Traditional Publishing

International Short Story Contest

Twelfth short story contest winners

The Twelfth International Short Story Contest opened in May 2015 and closed on May 1, 2016. Deliberation over the final line-up of winners was long and hard, but by August 2016 the following successful entrants were announced:


Sam Palmer, winner of the Twelfth International Short Story Contest

Congratulations to Sam Palmer of Stoke-on-Trent, United Kingdom, who wins £200 for the winning story, "Dusk at the Plaza de Armas". The story is published below.

Sam Palmer is a secondary school teacher from Stoke-on-Trent. She is a short story and flash fiction writer. She particularly likes to write about relationships and families, often with women as a focus. She has written stories since she was a teenager but had her first real success when she won a short story competition in Writing Magazine and was published in their July 2015 issue. Since then she has had pieces in several e-zines.

Ten special commendations go out to the following entrants (in no particular order):

Dusk at the Plaza de Armas

By Sam Palmer

‘Mum, I’ve decided we should go on an adventure.’

This was said in one breathless garble by Emma as she barged into my kitchen. This was typical of my only child, always in a rush, always frenzied – my very own whirlwind.

She gulped down the tea I made her, jammed in a biscuit. ‘We should travel. Somewhere special.’

‘What’s brought this on?’

‘I feel itchy. I need to get away. I’m bored of everything,’ she said in a melodramatic tone. ‘Let’s just do it.’

‘Is this about David?’

‘No.’ She saw the look I gave her. ‘Honestly, I’m so over David. In fact I’m so over men in general.’ She pinched another biscuit. ‘Boy’s smell.’

‘So what’s this really about?’

She took both of my hands in hers and looked me in the eyes. ‘This is about you and me… and fun… and an amazing experience.’

‘Emma, I couldn’t possibly.’

She batted my comment away like an irksome fly. ‘What’s stopping you? Come on Mum, live a little. Life’s too short.’ She looked away then and I thought maybe an image of her father had passed through her mind.

Her plea had hit a chord. As she knew it would. It had been seven years since Brian’s death, seven years of feeling useless and lacking. Even though Emma visited I was lonely without the companionship of my husband. I would find myself putting the television on just for the noise.

‘I don’t have money for adventures.’

She shrugged. ‘I’ve got savings. You’ve got some money from Dad. We can make it work.’

The barriers were removed. We would go on an adventure and that was that.

A murmur came from the bed. I dropped the clothes I was folding. ‘What was that darling?’

‘The light Mum, the light.’

I knew she wasn’t talking about some heavenly light. Neither of us was that way inclined. I knew exactly what she was thinking about – Cusco. She was thinking about the main square, the Plaza de Armas, and the dimming light; how beautiful it was. I knew because I thought about it all the time too.

I grabbed her hand, the skin papery and cool. ‘Yes sweetheart, I remember. I’m here.’ Before I’d finished speaking she was already gone. That’s what she did now – drift in and out, dulled by morphine. I fluffed the pillows behind Emma’s head, kissed her on the forehead.

My gorgeous girl has been hollowed out. She is nothing now but a brittle exterior that seems as if it would crumble and blow away with a single breath. And yet she’s still here, clinging on – tenacious and brave to the last.

The world intruded through the bedroom window. Outside, people walked, traffic hummed and life went on. I pulled the curtains closed and sat in the chair beside Emma’s bed like a sentry at a post. My eyes blinked. They were sore and hard to keep open. I let them flicker shut and listened to the faint wheezing sound of Emma’s breathing.

I didn’t fancy India, I’d heard too many tales of Delhi Belly and Emma wasn’t keen on New Zealand. Eventually we decided on Peru. We’d seen a documentary about Machu Picchu once. The basic consensus was that it was a wonder of the world and definitely not to be missed.

‘I’m not trekking or living in a tent, I have to draw the line somewhere Emma.’

She told me to chill out and that I really needed to lighten up if this was going to be any fun at all.

We planned, we packed and before we knew it we were on our way. Emma spent the whole journey bubbling away in her seat. Excitement escaped from her in scalding puffs. She went from reading a book one minute to watching the in-flight film the next, flicking channels like a mad woman. When we landed they hadn’t even opened the doors before she grabbed my hand and dragged me up.

It was late afternoon when we reached our hotel. We stopped just long enough to dump our luggage, not even bothering to unpack. Instead we walked up the hill to the centre of Cusco.

On the way we were stopped by mothers who sold trinkets with babies strapped to their backs, tied on with striped blankets. The older children were sent with baby llamas in the hope of persuading tourists to part with money for pictures. Which we did.

Finally we came to the main square. I tried to take in everything at once – the cathedral, the hills, people – but there was just too much. We stopped and sat on the edge of a fountain watching the light change and the shadows lengthen. I pulled Emma closer and kissed the top of her head.

‘We’re really here!’

When she pulled away from me her eyes sparkled with tears.

‘Emma, what’s wrong?’

She brushed at her face. ‘Nothing. It’s just so…’


‘Yes. Beautiful. The light.’ She embraced me in a bear hug. ‘I love you Mum.’

On the way back to the hotel we found a café up some stairs. It sold hot chocolate and we sat near the window and clinked our cups together in a toast, congratulating ourselves.

Days were spent on our feet visiting as many sites as we could: Saksaywaman, the market at Pisac, Ollantaytambo. When we returned tired and sore we relaxed with good food and Pisco Sours. Our faces ached from smiling.

The best was saved for last. We took a train to the town of Aguas Calientes. An overnight stay and in the morning we would enter Machu Picchu. In the hotel neither of us could sleep. 11 o’clock and I stared at the ceiling while Emma lay on her bed, eating a chocolate bar and reading the travel guide. She raised her eyebrows to me, pointed at the book. ‘Did you know that when Inca leaders died they were mummified and put on display?’

‘How horrible.’

‘Why horrible?’

‘It’s so…undignified.’

She rolled over on to her front. ‘They’re not there any more, it’s only a body. What does it matter?’

‘Well, I suppose so.’ I paused. ‘Where do you think it all goes, us I mean?’

‘Nobody knows. That’s the point, isn’t it? Death – the big cosmic joke. Keeps us on our toes.’

’You never know death could be the greatest journey yet.’

‘That’s such a cliché,’ she snorted. Then she became more serious. ‘I won’t be afraid. No matter what.’

Not long after the sun rose we took the bus up into the mountains before walking the final part along a dusty road. The ruins of Machu Picchu appeared, so clear and bright against the cloudless sky. I think both of us held our breaths at the exact same moment. Everything seemed unreal and we rushed around, so overawed to be there, eager to see it all in case it disappeared like a puff of smoke, like a dream.


‘I know darling.’ She couldn’t finish and neither could I. There were no words.

No sooner had it started then it was time to leave. We packed with misery on our faces. Emma angrily shoved things into her case. ‘I don’t want to go. Let’s stay here, become Peruvian llama herders and live in the mountains.’

‘No can do darling. Real life beckons.’

Her mood faded even more the closer the plane got to home. By the time the wheels touched down she looked grey. We waited outside for the taxi, a slight drizzle covering us. I thought I understood her feelings, that it was the depression of normality seeping in after seeing such amazing sights.

‘Typical to come back to this.’

She shuffled her feet and stared at the ground. ‘I’ve got cancer Mum. It’s terminal.’

The car pulled up then and I just stared at her, hoping that there would be a punch line or a sly smile. The taxi driver loaded the cases and asked about our holiday and I was dumbstruck.

Back at home, I made us cups of tea and we sat across from each other at the kitchen table. ‘You’re only thirty-six Emma, we’ll fight this. We’ll give it everything we’ve got. When does your treatment start?’

‘It doesn’t.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Mum, there’s no miracle cure here. If I thought fighting would help, I would, you know I would. But it won’t. It’ll just delay the inevitable and I want to die on my own terms.’ She sipped at her tea. ‘Besides, you always told me it should be “quality over quantity, Emma”,’ she said mimicking my voice.

I found myself laughing and then I was crying. ‘Oh Emma, you should have told me. You knew didn’t you? The whole time we were away, you knew.’

‘Yes, I knew.’ She gathered me up in her arms and held my head to her chest. ‘It’ll be alright.’

Beside me Emma turned in bed, muttering. My eyes blinked open and I got out of the chair and sat on the bed, put my hand on hers.

The disease had caught hold like a spark on dry leaves. One day she was fine and strong, the next she couldn’t lift herself out of bed. Once she stayed in bed she couldn’t leave. I tried to talk to her about it but she was adamant.

‘I want to die here. I’m not going into the hospice. That’s an end to it.’

Her eyes were still closed, but her lips moved. I lowered my ear to her lips while she whispered. I heard her last words.

I carried on holding her hand, smoothed her hair away from her face. Let’s go on an adventure you said and by God we did. You’ll be the scout for the next one. You’ll see what’s what, you’ll make a trail. My little whirlwind.

But I think it will be hard to beat the light – the light falling on the Plaza de Armas, in Cusco, when I had, my beautiful, beautiful daughter by my side.