Judges' Commendation - Grades 9-12

December 2021


Judges’ comments: We were very impressed with Imogen’s writing style, their language and characterisation. We felt they deserved a special commendation for this sweet story, that wouldn’t be out of place in a YA novel.


July 2004

by Imogen Grbin

My coffee scalds the back of my throat. I cough, a mouthful of hot liquid staining my lap. Grimacing, I try to wipe it up using my jumper, with little success. I end up with a big, brown stain across the front of my uniform and coffee dripping from my fingers.

I walk the long way home, considering it’s only 4.10 and I’m not expected home from school until 4.30. To entertain myself, I play a game spotting random objects on the pavement- fallen leaves, discarded cigarettes, a baby bib, a receipt, a tampon wrapper, a shoe.

In the end, I’m home at 4.33 and the coffee stain has dried. I put my uniform in the washing machine before Mum chews my head off. I take a long shower, hot enough that the water leaves my arms red: white finger marks speckling my arms when I press my hands to it. I lie eagle-spread on my bed, deciding to ignore the pile of homework on my desk screaming for attention. Instead, I fall asleep watching Gossip Girl for the tenth time.


The next day, I skip the coffee. If you squint hard enough at my dress you can still see a faint brown outline. The streets are quiet, eerily so. I crunch my way through piles of leaves to break the silence, stomping through clusters of brown, orange and yellow leaves littering the gutter.

I shake any remaining leaves from my shoes before heading round the back of the house, pausing to look at the grass outside; lush, green and healthy-looking. When I saw it this morning, the grass was weedy and yellow. I shake the thought: Dad evidently got someone around to finally fix it.

Trudging down the hallway, I notice the smell first. Fruity and floral, as if bunches of flowers have been placed around the house. And there are no family photos or kindergarten drawings adorning the hallway. Something niggles at the back of my head, but I ignore it, instead, pushing open my bedroom door.

The room is different. The walls have been painted a moss green colour which matches the bedspread. A bookshelf sits in the corner of the room, books stacked haphazardly in all directions. I shut my eyes and open them again, wondering if I’m dreaming. Nope. Maybe Mum decided to re-decorate my room without telling me, I think, unlikely as it sounds until I spot a calendar hanging from the wall. A picture of Van Gogh’s irises is printed across, the words July 2004 written underneath.

I blink.

July 2004.

July 2004.


I take another look at the calendar. The days in July are crossed off in red texta. The crosses stop on the 29th, evidently…today’s date, where coffee with Cameron is scrawled messily.

The 29th of July?

I run my fingers over the calendar, just to make sure it’s actually real. The feel of paper beneath my fingers is enough to tell me it is. I press both my palms to the wall and the texture of smooth paint under my hands makes me inwardly panic.

What is going on?

I spin around and take in the rest of the room, whilst trying to remember if I walked into the wrong house after school. But no, I definitely remember walking up our driveway. I keep closing and opening my eyes as if suddenly the green from the walls will disappear, and my neatly made bed, complete with my collection of pillows will appear. The only thing the same is the lamp-like light hanging from the ceiling, enough to make me sure this is my bedroom, but…different.

I breathe through my nose and wonder if I’m about to have a panic attack when a girl walks through the door and swears. 

She drops whatever she’s holding -a really old, clunky looking phone- before looking at me wide-eyed.

“Who are you and why are you in my bedroom?” She demands, picking up the phone.

“This is my bedroom,” I say, frowning, before amending, “Well, it was.

The girl looks at me strangely, holding the phone almost like she is wielding a weapon. “I don’t know who you are or why you are in my house, but you need to leave. Now.” Her long, thick hair swishes around her neck.

“Or I’ll call the police,” she adds.

I can tell she means it. I would probably do the same if I found a stranger in my house.

The girl begins slowly backing out of my -her- bedroom.

“Wait!” I say. “What’s the date today?”

The girl frowns slightly. “July 29th.”

“The year?”

“2004.” She cocks her head. “This isn’t going to stop me from calling the police,” she says, before tapping something into her phone.

“I think I’m from the future!” I blurt out quickly before she can dial 000 and I find myself handcuffed in the back of a police van.

The girl freezes, “What?”

“I think I’m from the future.”

“I heard you the first time.” She throws back her head and laughs. “Sorry, am I hallucinating?”

I shake my head. “No-”

She thinks for a moment. “Then I’m drunk, am I?”

I signal a no. Then, almost as if it is challenging to say, poisonous in my mouth, I spit it out again. “I think I’m from the past. Really.”

“Really truly?”

I nod slowly, and explain to the girl how I walked into my house…

…and how it somehow turned into her house…

…17 years earlier in 2004.

The girl twirls a long strand of hair round and round her finger, so tightly, I fear it might snap. “So you’re

actually from 2021?”

“Yep,” I say, trying not to start hyperventilating.

The girl shrugs. “Well then, I guess our first port of call is to get you back to your time.”

I grimace. “That would be preferable.”

She offers me a grin, sticking out her hand. “Mae Montgomery.”

“Emmie,” I say, shaking her hand.

Mae rubs her hands together, gleefully. “Well, I’d much prefer to work out how to get you back to your time instead of starting my English assignment.”


Mae, I discover, has a penchant for procrastination.

We sit outside, the garden certainly greener than it is in my time. Mae then begins to tell me an elaborate tale about the time her dog, a pen, a potted fern and a ball of string led to her spending the night in the ED after dislocating her shoulder. She then proceeds to cartwheel across the lawn before crashing headfirst into the fence.

“Mae, is that you again?” I hear from over the fence.

A head of curly blonde hair peers over, before laughing at the sight of Mae sprawled across the ground. Mae groans loudly, massaging the back of her head. “Not nice, Cameron. Stop laughing at me.”

Cameron turns to me. “Don’t worry, she does this all the time. I’m surprised she doesn’t have permanent brain damage from all her antics.”

Mae shoots a glowering look at Cameron. “Don’t worry, Cameron does this all the time. He seems to enjoy laughing at me.”

I fight a grin.

“Emmie, this is Cameron. My next-door-neighbour. Mostly annoying but occasionally good company,” Mae quips, in a teasing tone, before continuing. “Cam, this is Emmie,” she says, motioning at me, before lowering her voice. “She’s from the future.”

Cameron leans further over the fence, his short hair blowing wildly in the wind. “Another one of your pranks, Mae?”

Both of us shake our heads in response.

“No, honestly, I live in 2021,” I say, hand on heart. “And I kind of need to, well…”

“Find her way back,” Mae finishes, helpfully.

Cameron doesn’t respond, instead disappears, before climbing through a gap in the fence and joining us on the grass. I notice he’s holding a packet of salt and vinegar chips in one hand, and lolly snakes in the other.

“Now,” Cameron says, after opening both packets of food and offering them around (I notice Mae immediately hogs the lolly snakes), “How did you get from 2021 to 2004, Emmie?”

I retell the events of this afternoon for the second time.

“You live in Mae’s house, but in 2021?” Cameron asks between a salty mouthful of chips


“Obviously, Mae has moved out and your family has moved in. Sometime between 2004 and 2021.”

My eyes light up in understanding. “I think my parents bought my house -Mae’s house- just after I was born. So, sometime in 2004.”

Mae wrinkles her nose. “You were born in 2004? That’s so weird.”

I laugh. “Well, it’s weird you were both born in…what year?”

“1987,” Cameron responds. “We’re both 17.”

I try to imagine being born in the 80s and living in 2004, where almost none of the technology that dictates my life in 2021 even exists. I guess Facebook, social media or face ID on an iPhone would be a strange concept to Mae and Cameron if I were to explain it. I shake my head, smiling, “Weird.”

“Back to the thought I had before, Emmie, you moved into this house in 2004,” Cameron asks.

I nod. “So, logistically, Mae has to move out sometime in the next few months, and then my parents would buy it and move in.”

Mae catches on to what Cameron is thinking, “Then, when your family moves in, you would get transported back into your time?”

“Hypothetically,” I say, at the same time Cameron says “Potentially.”

“Not very hopeful odds,” Mae muses, stealing the bag of chips from my hands and scoffing a handful in her mouth. “Ut ood enuff, igt?”

Cameron and I turn to each other, shrugging helplessly. Translating Mae’s chip-full words, I’m guessing it’s something along the lines of “But good enough, right?”

I steal the chips back from Mae, before responding, “I’m willing to test Cameron’s theory.”

I can only stay in 2004 until my time to go back to 2021 arrives. Mae insists I sleep in her bedroom on a foldout mattress, pretending my parents are on a business trip in New York at the moment and pleads her parents to let me stay until they get back. I tell Mae it would be so much easier if we just told them the truth, but Mae glares. “Do you see that conversation going well?” She clears her throat. “Hi Mum and Dad, this is Emmie. She’s from the future, and in 2021 lives in this house which we will move out of sometime soon. No, really,

I’m telling the truth,” Mae deadpans and we both laugh, the sound sudden, yet genuine.

We spend the weekend cycling through the city, playing Monopoly with Cameron, eating ice cream and chatting. We have animated discussions about TV, climate change, Harry Styles and Tik Tok, something which, amusingly, Mae struggles to understand.

Mae takes me to her favourite hangout spot, a rotunda in the park across from her house, which looks nearly identical to how it looks in my time.

“Welcome to my hangout,” she announces, spread out under the rotunda. I wiggle my toes back and forth and Mae tries to tickle my arm. I squeal and roll away from her.

“This is the Soldiers Memorial Gardens,” Mae says, gesturing to the park around us, scattered with park benches. “And that’s the monument to commemorate all the men who served in war from this area,” she points to a big arch looking thing, before adding, “My grandpa’s name is on the monument. He served in WWI and was killed after a shell exploded.” She lowers her voice, “I come here a lot. Mostly to feel a bit closer to

him. I never met him, but…” she trails off.

I squeeze her hand comfortingly. “I get it. My grandparents died before I was born and I sometimes wish I had met them.”

“Tell me about your family,” Mae asks gently, and I do. I tell her about how my parents met, and the day my sister was born, and how we used to pretend we were twins since we looked so alike. Mae tells me about being an only child, and how Cameron was her first friend. We exchange stories until I can feel mosquitoes feasting on my bare arms, before we run back to Mae’s house, trying not to trip over each other in the dark.

“I have some news to share,” Mae’s mum announces over dinner that night. “Mae, your father and I have found a lovely, bigger house about 20 minutes from here. We’re bought it.” Mae locks eyes with me and I nod, ever so slightly, knowing exactly what this means. “We’re moving out of here in a month.”


“Do you ever think,” Mae says, staring at the sky, “What it would be like to actually travel to space? I’ve always wanted to see what it’s like.”

We’re sprawled out on the grass in the Soldiers Memorial Gardens, chatting.

I resist the urge to snort. “Well, in my time, you can fly into space. Only for about ten minutes though.”

Mae’s eyes light up. “Really?”

“Only if you have a billion dollars. Bur space would be nice to see.”

Mae holds out her pinky, linking it with mine. “If we ever meet each other in the future, then I guess we both need to become billionaires and fly together.”

I smile, before realising with a pang, I hadn’t even given a thought to what will happen to Mae when I go back to 2021. Will I ever see her again?

My face must drop slightly, because Mae turns to me, concern flashing across her features. “What’s wrong?”

“What will happen when I go back to my time?” I say, slowly.

Mae shares my concern. “You’re worried you might never see me again. And if you do, I’d be…how old? Maybe in my thirties?” She lets out a choked laugh. “God, that’s getting old.”

I just look at her sadly, ignoring the itch on my arm I’m sure is an ant.

“It kind of sucks, Emmie. I get it. But we may as well just appreciate each other’s company for the time being. Live in the moment, ya know?”

“Good advice. You sound like a cheap motivational speaker,” I smirk.

She attempts to hit me in the face in mock offence.


The day Mae moves out becomes dubbed Moving Day between the two of us, and secretly to myself, I think of it as Goodbye Mae Day. Mae’s room becomes emptier and emptier until the only things left are her bed and the fold-out mattress I’m sleeping on. On our last night, Mae finds a pen and writes ‘Hello Emmie! Love from Mae xxx’ in tiny writing on the wall behind the door.

The next morning, Mae meets my eyes. “Well, I guess this is goodbye.”

We’re both standing on the footpath, her parents loading the last few items into a removal van. “For now,” I add, almost hopefully, before blurting out, “I’m going to miss you so much.”

“Me too, Emmie.”

We hold each other’s gazes for a few seconds, before Mae’s parents call her into the car, the moving van already halfway down the street. Mae turns her head over her shoulder at the last minute, giving me her signature Mae grin: wild and cheeky. I brush hair out of my eyes and ignore the tell-tale hot prickle beginning in my eyes. Instead, I watch her car until it’s a tiny white speck in the distance: off to a new destination, a new place, a new home, a new adventure.


Slowly and sadly, I made my way inside Mae’s house. Well, her old house. Soon to be mine. Hand on the door, I suck in a breath before opening it, knowing this is it. I take one last look around Mae’s backyard, again admiring the lush, spongy lawn, my eyes resting on Cameron’s house next door, before settling back on the door.

Inside, Mae’s house is empty, my footsteps echoing through the hollow rooms. Walking down the passage, I trace my fingers along the walls, the walls, which, in 2021, are filled with family photos and embarrassing kindergarten scribbles my parents couldn’t resist framing.

Then, I feel it. 

My fingers, brushing along the empty wall, stop. I look down. There is the green rug that runs down my hallway. The stain on the carpet from when Dad spilled his coffee. A family photo hung on the wall. My eyes move around, and the house, my house begins to show. I race down to my bedroom, just to check, delighted when I see my bedspread, the stack of unread books on my desk and my purple Ugg-boots sitting neatly at the foot of my bed.

It happened. I’m back.

I even check the calendar on the fridge, opened to 2021.

I’m back.


Three months later, Mum sends me on an errand: one loaf of bread, two cans of tinned tomatoes and some carrots. Trudging over to Woolies, the October sun heavy on my back, I think back to the time when Mae and I used to roam the streets around our house, sometimes with Cameron in tow, sometimes just the two of us laughing and exchanging devious grins. I sigh, angry with myself.

Thinking about it won’t bring her back.

I head to Woolies, and numbly pick out the items for dinner, heading to the checkout.

“How are you today?” The checkout lady asks.

“Good thank y-” I look up, static. Our eyes meet. She inclines her head ever so slightly, taking in my face, before grinning, her eyes creasing at the corners.


I can’t stop my face from breaking into a smile. “Mae.” Her hair is still wavy and dark but cropped shortly around her neck.

She scans through the tinned tomatoes, bread and carrots, before leaning over to me. “I get off in an hour. Meet me at the rotunda?”

“I’ll be waiting,” I say.