As you know the September Challenge became the October challenge and that kind of segued into November and we still didn’t have any entries.

I rattled some sabres. Sent out pleas. Threats. Practically begged. All but fell on my knees. Asked repeatedly, ‘Do we want to do these or not?’. The replies almost always came back enthusiastically, not so enthusiastically, but in essence ‘Yes’.  However, by the time November rolled around I had also identified and got on board a writer to critique our stories. And all I had were two entries. So, in desperation and to make up a decent number of entries I wrote one story myself. And I do hope I won’t ever have to do that again.

The challenge was:

One day your smart phone screen changes into a jungle … Tell a story in under 2000 words what happens when you discover this.

Our judge, as I mentioned in one of several emails was Alex Shaw

Alex Shaw

ALEX SHAW headshot BWALEX SHAW B.A.(Hons), P.G.C.E. spent the second half of the 1990s in Kyiv, Ukraine, teaching Drama and running his own business consultancy before being head-hunted for a division of Siemens. The next few years saw him doing business for the company across the former USSR, the Middle East, and Africa.

Alex is an active member of the ITW (The International Thriller Writers organisation) and the CWA (the Crime Writers Association). He is the author of the #1 International Kindle Bestselling ‘Aidan Snow SAS thrillers’ COLD BLOOD & COLD BLACK and the new DELTA FORCE VAMPIRE series of books. His writing has also been published in the thriller anthologies DEATH TOLL, DEATH TOLL 2 and ACTION PULSE POUNDING TALES 2 alongside International Bestselling authors Stephen Leather and Matt Hilton.

COLD BLOOD and COLD BLACK are commercially published by ENDEAVOUR PRESS.

COLD EAST – The third Aidan Snow Thriller will be published in January 2015.

Alex, his wife and their two sons divide their time between homes in Kyiv, Ukraine and Worthing, England. Alex can be contacted via his website www.alexwshaw.com You can also follow Alex on twitter: @alexshawhetman

You can find out more about him here:

FB author page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Alex-Shaw/383476491724127

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/6550104.Alex_Shaw

Authorgraph: https://www.authorgraph.com/authors/alexshawhetman

Amazon Author’s page: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Alex-Shaw/e/B002EQ6R9G/ref=ntt_athr_dp_pel_1

Alex’s Selections were was below:

FIRST PLACE: THE GATE

by Michelle Schultz

I was swiping fat snowflakes from my eyelashes when the phone rang. I dug around in my coat pockets, trying to remember where I’d dumped the phone. I had only bought it last week, one more thing to buy after moving overseas. My half-numb fingers finally found it and pressed it against my cap.

“Hello?” I said. I shifted from foot to foot, wishing there was not so much space between my boots and the hem of my skirt.

Around me, the dim Manchester morning was silent except for the thick static of snowflakes drifting slowly down. On a Saturday, few cars braved the unplowed roads, scoring muddy tracks through the clean white expanse of snow.

I didn’t hear anything, so I pulled my cap aside. I said hello again, pressing the phone tight to my ear. I thought I could hear rain falling.

The slick, cold surface suddenly turned warm and wet against my ear.

I screamed and dropped the phone right in the snow. I scratched at my ear frantically, trying to get whatever was on it off.

My chapped fingers came away wet, streaked with golden pollen.

I looked down. A scatter of pink and purple petals mingled with the pristine snow around the bus stop. My phone had landed facedown in the snow. All around it, the snow was melting, leaving a widening circle of black asphalt.

I gripped the phone by the edges and lifted it up. Instead of the high-resolution icons and default wallpaper, deep green leaves shivered under a patter of rain behind the glossy black frame of my phone. I tilted the screen, noticing the lack of a reflection. I poked at the image of a leaf, and it bent underneath my touch, leaving my fingertip golden.

Holding the phone away from me, I turned and headed back toward home.

“Well, that’s hardly useful,” I snorted. “Why is the window so small? It’s not like I’ll fit through there.”

 

“Melanie? Back so soon?” John asked, peering into the entryway when I banged the door shut. He was still in his flannel pajamas, his feet hidden in slippers.

In answer, I held up the phone. It was still leaking rainwater and the odd petal.

“You’re kidding me!” he said. He took the phone from me, cradling it as if the leaves were going to bite him. “So where’s this?”

“Don’t know,” I said, pulling off my snowy boots.

“You have to,” he said, following at my heels as I went to wash the pollen off my hands. I could see streaks of it on my coat as well. “You make the gates.”

“Not on purpose,” I corrected, rolling my eyes. “They just… happen.”

“Could they happen to something cheap next time?”

“I didn’t want a phone in the first place. Their big reflective screens can be problematic,” I said a little nastily.

As I dried my hands, a butterfly popped out of the phone and started investigating the kitchen.

“Maybe we should close it?” John asked. To his credit, he didn’t look enthusiastic about it. He had been forced to close a few gates over the years when I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It usually involved destruction of the object in question.

“Not yet,” I said. I lay the phone so I could look down into the jungle. “Just put a cloth over it so no bugs get through.”

“You think this one will go away?”

“First time for everything,” I said with a shrug. From my pocket, I pulled the list of items we needed to finish making our new home livable. “I don’t feel like shopping anymore.”

A few hours later, John took the list and walked down the icy sidewalk to the nearest store. I had wanted to explore a bigger city this morning, but my exploratory mood had soured.

Instead, I was curled on the sofa with a notebook, trying to think of a way to start my new blog post. I usually wrote about self-improvement, meaning organic food and positive thinking, topics suggested by my tiny but growing following. I wrote them on paper, and John typed them when he got home from work.

With my condition, it was a bad idea to sit near reflective surfaces for long periods of time, especially if I was trying to be creative. Windows weren’t a problem if they had curtains over them, and our house had only two small mirrors, which I spent very little time in front of.

Next to me, the phone under its cheesecloth cover twittered with strange birds and the intermittent patter of rain. It was a nice sound in the too-quiet house.

I put my head back on the sofa and kicked my feet in their wooly slippers. Truth be told, I hated this blog. A friend had gotten me involved, and it filled the time while I looked for work, but I didn’t care about blogging. Most days, I had nothing to say. What was important was avoiding fiction or things that might make me daydream. If I was bored to tears reading about gluten allergies, then I wasn’t thinking about space flight or exotic landscapes.

I lived such a boring life.

Another bee approached my phone from inside whatever jungle it was connected to. The cheesecloth shifted as the bee bumped against it, then it flew somewhere else. I could hear it receding in the distance.

I had dreamed of somewhere with trees last night. The image of trees remained. Now, on my new phone, the thickly clustered leaves of trees moved back and forth.

I wanted to push the leaves aside to see what else was there, but thinking like that was only going to keep it there. I was supposed to be thinking about clean eating, not exotic jungles.

“I know you’re there,” someone said.

I froze. I looked around, but the room was empty. I hadn’t heard the door open, but I called John’s name.

“Not John,” the voice said. “It’s Alexander, or whatever you are calling me these days.”

I left the room.

Hands shaking, I poured myself a cup of coffee in the kitchen, focusing hard on thoughts of preservatives and food additives.

There was no Alexander and never had been. All children have imaginary friends, or so I was told. Alexander was just persistent.

“I’m not going to hurt you!” Alexander said loudly, his voice echoing in the hallway from the living room around the corner.

I didn’t come any closer, just tried to think of boring, dull things. If only I remembered more math. Quadratic equations might drive that voice away.

“I don’t know this place. Did you move again?” Alexander asked. There was an odd sound, like he was wheezing. “It smells cold. It’s summer here. You’d like it. Join me, just for a little while.”

“I like it here,” I said, then cursed myself for engaging him.

“You are killing me,” he said. “This place is awful. Why are you thinking so hard about math?”

“I’m…” I started but couldn’t finish. “Take your jungle and go away.”

“Not when you invited me.”

The sound of John moving around outside was a godsend. I darted into the entryway so I could greet him, taking myself further from my wretched gate.

After taking his bags and picking John’s brain about everything he had done, he finally looked in the direction of the living room.

“It’s him, isn’t it?” he asked, and I nodded.

John scratched his head, looking down at his feet. He looked back up with a sheepish grin.

“Why don’t you visit him?” he asked, his eyebrows crooked up in the middle.

“I don’t even know where that gate leads!”

“It never hurt you before.”

“I was a child then. I didn’t know what I was doing.”

I had walked through the gates as a child, at least until Mom figured out what I was using the mirror in my room for. I never went very far into these strange places, and Alexander was there to explain the place to me. Still, my friends’ imaginary friends never took them out of their homes.

“Look,” John said, “Whatever we’ve been doing isn’t working. Maybe you should just… see what he wants.”

I had wanted to be normal. I had picked the dullest degree I could imagine, business rather than art or literature. I had married the most sensible, staid man I ever dated. We didn’t own pets, and living in another country meant that we could forego all of the holiday traveling. I blogged about boring topics and read computer repair magazines for fun.

This wasn’t what I had seen myself doing as a child.

“Why are you always right?” I asked John.

I released his fingers, took a breath to strengthen my resolve, and walked into the living room.

I set the phone on the floor, pulled the cheesecloth away, and tried to step on the screen without thinking too hard about it. My foot sort of shrank and sank into the leaves.

I wobbled before lifting the other foot. It too vanished into the greenery. I closed my eyes.

The sun was red-gold through my eyelids. The air was hot and wet against my skin. I kicked off my slippers, letting my toes dig into the moist earth. The air smelled loamy, sweet with bruised flower petals.

I opened my eyes. Tall leafy trees blocked out the sky overhead, but ahead, the sun melted into a pool of red and orange clouds over the horizon. The land was bright with greenery, unlike the uniform white- and grayness of the English midlands in winter.

“It’s been a while,” Alexander said. He wore a suit, but he always looked out of place in my dreams.

“John thinks I should ask why you keep coming back,” I said, my voice swallowed up by the immensity of the jungle around me. The sawing of insects and chirping of birds was deafening.

“But you know why,” Alexander said with a shrug. He turned and began walking backwards, leading me toward the edge of the jungle ahead of us. “You’re just in denial.”

“What do you want?” I said, remaining in place. “I have to grow up, Alex. There’s no future in this.” I gestured at the world around us.

“There would be if you tried,” Alexander said with a scowl. “You just don’t have the resolve to make all of this and your writing come together.”

I looked away, my eyes falling on a butterfly. I wondered what sort of people lived here, and if they knew what this butterfly was called.

“Until you embrace this,” Alexander said, his arms spread wide, “it will keep breaking in.”

He walked forward and pressed my phone into my hand. Now it looked like itself, all brightly colored icons.

“You have the gateway right here. Don’t lose this one,” he said softly. “Otherwise…”

He trailed off. A dry wind whipped up, obscuring the trees with dust. Grit blew into my eyes. The sun vanished, the sweet smells traded for dryness and a chalky taste in my mouth. The ground grew soft and insubstantial.

Alexander grew thin and wasted, and then I could see through him.

“Don’t waste this gift” was the last thing I heard before everything went dark.

I opened my eyes to our living room. I was sitting with my jungle phone in my hand, a pen in the other.

Beside me, John was reading a book. He smiled tentatively when he looked up.

“How was your trip?” he asked.

I looked down at the empty notebook and its crossed-out topics for the blog.

“I’m going to write a story.”

 SECOND PLACE: ESCAPE

by Rohini Sunderam

The jungle has its own unique senses.

There is a sensation of the old. It is primordial and comforting while still able to set our senses on edge, turning them acute and more alive than they’ve ever been in the city or around technology.

The smell is fecund. Peaty and redolent with the odour of birth and rebirth and death.

Silence is the sound of the place. Not the dead muffled silence of a recording booth or an ENT clinic where they test your ability to detect decibels, but the sound of life as it moves between the nocturnal and diurnal, pulsating to the throb of a gigantic heart.

Textures abound. But we daren’t touch anything because we are city creatures. We are afraid that the gnarled bark of a tree, the smooth sharp blade of grass or the velvet of an unknown leaf may hold hidden dangers, saps to which our soft, urban skins may be allergic, wary of resins that could burn and scar.

Ah but the sights! We can’t get enough of those. Our eyes drink in the seemingly million shades of green. We revel in the bright yellows and blues of butterflies and birds, the shy white flowers and ferns of the undergrowth. I look fascinated at orchids in their purple splendour clinging wild and wonderful to a branch. The words bromeliad and epiphyte find their way to the top of my mind, bringing with them memories of my school botany class and the stern teacher staring over his black-rimmed spectacles.

The dappled back of a panther makes us stop in our tracks and whisper as we watch its sinewy black and gold shape glide down a pathway, sending the monkeys chattering up into their trees, its head tossing away flies. It’s unusual for him to be strolling at this time of the day.

Just as it is unusual for us be to here.

It is exactly 11:11 on my smart phone face and the jungle, which appeared magically one day at this exact time, has, on cue, flashed onto the screen. Its tall grasses are once again beckoning us to leap into it.

We’ve made this trip into the portal twice before. The first time was a thrilling adventure. I touched it and it seemed real, even that typical jungle smell came out of it. I turned to my friend and showed it to him, “Check this out, this smart phone is something else.”

“It can’t be,” he said, ever the sceptic.

“Just touch it!” I challenged him.

The minute he did that a tiny fly flew out of the screen and into the room.

He’d opened his eyes wide. “Shall we?”

And without quite knowing why, we both held hands and touched the screen together.

It made a sucking sound and the next thing we were inside the jungle. An instant safari. On foot. And dressed as if we’d planned it: in khaki shorts and long bush shirts, sandals and cotton stockings looking like Dr Livingston with backpacks complete with emergency supplies and water. And what’s more we had a guide, an Indian in long khaki pants, t-shirt and a sola topi.

He looked at us and smiled, “Right on time sir, madam.”

I checked my smart watch and that’s when I noticed the magical: 11:11a.m.

We wandered around for exactly one hour and one minute and at 12:12pm we looked up, held hands together, stretched up to the sky and bang, we were back in my office cubicle.

He looked at me and said, “Were we…?”

“Sure felt like it”. I answered and looked at the smart phone, which had gone back to its regular wallpaper colours of lavender and white.

“Felt like what?” he asked challenging me.

“Like we were in the jungle?” I asked him back.

“Weird,” he replied, “Let’s not tell anyone, they’ll think we’ve been doing drugs or something.”

A few days later he was at my desk again and we were discussing an ad concept and he asked me again, “Was that jungle thing for real or did we imagine it?”

“It felt very real.”

And then I smelt it, the jungle, sending out its earthy perfume. I looked at the smart phone and sure enough 11:11am and the jungle was back on the screen.

“Let’s get something to prove it this time,” he said, “even if it’s only as a confirmation.”

So we went again. And as before the guide was there with his, “Right on time sir, madam.” But his smile seemed a bit different this time.

No cause for concern, because at 12:12pm we returned again as before. Only this time I’d surreptitiously picked a tiny flower, from its roots.

When we returned I put it into soil and watered it. It had taken root and had grown quite large in just two days.

“We won’t do it again,” my friend advised. “I felt uneasy about the guide this time.”

“So did I.” I confessed.

And yet three days later, 11:11 a.m. I was alone. And the jungle was calling me in to the phone.

‘How dangerous could it be, to go alone?’ I asked myself. ‘All I need to do is stretch up at 12:12pm and I’ll be back.’

So taking a deep breath, I held my hands together and with my index finger I touched the screen.

The loud sucking sound pulled me in.

And everything was exactly as before: the safari gear, the guide, with his, “Right on time madam.” Only this time he chuckled. I was not sure if it was my imagination but his laugh made the hair on my neck stand on end.

Instinct is as primeval as the jungle. And as a sense it should be obeyed.

The trouble with those of us who are and have been urban and civilised for so many millennia is, that we treat instinct as though it were a myth. Not real. To be mistrusted. And what’s worse, ignored.

After that initial laugh from the ‘guide’ and that uneasy sensation I allowed myself to be lost in the tour.

This time we went to a marshy sanctuary with a pool in the centre. It was loud with the buzzing of mosquitoes and dragonflies, bees and hornets. And birds of so many hues I couldn’t believe my eyes. There were waders watching the marshy pool intent on catching their prey. Other birds had their heads tucked under their wings asleep. Some flew from one branch to another chattering with their relatives and friends. Rarely speaking to another species.

The air of predatory earnestness in all the creatures gave the scene a sinister sense of foreboding.

“I’d like to see something else,” I said to the guide.

“Come,” he said. I still hadn’t asked his name, and somehow felt it wasn’t up to me to do so.

The guide then took me up into a tree house from where I could watch the lemurs.

“I will be back madam,” he said, “Just a small job to do.”

I was camouflaged in the leaves and the heat made me drowsy. I must have dropped off for, well more than a few minutes, because when I awoke it was way past 12:12pm, in fact it was one o’clock.

The guide was nowhere to be seen.

I started to worry, but then I thought perhaps this isn’t time related and I clasped my hands together and pointed upwards. Nothing happened. I was still in the tree house.

‘Okay,’ I said to myself, ‘maybe it is time-related’. At 1:01pm I aimed my hands upwards.

No. I’m still in the tree house.

Okay, I think. Let’s try 13:13 on the 24-hour clock.

Nothing.

The guide hasn’t returned.

I look up and can see my office friend peering down at me from the sky.

I wave at him.

He can’t see me.

“Hellllp!” I shout.

He can’t hear me.

It’s one thirty now. My friend has gone from the sky. The guide isn’t back.

I’ve tried getting out at 2:02pm, 14:14, 3:03pm, 15:15…

“Helllpppp!” I cry weeping, frantic. “Helllppp!”

They can’t hear me on the other side. They can’t feel me on my smart phone screen. They can’t see me.

“Oh dear God!” I cry as tears of panic threaten to choke me, “I want to go home…please, somebody, anybody, bring me back.”

With an excruciating effort of will I control the panic, “I have to be patient. I have to try again.”

When it comes to our smart phones and technology so many senses are stimulated to such a degree that in the end they are deadened.

It is now 5:05pm and I haven’t been able to return.

I’ll try again at 17:17.

I hope I have enough water in my backpack to last until 12:12pm tomorrow…

 THIRD PLACE: THE MIST OF SKARA

by Noor Nass

The story is being worked on, in the light of Alex Shaw’s comments. And when she’s ready, we’ll post Noor’s story here.

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