I have finally completed the judging for the SlingInk Scribbling Slam. Six rounds of twenty(ish) stories over a couple of months. Each story receiving a paragraph or two of feedback. It’s been a slog (especially considering I’ve had to fit it in with other paid work – though I should say a very big thank you for the lovely present I received from the organiser) but it’s also been an awful lot of fun. I know I’ve said it before, but I really enjoyed doing it and I feel privileged both to have been able to read such a lot of great stories and to have helped, in some small way, with the writers’development.
And, while I’m on, I think I’ll take the opportunity to apologise for a few delays we experienced. One was down to a holiday (not mine, god forbid that! – I’ve not had one in three years) and one was due to me having a migraine. So, to those who ended up waiting longer than they thought they ought to: I am sorry. I honestly did my best. Plus, I wouldn’t have wanted to have to have given rubbish, half-arsed feedback – I signed up for this to help and to do the job properly. I appreciate your tolerance and patience.
Anyhoo. The results are in. And I would like to offer my huge congratulations to Stef Hall, who is this year’s overall winner. And also extend my congrats to the runners up and to EVERYONE who took part.
And, as luck would have it, Stef was also the winner of the final two rounds and I present those winning stories here, for your enjoyment. And enjoy them you will, I think, because they are excellent.
Here’s the first:
He wasn’t perfect; that was what made him so perfect.
He was quiet and pale, insubstantial, barely there at all.
She wanted him.
When she heard him sing, it was like sunlight on her face and lightning on her soul.
Sometimes, when it’s silent, she can still hear him.
She didn’t think anyone had noticed him. He sat alone in the corner by the stereo drinking dandelion and burdock from a red paper cup. No one even glanced in his direction, but he saw them: sharp blue eyes behind steel-rimmed glasses were the brightest thing about him.
His pale skin and fair hair, blonde almost to the point of whiteness, made a stark contrast with his black jeans and tee. His lips moved, although there was no one close enough to hear him. It wasn’t until he leaned his head back against the sofa and closed his eyes that she realised he was singing. His long, slender fingers drummed against the cup in time to the beat; his wrist bones were narrow but his tendons stood out across the back of his hand as his fingers moved. He was stronger than he looked.
She moved across the room and perched on the other end of the sofa. No one noticed her, either, not even him. His body surged and rocked as though the swell and roll of the music was coursing through him and he was powerless to resist its sway.
She wanted to touch him, to see if his pale skin is as cold and hard as it appeared. He reminded her of a chess set she saw once in an antique shop, pieces carved from bone and ebony facing each other across the expanse of black and white checks: they appeared delicate but had stood the test of time so well it belied their fragility.
His lips were still moving; she could see the soft dimple of his philtrum flexing and relaxing as his mouth made words she couldn’t hear, his voice lost in the hubbub of the party, and found inexplicably that she longed to lick it.
It was not the last strange thing he would make her want to do.
She picks up a white pawn and moves it forward two spaces. The piece is smooth and comfortable under her fingers: she has played this game many times, and the pieces are worn to the shape of her grip.
She studies the board, with its one white pawn out of line, marooned in a black square. She seems to be contemplating the next move, but the games always follow the same pattern. There is no sound in the room but her own breathing but when she reaches out and touches the pieces in a set order – rook, Knight, Queen, King – she can hear his voice.
She leans across the table and picks up another white pawn, moving it forward two spaces to meet its mirror image on the board. White v white.
There are no black pieces on this board. The darkness is all in her.
She picks up a third pawn and continues her endless game.
She scooted along the sofa to the cushion next to him, wanting to pick out his voice above the general chaos of the room. Her movement shifted the cushions, jostling him and he opened his eyes. The last strains of the song died away. His body stilled and he smiled at her.
“Hi,” he said, and raised his paper cup like he was toasting her. She could smell the dandelion and burdock. The smile made him look roguish, as though he was capable of far more mischief than his slight frame and angelic colouring would suggest.
She tried to answer him, but found she couldn’t speak. She had wanted him from across the room but the smile had constricted her throat and her mouth was suddenly sticky. She smiled, lips tight to hold back the words that threatened to pop out, and took a sip of her wine. It was dry white and didn’t help.
Another song began, and his body began that lazy, absentminded convulsion again. His fingers tapped, the tendons flexing beneath his white, white skin, and the urge to put her hand on his wrist was almost overwhelming.
Then he began to sing.
He was a tenor, his voice high and clear. It wrapped itself around her like a warm caress and her lower stomach ignited. He looked at her then and everything inside did a slow, lazy tumble in a melting, slipping, sliding heat between her legs. Sparks shot through her until her bones trembled.
He gave her the slightest smile, just the corners of his mouth twitching up around the edges of his words, his long fingers drumming against the red paper cup.
She tried to resist, but her entire body convulsed as he hit a high note and the words were out before she could think about them.
“I want you,” she said.
“Sing for me,” she said.
“I’m not your trained chimp,” he said.
“Please? You know what it does for me. You won’t be sorry.”
“You only want me for my voice.”
“That’s not true, baby, you know that.”
“Really… but please?”
A flash of that smile and she knew she had won. As his voice wrapped itself around her, she reached across the bed forhim.
“I’m leaving you.”
“I’m leaving you. I found someone who wants me even when I don’t sing for them,”
“But you can’t, I love you.”
“No. You only love my voice.”
There was no smile that time.
As she removes the opposition’s Queen from the board, his voice weaves through her head like a curl of mist. She surveys the board with her fingers still lingering on the piece at the side of the board: when she lets go, his voice will stop.
Only three pieces remain on the board, a rook and the two Kings. She picks up the Queen again and rolls it in her palm while she stares at the board. The Queen is so smooth almost all the definition of the carving is gone. His voice whispers through her like the memories of winters past.
There is no slipping, sliding, melting any more, but her bones still shiver.
“You can’t leave.”
“I won’t let you.”
“How will you stop me?”
“I’m not the only one who can melt.”
She lets go of the Queen and his voice stops. Reaching out a trembling finger, she pushes the King nearest her onto its side.
“I’m sorry,” she says, and begins to cry.
There is no sound in the room except her weeping.
Half an hour later, she raises her head and begins to rearrange the pieces on the board. Click-clack, click-clack, click-clack, ready to play again in her endless cycle. She will not even stop when they bring her evening meal.
She will not stop, and she will never finish the game, never remove his King from the board, because she fears if she does his voice will stop and the darkness will take over completely.
And when the darkness takes over, she remembers.
She remembers a kitchen knife and his entrails around her bare feet in a hot, slipping, sliding lazy tumble.
She remembers laying the open fire, struggling with the kindling to get a good blaze going.
She remembers a hacksaw and a pool of black blood.
She remembers the hiss and spit of fat dripping into the flames.
The stench of burning flesh.
The crackle of cooling bones.
Her father’s whittling set, not touched since his death fifteen years before, and his bones.
His bones singing to her.
And here’s the second:
Gone To The Dogs
The dogs came first.
In ones and twos they appeared from the depths of the empty buildings, blinking in the sun like unearthed moles. They came slowly, cringing at every sound, shying away from the leaves and empty crisp packets that skittered across the deserted streets. Having exhausted the supply of meat inside, hunger had driven them out – to scavenge, not hunt, all that was left was carrion. Hunger was a compelling master, but they were still scared and they did not approach her.
After a few days they had begun to throng, to form loose packs, but their allegiance to one another was transient, packs breaking and reforming as they competed with each other for food like raindrops on a windowpane. Sometimes she heard trapped dogs scrabbling and whining at doors as she passed, but she didn’t let them out. Domesticated dogs were only two meals away from wolves, or so they said, and it was only a matter of time until their food source ran out.
When the power went out, she would hear them at night, howling into the huge dark bowl of the sky. She had never realised before how many stars there were.
Four weeks after the day when everyone died, she reached the shore. She didn’t know what had brought her there, it seemed the thing to do now that she was alone: to sit and watch the ocean as though its swirling pattern could bring the answer to the one question she couldn’t shake off.
Why had they died, silently, without warning or fuss, simply dropping dead where they stood, sat or lay?
Why had she not?
That night, the dogs circled the fire closer than before. The food was running out, the flesh on the corpses she passed was putrid, slimy and flyblown in the heat of the hot summer days they had longed for but not lived to enjoy. Sometimes, when she walked too close, the flesh would slip from the bones as though it was melting. More than once, the wet slithering sound coupled with the sweet, sticky scent of decay made her vomit until she was doubled over and it felt as though her diaphragm were trying to escape.
Each day, more dogs joined the pack that followed in her wake as though she were some demented pied piper, and each night they circled her fire that little bit closer than the night before. As each day passed without enough food in their bellies, they grew bolder, but not yet bold enough to be more than sets of eyes glinting in the firelight.
Two nights later they growled and snarled in flashes of teeth and claws at the edges of her circle and she braced herself to die at last, but the attack never came.
In the morning, she found the footprints.
The sand was hard, cold and damp in the twilight and held the shape of the footprints well as they marched ever onwards along the beach. She had been following them now without sleep for almost forty-eight hours. The heat had drained from the day quickly as the sun dropped below the horizon and stole the colour from the shore. Her knees and ankles creaked with every step and her back felt as though it were on fire, but she could not bring herself to stop.
Somewhere, ahead in the deepening gloom, someone else was alive. The footprints were deep, defined and clear. They could not have been made… before… or the tide would have taken them by now. They had to have been made in the last twelve hours.
They marched across the beach in a perfectly straight line, evenly spaced as though someone were making them quite deliberately for her to find. The line ran almost perpendicular with the water’s edge, only listing towards it ever so slightly as though the maker of the prints intended to reach the waves eventually, but didn’t want to peak too soon.
When she looked back over her shoulder, her own footprints wove in great swooping curves as she had staggered back and forward trying to stay upright. The sand, initially a welcome change from tarmac, had become cloying and difficult to walk in, as though it were conspiring with her weariness to suck her under.
She needed to sleep, but didn’t dare: if she stopped for even a few minutes, that was a few minutes further ahead the maker of the prints would be.
She kept walking and three more dogs joined the pack.
After almost three days following the footprints, she gave in and slept for six hours.
She dreamed of children laughing in the park outside her bedroom window on summer days just like the ones they had been looking forward to before the silence came.
She dreamed of ripe bananas and fresh milk. Hot coffee in one of those corrugated paper cups with the plastic lids from the cafe on her way to work. Big Mac and fries, hold the pickle.
She dreamed of a hand brushing against hers as they reached for the lift button at the same moment. A stranger, a frisson of skin and against skin, knowing she was not alone.
When she woke up in the first deep blue light of dawn, her face was wet.
Two weeks. The dogs following her totalled sixty three. There had been more, but some of them had fallen along the way to be fallen on and devoured by their pack-mates before their warm bodies even hit the sand. She had thought about competing for the corpses, for some fresh meat, but on more than one occasion the pack, upon finishing with its fallen comrade, would turn as one on another weak or ill specimen and continue the feeding frenzy.
Her own meagre supplies had started to dwindle severely, yet the footprints marched on and she did not dare deviate from their path in case she was not able to find them again.
Or in case they had petered out miles before and she was now only following her hallucinations.
There was barely more meat on her now than on the sun-bleached skeletons she passed. Scraps of clothing – mainly bikinis and trunks – sagged against the bones. Here and there, tattered patches of skin and flesh remained, dark and hardened like jerky. The dogs made short work of anything left behind, sometimes even taking bones with them to crunch later and search for marrow.
The footprints marched on.
She dreamed of feet. Thick, hairy legs and big feet, next to hers and covered in sand, like lovers playing footsie at the water’s edge.
She dreamed of a hand on her wrist, running up her arm to pull her against a warm, solid body that smelled of sweat and brine and testosterone.
She dreamed of a shoulder to rest her head on.
Sixteen days later, the footprints stopped.
She could only stand and stare as the dogs surged forward and tore the body at the end of the line to pieces before turning on several smaller, sicker members of the pack and devouring them, too.
When they had finished, all that was left of him was bones and bloody rags of skin and clothing strewn across the sand. It was hard to tell which pieces belonged to him and which to the unfortunate Jack Russell that died straight afterwards.
She was too numb to cry, too exhausted to try to bury him although she felt like she should: she had followed him for so long, dreamed of him for so long, that she felt she knew him, and she had buried everyone else she knew.
She sits at the edge of the ocean and stares out across the waves. There is nothing left to dream of now, and her bag is empty. She knows she should get up, move back inland and look for a house, a shop, anywhere she might find more canned goods, but it doesn’t seem worth it.
Behind her, the dogs pace back and forth, churning the bloody sand into a soggy mess. The tide is coming in.
They begin the growl.