The Big Writing Challenge 2022 is organised by London Metropolitan University and is supported by Orion Publishing Group. Running from January to June and with student writers from London Met’s partner colleges, the project explores and develops the participants’ own writing via a programme of workshops and panel events.
Writers submitted their work and three were shortlisted. The shortlisted pieces were The Grimm by Elyana Guler, The Man in the Lighthouse by Persia Modder and This Place by Zeynep Yilmaz.
Emad Akhtar, Publisher at Orion Fiction judged the shortlist and selected The Grimm as the winning piece.
Congratulating Elyana, Emad described her writing as “Arresting, immediate and readable, with a very cool and visual concept – a ‘phenomenon’ known as The Leech. A kind of crawling, slithering, wind – or something – which drains its surroundings and everything and everyone it touches of all colour and warmth. With shades of Stranger Things and His Dark Materials, while feeling fresh and distinctive – it felt like a folktale told with an imagination infused by the digital age and capturing a sense of dread of the times.”
We hope you enjoy reading Elyana Guler’s piece and congratulations to all of the participating writers.
A gust of wind swept through the streets like a ghost, curling round the narrow alleys, slithering under the cracks, under locked doors and rattling bells, until the sound echoed out throughout the town, like a heartbeat pumping its last beat. As ordinary as the breeze may have seemed, as much as people would try to justify its mundaneness, in this city, nothing was that simple. What followed after the wind was a greyness. The “Leech” is what most people called it because that’s exactly what it did. Scholars called it a phenomenon, but it was easier to disguise a monster and call it a “strange, pretty thing” when you were far far away from the danger. The reality of it.
The Leech started off as small as an actual leech, but it spread out like a cancer, growing in size and draining its surroundings of colour and warmth. Everything would be drained of colour and everything you saw and touched became black and white, including yourself. It was alarming and unsettling, a warning for the people. To most people who lived here, from the eldest residents who closed their eyes in frozen anticipation, to the newborns who squirmed and wailed for sudden unknown reasons, it was very clear and very known. Trouble had arrived.
When the gust of wind had reached its peak, reached the old clock tower in the heart of town, the air seemed to settle in a thin layer of mist tinged in black and grey, as if a giant had blown a fistful of dust over the town. It clung as dust would, almost silencing the harried footsteps of a young boy as he raced through the streets, his panting breaths far too loud for comfort.
Louis Da Costa was not an idiot despite what his older sister said (though siblings always said that even if you weren’t really being all that stupid). He knew that he should be like everyone else right now, at home, behind a bolted door, preferably near the warmth of the fireplace like the one in his living room. He thought he could smell the woodsmoke, the familiar comfort of being curled up on the carpet as his family pottered and Nellie wagged her tail at him for attention.
He was practically running now, his breaths too laboured and loud in the empty city. He hadn’t meant to stay out for more than thirty minutes, only intending to run down to the town centre to fetch some extra food for the dog. Earlier that day the town had been informed of a possible attack, and Louis had made a plan of how he would sneak out of the house, without being noticed by his mother’s sharp eye, without alerting Nellie lest she think it was time for a walk.
I should’ve just stayed home, I should’ve just stayed home, I should’ve –
Something hissed in the alley Louis had just run past, causing him to jump. His worn boots tripped on a loose piece of paving stone and he slammed onto the floor with an Oomph!
His knees stung and Louis could already feel the small cuts on his palms that would bother him later. If I live that long, he thought, and as he pushed himself up onto his knees, he noticed something was not right with his hand.
No, not his hand but something clinging to it that was turning it… No. No, they couldn’t already be…
Louis’s brown skin was slowly leeching of colour. A grey sheen travelled up his fingers and past his thin wrist, until his entire body was void of colour, a dull grey. It was too soon. The alley where the noise had come from caught Louis’s attention once more.
Among the discarded barrels and crates shoved into the corner of the narrow lane, a tendril of smoke began to unfurl from the ground. It was hard to notice but growing up in this town, every single person was taught to recognise the signs. The smoke didn’t move like normal woodsmoke or the tail end of someone’s cigar. This smoke moved like it was shaping itself of its own accord, like it was aware, aware of its surroundings, aware of people, aware of Louis.
He stood back up, swallowing hard, but it only made his dry throat ache more. Louis looked around, his eyes wide and frightened, his steps retreating from the dark alley.
Just run, they can’t have already got here.
Spinning on his heel Louis continued down the cobblestone path, his heart a warning bell in his chest.
Run, run, run!
Just as he reached the tower, the white clockface a beacon guiding him home, a howl erupted. Louis whirled round, searching for the smoke, or even worse their actual forms. They differed from solid forms. They were translucent entities. That is what they really were, entities. These things are here and are about to kill me.
A chill under the collar of Louis’s jacket made his muscles tense and his heart sputter. The chill almost felt natural, except the wind didn’t cry. The sound was terrible, it plagued Louis’s dreams every night, like a young fox wailing for its mother, or the scratching of nails on a blackboard. His school friends would do that in class as a joke, and Louis would always beg them to stop, not in annoyance but in fear. Because the sound was too similar to them.
Dread in his stomach transformed into its own monster. It was thrashing inside of Louis, wanting to scream and cry but Louis held firm. They sensed the fear, the anxiety, it was what they were anyway. Like calls to like, or whatever the hell that meant. It didn’t matter now, there was no-one around Louis to hear, not his friends or his sister. He began to think maybe Elisa was right after all. He really was an idiot, thinking he could escape this. The nightmare tormenting his home for ten years.
The creature in front of him now, floating above the ground – how did they do that? – towered over him as if two tall men were standing on each other’s shoulders. Something in Louis seemed to weaken when he stared at it. But why? He thought blearily, Why is this… In the strange fuzziness growing in his head, Louis thought he heard a shout. No, not a shout but a bark.
Nellie? Louis thought distantly.
The sound grew louder and sharper, and as Louis’s eyes began to shut out the strange grey world, something big and hard crashed into him from behind, knocking the boy flying. “What?” Louis said, “what the -”.
“Apollo! What have I told you about being gentle with humans? Especially the little ones.”
Standing where Louis had stood a moment ago was a girl, (or a young woman as his mother would tell him to say). The young woman was quite tall, her black hair tucked into a polka dot scarf, tied neatly at her neck. But something wasn’t right. The woman looked normal to Louis, ordinary even. But the colours – that was it! – there was too much colour. Confusion filled Louis’s head, so many questions, as he watched the woman in her heeled boots, her shoes tap, tap, tapping on the cobblestones as she approached the creature.
“Alright then, shall we get to work? Apollo!”
For a moment Louis thought the woman was – how could he put it politely – missing a few screws in the head? But then the familiar sound of paws on stone caught Louis’s attention and he turned slightly enough to see a large dog race forward from wherever it had been hiding, running to its owner obediently.
Ah, Louis thought, Apollo. The large boulder that had knocked him flying. The doghad now come to stand by the woman, its own rugged coat grey like the rest of the world and Louis himself. But Louis wasn’t sure if that was the magic of the strange anomaly or the actual colour of its fur. The dog did not seem fazed by the creature hovering in front of them.
“I think it’s time we get you moving on, don’t you agree?” The woman was speaking to the creature like it was an old friend. Like it could understand her. The creature seemed to shift, continuing to morph into different forms, but menacing still. The woman sighed, then raised her hands, but she stopped mid action and glanced over at Louis, who was still sitting on the ground with his back against the stone of the clocktower, silently watching this bizzare play unfold.
The woman tipped her head. “Would you mind not looking at this part? Might give you nightmares.”
Irritationpinched atLouis’s nerves. Nightmares?
“I’m not a baby”, he said, making his voice as stern as possible. The woman sighed again. “Well alright. Would you not look for me then? A favour for a favour.”
Louis knew he couldn’t argue with that, since this woman had saved his life. He nodded and the woman turned back to face her opponent.
Louis pressed his colourless hands against his eyes, his knees drawn up to his chest. All of a sudden it was like the world behind his palms had been lit up. Set ablaze, Louis could see a bright whiteness but felt no heat on his skin. Minutes might have passed, or maybe just seconds. When the light seemed to have faded Louis felt anticipation grow in his chest. When he lowered his hands, squinting at the brightness of the normal sunlight, his eyes widened. The woman stood in the exact same spot with her large dog, Apollo. And that was it, only the two of them stood there, no creature, no smoke, no … nothing.
“H-how?”, Louis muttered. The woman turned, a slightly blank look on her face but then the look was gone and a tentative smile replaced it.
She was still in colour, but the town centre was also beginning to shed the greyness. Looking down Louis noticed with relief that his once green shirt was returning back to colour.
“Let’s just say it’s a little magic trick of mine”, the woman replied, and Louis would’ve thought she was mocking him but she seemed almost shy. Apollo made a soft whining sound and the woman gave him a soft scratch. Finally she approached Louis, and tucked her gloved hands into her pockets.
“Your mother must be worried. Let’s get you home.”