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The winning story in the Youth Short Story category of the 2023 Amazon Canada First Novel Award

Danica Popovic at the 2023 Amazon Canada First Novel Award ceremony.

Danica Popovic is a seventeen-year-old writer from Calgary. She enjoys reading in her spare time, especially psychological fiction and classic literature written by women.

As the winner of the 2023 Amazon Canada First Novel Award in the Youth Short Story category, Danica received a $5,000 cash prize and a virtual mentorship workshop with an editor of The Walrus.

It was just a tiny glance in my direction, almost undetectable, that allowed me to notice that the TV character was watching me, knowing me, just as I was watching her.

It happened at the point in the night when darkness plays tricks on the tired eye, and turns pillows and crumpled up clothes into monstrous faces. I had been watching my show since the morning until this point, a habit of mine.

My face felt warm from the light coming off the screen, as if my skin was dissolving. My eyes kept lolling back in my head; my eyelids continually tried to flutter shut while I used my fingertips to pry them open. I was tired, yes, and I would go to sleep soon, but not yet. I only wanted to finish the episode I was watching.

I was nearly unconscious, with just five minutes to the end. My neck rolled to the side. Everything blurred.

And that was when I saw it.

The TV character, she looked at me. Not at the cameras, but at me. It wasn’t a stare, or anything definitive enough to prove it had really happened, at least not yet. It was just a fleeting blink in my direction, how one might look over at a sudden, quiet noise; not one loud enough to be frightened or captivated by, but one that was just there.

I had seen this show hundreds of times. I had the dialogue memorised and I could hear it even when it wasn’t playing out loud. I knew what happened, I knew what the TV characters did, and I knew that at this moment, five minutes until the end, this character did not ever glance in my direction, as she had done now.

I snapped the screen shut and I tossed the laptop to the other side of the room. My tired subconscious was playing tricks on me, forcing me into waking dreams that looked entirely real. I knew it was time to sleep.

I shuffled around in my covers, prying my sore and tangled bones out of their stiff position. I didn’t dare open my eyes; the entire time I prepared to die for the night. I didn’t want to see what monstrous faces surrounded me.

. . .

I woke up plastered to my bed covers—months worth of sweat and body odour fusing the sheets and blankets to my skin. I usually only stood in the mornings to have a sip of water and cup noodles for breakfast, before returning to bed and watching the show all over again. The blankets never left me for these moments that I stood. I never felt the need to remove them if I was only going to return to them moments later.

But this morning was different. I had felt terror for the first time in years when that TV character looked at me. I thought my mind was finally decaying after ages of warmth and repetition from the blue screen. I needed to tear the blankets off, stand out of bed, and go for a walk in order to return to stability.

I braced my hand around the once white, now yellow sheet that grasped onto my left shoulder. It crunched beneath my grip. Then, I began to pry the blanket off.

My skin remained suctioned onto the fabric as I slowly pulled the covers away from me. With each tearing motion as my skin and sheets separated, I bit down harder on the inside of my cheek to distract myself from the searing pain. By the time the covers and I were two pieces instead of one, my mouth was half full of blood, and the inside of my cheek severed and mangled.

The bedroom, as expected, was in shambles. Hundreds of empty cup noodles crunched beneath my feet as soon as they touched the floor. I couldn’t stop the tremors that shook my entire body as the cold chewed my severed, infant-like skin. The heat hadn’t been turned on in ages and frost climbed the windows, as well as the walls and floor.

The worst of it all was the scent. I was able to detect the usual hints of urine that wafted in from the bathroom, as well as the scent of body odour, which I had become accustomed to. But there was something else that caused blind spots to bleed across my vision and a turbulent feeling of nausea in my stomach. It smelled like compost that had been left out for ages.

I turned my stiff head towards the corner of the bedroom where the rotting scent was most poignant. I found two potted plants I once kept had at some point turned over and let soil all over the floor. The plants had then sprouted from the spilled soil, as if from the floor itself. They had climbed the walls, the floors, and the ceiling; then, with lack of water and sunlight, they rotted.

I pinched my nose and left the room half-gagging.

. . .

The cashier smiled at me eerily, with strangely widened eyes.

“Will that be all?” He said, the smile not dropping from his face.

I had decided that the next logical thing to do was go to the grocery store in search of food other than cup noodles.

Strange noises blared in my ears; hundreds of people walked by me, talked with their friends, their parents.

Should we get smith apples or ambrosia? Are you coming to dinner tonight? You wouldn’t believe what my boss did yesterday! Will that be all?

I rested my hand on a bag of grapes that appeared neon purple. They retained a strange, fuzzy quality, like they were made of felt. I squinted and gripped them between my fingertips in an attempt to assure myself that they were solid, real. I felt that they would dissolve at any moment.

Do we get chips or popcorn for the movie tonight? Just get whichever one is cheaper. I’m short a few cents. Will you lend me a quarter? Sure. Will that be all?

The faces of people morphed and trembled. The more I stared at each individual face, the more monstrous they became.

I placed the dissolving grapes in front of the cashier. He smiled at me, with terrifyingly widened eyes that trembled in their sockets.

“Will that be all?”

I stared at him for a long moment. “Yes, that’ll be all.”

When I returned home, I dropped the grapes at the bottom of the staircase. I wrapped myself in my blankets and returned to bed. I welcomed the warmth from the blue screen amongst the frost of the rest of the room. The scent of the rot disappeared as I pressed replay.

. . .

There she was again, the TV character. Five minutes until the end.

I brought the screen close to my face, prepared to catch her mistake once more. I knew that she wasn’t what she seemed; I knew that she knew me as well as I knew her. I knew that she was watching me, just as much as I watched her.

But to my disappointment, she didn’t cast a glance in my direction. She kept on, like the episode always did, for another two minutes. I laid back, disappointed.

Then, she beckoned.

I jumped in my bed where I lay. Physically, it couldn’t be real, yet it felt that it was. I saw it happen; I felt it happen. I rubbed my eyes aggressively enough that I could feel my nails scratch their surface. Then, I replayed it from three minutes left until the end.

She beckoned again.

My mouth hung open. I blinked for just a moment, and there I stood, in my show. The TV character stood in front of me. She smiled.

Warmth enveloped my body. Everything was beautiful, familiar. We were in the apartment where most of the show was filmed. I splayed myself across the couch; I ran my fingers across its soft, warm fabric. Sunlight from the window spilled in, healing across my ravaged skin; it felt perfect. The room smelled slightly of burnt pastries—the TV character was always cooking, though she was terrible at it. I smiled. How clumsy.

She plopped down on the couch next to me as if we had been friends for years. It felt that we had.

“Don’t be sad. Everything will be alright,” she said, ruffling my hair. “I know just what’ll cheer you up.”

She went into the kitchen and placed a blackened pastry on a little floral plate. She held it out in front of me and smiled. Somewhere in the background, people laughed.

I knew how the episode went, so I crossed my arms and frowned. “That’s not funny.”

She sat down next to me again. “Seriously though. Everything’s gonna be fine. I swear.”

As scripted, I rested my head on her shoulder. She put her arm around me. I nearly began to cry; how good it felt, how much I truly belonged there. I couldn’t help myself; I embraced her back and gripped her tightly.

She stiffened. The set darkened.

“What are you doing? The episode is over.”

The ground began to tremble.

“What?” I said, frowning. “I thought we were friends.”

She grimaced at me and pried my arms from around her waist. “The episode is over. There was only three minutes until the end.”

“What are you talking about,” I said, reaching for her again. She stepped away from me and went towards the set door.

She ignored my remarks of protest as she let herself out. “That’ll be all,” she said. She stepped through the dark passageway, then shut the door and locked it behind her.

. . .

I awoke, trembling outside of my bedroom door. My face and limbs stuck to the frost covered floor, and ice climbed my skin. Tears had frozen on my cheeks.

I propped myself up on my knees and grasped the door handle, prepared to let myself in. But the door was locked. The TV character had locked me out.

I fumbled with the handle, but it wouldn’t budge. I banged on the door.

“Please,” I begged. I banged on it again. “Please, let me in!”

I rested my head on the door, and I stopped knocking. “Please,” I said quietly.

But no response came from the other side.

Click here to learn more about the Amazon Canada First Novel Award.

Danica Popovic