This week’s challenge was to write a story about a person, at the end of his or her life, reflecting on life’s defining moment.

Ugh, what a long night. Bad, then good, then bad, then good. There’s too much stress around here lately (not between us or anything; that stuff’s fine. Just annoying work stuff).  Sorry this is going up so late.  I had judging done a good two hours ago.

Anyway, since nobody cares about my problems, let’s get on with it. It was a real mixed bag this week, which I suppose can be expected when I ask for such a vague challenge. Of course, I’m pretty sure I say the opposite when the talent level is all similar. I’m just looking for something to tie the intro together, you know?

1 Dean Carlson

Eric was close to death. The nurses had removed the respirator and his weeping family and concerned band members gathered close by. It was at that moment that Eric looked back on his life and thought Damn! I had it freaking good. Sure I could have quit smoking years ago, that may have added a year or five, but hey, too late now. But man the groupies were wild, the adulation of being in a rock band, hearing your song on the radio – all that was absolutely fantastic, who didn’t want that when they were a teenager? Eric had experienced all that and more. Rock and Roll had made him famous and rich. With all the sex, drugs, and fun times that goes with it.

As the oxygen struggled to reach his brain, Eric thought back to his greatest hit, the song that launched their career and made his band a household name. Why that song? thought Eric. It was a decent song but for some reason Don’t Fear the Reaper really connected. But why? Eric was agitated now; he had to know before he died. Then a smile came across his face and he just knew. Bruce was right…. More cowbell.

K: Oh boy. Way too easy here.

P: Heh, “more cowbell”. We seem to be starting off with nice and easy, humorous concepts lately, and I’m definitely okay with that. It’s a funny enough gag, but I’m not a huge fan of the “tell, don’t show” motto it seems to live by. “Eric was close to death” puts it so… flatly. Even in a gag story, there should be some meat on the ribs to hang the gag on, and I don’t really feel it here.

2 Matthew Gilman

“Crazy Mr. Cray, we called him. Most middle schools went to see the Liberty Bell on their field trips. We went to an exhibit about the internment of Japanese Americans.” Swallow, rough breath. “And then, Cray took us to a Chinese restaurant.”

“We think he just wanted chow mein,” Grandma chimed in from the corner of the hospital room, “and planned the event around it.”

“Point is, on the bus ride home, I was sitting right behind that wonderful girl who I pined for constantly. The one who made my heart race. And my fortune cookie from the restaurant said DON’T WAIT ANOTHER MOMENT.”

He looked down at the little girl in his lap. “So I didn’t. I listened to the cookie. I tapped her shoulder. Heart fluttering, insides writhing. Gathering my confidence, I said ‘Holly Levine, I luurrruuuuuuugh.’ And puked mu shu pork all over her.”

His granddaughter choked back laughter. “Oh, they laughed at me too. Even the kids I used to beat up. They called me ‘Puke-cannon Buchanan.’ for months. Everyone…except one girl.”

He smiled as a soft, wrinkled hand found his shoulder, “And I thought…this is a girl I should get to know.”

K: Is the girl he puked on the one he married? It’s unclear, but either way, whatever. It’s probably more honest if it’s not, but since I don’t know, I won’t quibble. The exchange early on is a nice bit of fluff to set the scene, and the large moment didn’t feel as real as the rest. I get it, of course – the biggest moment in any person’s life ISN’T going to feel real – but it seemed more like something out of a movie. BRONZE

P: This one feels very sweetly natural. Of course the defining moment of this person’s life was the day he really met his future wife. I like the flavor (wait, ew) of the field trip, and the setting is fleshed out well so that we feel like we’re a part of the scene.

GOLD

3 AMR

September 3, 2012. It really all went downhill from there. Rather than enjoy the last day of summer, I stayed inside, typing away on internet message boards. I think it was a beautiful day (at least that’s how I remember it) but damnit, dozens of people on the internet were wrong, and needed to be told so IN ALL CAPS. My wife had the kids in the minivan, ready to go to the park. “Honey, we’ve been waiting for ten minutes. If you don’t come now, we’re leaving.” “Just a minute,” I shouted, but I took five before I even looked and there were gone.
I guess I didn’t understand how she meant it, but she called me that night from her mother’s house. Divorce followed separation, I let her have custody and got visitation every other weekend, but slowly arranged to see them less and less. Without the kids and wife, I got much more sedentary, spending most of my time sitting and typing. Now I’m in my mid 50s, alone with heart disease. But as long as I’ve got breath in my body I’ll keep letting those dipshit online know how wrong they are.

K: “People on the internet are wrong” is a pretty old joke, done better in xckd, and the fact that he proudly proclaims it after what could have been a powerful story is an iffy payoff. I was really liking the middle bit, but I think it was a toss-in to get the gags done.

P: So, I… uh… hope this one isn’t autobiographical? It hits a bit close to home, to be sure – I’m sure it’s meant to. All that considered, though, it feels too meta (even though when I look at it, it shouldn’t), and has a sort of hostile feel to it. I’m sure this is all intended, but it doesn’t leave me with a good feeling about it.

4 David Larson

“Truth or dare!” said Horace from his wheelchair.

Stan looked up from his tray of food and replied, “Er, truth?”

“What was your biggest contribution in life?” Horace asked, an impish smile on his wrinkled visage.

“Hmmm…I wrote the lyrics to ‘In the Air Tonight’.”

Horace gaped for a couple seconds, and then burst in a spasm of chuckling. “Sorry, friend, I’m calling horse droppings on that!”

“No, really, I just wrote the chorus.”

“What, ‘I can feel it comin’ in the air tonight, oh lord’ repeated several dozen times?!”

Stan could no longer keep a grin from splitting his gray-trimmed face. He drank in Horace’s laughter and the scene in the assisted living cafeteria where they sat. In a moment of introspection, Stan uttered, “Life is a journey, not a destination.”

Horace put down his fork and wiped a laugh-tear from his eye. “You’re getting very zen on me, old man. Did I touch a nerve?”

Standing up and taking a moment to straighten his creaky knees, Stan looked down at Horace and winked. “If you can stage a good diversion, I think I can procure us each another slice of apple pie!”

K: Okay, the entire idea of this story is hilarious. It’s the saddest, most pathetic “biggest contribution to society” that someone could possibly manage, and yet Stan is perfectly content with the life he’s lived and he’s going to die happy. This joke didn’t ruin itself by getting too broad, and it easily could have. Tons of fun. SILVER

P: I like these old guys. They’re well written characters that feel rounded and real. It doesn’t even matter if Stan actually wrote the words to the song. The switch to the impending apple pie caper suggests that there’s a bit of life left to these two. I’m glad to hear it.

GOLD

5 Shawn Ashley

Grandpa George blinked twice in reflection. “Back in those days, Andrew, people weren’t allowed to marry just anybody. Know how your textbooks tell you of a time when people of different races weren’t allowed to vote? And you see how silly it sounds now? But at the time, people got really crazy about it.” He paused and looked away again, seeing something I couldn’t see.
“Same thing with us,” he said, patting my hand.
“So what did you and Grandpa James do??” I asked.
“We had a huge wedding in the middle of a public park in front of everyone. Much to the dismay of the other town residents. They threw rocks and picketed. Yelled at us,” Grandpa laughed, softly.
I was confused. “But who cares? Why did they care if you got married?”
Grandpa looked down at me. “Because back then, people of the same sex couldn’t legally get married.”
I was confused. “But who cares?”
He shrugged. “I have no fucking idea, Andy. No idea.” He tussled my hair. “They’re on the wrong side of history now, huh?”
I laughed. “I guess so!” I hugged him. “People are silly.”

K: I love this story’s basis, though it doesn’t go much further from where it lands in the first fifty words. Some more specifics would have been nice, but as is, it reads more like a history lesson.

P: A good tale of a very hopeful someday, this feels a bit like a “very special episode” of a 90’s TV show, but that’s okay. It’s well-written in a way that most of those episodes weren’t. The dialogue feels believable, and luckily manages to stay away from too much “on the nose” pushing like these type of stories usually tend to get.

BRONZE

6 Andrew M

Rick got off his shift at the mill and headed for Frank’s. As he entered the bar, he noticed Old Man Jones sitting at his usual place, already tanked and half asleep.

“Hey Rick. The usual?” Frank asked, setting down a full mug in front of him.

“Thanks, Frankie, and keep ’em comin’.”

Old Man Jones sat up. “Say, Rick?”

“Yeah?” Christ, Rick thought, here we go again.

“Did I ever tell you about the time I scored four touchdowns against Lewisburg in the state playoffs? Yep, four touchdowns against Lewisburg. Abe Martin called the next Monday and offered me a tryout at TCU. I was so excited I ran to tell Pa. Pa whacked me good upside the head and he said – I’ll never forget these words – he said ‘Who the hell you think you are, gonna some big shot college boy?’. And that was the end of that. I’m 73 now. Been working at the mill 55 years today. Can you imagine me all the way down in Texas? Yep, four touchdowns against Lewisburg.”

Old Man Jones sighed and laid his head back down.

“Crazy old coot,” Rick said to Frank with a shake of his head.

K: I’ve never been a fan of the line “here we go again” when an old man starts talking…it sounds so false. More melancholy in the story or much more sensationalism so we know it’s bunk – that may have allowed it to pop. As it is, it’s just kind of there.

P: One wonders how many times this scenario played out. As a story, it hits the right notes of sadness, regret, and missed potential. I hate the ‘Pa’ character, and I pity the Jones character. It seems a fairly easy thing to conjure with imagery and a story like this, but it’s still nice when an author is able to do it without really overdoing it.

SILVER

7 Sarah Johnson

Everybody wants to believe in something, and the brass saw a chance to keep folks stupid and terrified: an American tradition, if you ask me

We were stationed at Edwards in ’47. Andy smuggled in one of those rubber blow-ups from a border town. We were going wild with booze. We puffed her up with a tire pump, dressing her in a foil and newsprint two-piece. Billy hoisted her to a tower of scraps from the test field.
I don’t know why we lit her up – she was 20 feet tall and made out of cheap rubber, for chrissake. Sam laughed so hard he pissed himself, watching the giant foil tits melt away. She went up in a ball of heat and chemical stink.

That’s when the wind really picked up.

Men started panicking: we knew the Major would have our necks if we caused a scene. Chunks of melting garbage hit the sand while tiny bikini scraps flew past our heads in sparks.

By the time that son of a bitch Marcell found us, the hicks had called the Roswell town paper and the brass were writing fiction that would have made Lester del Rey proud.

K: Nice language (outside of “would OF made Lester…” and a couple of other mistakes in the last couple of paragraphs, which I fixed), nice idea, nice imagery and an unlikely but clever and realistic payoff. It’s all I ask, really. GOLD

P: I’ll overlook the fact that this one doesn’t explicitly talk about a person on death’s door, because a lot of this week’s entries don’t seem to. I like the alternate story for the Roswell incident (a fiery blow up doll… it all seems so obvious now!) The story is funny and does, in fact, seem like the type of isolated incident that a person would remember and the story one would retell on their deathbed.

BRONZE

8 Colin Woolston

Isn’t there supposed to be a tunnel or something? thought William. Being something that he had thought about for the last twenty years, he felt death should be approached with a sense of humor, and familiarity.
When the gun fired his life didn’t flash before his eyes, reality just slowed down. He watched as the muscles in Amelia’s hands clench as she squeezed the trigger. He watched as the muzzle recoiled, and saw the bullet leave the barrel.
He did think about his life, briefly. His childhood, his neighborhood friends, his acceptance into The Family, Janine. Janine’s face was in the front of his mind for a long moment. Maybe that’s what they mean, he thought. She was my life, I suppose.
The bullet spun as it floated towards his forehead. Janine’s face disappeared and was replaced by a scene that took William’s heart and stopped it cold. This was his life. Janine lying in the hospital bed, lifting a squalling, squirming baby for him to hold. He had felt roots, actually felt them, growing out of his feet through the floor of the hospital and into the earth of this shithole town when he held her. His darling Amelia.

K: This is as powerful as I’ve ever seen a single moment written around here. We don’t know why Amelia turned on her father, but the story gives us a clue that he wanted to run, so I think we can guess at a fairly sad redneck existence here. Whatever…I’m just connecting the dots here. No matter how it came to be, it worked on me. GOLD

P: Oooh… There’s a lot to like here. The description of the cliché “life passing before one’s eyes” is great, and the unexpected direction the story ends up going is fulfilling. “She was my life, I suppose” is a gloriously damning line.

GOLD

9 Matt Novak

I, CHARLES THOMAS MIDDLEBANKS III, being of sound mind, do hereby state as my LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT, the following:

WHEREFORE I have had the fortune to be the heir of a sizeable estate, first established by the acumen of my grandfather, and, during the too-brief time he was upon this earth, added to by my father, Charles Thomas Middlebanks, Jr., and

WHEREFORE I have continued to accumulate assets without labor of my own, relying only on what I previously described as “shrewd”, but now more appropriately recognize as “fortuitous”, investment, and

WHEREFORE those investments have often had deleterious effects on others, and

WHEREFORE it has only been in my last days that I have come to recognize the emptiness of indulgence and an absence of lasting impact in my life’s wake, and

WHEREFORE, it is never too late to change your ways,

THEREFORE, upon my death, I make the following disposition: To my wife, children, friends and other relatives, I leave nothing. Instead, I choose to leave my entire estate and my continuing good will to the American Red Cross.

Made this thirtieth day of August, in the Year of Our Lord 2012, by Charles Thomas Middlebanks III.

K: Oh, wow. What we’ve got here is funny, real, tragic and surreal all at once, somehow. There are some very clever turns of phrase here (the “fortuitous” line was excellent) and the ending is a hell of a thing, challenging the reader to make a judgment on this monumental decision. Strong stuff. SILVER

P: This reads less like a story, and more like a… editorializing will and testament. Which it is – albeit a fictional one. Eh. It might actually be better if it didn’t explicitly name an actual, real life organization. I have nothing in particular against the Red Cross, but things like this always end up seeming like endorsements, and there are very few organizations that stand up to that kind of scrutiny.

10 Joe Rakstad

Well, isn’t this nice.

I was 9. I remember the cold sweats, the racing heart palpitations, the fear, gripping me in my bed the night before. Everyone told me not to worry so much. My friend David was so excited about the trip. Oh… I miss him. He was the best. That was the hardest thing to deal with, dealing with the loss of David.

They called me the lucky one. It wasn’t luck, it was stark fear, pure and simple. I even went to the airport. I knew I was just going to say goodbye, wish them luck on the trip. My mom packed my suitcase, but deep down inside, I think she knew I wouldn’t go through with it. While she was in the bathroom, I felt it and it was empty.

I played it safe. For 47 years I held off. Most people understood after I told them what almost happened to me. But finally I decided to do it. After all, it was the only practical way to get to Hawaii.

To top it off, Alanis was on my MP3 when the engine blew.

K: The “Ironic” quip kind of makes me want to club a baby seal, but otherwise, I like this. The narrator is well-adjusted now, or seems so given the narration, but clearly was a disaster for some time (and I would be, too). This has a powerful sadness without having to make me want to kill myself, and I appreciate that. BRONZE

P: It isn’t irony. It’s coincidence. I think… ten thousand spoons, maybe? I love flying, but part of that love is the fear that grips me when I think of all the things that could go horribly wrong (yeah, I feel a thrill when I think of all the ways fate could conspire to murder me). The stakes aren’t low, exactly, but there’s not a whole lot to tie me to them. Nice supportive parents, btw. One question: is anyone still in contact with any friend that they knew when they were nine? I keep in contact with exactly one person that I played with when I was nine. Weird.

BRONZE

11 Brooks Maki

“The most important business lesson I learned was that, when changing lanes, if the other lane sees you signal you can’t predict whether they will cooperate and let you in. Don’t belie your intentions, they’ll assume that your speed won’t change, now you control whether you enter ahead or behind.” The billionaire pivoted his wheelchair, signaling the interview’s end.

K: Short can be good, and this one doesn’t have to be any longer. I assume the money came from the accident, for starters, then shrewd investments, given that it’s a business interview. The writer has made all his or her intentions clear in a VERY small space – normally I have to work harder to understand characters in much longer stories – and you’re damned right I appreciate the work here. GOLD

P: Umm. Wise words? He tapped his nose twice and jumped into his portable helicopter, signaling the review’s end.

12 Ian Pratt

Alfred had no time to avoid the hooded man at the other end of the alley. The first bullet entered his left thigh, the second ripped through his chest. He spun to the ground and squirmed his way into a vaguely fetal position.

“God…” his voice sputtered as his life poured out onto the asphalt. “My god.”

The shooter sprinted to the broken body, patted at Alfred’s cotton slacks until the heft of his wallet was found, then melted away into the night.

“I remember,” Alfred gurgled as his lung collapsed and the blood flowed into his esophagus. “I remember it now.”

Aside from Alfred’s wet gasps and soft slurred words, the only sound in that dark corner of downtown was a police siren slowly growing louder.

“The first candy bar I ever ate was a Baby Ruth.”

His fingers twitched involuntarily as his neurons attempted to fire one last time.

“My god, the nougat, and the chocolate.”

Alfred’s vision fogged into a milky pink haze pulsing at the end of a deep red tunnel.

“I was five years old,” the dying man wheezed. “My god what a candy bar.”

K: Well, isn’t this…absurd. I don’t dislike the writing, but wow, there’s a huge disconnect in tone here. I know that’s the point, but if so, it simply doesn’t go far enough to capture me fully. I think with a few tweaks this can be really funny. BRONZE

P: I do find this darkly hilarious, less for the Baby Ruth bit, more for the super dramatic depiction of the awful things happening to Alfred’s body as the bullets’ damage takes toll on his body. It’s a joke, and sort of silly one, at that, but all the blood and collapsed lungs sort of reminds me of a better version of what I was trying to go for with my submission for the sex story in Turbo – a story where the narrator begins to idly describe something besides that which the story is supposedly about (though it’s obviously at the forefront). That the writer probably did this by accident makes me want to make a feature length version.

BRONZE

13 Eric Schapp

“Keep going. I suppose that ought to be the appropriate flourish for the final entry…

Dammit! Keep it together E.B., you need to get this last part down. 1989 wasn’t that long ago. Twenty three years just isn’t enough. What was it I wanted to say about St. Louis? Lost it. Born there, but thank goodness I won’t end up there. Or a landfill. I’ve got that at least…

Keep going, and going and going. Probably shouldn’t have spent a chapter on Madonna and Vader each; too late to change it now. Can’t drop my sticks to write.

I never thought my energy would run out, but I guess my batteries just aren’t charged. At least I had my fifteen minutes. And I got the US market. Funny how parody works sometimes. I hope that’s not my legacy. Maybe I’ll get a spot in Barron’s, ‘Keep Going.’ Mantra can be quotes right?”

K: Both Pete and I hesitated on this before getting the now-obvious-seeming gag. It’s an okay gag, though it wears a little thin once you know what you’ve got. I like the writing enough, though the jury is way out on whether I like this concept or not. Nostalgia rarely does anything for me.

P: It took me a while. It shouldn’t have. If the Energizer Bunny isn’t an obvious enough reference, then I should really just stop trying and limiting my critique to “love it” and “hate it”. I remember the Vader commercial so well, too. It doesn’t seem like this one aims for one particular moment, but it’s clever, so whatever. It’s all about the nostalgia, so mission accomplished.

BRONZE

14 Cathy Wells

“Well kid, this is it. I’m gonna be dead soon so I’m gonna tell you something I ain’t never told no one. Tell anyone you want, just wait until I’m fertilizer.” Milt’s leathery fingers brought a hand rolled cigarette to his lips and inhaled as deeply as he still could.

“Ok Grandpa.” Jake’s eyes widened with excitement. He just knew it was going to be something good, just like the Lone Ranger. His grandpa was tough, an honest to goodness cowboy, he really was the luckiest little buckaroo in his preschool.

“Back when I was handsome young cowboy I used to head to Mexico to dance with the pretty senoritas. One night I was having a dance with a mighty fine lady when this horse-faced black-toothed muchacho came bustin’ in yelling that I was dancin’ with his woman. He just started beatin’ that senorita and I just couldn’t stand for it. I challenged that piece of shit to a duel right there and he never stood a chance. We just left him in the street and that senorita and me hopped on my horse and rode all the way back to Arizona territory and got married the next day.”

“Wow!”

K: Well, this one boldly proclaims where it’s going, and then it goes there. It primes the reader for a story about a badass cowboy, and it turns out we hear a story about a badass cowboy. If this was long-form, that would be absolute death. As is, all my instincts are telling me to pan it, but with a story so short I think it’s probably alright. I believe the characters and the relationship was nice enough. BRONZE

P: Well, this one certainly tells a story, and it does tell it exactly how a grandpa would tell a wide-eyed grandson. The only real problem is that there’s no prose to keep me as wide-eyed as the preschooler. The low word count makes it a tough proposition, but it is possible, and this one falls a little short in that respect. If I was the kid and had a bit of knowledge of grandpa (other than being simply told that he was “an honest to goodness cowboy), though… no way. That would be legendary.

15 Bret Highum

You would think a man who had decided to brace himself against a mud-brick wall and cover the retreat of his fellow soldiers would be a heroic warrior, but he’s not.

You would think a man with two bullet holes in his gut would be regretting some decisions he’d made, but he’s not.

Instead, as he slumps against the grainy, grimy wall, gasping in pain, he’s remembering the day before he enlisted. The day he held his young wife’s hand, gazing into her beautiful eyes. The day she gave birth to their son, the son who died less than two hours later.

The footsteps of the enemy round the corner and slow to a stop around him. He does not understand their language, and he doesn’t look up as he hears orders barked out.

The grenade slowly rolls from his hand, the spoon flipping away, the same way her hand had slid from his as he watched her slip into death. He closes his eyes for the last time.

K: Well, doesn’t THIS one just pound the fuck out of the reader with depressing moments? I could resent it for being manipulative, but the final moments are strong and real, and the prose is solid throughout. If you’re going to go this dark you have to feel honest, and this one does. SILVER

P: This story brings to mind any of the dozens of war movies I’ve seen. The sad widower archetype is not one that tends to have a very long lifespan. The prose here is nice and poetic. The story tugs at the heartstrings, and while I’m not sure it tugs them quite hard enough for the reaction it’s looking for (it takes a fair bit to take back a war movie stock character), it’s a genuinely affecting little ditty, regardless.

SILVER

16 Erik S

I’ve loved trains since I was a little kid. Passenger trains never did all that much for me; I was always awed by the raw, unbridled power of the big freight trains. When I was about 5, I was on a walk with my Dad. We had to wait as a train pulling an unending amount of cars went by. While my young mind didn’t understand the specific physics then, it still could grasp the general idea of that much pure inertia flying past six feet in front of my face, and it was floored by it.

After years of waiting, I was finally at the head of an SD45-2. The senior conductor was pretty impressed with the knowledge I’d already accrued, and let me accelerate her by myself. It took a delicate balance of force and tenderness to turn the handle, but I was rewarded by the first jolt of the locomotive, and the impressed smile of the conductor.

The feeling of being at the head of 10,000 tons is simply indescribable. Strange as it sounds, I think astronauts must feel something similar. I cannot thank the Make-A-Wish Foundation enough. Yesterday was the most amazing day of my life.

K: Huh, there’s an interesting turn. I was braced for a gruesome crash, but in its way, it’s still quite sad (much moreso than it would be if it had gone for the gore, actually). It’s a tough thing, dropping a line with so much weight at the end of a story that’s been so casual, but this story did it as well as I’d reasonably expect. BRONZE

P: Aww… the darkness that defined this season relents just a little bit, and some genuine hearttuggery takes it place, if only for a week. It seems saccharine on the surface, but it’s got a narrative depth to it. I remember well sitting in the car on family car trips when we’d be stopped in front of a train. The author nails the feeling a kid gets out of it.

SILVER

——————————————————

There was another gold/nothing, which always manages to both annoy and amuse me. Oh well.

Meanwhile, Colin Woolston gets in on the gold/gold parade, and without that DQ (and those nonsubs) earlier, man, he’d be right there. Just six of these left, people! Get excited. I probably should have shortened the season to 12 back when the thing started as I think writers and judges alike are feeling fatigued, but it’s a little late now. Anyway, Pete has a four-day vacation coming, so we’ll have a break there.

The next one is due Friday at 9pm Central, and the lead character must be blind. 300 word limit. I’m actually thinking now that Pete’s vacation runs over Friday, but he’ll have to let me know. It might be next week, actually.

Be well, Prosers.