Short Story Runner Ups
First Runner Up Short Story by Ali Ahmed
Under the Desert Sun
We had been moving across the waves of sand for three days now. We did not know where we were or where to go. I survived the crash. There were four other survivors too. The first survivor was a boy, Ivan; he would silently weep as we moved through the desert. Clarence was another survivor; he was in his 20s, skinny to a fault. Lara was the only woman who lived through the crash; also in her 20s and also thin, but her physique suited her. The last survivor was a grizzled man called Baxter Louis; he was old, but he was strong, muscular. He looked like a man who’d been through hell.
The boy, Ivan, kept asking questions: “Where are we?” Most of us ignored him, but Lara tried to calm him down and explain what was happening. We’d been following Louis for a while now. He could follow the stars, so he knew where we were and where to go. We salvaged what we could from the plane. Three flashlights, eight bottles of water, and a container filled with food. We ran out of water quickly as the blazing sun glared at us and made our skin weep. We would try resting during daytime and move during the night, but the lack of shade made the days seem like weeks.
“When are we going home?”
Lara held him close and said “Soon, honey. Don’t you worry about it”. As we were moving at night time, Louis kept telling us stories about the war, something about how this desert was nothing compared to it. We all half listened, except for Clarence; he kept shuddering as Louis talked about the gritty details of war.
During the nighttime, Ivan couldn’t keep awake for very long. Lara and I would take turns carrying the little kid as we moved in the direction of the bright star that Louis was following. The sands looked different at night; the cold of the night made them almost easy to traverse. The sky was majestic. For every star you could see back home, you’d find a thousand of its siblings floating in space here. If we weren’t half-starving and had about four liters of water left, this god-forsaken place would’ve been absolutely beautiful.
At sunrise we decide to rest. As the sun elevated, it seemed to turn the sands from cold serene dunes to scorching hot bodies of sand.
“Where are Mom and Dad?”
Lara and I were just talking about Ivan yesterday. The question he had just asked was the question she had dreaded to answer. “Do you think he knows what happened to his parents?” I told her I didn’t think so. “What should I tell him if he asks?” I said, “The truth.” Death is something that every child needs to understand, or else he’d remain a child forever. When she answered Ivan, he was confused. Yet little by little, the look on his eyes changed from that of curiosity into one of anguish. You could feel his emotions shifting as he realized he would never see his parents again. Yet on that day, he never cried.
The sun lowered and we started moving. We need to focus on survival.
We were all asleep before we heard Clarence. He was a strange guy. He looked like a prey in the vicinity of his predator. He was always afraid, of what? Maybe it was the thought that we might starve to death, or maybe because of the dangers that lurked in the desert. What scared him next however scared all of us. His scream left nothing asleep in the desert. None of us had ever seen a sandstorm before, yet we knew what it was as soon as we saw it. It was far enough for us to not get caught in it today, but if we waited we would be in the thick of it by midnight. We couldn’t risk it. We decided to keep moving through the day as well. This meant we had to use more supplies. Less supplies means less time alive, means less hope for survival.
God help me.
We had been moving for a while now. We couldn’t stop and let the sandstorm catch up. Our supplies were running thin, especially water. We had enough water to take us through two more days of moving. We saw what looked like palm trees. Whether or not it was a mirage was the difference between life and death for us. When Louis told Clarence, his heart almost skipped a beat. But Lara wasn’t really aware of our predicament; she was focusing more on something else. The little boy had been looking more and more flushed as time passed, until his face was a shade of a ghostly white. He hasn’t been the same ever since Lara told him about his parents.
The boy died yesterday. Apparently he hadn’t been drinking water for a while. Clarence ran behind me. We had to keep moving. Lara tried taking water from our supply to try and get him re-hydrate him and save his life, but Baxter wouldn’t have it. “The boy’s dead, the sandstorm’s getting closer, we’ve got to go.” She was trembling. She never said a word; she kept weeping as she held the boy in her arms. Baxter looked at me, and we both nodded. Clarence understood as well. We knew that we needed to do whatever we had to, to survive.
We left her, too.
It was after midnight. It was just the three of us now. This meant more days of survival. We can see the palm trees more clearly now. More importantly, we could see the water. The sandstorm was still getting closer. We saw a figure down by the water. It was a nomad.
The other nomads must’ve been close, so we decided we’d get closer to the nomad and see if he we was a friend or foe. We had a plan for both outcomes. Clarence would wait as we silently moved around the oasis. Once we got into position, Clarence would go talk to the nomad. If he does anything unusual, we would have to take care of him, permanently.
Clarence must’ve run away while we were moving—what a coward. Did he go in the direction of the storm? It didn’t matter now. I started approaching the nomad, slowly. Inch by inch I would creep closer as he slept. I thought about how easier it would be to just kill him, no uncertainty, no danger, just one swipe to end his life. Baxter must’ve been thinking the same thing. I’d never seen an old man move so fast. In a second he was upon him. Baxter held his neck and in a quick twist, he turned him into a body without a soul. We had to do that; we have to do that to survive.
We filled up on water and decided to keep moving; the sandstorm wouldn’t let us stay for much longer. Baxter searched the nomad’s body for anything useful and found a knife. I’m glad we didn’t stick to the plan. We couldn’t take any chances.
We were running very low on food; we needed to find something soon.
We found the other nomads, Baxter did… We have enough food for two more days.
What have we done?
We did what we must to survive. I have no regrets.
I just woke up back home. They said they found me unconscious a week ago. I asked them if they’ve seen Baxter. They told me there was no one near me. I asked them if Clarence survived, or Lara. They said I was the only one they found alive.
I had a talk with a doctor today, a different kind of doctor. He started spouting some bullshit. He asked me these cryptic questions. We do what we must, no matter how brutal it may seem to the average human being. Why couldn’t he understand that? The guy was crazy.
The doctor told me something today. There were two hundred passengers on that plane. Nine people had actually survived the impact. I was the only one they saved. They did find bodies of the other survivors though. They told me that most of their corpses had been cut open. Something had been feeding on their bodies, ravaging parts of their organs. I knew who did it, I was there. I couldn’t stop him, I didn’t want to. It was Baxter! I kept shouting his name. Baxter! Baxter! Baxter! The doctor told me there was no one on the flight by that name. There were no Ivans, no Laras, no Clarences and no Baxters. He’s lying, he must be lying. If Baxter didn’t do these horrible things, then who did?
Second Runner Up: A short story by Aya Zain
A Bus Ride
The bus driver was drumming his fingers on the steering wheel of the big bus, glaring at the car that selfishly took a wrong turn and caused the traffic at four in the afternoon. He was driving a college bus to drop the kids crammed in their seats back to their home — or wherever these kids would retire to. He glanced at his rear view mirror, seeing a few of the students’ reflections. Almost every one of them had earphones plugged in and smartphones in their hands, lost in their own worlds. He sighed, looking ahead of him once more. He thought of his children and the schools they went to, and how they deserved to be on this bus as much as these college kids did. He glanced once more at the rear view mirror and caught the eye of a young foreign girl. Walahi. She had the same eyes as his daughter Fatima.
Amanda was sitting in the seat right behind the driver. She wondered why no one decided to sit beside her, although she did have her heavy bag on the seat beside her so as to not allow anyone to sit there. She would have gotten annoyed regardless if someone had asked to sit next to her. But she felt lonely. It’d been 4 months since college started, and her life as an exchange student wasn’t working out the way she had expected it to. She glanced out the window. There was a terrible traffic jam. She craned her neck to try to see what the reason for the jam was. She just wanted to get home and hide under the covers of her bed.
“Excuse me,” someone from behind her said. She glanced behind her. “Can you just move your chair up front a little?”
Amanda furrowed her brows and grumbled, but proceeded to do as requested.
“Thank you!” Salma said to the foreign girl in front of her. She turned back around to her friend Leila.
“– then you remember the guy who bought me that Pepsi out of the blue? He was there in that same exact moment! And Ezzat got SO jealous, I didn’t know what to do!”
Leila was listening closely to Salma, responding to her every statement or inquiry. That was Leila’s job, to listen. She wasn’t as interested in what Salma had to say, though, as she was in her perfectly lined teeth and how white they were, or how the sun shone off her long wavy hair, reflecting a deep bronze color that she would never be able to achieve herself. Some people are just born with a natural aura of beauty. It was a shame, Leila thought, that Salma knew how pretty she was. It took away a feature from her beauty.
“So do you wanna go?”
“Huh?” Leila had spaced out in Salma’s perfectly shaped eyebrows.
“Salma,” a voice from behind them interrupted her.
“Ahmed, hey!” Salma said, turning around behind her. She flashed her white teeth at him genuinely.
“How you doing?” he said, glancing at her friend. Was her name Laila? He couldn’t get a grasp on the name, as much as he strained his ears to. He smiled at the friend — Laila, he assumed — and looked back at Salma.
“Did you get started on the essay?” Ahmed asked.
“Don’t even mention that,” Salma said, rolling her eyes. “We’re in English class together!” –this time to her friend, who smiled in response.
Ahmed noticed that Leila looked a bit annoyed and felt like he should try cheering her up. His eyes lingered over her necklace which softly rested on her loose sweater. She had prominent collarbones that stuck out of the sweater. Ahmed would always lose it over necks. His eyes flickered back up to Leila’s.
“Didn’t we take a class together before?” he said.
Despite the loud music that was blasting into Joseph’s ears through his headphones, he couldn’t help but take an interest in the blossoming conversation that was happening to his left. He lowered the volume a little to catch what the fellow with the whipped-back hair was talking to the girls about.
“Did you get started on the essay?” Joseph heard him say. Probably still freshmen. Although he did recognize the quiet girl’s face. His eyes lingered on her for a few more seconds. He then turned up the music and looked back outside the window, finding more interest in the people seated behind their steering wheels.
Joseph tugged the curtains of the bus towards him a little to shield his eyes from the blaring sun. He then lowered himself into his seat and put his knees up on the seat in front of him.
This was it. Good music, great weather, and himself. He would soon get home and unwind on his favorite couch before his parents’ big screen TV. He closed his eyes, leaning his head on the window to his right. His life was great, there was no doubt about that. Suddenly someone from behind him tugged the curtain from him, causing his head to bump on the window.
“Sorry,” Mostafa said.
Mostafa positioned the curtains so that the sun would stop playing with his eyes. It was a terrible day as it was already. Wednesdays always meant going to his father’s house.
He switched on his phone, checking his text messages. If maybe he could come up with another excuse as to why he can’t make it to his father’s house…
But all his buddies lived closer to his mom’s neighborhood, so he didn’t exactly have much of a choice. There was no other place to stay over.
He sighed, his thoughts shifting to the cute daughter of his dad’s neighbor. Maybe he’d see her again, and if he mustered up enough courage, he thought to himself, he could maybe get to talk to her. Or smile at her. It was nothing serious, but it was the least he could do to lighten up his weekly trips to his father’s house.
Farah was feeling very self-conscious of where her hands and knees were. She actually dared herself to sit next to the guy she’d been spotting all over campus. She shifted her bag on her lap so that he wouldn’t notice how massive her thighs looked in her beige pants.
The bus bumped a little, and her knees grazed against his for a moment. She wasn’t sure, but she thought that maybe his body tensed up a little. Maybe he noticed her too, and fantasized about her like she did about him. She glanced to her right, pretending to casually check out the traffic outside. The cars were lessening and the road was widening as the bus rolled onto the bridge. She dared herself to look at him. His eyes were glazed, staring over the many-colored car roofs. The bus rolled over another road bump and this time her phone slipped between her thighs and onto the floor.
“Shit,” she said. She felt herself turn red as she silently cursed herself. Now she would have to bend down between her legs to attempt to get her phone, or get up and put her fat ass on display for the whole bus to see. She took another glance at Mostafa to her right, and felt her heart drop as she noticed his attention was somewhere else completely, not aware of her existence.
The phone lay in its place now right under Youssef’s seat. If he were awake, being the gentleman that he was, he would have picked the phone up and handed it over to Farah. He would have maybe even smiled and brushed his fingers against hers.
Youssef never noticed it, but he was a ladies’ man. He knew how to sweep them right off their feet and drop them right on their backs. Luckily for Farah, however, he was deeply asleep, so she wouldn’t have fallen for his gray eyes and his endearing grin.
His thoughts were far away from how blessed he was with good looks and a great smile, though. He was dreaming the same recurring dream that he’d had for 7 years, the one that he would never remember during his waking hours. It was of a big underground tunnel with grocery carts hanging off the ceiling. They were all lined up and being moved around by a large wheel attached to the ceiling.
All sorts of humans and creatures were in these carts, patiently bidding their time waiting. Conversation had ceased due to the 7-year-long wait, and noise had come to a minimum, only being interrupted by the occasional cough or the humming of a fly. Youssef would once again forget this repeated dream for the last time when he would wake up in panic to the sound of a loud crash and screaming.
Before anyone realized what was happening, all thoughts of the passengers were diverted to panic. Each individual began worrying about different trivial matters that wouldn’t matter to their souls as soon as it dispersed from their bodies during that fatal hour.
The bus toppled over due to a collision on the bridge. It skidded across the pavement, dragging a number of cars along with it, and over the bridge. Everything was a blur for 60 seconds, before all the regrets, insecurities, worries, troubles, and dreams that were cooped up in one bus ceased to exist.
Third Runner Up A short Story by Mohamed Hedar
A Dove Who Flies Above
To be reformed, something must be broken down to its base elements, and reconstructed anew. For destruction is the beginning of all creation. As alchemists once desired to transmute lead into gold, humans desire reform, to correct our faults, to further ourselves. The process is the same. Deconstruction and then reconstruction. There are certain requirements for such a task, terms that must be met. First we need the reactants, or the object. Then there must be a desired product. Finally the “alchemist”, who may require the aid of a catalyst. When elements are in place we may proceed to transmutation. Whether or not it will be successful, only time will tell.
I, the reactant, was at a loss. I lacked ambition and direction; I lived my life day to day without a thought of the distant future. Lies. Habitually, I inquired about the days to come. However, I frequently pushed the thought from my mind. I was not scared of the future, I was merely apprehensive. I believed better days were to arise. I however had no wit to raise them. I was no buffoon; in fact, I consider myself somewhat of an intellectual. That seemed to be the root of my problems. See, the ordinary fool can go through life on blind luck; from day to day, his ignorance is a blissful bubble of delight. I however see far beyond; I know my triumphs and failures. Regardless, I had never possessed the wild ambition of youth. I have seen it so many times : the boy who dreams to sail, the girl who is an aspiring teacher. How easy it was for them to come to such conclusions. Perhaps it was not them, their very aspirations nurtured, placed in their heads by some undistinguishable entity. I did not have such. My life may have been simpler if I had, or would at least have purpose. And then it happened; I, the reactant, had been born anew by her to become a product.
Who is she, you ask? Simple, she is an alchemist. One that sought to destroy me, in a transmutation, and have me reconstructed without such faults. Breaking me down to my most basic elements, removing the blemishes. To recreate me as a whole, absolute, unadulterated. Upon our first encounter, she discovered me, my lack of direction, and the absence of ambition or aspiration, along with the variety of cracks that encompassed my being. She was the ‘cure’; with her affection and adoring nature she morphed my very being. She nurtured me back to life. From the insomnious oblivion I had been living in, monotony.
I only ever had few close friends, not because I was unsociable but for the same reason one values quality over quantity. Once one settles into a rhythm, it is not simple to deviate, for we are creatures of habit. We naturally reject the unorthodox, refusing variation, finding comfort in the familiar melody. But what of those who desire more, the ones who break the repetitious symphony? I was living as a shadow: same friends, same job, same house. My life was stagnant, and therefore at an end. There really was no reason to continue the cycle, death would have been release, an act of mercy upon my pitiful soul… Would have been…
She plucked me out of my redundant linearity. She cast me into a sea of impulsive tides. I was to learn to better myself, or drown in my sorrow. To become a successful product or a failed experiment. I chose to swim in the sea I was placed in. For a year, I endured every trial I had been faced with. She was determined to fix me. I was to become a gentlemen of class, a masterpiece. I learned that, regardless, whether you carried copper or gold did not determine class. For class was not something that came with wealth; it was expressed through poise and emotion. I am now able to befriend any who cross my path. I am a shepherd, countless sheep crowd around me. A manipulator, no variable is out of my control.
Every day I was evolving, like a caterpillar in a cocoon, and one day I would emerge as a butterfly. She taught me how to speak with eloquence, and exude elegance. Even after a fortnight had passed, I saw a different man in the mirror, a man I admired. I desired to befriend this astonishing fellow. I saw myself for the first time as a diamond in the rough. Once polished I would be superior to the rest.
I felt a seed germinate within; was this ambition, aspiration to be something more, something better? I had found direction, I had found passion. I embraced her so for this, and we shared in it for a year. The world was mine for the taking, I could climb any mountain, leap any ravine. From lead to gold, from ash to phoenix.
I had had three true friends at the time; we would talk of grand ideas, great things, and dreams. I, however, now know dream from reality and how to turn dream to reality. She taught me how to love, and how to be loved. She raised me higher, made me better than most. However, when one is so utterly superior it makes for dull surroundings. Things that were once precious are now insignificant, with meager satisfaction. I no longer seek acceptance from anyone. For it is now all too easy. People now look for my acceptance, for I am of value.
People hate to see success of one in spite of their failures . It is true that birds of a feather flock together, for a raven cannot fly among a flock of doves. They simply do not belong. I fly higher than all around me, and if it befits me, I will fly with the flock. However, I must never forget that there is a place in the sky high above for birds of my stature.
I have no need for such trivial things. My old ways no longer befit me, nor do my old friends, my past life. I have been reincarnated.
The alchemist has succeeded; I am an excellent product. I rose even above my maker. She was an astounding lady, realizing my potential when I lacked all conviction. She brought the best out of me. However as I evolved, she remained the same, stagnant, a flawed creature I have outgrown.
When asked about her these days, I only have few words to say: “When you’ve flown as high as I, there is no room for mediocrity. She was my maker, but long surpassed by me, she flies beneath with others, and lacks a place in my sky. If it is loneliness that I must suffer, so be it, I refuse to humble myself before those beneath me. Why would flame yield before clay? Once kindled, fire consumes all, even its advocates.”
Fourth Runner Up: A Short Story by Baher Ibrahim
It wasn’t like in the movies when they say you see your whole life flashing before your eyes. You could say I saw other lives as I flashed by them. It was only a split second for them, but an eternity for me. I don’t know if I was moving as the world flew by or if I was suspended in time and space while people whirled around me. I don’t remember the details, but I remember that it was cold. Though the wind was raging, I didn’t sway. What happened was unplanned, and so I was only dressed in my pajamas. This was the last thing I could have anticipated.
Every balcony and window I looked through offered a glimpse into a life. It was like I was making mental reconstructions of people to store that particular moment in my safe of memories. I didn’t know how long I’d retain them though. Perhaps in a few moments I would be nothing more than forgotten history.
The fifth window showed a young couple. The woman’s bloodshot eyes and ragged hair contrasted sharply with the angelic smile on her face. The young man probably hadn’t slept in days. His hair was unkempt and his clothes were wrinkled like he’d slept in them. Yet, they both seemed ecstatic. Both had their heads and eyes focused on a single point so small I couldn’t see it clearly. A closer look revealed a tiny set of fingers emerging from a blue bundle. The woman was holding the fragile, miniscule hand between two fingers, weeping with joy and reaching delicately into the bundle with her other hand. Her husband then extended his hands downwards and picked up the tiny human. Peeking from the bundle was a beautiful pink little baby. Its eyes were shut while it slept silently. I must have been like that one day. My parents were once young like this couple. My father’s hair was still black and my mother was beautiful. They must have been full of youth and vigor long ago, before becoming worn out and aged by the demands of life. I wish I had treated them better. I fear it may be too late now. I don’t know if the couple noticed me. I’m sure my screams were deafening to me, but perhaps they drowned in the howling wind. I was of insignificance to them anyway. Even if they had seen me, it was probably too late.
The fourth window offered a better glimpse of the people inside. It looked onto a bedroom and the bed was quite close. I could see their lips moving but I was moving too fast to make out what they were saying. This room was old and worn out. Cakes of dust covered all the termite-infested furniture. An elderly lady lay in bed, her back against a stack of propped-up pillows. Her hair was an elegant white. The creases around her eyes and mouth gave her character where there was once beauty. Her thick, oversized glasses hung loosely from her frail face. She reached out with a trembling arm to a man before her. I knew that man. I’d never liked him. I often saw him in the elevator. He was also old, but the years had taken a smaller toll on him than on his wife. In one hand he had a tall glass of water. In the other was a pill for his sick wife. I raised my gaze a little to land on a portrait on the wall. It was an old color photo encased within a dusty frame. The man and woman in it were much younger, but their identities were unmistakable. They were the same couple I was looking at now, probably decades ago. It’s amazing that after all these years such enduring love can persist. I don’t know why I never liked this man. He seemed admirable in his care for his sick wife. Their remarkable resilience in loving each other was something I had aspired to have in my own future marriage. Maybe, though, I wouldn’t get the chance now. Maybe not much time was left.
The third window was of a living room. There was a young girl in an adorable pink dress. She couldn’t have been more than one year. She lifted herself upward from the ground, supporting herself with the couch. After rising, she took her hands off the couch and walked alone on her two feet for a few steps before losing her balance and falling into her mother’s arms. Her mother clapped and laughed in delight, her eyes shimmering with pride. She turned around and said something out loud. I couldn’t hear it over the roaring wind, but a young man appeared out of an adjacent room to respond to her. When he too saw his daughter take her first steps, an expression of sheer joy colored his face. He ran over to her and took her in his arms. I probably looked like this when I took my first steps. Helpless, feeble and small. Totally dependent upon my parents who were more than happy to attend to my every need. I wonder if I’ll ever get a chance to see my own child take his first steps. Will I ever get the chance to repay my parents for their kindness? I’m afraid that life only has a few moments left in store for me.
The second window showed a teenage boy in a closed bedroom. He was hunched over a desk illuminated by the neon light of a desk lamp. Piles of books towered around his head. His face was twisted in anger and anxiety. He cast a hurried glance at the clock above him and resumed studying. I guessed he wasn’t going to get any sleep that night. He probably had an exam the next morning and was cramming all he could. It reminded me of myself when I was in high school. I’d always been pressured to excel in school and do my best. I’d spent countless hours at my desk, studying my life away instead of enjoying it. I’ll never forget how many times I had a panic attack the night before an exam. What a waste of time and life. I shouldn’t have taken life so seriously. What did I gain from agonizing over studies and school? Now, as my life was nearing its end, what did all the grades I got mean? What were my achievements besides a few high scores in a few exams? I should have lightened up and enjoyed my life. Would I get another chance?
The first window showed a girl sitting alone on her bed with a mobile phone glued to her ear. I couldn’t hear what she was saying but her coy smiles and the teddy bear in her arms gave it away. The twinkle in her eyes and the way she smiled showed she was truly in love. I don’t remember ever having someone love me like that. Love and relationships were always obscure, future matters to me that I didn’t concern myself with. I doubt I’ll ever get a chance now.
The ground seemed closer now. I was approaching it at full speed. I looked upwards and saw my apartment building towering above my head. I’d always imagined that falling from a building was something that took seconds. Yet here I was gaining new insights and experiencing the pangs of regret for what seemed like years.
The building above me seemed to get bigger. The noises on the ground got louder. I could now hear screams below me. I couldn’t look but I felt there was a huge crowd looking up. The inhabitants of my building were all on their balconies, looking down in horror.
I felt a dull, painful thud on my back. It hurt like hell, but not like I’d expected. Wait – was I still alive to reflect on how much it hurt? Indeed, I was. I felt searing pain in every joint of my body, but I was unmistakably alive. I could hear the shouts and yells around me, but my neck hurt too much to turn around to see them. My nostrils filled with an unpleasant odor. My whole body felt grimy and sticky. I reached out around me to get a sense of my surroundings. Black bags were around me everywhere.
A benevolent face appeared above me. “Are you okay?” he asked. I couldn’t speak. “Raise your arm if you can hear me”. The pain in my arm was unbearable, but I managed to lift it up slightly. I heard the sirens of an ambulance getting louder. “You’re going to be fine. You fell from the sixth floor but these bags broke your fall”. I tried to look around but could see nothing but black bags. It dawned on me that my life had been saved by the most unlikely of saviors: a garbage truck.
University Runner Ups