Yesterday I was honoured to receive First Prize in the Alan Place Memorial Short Story Competition with my Short Story 'CHANGE'. Alan was a much admired and valued member of The Write Stuff writers group based at Seaham. The awards were presented in the fantastic new Seaham Library. It was a great day in which I and my fellow winners were made to feel very welcome. Thank you for all the hard work the organisers had obviously gone to to make it such a memorable day.
Winner of the Alan Place Memorial Short Story Competition July 2014
Her stepmother’s sobs drifted up the stairs. Nancy could hear her father’s soothing voice as he tried to comfort her. Nancy closed the bedroom door. It shut out the sounds of grief but not the feelings of guilt. Dropping onto a stool she stared in the dressing table mirror and began a one sided conversation with her reflection.
‘You warned him. You told him not to follow you. Told him he didn’t know what he was doing, but, as usual, David knew best. If he’s… stuck, then it’s his own fault.’
Picking up the hairbrush she swept it through her black hair, being careful not to look into her dark eyes. They were too much like her father’s though his eyes had been dulled by sadness these past few days. She slammed the brush down.
‘Damn, David. And damn, Posy. Perhaps now he’s gone she’ll go too and things will get back to normal. We don’t need her. She’s useless, even her name’s useless, Posy, what kind of a name’s that?’
Nancy threw herself onto the bed. By the time her father came in to see her it was getting dark. She sat up and switched on the lamp. The light accentuated the shadows under his cheekbones and sunken eyes. He took hold of her hand.
‘You alright Nance?’
He pulled her to him as he had when she was small and she allowed him to cuddle her. ‘Thank God you’re safe. Poor, poor Posy. I feel so helpless. If only there was something I could do.’
‘You want him back that much?’
The words slipped out before she could stop them. Her father took hold of her arms easing her away from him to look into her face.
‘Nancy, how can you ask that? He’s your brother.’
Her anger, always close to the surface these days, boiled over. ‘I don’t have a brother.’
‘I don’t believe I’m hearing this,’ her father said. ‘David is part of this family now and yes, I want him home.’
She hung her head and fought to control the tears. Her father pulled her to him and stroked her hair. ‘It’s okay, sweetie. Deep down I know you love him as much as Posy and I do.’
Nancy was torn between guilt and incredulity. Guilt won. ‘Dad, there’s something I…’
‘John, John, where are you?’
Nancy gritted her teeth at the sound of her stepmother’s shrill voice.
Her father stood up. ‘Get some sleep, honey.’ The door closed behind him.
She pushed her fists into her temples then smacked them down onto the bed, ‘Damn it. I’m going to have to go bring him back.’
When Nancy was sure both her father and Posy were sleeping she slid, fully clothed, out of bed and sat cross-legged on the floor. Placing a small flat stone in front of her she rested her hand on it. Closing her eyes, she brought the image of her guide, Nukka, into her mind. A familiar ripple disturbed the air and a cool breeze swept over her cheek. She opened her eyes and looked straight into the blue-grey eyes of a wolf.
She stood, stepped off the crossing stone and bowed formally to Nukka .
Nancy. I have been expecting you.
She was surprised; in all the time she had been coming to Between-World, Nukka had never said he had been waiting for her. Though as always Nukka had spoken directly into her mind Nancy used her voice to reply.
‘You have? Why?’
A member of your pack is lost, he needs you.
Was that a note of rebuke? ‘He is not my… my brother. What’s more it’s his own fault he’s lost. He shouldn’t have followed me. Then, to cap it all, when he did get here he rejected his guide and went off on his own.’
He’s a member of your pack and he needs you, Nukka repeated
Nancy pushed down her annoyance. It was pointless being angry with Nukka. She sighed, dusted off the seat of her jeans and looked around. They stood near the top of a hill in early morning sunshine. The forest spread below and around them as if they were on an island in a sea of green. ‘Where do we start?’
David is in the forest to the north. Amka is watching him but as he has rejected her she can’t help him.
‘The stupid…. Okay, let’s get this over with.’
Nukka lead the way into the forest. The path was broken and dangerous and progress was slow. She felt Nukka’s concern.
Amka tells me something is stalking David. She’s afraid for him.
‘Stalking him? What’s stalking him?’
Her mind holds no clear picture of what it is. We must run.
Nancy’s heart clanged against her ribs. ‘By run you mean…?’
Nukka stopped and looked back at her. You must Change.’
‘Damn and double damn. I swore I would never Change after that first time and now because of him…’
Decide! Nukka commanded.
Her shoulders sagged ‘Okay.’
Remember what I taught you. Nukka said. Reach out with your mind, touch my spirit, let it become one with your own and don’t fight the Change.
Nancy took a shaky breath and mentally reached out as Nukka instructed her. She felt her humanity slipping away and forced herself to stay calm. It’s just for a while, she told herself. Just until we find David. She became aware of the scents on the breeze, the noise of small creatures scuttling under leaves and she could feel the earth beneath her four paws. She opened her eyes and experimentally flexed muscles she had not had moments before.
Now, follow, she heard as Nukka streaked past her.
Nancy followed. The ground blurred beneath her feet. Trees whipped past. She leapt fallen trunks and deep ravines. The thrill of speed and pleasure at her surefootedness dissolved her fears. The smell and sounds of the forest excited her and invited investigation. Why have I denied myself this for so long? she wondered.
Fear. Nukka’s voice was loud now she shared the wolf’s nature.
Yes, Nancy thought, Nukka was right; it was fear of change. Not wanting to move from what was familiar and safe to what was different and unknown. That’s why they were in this mess.
Nukka stopped and crouched low.
Amka is here, he said.
Nancy focused her mind on her father and their shared love. With a pang of loss she felt her connection to Nukka lessen and her senses dull as she returned to her human form.
Nukka looked up and a magpie flew down to join them. Her black and white plumage shone in startling contrast to the browns and greens of the forest. Nancy nodded her respect. The magpie’s light crisp voice cut into her thoughts and she winced at its strangeness.
David is north of here. He still refuses to see me, refuses to hear me. He must leave. Quickly.
Before Nancy could answer Amka flew off and Nukka followed. Nancy trudged along behind feeling clumsy now she was back on two legs. Within minutes they reached a shallow ravine. Brambles and small bushes grew on its sides and a thin trickle of water fought its way along the bottom. David sat on a boulder close to the water picking something from the palm of his hand and pushing it into his mouth.
‘Stay here,’ Nancy whispered to Nukka. ‘Amka too. I’ll go down alone.’
She was halfway down before David saw her.
‘You! What do you want?’
At twelve, David was two years younger than Nancy yet he was both bigger and stronger. She had often consoled herself that no-one could mistake them for brother and sister. He was large, round and pink, she slight and dark. Pale blue eyes glared at her defiantly, but as she moved closer she saw tear stains on his cheeks.
‘I’m taking you home.’
David stood up and threw the remaining berries at her. ‘I don’t need you to take me home. Besides you’ve made it obvious you don’t want me around so why pretend you do?’
‘Listen to me you little…’ She took a breath and tried again, ‘Amka says…’
‘Amka? You still going on about that stupid bird? I told you I don’t want no useless guide. I bet you’ve got Nukka up there watching out for you. Frightened you’ll get lost without him or something?’
‘Yes, as a matter of…’ with a sudden flash of insight Nancy realized what this was about. ‘This is because you don’t think she’s good enough for you isn’t it? Because Nukka is a wolf you think Amka is inferior in some way.’
David glared. ‘I told you, I’m okay on my own.’
‘Oh yeah? Well how come you haven’t been home? How come Posy is crying her eyes out and dad is worried sick about you? You’re right, I don’t want you around, but for some reason they do and they are driving me mad.’
‘I’ll come back when I’m ready.’
Nancy held her arms out and spun around taking in their surroundings. ‘David, look about you, this isn’t Waverly Wood you know. It’s not just a case of wandering until you get to the edge then yelling for your mummy. There are all kinds of…’
Nancy heard Nukka's silent warning. She ducked and a rock sailed over her head.
‘Get lost. I’ve told you I don’t want no help.’
Nancy stood up barely resisting the urge to leave. ‘Amka says something is coming that is dangerous to you. She says you have to leave here. Now. Unless you think you can drive it off by throwing stones?’ She waited. ‘Well? Do you?’ she demanded.
At last she saw a flicker of concern in his eyes.
‘What ‘something’ is coming?’
‘It’s too far away for Nukka to know what it is and Amka isn’t able to explain, but she’s in a terrible state.’
‘She never left you. She’s with Nukka. Will you at least go up to them?’
David’s eyes swept the ravine nervously and he nodded.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Nancy led the way back up the slope. Amka was flitting from branch to branch in her agitation.
‘Where is it?’ David asked.
‘She’s right there,’ Nancy said, puzzled.
David’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. ‘You’re lying, there is no bird.’
The magpie’s voice cut into her head again. He can’t see me, he has rejected me. Lead him away from here, quickly.
‘Amka says we have to go.’
‘There is no Amka, you’re lying. You’re trying to trick me.’
‘For heaven’s sake, why would I do that?’
Nukka crouched low to the ground baring his teeth and glaring at David. A growl rumbled in his throat. David backed away.
‘We have to leave, now,’ Nancy explained.From below them came shrill screeches, the sound of twigs snapping and stones being overturned. Nancy realized that whatever was after David was now in the ravine.