THE WINNERS: Mighty Pens Winter Short Story Competition

Mighty Pens Winter Short Story Competition winners have been announced. Please see below for the winning stories. The competition has seen some very talented authors enter. Please watch this space for the latest news and of course don’t forget that Mighty Pens will be hosting a Winter Short Story Award next year! In the meantime, don’t forget that we have other competitions still open as well as a few exciting new short story and other writing competitions coming very soon! Until then, happy writing everyone!

Adult Category Winners:

Seal In The Garden by Karen Waldron

There is a seal in my garden. That’s the first thing you need to know. The second is that I hate snow. But today I love snow. It won’t last long. Like the phenomenon itself. But if it hadn’t have come yesterday, there’d be no seal in the garden. She is the creation of my eldest daughter who should, by rights, have been back at uni but she’s here because… well you know the situation and why she is still at home. I think we’re all done with going over that one again.

So, the seal is in the garden (there’s a snowman too, by the way), because it snowed yesterday. Huge, thick flakes wafted out of the lavender-grey sky, like crystalline feathers plucked from the back of a frozen, heaven-bound goose. It came down heavily for a good three hours until everything was
trussed in four inches of ermine. And that made yesterday special. A break from the monotony. A generous offering in times that are mean and grasping. A brief, joyous interlude.

The walk across the common was un-commonly delicious as the ground crumbled crunchily beneath our boots. That sound and feeling is so  gratifying. Fat snowflakes fell in our eyes and catching them on our tongue felt like cold space dust, a frosty fizz and gone in seconds. And that strange quietude that happens because the snow muffles all the sounds. It’s very odd. Feels as though the world has closed in around you like a giant duvet that cannot keep you warm. In the woods there was no birdsong, no trill of mistle thrush or burble of tits. Even the normally garrulous robins were silent.

No squirrels scrabbling in the leaf litter or scattering through the canopy, or blackbirds turning over oak leaves like dinner-jacketed croupiers dealing out cards in the casino. Just an icy hollow of hush. Exiting from the woods back on to the common, the only discernible colour is picked out by the blots of mustard-coloured flowers on the gorse. Everything else is dressed in bolts of white-glitter drapery. The bracken flops unhappily under the wet-heavy snow and the once boggy tracks are rigid and rippled like corrugated iron.

Back in the garden the seal was emerging from the frozen ground as my three set to work on building her and Billie snowman; the seal was given a ball to balance on her brown marble nose and the snowman bedecked with scarf, man bag, umbrella. And a glow stick. Who knows why. The skies began to clear and, throughout the afternoon, turned oil-in-water colours, striping, and stippling and haloing out to the horizon. And with the sun came the sap-drip and drop of melting snow as it fell lifeless out of the trees and from the rooftops, slopped through the gaps in the shrubs, shrank from the lawns and pavements, dissolved from the steps and fences.

We ended this magnificently extraordinary day with an epic family snowball fight in the front garden, tearing swathes of soft snow from the tops of the cars and heaping up armfuls from the driveway, crushing crystal against crystal to form fluffy balls. Finally, with cold air in our lungs and its pinking on our cheeks, we went inside. Soggy gloves and hats on the radiators, coats dripping winter on to the hall floor, blessed waterproof boots returned to the garage. And then it occurred to us that the entire battle would have been captured by our doorbell camera. And that was yet another gift from this cold but big-hearted day as we sat down to watch the show.

This afternoon, Billie is leaning precariously, his blue glass eyes, carrot-nose and man bag lie on the ground, and he appears to be watching, sightlessly, as the gurgling starlings fly over his melting head. I watch, rather sadly, as a piece of ferny hair slips of the back of his snowy skull. I don’t think he’ll last the day. The life of a snowman. Tragic.

And the seal? She appears barely affected, stretched out as she is on the still-frozen ground. Though maybe her nose has shrunk a little from her ball.
I hate snow. But yesterday I fell in love again

Overwintering by H.S Lyon

As the sun loses its strength and the days grow darker, so too do Lucy’s spirits. The equinoxes match her body’s rhythms as surely as midnight’s chime turned Cinderella’s coach back into a pumpkin and showed her sparkling gown and cloak for the mere rags they really were. In the absence of a fairy godmother to sprinkle magical dust, the shadows of winters past come creeping back. There is a name for this malaise, she knows, but in the long, lovely days of summer when she is as light as a dandelion seed, it seems fantastical, the stuff of stories.

She has tried to explain to others how it is. “I’m like a puppet with cut strings”, she says. “The alarm sounds while I’m deeply asleep. I drag myself from the bottom of the sea of my bed, but I stay half-drowned all day”. They nod, sympathetically, saying they find it hard to get up in the mornings too. She tries to say her feelings through song and poetry, “In the summer, I’m a lark ascending. In the autumn, I’m like Dylan Thomas, raging”. Her friends say they’re so sorry and offer her another cup of tea, suggest she goes for a walk. She does not blame them; raging is not right, anyway. It is more like watching herself fade as the leaves fall, leaving her as blank as a tree’s empty branches.

She tries to fight back to life, forcing herself to get up, to wash, to dress, to eat, to go out. But these everyday tasks seem relentless, each false peak of achievement revealing the next hill that must be climbed. The endless grey skies are the same every day, flattening what resolve she has for action. Twilight comes ever-earlier and begins to feel a relief as the battle can pause again until the morning. Eventually, her strength fails. She stays at home, eating when she must, her world contracting to a single room and a remote control. The images of glittering sequins and happy families are too harsh and too loud, so she turns the sound off and sleeps, her room lit by the flickering television screen.

But in this summer’s dancing months, she determines that her winter will be different. She writes in her diary, “Remember the pumpkin!” She lies in the grass with the sun on her face, as if she could store the warmth from the ground in her very cells. She buys bulbs, each planting an act of faith. In the autumn, she sows sweet-pea seeds into long training pods, imagining their tendril roots delving into the rich goodness of the compost, making sure foundations for the scented flowers to come. She sits and looks at the bare earth, imagining it as a blanket protecting the life that is sleeping. She spreads another layer of mulch over the beds, shielding her plants from frost and cold.

The light dwindles and the snow comes, but she watches the garden from her window, mug in her hands, seeing red berries against green leaves, winter birds flying. Her vigour dies back as it does every year and she naps on the sofa, the garden the last thing she sees as she closes her eyes. She drifts through days, but it is not the same as before. She remembers the pumpkin, the magical dust of summer on a warm breeze. She knows she will spring forward with colour and movement when the time comes to dance again. In this quiet, waiting time, she rests.

Winter by Barbara Compton

‘Here you are. What are you doing?’ asks Leo. He comes into my bedroom and sits beside me on the bed.

‘I’m just looking through some old things,’ I reply.

‘What’s this?’ he questions.

Before I can stop him, he picks up a musical box, lifts the lid and I hear Vivaldi’s ‘Winter’. It acts like a teleportation machine beaming me back twenty years to my wedding day. It’s early February. I’m wearing an ivory velvet dress, satin elbow gloves and a fur bolero. Lured by the promise of crisp mountain air and alpine views I’m to be married in Austria; in Seefeld in the Tirol. I’m sitting beside my father wrapped in cashmere blankets riding to the church in an open-top horse-drawn carriage. The coachman’s muffled up in his thick woollen coat. His cap is pulled down over his ears.

I listen to the tune; the Allegro begins slowly, eights beats, as if to convey the feeling of bracing for the cold. The dappled horses trot, their breath droplets visible in the freezing air. We pass trees covered in powdery snow. Glistening icicles hang like jewels from their bare branches. I feel my nose prickling with the chill. My teeth chatter as the bitter breeze enters my lungs. We are headed for the parish Church of St Oswald. Its steeple towers above the village, speckled white as if dusted with icing sugar. The music continues, the tempo gets faster and our trot shifts to a canter. The pizzicato notes a reminder of icy wind, frosty swirls and cold. ‘This is winter, which nonetheless brings joy’. I have never been as happy. In hours I will be married to James the man I adore. Ours is a dizzy, whirlwind romance. I work in what the Americans call ‘real estate’. The previous November I had covered for my boss at a reception held in a swanky Mayfair hotel.

I am nervous at such events; poor at small talk, awkward and shy. I noticed James standing by the edge of the room, alone, like me; watching, detached from the social milieu. We exchanged a glance. He came over. We drank pink champagne. He worked as a barrister on complex property cases. He had short dark wavy hair and steely grey eyes. We clicked. He wore tartan boxer shorts. A tiny exquisite gold St Christopher hung around his neck. He gave me the musical box that Christmas. It’s the size of a Rubik’s cube crafted from antique rosewood and inlaid with rubies and mother-of- pearl flowers. The music stops. I have arrived at the church. I hear Wagner’s ‘Bridal Chorus’. I am ready.

Memories of nuptials which never happened. A week before our marriage I received a telephone message from James. ‘I can’t make it on the 24th’. I thought it must be a joke, a playful tease, I rang him, again and again. Each time I heard the words ‘the number you have dialled is not in service’. I went to his flat, a stylish apartment in a mansion block off Kensington High Street. A place I’d stayed so many times. A woman answered the intercom. Overcome with jealousy I struggled to speak; fearful they were lovers. She had returned from working in Canada the previous day. Her flat had been empty while she was away. She had never heard of James. I called his Chambers. No one of that name worked there they informed me in a patronising tone as if talking to a fool. They were. I contacted the airline, the hotel and the church. They had no bookings. ‘Leave it to me, I’ll plan everything’ he had said, but nothing had been organised.

I wanted answers. I deserved an explanation which only James could provide. I realised, too late, I had failed to spot tell-tale signs suggesting something might be amiss. Why had I not been introduced to his friends and family, all those names I had seen on the wedding guest list? Why had I accepted so readily that I would meet his parents and best man for the first time at our marriage? I had reached a blank. I gave up.

A little over four years later I saw his photograph in a newspaper. Jimmy Beauchamp, convicted at the Old Bailey for over seventy burglaries from top London hotels; ‘a gentleman cat-burglar and a prolific lock-picker’. He had stolen jewellery from guests close to the value of a million pounds. I winced at my stupidity. I studied the article. He had received a fifteen-year prison sentence. It would easy to discover where he was to be detained. I could visit and get answers to my nagging unexplained questions. I decided not to. Was I too frightened to learn the full truth? I told myself it was an opportunity to draw a line under the business. I have always been a poor liar.

‘There’s a ring here inside the box,’ says Leo.

He picks it up. It’s an Edwardian style canary yellow diamond. The stone is gargantuan. James had gone down on one knee when he had proposed in the privacy of ‘his’ flat. A photograph of the ring later featured in the ‘The Daily Mail’. It had been stolen together with the musical box from a middle eastern lady who had been staying at Claridges. I wanted to return her property, but I didn’t know how without getting myself into a whole load of trouble and I would be exposed as an airhead who’d swallowed the lies of a conman. Guilt and shame became my punishment. Dark invasive thoughts and haunting fake memories that persisted day and night.

‘It is real?’ asks Leo

He examines it.

‘Some cheap costume jewellery,’ I lie.

He rewinds the musical box and ‘Winter’ plays again. I fix my face to hide the pain the melody evokes.

‘I like it. Where did you buy it?’ he asks.

‘It was a present from your father, a long time ago.’

Bitter Hot Chocolate by Wakaba Oto

(Junior Category)

Winter used to be my favorite season. I had always been fascinated by the idea of rebirth; the idea that the seemingly lifeless earth was in fact readying itself for a season of growth gave me the kind of hope that only nature’s greatest contradiction could. More than that, though, I savored the warmth that winter brought about.

This warmth was tangible in mornings spent curled up in front of the roaring fire with my closest friend after a night of exchanging secrets and afternoons filled with snowball fights with my friends, laughing to our hearts’ content as we ran circles around each other around on the playground. And nothing could warm me up better than a cup of my mother’s hot chocolate—her specialty—after an exhausting day of playing outside in the cold.

My mind is forcefully pulled back to the present with the slipping of my feet, the need to stay upright surpassing my longing for the past. I start, blinking back tears from the bitterly cold wind—or at least that’s what I tell myself. Snow crunches beneath my boots like sugar underfoot as I continue to make my way across the service station and into the car.

Clambering into the front seat, I grab the mug of hot chocolate in the cupholder and turn to my mother in the driver’s seat. As I open my mouth to ask her what time we’ll be arriving at our new house, an inexplicable sensation stirs inside my chest. All of a sudden, the car radio is much too loud and my head is pounding and we’re driving on the wrong side of the road and I can’t breathe.

My thumbs fumble for the window switch and I almost drop my mug in my desperation for fresh air. With the rush of wind against my skin, I can breathe again. Vaguely, I make a note of my mother asking if I’m alright, but I ignore her in favor of gulping in the numbing air with my head outside the window. Out here, I have a perfect view of the trees as they stand starkly against the snow like ink on a blank canvas.

Buildings pass by in blurs of white as we grow closer to our destination. If I squint hard enough, I can almost fool myself into believing that I am back home, and the past few weeks have been but a bad dream, but the lack of Christmas lights is telling. I am not home; I doubt that I will ever be home again. On my last day at school, my homeroom teacher told me that my moving was like the dawn of a new day. Every day is a new beginning; every day is a chance to start anew.

For me, that hope had always been symbolized by snow—the same snow that covers the earth of yesterday under a veneer of unadulterated white, hiding everything from footprints to discarded mittens. Snow leaves behind no history and creates a clean slate, free of history. But I never wanted a fresh start. I didn’t want my history to be wiped clean, and sentimental words couldn’t turn my life right-side-up again. Leaving behind everything and everyone that I’d ever known felt like someone had taken a knife to my heart and gouged out a crucial piece of who I was.

The metaphorically abused flesh was left rotting on the doorstep of my former home and there was nothing I could do to stop the bleeding. Gone were the days of sledding down my favorite neighbor’s hill and running around the bonfire at winter-break camp.

While my friends giggled because some boy had burnt his marshmallow to a crisp once again, I would be here, all the way across the globe in a country that didn’t even celebrate Christmas, and starting over from zero—quite literally, because I couldn’t speak the language. As we move onwards on the wrong side of the road, I take a sip from my long-forgotten mug. The chocolate tastes bitter on my tongue.

A Guide to Living with Magic Beasts by Muhammad Haris Zafran Fauzan Khairi

(Junior Category)

Winter is pretty, I suppose. If you have a good heater, it can be really comforting and satisfying. But it gets dangerous when you go outside at night. You ever seen Eyewalkers? Our town is filled with them. They’re harmless in the daytime, but when they start to move during the night, things get dangerous. Their legs look like tree trunks, so you’ll never know when a tree could end up crushing you. Pets are always locked indoors, especially cats, because the Eyewalkers could unintentionally end up smashing Whiskers on the soles of their feet, and you wouldn’t ever know. Unless you get lucky and see a bloody, fur-covered tree trunk outside your window.

It’s not too bad living with giant, four-legged eldritch beings. Of course, there’s the usual “don’t listen to their speech” and “don’t go out at night” but other than that, the town has been relatively safe.

Wanna hear about more things in winter? It doesn’t really matter, it’s always good to learn new things regardless of what they are. Everything has benefit, especially living with Wall-whispers. Their name sounds creepy, but they’re actually really useful. They whisper future events to you if you get close enough. They inhabit flat surfaces, but they like the walls of homes best. They can’t hear, so conversation is futile, but their predictions are extremely useful. If you’re lucky, they might warn you of a plate dropping, or a storm coming in. One thing to note, however, is that they’ll only warn of the cause, not the effect, so if you make it in time, you might be able to stop that plate from breaking…

Another thing that helps in winter is Flamapples. The juice can be sprinkled onto anything to make it flammable like wood, which means that everything will burn the same, even artificial stuff like plastic or glass. This can be really useful when there’s an insurge of Eyewalkers, and firewood becomes difficult to acquire. So now, everyone has a bottle of Flamapple juice to turn junk into valuable firewood. Alternatively, you could add the juice to beverages and make a neat little warming wine or cider. Just be careful not to eat fire until an hour later, or you might just get a painful case of deadly heartburn…

Sometimes, Frosties come to visit. People not local to the area would usually call them “Abominable Snowmen” or “Yetis”. It’s a little more complicated than that; as they put it, they are a subspecies of apes distorted by “Mirror Snow”. Whatever that is, they haven’t told us yet. It doesn’t really bother the town though, as the Frosties usually help with things in exchange for salt and pepper. Maybe the food they eat needs spicing up? It’d be weird for beings that survive off of the cold, but who are we to question the eldritch?

I had a friend from the city visit us during the winter. After nearly getting crushed by an Eyewalker, a friendly Frosty woman helped him navigate to the town. Upon arriving on the doorstep, he threw himself upon the fireplace, causing much panic, until I remembered that he was a pyromancer. He said, in a chatter of fear and chill, that “This is actually worse than being at the bottom of the sea, and you know how long I’ve been complaining about that”. I offered to give him some hot chocolate to warm his hands up, but he declined, instead drinking the Flamapple juice directly from the bottle.

Pretty soon, he had gulped the entire thing down. I chuckled, remembering how eager I was to drink Mistwater during my trip to his own hometown. I warned him not to get near any fire for about an hour, and he ignored me, gulping down a bit of fire. All too soon, he burst into flames, and in an intimidatingly calm way, he waved away my attempts to douse him with snow, insisting that it was a nice warm up for him.

I took his word for it, but now that I mention it, he was dangerously close to the couch cushions… Well, since you’ve read this far, I doubt you’ll be dying to anything in the winter. Perhaps if you’re lucky, you may be able to visit my town and see some of the sights here. Good luck and stay warm, reader-of-this-book.