1 October 2021

The 2021 Hachette Australia Prize for Young Writers Fiction Winner- Maya Crombie

Maya Crombie’s story Leap Year’s Boy has been awarded The 2021 Hachette Australia Prize for Young Writers in the category of fiction. Crombie was presented with the award online at the National Young Writers Festival at a special event, and won a $500 cash prize, an exclusive book pack from Hachette Australia and acknowledgement of their winning entry in Express Media’s flagship publication Voiceworks.

Read Crombie’s winning piece below!


Leap Year’s Boy

February put the fish into the microwave. It was all curled up and sad and the way that it turned inside made him think of a broken ballerina in a music box. As it spun, February felt a familiar discomfort. This was what he felt when watching game shows with his father. Or listening to someone get teased at school. As if he was waiting for the fish to start crying. 

When the machine beeped, he took the plate out and sat it down on the countertop. A trail of chimney smoke floated upwards. February poked it and realised that it was all soft and malleable. He thought about its fragility; its freshness.

With a knife he cut into the flesh of the fish and then unzipped it all the way down. He removed the entrails and put the shell of the fish in a bucket by the back door.

The next step was the apples. He washed them in the kitchen sink and looked out the window and onto the fog. The sky was an early morning gradient of blue and yellow. February was excited for the violet that would come with twilight. There was a light tickle in his gut: it had probably come from the cheap meat last night. He wondered where the meat had come from (Old Macdonald had a farm ee-i-ee-i-oh!) but decided not to pursue the thought any further. 

He used the same knife to cut the apples. It left bloody stains on the apples’ crunchy flesh. The half-moon slices went into the bucket by the back door and (sort of) smiled up at him. He took the bucket and left the house. The bucket made squelching and sloshing sounds and tapped at his leg. This was February’s morning… 

glockenspiel/windchimes outside

(remind the forest creatures to go to bed)

bird song/receding blanket of fog

(part for you as you walk)

glass ornaments/dew on leaves

(decorating the way, just for you)

February Barnes walked down Albans Street and then left onto Vasey Avenue and then right onto Marsh Street and then right again onto the street with the name he couldn’t remember. He stopped at the forest gate. He stopped to look into the woods (maybe to see a flash of white or to hear the whisper of a name). And then he started walking again because he swore – he swore – he saw something standing in between the curtains of orange leaves. 

February kept up a steady pace all the way to her house. Hers was a familiar box among the others. He crept across the synthetic lawn and to the side of the house. Lucky for him her room was on the bottom floor (she wanted the attic room, though. Witches always have the attic room). He tapped on the window softly and left the bucket hidden in the bushes under the windowsill. She always left the bucket there for him to collect and then fill up. Back on the sidewalk, he felt a childlike relief.

February liked doing things for Lennon. He liked being friends with the witch. Most people didn’t like her much. (Something about a disturbing aura.) But since he could remember, he’d always admired her. Sometimes he’d ask the flowers what they thought:

petals love me not

lying dead in the old grass

forget the daisy

They met at the gate when the Sun was beginning to splinter through the trees. February felt a slow-building pressure on the side of his head and a distortion of vision in his right eye. (Disturbing aura.) “Are you alright?” she asked. 

He said that he was. 

She hesitated, “You look paler than normal. Are you sure?”. 

He said, again, that he was. 

The fuzzy, colourful blur in his right eye danced. 

He followed her through the trees…

trees that scratch the sky

(instead of caressing it)

trees that draw blood from the sky

(the white cloudy sky)

charred, burnt, black, bare trees

She held the bucket in her hands and swung it around like an (un)stuffed animal. The luridness; the cursedness; the cruelty of the act didn’t seem to bother him anymore. It had become a standard activity on their schedules. Needles prickled behind his eye and the band around his head began to tighten.

The fuzzy, colourful blur in his right eye danced. 

They hurried along with a stiffness that could’ve easily turned into a sprint at the snap of a branch. The forest filled their silence with ambience. 

February assumed that she’d added to the bucket. Lennon was mysterious in that way. She could make plastic things seem precious. She could layer a new secret into childish adventures. She could pull him out from under his sheets and convince him to just come along

The fuzzy, colourful blur in his right eye danced. 

They finally made it to the lake. A film of orange leaves and dead insects concealed murky depths. The lake was a cedar, beer bottle brown, but this didn’t stop the kids from swimming in it on hot days. 

A rickety, mossy pier protruded out from the muddy bank and over the water. There was a wooden dinghy tied to a post by a rope. It bobbed up and down and floated lamely. Lennon left the bucket on the pier. Together, they set the boat out onto the lake and manoeuvred it into the middle. (That way they can’t get you. That way they can’t sneak up behind you.) 

The fuzzy, colourful blur in his right eye danced. 

She covered them with some blankets; ones she’d knitted herself. 

With an old portable radio she played music. 

(Piano Sonata No. 14)

By now the Sun had completely dipped under the trees 

and they both felt the cold seeping through their clothes. 

The fuzzy, colourful blur in his right eye danced. 

Lennon scratched at her nail polish and February dangled his fingers into the water. He closed his eyes and something told him haikus until he fell asleep.

cosmic number four

human sleep makes way for us

roam the roads with glow


scratch around the walls

still mistaken for the wind

we will fill the void


wind laced with smoke blows

through the crimson sky tonight

world keeps on spinning

She shook him awake. The aura was gone. All that was left was a dull throb that heightened when he moved his head. A misty dark blue light and her torch were the only things illuminating her face. 

“They’ll be here soon,” she whispered. 

He asked her what the time was. 

“I don’t know. Late enough.” The moonlight glinted on the water underneath the pier and a strange alien light kept a few rows of trees in sight. It was quiet until:




The tingling of bells straightened the two of them up. He felt a presence. 

(It happens every week but you still get scared.)

He felt as if something fragile was hovering behind him or… touching him. He imagined butterflies crawling over his back and stroking him lovingly. He 



Sitting on the pier, lapping at the bucket was one of them

Looking at one of them was always like looking at words; you had to read; you had to wonder and to question and to try to understand. 

He envied their mystery. 

They were like animals with child masks. They were ghostly and pale and glowing. Shimmering rainbow at the edges. (You should see them dance.) It made eye contact with Lennon and he watched the two of them hold it for a while. He could see the mutual respect.  

sing for us lenny. please sing. we like it when you sing.

                                                                                         “Alright.” (yawning) 

we’ll dance, too. yes.


This song is from Shakespeare. 

It’s one my brother liked.

Do you know my brother? He doesn’t… 

                                                                                 Isn’t alive anymore…”

we know him. yes. 

he dances with us. he’s here now, watching.

                                 “Oh… good.

                                              Philomel, with melody

                                                                 Sing in our sweet lullaby.

                                                     Lulla, lulla, lullaby, lulla, lulla, lullaby.

Never harm

Nor spell nor charm

                                                                             Come our lovely lady nigh.

                                                     So good night, with lullaby.”

For a while, there was a wonderful pause. It continued dancing and hummed the melody of her words. It stretched its arms out to the dinghy and held them both in comforting hugs. (Actually, the blankets seemed ridiculous in comparison.)  

come along. come along to our silent tea party. come along, lenny. yes. the others miss you.

and so, they went along.

(they always did.) 

February awoke to a shrill bird cry. They were tangled in her blankets on the lake’s muddy bank. The radio was on and spouted a quiet flood of white noise. A rotten smell swum up and wormed its way into his nose. It was coming from underneath him… he realised that he felt something beneath his head… a pillow? He grabbed it and held it over his lap: 

A fish. 

They trudged back through the forest. She’d collected the bucket (licked clean) and stuffed the blankets inside. The walk home was far more relaxed; the silence remained but with no tension to pull it tight. Tinny radio music swirled around them. 

The gate creaked shut behind him. 

“So I’ll see you tomorrow, right? At school?” she asked. 

He nodded, yes they would see each other tomorrow. 

“Same time next week?” she asked. 

He nodded. (Why should that even be a question?)

“Can you tie my shoelaces? My hands are full.” 

He nodded and bent down. 

Her white laces had dragged behind her the whole way and collected burs and leaves and a red, wet stain.


February didn’t see Lennon at school. Disappointedly, he rode home at the end of the day with fragments of conversations thickening and weaving together in his head. 

He decided that he would call her later and organise something for the evening. 

Perhaps a walk in the park. 



The sky – a faded, pale blue – had been streaked with wondrously orange clouds. It had been months ago, but still… 

He remembered that she had had some explaining to do that day: 

“Certain things will draw them out. Things like the enchanting smell of petrichor, rain itself. The stillness of a clear night. The lure of a single street light alone in the dark. Certain food smells.”

He had asked her how she knew. 

“I don’t know. My Aunt’s notebooks… have a lot of information in them… Well, I’ve heard them out and about before, myself, I guess.”

He had asked her what that was supposed to mean. 

“Oh, I don’t know. Well, on my fifteenth birthday. They were… clambering over my roof and… scratching at the window. I… 

Do you even believe me?”

He said that he really wasn’t sure. And then he asked her to prove it.

They sat together (touching) on a bench under the warmth of the mid-Autumn sky. They spoke a little bit about school and then about the weather and then about people at school and then about their parents. The entire time Lennon kept fiddling with her earrings; taking them out and then pushing them back in. When they got onto talking about their parents, she hooked her foot around her ankle and swung her legs back and forth and back and-

“I’m scared,” she whispered.

He suddenly did not feel like looking at her. He fixated on an old man making slow progress across the park towards the playground. Finally, when he could not avoid her any longer, he pulled his gaze back. 

“What’s wrong?” he asked, equal parts soft, concerned and uncomfortable.

She sighed and almost seemed to deflate.

“You know how they’re supposed to be… timid, shy?”

Yes, he knew.

“There’s this one… And I don’t even think that I’ve ever met it or anything and-” she pulled in a shaky breath “-it’s been following me for days.

“It’s even here now.” He slid his hand into her pocket, searched for her hand and looked over to the swing set. As he held her hand, he saw it rocking slowly on a swing. It was tall. 

Definitely not a late-night friend of theirs.

It wore a long, white dress that hung flatly on its grotesque body. Unwashed, greasy hair curtained a pointy face, although most of its head was obscured by a plastic cat mask. He could, however, see its mouth. Lips were raw, teeth pointy and uneven. This one glowed, but in a different way to the other ones that he had encountered. Children played obliviously with toys at its feet. Lennon winced when it turned its head towards them both interestedly.

She decided that they should go over to her house and do some homework. 

“February Barnes, isn’t it?”

“Yes, sir.” (Hates hearing his name said aloud)

“Enjoying school, hmm?”

“Yes, sir, very much, sir.” (Hates this)

“Well, that’s just wonderful and you’re in what… your eleventh year?”

“Tenth year, sir, yes, sir.” (Please, just let him go)

“Wonderful. Doesn’t time just fly?”  

When February finally got to Lennon’s room, he found her perched on her bed, reading a novel. Her pens and sticky notes were spread out beside her. 

Before he sat next to her, he went and leafed through her records, chose one and put it on, carefully placing the needle on the spinning vinyl.

“I’m sorry about my parents,” she said, looking up from the novel. 

He laughed and said it was okay; nobody asked him many questions anyway. 

Lennon raised her eyebrows, “Really, I don’t think they want to hear it. They’re just asking because it would be rude if they didn’t.” 

He shrugged. He thought it was a nice gesture, anyway. 

This time it wasn’t the forest that filled the silence.

It was the music.

They fell asleep on the top of the bed sheets.


At some point during the night, he opened his eyes. There were footsteps outside the room. Right by the door – when they were loudest – they stopped. They paused to listen. 

Again, he drifted off into a shallow sleep. 


February awoke to the sound of the latch on the window opening. He realised that it was raining; there was thunder, too. 

A slender silhouette, standing by the record player, was outlined by the moonlight. He watched in silent awe as it reached over and put the record back on. Music crackled into his ears. 

Its chest heaved up and down. Its hair dripped with water. The cat mask was streaked with cloud tears. February’s eyes flitted to Lennon, still in deep sleep, and then to a painting on Lennon’s wall and then finally to the creature

The floorboards creaked as it made its way over to the bed. Sounds of breath were barely heard through the music. 

It stood, for a long time, over the two of them (one awake; the other not). Slowly, carefully, it bent down and put a hand on February’s cheek. 

And for some reason, 

he wasn’t scared. 

He knew that he’d be alright. 

The creature was smiling beneath the mask. 

         that means that you’re safe”

                                 February, too, was smiling beneath his mask.

Warily, he put his hand behind the creature’s head and began to untie the string of the mask.

         The creature smiled again, because it was okay. 

It said “you’ll be free soon. free to disappear”.


The cat mask fell on the ground at the creature’s feet (Sneakers; they wore old sneakers).

         And the face he saw, 

                     was the only one he had hoped for.

                                 Brother? Me? 

On a young and fresh Saturday morning, February walked through the forest. Another full week of school had cycled by. He hadn’t spoken to Lennon since Tuesday, when he left her house after sleeping over. 

For most of the week he had been in a dreamlike state and had suffered obstructive migraines. Perhaps he was

enchanted? broken?

He had a pretty good idea as to why Lennon wasn’t looking for him.

“Why are you wearing that?”

(February, lying on the floor of the bedroom, had been wearing the cat mask.)

As a matter of fact, he was wearing the mask as he walked through the trees. It offered him a sort of comfort. It was like the warming hug of a shower; it wrapped around him. It had the safety of a security blanket; it hid him. 

He was a child with an animal mask. He was glowing with a hunger for freedom. 

He walked for hours and hours, until he reached the edge of the forest. There, he stood out on a hill and looked down over a new town, a town that sat by the ocean. 

There was nothing on his back, but he knew that he wasn’t coming home.

She stood in her kitchen, waiting for the fish to finish microwaving. Outside, the trees were naked and aggressively pointy. Afternoon light shone through the last few orange leaves; Lennon thought they looked like throat lozenges. She knew that once those stragglers fell, it would really be Winter. 

Things hadn’t changed so much since February had… disappeared?

She wished that it hadn’t ended the way it did with him. It nagged at her uncomfortably; it reminded her of her final interactions with her brother.

A couple of weeks after he’d left, a little black cat had turned up on her windowsill. 

It started following her everywhere. Comforting her.

Ooh, meow. Witch’s cat. Meow meow. 

Sometimes it would disappear at night, only to reappear on her chest each morning with a fish in its maw.

The cat reminded her of her friend so much, she decided to call him February. February, the boy whose presence had been as short as the month after which he was named.


Listen to Crombie read an excerpt of her piece and all of the other fiction shortlistees here.