The challenge was to write a story that takes place at a family reunion in 300 words or fewer.

Alright, kids: another good week, all the incest notwithstanding (actually, only three stories dealt with it. That was much better than I feared).

Also, I gave a score of 100 to a story for the first time in a year or so. Good job, person who wrote #13!

1 Matt Novak

“Yoohoo! Rick!”
Susan was coming towards me, the spring in her step belaying the drama that would follow if she got a word in edgewise. It would be all waterworks and sniffling and Uncle Carl’s dog’s lymphoma. The pineapple would all be picked from the fruit salad before I got to it.
“Actually, I’m Nick,” I said, deflecting her with a pat on the shoulder as I stepped past.
“Nick! Good!” I jumped as she grabbed my wrist, and yanked me backwards. “Did you know your idiot brother spoiled Catherine’s surprise?”
I should have known better than to try this at a family reunion, but there was no backing out now. I waded deeper into the mess.
“Which brother?”
“Rick, of course. What do you mean ‘which brother?’”
I ignored her question. “Then why did you want to talk to Nick?”
“What? Are you talking in the third person now?”
“No, I’m Mick. With an ‘m’.”
“Oh…”
She stood stunned as I started towards the buffet.
“Wait, Mick!”
I let out a sigh and turned.
“There are three of you! I had no idea! Of course, I only found out about the twin thing a few years ago, and we never see each other except at these reunions. Wow. Triplets you say?”
“At least.”
I hurried away.

Grabbing a plate, I lined up next to my mother and peered into the picked-over remains of the fruit bowl. Musk melon. I had been too late.
“Mom,” I said, “Your family is a bunch of idiots. They all fall for the fake twin gag. Triplets too. Where do they get it?”
She paused and, looking up from the potato salad, gave me a strangely familiar look.
“You must be mistaken. My name isn’t Mom. It’s… um… Tom. Yeah, that’s it.”

K: Okay, I love the stupidity of this payoff. I genuinely hope we avert a lot of darkness this week (my maximum number of dark stories is five. Let’s keep a running tally!), and this is a fun way to come nowhere near it. The exchange is absurd, but still believable. I’ve certainly had the “How do I have fun?” dilemma at a reunion or two. SILVER

P: I love this. The multiple layers of the seemingly obvious con are fun, and I laughed aloud multiple times (“no, ‘Mick’, with an ‘M’). Even the little touches, like the protagonist’s aversion to muskmelon work grea. Great stuff. GOLD

2 Erik S.

I didn’t want to come today, but Mommy said it’d be fun. She said Daddy wasn’t coming in that voice she uses went I do bad things. She said he would rather drink beer with his friends. I like playing with my friends too, so I don’t know what he did bad.

The drive to La-Cross was sooooo boring, and Max kept touching my side the whole time. He thinks he’s so cool because he’s starting the 7th grade.

We got to the park and it had this cool train in front, just like Thomas (Max says that’s a baby show, but he’s a jerkface).

It’s okay so far, but everyone is either bigger or littler than me. Mommy’s talking to Aunt Jane. She’s laughing and smiling even though she tells Daddy that she’s so pretend-shuts.

I see Max and someone just before they go down by the river, so I run after them.

When I catch up, I see Max is with Devon. Devon is in high school. Mommy told me he’s our 2nd cousin. I dunno why since he’s our oldest cousin.

“Wait up!” I yell.

Devon turns around with mean eyes. “No babies allowed.”

Max laughed, “Yeah, Billy, no babies!”

“But, I’m not a—hey! You can’t drink that!” Devon has a BEER in his hand! He musta stoled it from Uncle Jerry’s cooler.

“I’m tell—“

Then Devon pushes me and I fall on my butt. “Better not, or I’ll kick your ass.”

I don’t want to cry, but Devon’s being so mean and swearing. Max looks surprised, but he still says, “Yeah, we’ll kick your… ass!”

“Come on, Matt,” Devon said, and they walk off.

Aunt Jane’s dog runs up, and I scream, “GO AWAY!!” but he just looks at me funny. I start crying real bad. Max is such a jerkface.

K: I expected the kid to drown, of course. Still no dark stories (unless you count the fact that this kid might be part of an alcoholic family)! For some reason the first usage of “jerkface” came off as out of place, but I suppose that’s just because my daughter’s don’t use that particular term. I like the innocence and the stylistic choice to give the narrator a limited amount of language. Then, to top it off, “jerkface” is used at the end again, and because the writer’s created a through-line with it, I accept it now. Clever trick, that. BRONZE

P: Aww… I feel bad for this kid. It’s hard to capture kid talk and thought process without feeling overly false or cloying. This one walks the line, but I think it comes through it okay. This was a heck of a week, though, so it doesn’t quite make the cut.

3 Dean Carlson

Mark woke up pretty hung-over, looked around and thought to himself …hmmm no note. A smile crept on his face. Wow, a one-night stand, haven’t had one of those since college. Mark fondly remembered chatting up Lisa at the party, easily talking her into bringing the party back to his place and after a few Jaegers, getting pretty freaky — first in the kitchen, then the bedroom. Her smile reminded him of his sister, which was weird, but maybe it was because he had the family reunion on his mind.

Shit, the reunion. Mark’s mother insisted he go: “It’s going to be at the County park with balloons, watermelon, and red t-shirts for all.” Not exactly my scene thought Mark as he pulled out of his warehouse loft and headed toward the suburbs. His head still throbbed as he pulled into the park and practically ran into his mom bringing lime jello to the pavilion.

“Oh good Mark made it” said his mother to no one in particular as she gave Mark a once over and looked disapprovingly at his unshaven face, motorcycle boots, and green Mudhoney t-shirt. “Help your father with the watermelon and go get yourself a t-shirt.” Mark dutifully helped his father, looked for the beer (Coors Light) and grabbed some shade next to two squirrely teens who must have been related somehow.

Mark thought the day was a success as for the most part he avoided both his mother and his insufferable aunts. He was getting ready to leave and thought he had a clear path to the parking lot when his mother accosted him. “Hey Mark, over here! I want to introduce you to some relatives, do you remember Aunt Mary’s daughter Lisa? She just got in town from Portland. You used to play together as infants.”

K: I was hoping and praying for a different ending here – like, maybe that Lisa’s married to a cousin and incest was a red herring. I liked the mood and imagery just fine, but this payoff was way too obvious. I’m not counting this one as a dark story, by the way, though it wouldn’t be a very happy reunion for Mark and Lisa.

P: This one suffers, because we know where it’s going by the middle of the first paragraph. I think I might have liked this better if there was a certain air of uncaring at the end of it. A shrug and awkward smile, maybe? The way it is, it’s a stinger that doesn’t have much sting.

4 Matthew Gilman

“What’s he doing here?” Dinah hissed.
“I invited him, of course.” Dinah’s mother didn’t look up from her smoked trout.
“But WHY?” Mother chewed a few times before responding.
“Because he’s your brother, that’s why.”
“I thought we AGREED, Mother!”
“No, my dear. I agreed that you had the right not to invite Brian to YOUR holiday gatherings. You’ve made it clear: your house, your rules. But your father left THIS house to me. MY rules.”
Dinah thought the conversation was over. It was not.
“I shall NOT exclude any of my family simply because you’re put out by their presence.”
Dinah stared at her rice pilaf. “I told you what Doctor Roth said about encouraging this behavior.”
“Yes, my dear. But I don’t go to Doctor Roth. I’m not his patient.”
“Just look at the scene he’s causing! All the children, half the adults following him–”
“He’s a pleasant fellow.”
“He’s a MANIAC living a DELUSION! If he had any RESPECT for this family, he’d come dressed like a normal ADULT, or NOT COME AT ALL!”
A hush fell over Brian’s devotees. They all stared at Dinah. “Well,” Brian said, slowly. “I suppose that’s what’s called a ‘subtle hint’.”
“Dinah, apologize to your brother!”
“No, Mother,” Brian interrupted, “it’s fine. I’m used to being…misunderstood. I’ll go.” He pulled his mask down. “I’m sure there’s crime to fight in the City this evening…like always.”
A young cousin piped up, “When will we see you again, Night Flyer?”
Brian’s voice dropped an octave. “Not until the scum of this city is washed clean.”
They idolized him with their gazes.
“Or maybe the 4th of July down at Uncle Harold’s, we’ll see.”
Gathering himself into a crouch, one fist in the air, he sprung upward, out into the night.

K: I enjoy the concept of the scene, but this setup was too vague to invest me in the mystery of Brian. The payoff could be a lot of fun, with the kids obviously loving crazy cousin Brian (who clearly isn’t all that crazy, given his lucid thoughts, but more than a little eccentric). I think I would have liked the scene a lot more if it was told from Brian’s perspective – walking in and seeing the reactions – first of the disgusted matriarch, then of the adoring children.

P: I can’t tell what to feel about this one. The dialogue between the mother and daughter is pretty decent, and I like the sudden shift in focus. The ending is good, and I like the descriptions of the extended family loving this guy. BRONZE

5 Andrew M

It was a family reunion, of sorts. Given the dynamic of my family, it was as much as I could have hoped for. Grandpa had died. He was a son of a bitch and passed it on to my uncles. Mom kept her distance from her brothers. As a consequence, I saw my cousins every five or six years – whenever our parents decided they could be civil for more than 10 minutes at a time. The fact that it took a death to get my family together was the saddest part of the whole situation.

After the ceremony my brother Mike and I, two uncles, and my two oldest cousins carried Grandpa to the hearse. The only thing I could think while bearing the casket was how heavy it was. Standing behind the hearse, I turned to my cousins. “Hey, Jacob. Joseph. We have room in our car if you want a ride.” The four of us piled into my Camry and joined the procession towards the cemetery.

Halfway to the cemetery, I took a right while everyone else continued on straight. “Where are we going?” asked Jake. “Grandpa was an asshole and it’s 2-for-1’s at Frank’s for the next forty-five minutes.”

We parked the car and walked in. “Hey, Frank – four of the usual.”

“Sure thing, man.” Frank came around with four beers with whiskey backs.

The next three hours passed in a blur and by the end of it we were old friends. When our wives came to get us, we all agreed that now that we were adults we would meet up at Frank’s once a year. Our new tradition lasted a few years, until kids and work and any one of a number of excuses saw us revert to a family of strangers.

K: I can’t really count this as a dark story either, despite the setting. It’s a mixed bag of emotions, which is pretty realistic given the average family, but the false hope and rug-pull at the end was all a bit quick. This is probably better as a longer story given the poignance of the finish; regardless, it’s well-written and feels as real as any of the stories so far. BRONZE

P: There’s a certain lack of focus at the end here, but I like it. The story of a group of cousins coming together, only to succumb to the family curse for different reasons. At least those reasons were better than the ones that kept the previous generation apart, I suppose. A simple tale told well. BRONZE

6 David Larson

Windom Arms Hotels
Dayton, OH

August 24, 2012

Here is a summary of the activities in question, as requested by Windom’s law department, regarding the two family reunions held on the weekend of Aug. 11/12, as recorded in the hotel log:

Friday:
5PM – several lobsters were found in the sauna. Medical attention was summoned for the two women who found them.

6:45PM – elevator maintenance was called after 18 people overloaded the east elevator, stopping it between 3rd and 4th floors. Service was restored after 55 minutes.

8:10PM – police notify the front desk that toilet paper rolls were unfurled and blowing from a 4th floor window. The parents in room 308 were warned.

Saturday:
3:35AM – bathtub in room 447 overflows, causing ceiling damage. Tub was unattended; drain was blocked by a condom. Guests in 347 were relocated.

8:40AM – approximately four dozen doughnuts disappeared from kitchen storeroom.

3:20PM – law officials were called after a fight broke out in the pool area. Several people in street clothes had been thrown into the pool; many others had their swimwear pulled off of them. Warnings were handed out but no citations were issued, to our knowledge.

10:55PM (at various times for roughly 5 hours) – many calls regarding noise disturbances, two handled by the hotel detective, and one in room 312 requiring animal control intervention.

Sunday:
2:00AM – bathtub in room 447 overflows, once again unattended and due to condom blocking the drain. Guests were moved to a first floor room.

8:30AM – food fight breaks out in the restaurant after waffle mix on the floor causes several falls. Eight injuries were treated.

We sincerely hope that our hotel ratings were not hurt, but we would like to add that if the Fodor or Zagat family reunions are ever held here again, we will refuse to work those days.

Terrence Range, Corrine Horle, Stan Best
Lead Shift Managers

K: My not-so-well-kept secret: the underplayed joke, told with a stone face, gets me every time. Certainly, hotel managers are constantly put in situations where they have to relate hilarious situations in businesslike language. Maybe this shouldn’t seem like a story to me, but in this setting, it was a blast, and managed to have a beginning, middle and end. GOLD

P: Ceiling floods. Ouch. I like the gag here. The ongoing descriptions of the mayhem are funny (and occasionally what isn’t explained ends up being almost as funny), if they don’t exactly tell a ‘story’ per se. In fact, that’s really the only reason this story gets a bit lower marks. It sort of tells a story, but it don’t actually show us a story. BRONZE

7 Brooks Maki

“If we put you with Jeff, you should slow him down enough.” Chris smiled, but the mockery was genuine. I was relieved that I wasn’t on sullen Jason’s team, and Jeff was the best player among the three 20-something cousins. I had good height for my 12 years, but since Dad left, I didn’t get to play much, I had to be home watching my little brother Butch.

On offense, my job was to pass to Jeff. Defensively, I played hard and irresponsible. Early on, I accidentally slapped Jason in the face attempting a block. He swore and grabbed at his nose, checking for blood. Later, I hacked at his arms as he got past me. He called another foul, and Chris made a crack about me being the first to ever foul out of a pickup game.

Mom called from the kitchen window; could I walk to the store for something in the dinner she and her sisters were making? I said I was in the middle of a game, but she insisted. The uncles were golfing, there was no one else around to ask. Chris spoke up, “I can drive him once we’re done.” I could have hugged him.

Tie game. Chris and Jason both collapsed to defend Jeff cutting to the basket, and he bounced a perfect pass back to me. I shot from the highest point of my jump, like Dad had showed me. Chris came out of nowhere and swatted the ball away. Butch, watching from the sidelines, was too slow to react, and the ball hit him square in the face. Blood streamed from his nose as I rushed over to him. “Hold your head back, we’ll get some ice.” I steered him into the house, with Chris’s apologies following behind us.

K: I don’t know what I expected from the payoff here, but whatever it was, it never came. I’d forgotten about Butch by the time the payoff was about to come, and it didn’t really seem connected. It’s a nicely-written slice of life, and believable, but the lack of a cathartic ending hurts. BRONZE

P: I like the drama and subtext of the basketball game. The specter of the protagonist’s father looms over it, and the action is described well. In the end, though, it sort of feels like there’s more to this story. SILVER

8 Cathy Wells

Holy shit, what am I doing? Why did I think this reunion was my chance to get Dave to talk to me again? You are such an idealistic idiot, turn the car around and go home.
No, shut up Kerri, you can do this. You know this is what you want, yes, you made a mistake, but you know it and you want to come home. You’ve been planning this for months now nut up, you coward, and do this!
Ok, yes, I can do this…oh no I can’t, why, why did I think this was a good idea? He hates me! I left him for someone else. He hates me, he won’t care that I’m sorry, he won’t care that I’m miserable, he won’t care that I miss him and the kids…ugh, what am I doing? He’s probably there with his new girlfriend anyway, Tiffany.
So snap the little twig’s neck. She probably won’t be there anyway, this is a family reunion and they’ve only been dating for a few months.
No, she might not be there…oh, I hope she’s not. I don’t want to have to think about her and him. I just need to get through today. If it works, I get my life back, if not I guess I’ll just have to try again and again and again until he takes me back. Yes, that’s good. Ok, I can do this. Right turn, there it is. Oh, dear Jesus give me strength.

The car came to a stop and Kerri got out.
“What in the hell are you doing here?”
“Uh, hi Dave.”

K: Sorry to beat the drum again, but this is another one where I think the story would have had more punch told differently, because it’s a very strong idea. The entire reunion scene would have had more dramatic effect. Or, told this way, I think the story would have more punch if the payoff is a revelation to the reader. Kerri talks about the kids, Dave, the family, wanting to see all of them…and then we find out she’s an outcast. The internal stuff was a little on the nose, too.

P: There’s no happy ending to be had here, only awkward contempt. The only main problem I have with this is that well over half the story is spent with the protagonist giving herself a pep talk that doesn’t really feel real. Most of the details form the talk end up sounding like they simply exist to catch the reader up on the details. It all feels kind of ‘on the nose’. The drama is there, it just doesn’t get there in a way that’s satisfying enough to stand up to a lot of the other stories.

9 Joe Rakstad

I remember the summer of 2008 well. That was the last time I went to a family reunion.

I went up to my liberal cousin Douglas, who just started studying political science at Columbia University. I told him how much I admired George W. Bush for taking a stand against terrorism. He goes on an expected tirade about how evil the man is and how he can’t wait for Obama to bring hope to America. Of course, when I say this I make sure that I’m near my Aunt Beatrice from Georgia. She can’t believe that anyone would vote for someone who wasn’t even born in the country.

After I get those two talking, I make sure to give my younger nieces and nephews from Michigan some juice laden with high-fructose corn syrup. When my sister Jenny finds them with it she’s sure to throw a fit. I also torture my nerdy cousin Lester by spoiling the latest movies and video games. Man, I love Wikipedia.

At the end of the day I find my favorite cousin Danny. We grab a beer and revel in all the fun we had had that day. He got Uncle Hank from Oklahoma to start arguing with Aunt Ruth from California about gun control. He also spiked the sparkling grape juice that the kids would drink with the toast. It was the best reunion ever.

Then Danny leans over and says, “Ah… won’t it be great when Joe Mauer’s playing for the Yankees.”

K: I should probably disqualify this person for life just for suggesting Mauer to the Yankees, but I’ll remain calm. These two shit-stirrers could probably make a hit movie – I really think this concept is that strong – but the fact that we don’t see any of the scenes is a bummer. I like it, and with just a bit of tweaking (or more words…I fear it’s one of those) I’d like it a lot more. BRONZE

P: Trolling a troll is something I can always get behind. The mayhem that the narrator inspires throughout the reunion is great. The knife that Danny pulls at the end is even better. I really want to know where the conversation went on from here. SILVER

10 Shawn Ashley

“We really need some more relish to go with this food. Never can have enough,” Grandma muttered.

Mom looked at me with a sigh. I jumped up. “I’ll get it!” I headed inside the house, chuckling. Oh, grandma. This family reunion has been really stressing Mom out. I’ve tried to help as much as I can but I was picked for the JV soccer team this year and we’ve already begun practice this summer. It’s such an honor as an eighth grader to be chosen! Mom totally understands, but it still sucks that I can’t be there for her.

I went down the stairs, into the cellar. I was digging through the endless jars of peanut butter when I heard shuffling behind me.

“Oh, Uncle Jim! You scared me!” I exclaimed as I peered over my shoulder.

He had shuffled in behind me, leaned against the door jamb, clutching a bottle of beer.

“Still playing soccer, Melanie?” He slurred and I instantly knew he was drunk. As usual.

“Yep, made JV this year!” I turned back to the jars on the shelf as an uneasiness filled my body, spreading to my toes.

“Your legs look sexy.”

I didn’t respond. Aha! I grabbed the jar and turned towards the door.

He blocked it.

“I think you should show me what’s under those shorts,” he said, swigging his beer. “What you show the boys at school.”

I just stood there, awkward.

“Do you want to get out of here? Take off the shorts.” He grabbed between my legs.

Fear overtook me, my mind raced. I looked down at the jar in my hand.

I reared back and threw as hard as I could towards his head.

He fell. “Bitch!” I ran past and didn’t look back, fear shaking my very core.

K: There’s truth in the narration – the character really feels like she’s the right age – but once again, an incest-tinged story just doesn’t do the trick when it feels like an obvious choice and it doesn’t do anything new with the concept.

P: **shudder** I was wondering when you psychos would run with this concept. It’s always the creepy drunken uncle. It’s a little stilted in places, and it doesn’t really go anywhere particularly new with the concept. At least the bastard got a jar of relish to the head.

11 Sarah Johnson

I miss catching crawfish with Grampa. My sister said Grampa went to heaven to play golf forever. Dad cried. He’s really tough so maybe she’s right.

Gramma’s dolls have glass heads and no one can play with them because they are worth a lot of money. Grandpa used to say he had to sell his Indian so she should sell the God Damned Dolls. I learned about Indians in Mrs. Fenstermaker’s class. I wonder where Grampa got him.

Dad’s family reunion was today. Gramma got a new friend named Jim who smelled like carpet spray and cigarettes. Mom said Jim knew Grampa in the war. Dad said Jim has lots of balls. He must like sports.

The reunion was alright. I ate cake and hot dogs and tried a sip of Mom’s special juice which was super gross. My cousin Nick brought his Nintendo. Grampa was late. I saw him outside. His limp was gone and he was sad and waving at me. Gramma and Jim kept laughing like he wasn’t there.

The storm came and the lights turned off for a little while. Uncle Steve fixed the Circus Breaker and the lights came on again. Gramma’s dolls showed up with just their heads. It was a pretty cool idea for the party, but my uncles were yelling and making the other grown-ups scared. Gramma hit her head on a chair. Her friend Jim turned red and went to the hospital.

I talked to Grampa and he told me I have to meet him at the tire swing. He said we’ll catch frogs and I can eat candy and skip school. Grampa said I don’t have to hug Jim ever again. He took care of him real good. He said not to worry because Gramma needs to learn.

K: Fuckin’ love it. The idea of making grandpa’s ghost real and vindictive would have been a fairly strong choice on its own, but putting the story in the hands of a youth who can see him – and believes everything he sees – equals gold, baby. The temptation to go super-dark with this had to be there, but as told, it carries much, much more weight and a dead character is now the best character of the week. GOLD

P: Grampa as a ghost is kind of a dick. I guess I’d be pissed, too. Anyway, this really didn’t go where I thought it was going to. It starts out as an innocent story and moves to somewhere darker (without going over the top with it). It’s a good thing, because the kid speak was starting to skirt with the cloying line. I’m not a huge fan of the final line, which feels kind of awkward. Word limit concerns, maybe?

12 Bret Highum

I sit at the table nearest the door back to the cells, the table no one wants because the guard at the door can hear everything. I haven’t had a visitor for six years, since I chased my wife away.

Today is different. Dark suit, with silver hair at the temples, high cheekbones and square chin, Cousin Eddie looks like a successful lawyer except for his hands, rough and scarred. Eddie likes to work with his hands.

“Good to see ya, Jer,” drawls Eddie, smirking. “Been a while, yeah? Guards say you’re not getting any vistors. I figure, I got nothing going on, I should drop by.”

I glance at the guard at the door, but the guard is ignoring us. I swivel away from Eddie, but he just scoots closer.

“Gotta say, I was surprised you didn’t try to pin something on me while you were squealing. You sure flung shit at everyone else.” Eddie pauses, studies me. “Too bad about the divorce. I hear she’s getting remarried this summer.”

That got to me. “If I had anything on you, you’d be in Sing Sing with the rest of them, fucker. What the hell do you want?”

“Easy now, “ Eddie purrs. “It worked out OK for me. Hell, I’m in charge now! I’m actually here to visit someone else that just got sent up.” Eddie points across the room with his chin. “Henry.”

I turn to look, a bitter wad of dread in the back of my throat. Henry is my little brother, eight years younger. I barely recognize this tattooed man with cold, dead eyes.

Eddie leans in, and his breath burns in my ear. “Henry asked to join the family. I told him there’d be room, if the rat was gone. Enjoy your little reunion, rat.”

K: I love this idea (I’m a sucker for prison stories AND mob stories…this is probably intentionally written to manipulate my tastes, but whatever – it worked). The last line is a little too “action movie badass” to me, and the whole thing would be stronger without it, but this was an interesting take on the challenge and we don’t need to see the ending to know what’s on the horizon. BRONZE

P: This stretches the concept of “family reunion” to fit the darker template – I like that. The Eddie character is just the right brand of evil, and the narrator seeing his brother and realizing that not only is he not the same person he knew before, but that he’ll be his murderer before long is good stuff. I wish there was more of this. GOLD

13 Ian Pratt

Hazy May heat and dew-heavy air are clogging lungs in deep mouthfuls as the children track each other across the barley field. Legs churn through the grain, hands stretch to grasp and capture and tackle and tumble. Laughter spills from tiny lips like honey splashing from an opened comb. A swift tug from behind drops small Jakob from his feet, to his knees, to the ground. O, now is not the time for that, sweet Jakob. His tears are bright in the midday, wiped away by a sister’s slim fingers.

I’m standing adult-tall and looking past the romp and rumble of the Visser clan’s child brigade. A world away the grown Vissers gather round the trembling frame of young Robert Woort. The interloper had interrupted our mess to steal pretty Roosje’s maiden hand away, a desperate plea for elopement, a flight of fancy run aground when Roosje’s father Simon spied him skulking behind the carriages. And who dares disturb the Vissers? Children aside, we are not a trivial family, not indulgent nor understanding. Simon is known for cruel eyes and heavy hands.

I waver before hailing the children, freeing them to explore as I join my kin with Robert Woort, now bound, terror unassuaged, fore to the ground. What power we claim when gathered so, what commands we bellow. Filled with Visser spirit we harrow and hound, nary a face unclouded as Robert Woort is dragged to a stand. And poor pretty Roosje, so nearly tempted to a life unbecoming, now sobbing away in her mother’s clutch.

With a word of care Simon hands me the rope, looped loosely round the prisoner’s waist. I lead him to a carriage and tie the rope to the tail. The ride back to town will be sunny and sweet, but the walk will be long for Robert Woort.

K: This is the most beautifully-written story I’ve read since, well, basically everything John Wreisner wrote in Survivor X. Strong language and imagery has never been enough on its own to gain high marks from me; without story, it’s all gravy and no potatoes. This has it all, and though I generally don’t fall for stories without a single bit of dialogue, this one would actually be hurt by it, as the calm quiet of the Vissers is much more powerful than a bunch of angry threats. Just unforgettable writing here. GOLD

P: Okay, so first things first, I love the prose here. Every word is infused with meaning, leaving nothing to waste. The story it tells is a bedeviling one, told through the eyes of a person caught midway between two worlds. To say too much more about this would dull the impact. I love this. GOLD

14 Colin Woolston

“You comin’ kid?” The porter aimed a fatherly smile at him.
Quinn hated being patronized. He was twenty-four, had circumnavigated the globe, and considered himself a scholar of life.
He turned to the porter and took a serious drag from his cigarette.
“No.”
“Well, allright. There’s no taxi, and busses only come til six.” The porter smiled and closed the door.

Quinn stood for a while longer. He had been dreading this arrival for months. It wasn’t that he was different from his family, that had always been the case. It was that he felt that his difference carried more weight now, and the need for that to be recognized was overwhelming. What if they didn’t see, like they had always not seen?

After arriving at the gathering, Quinn gave half of his attention to all the requisite “how have you been?” and “Oh my god how long were you there?” and “I could never do that” conversations, and finally found himself sitting next to his father, uncle, grandfather and cousin. The men were lined up in a row of plastic chairs. The questions and rebukes he had rehearsed bubbled up during pauses in the conversation. His courage peaked after a few drinks and he turned to his elders to speak his mind. The words caught. Every single one of them were staring off into the distance, just as he had been doing. Every single one of them sat with their right foot on their left knee, their left foot tapping out some slow, internal rhythm on the cool dirt; every head was cocked slightly to the right. Each had the same wistful stare as though searching the horizon for someone who would understand.

Quinn sat back and took a slow sip of beer, and searched the distant hills.

K: It’s a little vague, but I like the strange sense of togetherness that this story offers. A lot of this week’s challengers got into the spirit of “families are all so different” but not very many went for “blood is thicker than water.” I don’t know where Quinn goes from here, but I like that he’s finding his emotional footing, somehow. SILVER

P: I find myself disliking the narrator until the last line. His smug pretentious self-righteousness feels tone perfect, and I have no trouble visualizing him. The realization that no matter what he’s done and where he’s gone that he’s still only the latest in a long line of similar people is great. SILVER

15 AMR

The drive was way too long for a ten-year old boy: more than an hour. I stopped counting phone poles when I got to my fifth set of 100 before I had to switch to watching clouds and cornfields so I wouldn’t get carsick.

The farmhouse kitchen table had a plate of blue pickles that tasted funny. Most of the grownups knew who I was but I really couldn’t remember who many of them there were, though I remembered their names from Grandma’s rambling stories on the drive there. Was Parm her brother or sister?

Other than my sister, the only other kids were my cousins Jeremy and Janelle. (Jesse must’ve been working.) The girls left Jeremy and I to each other’s company.

Jeremy never liked me. I was younger, didn’t have MTV, didn’t watch or play sports, and went to private school. It was like there was a big joke that I wasn’t in on, and I wasn’t worthy to even have it explained to me.

Jeremy headed off to the unused barn and I followed him. When I climbed the ladder to the loft, he dropped hay onto my face.

Once up, I still wanted to impress, so I showed him the toy I brought: a robot-shaped calculator that played games. He asked if he could see it, and then called me a “stupid fuck” when I gladly handed it over. He held it over the edge and dared me to reach out and get it before he dropped it. Just as he was about to return it, he spun and chucked it. I got so mad that I tried to punch him. He just stepped aside, but broke a board, overcorrected, and fell to the barn floor.

He couldn’t get up, I had to get his mom.

K: It took 15 stories, but we have darkness, people!!! It’s not as sad as it could be since I fully expected the narrator to fall, but it’s a gut punch nonetheless, and challenges the reader by dropping a character who’s kind of a piece of shit, but still a kid, after all. I identified readily with the narrator – very proud of his “intelligent kid” possessions that were never understood by the kids he wants to hang out with. Calling out a specific toy, and one that sounds like such a cool toy to me, was a great move. SILVER

P: Jeremy’s comeuppance is extra satisfying, because I have always hated people of his ilk. The story sort of ends in a perfunctory way, as if the author couldn’t really think of much to do other than make the mean kid fall and get his due. I would’ve liked a little more meat to his downfall. BRONZE

16 Eric Schapp

Time to sit down. The pavilion had been packed for hours, but now I’m suffocating. It’s like chains are slowly being wrapped around my chest. Weighted down and stuck here for the rest of the day, I’m not sure I’m going to make it. How could this have happened?

I usually like these things. It’s not every day that I get to see my family in one place. Justin, Brandy, Paul, Jack, haven’t seen them in years. Katie. I can’t believe I didn’t know she’d be here. It was only Saturday night that we had dinner. She’s already walked over to her car. I wonder if she’s as freaked out as I am. Brian is still laughing and snickering “kissing cousins.” Good god, I’m never going to hear the end of this.

Manassas isn’t that small of a city; I mean what are the chances. Something like 1 in 150,000? Do I need to have a DNA test before asking a girl out? Cripes, this blows.

I’ve seen her what…like three times. Met her at happy hour on Tuesday at the Bottom Line, and ended up asking her out a couple of drinks deep. We went to Veranda on Saturday night and had dinner. Then today of course. Ugh. That kiss is going to haunt me forever. Why couldn’t she have just been a friend of the family. That would have been too easy.

Oh man, I can’t believe the reunion was today. Probably helped me dodge a bullet. We need to have reunions once a year. I swear I’ve never met her, how the hell was I supposed we share a great grandmother. I’m never going to hear the end of this. This is my last reunion. I need a paper bag.

K: And, for good measure, one last incest story. This is easily my favorite of the three, as the discomfort feels real and personal rather than a cheap joke (I’m exaggerating, but this one did feel a lot more real). It does hurt by being too similar to a couple of other stories, but the writing is there.

P: True story, my cousins and I once found my brother kissing his 2nd or 3rd cousins behind a doorway when he was 6. He has never lived this down. This one is a little less squick-filled, more innocent version of the tale. They’re not even technically enough of cousins for this sort of thing to be illegal, but even so, it’s not the sort of surprise one wants dropped on them. As far as the story is concerned, it has the desperation down pretty well. There’s no way out of the situation, and everyone involved knows it. Solid stuff. BRONZE

————————————————————–

There you have it – Ian extends his lead with another gold/gold as part of his mind-meltingly awesome recent streak. Meanwhile, other things happened with the scores. I’d say more, but I really want to post this and go to bed, and I haven’t updated the spreadsheet anyway (at the time of typing this).

Once again, guys, you are one of the highlights of my week. Thank you.

See you on Tuesday night with the one where you write the denouement of a much larger story.