THE UNSAYABLE by Alison Wassell (2nd place, Flash May21)

Three o’clock. In fifteen minutes, Jen can release thirty children into the custody of their parents. Today they are, so far, all unmaimed. She begins to relax.

Too soon. Tilly tugs on her sleeve and points to her cheek, which sports a new, angry scratch. The child’s teary eyes accuse Jen of failing to keep her from harm.

In the corner, his favourite spot, the perpetrator is barricaded by upturned chairs. Kai howls like a dog, then grins and stuffs a handful of magnetic letters into his mouth. Jen searches her brain for information as to the dangers of swallowed magnets whilst making him spit them out. By the time the whole alphabet has been accounted for the room is in chaos. Waiting parents watch through the windows, shaking their heads and muttering.

Somehow the children are bundled into their coats. They flood the playground in an angry wave, reporting, complaining, crying.

Tilly’s mum has had enough. It is the third time this week her daughter has been returned damaged, and nothing is ever done about the boy. And her child is not the only one. They are all suffering. She knows he has problems. Even so. Jen’s apologies sound, even to her, like a bland pre-recorded message. Unrepentant, Kai runs towards the school gates, spinning his sweatshirt around his head. His mother follows at a distance, pushing a younger child, her skirt barely covering her underwear.

‘Uncouth,’ says Tilly’s mum, then other words that Jen pretends not to hear.

At home, after wine, Jen fantasizes about a Kai-free life. She pictures a calm flock of children, biddable, curious and free from fear. She drifts to sleep counting them, like sheep.

In the morning Kai fails to materialize. The others hold their collective breath, watching the door. By breaktime news has filtered through of the accident; a collision between wayward child and speeding car in which Kai did not stand a chance.

Jen holds onto a desk to steady herself, afraid of her own powers, wondering if she has somehow caused this by her wishing.

The Headteacher, who is fonder of words than children, prepares a statement. His flowery language laments the passing of a child no-one recognizes. Tilly, however, says the unsayable.

‘It’s so much nicer, without Kai.’ She looks up at Jen, challenging her to disagree.

Insane with grief, Kai’s mother appears in the playground at home time, as though hoping the boy will emerge, undead, when the doors open.

As Tilly goes out to share her good news Jen stands watching, paralysed. Tilly’s mum, though, understands that relief and compassion are not mutually exclusive. She runs to catch the other mother as her legs give way. Kneeling on the concrete, they grieve together.