Second place: City rat by Jennifer McMahon

country kid in country clothes comes to the city to revel and rebel in ways his Christian parents would disown him for, but they won’t ever know because that was the whole point in coming here, to graze among the flowing queens and exaggerated queers and all the other seductive strangers, more kin to him than his own, but he has no money so he sells his ass on weeping streets and comes to know the girls who call them home, and they teach him how to survive, where to get clothes and soup, and what johns to stay away from, and where to score the best dope, because you need something to round off the sharp edges in this city of straight lines and caustic wit, burning bridges and flaming towers like thorns that fling the sunlight back and forth, one to another in a circle of blazing light, and it’s too bright and too hard and everything’s for sale here, hearts and souls, and the streets are choked with empty people, racing, pacing, breathless, feckless, and he hurts so bad inside, he cries his way to sleep at night and wishes he’d never left but he couldn’t be himself or hide the sinful truth, and everything they ever taught him about being good and decent and proper gnaws at his mind even as the rats gnaw at his toes and he kicks them away and they squeal as they run, then one night he gets picked up by this nice old john who says his name is Stephen and maybe he can help, but the help he offers is a regular job and a trip to rehab, and the kid turns him down because he can’t leave behind the life he’s come to know as normal, and it’s amazing what a person can get used to but they say that’s how it goes, the abnormal becomes normal, and one morning he wakes up early and goes to the park and a blackbird warbles just for him, and the grass is frost-silvered and skin-soft, so he takes off his sneakers and walks barefoot to touch the earth and ground himself, and the cold makes him shiver but it’s okay because it reminds him of doing the same once, walking barefoot on the sterile lawn at home on an uneasy summer’s afternoon while he tried to convince himself he belonged where he was, and his mother was cooking dinner and there was love and softness and the smell of pot-roast snorkelling through the kitchen window, and inside, his father was reading the newspaper with his feet up on the stool in front of him because he was tired after working a long week and there was more to come the next week, and he spoke over dinner about how life never stopped, how one day tumbled over another like they were in a game of chase, and if you didn’t seize hold of them, they’d pass you by, and when the kid heard him say it, he knew he had to leave, and he did, that very night, and ended up in the city in bare feet walking on icy grass while a blackbird chortles at him and he knows what it’s saying, that he should go home, go home, to where he’s loved and missed and broken hearts will be mended by prodigal’s return, then he steps on something sharp, a piece of glass, stuck in his flesh now, and when he pulls it out, there’s blood, and the pain cuts deep so he sucks in his breath and grits his teeth, and limps back to where he finds shelter, with the street girls and the new boys who’ve just come in from the country, and they look up to him and respect him because he’s been here so long, how long he can’t say, but the new boys need someone to show them the ropes, where to score the best dope and what johns to avoid, so maybe he’ll go home someday but the days tumble one after another and there’s never enough time, money, food, dope, sex, booze, love, but there is a sort of love here, the kind that’s born of weary, hand-me-down despair and being lost inside himself and crying out that there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, and that night, a rat licks the dried blood from the sole of his foot and he doesn’t bother to kick it away because he knows a kindred spirit when he sees it, and everyone needs to find their place in the world, even if they’re just city rats, a long way away from anything like home. 


The writing and story possess a distinct tone of defiance that sets them apart. I appreciate how the author’s willingness to take risks paid off and how the themes of acceptance and social class interweaved seamlessly, resulting in a cohesive and compelling narrative.

Mustapha Enesi

This feverish rewriting of Country Mouse/City Mouse with a queer undertone pays homage to young city lives in vivid prose. 

Camilla Grudova

A winner of the Irish Writers Centre Novel Fair 2023, Jennifer McMahon’s words appear in The Irish Independent newspaper (New Irish Writing – upcoming, Feb 2023), the Oxford Prize Anthology, Heimat Review, Empyrean Literary Magazine, Books Ireland Magazine, Loft Books and the Retreat West Anthology (upcoming, 2023).

She has won both the Bray Literary Festival and the Books Ireland Magazine flash fiction competitions, and was a Top Ten Finalist in the Oxford Prize. Her stories have been shortlisted for the Anthology Short Story Award, the Alpine Fellowship Writing Prize, the Retreat West Short Story Prize, the Wild Atlantic Writing Awards, and the Women On Writing Flash Fiction Prize. Jennifer was also shortlisted for The Literary Consultancy Scholarship in 2022, and was longlisted in Fiction Factory’s Novel First Chapter competition, the Retreat West Flash Fiction Prize. She lives in Co. Wexford, Ireland.

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