcell
It was a cold wintery Sunday night and Milly was home alone. Her mum had left for a boring business trip and wasn't coming back until sometime on Monday morning. Milly decided to sleep on the couch while she was away. She was watching TV with her dog Alfie, occasionally stroking his fur. On the news they discovered that a man had escaped from a mental asylum nearby her small township. The patient's name sounded quite familiar and left a queasy feeling in her gut, but the event wasn't rare and the police usually sorted it out pretty quickly so she didn't bother worrying.
Suddenly Milly heard the front door creak. She got up from the couch and scanned the windows but could only see shadows from the trees outside. The uneasy feeling in her stomach rose to her throat. She turned around to see Alfie run to her bedroom, whining and scratching at the door.
She slowly opened the door, Alfie burst in barking madly. Milly spotted a small puddle of blood. She screamed, and ran back into the living room. She grabbed hold of her home phone, and tried to call her Mum, but the call was intercepted by creepy unknown laughter! Horrified, she dropped the phone onto the living room floor and suddenly noticed the bare silence leaking from her room.
Milly started crying and called for Alfie to come, but there was no reply. She called again and again, but still nothing. She started to freak out. She crept back to her room and peeked round the door. She saw Alfie's limp body dangling from the ceiling! Milly gasped and took a step back before noticing the bloody words on the wall “You’re Next…’
A shadow moved behind her. She turned around in time to see bloody footprints leading out of the room down to the basement. If this person killed her dog certainly they wouldn’t hesitate to kill her too. The thought made her shiver. Searching for an escape, she noticed the door handle was missing.
All of a sudden, Milly remembered she was supposed to go over to Georgie’s house to study over an hour ago! Surely Georgie would notice something is wrong. Milly had never been allowed to be home alone before and it’s known that she doesn’t like to be by herself at night time.
There is nothing Milly can do now, except pray that Georgie realises what’s going on and brings help soon. Right now she must try and protect herself from whatever is in her house. Really, she should lock herself in the bathroom with a weapon, but no her curiosity gets the better of her and she decides to creep down the rotting steps to the basement in hope of discovering who killed her dog. As she reaches the basement, the door slams and the lock clicks. She knows she's been tricked."Fudge!" She exclaims looking around her. No sign of this dog butcher yet.
Cold moonlight shines through the small basement windows as she wipes the tears from her cheeks. She quickly runs through possible ways of escaping. Then a light bulb goes off in her head. “The cellar door!” Milly hurries over to the boxes and pushes them apart revealing the old wooden doors. She unlocks it and pushes, but it doesn’t budge. “Ugh!” She groans and remembers the wooden plank put on the otherside by her mum to stop possums getting in. She bangs her hand hard against it and breathes heavily. Milly has always hated horror movies and now she’s stuck in one of her own.
A high-pitched squealing sound comes from the hot gas cylinder, the heat meter reaches maximum and shatters everywhere. She jumps and turns around.
Someone’s messed with the temperature! Her eyes widen as it starts to expand.
“It’s going to explode!” She gasps.
Meanwhile, Georgie opens the gate to Milly’s garden and quickly walks up to the house and knocks on the door. She had ran from her house here after waiting over an hour for Milly. Georgie knew she would have contacted her if she wasn't coming. Something is wrong.
“Hello?” Georgie calls “Milly? Are you there?” She peeks through the window into the lounge. It’s too dark to see much but she can make out the shape of Milly's home phone lying on the ground from the soft glow of the TV left on. Neither Milly or Alfie were anywhere in sight with no clue where they might have gone. The tall trees leave creepy shadows on the path tracing back to Milly’s yard. She shivers and sucks up all of her courage to turn around and follow the path round to the back. Her own spindly shadow follows behind her as she continues on.
Back in the basement Milly scavenges for something to break open the doors. With no luck she decides to build a wall mildly protecting herself from the fast-growing cylinder. She hears faint footsteps outside on the gravel. “Oh dear are they back!?” Milly frets. She stands up by the doors and shouts “Help me!!!”.
Georgie jumps when she hears the banging on the basement doors. Georgie tries to pry the plank from the door but it stays put “DAMN!”She hurriedly runs around and finds Milly’s bedroom window smashed, big enough to fit a person in. A weird smell pours from the hole. “Ergh! What is that? Georgie climbs through the window trying not to cut herself. She notices a pool of blood on the ground and she looks up and sees Alfie. “Oh Alfie what- WAIT ALFIE!?” She feels nauseous, scared and her head starts to feel woozy. She can’t take this all in. “And i thought she was a vegetarian…” she says with her head in her hands. None of it is making sense but she has to continue on to find Milly. Georgie swallows the sick feeling in her throat and steps around the blood, pinching her nose shut. Inching out of the bedroom she reaches out and grabs a vase from a nearby table. She turns, trying to open the basement door and of course its locked. She looks through the keyhole and shouts. “Hello? Is anyone in there? Preferably milly but this whole hacked dog thing is freaking me out so anyone will do right now!
Milly looks everywhere for a hammer and once finding it she carefully, but quickly gets past the obese cylinder to the steps. She rams the claw of the hammer against the door and hears a shout from the otherside“IT'S ALIVE!!” huh that sounds alot like- “AHH ITS A ZOMBIE DOOR APOCALYPSE!!!” -Georgie..! Ugh who else would come up with such a silly explanation.
“NO YOU POTATO!” Milly shouts!“Milly is that you…?”says the voice.
“Duh! And i’m not a zombie door or whatever! Now get me out!”
“Sure thing!” She replies “Now um... “
“The spare key in the cupboard next to the oven…?!”Milly says in a dull tone.
“Oh yea right!” Georgie answers, putting the vase down,
Georgie rummages through the cupboard searching for the key and manages to find it. She runs back to the basement door fumbling to get the key in the lock. Finally she gets it in, turns the key and opens the door. Milly bursts out knocking Georgie back. Milly grabs Georgie and says “We have to get away from the basement before the cylinder explodes!” The whistling sound intensifies and head radiates from the doorway that Milly was freed from. They run through Milly’s bedroom, forgetting about the pool of blood, slipping and sliding to the window. They climb through it not even thinking about the sharp jagged glass which snags on their clothes and cuts their skin.
Just as they get out of the house the walls erupt and they are thrown forward. Milly and Georgie find themselves in a pile of muddy grass clippings. Their ears are ringing from the explosion, their bodies are sore and as they open their eyes all they see is a blaze of orange, red and black as the house is engulfed in flames.
They lie there for a second before spitting out the bits of grass as a shadow appears towering over them…
“Mum?” Milly questions regaining her vision.
It wasn’t Milly’s Mum. It was a tall unfamiliar man in weird clothes (perhaps a painter?) looking ever so slightly thrown off guard. There was no time to talk as he helped both girls up and lifted them to safety. He quickly introduces himself as Lesley Ferguson and said he lives just across the road and had rushed over when he saw the house explode. He gave them some pills to ease the pain and headed off to call 911. The girls sat there barely believing what had happened and not noticing the weapon he quickly covered in the clippings. Georgie turned to Milly “This isn’t some sort of weird home movie you are filming is it?”
Milly didn’t hear what Georgie said as they both suddenly had the urge to close their eyes and sleep.
Sirens from the fire trucks, ambulances and police cars were blasting when they woke. Paramedics surrounded them asking questions on how they felt but they were too dizzy to reply. Soon it quietened down and they were taken to a hospital. A police detective came in to ask a few questions. Both girls recounted their stories and the detective sat quietly before saying, “does the name Lesley Ferguson ring a bell?”
“Umm..” The girls try to remember the familiar name stifling a laugh. Who names their son Lesley!?
“He recently escaped from Sunnyside Asylum and it appears that a few years ago your mother was the prosecutor who got him convicted for his crimes. We think there is a connection between him and the events that happened tonight. Also, we have spoken with your mother, Milly, and she is on her way home.” He continues on
A doctor walks in wearing the usual doctor outfit - white lab coat. She quickly talks to the detective before coming towards the girls. “According to the results, you were drugged” she starts.
“What!” Their jaws drop.
“Were either of you taking medicine beforehand?” She asks the girls.
“Um no apart from the occasional headache tablet” Georgie replies with Milly nodding her head in agreement. All of a sudden the memories flood back to her mind
“A man…, from across the street, came over and gave us both a tablet to ease the pain. Then he went and called you guys, but I don't know where he is now.” Says Milly sleepily.
“What do you mean he called the Police?” The detective gets up and joins them.
“We weren’t called. We could see the fire from the police station and came as fast as we could.” He starts looking slightly confused “Do you know what house he came from?”
“He said he lived across the road, I think.” Georgie replies.
“Wait! That old house across the road? No one’s been there in years!” says Milly.
“Hmm.. I’ll tell my men to check it out” The detective turns to speak into his walkie talkie.
“Oh geez this is weird.. who was the man?” Georgie rests her head in her hands.
“Lesley Ferguson.. what a silly name” Milly laughs half conscious.
“Wait, that was his name wasn't it?” says Georgie. She looks drowsily at her best friend. “ Lesley Ferguson he said! I remember now!” Georgie jumps up excited at the discovery- “Oh-my-god! H-he was t-the psych patient!” She exclaims, her hands clamping over her own mouth in shock. “How could we be so oblivious! He killed your dog and drugged us!”
“..And.. blew up my house..” Milly adds slowly.
“Officer! We can confirm that Mr Ferguson is responsible!” Georgie declares just as he walks into the room.
“Good because I have some news too.” He puts the walkie talkie back in his pocket “We have found something that could possibly track us back to him.” He holds out a small, dirty, square looking object “This.”
“What is it?” Georgie looks at it quizzically.
Milly suddenly appears behind her, gripping onto her shoulder for support. “That,”she says pointing “Is a pager.”
Right at that moment the device beeps broadcasting a message on the screen
THE UNDERWORLD IS WAITING FOR YOU
36.8066° S, 174.7892° E