Alright, guys.  You brought the thunder again.  This was another exceptional week, with memorable characters, interesting situations and a lot of pathos.  As a bonus, a couple of the season’s funniest stories are here, despite the challenge seemingly lending itself to drama.

Also, oddly, I correctly guessed about ten of these authors after spending most of the season getting just one or two.  I guess I’m getting to know all of you.

The challenge was to write a story where a character is dealing with the consequences of a poor decision.

1 Eric Schapp

I can still see the clouds floating past the many ivory columns; a comfort I can ill afford. Romulus and Remus might not be angered yet but Caesar had only fallen moments ago. I’m lost. I have just made certain that my mentor and rival would not live to completely eliminate the senate. He will not live to fight another day as he did in Spain and Gaul. I am not Pompeii. I chose the less honorable path, fighting a tyrant with politics. But what next? I dare not meddle with the plebs; and my own people care not for the welfare of the common people.

Destroying does not instill good will in the victors; this at least Caesar understood. The senate will do as it will and I will continue to fight in that arena. I will not subject myself to petty politics again. If I commanded the legions, I might march on Rome tonight. I do not command them and now that will never be an option for me. My only option is to stop pretending I had no hand in Caesar’s death, get up from these steps, and walk back into the forum.

K: I love ancient Rome in all its glorious filth and blood.  Of all the true murders to use here, this is one of the greatest interest to me.  However, a scene with the narrator (Brutus?  Cassius?) denying the murder may have been more interesting than a quick introspective scene.

P: We start on a historical note. I like the language here, and the resignation to the fact that the narrator has tried, and failed to make things better rings true, as I would suppose it would. aegetis byrjun. GOLD

2 Joseph Rakstad

I had always heard that the risk of miscarriage was minimal, but I couldn’t help but think that all this time God was punishing me for what I did as a teenager.  At the time I thought I was doing the right thing.  Joey and I were only 15 and didn’t know what the hell we were doing.  My parents reluctantly agreed to take me to the clinic and Joey’s parents were none the wiser.  I’ve occasionally wondered what my life would be like if I had gone through with it.  He… er she… whatever it was, would be my age now.  Would they have gotten pregnant?  What sort of mom would I be?  Would I have had three more healthy babies, or would I have miscarried all the same.  I’ll never know.  Greg doesn’t know what to say to me anymore.  I think he’s starting to panic.  He’s always wanted a bunch of kids.  Now it’s looking doubtful.  I have to tell him.  We’ve been together for 11 years and I’ve never had the courage to look him in the eye, to tell him what a sinner I’ve been.

K: This is another great idea for a scene, but like the first, it’s all introspection and no actual scene.  There could be a great bit of dialogue here between the narrator and Greg.  The questions are a little obvious, but there was some real emotion nonetheless.

P: A tough one… on one hand, you want to shake some sense into this girl. On the other hand, the sentiment is chilling. I don’t really know how to judge this one – as far as the writing is concerned, it’s good, and it involved you in this girl’s darkest thoughts, but  is that enough?

3 Andrew M

The fog of their breath hung in the air.  The idle of the engine filled the pregnant silence.

“So…”

“So.”

“You know you don’t—”

“Yes, I do.  And you know it too.”

The wiper swept across the windshield, wiping away the snowflakes that had melted on the warm glass.

They sat together in silence for a few seconds longer until she opened her door and got out.

“Good bye,” she said, sticking her head back in the door.

He sat there staring straight ahead.  He shut his eyes and gave a slight nod.

He exhaled heavily after the door clicked shut.  He heard her footsteps crunch in the snow towards her door.

Once he composed himself, he slipped the car into first and started to pull out.

He never did know if she looked back.

K: And here, we have the exact opposite situation as in the first two stories – the scene is here, but the situation is too vague to pop.  Neither character is named and no reason for the breakup is evident.  The imagery is nice, but some of those words could have been used on meaningful dialogue.  This is a nicely-written breakup story, but given the lack of detail, it could be any breakup in the world.

P: Was this author present during my first breakup? The parallels are downright eerie. This story features something we haven’t often seen a lot of in this game so far… dialouge! It’s a little stilted – really, anything else wouldn’t be wholly true to the situation at hand – but it’s a welcome bit of human’s interacting with each other, even if the end result is heartbreak. BRONZE

4 Shawn Ashley

My hands shook as I tried to light my cigarette. The blood on my hands kept my thumb slipping on the lighter, but it finally took.
My mind raced as I knelt down, hand on my stomach, tried to keep calm. Good lord, my father would kill me. I was a really good girl, just did stupid things. Like smoke.
And get pregnant.
Mike didn’t care. I told him and he acts like I don’t exist. Ignores me in the halls, won’t look at me… I thought that he loved me, I mean, he said he did. Should’ve listened to our Pastor, that boys will say anything.
I started shaking. I didn’t know if it was from nerves or from all of the blood. I looked down between my knees as I crouched and saw the pool of blood that had formed between my Converse.
I was desperate. I didn’t have money for a clinic, this was the only way.
There was a strange pulling feeling inside my lower stomach, not exactly sure what. I started to shake more and dropped the coat hanger onto the asphalt.
This wasn’t supposed to happen…
I dropped the cigarette as everything went fuzzy.

K: Now here’s an abortion story that doesn’t mess around.  This character is well-rounded and believable – she really thinks she can get Mike back and save her youth by doing this.  She’s decided to solve a problem by doing something much, much more rash. SILVER

p: Okay, so…confession time. I like dark, but we may, in fact, have found a line that squicks me to the point where I have a hard time enjoying the story itself. Through the entire story, I could tell where this was heading. I suppose with a challenge like “bad decision”, we were bound to get a few pregnancy stories, but I dunno.

5 Bret Highum

Her eye, the one she still had, shone a beautiful hazel brown.  Her hair was speckled with blood and leaf mold thrown up by her death throes, but it still gleams in the noon sun.  The long-legged grace of moments before had become an ungainly sprawl of awkward limbs.

I passed up a shot at a button buck last year.  Easy, broadside shot from twenty yards.  Something in me rebelled at shooting a dumb animal.  My dad had watched from his tree stand.  He didn’t say anything to me, but he made me do all the gutting and butchering for the other hunters.  He put me in the same stand this year, and made it clear that I will shoot this time.  I will.  I won’t disappoint him again.

I kneel next to her and put my hand on her still-warm neck.  I can hear my dad crashing through the thicket towards us, hollering.  He’d seen me shoot into the thick brush.

My father races out of the woods, red-faced and panting.  He kicks aside the thermos of coffee my sister was bringing me as he gathers her body into his arms.  He doesn’t say anything to me.

K: Dude…why?  WHY?  This is another well-developed character, though the story does make him look cold in an effort to keep the secret until the end.  I wondered at first if he shot her intentionally, but the line about him shooting into the thick brush suggests not.  Since that’s the case, I would have liked a bit more remorse throughout this.  Kind of a nitpick, but that’s why I’m here, so whatever. BRONZE

P: I don’t actually know if this one needed the twist. I know it’s well written, and I know that I was invested in the story even when I thought that the narrator had killed a deer. The “outer limits” style twist ends up being unnecessary, in my opinion. I understood the emasulated desperation of the protagonist, and I don’t think the ending would have been diminished by him shooting a deer and realizing that his father’s approval wasn’t worth it. In this case, the ahrder and more rewarding thing might have been to not take the twist. BRONZE

6 Brooks Maki

I was just out of college, in the sense that I wasn’t ever going back.  Fell into a job working the night shift at a truck stop in the middle of nowhere, my head buzzing with grainy surveillance tape videos of convenience store robberies gone bad.  The schizo homeless men had come and gone, mumbling into their brown paper bags, never acknowledging the impromptu sale I declared when they gave me half the amount for that night’s sustenance, when the semi pulled in.  The Lincoln to Denver route was pretty well stocked with commercial trucks, flashing silver and growling without menace as they hummed toward profitable deliveries.  This rig had mirrors held on with bungee cords and rusted dandruff that fell as the bearded man slammed the door.  He did a full circuit of the aisles without glancing at any of the caffeine pills, energy drinks, or loud music truckers usually stopped for at this hour.  At the counter, he asked “heads or tails?”

The quarter spun in the air. I reacted without thinking.  “Tails.”

The coin landed heads.  “What were we..?” He was gone, walking away down the highway, his truck slowly rusting in the floodlights between us.

K: I love the prose here, and I like the concept.  I don’t know whether the narrator was shot, stabbed, or just left with the big rusty truck as punishment, and that hurts a little, but there’s enough intrigue here to carry it fairly far anyway.  I wondered at first if we were dealing with Anton Chigurh until I noticed he had a beard. BRONZE

P: This one is sparse with the details. It feels like a metaphor – possibly missed opportunities (then again, I don’t want to put any words in the author’s mouth). I like the language of it, but I don’t know if I know anything more about anything in this character’s universe than I did before the story. SILVER

7 Ian Pratt

I read Bartleby, the Scrivener yesterday. Well, not the actual thing, I read the Wikipedia page for it after I heard someone talk about it. Well, I read some of the Wiki. But I get it, it’s about a guy who always says no to things, like the opposite of in that Jim Carrey movie, I guess. But after reading about it, I swore, like Jim Carrey, probably, in that movie, I don’t know, I didn’t see it, but I swore that I wouldn’t blindly say no to anything anymore. That’s why, when I told my brother this morning about my new found mission to stop saying no, and he asked me if I wanted to actually read Bartleby, the Scrivener, because it’s not even that long, only like fifty pages, I decided to say yes. Oy. So boring. I wish I’d just watched that Jim Carrey movie instead.

K: This is just the right brand of stupid.  It easily has the smallest stakes of any story, but also has the most interesting narrator (maybe not “interesting,” but well-developed as a character) so far.  The run-on sentences actually add to the story, as it seems like just the way this character would tell it.  “Well, I read some of the Wiki” is my favorite confessional line I’ve read in a long time. GOLD

P: I laughed. The continuous asides, and the self-awareness of it all are quite good. I have truthfully not read ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’ (though this story did convince me to read its wikipedia page – for a second time, it turns out), but the narrator’s quirky way of telling his story ensures that that isn’t the point. It’s short, but it’s concise, and I like that. SILVER

8 Cathy Wells

Jacob watched his grandchildren in the yard as the gentle breeze rang the chimes above his head.  They rang “New York State of Mind” of all things.  He really hated those chimes, but he just couldn’t bring himself to take them down.  Most of the time they were just annoying but on a cool autumn evening like this his hip would ache and every ring would take him back to that evening so many years ago.

He’d been a petty thief for years, nothing ever violent or malicious, he just took what he needed.  Sometimes it was food, other times clothes.  The low point was the time he lifted change from a blind busker’s saxophone case.  He’d been craving a pint for weeks and had enough for milk.  The guy was blind, he was never going to know.  Unfortunately for Jacob, the blind guy had a sighted brother watching with an itchy trigger finger.  As the bullet shattered his hip, “New York State of Mind” rang in his ears.

A gust of wind renewed the slowing chimes as Lois brought out some lemonade.

“Thirsty?  Ah, those chimes…from a busker’s case to my ER.  You lucky bastard.”

K: Do wind chimes play specific songs?  CAN they?  This is a real question.  Either way, this story has a strong narrative flow and it was a nice change of pace to read a story where the event was a long time ago but still resonates today.  The prose wasn’t as clean as the story structure.  There’s your nitpick for this one. SILVER

P: My enjoyment of this piece was tempered initially, because when I think of songs called “New York State of Mind”, I think Nas – which I would argue is the proper way to go about things. Regardless, the irony of having your self-professed low point – the point that you didn’t want to stoop to, anyway – being the moment that undoes you is tragic, but relateable. You know? Nas probably fits this sort of situation better, anyway. GOLD

9 Erik Sundberg

June walked soundlessly into the house, climbed the stairs, and shut herself in the bedroom. I decided to let her be.  I didn’t have anything to say to her anyway.

After 3 days straight at the hospital, I’m sure we smelled like death.

We’d been driving to June’s mother’s house, having a banal, but terse exchange.  She was nagging me in her special way and I hadn’t been in much of a mood for it.  Distracted, I missed the turn.  I cursed under my breath, and drove on ahead towards the next turn.

I still couldn’t tell you exactly how it happen, but the other car T-boned us with such force that I was temporarily deafened.  The next thing I heard was June.  Screaming and screaming.

The car was totaled, along with our baby girl Sarah.  An instant faster and it would have been me.  Or, if I’d made the turn, none of us.  Sarah held on for a couple miserable days, which afforded us time to stare despondently at her crumpled body.

I sat in the darkened living room.  June had excitedly gotten a head start decorating for this Saturday.  Through the darkness, I could just make out the festive banner:

“Happy 1st Birthday, Sarah!”

K: First of all, fuck you.  Second, though, this is a strong concept and the prose gives it the care it deserves, not relying on shock but still managing to punch the reader in the gut in the end.  That it all happened because of a simple missed turn fits with the cruelty of the narrative.  This is eerily similar to concept for a Fiction 59 I wrote here a year or two ago, by the by. BRONZE

P: So sad, but so…coincidental? I mean, I’m sure this has, in fact, happened before. My heart goes out to those poor folk. On the other hand, as a story, it feels like the author is deliberately trying to stack the agony on. Losing a child is horrible (especially given the circumstances), but losing her the week before her birthday? That feels like piling on.

10 Matt Novak

Beads of sweat grew on his brow.  Panic took over.  His bottom teeth ground into the top set as he felt himself tear through the paper.  It gave him no satisfaction, and rising from within was the knowledge that he was worse for what he’d done.  Things had spiraled beyond control.

He eyes flitted repeatedly to the clock, failing to deliver the message of time to his brain.  He was running out of time.  He paused himself, took a moment, and focused on the clock: the hand was askew.  It was either four or five minutes.  He couldn’t tell which.  The panic returned.

A cold bell rang out, “Five minutes remaining.”

He could do this.  He raised his hand.
“I need a new scantron sheet.”
The monitor strode toward him and flipped the clean page onto his desk.
He grabbed the pencil, – the cruel eraser grayed around the edges, a bright streak where it had slid through to the desk below – tapped it three times on the side, and began to copy his answers.  He knew they were all correct.

“Just breathe,” he told himself, as he began to fill in the even-numbered questions, “And stay within the lines.”

K: Again, small stakes (though not to the student, surely) but a strong story.  The story doesn’t have that tiring “gotcha” feel because the revelation is in the middle, so it’s merely a fun surprise.  To top it off, we have a very clever way of delivering the fact that he’s cheating. BRONZE

P: Almost more difficult the dealing with the negative consequences of a wrong decision is dealing with the positive consequences. This one’s a little vague on which we’ll end up seeing, but it’s the only one this week that seems to imply that there will be no external consequences to this character’s wrongdoing – and that might, in fact, be worse. I like this one a lot more for that.  GOLD

11 Dean Carlson

M walks into the confessional, sits down and pulls the curtain.

M:  Forgive me Father for I have sinned.

Priest:  Yes my son, when was your last confession?

M:  It’s been 3 years since my last confession.  In that time I have committed various crimes against my family and my God.  I have cheated on my wife with underage prostitutes.  I have repeatedly lied to and backstabbed my co-workers and teammates.  I once threw a rock at a flock of ducks, hitting a baby and breaking its neck.  I contributed $50,000 to the Jerry Sandusky legal defense fund.  I accepted a job as Michelle Bachmann’s speechwriter and donated my salary to Exxon-Mobile.  I root for the Yankees and Knicks and cashed in my son’s college fund to buy season tickets for both teams.  I impregnated half of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team and paid for their abortions.

P:  Wait, you didn’t say anything about relations with men.  Are you gay?  Do you support gay marriage?

M:  No!  That’s an abomination! Marriage should be reserved for a man and woman.  It’s in the Bible.

P:  Phew!  O.k.  Say five Hail Marys and volunteer 12 hours to the Easter vigil.

K: This one lost me, won me over with the complete oversell, and then lost me again with the low hanging joke in the end.  I did smile as the monologue went on and I have no real solution of how to end this thing, though cutting “Phew! O.k.” would have made the final line ten times funnier.

P: I’m not saying that this sort of hypocrisy doesn’t drive me nuts. I’m not saying I didn’t laugh at the “threw a rock at a flock of ducks” line.  I’m not saying that it’s true in far too many situations, or that it’s reprehensible in every way. I’m not even saying that I didn’t get a grim chuckle out of it. I’m just saying that it didn’t really do anything for me so far as the storytelling was concerned.

12 David Larson

“DAMN IT!”

Fiery pain ripped through Stim Tremplent’s left thigh, followed quickly by the sting of his suit’s epi-painkill and a thrumming numbness as the suit resealed and repressurized.  He awkwardly dragged himself into the gaping hole in the nearby alien architecture caused by the same chem-missle that just wounded him.

Stim released a spybot drone to assess his situation.  The renneretts, big ugly bastards resembling gray slugs with undulating carapaces that made kill shots difficult, were everywhere around the maze-like cityscape, and all manner of weapons fire dotted his helmet’s heads-up display.

Once more Stim found himself regretting choosing a two-year stint in the Zealand Defense Force instead of the mandatory decade of tedious desk work in the Census Ministry, which his lottery number dictated.  No one anticipated this initial small confrontation would take such a horrible downturn.

As the spybot zipped back to him, he reached out to deactivate it; instantly his head snapped back and his world went black…

…he awoke to Platoon Leader standing over his medibed.  “Tremplent, we’ve reviewed your mental blackbox; your lack of focus has cost us greatly!  Three more months have been added to your enlistment.”

“DAMN IT!”

K: I really loved the prose here, and the character felt believable (despite the bizarre name (which I liked)).  I’m not sure I buy that three months would be added to his enlistment after he nearly got his entire platoon killed, though.  Maybe an ending where they “punished” him by having the remainder of the two years behind a desk?  Anyway, good stuff regardless. SILVER

P: I like the sci-fi element, since I’m a sucker for that sort of thing, anyway. I like the concept behind the regret of taking a few hellish years instead of a number of boring ones. What I really don’t like is the “DAMN IT” exclamation at the end. I would think that such a statement could be reasonably assumed. It doesn’t damper my opinion of the piece too much, but it’s unnecessary. BRONZE

13 AMR

Pam fell asleep on the couch again, watching one of her shows about celebrities or weight loss.  I couldn’t care less and she knows it.  She doesn’t care for my baseball streams, so it’s not like she’s ignoring me against my wishes.

I keep the game sounds on and start an InPrivate Browsing session… Facebook… “Chantal Marchalot”.

I only had friends’ cruddy photos until she sent me a friend request.  I sat with that for over a week, obsessing about whether to accept or not.  Would immediate acceptance have seemed desperate?  Did holding out for a week indicate nonchalance or agonizing about whether I could “friend” my ex?  As in our relationship, I waited too long to make a decision, and then acted without thinking.

Despite the hurt stemming from my inability to ask, or because of it, I scroll through her pictures nearly every night.

On one of the other nights, Pam grabbed enough of my attention for the conception of our third.  I’m dreading Chantal’s “like” of the baby pictures that will never be as beautiful as ours could have been.

K: I suppose you guys have done this to me, but I completely expected a cheating story, or a divorce at the very least.  This is another believable internal struggle, and written in a way that the introspection is strong enough to carry the scene. BRONZE

P: Everyone’s dealt with something like this – or maybe it’s just me and the author, I don’t know. The little details (InPrivate Browsing! Baseball streams!) make it seem like at least part of this has been ripped form the life of someone close to the author. As a result, this feels honest and forthright. The life the narrator has carved out for himself isn’t that bad, but it’ll always be compared against a phantom. Unfortunate, but compelling. BRONZE

14 Matthew Gilman

Paul scratched an X in the box marked “NO,” refolded the paper, then passed it to Mitchell beside him. By the time the do-you-like-me note got back to its author, the mousy Leslie Holt, Paul was already zoning out again.

A growled “pssst!” prompted Paul to look up. It was Leslie, glaring. Fuming. Beside her, Fat Marla shook her head angrily, pounding a balled fist into her other meaty paw. Tracy Yerlander–tall, with a face all acne and braces–stood beside Leslie, mouthing “you gonna diiiiiieeee.” Janey Freeny, Treasurer of the SciFi Club, pulled a lumpy object from her purse, light glinting off of it. Brass knuckles. She slid them on.

Paul’s throat went dry. “Miss Warren!” he stammered, pointing at the small crowd. The teacher strode over, grabbing the unfolded note and read it. “Was this note meant for Paul, young lady?” Miss Warren asked, and Leslie nodded gravely. After a long moment, Miss Warren crumpled the note and let it fall to the floor. Out of nowhere, she was brandishing a yardstick like a Samurai sword. She hissed “You one dumb-ass bitch, Paul.”

The girls advanced. Paul felt himself swallow his gum.

K: I giggled throughout.  “Fat Marla” is the most fantastic name for a character all season.  This plays out like one of the better Kids in the Hall sketches, or something.  Absurd, but with something to say, and with very broad characterization in a small space.  Tons of fun. GOLD

P: A revenge of the nerdy outcasts! That’s kind of hardcore. It’s a little bit absurd, too, but certainly hardcore. The teacher being in on it (with a yardstick like a Samurai sword) is just the cherry on top of this fun little nightmare. SILVER

15 Sarah Johnson

I ducked between the dumpsters to spit up blood. A swallow’s nest clung to the base of a broken halide lamp, stupidly angled against an industrial badlands. That’s what I remember.

I remember the baby’s crooked hands pawing at my chin. Then I remember I want to die.

I made the wrong choice, and now I’m looking at it every day: feeding it, reading it stories, telling it there are no monsters to fear.

I don’t want to hurt her. She didn’t burn me with a Zippo or break my teeth against a porcelain sink. She never cracked my ribs against a tile wall. She didn’t rape me.

I wanted her to live. Her DNA was used. She saved people – that’s how I should see it, but I don’t. Her face reminds me of blood and a monster’s high laughter. She is innocent and I hate her.

She is playing in the sprinkler; soon she will come in for a snack. She will dial 9-1-1.

Will I suffer? I don’t know. I should have given her up. I should not have kept her.

She’ll survive. I won’t. It’s really for the better.

I’m sorry.

K: First of all, fuck you.  Second of all, this is a brilliantly complex character who somehow stands out even in this sea of incredible characters this week that I’ll never forget.  There were two stories about abortion this week, but the rape-baby who wasn’t aborted turned out to be much more interesting.  I hope she adjusts.  I really do. GOLD

P: Cheerful! Really, I like the basics of what seems to be going on here, but it’s hard to really say what’s going on here. I could be convinced to like this, if only I had a better idea of what was going on. I know it’s hard to bring it all together in only a couple hundred words, and I do like the possibilities being raised by this story – I just need more info, and I’m not going to get it. BRONZE

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We’re back at 15 submissions after one week in a row where we were 100%.  It’s another nonsub for Colin, unfortunately.  Diggin’ himself a hole, he is.

No golds this week, but a hearty congratulations to Cathy Wells, Ian Pratt and Matthew Gilman for bringing home eight-spots.

Challenge #7 – are you already almost halfway through this thing?! – is to write, in 300 words or fewer, a story that happens at a family reunion.

It’s due Friday at 9pm Central.  I’ll try to get word of the halfway-point story to you soon, too.