RUNNER-UP: Catherine Palmer
Pearce carries his burden with him, heavy by his side. It throbs in the empty space on the right side of his body.
As Pearce shifts in his seat, he looks to his left at Louise sitting next to him. It’s a habit he’d picked up, always sitting on the right, always taking pictures in profile.
He smiles at Louise. She isn’t beautiful, her nose is too large, and Pearce can see the pores on her face. But when she smiles, her eyes squint into half-moons and her mouth opens into a soft rectangle as her tongue pushes on her teeth.
Pearce lifts his arm from around Louise’s shoulder, eats some popcorn, sips some soda.
“Are you okay?” Louise whispers, immediately attentive to his movement.
“Yes, good,” he whispers back.
As he settles back in his seat, Pearce rubs his shoulder. He digs into his pocket, swallows a pill, grits his teeth.
Phantom limb pain, the doctor had called it.
“Difficult to treat,” he’d said, looking out at Pearce from the top of his glasses.
“It will go away with time.”
When he’d returned from the front, Pearce had learned to write with his left hand. Granted, it was chicken scratch, but it was enough to get him through law school. He could work on his car, kiss a girl, make coffee. He could even dance the waltz like the couple on the screen.
He could still live his life.
If only the pain would go away.
RUNNER-UP: Susan McLeod
The mess hall fills rapidly. Men flood in, some with folding chairs, some hitching a hip on an occupied seat. The room is a desert of khaki.
I remove the film from the take-up reel and place it in its tin. A baby-faced private passes smoking a cigarette. Ash drops on my shoulder, the film stock.
“Back off,” I shout but he’s oblivious, eyes fixed forward.
The projector is ancient, a relic, and the reel changeovers will be manual. I thread the slippery cellulose nitrate ribbon, matching hole to sprocket.
“Hey, four eyes.”
The crowd grows impatient, hungry for the feature. Hello Frisco, Hello starring Alice Faye. A frothy confection yet drawing a bigger audience than the newsreel. The troops are more interested in a musical than the Eastern front. Go figure.
“Get on with it.”
I ignore the catcalls. Hand-cranking is an art, matching speed of frame rate to the sound – it requires focus.
Someone barges into me and I grab the projector as it overbalances. Laughter from the audience.
“He crapped it there, Jim.” The machine stills once more on its base. I release a pent-up breath.
A ball of paper knocks off my patrol cap.
“Bullseye!” More laughter, more jostling, more shouts. The cap lies where it fell.
I wave an arm and the lights blink out.
Silence falls. A beam of flickering light pierces the blackness and illuminates the screen. Bodies lean forward, faces turn upwards in reverence. The lion roars.
WINNER: Thom Willis
Close In Darkness
Sometimes all anyone wanted was to hear the rasp of the projector, the glassy sheet of film purring coolly though the gate and painting its vivid light on the wall. Some days it was all that I could think about, the thought that the darkness could be lit this way, like magic. Like stars up close.
One of those nights we sat near the back, your arm around me, my hand gripping your leg through sheer excitement. No funny business, not then not there. I would think about that later, in the silent grey of the early morning, and tremble.
The light of the screen was a hard rectangle adrift in the soft black fluid of the night. The images danced for us, sang shrill from a speaker somewhere behind the seats, beckoned us through the bright window. A night at the theatre for we who had no nights, we who sat in the close darkness as the fire screamed to the sky and the sky roared back, peppering our childhood bedrooms with soot, with lead, with carelessly spilled blood. How could we return to them now and be innocent still?
Impulsive, I turned and kissed you, once, on the cheek. You put your hand to it and stroked it like a new scar, eyes fixed ahead. Blinking tears, you held my chin and kissed me back. It felt sharp, like a bite, and I knew then that you were doomed, and I doomed likewise. The projector hummed on.
Ooof. Congratulations, Catherine, Susan and Thom – those are absolutely stellar. And thanks to everyone who entered. You are extremely excellent.
See you next week!