There’s a feeling of marvel that overtakes you when looking at the world from above, that abstract feeling when you can look at the world and see how small the Earth is in the grand scheme of things. In the space of a day, you can travel almost from one end of the globe to the other. There’s so much more green, more life-giving growth, than you think when you picture the street you walk, or the road you drive. When those growing components make one unified whole.
A lot of what is personal also creeps into that idea of living, growing. But also a dark side to living; overgrowths, crowding out the other. When we conceptualised the theme for the 2016 Story Quest Competition, I was picturing it in a more positive frame. But the varied nature of human experience means for every expression, you can have many more interpretations. So, it was with surprise that we saw as many dark twisted stories, as evolving, hopeful tales. What you’ll find herein are the best of that contest, plus a few extras from our regular submissions, to fill a whole SQ volume.
Old Growth by J. Ashley-Smith won the competition this year, with a fairly bleak narrative about human disconnection, never fitting in. Second place winner Jamie Lackey took a different direction, with a journey of growing to fit your intended role in the universe, in Of Dreaming and Destiny. Read the rest of this entry
“Look, Dad,” says Mika from the back. “Look at the faces!”
Scott adjusts the rear-view mirror. The last he checked, Mika was slumped in a chaos of Lego, two minifigures squabbling inches from his face. Now the boy is fully upright, forehead pressed to the window.
“What do you mean? What faces?”
“In the trees,” says the boy. “Bubbly heads poking out of the bark. Look, Dad, can you see?”
“What’re you talking about, retard?” Ashley is scooched way down in the passenger seat, semi-foetal with her toes on the glovebox. Scott would think she was asleep if it weren’t for the dance of thumbs over the screen of her phone.
“They’re probably galls,” says Scott. “Some trees grow them in response to bacteria, insects, that sort of thing. It’s a kind of symbiosis: the trees grow galls to protect themselves, but the galls also protect the wasps, or the greenfly or whatever, by drawing them in, growing around them.”
Altantsetseg is having her dream, pointing her toward her destiny. However, it won’t be quite as simple as that. Jamie Lackey’s submission to the Story Quest Contest came in second place with her charming coming of age fantasy. – SY
Altantsetseg offered Batbayar a winter-shriveled carrot, and the gelding’s velvety lips tickled her palm. He butted his forehead into her chest as he crunched his snack, and she scratched behind his ears.
Her own stomach rumbled. “My dreaming starts at sundown,” she explained. “I’m fasting.”
Batbayar whickered and flicked his ears.
“Of course I’m nervous,” Altansetseg said. “What if I see myself with a dozen wailing children instead of leading our warriors? Or what if I don’t see anything at all?” Snow crunched beneath her fur-lined boots as she shifted her weight, and the exposed tips of the tall grass hissed as a cold wind gusted. “I should go. Wish me luck.”
She slipped into her yurt just as her family finished their evening meal. The scent of roasted mutton lingered in the air.
Her father and brother left to build her snow-bed, and Altantsetseg stripped. Goosebumps raced along her bare skin.
Reviewed by Mysti Parker
For this issue, I felt like reading something spooky, so I found this ghost story via a BookBub feature and thought it sounded like my kind of thing. Anyone who knows me can tell you I love my “ghosty shows” on TV such as A Haunting and Paranormal Witness. Eyes on You has that kind of feel, which does well for an hour-long TV episode, but unfortunately doesn’t adapt quite as well in book form.
Set in the busy city of Swansea in southern Wales, the story begins with a teenager, Matthew, hearing about his father’s untimely death. The next chapter skips ahead several years to find Matt and his girlfriend Aimee moving in to their first flat. Immediately, odd things begin happening that Matt promptly dismisses as coincidences and accidents. Aimee suspects these things are paranormal in nature, and of course, she’s right. They seek help from a psychic, and all is well for a while.
The gull watches Pevel with tired eyes and Pevel watches it back.
“Hello there,” Pevel says.
The gull hops a little closer along the blackened phone pole. Lets out a meager squawk and cocks its head suspiciously. The gull is a scrawny, dusty thing with bent feathers and patches of gray flesh laid bare by harsh winds, maybe worse. The bird is a sorry sight, but still Pevel smiles.
“Do you know what that means, my dear?” he says. “Means we’re getting close. Unless this poor fellow’s far from home.” He watches the dust roll over the distant ground as if pushed by giant unseen hands. “Like us.”
Pevel reaches out his hand and the gull blinks, hops a little closer. Pevel reaches into his coat and pulls out the folded, glossy paper. Unfolds it, holds it up so the bird can see.
“Have you seen this place?” he says. “Are we close?”
The gull looks at the paper, blinks. Pevel folds it up again neatly and tucks it away. He unzips his pack and pulls out the old canteen, tilts it back, lets his tongue catch a few drops and puts the lid back on. The gull hops closer.
Merophie Jenkins hated the serum jabs. The weekly fix just never sat right, binding the body together when all it wanted to do was break apart. Ever since her first one as a child the side-effects had worsened, despite the Corp’s claims of continual improvement.
She stood on the street swallowing nausea and distracting herself by staring up at the affected apartment block. It was completely a-roll. The molecules of the external walls phased from ground to roof in fat horizontal waves. She squinted to see through the shifting particles and was surprised to find a tenant on the first floor. He was busy doing the Corp’s ridiculous solidity-inducing exercises, jumping up and down and flinging his arms about with such earnestness that she, too, almost believed the ruse. The nausea built to a high and she bent over and vomited a paltry splatter of sick onto the rubble-edged pavement. A bike-lender on the other side of the street grinned at her in sympathy, spreading his arms in front of his three functioning machines. She shook her head. It was always best to walk off a serum jab.
Travis is deeply unsatisfied with what his life with Doug has become, and yet Doug is increasingly insistent on becoming a family. This deeply disturbing piece is a finalist from the 2016 Story Quest Contest. – SY
He walked in the door that day with a handful of tulips and a grin to match. They were my favourite flowers and he knew it. He wanted something. That schoolboy mischief living behind his smile was no coincidence.
I put my trashy romance novel to rest and rose from the squishy comfort of the love seat to greet him and receive his offering. I took them, smelled them and planted them into a vase, all the while keeping my trepidation safely tucked away where he couldn’t see.
“Thanks, they’re great,” I assured him. “Is there a reason for your sweetness today?”
He was still a little out of breath and smelled hot from his bike ride home. I liked that. I liked that a lot.
Before he answered me, he brought his lips to mine for a quick meet and greet. They met and then parted, but not before a few of his laboured breaths titillated my lips and neck. I liked that too.
“You’re reason enough.” Doug was certainly a romantic man, the kind of man who would earnestly tilt his head and swoon over a mass-produced card from the dollar store about the healing power of kindness.
I, on the other hand, was not that kind of man. Not that I didn’t have my own weaknesses, sentimentality just wasn’t one of them.
Stephen King is well-known for stating that “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write.” And King isn’t alone in saying this: all the advice suggests that for writers to achieve success, they should read widely in their genre. The reasoning is sound. Quite apart from the enjoyment reading affords us, it’s useful for writers to examine examples of our chosen genre, analysing character traits, plot events, style, and recurring themes. The point is to challenge popular beliefs or tackle a weary trope from new or insightful perspective. To redefine the parameters of a genre, and in doing so offer original and meaningful narratives to our readership.
So, when the New Zealand Society of Authors assigned me to mentor a promising writer of post-apocalyptic fiction, I kicked off our partnership with a list of book recommendations from the genre. My mentee immediately came back to me with a reading list of his own, something no other mentee has ever done. He got no argument from me. Mentorship is a two-way street: I’ve never escaped one without learning something. Besides, if we were going to discuss his novel in the context of other post-apocalyptic narratives, then we needed to be on the same page. Or pages. He’d suggested six books; so I loaded up my iPad and started reading.
The Shaman waits, every year, for the body of the community’s best and brightest. The seemingly endless sacrifice in service of a dream that never comes to pass, and bearing the secret becomes too much. – SY
The young man’s corpse washed ashore in the hushed chill of morning. The Shaman had been waiting, watching for the body through the long hours of the night. He dreaded the lies he would be forced to tell the tribe. He carried the youth, who through his aging eye appeared no more than a boy, from the waves and placed him on top of the prepared funeral pyre.
His striking flint and steel felt too worn in his hands. He had lit too many of these fires on this sacred beach with only inquisitive sand crabs for company. This winter ritual, this lie about earning the right to journey to the Golden Island, was wrong. If the gods wished the tribe to sacrifice their youth, they deserved to know their fate. Ages ago, before the Shaman’s birth, many would die trying to reach the island every year. His father convinced the tribe that holding a contest would better please the gods. At least then only one would die.
A brilliant spark caught on the coconut fiber kindling and red tendrils of fire snaked through the bundle in his hands. He coaxed the fire brighter with a soft puff before adding it to the larger slivers of wood. Soon, the pile blazed hot and bright, sending a tower of smoke high into the sky that would be seen for miles. The villagers gathered on the other side of the steep rocky ridge dividing them from this sacred space would see the smoke and know that all was well.