Claire Harris was a writer. The only identity she wanted; the only thing at which she excelled. She wrote as well as Virginia Woolf, Ursula Le Guin and Patricia Cornwell. Words were her destiny.

Over and over she failed until the image of success dancing out of reach was almost too much to bear.

The Melbourne Writing Challenge carried suitable prize money, publication, and recognition amongst her peers. She’d worked hard on this story. The voice was strong, the character arc convincing, the ending well developed—all the things a short story ought to be.

It was her best work.

As she stared at the rejection email, a wave of heat and hurt flooded through her. Tears ran down her cheeks; black despair closed in. A final barb buried itself deep in her ego when the news showed images of the successful writer collecting her award at the competition Claire should have won. The winner wore a broad smile of success painted on with red lipstick. Wearing a smart black frock, the judge looked smug. Tansy Mortenson was a well-known author and frequently asked to present.

Rubbing her eyes with clenched fists, Claire’s racing mind chased a dozen different ideas, a hundred approaches, a thousand solutions to ease the pain. Days passed in numb hopelessness. She felt no inclination to lift her fingers to the keyboard, or move. Then, slowly, an idea festered, fuelled by pain, ablaze with fury. Now she had a focus for her wounded pride. Wrath honed her words and fuelled her imagination. The words were easier to find, the imagery clearer, the crucible of fire tempered her skill.

Claire’s determination, ability to plot and attention to detail came to the fore. Did she want revenge, or something deeper? She began to research methods, covering her tracks by telling everyone she was looking at ways of killing her darlings. Well, partly true. The payback she was plotting was personal. She laughed aloud; there would be a judge of a different calibre if she was caught. Biting her bottom lip, she continued working.

The location was the easiest decision. She’d enter the same story in the Whitworth Literary Festival, a well-regarded and well-paid writing competition. Tansy Mortenson would head the judging panel and award the prizes. Claire entered anyway, knowing she wouldn’t win. She never did. It would be a triumph in a way, even at the cost of losing everything.

Of all the questions she asked herself over the last months, why was the one she backed away from. It was the easiest question to ask and the hardest to answer. She was a gifted writer, easily able to paint a clear picture of the scene, characters, motivations with a few well-chosen words. She never waffled or rambled. Her stories were sharp, tight, well-planned, and written. Why? The little voice she tried to silence screamed in her head. Rejection! She’d been rejected all her life. Told she was foolish or ignorant and why did she think she’d make a mark on the field she’d chosen, or that had chosen her?

As the hurt grew, the internal wound became infected. The interior voice became louder, asking whether her plan wasn’t a bit drastic? It was deeper than that, going to the core of her very being, tormenting her soul.

She opened the flick knife, admiring the razor-sharp edge before she folded it away. It wasn’t heavy. It wouldn’t distort the shape of her evening purse.

Never give up, never quit, and never consign her dreams to the bottom of some wardrobe to gather dust and cobwebs. She began to see herself as a knight in shining armour, albeit tarnished around the edges, instead of a potential killer. She was a rescuer on a white steed coming to set free others equally hurt. Something needed to be done, and she was that self-appointed someone to do that important something. She would make a point.

A deep breath prevented her from being totally swept away on the torrent of words. An ice-cold blade of sanity cut through her head and through the wound, draining the toxins that had built up. Suddenly, in an earthshattering moment, she could see how she was going to ruin not only her life, but the lives of so many others.

Claire paused, and feeling dizzy, grabbed the edge of a nearby table so that her legs didn’t give way. She closed her eyes, focussed on her breathing, and slowly, the sick feeling in the pit of her stomach passed. The internal conflict increased, and torn, ideas pulled her in two different directions. Cold tears ran down her cheeks. Unmoving, she let them flow. She acknowledged the divergence, knowing it changed everything.

She bought a new dress for the event. If she were going to be hauled up on charges of murder, then she would do it looking her best. The realisation of what part of her was planning and her usual good sense continued to fight for dominance. Sleep became increasingly difficult. Conflict and pain added a poignant edge to her writing, changing her from a good writer into a potentially great one.

The night arrived. She’d heard nothing about the competition results. Another fail, another wasted exercise, another disappointment. What was one more when there’d been so many? She showered carefully and donned her new dress. A dab of perfume behind her ear as her grandmother had done, and a 20-minute drive to the venue. She was nervous. Her plans carefully made. The flick knife seemed unnaturally heavy.

The hall was crowded, a cold draft sweeping over the bare floorboards. There was excitement everywhere, eager writers keen to know the results, proud siblings, family and friends swinging between anxiety and excitement.

Tansy Mortenson, wearing a navy blue lace dress, shuffled her notes, and as she moved, the chair squeaked. To begin the night, the editor of the local paper made a stirring speech about the importance of encouraging new talent. Claire snorted softly; encouraging indeed. What a lot of bumf. Well, he wasn’t a contender, not with a rambling speech totally devoid of structure. The judge wriggled and the groaning timber reminded the editor he wasn’t the star of the show. He sat, looking uncomfortable.

According to the program, the minor awards would come first. Then there would be a break and Claire’s opportunity. She fidgeted as the smaller prizes were awarded and observed the emotions playing across the recipients’ faces. A small girl, gangly and freckled with hair in plaits, reminded her of herself at the same age. The child walked across the stage to snatch the award before bustling down the stairs to resume her seat. Her mother glanced around, seeking approval from those seated nearby. Claire watched, intrigued. Her own mother had reacted in a very similar way, genuinely proud of her daughter. The child awkwardly clutched her award between small fingers, leaving damp fingerprints.

For a moment, Claire began to enjoy herself. Her lovely new dress had raised eyebrows of approval and a quickly stifled wolf whistle. She pushed aside her feelings of pleasure; enjoyment went against her reasons for being here.

Claire settled further in her chair reflecting that she felt very different from when she’d arrived. Was it the new dress, the perfume, or had she simply been swept up in the excitement of the moment? As hard as she tried she was unable to recapture her feelings of hurt and anger. They seemed to have been washed away by the sheer joy of those around her. She was curious and began to make careful mental notes. This evening and the events running up to it would form the foundations for a story.

It was getting nearer to the big announcement. The third place award was given and the proud recipient had her photo taken alongside the judge. Then, the second big announcement, and the process was repeated. Tansy Mortenson, was the epitome of grace and sophistication. She warmly congratulated every award recipient and Claire saw each relax and begin to enjoy the experience. For an instant, Tansy’s green eyes fixed on her face. Claire squirmed, uncomfortable under the powerful gaze.

She tensed, waiting, knowing that the biggest prize of all was next. Why was it, she thought bitterly, that they started with third? She already felt deflated, as though a lifetime’s hard work was wasted. Yet the writer in Claire watched those around her with increasing interest, as more layers added to the story forming in her mind.

A lengthy pause, a drum roll, and the judge was handed a long, gold envelope, inserting a slender finger beneath the sealed flap. Hope fought a losing battle with resignation deep in Claire’s breast, and she slumped against the chair knowing in her heart of hearts that someone else’s dreams were about to come true, while hers were to turn to dust. On her lap, the beaded purse carried a reassuring weight.

The judge took her place at the lectern, brushed a strand of hair from her face, and her eyes scanned the audience. She made a show of removing the letter from the envelope, smoothing it out in front of her.

“This story is unusual. I’ve judged many competitions, but this is the first one where I wasn’t sure whether to laugh, or cry, to cheer, or despair. The ability to take a reader’s emotions and play with them in such a way is rare. It’s the result of lots of hard work, tears, struggle, and the determination never to quit. So, it is with great pleasure that I announce the winner. First prize goes to a story titled…” she paused, and took a deep breath before she spoke, ‘Miss Tarrant’s Revenge’ by Claire Harris.”

Claire sat upright, a surge of electricity ran through her body, and the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end.

She stood cautiously, unsure her legs would carry her. Her heels clicked on the polished timber as she walked up the stairs to the stage.

The judge reached out to shake her hand. As Claire leant forward to accept the award and the accompanying cheque, Tansy whispered in her ear, “I’m glad you changed your mind.”

Claire stood upright, another jolt of energy running through her body.

“So am I,” she said, shaking the proffered hand and posing for a winner’s photograph.

Clutching her prize between trembling fingers, she walked down the stairs towards her seat. As she passed along the aisle, Claire graciously accepted the best wishes of others and knew her world would never be the same. As she sat, she reached over, picked up the light beaded purse, and put it on her lap.