Winning Stories for Great Story Competition 1



1st Prize
Grave Concerns by Richard Paul Flamank

Judges’ Comments: Great title. Reminded me of Lincoln in the Bardo a little. Enjoyed the concept especially since I have always wondered about one’s immediate demise – what actually happens and if the ‘dead’ can still process thoughts / feelings etc. I got ‘spirit’ed away, especially when ‘her voice …. turned into a wail’ Loved the revelation at the end!

Read "Grave Concerns" by Richard Paul Flamank
Grave Concerns by Richard Paul Flamank

The ground was moist from a sprinkling of late summer rain. Droplets on the pink-green petals of the orchid reflected the shimmering light as it passed through the canopy of trees.

Joyce liked orchids. They’d been a bit of an obsession in life after she’d given up the rigours of her work as a teacher and having struggled to get used to retirement, she’d thrown everything into the propagation of these mysterious plants.

The Growing Club offered the conviviality of like-minded souls and had led her to a second, welcome, late- flowering passion – Mike.

Mike had planted the orchid but it was her friends’ idea. They couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate her life .This particular variety had been her favourite and they imagined her tending to it, below rather than above the soil.

Joyce occupied a pleasant spot. When the sun rose on a clear morning like today, its first rays lapped over her small square and come evening, it lingered a bit longer on her patch before finally giving way to the darkness.

A small group of people was gathering nearby. It was a frequent occurrence. The passage of events, which we call time, had come to a halt for yet another. The carapace, which they’d inhabited useless and without purpose.

 Once burnt, its vestiges placed in a nice and suitably decorous wooden box.

Today’s box was a light brown with a lovely inlay on the top, showing the name of the person.

Joyce hadn’t liked the colour of her own box. Too dark. She had thought Mike would remember her fancy for lighter coloured clothes and soft furnishings but he’d probably been influenced by the organisers and their view that the darker the materials, the more solemn the approach.

When had solemnity been a suitable companion for this? Merely a transition to a new form and the beginning of a new journey but you only got to know that once you’d gone through it and it was frankly boring most of the time.

A small hole had been dug in the ground opposite Joyce and around its edges some pristine purple coloured felt endowed the scene with the required gravity.

The box was resting on the side of the hole along with a selection of gaudy flowers. The people, some of whom had donned their best suits, gathered around a person who was to deliver the eulogy and then embark on the ceremony of burial. Her voice was clear and calm. Joyce along with all the other spirits made themselves comfortable and listened, as they always did.

Successful at school particularly in practical subjects. Gained a fine set of qualifications, leading him to set up his own building business. Met his wife - distraught by his unexpected and unplanned departure.

Been looking forward with a keen anticipation to the retirement, which he’d promised to himself and his wife. Planned an extravagant bucket list for the next act of his play. The heart of the play - act four out of a possible six - the cruise to New York to arrive in style like in the old movies and then the long-awaited trip to Lapland with the grandchildren. They were getting to the stage where they’d begun to doubt Santa’s existence.

 He was desperate to explore his artistic side, which had languished as he trawled laboriously through the list of building contracts, which he’d won. He knew that he could paint and sculpt as he’d been quite good at school but as was usual in those days the work of an artist was not a suitable career for a young man.

 As she listened to the celebrant, Joyce had also been listening in on his thoughts. She knew she shouldn’t but the newbies didn’t realise that their thoughts were audible and strangely visible to their silent neighbours.

“Lovely words…Thank you, but what about those pots I’d turned recently at pottery class? I thought I was quite good at it. Why don’t you mention that?”

He found himself editing and amending the speech.

His admiration for the ceremony then turned to anger at the absurdity. The anger of being deprived of your life. Of finding yourself surrounded by nearest, dearest and some you couldn’t stand, listening to your own funeral.

 “BLOODY HELL! Is this hell? The burial ground behind the allotments! One minute…one minute I was enjoying a sneaky Mars bar. They didn’t even know that. I’d just put the wrapper in a bin. Then……just clearing the last bit of chocolate from my teeth. Got a bit stuck in that dodgy filling and that almighty thunderclap in my chest and I was gone. Why me?”

Joyce didn’t normally intervene in the ceremonies. It wasn’t usually the best time for the deceased to find out that they were surrounded by other deceased who could communicate with each other. A quiet word was usually better - after all the fuss had died down!

 This one was really upset, however and needed to know that such language was simply not to be tolerated in the after world.

“Do you mind..?Shhhh! Careful what you wish for!”

 The mention of Heaven and Hell was a touchy point for all those in the interminable celestial queue.

The voice stopped and tried to do what he would have done in life. Look round and see who’d said that. Such physical dexterity was lost. He didn’t usually swear and certainly not in his family’s earshot. It didn’t sound like his wife’s voice but it was familiar. He really hoped she could still hear him. He had so much to tell her and to share. The voice didn’t like his language.

“Oh. So sorry. Didn’t realise I was in the company of anyone who could hear me. I mean. I’m dead so I thought it reasonable to assume that means alone. Could be hearing things. Can I still hear things? Didn’t really expect to be able to say anything. Nor sure I am saying anything.”

Joyce cut him off

“Yes…yes. You’ll have lots of questions but for the moment just have a bit of respect for your ceremony. They’ve put a lot of effort into it and all those lovely words. Listen. Otherwise you’ll miss it and no replays down here. I’m Joyce by the way “

The celebrant paused to let her last kind words sink in. He’d inspired so much trust in the community in his employment and this trust and friendship were valued by all his friends in the numerous clubs and associations, which he’d attended.

“There are many here today who can vouch for his loyalty and integrity and I would like to ask a fellow member of The Growing Club to say a few words.”

“Oh. Yes. So sorry again” said the voice. “My name’s Eric and I think that, yes. That’s it. It’s my long time mate at the club who’s going to say a few words. Mike. That’s it! “

Joyce couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She’d witnessed quite a few previous acquaintances at ceremonies like this one but this was the first time, the first time that her very own Mike had attended a ceremony after hers.

 He had of course been to see her and he’d brought orchids and expressions of his undying love, if you can pardon the pun but here he was talking about someone else. She suddenly realised who Eric was and was about to respond when Mike began.

“Well, what can I say about mi’ ol’ mucker? And we were the closest of muckers at the Growing Club. Hands constantly in the muck but it has to be said - Eric was a prize grower. Never seen anything like his radishes and as for them onions.”

Mike stopped momentarily for dramatic effect and a rueful smile appeared on his face.

“There were nobody who could rival Eric at the County Fair. Ever since my dear wife Joyce passed way – God rest her soul - I knew I could rely on Eric for a chat and a lovely brew in’t shed. ‘Course Eric was looking forward to so much. That generous pension was going to jet him round the world with the lovely Marge and all them gorgeous grandkids.”

Joyce could hardly contain herself. What was he thinking of, putting on his yokel again? He always used to do it at parties, doing his best to embarrass her. Always made a big play of his Northern roots when he’d been raised in the soft underbelly of Manchester.

Come to think of it, he hadn’t been round for a while. Whilst it was true that you didn’t recognise time in the same way when you were dead, you still noticed when a loved one didn’t come by. As she let herself think a bit, she began to feel Eric’s frustration and anger. She’d forgotten how distressed she’d been at her own death, how devastated that she couldn’t enjoy her retirement years.

She then felt remorse at shutting Eric up.

“Eric!” she whispered. “I’m sorry………..”

“Shh! You’re right. Got to listen. Won’t do this again! Or unless you know different!”

Joyce felt the sensation, which was previously a smile. She didn’t mind being put in her place. Especially as he had a sense of humour. You had to have a sense of humour.

The final benedictions had been given and the participants emerged from their meditative states and exchanged timorous glances with each other. Eric’s box had been placed into the neatly dug square and a small figure stood at a discreet distance, waiting, spade in hand.

You would have thought that death would lead to enhanced powers of perception but Joyce’s hearing was as bad as when she was alive so she couldn’t quite hear the conversation, which Mike was having with Marge, but there was something about the tone.

Talking in hushed tones at a funeral? So that the dead can’t hear! You wouldn’t believe it, would you!

The conversation seemed to last a bit longer than the usual expressions of regret and condolence. Maybe they were all going down the pub to celebrate. Eric seemed to have noticed.

“What are they talking about? Can’t be radishes. Marge hated the sight of them. “

 “No idea. Probably what’s for tea, knowing Mike. You couldn’t have a sensible conversation with him if his belly was empty.”

The conversations had stopped. The drumroll of a woodpecker resounded and rebounded. Eric was silent. She knew why. They were leaving. His wife. His children. All of his entourage. His voice faltered.

“They’re…..they’re off then. Don’t….don’t go. I’m here. Come back…..”

Joyce imagined a tear falling down her face. To feel that again. To be able to comfort. To put an arm round a shoulder.

What was this purgatory? She often asked her neighbours if they knew what happened next. But nobody did.

“Eric! Eric!.. I’m so sorry. I do know how you feel. I’m or I was Mike’s wife, Joyce. You know. From the Growing Club. Don’t get upset. It’s just like finishing the best book in the world but then discovering you’d started another, although I have to say this one’s a bit hard to get into.”

The figure had arrived at the hole and the rasping rhythm of each shovelful landing on the box made Eric worse.

“Oi! You! Stop it! I want to get out! I don’t belong here. Can you still hear me, Joyce? ”

Joyce didn’t like to point out the obvious.

“Yes! Yes! Been here for ages. You can hear me, can’t you? It’s a bit of a shock when they bury you. You’ll get used to it. It’s not as if you can suffocate when you’re already dead!”

It was true. He was dead. No point in getting upset. He was just surprised he could get upset. What is the point of dying if you could still feel all this stuff? He’d never believed in all that afterlife claptrap. Down the pub it was always. Once you’re gone, you’re gone so make the best of it. And he’d just begun to do so. Now this. Semi-living in a hole in the ground surrounded by a whole new ghostly community.

“Sorry Joyce. Lovely to meet you again, if we can call this meeting. It’s just a bit strange isn’t it? Went out for a paper one day and here now!”

“You’ve taken it quite well. Still can’t get used to it. I did think that after getting the paperwork done to qualify for Heaven, things would move quickly. But I’m afraid not. Can’t think of anything which might qualify me for Hell but who knows? It’s just the waiting.”

“Oh. Hadn’t thought…….”

Eric’s sentence was curtailed. A high-pitched yell which then became a choir and then a full-blown chorus echoed through the tranquillity


After the din had died down Joyce reassured him.

“Don’t worry. That’s just Margaret! You might get to meet her but each day at 4 she does this. We all join in. None of us have the faintest why we’re all still here and it helps. Don’t know how Margaret knows to do it at 4 each day but there we go.”

The guttural explosion was clearly not audible to the living as Mike and Marge had moved that bit closer into earshot of their resting places.

“Who’d have thought it?” said Mike in a jovial but macabre sort of way.

“Hush, Mike! Don’t you say a word! You know what we said!”

“What you worrying about Marge? The dead haven’t got ears!”

Little does he know, thought Joyce who’d begun to feel a little uneasy at the bonhomie between the two. What had they said and when had they said it?

Eric seemed of the same mind.

“Don’t know about you Joyce but your Mike seems a bit disrespectful of us dead.”

Joyce couldn’t disagree.

“Let’s listen in. Maybe they’ll say a bit more.”

But they didn’t. They turned to leave. Although Joyce could no longer see in the same way as when she was alive, she could sense that they were close to each other, that the hand which had once clasped hers was holding another and in a fit of anger she shouted again at the top of her ethereal voice.


The other residents were alarmed. They’d done that part. Surely another 24 hours hadn’t already passed.

“It’s not time! No! We’ve done it.” shouted Margaret.

Joyce was quick to own up.

“Sorry Margaret. I got my timing wrong.You know my hearing’s not that good. Mistook you for a rook.”

“I don’t think you did.” said Eric. “They’re carrying on, aren’t they? Didn’t take them long. I’ve only been dead a bit and they’re carrying on.”

Once she’d recovered, Joyce didn’t know what to say to Eric. She was surprised that he’d already realised it himself, so she paused.

Just as she began to say the obvious, it was Eric’s turn.


This time there were shouts and recriminations resounding across the tranquil burial ground and such was the force both Mike and Marge stopped in their retreat and in the manner of someone who has heard a ghost, gulped and exchanged glances.

“Did you hear that?” said Marge.

“What?” said Mike, trying to feign indifference.

“You heard it. I can see it in those podgy little eyes. You’re as scared as I am. A cry from the dead! Why did you have to say that stuff near their graves?”

“What stuff? Stuff and nonsense. It’s what we talked about. What we dreamed of. No harm in a bit of laugh!”

“Well I can’t live with it. I should never have done it. All that time at the allotment. All those afternoons spent talking turnips and sprouts. And all those cups of herbal tea.”

They were just close enough for Joyce and Eric to hear and it was Marge, who turned first and returned to their spots. They sensed her turmoil and began to suspect much worse.

They’d all been the best of friends on the municipal allotment site. Joyce and Mike had been there first and then the plot next door had come free. Eric and Marge arrived the next day.

Over the years they’d shared advice and any number of fruits of their labours and they’d all particularly enjoyed the afternoon break spent either sitting in one of their potting sheds or perched on  ancient red and white sun chairs, if the conditions were right. Always a slice of cake and a cup of herbal tea produced from Mike’s special herbal patch.

He’d always liked to joke that there were some special things in his herbal patch and he always gave his trademark wink as he did so. Joyce had got so used to it she’d shut it out but now she began to see it for what it was.

She felt it as it dropped onto the orchid, as it slid down the stem and seeped into the ground. And she felt another and another.

The tears began to flow. Marge had come to confess.

“It wasn’t my idea. I got taken in. He was so persuasive. Just a little bit every day would do the trick he said. You wouldn’t feel a thing .Just a bit different and eventually it would take you. And it did. And you too,Eric…….”

Her voice juddered and turned into a wail.

2nd Prize
Lilith by Alethea Anjali Ooi

Judges’ Comments: A gentle tense story that reads like a period drama with all of the nuances and complications of family relationships that exist everywhere. Wish I could just hug Lilith. Interestingly, one does not hate her father. Much pathos. It feeds into the ‘incompleteness’ of a Near Death Experience. I like very much the way haemophilia was inserted into this story. That going in and out of consciousness was felt.

Read "Lilith" by Alethea Anjali Ooi
Lilith by Alethea Anjali Ooi

White lilies brushed against the snow white dress she wore, rocks scraping her tan skin. As Lilith brushed her dark hair away from her brown eyes, she nearly stumbled on the rocky pavement. The golden sun beating down on her as her hair and clothes were glued to her skin with sweat. No…she must not give up. Not now when she is inches away from her destination. With an iron will, she kept running until-


A gunshot was heard. It scraped her arm as something warm and wet trickled down her arm. Glancing back, there was the black horse and the man who shot the bullet. Eyes widened with fear, Lilith ran faster. Once she was in the woods, it would all be over. Once she was in the woods, she could save herself. Running faster, she flailed her arms as she grabbed the nearest tree. But as she did so, a second bullet was shot and it went through her stomach. Gasping for air, she hurled herself deeper into the forest and out of sight. The gunman huffed in anger at the disappearance of his target and he turned back, furrowing his brow in frustration.

Meanwhile, Lilith was slumped against a tree, applying compression to the wound to stop the bleeding. But despite her efforts, it was not working. She crawled around the forest floor in search of some sort of medicinal herb that would heal the wound or at least stop the bleeding. Her mind was beginning to grow fuzzy with each passing second. But…this was the only thing that could save her. Hemophilia is what killed her mother and now it was out to kill her too. If she had stayed at home with her father, she would have bled to death.

Either way she would have died. At least out here there may be a chance at survival however slim it was. The doctors couldn’t save her so she had to save herself. After all, when others can’t help, one must save themselves. That is how most survive, after all.

Lilith groped the ground for a source of medicine, praying beneath her breath she would be successful. At last, she felt the familiar shape of an aloe vera spear. Quickly wrapping her fingers around the spiky green stem, she broke it off and smothered the bullet wound with the translucent gel. But that still did not change the fact that the bullet was inside her. And removing it would only create more harm than good. Weakly, she laid limply down on the ground and prayed that the plant would do its job. Deciding to rest, Lilith closed her eyes and fell under sleep’s sweet spell.

What felt like an hour later, Lilith awoke to a rather sweet fragrance surrounding her. It was slightly waxy, green - tinged and a little bit spicy. Her eyes flew wide open to see where this smell was coming from. She looked around to see a seemingly endless field of white lilies in the dusk sky. This was it. This was not the dark and dingy forest she was last in. The only reasonable explanation was she was dead. Lilith was sure of it. For if she was alive, the wound would definitely hurt. Running a hand above the injured area, Lilith winced as a stinging pain shot up her body. Nope, she was definitely alive. Dead people do not feel pain. But how? One second she was laying on the dirty, dusty forest floor nearly dying of blood loss and now she was here, sitting in a sea of white lilies very much alive. She gently touched the waxy petals of one flower and turned around to confirm if she was truly alive or dead. There was a puddle of blood where she laid. Yes she was definitely alive.

Slowly standing up, Lilith began to slowly walk forward. Carefully stepping over stones and flowers yet to bloom, she tried to get some sense of where she was. She could be in the field of white lilies that were right before the forest. But that was a speck compared to the endless valley she was wandering right now. She carefully threaded through the white sea, doing her utmost best to not injure herself further. At long last, she came across the very same forest she had been in. Lilith cautiously approached the spot where she once laid. True enough, there was a bloodied aloe vera spike, sticky liquid spread across the floor. She looked at the ground, then in front, then behind. However could she have moved from this patch in the forest to the middle of the white lilies? Deciding not to ponder any longer for fear of what may come, Lilith took her leave and headed to where the sun rises each and every morning.

A tall, dark man was pacing back and forth, enraged by what he had heard. Not only had he wasted his money on a man who failed to capture his runaway daughter but he shot her! Through the stomach! Oh the amount of savings he had to put forth for damages and repairs! He would never get out of debt. Not to mention the shame if word got out that his daughter had run away from home! He would never hear the end of it! The man ruffled his dark hair in frustration and then slammed his balled fists onto the table. His thin eyebrows creased as sighed before thumping himself onto the chair.

“Useless…” He muttered under his breath. “Such a useless waste of time…Useless…Just like her mother…”

No wonder he had named her Lilith, monster of the night. That girl had made him spent all of his money on her medical treatment only for her condition to worsen. And here she was whining at the fact she could never have nice things. If only she had been brought back, she could have been sold as a servant or, even better, for the doctors. Yet she was gone. Just like that. He slumped into a chair, clenching his fists. She would be dead by now. No use in going after her. Lilith was now just a memory forgotten by most, remembered by very few. And he deemed himself as that unlucky few. But no time to dwell on the past. Life moves on and waits for nobody. How could this insignificant thing ruin his day? Just like that, Lilith was nothing but another very common child death. Nothing to be so concerned about. It was a miracle she lived past ten with her condition. But living until twenty was a bit too far fetched even for the average child. 

As he glided across the streets, he could feel the daunting absence of a young girl. Maybe it was her constant train of ‘Daddy, daddy, look at this!’ or ‘Daddy, daddy, can we please go in there?’ that he felt was missing. On normal days, he would sternly tell her no. But maybe, just maybe, he might have said yes on this particular day.

“Snap out of it. She is a waste of time.” The man scolded himself and continued his way to work, ignoring his ringing thoughts.

Back in the field of white lilies, Lilith had set up a make-shift camp at the edge of the forest. She had been able to stay up until nightfall but she was still injured and all of that moving about only made it worse. So she slowly placed herself on a bed of leaves and stared up at the stars. What she was going to do now in the future was the least of her concerns.

She wanted to know what she was going to do now? Perhaps find a new town to stay in. She needed a new dress since her current one was ripped and had a very unflattering blood stain. But to find one was going to be difficult considering her secluded location. And she was never taught about other places besides her own because there was no need to. Or perhaps live here in the sea of white lilies. It was not too difficult as she already had a small establishment. The only challenges one might face were finding sufficient nourishment and clean water.

She will decide on it tomorrow, Lilith told herself as she pulled herself to sleep. What she needed now was rest and a lot of it if she ever wanted her bullet wound to heal completely. Lilith had concluded her survival from being shot was a pure miracle and that she had not collapsed in the forest but in the middle of the white lilies, which is what she saw when she woke up. It was a feeble conclusion but it was the best she could do for a girl under the age of twenty suffering from hemophilia and just getting shot in the stomach less than a day ago. Too exhausted to comprehend the day’s events, she closed her eyes and slept beneath the twinkling sky and shining moon.

3rd Prize
Mirrors by Zary Fekete

Judges’ Comments: Loved this. All the elements of a short story blended in well. Very American, the AA, Salvation Army, etc Family issues, alcohol addiction, job struggles, delivery to a messy place (good description), humanity at work (buying the food, etc). It was great to journey with Nick in this narrative.

Read "Mirrors" by Zary Fekete
Mirrors by Zary Fekete

His text sound beeped, and he looked down at his phone. It was a message from his sponsor. There was a couple across town who had a donation for the Salvation Army. His sponsor asked if he had time. He did. These days he had plenty of time.

Nick considered his recovery to have officially begun four months ago in February, but, in reality, it probably started earlier. Probably on Christmas morning when his wife had asked him to run down to the apartment storage unit in the basement of their building for the Nerf guns that were hidden down there for the boys.

Nick had grabbed the keys and taken the steps in threes. He had about 5 minutes before his wife would get suspicious. He ran out the front door to the liquor store around the corner, the only one that was always open in Bloomington, even during the Minnesota winter. He bought a half liter of vodka and a half liter of Sprite. While walking back he chugged half the vodka in his right hand while emptying half of the Sprite from his left into the gutter next to the sidewalk. He stood in the front door to the building long enough to pour the rest of the vodka into the remaining Sprite. He stooped down and dropped the empty vodka bottle down the street drain. There. That would get him through the morning. This kind of behavior was standard operating procedure until a few weeks later when his wife found him passed out on the toilet, and he knew he couldn’t pretend to hide things anymore.

The downtown Minneapolis Salvation Army AA group met every Monday evening. Nick had learned a bit of the lingo since he began to attend in February. He started taking Antabuse, the preventative drug that would make him violently sick if he drank. He also began to meet with his sponsor, William, a British ex-pat in his 70s. It was William who texted him the address of the couple across town with a donation.

Nick grabbed the keys to the delivery van from the shared kitchen table in the dining room. The first two weeks at the Salvation Army were free, but then they wanted you to start doing something to earn your keep. First he washed dishes. He moved on to cleaning the bathrooms and doing laundry, and, once the leadership realized he was serious about his recovery, they gave him the keys to the delivery van and he started picking up donations.

Most donations were furniture items, things like old mattresses or bed springs. Sometimes it was clothes, knotted up in oversized plastic garbage bags. Once or twice a month someone had a stack of records they wanted to get rid of or a rack of used books. Nick brought them all back and logged them into the front store’s book. Then the stuff went on sale to bring in some additional income for the Salvation Army halfway house where he was living with the other guys.

His phone beeped again and a second text arrived from William. Apparently, this donation was going to be different. Nick was supposed to pick up some wall length mirrors and deliver them to a different address. He hopped into the van, threw the stick into reverse, and carefully backed out of the lot. Soon he was motoring past the used furniture lots on either side of the street. He waved to a couple of the guys on the street. Then he was on the freeway headed south.

The first few nights in the Salvation Army had been tough; William said they were for everyone. Nick’s body wasn’t used to sleeping without liquor and he stared up at the ceiling for the first week listening to the belches and farts of the other 50-odd guys he shared the dorm with. The sleepless nights had also given him plenty of time to think. He didn’t think about any of the cliched stuff like picturing his wife or boys alone without him. They were probably relieved he was gone. He figured they wanted him back but not halfway back. If he was going back this needed to work. That first week as he stared at the ceiling he thought about himself. He imagined the alcohol molecules draining out of his blood, floating out into the air around him, mingling with the other smells of the dorm. He started to work up an image of a steel door in his mind; the door he was slowly closing and locking. The door was going to stay closed this time. However long he needed to stay at the Salvation Army with his shoulder against the door before returning home…three months? Six? Over a year? He was going to do it.

The pickup location was in South Minneapolis. He had been to this general neighborhood on more than one occasion with the van. The houses there were nice. Not mansion-nice like in some of the outer suburbs, but definitely middle class-nice. He took the freeway exit after driving for about 10 minutes. Two turns later he was pulling up next to a well-kept yard. The lawn was small but very trim. The streets each had a neighborhood watch sign posted. “Our neighbors are watching…Zero tolerance for crime.”

He got out without locking the van doors and walked up to the front door.  The door opened before he could ring the bell. It was an older couple and they were all smiles. They invited Nick to follow them to the basement. He slipped out of his shoes and followed their stream of chatter to the downstairs stairway.

“We your first ones today?” the older man said.

“That’s it,” Nick said, with a grin. “Not going to give me any trouble, are you?”

The lady thought this was very funny and suddenly launched into a story about something that happened last summer with her and her sister. Nick let most of the story wash over him while he smiled.

“Yep, it takes all kinds,” he said when she was winding down. “So now, you’ve got some mirrors to get rid of?”

The older man gestured to the stairs, and Nick followed him down. The basement was unfinished but spotless with lots of good overhead lighting. The mirrors were stacked against a wall.

“There they are,” the man said. “We had been keeping them for our niece. She dances at the Children’s Theatre Company downtown…but turns out she didn’t need them. Where will you take them”

Nick said, “Someplace up North Minneapolis.”

When he mentioned North Minneapolis the couple both hummed and acted like he said something serious. The man helped Nick move the mirrors back up the stairs and out onto the street one by one. Nick could probably have managed two mirrors apiece if he was working alone, but he didn’t want the guy to feel like he was ungrateful for the offered help. That was one of the lessons from the big AA book that William had drilled into him for several week: Always deal in gratitude. People want to give, but they also like people who are grateful.

Nick thanked the couple and then sat in the van for a second with the engine idling. He checked his phone and another text from William had already arrived with the address for the drop off. A couple seconds later he was back on the highway, heading north this time. By the time he was entering North Minneapolis a thin drizzle had started. The yards he passed were bare and muddy. The drop off location was for an apartment building sandwiched between a shabby Arby’s and a concrete supply company. There was no place to park, so Nick turned the hazards on and inched the van into a tight squeeze by a fire hydrant.

He rang the buzzer at the front door and was surprised to hear a kid’s voice in the speaker. The speaker was crackly but he heard the kid say something about the 6th floor. Nick took three quick trips with the mirrors until he had them all stacked outside of the elevator. He re-parked the van a block away on a side street, beeping the doors locked and manually checking with his hand that they were locked and then jogged back to the apartment building. He carefully moved the mirrors into the elevator.

The elevator door shuddered closed and after a few deep creaks the entire unit began to shiver its way upward. As he rose he could smell different smells as each floor passed: curry, garlic, onions, saffron. The door opened on the sixth floor he smelled the high, acidic tang of cat urine.

The smell grew stronger as he exited the elevator. There was a bare lightbulb above him in the hallway, and no other lights. He used his phone to inspect the first few apartment numbers and found the door he was looking for. He knocked and waited.

A moment later the door opened and the owner of the young voice was standing in the doorway. Nick guessed that he was probably 12. The kid was all smiles and beckoned for Nick to follow him. Nick shouldered the first two mirrors and stepped into the apartment.

It was filthy. There was a tiny kitchen closet on the right, the sink clogged with dirty dishes and crawling with flies. The fridge door hung ajar, the lower hinge clearly broken, the smell coming from the kitchen was thick with rotting chicken and mold.

The rest of the apartment seemed to be all one room. Every inch of the floor looked covered with dirty laundry and crumpled magazines. Nick counted five cats, but there might have been more. There was an ancient couch on the left with wiry springs poking up from the cushions. A pillow carelessly teetering on the arm of the couch seemed to confirm that this the only room and that the couch was the only “bed”.

The kid was standing in the middle of the entire mess, still grinning his huge, bright smile.

Nick tried to return the smile, but the cat urine made him wince.

“This your place?” he finally managed to say.

The boy nodded.

“Well, then these guys are yours,” he said, patting one of the mirrors. “Where do you want them?”

“Over here.” The boy said. He quickly kicked a few socks out of the way and pointed at the back wall, across the way from the couch.

Nick carefully stepped across the crowded floor, standing the mirrors against the bare wall. He couldn’t wait to get out of the smell. His eyes had begun to water.

When he finished he looked back at the boy who was still smiling but was now admiring himself in the shiny surfaces of the mirrors.

“Where’s your mom?” Nick said.

“Arby’s. Working,” the boy said.

“Your dad?”

The boy looked up, “He’s at hospital again.”

Nick gave a nod. He turned to leave, but then stopped and looked at the boy again. He was standing in front of the mirrors, poised in a kind of ballet stance, admiring himself in the reflection.

Nick said, “Were these your idea?”

The boy nodded and did a quick pirouette turn in front of his reflection. “Mom said that if I practiced a lot that I might be able to get into some schools.” Then, lost in thought for a moment, the boy stopped moving and just stared at the wall of mirrors. “Wow,” he finally said, “It looks like such a big room now.”

Nick looked down at the floor, and put his hands on his hips. He looked at back at the door, agonizing for a moment. He looked back at the kid.

“You eaten yet?” he said.

“Breakfast,” the kid said.

“Hang on then,” Nick said. “I always get myself too much.”

He trotted out into the hall, ignoring the elevator, and took the service stairs in three. When he got to the ground floor he sprinted to the Arby’s. He ordered from a bored-looking teen…three roast beefs and 3 fresh hams. It was probably the least unhealthy thing on the menu. He shook his head as he paid, mentally kicking himself.

“Useless,” he thought.

He grabbed the bag from the counter and ran back to the building. When he got back upstairs the kid was still twirling and stretching in front of the mirrors.

“Here you go,” Nick said. The kid didn’t look at him, lost in his own reflection.

A moment later Nick was outside, walking back toward the van. He got in and sat there for a few moments without turning the ignition. Then he pulled out his phone, tapped his way to his wife’s number, and wrote: “Four months today. A few more to go. Can’t wait to see you guys.”

He hit send and then drove off.

Honourable Mention

Finale Postponed by Annie Ooi

Judges’ Comments: A lovely story of what I imagine as feelings and thoughts when close to death or in a state of 'unconsciousness'. Liked the last line. ‘Only time will tell’.

Read "Finale Postponed" by Annie Ooi
Finale Postponed by Annie Ooi

The sun rises in the east, and sets in the west. Such is the immutable law of nature. And so a child is born, and the child, when it has seen the rise of 1,000 moons, leaves the earth, when its time comes. Or is it? At least in our world.

Ong Wan Suay was born in a semi-rural town, commonly known as a placid, or sleep hollow. Taiping, translated as "Everlasting Peace," is a great place to spend a calm and quiet childhood. She grew up happy and loved.

Schooling, school friends and family, were her life. Taiping has its charms, but young Wan Suay had to seek her fortune in the glittering capital, Kuala Lumpur, working at a worthwhile job. After that came marriage, the next chapter, like millions of peolple around the world.

She settled in her new life, was domesticated, and loved doing housework.

Somehow a clean kitchen gave her satisfaction. She did what she did, because it made her happy. At the age of 34, she was married and had two children to show for it.

 It was  simple life, like millions of others before her. Nothing out of the ordinary. Other than the usual ups and downs of life, the little crises, everyday was the same.

But her life changed on a day of brilliant sunshine, and wondrous clouds floating in an azure sky. Something happened. And it gave her a new perspective on life. After the life-changing event, everyday was still the same, but the sameness had an edge to it. Everything had a hint of finiteness to it. 

She was waiting for the rapidKL bus, but not at her usual bus stop. But further down the road. Why? Because the seats at the bus stop were fully taken. And there was a crowd of people standing around. The bus tolled towards her, she waved, but it didn't stop.

She got on the next bus. And that was when she met her destiny.

She sat next to a stranger, a dark swarthy middle-aged man, who looked kind of debauched. But she didn't care, her heels were killing her, and this was the nearest empty seat.

But then, the unthinkable happened. That is, it is thinkable, but only thinkable in the sense that it only happens to other people.

The bus careened forward, lurched to the right, and screeched. She slammed into the seat in front of her; she was literally thrown there.

It was all dark, all noise. She tried to get up, but was too dizzy to stand. Panic gripped her

very body, anxiety tore through her heart, and the world was in shambles. Is this it? Is this how she leaves the world?

But then she felt a certain sense of peace, and a feeling of distance. A strong presence enveloped her. She brushed it off. Itpersisted, roiled around her, but strangely, she was not in the slightest bit alarmed.

She opened her eyes, looked to the right and saw the swarthy man right next to her.

His eyes were closed and he was lying in an awkward position. There was a paper calender in the bus, the type where each of the 12 months is torn off as it happens. It had only the last month, December,  left hanging.

To add more weight to the light piece of paper, the driver had attached a clip at the bottom. There was no gust of wind. But as she looked at it idly, it swayed up to the left, roiled around, and moved back.  

It was a signal: someone, something was approaching.

"Are you ready?" she heard distinctly. "Ready for what?" she asked. It was the  first question which popped into her head.

Although she somehow knew instinctively it was about her getting off at this, perhaps the last station, on the journey of her life. But she was not ready.

What? How could she be ready? She was only in her early 30s.  As the life expectancy for women goes, she was only about a third of the way. Not to be able to see the sun, the blue sky, the fluffy clouds, the smog, the tall buildings struggling to cut a sharp silhouette through the hazy sky?

She felt it hesitate. Oh, can I bargain about this? She wondered. For Death is cruel, when you are no more, you cannot know what is happening to your loved ones. And she wanted to know what was going to happen to those who she would leave behind.

Or can you? Don't they always say that the dearly departed is looking down from above and smiling? Could her beloved ancestors be looking down at her now? Could those she knew, also be doing the same? 

She remembered how her  friend's grandfather moved on to the next realm. He was sickly in the last decade before the final end. 

He had always seen a doctor whenever he felt unwell. He used to say, "I am only 70 per cent fit." Which meant he saw his favourite doctor a lot of times.

But this time, when the end inexorably came, he did not go to see his favourite doctor. It seems that there comes a time when enough is enough.

He could hardly move. His wife, the friend's grandmother, called the doctor, and he said, "Get him to a hospital now, or he won't last another 24 hours."

So he was dispatched to a hospital, but they refused to take him. The hospital emergency room doctor, in his best bedside manner, said frankly "look, he is all stiff."

But the grandmother insisted they do something, and the doctor relented. "I can buy you time."

Time, apparently, is not a finite commodity in the annals of medical science. So grandad had to suffer the ignomity of having a tube shoved down his throat, to help him to breathe.

When he recovered from the sedation, he signalled to grandmum to remove it.

But she did not, for her own selfish reason.

She could not face the sudden departure. For 10 years she had been waiting for the end, but when the moment finally came, she could not let go. She could not process it.

He had the tube in his throat for a good seven days, a total of 168 hours. How bitterly the hours must have passed.

To this day the grandmum regretted her weakness; another suffered because of her clinging on to what must go.

Wan Suay came back to her present dilemma, after her little reverie; a little side tracking.

"I can't go with you," she pleaded. "I don't want to be a ghost who comes back to scare people." For ghosts are supposed to be people who have unfinished business in this world. They can't leave it, but even if they were to hang around, what could they do?

But then, she was tired. Of the daily gruelling schedule. The constant to-and-fro. Wasn't it better to just let it all go and relax? Go to sleep and not wake up at all?

But then she thought, my girls do give me joy, they are my reason for being.

Another thought crossed her mind. My kids would have to pay their respects to me at the columbarium (assuming I were cremated), every Chinese New Year, instead of us celebrating the festival as a family. True, that is the nature of things, but all that should happen in due course.

On the other hand, she could succumb to those calling her and move on. And be born again. She had led a blameless life, thus far. Surely there won't be any bad karma to pay for in the next life. Or would there?   

The darkness was beginning to get oppressive. She knew it was time. She must decide. To go or not to go.

The noise and smell. It was atrocious. Her head ached, her ribs felt smashed. She had been returned, according to her wishes.

She felt relief, the proverbial live to see another day. Her choice had been granted.

How many times can one be near Death, and yet manage to escape its clutches? How many people can see and feel the approach of Death? And bargain for a little extra time?

Not many. Apparently she was one of the few.

Her head was muddled, she felt confused, she felt unreal.

Her fingers and palms felt something. It was the hard metal of the floor of the bus. Yes, she was back. And back to do what?     Back to her little quiet life, bringing up her two lovely children (admittedly sometimes they were monsters), and growing old (hopefully).

Back to see her favourite time of day. To see the sun's golden yellow light in the late afternoon, its last hurrah before an explosive sunset. The sun's way of saying good night.

Back to see you another day, oh Death. Who says one should go quietly into the night? She decided not to. Hopefully, she made the right decision. 

Only time will tell.

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