Blog, Short stories

‘Children of the Woods’: Rachel Keating

Each issue, we choose a winning entry from all the submissions sent to us. For the spring issue of PaperBound Magazine 2022, our winning entry is short story ‘Children of the Woods’ by Rachel Keating. Keep reading below to find out more.

Children of the Woods

by Rachel Keating

Children of the Woods by Rachel Keating PaperBound Magazine issue winner

There was an inevitability about it, the way the blade entered her. He knew that it would kill her. Just one movement is all it took. The weird thing is that, at the precise moment when he took her from us – her children, I’m not sure that he even wanted to. It’s not that he didn’t want to either — he could have stopped himself and spared her. It’s that he didn’t care either way it seemed; death is just the way it went, this time.

Oak, beech, hawthorn. We’re surrounded by trees, some with trunks so large it would take this despicable man and three others to hold hands in order to reach all the way around. Perfect hiding places, indeed many animals are doing just that right now — scarpering into hollows and flitting away from this hideous scene that has no place in the middle of these majestic woods. But we cower in the undergrowth next to her, fixed to the spot, small and still in the dense shade.

The man turns, she’s not even dead yet and already he’s finished with her. We’re relieved though, he’s walking away. His heavy boots crunch through a floor that’s alive. We’re safe, for now. We can have our last moments with her privately. Of course, the connection we have isn’t something that can be seen anyway —that bond between parent and child, it’s like no other.

These woods are big. It’s not the amount of trees here that tell you that; it’s the air. The air is completely different to other places— cooler, moister, richer. The fresh atmosphere whispers of the size and greatness, at the same time as the canopy of leaves above shows the intimacy to be found here too. Mother nourishes us with what I know are her last reserves. It’s like she’s pumping everything into us, from her body into ours. She talks to us, she tells us about the danger, she tells us that we’re loved.

There are actually scores of children in these woods on this drizzly spring day, being taken care of by their parents. He’s amongst the others now, the man. I can feel the screams through the earth. It’s the parents he wants.

The sun tracks westwards across the sky and the woods are quiet now. Time simultaneously means everything and nothing. What happened to the rest of them? We already know but we don’t want to. We haven’t moved from our places. This is our woods now, if we can survive on our own.

“Y’know trees talk to each other. Through their roots.”

A new voice. A human voice.

“Oh really,” comes the response.

They are close, these two people. Right next to me in fact. A boy and his mother out for a walk in the woods.

“Yeah,” he continues. “They send nutrients to each other, carbon and stuff. The mother trees even favour their own saplings. Mum, y’know baby trees are called saplings.” He looks down, lips pouting in concentration as he reads out loud from a book…

“Trees talk to each other through a complex network hidden underground.”

As he reads he leans on our mother and traces his little fingers with ease through the deep fissures of her bark. He stops at the top of the stump — her open wound bearing the chainsaw marks.

“The network is made of fungi which connect the roots of different trees. This is known as a mycor… rizz… Mum, how do you say this word?”

The lady is distracted.

“Hmmm? Let me see,” she says before noticing. “Oh careful! Don’t touch that, it’s been felled recently. You might hurt yourself.”

He lingers though, reluctant to pull his hand away completely.

I think he can hear us, this human child. He’s listening in on our underground conversation as our mother prepares us for our future without her as best she can. Our bendy stems reach only up to the boy’s knee. Our leaves are so young and fresh, paler than our mother’s. There’s not enough sunlight on this part of the woodland floor, she’s been sustaining us, feeding us, nurturing us until we’re old enough. That’s what mothers do.

With her help we’ve grown so fast from the acorns she dropped in the autumn. He visited us then too, this boy. She remembers. The thick rubber soles between his feet and the ground did nothing to stop him feeling the thrum of activity beneath him, our relationships playing out in the same dirt he has under his fingernails. Our mother shed her leaves on him as he stood and they were still.

Still, but busy, both boy and tree. But whereas she had been reabsorbing, preparing for winter, conserving; he was expending. His body was only just keeping up with his mind. She could sense then his wisdom. His own mother knows it too and she nurtures, she feeds, she gives of herself and nourishes him. It’s what mothers do.

“You’re not supposed to be in this bit! It’s the start of the clearing! There’s a sign! You need to leave!”

The man. He’s back, calling loudly to the boy and his mother as he approaches. He treads the same path as they did, only differently.

“Oh, we didn’t realise,” she’s saying, instinctively leaning towards her son and flashing him a look of warning, his eyes and body responding by mirroring her — mother and child speaking the visceral language of protection.

“Well, there’s a sign.”

“We didn’t see it.”

“Right, just go back the way you came. This area is being felled. We’re due to be chopping more today.”

“No,” said the boy.

Rachel Keating

Nature and children’s literature are huge passions of Rachel’s. Mix them together and it doesn’t get much better as far as she’s concerned! Rachel is about to be querying agents with her MG novel about a girl who connects with nature in an extraordinary way. The book features OCD, a theme very close to her heart. Follow Rachel on Twitter.

You can read even more spring stories, author interviews and more in our latest issue by clicking here. All our issues are completely free and run by volunteers, however if you would like to support PaperBound and the work we do, you can help us out by buying us a virtual book. 

Here at PaperBound, we love stories. Want to be a part of ours? Find out more.

Blog, Short stories

‘Fable’: Emma Whitehall

Each issue, we choose a winning entry from all the submissions sent to us. For the winter issue of PaperBound Magazine 2021/22, our winning entry is short story ‘Fable’ by Emma Whitehall. Keep reading below to find out more.

Fable 

by Emma Whitehall

When the witch told my parents their First Born would be a Hero, they were ecstatic. There’s a reason I’m named Fable, after all. They were so excited, so eager to set me up for greatness. Until I was born, that is. 

Heroes come around once every generation or so, always special in their own ways; full of potential for bravery or cunning or magic, or even just really good at swinging a weapon in the right direction. Whatever their specification, Heroes are always born with strong hearts and big dreams and a jaunty song forever on their lips. They don’t need to be beautiful – not beautiful like a princess in a tower, at least – but they all have…something. Dark, intense eyes, or a beguiling smile. Some magnetism around them that pulls you in, dares you to join them on their adventure. To tie yourself to their cause. To adore them. They find themselves a band of merry men, a quest to embark upon, and happy endings just wrap around them like warm shawls on a cold day. 

And then there was me. The Custodians say I was probably born with a book in my hand, since I’m never seen without one. I’m prickly. And mousey, in hair and in personality; even when I’m happy (usually an occasion involving a hot drink, a cold night, and a novel). I apparently give off a general aura of ‘please leave me alone before I bite you and make this situation much worse than it already is’. So Carys, my roommate, says. And so, when I turned five and no quest nor curse nor blessing seemed to be coming for me, my parents sold me to the Custodians of History, shrugged, and started planning for their second First Born.

I spent years haunting the Custodial Halls like a ghost. Years spent leafing through books with crisp, light-brown pages, tracing my fingers over the words of authors long since dead. Ten years of rats, dust motes, and Carys as my only playmates, with a pat on the head from a friendlier-than-usual Custodian the closest experience I ever had to having a parent. Nothing ever happened at the Custodial Halls.  

So you can imagine my surprise when the dragon attacked. 

I was in the mess hall, trying to balance a bowl of porridge and honey with a book on combining fortune-telling and Herbal Magic to create the perfect cup of tea. The huge, oak doors flung themselves open, and every single Custodian – as well as the entirety of the nearest small village – poured into the hall. It was suddenly very noisy. I didn’t care for it. Then, the entire building shook as something incredibly, unfathomably heavy landed outside. A sound – part roar, part shriek – tore through the air like a rusty knife. The villagers screamed. I put my book down. 

‘It’s a dragon!’ Carys whimpered, flinging herself into my lap. ‘They’re saying it came down from the mountain, destroyed the capital … the King, the Queen, the Prince … all gone …’ 

‘What about the Hero?’ I asked, trying in vain to disentangle Carys’ arms from around my waist. She’d always been clingy. I pretended I didn’t enjoy it. ‘They live at the castle – isn’t she betrothed to the prince?’  

I knew full well that she was betrothed to the prince. The Hero of our kingdom was my younger sister – married to the prince after some adventure they’d shared involving a hoard of angry gnomes, a terrible curse and a forest made of sugar. I wouldn’t be invited to the wedding. Why would you invite a sibling you’ve never met? 

‘Why didn’t she protect –’ 

‘She ran,’ a villager behind me sobbed, sinking to their knees beside me. ‘She ran, and she left them … she left us to burn. My shop, my home … it’s been in my family for a century, and now … now it’s ashes…’

I reached out an arm and patted the villager on the head. ‘There, there,’ I offered. 

‘What are we going to do?’ a small child said, clambering into my lap. 

‘Um,’ I suggested.

The dragon roared again outside, accompanied by the unmistakable crash of age-old masonry crashing to the ground not too far away.

‘I’ve never seen anything like it,’ an old woman murmured, lost in her terror, ‘not in all my sixty-seven years. A horrible, evil beast – black as death, with wings dipped in blood …’

Something inside me clicked into place.

‘Red wing trim?’ I asked, turning my head towards the woman slowly. ‘Are you sure?’ She nodded.

‘Not pink? Definitely not maroon?’

‘I know the colour of blood when I see it,’ she said. ‘Does it matter?’

‘Of course it matters,’ I snapped, standing up and vaulting over the table towards the library, launching Carys and various villagers who’d attached themselves to me into the air as I went.

I dashed through the halls, dodging falling brickwork and destroyed artifacts as I went. More than once, I saw a brilliant flash of flame crest over my head, or slash past what was once a windowpane. I kept going. What I needed was on the sixth shelf down on the third bookshelf to the right in the library, behind the books on architecture throughout the centuries and animal husbandry for unusual winters. An old, half-rotted, forgotten tome I’d read from cover to cover when I was ten and kept my own little secret.

Cursing Dragons: The Novice Dragon-Rider’s Guide to Binding Your First Mount.

Every dragon was vulnerable to a specific set of words; an enchantment that would bring them to heel and make them biddable. But, since dragons were perpetually hungry, angry and breathing fire, you only got one chance. Even after binding, the book said they were barely tamed, and so the practice had fallen out of fashion. Heroes these days seemed to prefer swords – perhaps slaying dragons was more in line with the stories than controlling them was.

Luckily, the library was still intact; though the wall of the room opposite had vanished as if it had never stood there, giving me a perfect view of the scarred, broken lands around my home. Another quake rattled the Custodial Hall walls as I yanked books off the shelves. I paid it no mind as my hand closed over the soft, over-used leather of my prize. I sat on my backside with a thump and began to flick frantically through the pages. Green Horned Vipers, Blue-Tipped Wyverns … come on, come on, where were the Blood-Doused Hellions?!

Something moved in the corner of my vision. I ignored it, humming some half-imagined tune absently as I skimmed the pages. 

‘Can I help?’

I looked up with a jolt. There was Carys, standing in the doorway. Her blonde hair was a tangle around her head, and she shook like a leaf in a storm. Close by, something crashed to the floor, and she jumped. I glared at her before snapping my attention back to the book.

‘What are you doing here?’ I asked, flicking to the next page.

‘I wanted…’ Carys looked at the floor, embarrassed and confused. ‘I don’t know. I think I wanted … to help you. I need to help you. Fable, just tell me what to do.’

But there was nothing to do. Because, snaking up behind her with a silence that should have been impossible, was the dragon. A huge, battle-scarred, scale-and-pock-marked creature, with eyes like hot coals and a snarl that seemed more like a smirk.

I’d always been good at ignoring things that I didn’t want to deal with. Like interruptions when I was reading. Or the fact my parents hadn’t wanted me. Or that a colossal, world-destroying beast had spotted me minutes ago.

Carys’ eyes widened as the dragon’s breath brushed over her back, and her mouth fell open in a soundless scream just as the book fell open on the right page. Almost like fate.

‘Blood-Doused Hellions are a difficult breed to bind, but not impossible for a skilled, or particularly lucky, rider…’

The Hellion growled. It opened its mouth, yellow-stained teeth as long as my arm filling the space behind Carys. I stumbled to my feet, book clutched in hand. This probably wasn’t going to work. I wasn’t a Hero, after all. But the Hero had left us to die. So I had to try.

‘I love you, Fable,’ Carys whispered, tears dripping down her cheeks. ‘I always have.’

I stood my ground. So did the dragon. I took a deep breath, opened my mouth, and spoke the words.  

Emma Whitehall

Emma Whitehall is an author, bookseller, editor and introvert from the North East of England. A former Waterstones bookseller turned indie bookshop champion, Emma writes fun, emotion-driven fantasy with characters that you’ll want to take for a coffee. Or wrap in a blanket. Or both. Her debut YA novel, Clockwork Magpies, is being published in February 2022 with Northodox Press. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram, and visit her website here.

You can read even more winter stories, author interviews and more in our latest issue by clicking here. All our issues are completely free and run by volunteers, however if you would like to support PaperBound and the work we do, you can help us out by buying us a virtual book. 

Here at PaperBound, we love stories. Want to be a part of ours? Find out more.

Blog, Short stories

‘Up the Stairs’: Meg Small

Each issue, we choose a winning entry from all the submissions sent to us. This time, our winning entry is spooky short story ‘Up the Stairs’ by Meg Small. Keep reading below to find out more.

Up the Stairs 

By Meg Small 

Alice couldn’t sleep. How could she, with that thing her dad had bought downstairs? 

It was, her dad insisted, a suit of armour. A piece of history, like all the other antiques he’d collected. But it wasn’t like any suit of armour Alice had ever seen.  

The lumpy body. The rusty, tarnished metal. The musty, dusty smell of it and how it slumped where it sat at the foot of the stairs. When she shut her eyes, she could picture it perfectly. Sitting there, in the dark, with its misshaped limbs and its odd crooked helmet with the empty, staring eye sockets.  

She imagined it crumpling forward, collapsing off the chair and onto the floor, and starting the long, painful climb up the stairs. Its armour would squeak, its fabric arms would rasp against the carpet. Its hands would thump, thump against each stair, and it would drag itself up. And up. And up. Until it was outside her door.  

Alice opened her eyes. She stared at her dark ceiling and gripped her duvet tightly.  

She wasn’t sure if she could handle another monster. The Thing at the Foot of the Bed was bad enough. If she shut her eyes almost all the way, and peeked through her eyelashes, she could see it. A silhouette almost shaped like a person. But it was too tall and too thin, its neck and arms and fingers too long to be human. Its face was blank, a shadow, but Alice knew it was watching her. It was always watching her.  

Last week, she had caught it reaching one long, long hand toward her. She had almost screamed the house down, and her dad insisted it was a nightmare.  

But Alice knew better.  

She knew, in her bones, that the suit of armour wasn’t just a suit of armour, either.  

The Thing at the Foot of the Bed shifted. It wobbled its empty face slightly to the left, like it was stretching its neck, then returned to its usual position. Alice watched it through her mostly closed eyes and felt her heart slowly crawling into her throat.  

Since all the screaming, it hadn’t tried anything. But if it was moving now… 

Thump, thump

Alice’s insides swooped like she’d tripped. She held very still and listened.  

Water gurgled in the pipes. Rain pitter-pattered against her window. A breeze rustled through the trees outside.  

It had been the pipes. The floorboards settling. Someone closing a car door down the street.  

It hadn’t been something reaching for the bottom stair.  

Squeeeeeaaaak. 

Alice yanked the duvet over her head. It was dangerous, with the Thing standing there, but she couldn’t help it. She needed to hide.  

In the soft, stuffy darkness, her heartbeat felt very loud and very close. It raced as hard and fast as a thundering horse.  

That hadn’t been the wind. Not the rain or the plumbing, either.  

It had been the grating squeal of rusted metal against rusted metal.  

Thump, thump.  

There it was again.  

Squeeeeeaaaak. 

It was coming closer. It was heaving its rusted, battered body up the stairs. Alice wanted to scream, but her thundering heart had lodged in her throat and no sound would come out.  

Why had her dad brought it home? Why had he looked at that horrible thing and thought, yes, that’ll look good in the living room? 

Now it was coming.  

Thump, thump.  

Squeeeeeaaaak. 

It was coming for her.  

Thump, thump.  

Squeeeeeaaaak. 

Closer and closer and closer.  

Thump, thump.  

Squeeeeeaaaak. 

Then silence.  

Alice held her breath. She held it until her head felt like it would burst. And when she couldn’t hold it anymore, and it whooshed out of her, a new sound made her choke on a startled gasp.  

Click. Click. Click.  

The sound of a doorknob rattling. Twisting one way then the other.  

Click.  

The sound of the latch opening. The sound of the door scraping softly over carpet.  

Alice scrunched her eyes shut and clamped her hands over her ears. But with only her hectic heartbeat for company, it was even worse. She couldn’t hear it. She couldn’t see it. She had no idea if it was crossing the carpet. Crawling toward her bed. Reaching for her with its musty, lumpy hands— 

Alice took a trembling breath. Peeling the duvet away from her eyes, she peeked over it. She got a mouthful of flowery-tasting fabric as she gasped again.  

It was there. It was in her doorway. The suit of armour. It was standing, not crawling, lopsided like it couldn’t support its own weight.  

Alice’s brain swirled. She didn’t breathe. She felt like a hedgehog in the middle of a road. Nowhere to run, and too frozen with fear to try.  

In the corner of her eye, she saw the Thing at the Foot of the Bed shift. It twisted its long body to look at the armour as well. In the light spilling in from the landing, Alice thought she saw a flash of teeth as it smiled a horrendous smile.  

Squeeeeeaaaak. 

Metal shifted. With a staggering, lumbering lurch, the suit of armour stepped forward. Alice could only stare, cold spreading through her veins as she watched it approach. It wobbled, then righted itself, then lurched forward another step.  

And that’s when Alice realised it wasn’t heading for her. It was heading for the foot of her bed. Its wonky hands surged forward and grabbed the Thing.  

And squeezed.  

The Thing hissed. Then it shrieked, a high sharp sound like a kettle boiling. It rang in Alice’s ears as the Thing swelled. It squirmed and spat, but it couldn’t escape. The suit of armour squeezed and squeezed and squeezed, until, without a sound, the Thing at the Foot of the Bed popped. Like a water balloon bursting, shadows scattered in every direction, and a cold, stale wind whipped through Alice’s bedroom, stinging her eyes and tangling her hair.  

When she winced and blinked and looked again, the Thing at the Foot of the Bed was gone and…  

The suit of armour was looking right at her. The shadows made its wonky helmet even wonkier, and Alice shivered when she met its empty eye sockets.  

Only, they weren’t so empty anymore. There was something there, something bright and soft, something that made Alice think of hot chocolate and holding hands and her dad’s soft voice telling her stories.  

The suit of armour turned toward the door. It stumbled back the way it had come. Pausing in the doorway, it looked back at her and gave her a slow, rusty nod. Then it stepped out into the landing, closed the door with a gentle click, and was gone. 

That night, there were no nightmares. There was no tossing and turning, no constant panicked glances at the end of her bed. There was just soft, still darkness. The feeling of being safe and protected. And Alice slept the best she had in weeks.  

Meg Small

Writer, Meg Small

Meg’s head has always been full of stories. Since finishing an MA in Writing for Young People from Bath Spa University, she spends her time daydreaming about spooky stories and fantasy adventures – and sometimes writing them, too! When she’s not writing, she can be found tending to her ever-growing army of succulents and spending far too much time playing videogames. You can follow her on Twitter here: @liminalace

You can read even more spooky stories, author interviews and more in our latest issue by clicking here. All our issues are completely free and run by volunteers, however if you would like to support PaperBound and the work we do, you can help us out by buying us a virtual book. 

Here at PaperBound, we love stories. Want to be a part of ours? Find out more.

Blog, Short stories

Winner: Young Writers Competition – The Dig by Daisy Whittington

This year, we put together our FIRST EVER competition dedicated to young writers. After many fantastic entries, it was a difficult decision trying to narrow it down to a final shortlist before a winner was chosen by YA fantasy author Caroline Logan. She picked Daisy Whittington, aged 14, as our winner, who wrote The Dig, a rolleroaster tale with unexpected twists and turns.

Read on below to read The Dig by Daisy Whittington.

Tina’s dad is an archaeologist and ever since Tina was able to walk, he would always make an effort to involve her with his work. He would bring home special artifacts for Tina that would intrigue her greatly. Tina was always most intrigued by the bones. It could be any sort of bone: a rabbit bone, a deer bone. And it could be a bone of any shape: a tooth or perhaps a femur. Tina didn’t care, she just loved bones.

It didn’t take long for her to start collecting them. Every evening, she would eagerly wait for her dad to get back from work and she would jump with joy when he’d unveil a new bone from behind his back to add to her collection. She couldn’t get enough! Her collection grew and grew, however she still had not reached the level of fulfilment she felt compelled to reach. Tina soon came to the conclusion that her dad was not the best source of bone income. She needed to get her own bones.

Tina crept out the house. She found herself in a graveyard. A bone jackpot! She waited until no one was around, and then she began to dig into a grave. Tina dug fast. Excitement overcame her. She knew the skeletal remains were close by, she knew they were waiting for her to take them home. Tina dug deeper and deeper until….

“TINA!! You stop that right now!” It was Tina’s dad. He’d caught her. ‘You are a DISGRACE. I am taking you straight home, you bad, bad dog.”

We hope you enjoyed reading The Dig just as much as we did! You can read all the shortlisted stories – and Caroline Logan’s feedback on each one – by clicking here and scroll down to read our Summer 2021 issue – completely FREE!

Short stories

Winning story: ‘Winter’ by Anne Manson

We are thrilled to share ‘Winter’ by Anne Manson – the winning story featured in the Winter 2020 Issue which you can read in full here – on our featured content section of PaperBound. Get ready for a thrilling atmospheric story that’s bound to give you chills …

Wind howled across the frozen prairie, raising spiraling plumes of snow.

Bishop stared out the tiny cabin window into the wilderness, then emptied the flour bag into the week-old fat of the frying pan. It was the last of her food. She set it on the wood stove.

Above the howl of the wind rose another howl—a series of them. They were closing in on her.

At first, they’d simply gathered around the cabin at night, sniffing at the door. Later they’d got bolder, hurling themselves at the exterior with ravenous cries, while she stood terrified, shaking, clutching the cast iron pan—her only defense—as the cabin door shuddered under their weight.

Daytimes, they disappeared, and she wondered if her mind was playing tricks on her. She felt as though she’d been here forever, as though she was light years away from home. All alone. Sometimes, she even thought she felt a familiar, barely detectable vibration under her feet. It was hard to know what was real and what wasn’t.

As a precaution, she’d run around the perimeter of the cabin, squatting and urinating in the brilliant snow. Father had told her about a scientist who’d done that—marking his territory to keep them away—a vague memory from the mists of time. But they didn’t seem to notice. She remembered something else, something about the scientist altering his diet. Had he eaten mice? She would have tried it—tried anything. But there wasn’t a single sign of life in that white desert. Except for them.

Even the nights they didn’t come, she sat awake, sleepless, by the cooling wood stove, the iron pan in her lap, waiting, starting at any unfamiliar sound. During the day, she gazed out the window in a sleep-deprived fog, occasionally slipping into a blessed doze.

Eventually she made a plan. She took apart the chair, cut strips from the legs, soaked them in water and bent them, painstakingly forming an oval with a tapered end. She soaked cords from the hammock in fat and wove them across the frame. Snowshoes.

She spent endless hours pondering, mountains or prairie? Open plain or wooded slopes? They could bring her down in a flash in the open. And the mountains were covered in pines—she could climb a tree. But how long would she last? They would wait her out. And in the end, what were the chances of finding anyone to help her up there? Nil. She’d have to go across the prairie.

Bishop ate the greyish, floury sludge straight from the pan, staring out the window at the first glimmer of dawn—no rosy sunrise, but a lightening of the black landscape into a charcoal grey. She finished, put the pan away, banked the stove, and set about putting on every piece of clothing she had. By the time she was done, her shirt was damp with sweat and she could barely move. Last of all, she tied the snowshoes tightly to her boots.

She eased the cabin door open, but the wind caught it and slammed it hard against the exterior wall. A heavy mist of snow blew in and settled on the floor. She pulled her scarf up over her mouth. Then she summoned all her strength and heaved the door closed again. She might need to come back here.

She took a last look at the cabin’s small wooden overhang, the snow-covered wood pile, the thin trail of dying smoke from the chimney, and felt a pang. At least it had protected her for a while.

Then she turned and stared out into the grey, clouded light—the sun, a muted silvery glow on the horizon. To her right, the west, and the massive peaks of the mountains—sharp, snow-covered pines, spiking the grey sky. To her left, east, and the barren, white plain.

A chorus of howls rose from the mountains and her heart shot to her throat. She shouldn’t have used bacon fat to soak the rope for her snowshoes. It was like laying a trail for them. But what could she do now? She’d needed to make them waterproof.

She set off across the prairie, heading toward that silvery, clouded sun. She tripped and fell on her first few steps and terror rose in her gorge. What if the snowshoes didn’t work? But she figured out how to lift the tips with each step so they didn’t catch, and soon she settled into an uneasy, careful jog, her heart racing, her legs aching numbly from lack of exercise. She kept her eyes fixed on the rising sun. East. She’d have to keep her wits about her so she didn’t end up going in circles. Sun ahead. Mountains behind. Fingers crossed.

East. East. East. The sun edged along the horizon at a low angle. There was so little light at this time of year. When was sunset? Three? A little later? It only gave her six hours or so. Her inner clothes were soon drenched with sweat, her face, hands and feet, rigid with cold. She was fiercely thirsty. She stopped and raked her gloves over the frozen earth, stuffed snow in her mouth, gagged on the bits of grit, then scraped up some more. She pulled off her gloves and sucked on her numb fingertips. She couldn’t afford to lose them. A toe or two, even the tip of her nose, fine. But not a finger. Please.

There was still no sign of a living soul. No houses, no road. Maybe she should have stayed and starved in the cabin. The scarf around her mouth was frozen rigid. The winter air passed over it and raked her lungs with every breath. She stuffed her fingers back into the gloves, looked behind her, held her breath, and listened. No howls. No sounds at all over the wind. No low grey figures running through the waist-high mists of whirling snow. The cabin was long gone—vanished into the horizon. But she couldn’t see far. And they were clever. They might well be hunting her silently. Or merely waiting for her to tire and fall.

She set her jaw, lifted her aching legs, and set off again, this time keeping the low sun more or less on her right, to the south. It must be close to midday now. She stuffed down thoughts of panic and replaced them with anger. Yes. Rage would keep her warm. She untied the makeshift spear she had on her back and clutched it in her right hand. She wasn’t going down without a fight.

At the end, the sun was passing behind her, hovering on the edge of the horizon, the landscape all frozen shadow, and there was still no sign of human habitation. Why hadn’t she tried the mountains? She could have climbed a tree and rested. Her head was ringing. She had to hold herself upright. If she turned quickly or tilted her neck, the horizon spun round. She couldn’t feel her toes or fingers. She knew she should stop and eat more snow, but she feared if she squatted down, she’d tumble over and never get up again. She plodded forward, her legs numb with pain, her head reeling, using the spear as a walking stick.

Occasionally she thought she saw a light, heard a voice, but then it would vanish. She really was imagining things. Maybe everything was in her mind—the snow, the ravenous howls, the endless tundra. All she knew for sure was that she had no compass and night was falling. And the frozen earth was hard as rock—no way to make a snow cave, no wood for a fire.

It was then she heard them. Not the long-accustomed desolate howl—rather a chorus of joyous yips and barks.

They’d found her.

She ran, staggering wildly forward, trying to stay upright, as their hungry cries came closer and closer. She felt nothing but ache, saw nothing but grey whirls of snow, heard the eternal wind that grew and grew in her mind with the throbbing beat of her heart. Louder and louder, filling her head, like a relentless engine.

Suddenly she felt a stab of pain, glimpsed the grey mouth clamped on her leg and knew they’d got her. She fell, skidding forward. Immediately she felt a massive weight on her back. She screamed, her head reeling. She couldn’t move, spasms of agony in her leg, explosions of noise all around, that screaming roar in her head.

Then, nothing but black.

Bishop opened her eyes. Everything had turned still and white. So, what she’d heard was true—this was what you saw before you died.

Then she became aware of her throbbing leg and pounding head. And something else. That long-familiar hushed vibration underneath her, the smell of disinfectant and filtered air. She closed her eyes, wished she was back in the cabin. Out alone on the tundra, even. Anywhere but here.

“Congratulations, Bishop. The Committee felt that was a pass.” The voice was neutral, impassive.

She turned her head painfully. He was sitting next to her bed. His face, pocked with old acne scars, his green uniform, the pulsing, blueish screen in the upper corner of his wire rim glasses.

“Ingenious to mark the perimeter with urine. Unfortunately, they only respect that if you’ve eaten mice.” He didn’t look at her, didn’t take her hand. It was as though he didn’t even know her.

“What?” Bishop’s throat was painfully dry.

“You have to eat mice—that’s the wolf diet—in the arctic, that is. They smell it in the urine. That’s what keeps them away. I told you that. You didn’t remember?”

She stared at him. “There weren’t any blasted mice.”

“No mice?” He glanced at his watch. “Dear me. I’ll make a note of that.” His left eye flicked left and right, and a miniscule line of text rolled across the lens of his glasses.

Bishop wondered how the Committee would feel if she throttled him.

“In any case, no time for regrets. I suggest you prepare for stage two. You’ll have a week or so for…” He gestured at her injured leg with distaste. “And then…well, Bishop, we’re hopeful Spring may go a bit better. In the meantime, at least you’ve passed Winter.” He showed his teeth—his version of a smile.

Bishop stared at his yellowed canines. He was mistaken about the mice. It wouldn’t have made any difference. There was no escaping real wolves.

Anne has a Masters in Writing for Young People from Bath Spa University. Her first novel, ‘Lobster Wars’, is a thriller about two boys who find a dead body on a small island off the coast of Maine. Her second, ‘Dark Sun Rising’, is about a girl accused of murder at the time of the American Revolution. You can keep up to date with Anne by visiting her website or following her on Twitter.

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Short stories

‘Whiz Bang’: Winning Entry

We are pleased to share the winning entry ‘Whiz Bang’ by the talented Olivia Collard on our official website, which is featured in our debut autumn issue. We hope you enjoy reading’Whiz Bang’ as much we did!

Please note: although ‘Whiz Bang’ is middle grade fiction, it does feature some darker themes, so it is down to reader discretion on whether they would like to read on.

I hate bonfire night.

I hate the booms and the pfffts and the horrible screeching. I hate the way the big ones make the windows rattle and I hate the way I can still hear them through my headphones.

What I hate most are the crowds.

Anna gets upset that we have to stay home every year, because otherwise I close my eyes and scream when people push past me, and I get hitty. And gougey. I don’t understand how anyone can be around so many people zipping up coats and laughing and shouting and pushing and slushing and apologising and other kids crying. Not to mention the pop, pop, popping of the wood as it burns.

Anna still has the scars from last time. 

I love animals, because they make a lot more sense than people. People ruin everything. Scientists can explain nearly everything about animals, like how tigers are stripy because it makes them harder to spot in the tall grass, or how anteaters have long tongues that can move like fingers so they can grab termites out of their big mounds. Or how termites live in big mounds to keep away from anteaters.

I love animals. Animals don’t talk with their faces.

Miss Hayes smells like burnt coffee and dust and lemon marmalade and always wears a necklace with a hare on it because her mum gave it to her, and her mum is dead now. I know that because she told me so and when she told me, a drop of water fell on her chest, which was probably a tear falling from her chin. I don’t know for sure though, because I don’t look at people’s faces when they talk to me, and I was more interested in the fact that hares are better than rabbits because hares don’t need to live in groups.

I like to be alone, too.

Miss Hayes says I’m too smart to learn about photosynthesis the way we are in class. Putting cress in a cupboard and watching as the stems predictably start to spiral and turn yellow isn’t stimulating enough for a girl who reads at a Year 9 level, so she gives me my own projects to work on alone.

I’m not allowed to do group work, anyway.

The other kids get frustrated when I can’t hear them through my headphones, even though that’s the whole point of them. When they come at me with their marmite sandwich hands and try to take my headphones off, I get hitty and maybe a little bit scratchy. Sometimes, if the smell of marmite is too strong or their sticky hands touch my hair, I get a bit gougey, too.

Gouging is not allowed at St Bernard’s Primary.

So, I work on my own projects. My project last year was about hedgehogs.

I like hedgehogs. They have little mousey faces and big hard spikes and their name makes sense. They’re called hedgehogs because they grunt like pigs do and pigs are sometimes called hogs and hedgehogs live in hedgerows. So, we call them hedgehogs because it sounds better than hedge-pigs. It’s a very literal name. I have been told I am a very literal person.

Hedgehogs are nocturnal, which means they are awake when it’s dark. Things become nocturnal because it’s harder for predators to spot them in the dark. For my project, I wanted to learn why hedgehogs bother to be nocturnal when they make so much noise grunting like they do, anyway.

When an animal evolves without predators, they don’t develop the same defences as other prey creatures. They can’t leap like gazelles. They can’t sneak like mice. They can’t shoot hot acid out of their bums like those caterpillars on David Attenborough documentaries.

Blue Dad says the kiwi birds in New Zealand have this problem. I call him Blue Dad, because he has blue eyes. My other dad is Tall Dad, because I used to call him Brown Dad, but Aunt Sally said that sounded racist. My dads are the only people I look in the eye, because they don’t look away when I stare too long.

Blue Dad says kiwis can’t fly, they’re nearly blind and nearly deaf, and they stumble around loudly like Tall Dad does when he gets home from the pub on a Friday evening. Because the main population of New Zealand, for millions of years, was birds and insects. No predators to hide from. But then people came along and ruined everything, because people always ruin everything.

British people brought hundreds of rabbits 11,617 miles on their boats, because they missed the rabbits in the countryside. Which, if you ask me, is a stupid reason to bring rabbits 11,617 miles on a boat.

Rabbits get seasick. Rabbits also breed very quickly, so suddenly there were too many rabbits in New Zealand. So, they brought weasels and stoats 11,617 miles, to eat the rabbits. But the weasels and stoats ate the loud, blind, flightless kiwis instead, because rabbits are harder to catch.

Unlike people, weasels and stoats aren’t stupid.

What I learnt doing my project at the back of the class, aside from the fact that Casey Ludlow stepped on a slug and was getting slime all over the floor, was that hedgehogs aren’t quiet because they don’t need to be. Even though hedgehogs, unlike the poor kiwis, evolved with predators like badgers and foxes. Their big spikes are a good enough defence alone. When they curl up and spike out, they look like little brown fireworks, too dangerous to eat. ­­

But again, people ruined everything.

Hedgehogs like to hibernate in big piles of sticks, because they’re safe and warm. Or they used to be, anyway. Before people all over Britain started building piles of sticks every year and setting them on fire. Even the hedgehogs’ big spikes can’t protect them from burning.

Last year, our dads took us to the fireworks.

They said that because I had gone a long time without hitting and my headphones were helping to keep me calm, that we should go and see them for Anna. I said yes, because I love Anna. They said it was just a little whiz bang.

When we got there, Anna took my hands like she does when she needs me to look at her face. So, I looked at her face.

‘Jessie,’ she said. ‘I love you.’

‘I know,’ I said.

‘Can I please go to the front with Blue Dad? I’ll come and see you right after the display?’

‘Okay,’ I said. I squeezed her hands, because that’s how I show that I mean something when I say it. I’m still learning how to understand the things people say without words.

 I stayed at the back with Tall Dad. It’s not good for me to be in crowds. He got on one knee even though it was muddy so I could look into his eyes.

 ‘I know I normally say you have to hold my hand when we’re out, Jessie,’ he said. ‘But if you think holding your headphones down will help to keep you calm, you can do that. As long as you stay close. Are you sure you don’t want to go back to the car with me?’

‘Yes.’ I squeezed his hand because, at that moment, I was sure I was okay.

‘You’re amazing,’ he said.

‘Isn’t your knee getting wet?’ I said, clamping down my headphones.

Then the display started.

Even at the back with my headphones on tight, it was hot and loud and there were so many people moving around us. Everyone was cheering. It smelled sweet and smoky of fire and mulled wine and bad hotdogs and it was too much. And with every boom my body shook and with every person pushing past I closed my eyes and screamed as I remembered the hedgehogs, hedgehogs, hedgehogs.

Burning.

Tall Dad tried to take my hand, but I ran forward anyway. Through the crowd. To Anna. To the fire. To the hedgehogs.

I don’t know for sure what I did, but Anna still has the scars.

Anna doesn’t love me anymore.

Olivia Collard is an MA Writing for Young People student at Bath Spa University. She’s an aspiring lesbian aunty, a coffee hater, and is currently working on her first YA novel about two girls falling in love. You can find out more about what Olivia gets up to on her blog, or by following her on Twitter.

Illustration by Rayan Rhys Phillips