Sara Hills Feb 2021 Commended

Always Down a Dirt Road, I’m Walking

by Sara Hills

my two daughters with me. There are trees to the right of us and a field on our left. The field is cropped, oven-crisped at midday. It’s hot. Bright.

Then it isn’t.

A car whizzes past in a pall of dust, and I pull my youngest daughter out of the road. She’s twelve—lanky, absent-minded, unafraid. The other one is quiet, pebble small.

Our dusty sandals slap the loose surface as we continue down the road. Other cars whiz past, but one doesn’t. It doesn’t.

It rolls to a stop. The window winds down—the sound and intention clear.

“What do we have here?”

In this version, I have daughters. In other versions, sons. In every version, a dirt road, a farm road. There are trees to the right and a field to the left. The trees are straggled juniper. The cropped field, brown and stubble sharp. Further in the distance is our destination—the main road. Blacktop.

The black car window winds down. The dusted door opens to silver-tipped boots, jeans, the smell of sun-baked leather. I pull my daughters close, but they drift apart. Sun flashes on metal. Trees sway. A wax of midday dust settles on my daughters, on me. The grit on my tongue, stubble sharp.

In one version my sons stand tall as trees, juniper jawed, while cars whiz past. My sons spit into the road, chew stalks until they’re shorn and soft. In another, my daughters grow straggly and sharp; they remain unafraid. In one version, I cannot hear my heartbeat. In one version, no one is screaming. In one version, we walk through the field. The blacktop before us, trees to our right, and the dark car whizzes past.

It doesn’t stop.

About the Author

Sara Hills is a pushcart-nominated writer from the Sonoran Desert. Her stories have been featured or are forthcoming in SmokeLong Quarterly, Cheap Pop, X-R-A-Y Literary, Cease Cows, New Flash Fiction Review and others. She’s also been included in the BIFFY50, shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, and is delighted to have a debut flash collection forthcoming in 2021 with Ad Hoc Fiction. Sara lives with her family and an enormous fluff-dog in Warwickshire, England and tweets from @sarahillswrites.

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Regan Puckett Feb 2021 Commended


by Regan Puckett

When their silk skins shrivel and wither, the corn stalks are ready to be stripped, so you’re sent into the field with the metal bucket they bathed your brother in before your father stowed it in the barn and buried your brother in a hole in the yard, a barren spot of grass that you like to linger near but never walk over because you worry he might feel, but your sister tramples the grave, stomps on the presents your mother leaves atop it: slices of milkcake (which your brother never tried), knitted cloths (to keep him warm), dandelion heads (wasted wishes), and you’d make your sister stop if you could, but you worry she’ll leave too, and then you’ll be stuck here alone, like you are right now, in the cornfield that feels like a crime scene, where all the pretty green stalks have dried to a dead brown, and the soft chlorophyll silk has rotted and roughed, where you dissect death and pluck out the beautiful remains, yellow spotted ears that listen as well as your father does when your mother cries at night, but you can’t stop listening, watching, as everyone around you falls apart, so now you lift the knife you took from beneath your father’s pillow and you stab the corn to shreds, flail your arms like you’re fighting an army and this is the only way you’ll survive, and all the beautiful corn falls to pieces on the dirt like you will fall to your knees in prayer when your father sees what you’ve done to the harvest, but you let it fall, crumble, sink into the earth, and pray it floats to heaven.

About the Author

Regan Puckett is a writer, barista, and student from Missouri, where she drinks big cups of coffee and writes tiny stories. Her work has been nominated for various awards, including the Pushcart Prize and BASS, and was selected for inclusion in the 2021 Best Microfiction anthology. Find her new stories in trampset, MoonPark Review, and forthcoming in Emerge Literary Journal, and find her tweeting from @raygunnoelle

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Johanna Robinson Oct 2020 First Prize

Blessings, 1849

by Johanna Robinson

You remember how you counted your steps as you planted: one step, one potato. The years God gave you babies, the steps were smaller with the weight in your belly, on your back. The years He took them away before you could count a single breath, the steps were smaller still, the potatoes fighting for space and soil. Those years, you ate such small potatoes.

In the barn, in the dark, you’d count the rungs, so you knew how far up you were, how far down. Sometimes you felt you could climb forever, out through the roof-hatch, inching up the sky until your hands brushed theirs, tiny, grasping.

You’d count stitches and rows: hats, jackets, bootees. Seed stitches, garter stitches, cable, plaited, travelling vine. Casting on, and on, and on.

You’d count the steps around the kitchen table, through colic, through cries, until the minutes unravelled, flat like ribbons, and your heels blistered.

Every morning you’d count:

the eggs and then the chickens, and

in the evening, brushstrokes, dividing your hair, weaving it into one heavy rope, and

at night, stretchmarks like rungs across your belly.

And now there are no potatoes for anyone, you take uncertain steps, quay to jetty. You walk gently, the baby’s head on your shoulder. You walk steady, like you used to carry eggs.

You lean on the ship’s rail, wet with spray, your faces already salty. On the quay, people wave, and you wave back as though you know them. The children count down and other passengers join in. The rope sags, like a stitch dropped. You clap, clasp hands, cast off. You leave behind bone, blood and eggshell, but your history is more than that; it is ploughed through you all. You count the days, knots, miles until land. You will reap again.

About the Author

Johanna is an editor/proofreader from Liverpool, and has been writing short fiction since 2016. Her novella Homing, about a Norwegian family in the Resistance during the Second World War, was runner-up in the Bath Novella-in-Flash Award in 2019, and is published by Ad Hoc fiction. Earlier this year she won the TSS Cambridge Prize for Flash Fiction and her stories have been included in a number of magazines and anthologies, including SmokeLong, Ellipsis Zine, Reflex Press, Retreat West, Strix and Mslexia.She is currently working on a historical novel-in-flash, and ‘Blessings, 1949’ is a chapter from that. More of her work can be found at

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Tara Isabel Zambrano Oct 2020 Second Prize

Mother, Before

by Tara Isabel Zambrano

Before, my mother settled my twin sister and me every morning in a neighbor’s front yard and boarded a bus to a local bottling plant, in her powder blue uniform, her hair pulled back so hard her veins showed. We read comics with missing pages, stripped our dolls to the sun.

At the filling station, my mother watched the slosh of juices into empty bottles, her nails rubbed raw working labels, the glue peeling the skin of her finger pads. No windows, stark lights. Sealed cans holding the fruit piss. Before my mother understood the difference between acids, caustics, living and suffering, she was moved to the water treatment center where she cleaned the vents, scrubbed the floors, the chlorine, settled on her skin, in her eyes, and in her hair, made her sterile. Before the factory swallowed her each day and spit out at night, a dry seed, my mother was glass, my mother was an orange wreathed in luscious peels, my mother was sun’s magma. Before, my mother’s name was Anna, and the payment slips called her Lee, the last name of my father who fled to Florida with his girlfriend, his memory a blooming wound at the back of her throat. She pushed her fingers inside to pluck it, puked blood.

Before, my mother untangled the kinks in our bone black hair, kept locks of it in her purse. Before, she smelled us and scrutinized our faces, knowing how each of us looked from the day of our birth, rooted to her dowager womb by our breath placenta. Before she hibernated, before she milked tears that couldn’t fix her chlorinated lungs. Before she became our child, her lips pressed against the wall, her mouth plastered. Before she crumbled into ash without a trail of soot.

About the Author

Tara Isabel Zambrano is the author of Death, Desire And Other Destinations, a full-length flash collection by OKAY Donkey Press. Her work has won the first prize in The Southampton Review Short Short Fiction Contest 2019, been a Finalist in Bat City Review 2018 Short Prose Contest and Mid-American Review Fineline 2018 Contest, been published in The Best Small Fictions 2019, The Best Micro Fiction 2019, 2020 Anthology. She lives in Texas and is the Fiction Editor for Waxwing Literary Journal.

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Jan Kaneen Oct 2020 Third Prize

The White Dwarf

by Jan Kaneen

It’s months into lockdown, and Clayton’s showing Thelma how to train their new state-of-the-art telescope onto the crow-black Tennessee sky. He twists the eyepiece to trap the distant white glow from a small dying star, but it’s tricky capturing the faint luminosity emitted by degenerate-electron matter, and he doesn’t want to seem unfocussed in front of his wife, so he bends to the lens and tries real hard to sharpen the image – sees the old wooden swing on his granddaddy’s porch, a curl of Thelma’s once corn-coloured hair, remnants of his long-passed mamma’s last apple pie, a Thanksgiving turkey, Uncle Sam’s stern white face, flickering footage of Neil Armstrong taking one giant leap, a bucket of hot chicken, Johnny Cash singing Ring of Fire, a bottle of Jack, his old CB radio, the penultimate episode of Dukes of Hazzard, Resisting Arrest as a black-and-white headline, a nest of wasps, the Twin Towers tumbling, his Smith and Wesson, that Ku Klux Klan robe and hood he saw years ago in Uncle Frank’s drycleaners hanging up under a see-through plastic covering, the faces of three little kids in an SUV watching their daddy get shot six times in the back, a manacled captive under an officer’s knee pleading for his mamma and his life gasping I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.

Clayton looks away, straightens himself up, stares out into the unfathomable sheet of night-time sky – the vast blackness of it – then asks Thelma if she’d care to take her turn.

‘You okay, Honey?’ she says, taking-in his blanched white cheeks and tight, thin lips.

‘I’m fine,’ he drawls, ‘Ain’t nothing. Then he gazes into her blue-sky eyes and creases his face into half a smile. ‘Leastwise nothing for us to worry about.’

About the Author

Jan Kaneen started writing when she was 50 as a sort of mindfulness therapy. She now has an MA in Creative Writing from the OU and her flashes and short stories have been published widely on-line and in print. Her writing has won prizes in places like Flash 500, the Fountain, Molotov Cocktail and Retreat West, and she’s been nominated for Pushcarts and Best on the Net. She has stories out now in print in The Fish Anthology 2020, Molotov Cocktail Winners’ Anthology Volume V and Bacopa Literary Review, and her memoir-in-flash The Naming of Bones will be published April 22nd 2021 by Retreat West Books.
She blogs at and tweets as @Jankaneen1

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Alison Powell Oct 2020 Commended

Our fathers, who we have strewn like seaweed behind us

by Alison Powell

We buried our fathers to their necks at Llangennith Beach, at Swanage Bay, at Portreath. They are still there now in their thousands, their balding heads all facing out towards the sea, a hint of something like confusion in their arched eyebrow smiles. They loll and bob their chins against the razor shells, make half assed jokes about the crabs.

The castles that they built for us have long ago been washed away. And, in the manner of the waves, we have forgotten everything: the kites they flew into the sun, the way they held our arms and lifted us above the surf, the way they gently towel-rubbed our skin.

From our viewpoint in the dunes, we moan in unison, an outburst of lament that grieves across the sky. It is no use. For way too long we’ve held our fathers out of reach. Afraid of what might foam out from their mouths. Afraid of salty tongues, of scratchy cheeks.

We’ve lost the tools to raise them from their sandy graves.

And anyway, it’s too late now.

The tide is coming in.

About the Author

Alison Powell writes prose fiction and runs creative writing workshops as WriteClub. Her work has been published in numerous anthologies and magazines and been listed in various awards, including the Bath Flash Fiction Award, Mslexia’s New Writing prize, the Bath Short Story Award, the Janklow & Nesbit prize and the Bridport Prize for First Novels. She holds an MA in creative writing from Bath Spa and has been selected for writing residencies with National Theatre Wales and Liminal Residencies. She is one of 20 writers on the Hay Festival Writers at Work programme and is working on a coming-of-age novel set in South Wales. Find out more here:

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Jim Toal Oct 2020 Commended

The reallocation of a child’s atoms

by Jim Toal

On board the early morning bus to her cleaning job at the Museo del Prado Fatima reads a magazine article explaining how atoms in a human body are replaced every ten years. Because atoms are neither created nor destroyed it’s their redistribution that shapes us into several people in a lifetime.

At work she buffs, mops, and vacuums but isn’t allowed to touch the artwork. Her mop swishes past crucifixions and martyrdoms. Her vacuum-cleaner wails at Titian’s gruesome depiction of tortured Tityus. Even gentle still-lives are pregnant with loss: the sweet, seeded fruits of her homeland, flowers soft as baby skin.

The last room to clean houses Goya’s Black Paintings.

Silencing her vacuum-cleaner, she gawps at raving, moon-eyed Saturn, devouring the headless body of his son. Two skeletal men slobbering over soup, unable to satisfy their appetites. A baying guitarist serenading huddled pilgrims on an unending journey into a gloomy void.

Eventually, she comes to a picture called The Drowning Dog, which captures the last moments of a small dog sinking in what resembles quicksand. With only its head left to be consumed, it looks at Fatima with such perplexed loyalty, such pleading faith, she yearns to reach into the painting, grab it by the scruff and heave it to safety.

For the rest of her shift the image of the hapless dog stays with her. It follows her on the bus journey home. In her tiny flat it sniffs about, wagging its tail. It sits, ears pricked, as she kneels to her prayers. When she picks it up, and it snuggles its damp snout under her armpit, she lullabies a vow. That she’ll cling to the hope of liberated atoms and their boundless capacity to conceive new life. It’s all she can do to stop herself from slipping under.

About the Author

Jim Toal lives in south Shropshire, UK. His fiction has been published by Litro, The Nottingham Review, Fictive Dream, Reflex Fiction, The Mechanics Institute Review, and is forthcoming in The Forge Literary Magazine. He is currently working on a short story collection and researching material for a novel. You can contact him on Twitter @jtstories

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Fiona Perry June 2020 First Prize

Sea Change

by Fiona Perry

He arrives breathless with excitement, clutching a thick plastic bag bulging with shells. At the kitchen table, he points to the bag and tells me they fattened up over winter. At first, they settled as larvae on ropes, before growing to half the length of a thumb, ready to be stuffed like sausage meat into casings known as socks. The runt grouped with the runt, the alpha with the alpha to prevent unfair competition. I imagine it – the swaying of the long mesh tubes, the seething growth of it. I tell him all of this is wonderful, resisting the urge to remind him he is in fact dead. He smiles and asks me to pour vodka for us into his old reko tumblers which have appeared on my counter top. He says that once the molluscs reach full maturation, they are able to travel outside of the sock – by attaching a byssal thread from their beard to an anchor and then shortening it to move. He finds this both funny and moving. Soon afterwards, he says, the sock collapses into the centre of the column. Collapses into the centre of the column, he repeats. He wipes his mouth with his hand. I am standing beside the stove now, frying diced onion and garlic in the big pasta pot I misplaced years ago, into which I squirt tomato paste, let it sizzle, splash in vodka, warm water and cream. He tips the mussels from the bag into the pot, I sprinkle in sea salt and clamp on the lid. He explains that this is where he has been all along, looking after these creatures. His face soft like a monk’s, he announces he must leave after dinner because new larvae always require his attention out in the ocean.

About the Author

Fiona was born and brought up in Northern Ireland but has lived in England, Australia, and New Zealand. Her first collection of poetry, Alchemy, will be published by Turas Press (Dublin) in autumn 2020. Her short fiction was shortlisted in the Australian Morrison Mentoring Prize in 2014 and 2015. She contributed poetry to the Label Lit project for National Poetry Day (Ireland) 2019. A graduate of Queen’s University, Belfast, and Lancaster University, she worked previously as an environmentalist in a unitary authority. She is currently a teacher, editor, and proofreader and lives with her family near Oxford.

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Hannah Storm June 2020 Second Prize

The species of pangolin compromise their own order: Pholidota.

by Hannah Storm

Pholi – A folly is something stupid.

Dota – She’s learning phonics at school. This is how she would spell daughter.

He said I was fucking stupid. Ordered me to get rid of it. I cradled my belly’s soft shell as it grew.

‘Pangolin’ comes from the Malay ‘pengguling’, loosely meaning something that rolls up.

Later I stuffed into a rucksack all we needed to survive, hiding our future beneath my bed. I curled up by her cot.

Special glands near the pangolin’s anus secrete a pungent fluid as a defence mechanism.

Now the court toilet smells of the fear of losing my child.

That last night, he came home drunk. I’d not showered for two days between the feeding, burping, changing, rocking, cooking. He hissed at me when I begged him to be quiet.

You smell ripe. He tore at my clothes. Why can’t you make a fucking effort? Pinned me to the bed. Cried when he came. Then she cried too. By the time I had settled her, he was snoring. The room reeked of shame.

Pangolins are nocturnal animals. Their shells made of keratin the same substance as human hair and nails.

In the shower I scrubbed myself raw, let the water sear my scalp. Impossible to feel clean.

The mother curls up around the baby pangolin if she senses danger.

He left for work. Then we left. I clasped her to me, promising he would not hurt us again.

Now I hear my name, calling me to Court.

The endangered pangolin is the world’s most trafficked animal; its body parts are sold as a delicacy or used for their mythical healing properties.

When my daughter is older, I will teach her how to protect herself. One day I will explain what being endangered really means.

About the Author

Hannah has been a journalist for two decades, travelling the world and witnessing her fair share of love and loss. She writes flash fiction to pay tribute to the people she’s met and places she’s been, and creative non-fiction to process her own experiences. She’s working on a memoir, a flash collection and is editing a novel. Now she is based in the UK with her husband and two children and is the director of a media charity as well as a journalism consultant.

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Sam Payne June 2020 Third Prize

The Man You Didn’t Marry

by Sam Payne

The police meet you after your night shift at Sunshine Care to tell you they’re concerned for your safety. They found the man you didn’t marry outside your house at four am. In his car, black bags, rope and a crowbar. They tell you they’re sorry but they can’t hold him.

The locksmith talks about Brexit as he rips out the deadbolt and replaces it with a shiny new one. When he leaves, you barge your shoulder into the door just to make sure it doesn’t give. But in the night you wake to the smell of Joop and the man you didn’t marry is pushing his knuckles into your clavicle and telling you he loves you. His saliva gathers in the corners of his mouth and the white froth reminds you of tide bubbles and you focus on this as he throttles you. You lose consciousness and your body becomes a stingray slipping into saltwater.

You survive because you’re lucky or at least that’s what people say. You move cities, rent a different house every six months and clean everything continuously. You’re happy that you have things in order. Until the therapist tells you perfectionism is a sign of unhealed trauma. When you get home, you throw Bolognese sauce at the walls, empty the cutlery drawer onto the lino and chuck your clothes out of the window until you’re satisfied this chaos is proof that you’re fine. But every time you sleep you’re sinking into a cold, dark ocean. Submerging deeper and deeper, the saltwater strips your flesh until there’s nothing left and when your skeleton rests on rippled sand, the man you didn’t marry scoops you up. He polishes your bones until you shine like teeth and he keeps telling you he’ll never ever let you go.

About the Author

Sam Payne lives in Devon, United Kingdom. She has recently completed an MA in Creative Writing and her work has appeared in various places including Spelk, Reflex Fiction and Popshot Quarterly. She tweets @skpaynewriting

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