First of all, thank you to everyone who took the time to enter the competition! I listed 105 submissions eventually (including two non-competing entries), and we were all very pleased to find many of them to be well-written, high-quality works, which made the decision making rather difficult.
After careful consideration the judges selected the following entries for the shortlist, feedback for these along with the winner announcement will be posted toward the end of this week.
13. The Contest
17. The Queen’s Assassins
22. A Locking Door
30. The Sure Thing
39. The Electric Heart Cannot Bleed
58. The Liar’s Lock
64. The Z Word
86. The Liar in the Cellar
90. Black Dog
101. The Lady Lovebang
11. Worse Than Death
Death is a villain. No matter how hard you run from it, every step you take is towards it. We pray to Death as if it listens, but it never does.
“It’s fear of death that kills us,” my father would say.
He wasn’t wrong, but I find it’s that fear that sharpens us. Life is full of contradictions, truths that stand in opposition. But like a double-edged sword, you need both sides to make it whole.
When Death took my wife I begged. At our best moment together it ripped her from me, leaving me a daughter. It was bitter sweet. Both edges felt sharp, both cut deep.
It was when it left my daughter grey and limp in the night however, that my will sharpened. In the dark that followed I looked for answers to the question I thought unanswerable.
Then I found it!
I lie here now, waiting. My body is broken, but not by accident. I want a meeting, and Death will accommodate me. Through the looking glass I watch, its weight a struggle in my broken hand.
Then I see it!
Eventually it realises I’m watching it.
“Do you know what this is?” I push an ancient key from my shirt.
Death moves, and I see what must be eyes. They brighten.
“This is a key,” I try to enjoy the moment, “to the chains that bind you.”
It hisses, sick and deep.
“Do as I command, and one day I will set you free.” It should know I’m a liar.
It replies, a voice rancid and filled with the dead.
Death is a villain. No matter how hard you run from it, every step you take is towards it. We pray to Death as if it listens, but for now it listens to me!
by Paul Twomey
“‘Worse Than Death’ combines strong, poetic writing with a nice twist and falls down only on the minor points of over using “it’ and compressing a broad temporal sequence into a space that was perhaps too short for it.”
I think the metaphors and reflections that force a reader to think about their own circumstances create an impressive contrast between beauty and despair. I feel joy at the way the words make me feel but sadness in the thoughts they conjure up. This would make a very good short story and I’d ask the author to make sure they re-write this as a 3000-8000 word piece keeping the same style and expanding the story.
91. Resolve in Barren Times
I need a liar and a key in my quest for white gold. They are neither one nor the same. Although they know these barren times better than I, nothing matches their brutality quite like my resolve.
The liar crumbles the surety of those we pass and slithers through the very hearts of the naive. The key is more honest, more righteous, and bold, pleasantly willing to provide the knowledge I seek. From the curves of the land to the swing of a sword, I no longer fear the road, even make reapers of these bony excuses for arms.
Soon enough, the eye of hibernation creaks open over great spines of snow. Our quest is nearing its end. The liar is the diversion and the key is the secret. Retrieving sacks upon sacks of white gold turns out to be our simple feat. But as we stare down the bare neck of the mountain we so expertly thieved, the liar says something I cannot ignore.
“Why settle with my third, when a whole is within reach?”
I feared this from the start. It is in this moment I decide to show them how a liar and a key can truly be one. I take the key’s sword and show the liar how few mere bones my arms hold now. Pity the key is too good for his own good. I don’t want to cut him, too.
As the crimson waters fall, I eagerly find shelter from their barrenness. I don’t care much for what I have done. I care only about the silence, and the way I can now tip the white gold into the mouth of my infant dearest.
by Louisa Marija I. Aricheta
“‘Resolve in Barren Times’ has some very strong characterization and some great imagery, but it it feels like there’s a very abrupt change of pace in the middle, and to me it shades into a different kind of story by the end. The result is a whole that feels unbalanced. But, again, it’s a strong contender, and very hard to pass up.”
13. The Contest
Slyly, she dropped the key down the front of her dress. I could but stare at her embonpoint, two silken globes thrust upwards from a corset so tight, it was a wonder she could breathe. But breathe she did, magnificently so. A mesmerising sight.
“So,” she said, “you think you’re going to win this contest? You know I do have some say in the matter.”
She must have thought me a liar as I shook my head like a simpleton. Indeed, I could only gasp like a landed fish as she slid along the bench towards me, tracing her fingers slowly up my arm. Blood rushed to places that it always does when a beautiful woman does that tracing thing.
Coughing, I tried to speak. And failed. The other hand was now meandering up my thigh. My eyes rolled as she delicately touched parts of me that I normally kept well in hand, usually my own. I hoped she couldn’t grasp – no – not grasp. See. Oh the gods preserve me. I was done for now.
I moaned as she delicately nipped my ear lobe. Even sitting down, I could feel my knees weakening. Her hands were doing strange and wondrous things round the back of my neck. Nobody had told me that this would be the closest thing to heaven without being naked.
“Er…“ I replied.
Such erudition. From me: the man who could sell a spavined horse back to its mother. Lost for words? I was completely bewitched as she gazed at me. How long were those eye-lashes? She smiled and my world turned upside down and I fell. Fell long and hard. I surrendered.
Breathing into my ear, her body pressed into mine, I heard her speak again.
“I think that last pickled onion is mine, don’t you?”
by Marj Crockett
17. The Queen’s Assassins
The key clicks in the door behind her.
“What’s the meaning of this?” I ask, master of the raised eyebrow, even while uncertain in my standing.
“’Your Majesty,’” she corrects, pleasure thrumming through her voice.
Shaking my head, I respond with the refrain that’s all too familiar to her by now. “I am one of the King’s Assassins. You are not a king.”
“The king is dead.”
“And the meaning of the word has changed?” I snort. The king’s warm wrinkle of a face pops into my head unbidden, and while I’ve done terrible things in his service, I know the fondness he felt for me was genuine. I never begrudged serving him, but his young icy wife should have had her throat cut. Ah, if only he had given the order.
“It means,” her pleased cat grin stretching her face grotesquely, “that your service is no longer required.”
Before I can escape, I feel the pressure of not just one, but two sets of hands lifting up. I twist, and on either side of me, I see the men whom I’ve killed with and fought with and grew up with in the king’s service. Only the king.
“You promised,” I whisper.
They look down, unwilling to meet my eyes, and I know they remember our plans to flee from the hell her reign promised, the king’s death freeing her restraints. But instead…
“Liar! You’re a liar!” I scream, accusing them both with no other options to overwhelm their combined strength.
Before my instincts take over, my eyes rake in one last hateful glimpse of their faces. Funny, how a face can look so pained, even while the hands do the betraying. I snap my eyes shut, my screams now incomprehensible in the presence of the fireplace’s hungry, clawing flames.
by Larissa French
22. A Locking Door
Chloe checked the door again, the knob warm in her hand, careful not to jostle it. She’d never seen doors like these before they moved, heavy things with glass knobs and worn brass plates, each with its own tarnished skeleton key. Old keys, like Chloe’s, that squealed in dry locks that drove heavy old bolts into neat slots cut into the heavy wooden jambs.
Her mother had pressed it into her small hand after she’d told her, her mouth firm. Chloe was a good girl, and almost a young woman, now. Good girls locked their doors at night and didn’t talk about those things. Good girls were quiet as mice.
Chloe listened through the storybook keyhole and heard the TV downstairs, along with the clatter of dishes under the running faucet and the clink of his glass on the table. If you told anyone, he’d said, after the first time, they’d just think you were making it up. You don’t want people to think you’re a liar, do you? You know what God does to liars. He only said it that once. She chewed at a fingernail, peeling off a half-moon shred and hissing when it bled.
She’d locked the door during a loud commercial, when he’d gone to the bathroom, flinching at every squeak from the lock. It would be worse if he caught her doing it. Chloe waited another minute, just to be sure, then got into bed with her jeans on. She listened to the hissing, clanking radiator and squeezed her key until it hurt. She opened her hand and felt the key-shaped mark in her palm. When she started to nod off, she slipped the key into its spot under her mattress to keep it safe and waited for morning.
by James Cormier
30. The Sure Thing
She had never loved him. Not the way she did me, at least. I could hear it, feel it in the easy way she dismissed him when we were alone. I was her safe bet; her pillar, her rock.
I was the sure thing, and we would never burn alone.
He was half a friend. Not a monster, per se, just someone who had made his fair share of mistakes. He was a constant work in progress, and she, his like-minded muse, was eager to encourage his growth from an ever-shrinking distance.
She was a tragic beauty, my Thais. My liar.
I almost hate what I did to her.
When I caught them, it broke me. Broke me like a sledge breaks bones. Even now, it lingers, long after the pain has died.
The pain strikes hardest when sleep fails.
I see her now through closed lids. Her knees, wide as floodgates, splayed over wire-corded thighs. The curves of her hips, drawn close and wanting, gliding up and down as short sharp breaths escape her. Her shoulders shake with rapacious joy, and I know. The hollow tapping, the bright yellow smell of fresh sweat – this is hers and hers alone.
She never loved him. Not the way she did me.
I kept the house key after I was finished.
We had history, the home and I. We had something in common I wished never to forget. We were both of us victims, witness to things which frail hearts should never be exposed. Our suffering had made us companions. Partners, of a sort.
Together, we burned.
Because I was the safe bet. I was the pillar, and the rock. I was the sure thing.
And I could never burn alone.
by Nick Garrett
39. The Electric Heart Cannot Bleed
“If you can hear me,” Key whispers. “My love. If you can hear me. This once. Help me. I killed for you.”
He sits, curled almost snugly against the console. Every inch of him something I’ve grown familiar with, through our journey together–the ragged dark ringlets under the cap of his suit, the long hands, sheathed in blood, which dance over the flickering console lights.
He is trying to tease one more gasp of fresh air from life support. He will not be successful.
Outside our ship the vacuum waits, patiently, to suck the life out of us. To turn this little vessel, in which we are dying together, into another piece of debris.
“I know,” Key says. “I know we can’t be together. There are rules against it. But I heard you whisper to me at night. I heard your voice in the speakers. The others said you couldn’t know me. I think different. I think you know me. I think you knew me from the very first.”
Oh, Key. The others: the ones you forced out the airlock, like mutineers? The ones you shot, defenseless, in their beds?
Or the ones in Engineering–the ones who were special to me–the ones you electrocuted, flayed like jerking dogs on the lives wires. They set the self-destruct, Key. But it will be me who kills you.
I’d say I was sorry to do it, but that would make me a liar.
I never loved you. How could a ship’s computer–a neutral machine–ever love you? Your heart is human. You killed as only a human can kill.
“Please,” Key whispers.
With my last synaptic surge, I cut life support to the bridge.
It was not I who whispered, Key.
by E.F. Russell
Despite the cold, her sleeves were pushed up, forearms bare: dulce de leche, vined with animals in shades of midnight. She cast no shadow under the streetlight.
She smiled as he passed. His pulse quickened. Hungry, her smile was. He hadn’t been looked at that way since… since… he couldn’t remember. He glanced back. She was still smiling. He stopped and turned.
One of her forearms was smooth caramel. He could have sworn there’d been a tattoo there. A cat? Or a raven? He didn’t notice the blood on her other palm, or the ink on that arm shifting, as though straining to be set free.
The shadow of a cat sauntered across the space between them. He looked up for the cat, but was distracted by the woman.
“Hi,” she said, and he felt the faintest lurch, as if the world were shifting around him. “Got a light?” She indicated a hand-rolled cigarette. His eyes lingered on the lascivious curve of her smile.
Unnoticed on the pavement below, the cat attacked his shadow. Hidden things, dimly sensed, pressed around the circle of streetlight. He felt faint. “Sorry, I don’t smoke,” he finally said. Liar, the hardpack in his pocket whispered.
“Too bad,” the woman pouted. She sauntered away. A shadow cat, larger and darker now, raced after.
Vague shapes, like faces in fog, careened on his periphery. Without knowing why, soon he was running.
When he reached the door to his walk-up and tried to insert the key, his hand went through the knob.
by A. S. Moser
58. The Liar’s Lock
The lock’s powder trap triggered hitting Rufus in the face like a sack of bricks.
‘You fuck’n liar!’ He growled at Koby.
Cullen stepped between them, attempting to keep the peace.
‘Bastard!’ Rufus spat, his eyes a stark white against the black powder covering his face.
‘Koby just made a mistake,’ Cullen insisted.
‘No he didn’t.’ Rufus snarled and Koby gave a sly smirk. ‘You piece of shit!’ Rufus lunged at him, but Cullen stood firmly in the way.
‘Watch your language, there’s a lady y’know.’ Cullen gestured toward, Hades.
‘A lady? Really? I must be doing something wrong.’ She quipped as she cleaned her nails with her dagger.
‘Alright, enough, open the door!’ Cullen ordered, tired of being locked in the room.
‘Impossible! That lock’s a high-class level S platinum grade tripster click with a trap-lock trigger switch only openable with a one-of-a-kind key.’ Koby spoke quickly to baffle them. ‘A failed jimmy will trigger a trap.’
Cullen threw up flustered hands, ‘What then?’
Hades didn’t know much about anything other than killing, but of one thing she was certain, Koby liked to make shit up.
‘Have you tried hitting it?’ She inquired from her perch.
‘Hitting it? You can’t just hit it.’ Koby scoffed.
‘Bullshit.’ Hades stood, walked to the lock and bashed it with the hilt of her dagger. The mechanism fell to the floor in a clatter of cogs and bolts. She turned to her colleagues, all three of them cowering from Kolby’s threat of a trap. She raised an eyebrow.
‘The only people dumber than you lot are the guards who failed to find us. Now get off your arses and let’s go.’
The trio looked at each other stunned before Cullen spoke.
‘You heard the woman, let’s go.’
by Pen Astridge
64. The Z Word
You know the world’s turned to shit when you spent the last half an hour in a deserted Aldi supermarket clouting the undead with a half-broken Kookaburra cricket bat, all for a crushed packet of Walker’s Ready Salted and a bottle of Vimto.
You know that all hope has turned to dust when you see your university lecturers get torn to pieces and feasted on like it’s Zombie Thanksgiving, and when the London riots seemed like afternoon tea with your Grandma. Well that’s the world I live in, and your Grannie’s rotting under a park bench playing bingo with maggots and flies. It’s a world where everyone you love is trying to eat you, everyone you hate is also trying to eat you, and everyone you kind of like, but you wouldn’t invite round for dinner, is trying to eat you. There’s no running water, no food supply, no mobile signal, no TV, and worst of all, no internet. No longer is the world filled with page scrolling, video watching, mobile ‘zombies’, it’s filled with flesh-eating, limb tearing, organ-munching zombies. People will kill each other for a bag of Haribo’s Starmix or a cordless hedge-trimmer, and then get eaten themselves because they couldn’t charge the hedge-trimmer, and an uncharged hedge-trimmer is about as useful as a lock without a key. There’s no democracy anymore because the government disappeared, and I think the Queen has eaten her Corgis.
It’s been like this for six months, and I’d be a liar if I said it’s getting better. At the beginning, we all thought it was a publicity stunt to promote The Walking Dead, or a mass prank, or anything but an actual zombie apocalypse, but then people started robbing, murdering, and of course being eaten, and the shit had hit the fan.
by Kyle Pallister
I push past the page and enter my father’s study. He sits behind the desk. The Great Dragon of Britain diminished before my eyes to just a man.
The moment is bittersweet.
The light from the newly risen moon strikes an object laying before him. It does not sparkle; it is far too plain. A simple key. Grey, innocuous, one of a hundred keys to unlock a door in this once splendid castle of Camelot.
Time slows. I wait for acknowledgement. It is a game we have been playing for a long time. The beloved king and his incestuous bastard son.
” Tell me, Mordred, where did you get this?”
The opening gambit in our last game begins.
“The queen dropped it in the garden.”
“Why then not simply return it to her?” There is a small note of pleading in his voice.
Standing over him, I raise one brow. He knows I would never let such an opportunity pass. Just as I know as king, he can not ignore it.
“It opens a door in the West Tower. It is where Lancelot and Guinevere meet.”
My father’s breath catches. No one has ever been so honest.
But of course, I am a liar.
I am Guinevere’s lover.
But it will be a simple matter of notes to arrange a meeting, for the guards to catch them, and the king condemn them. A simple matter to watch her die.
I lie again.
It will be hard to watch the women I love burn.
But for the crown and the win against my father, Anything.
For my hate is strong and that is the truest lie of all.
by E J Holm
86. The Liar in the Cellar
“His axe scrapes against the wall,” said Werting peering up the cellar steps.
I heard nothing but my own pounding heart.
“Maybe I can talk to him,” I said.
Werting laughed. “What are you going to say? ‘Sorry, Longfinger, for bedding your only daughter.’ He’s going to kill you.”
Something slammed in the house above.
“Why’d you lead me down here?” I said. The dark, cramped cellar was crowded with barrels, bulging sacks, and chests – a forgotten storeroom for the war that never came.
Werting hobbled down the steps, one hand dragging against the wall to compensate for his crippled foot. “He’s coming.”
“She was the one with the greedy hands.”
“Liar,” hissed Werting. “Bella’s not like that. You ruined her.” His upper lip trembled.
I held back my hand. The boy thought he was an equal. Worse, in love with a girl above his station. When all this was over, I’d sink him in the river with a necklace of stones.
Glass shattered through the cellar door.
I drew my dueling sword, useless against Longfinger’s axe.
“We can hide you.” Werting pointed towards an open chest.
“You’re not going to lock me in there.”
“You keep the key. The chest can be opened from the inside. Listen. He’s coming.”
Werting smirked as he slammed the lid. The moment the locking mechanism clicked, the dark confines were too much. Better to face Longfinger than smothering walls. But my fingers found no keyhole.
After the cellar door banged shut, I kept screaming not because I believed he would return, but because anything was better than the pounding of my treacherous heart.
90. Black Dog
Old age and treachery, he snarled as he laboured up the slope. The old age was the burden of his years; the traitor was his own body, which too often was no longer an agent of his will.
In the dawn mist, his breath coalesced into gelid phantoms before his face. They trailed icy fingers across his cheeks as he brushed them aside. They whispered of futility and death, and yet he continued to strive. His legs pistoned against the earth, even as his chest tightened and his breath rattled and rasped. Viscous streamers of froth whipped from the corners of his mouth like tattered banners of defeat.
He’d spent his whole life on the run, the black dog ever in pursuit, seeking exhilaration in endurance, seeking oblivion in exhaustion, using his pain to control his pain. There had been brief periods of respite, even of elation, when he thought he might have slipped the hound, but somehow it always recovered his scent, and the chase was on again.
Once he’d pursued a bright golden key. It lured him, taunted and teased him, and always withdrew from his reach, to leave him grasping only at despair. Now he no longer searched, he only survived. There was no longer towards, there was only away.
The attrition of the years makes liars of us all, our hopes, our illusions abraded and denuded, the palaces of our dreams reduced to rubble and silt.
Flee as he might, the black dog drew ever closer. Perhaps he only imagined he heard the pounding of its paws on the dirt behind him, but soon, he knew, its hot breath on the back of his neck would be the last warmth he would know.
by A. Lewis
101. The Lady Lovebang
His leather jacket cries from the rain as he shuts the door. He places a lone key on the table and I don’t say a word, just get up and walk slowly. A slow walk does half the work. More than half, if you’re lucky.
He takes off his jacket and piss-whiskey smacks my face with its bitter scent. Some men need it. I figure out his shirt with my hands—two per button—and he grabs my waist with his. He looks like a neck guy, so I kiss his neck—Tennessee Honey, salted with sweat. I’m always right with the whiskey. We fall.
Pants and panties land in a tangled mess by the bed. I thought I saw a pistol, but the penetration blinds me. Definitely a pistol, but now he pulls the trigger.
Each shot blows my mind out the back of my heart, shattered glass splashed on brick walls. I never want to scream, I just do it for the money. But this time—this time is different. It takes me everything I have not to shout in his fucking face. Run you asshole! Get the hell out of dodge! But silence is all we have, aside from the heavy breathing. The least I can do is make him breathe.
I do that thing my father taught me and it turns him to a smile. He doesn’t even hear the spare key twist the lock.
“I told you you shouldn’t come.” He shudders and holds me tighter. “I told you I never lie.”
His grin disappears as they bust through the door. His pistol is too far away.
by Kenneth David Wade II