Modern Speculative Fiction Competition - Winner

Jenny Morris

Modern Speculative Fiction Competition


Jenny Morris lives in Crowborough, the home of Winnie the Pooh and an outrageous number of charity shops. She is currently finishing her PhD in Psychology and writing her first novel on the Faber Academy six-month writing a novel course. When not reading or writing speculative fiction, Jenny enjoys riding around the forest and playing video games.


Siphons By Jenny Morris

How was I supposed to decide whether someone deserved to die? Dr Macali was cheating on his pregnant wife with three undergraduate students. I knew this because one of them was my housemate, Tasha. Then I followed him. That might seem strange, and no, I didn’t start stalking my lecturer out of loyalty to a girl I’ve lived with for three months. Somebody had to die, and I needed to choose who. Still, death seemed an over-the-top punishment. Which was a shame because Dr Macali had 62 years to live. So, I headed to the library early to choose a more deserving victim. I settled for a solitary corner spot on the top floor. One of the ceiling lights was broken, but the dim lighting felt appropriate.
I worked until I couldn’t ignore the nausea. After a morning of googling ‘people who deserve to die’ and ‘most disturbing people on the planet’ – I had found the darkest corners of the internet. I had hoped music might temper the vileness, so I put on an ‘upbeat pop’ playlist. It helped a little, until I reached an article about a woman who caved in her new-born son’s head with a stiletto. Paolo Nutini’s New Shoes started cheerily playing, and I ripped my headphones off as if they might contaminate me. Later, when Sophie appeared and slumped into the chair next to me, I was glad for the excuse to push my laptop aside.
‘Really Gina, did you have to pick the top floor? I’ve been looking for you.’
‘How did you know I was here?’
‘I installed “find my friend” on your phone. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work vertically.’
I couldn’t help but grin. ‘Why am I not surprised?’
Sophie wasn’t listening. She stared behind me and scrunched up her nose like she’d smelt something revolting. A bloody image peeked out from my half-closed laptop.
‘Christ, what is that?’ she said, as she dragged the screen between us.
On the screen was my latest potential. There was a photo of him next to a room where he had kept seven teenage girls locked up. None survived. I felt no conflict over this one. Why should I feel guilty for taking his life and using it for good? However, he was locked deep in maximum security prison. And who knew how many years he had left. I could end up stealing a handful of years, months, or even days from him and be forced to take another life further down the line. When I said I wouldn’t feel guilty, that didn’t mean I wanted to end a life. This once, for Sophie’s sake, but never again.
* * * * *
A year ago, Sophie had a blood clot. There was no warning and no reason. On Tuesday evening we’d been out for dinner; Sophie had a chicken caesar salad with the dressing on the side and one medium glass of white wine. Then she’d collapsed on Thursday morning.
I knew she was dying before they told me. ‘It could take hours, days, even weeks, but she will go,’ the doctor had said. Her condition did nothing to suggest otherwise: her still body diminished by the day, and the colour faded from her rosy face.
‘It will be seven days,’ I heard my own voice tell me. I tried to dismiss the thought – how could I know such a thing? But the voice persisted, whispering the truth to my bones. I walked out of the hospital to get some air, and I knew how long everyone had left. The doctor who had delivered Sophie’s prognosis: 25 years; the crow-necked receptionist: ten; the wheelchair-bound old man outside in the car park: eighteen months. The old man’s son was helping him into a taxi. He tucked two thick woolly blankets around his father and held the oxygen tank. The driver was getting ready to lift him into the front seat.
I remembered the son speaking calmly to his father, ‘Okay Dad, we’re going to lift you now. 3, 2, 1, lift.’
The old man struggled. ‘Don’t you dare let this oaf lift me,’ he yelled.
After a kick to the knee, the driver fell back and dropped the old man onto the floor. The son dropped the oxygen tank in his attempt to catch his father. The crash of the tank echoed across the hospital parking lot, and the son received a smack to the head.
‘Stupid, good for nothing boy. I’m glad your mother isn’t around to see what a disappointment you turned out to be.’
I’m not trying to excuse what I did next. I know it was wrong. But that hateful skeleton had eighteen months of life ahead of him; Sophie had seven days. Dormant muscle memory guided me. I walked towards the scene in front of me, knelt down and touched the old man’s arm. Energy coursed into me. It felt like cold water flowing in circular motions over my skin. He fell quiet, and I wordlessly helped him into his chair. Then I walked away with his eighteen months.
* * * * *
According to the old man’s obituary he slipped away peacefully that evening, although I would have known regardless of seeing it in print. I didn’t regret it. How could I when Sophie wakes up every morning, eats her cereal and goes about her day? She’s studying medicine. Think how many people she’s going to save because I saved her. I objectively did the right thing. Although, she could become a telemarketer and still make the world a better place just for being in it. Some people can’t help but spread light into the world.
But she’s only got six months left. I have to save her again. I’m still a little vague on the fine-print, but I think I need to touch these people to take their lives. I couldn’t access the kidnapper, but after several days of sleuthing I discovered his wife (yes, still married) lived two hours from me. They couldn’t get enough evidence to put her away. She insisted she’s a victim too. I didn’t believe her. Seven innocent girls locked up in a basement for years – friends and families ruined by the knowledge of what he did to their loved ones – and she helped. But first, I had to make sure.
I turned off the ignition and slumped below the steering wheel. I didn’t own a car, but Dr Macali was kind enough to let me borrow his after I threatened to tell Tasha she wasn’t the only ‘special connection’ he’d made that term. My front-runner came into view. She pushed her trolley across the supermarket parking lot, and I saw her face for the first time. Her real face, not the cautious smile for the newspaper articles, the face that betrayed who she was when she was alone. The woman’s worn eyelids made her eyes look like they were trying to escape her face; her entire body repulsed by the black soul it belonged to. In that moment any doubt I had regarding her guilt dissipated. I knew the truth, just like I knew she had 65 years to live. How would that be fair if I let her live to 98, but I let Sophie die at 23? That would make me the monster.
I jumped out of the car and tiptoed across the car-park. She picked up a shopping bag and stretched across the boot to shove it into the corner. I took a tin of cat food that was precariously balanced on the trolley’s rim, then dropped it. The clang of the tin on the pavement made her jump and turn around. She relaxed when she saw me. I was just a young woman after all. Why would she be frightened of me?
‘Excuse me, I think you dropped this,’ I said. I picked it up, took another step, and pressed it into her palm, cupping my hand around hers as I did so. It was still new to me, this power, so I wasn’t sure whether it would be as quick as the first time. After all, I was taking 65 years instead of eighteen months. But it only took a few seconds longer. One touch and it was done.
* * * * *
The front room teemed with balloons and streamers. We had moved the television upstairs to make space for the extra chairs: an assortment of our kitchen bar stools, plastic garden chairs and fold-up camping seats. Sophie did most of the work, and now she was making the finishing touches to the cake. Tasha’s favourite – carrot cake with buttercream frosting. Sophie’s face was one of concentration as she iced on ‘Happy birthday, Tasha’. Tasha’s whole family were coming down for the afternoon, then we’d take her out for the evening. We wanted to make it special. She had been feeling down since I told her about Dr Macali’s other girlfriends.
I had been thinking about what Tasha said, ‘I’m so angry I could kill him.’ She said it in anger, of course. But how would she feel if she knew his life could save her mother’s? I sensed it the moment she walked in the door: three months left. She was only 45. They talked on the phone every day. I could always tell when Tasha was calling home, because they were always laughing.
I said I would never do it again. After all, this ability only came to me when Sophie was about to die, so I figured it was meant to save only her. It made sense that some divine power was using me to save a good soul. But there had to be a reason why the power remained; a reason why I knew the death date of everybody I met. It was finally making sense. Like I said, some people spread light into the world – it was my duty to change the bulbs. 

Judges Comments

The key question in speculative fiction is 'what if?' It's satisfyingly explored in Jenny Morris's Siphons, where question is 'what if a person had the ability to predict death and transfer the person's remaining years to somone else?' In Siphons the narrator has the disturbing power not only to know when the people she meets will die, but to transfer their life-force to more deserving cases.

The set-up immediately puts the reader on the side of the narrator: we see everything through her eyes but as readers, can also see through the wider perspective that Jenny provides. From the narrator's point of view, she looking out for her friends, and measuring whether it's worth her using her powers. Dr Macali has behaved badly, and wrongly, but his misdemeanor doesn't merit death. But when 23-year old Sophie is diagnosed with a life-threatening condition, she knows she can find someone more deserving: someone who has committed appalling crimes against the young women he kidnapped.

Although the Jenny' s viewpoint character assumes the role of an avenging angel, looking for a suitably evil victim so she can prolong the life of her good, deserving friend Sophie, she ends up testing her power not on the kidnapper but on an unpleasant old man. But the reader can see that's all he is: old and unpleasant. Not evil. But his death is pivotal as the narrator gets 18 months for Sophie and a taste of what she can do.

This testing of her powers is well-paced in the story and presented in the context of a victory. The next move, which is to track down someone else to prolong Sophie's life, is where the unease and tension suggested by the old man's death are ratched up again. The narrator's next victim isn't the kidnapper, but his wife. She may or may not be guilty of sharing her husband's crimes but the narrator believes in her own ability that tells her the women is guilty rather than search for evidence.

Jenny puts all the elements of her narrative in place and then allows the reader to create their own impression of the ominous potential of the narrator's power. By the end, with the narrator again deciding to exert her ability, the implication is that power, even when ostensibly being used for good, exerts its own seductive hold over the person who possesses it. It's an intruiging, thought-provoking tale, well-set up and excellently executed, that makes for a very worthy winner.



Runner-up in the Speculative fiction competition was Ana de Andrada, Twickenham, whose story is published on Also shortlisted were: Kate Alton, Bristol; Dominic Bell, Hull;  Mariann Evans, Alloa, Clackmannanshire; Julian Leto, Durham; Amanda Marples, Rotherham, South Yorkshire; Terry Martin, Fosdyke, Lancashire; SF Ratcliffe, Cape Town, South Africa; Mansfield Schad, Braco, Perth and Kinross; Diane M Smith, Ewhurst, Surrey.