1st Place Category 1: Eyes
Winner Category 1 (Ages 19 to 21)
by Hannah Froggatt, Age 21, UK
She was tanned, to us, and slim: a classic lacquered American beauty. She moved through us like a princess. Bangles clacked on willow wrists, budding hips swung like bells beneath a pencil skirt, and the air she moved through seemed to sing as it filled with her golden scent. Our hands and jaws hung slack as she crossed our pallid English playground with the grace of an ocean liner. She turned to face us, smiling. Movement had ceased but for the abandoned balls and toys tumbling around our feet, for this honey-skinned beauty, having spoken but three words, had captured us completely. She had made herself the goddess of our little schoolyard and we were now each helpless under her spell.
She spoke them again, and surveyed her kingdom with disdain. Her smoky gaze seemed to pass through each of us.
“Bring me,” she said, “water.”
Water. A murmur rose from our ranks as we suddenly understood. The crowd flew apart as if lightning had struck, and every child raced to fulfil their quest. Buckets were procured and sinks were swarmed as we filled whatever receptacles we could find. Lunchboxes were raided for the canteens. Fish bowls were plundered from classrooms as frogspawn was cast carelessly to the floor.
We returned, and brimming buckets were laid at her feet as the crowd reformed and awaited approval. Timidly, a small girl laid a crystal glass (stolen from the teacher’s lounge) at the feet of her idol before scurrying, backwards, into the crowd. We waited. We watched.
Once respectful stillness had again taken hold, our goddess bent and dipped the glass into the nearest bucket, which at least looked clean. Slowly, she sipped.
We were patient.
Finally, she straightened up, glowing against the sun. Once again, the voice rang out across the playground.
“Bring me,” she said, “your toys.”
A frenzy once again took hold. Small children scrambled to find and reclaim all the things they’d been playing with before play became meaningless. Water flew in all directions as buckets and pots were knocked flying by the stampede. A heap grew at the young girl’s feet, of dolls and footballs and all kinds of consoles. Skipping ropes were thrown in a tangle and bicycles were stacked clumsily in a separate pile.
Dust settled. She inspected the gifts, and nodded.
A shudder ran through us. We had felt the universe buckle and twist itself around her until she became its undisputed central point. She smiled, knowing she had tamed us, and made her final request.
“Bring me,” she said, “a sacrifice–a human sacrifice in celebration of my glory. Now.”
A sacrifice. How a decision was reached, nobody could say. Nobody had spoken. But somehow everybody knew who the sacrifice should be. There was only one choice and we chose it.
Our sacrifice had not been part of the worship. He had not been part of the crowd. We found him alone in the alcove of a building on the other side of the playground, manhandled him from that crevice and drove him into the centre. He stank of the lollipops he’d been sucking on all day, and his shirt was filthy and stiff with dried stains. He hitched up his pants, which immediately sagged, and glowered at the advancing girl. Each face was devoid of expression as she approached, dragging our eyes with her as each light, pointed step pierced the grass. She stopped, and gazed down on the offering from the precocious height of four-foot-four.
“You’re going to die for me, today.”
“You’re not real,” said the younger child.
“What?” She stared with genuine incomprehension.
“You’re not real. We don’t have to do what you say.”
She turned to us. “Will someone tell me why it said that? Explain how it’s wrong.” She pointed into the crowd. “You!”
Like the tuna separated from the shoal I now felt dangerously exposed. The crowd rippled as every head turned, and every pair of eyes was suddenly trained on me, including those of my infuriated goddess.
“P-pardon?” I stammered.
“Tell me why it said that! Why did you say that?” She grabbed the little boy by the shirt. “Why?”
The little boy shoved her in the chest. His hands went right through her torso and out the other side, and her skin began to fizz and steam. The older girl was soon enveloped in a cloud of smoke.
The grubby boy backed away, then turned and ran, and it was at this moment that the spell broke, and a riot took hold, and for a long time after that I had no recollection of what I did ,who I was, or how much time was passing. For all I know it could have been days.
Of course, after the fire, the grown-ups were looking for answers and a teacher had us assemble in the schoolyard after the worst of the carnage had been cleared. He questioned us about the goddess girl, who had since disappeared in the excitement.
“What was her name?”
“What did she look like?”
There was a further long pause as we looked at each other for clues, suddenly feeling confused and a bit stupid. Some of the older kids began to confer.
A tall one at the back hesitated. “Short?”
“Is that all?”
No one spoke.
“Does anyone know anything? Any little detail at all? What about hair colour; does anyone remember what colour her hair was?”
There was another shuffling silence.
“Brown?” someone volunteered. “Maybe.”
They questioned us a while longer, then let us go. They seemed to think there was little point. They were right of course; there was nothing about this experience we could possibly parse into anything finite as meaning or words. And so we forgot, or most of us did, and the experience left us with nothing but a faint sense of loss and a slight burning sensation in the eyes.
Winning a competition like the Junior Authors Short Story Contest is a huge affirmation for me. It’s a validation of all the time and emotional resources I invest in my writing, and it encourages me to keep moving forward even when I feel like I’m hitting dead ends. The Junior Authors competition is great because it doesn’t just recognise the winner, but all the top-performing writers who took part. Even writers who don’t place can still ask for feedback to find out why, and that spurs you on to greater things. I entered the 2014 JA Poetry Contest a couple of months ago and was chosen as a finalist. I didn’t place, but being recognised as a runner-up was a massive boost and that encouraged me to do even better in the next one. And now I’m a prizewinner!