The challenge was to write a story where the protagonist is away from the action. Vague, maybe, but worth attempting.

These were all over the place in style, and I can tell that some struggled with the concept (particularly since there were three nonsubs).

Pete and I were not all over the place, though. Only two people got different scores from the two of us.

1 Sarah Johnson

We swished through milkweed and grasshopper spit to the farm’s entrance. I smelled decaying apples in the breeze; a thundercloud pushed closer. We stepped off the gravel road.
The outbuildings littered a hillside strewn with rags and scraps of metal. We jumped a padlocked fence, approaching a shack with a crumpled tower. “See? Look.” The steeple and its peeling cross made Tara feel safe. I knew better.
A window was smashed on one side of the shack. I saw an altar, garnished with ribbons and statues and sprinkled in broken glass. A small barn sagged against an ancient fishing boat. We found a headless doll in a chicken coop on the edge of the lot. Medicine bottles and test-tubes were scattered on shelves; I pocketed a roll of film from a coffee can. A dead cat crouched in a flower pot, its ears still flattened. I felt the fear in my chest, marching with Tara to the main farmhouse.
“I think I hear something.” We crouched next to a tire along the house’s rotting wall, listening: hiss, crunch, click, click. Hiss, crunch, click, click.
Tara lifted herself high enough to see through the filthy glass. “It seems normal, I guess. I see a… holy shit, what is that?” Tara’s jaw tightened. She clapped a hand over my mouth.
I stood on the tire’s rim and peeked through the yellowed curtains. The woman stood perfectly still in the center of the house. She stood before a smoking cookie sheet and a minnow bucket. I hear the splash.
Hiss… click click.
She turned. I saw the bodies, perfectly silent and stinking. We ran, throwing up on the side of the road behind our house.
The whole farm was leveled last summer. Tara got the film developed last night; we’re still waiting.

K: The dark, decaying backdrop of this story sets a strong mood, and for a story where we’re away from the action, it’s told in a way that draws me in. I know just enough to be hooked without feeling like I was robbed. SILVER

P: Well, that’s certainly an interesting start. The scene that these kids happen upon feels fleshed out, and the way that they’ve stumbled upon an awful (if a bit vague) happening is brought to life nicely by the prose.

SILVER

2 Matt Novak

I sat at the bar contemplatin’ my whiskey ‘nd listenin’ to the sounds around me. The saloon was raucous as usual, but I’d trained myself over the years to listen for individual conversations. Dale Waldrip complained ‘tweren’t nothin’ much to do but drink, ranch, ‘nd shoot, in that order. ‘nd Therese was trainin’ the new gals which guys were fair, ‘nd which to avoid if they could.

Then suddenly there was a new voice, the fear shakin’ through the words ‘at said otherwise.
“I’m gonna kill me that sheriff that cain’t be shot,” it said, straight and plain as day.
With my back turned I could feel ‘im pushin’ through the crowd. My reflexes triggered. I heard a gun fire. The bullet whizzed towards the space previously occupied by yours truly, instead findin’ Sully, who’d been fillin’ my glass.
“Where’d he go?” screamed the kid, “Where’s that summabitch? I had ‘em!”
I stood there, in my same spot mostly, watchin’ events unfold. The kid had wildness in his eyes ‘nd he began firing in the air, angry shots that sent splinters flying where they hit. Folks was screamin’ and headin’ for whatever cover they could find. I tried to will myself back to reality, but couldn’t do it. I was grateful for it too, when another bullet flew through where I’d been.

A few hours later, after one of my deputies come down ‘nd arrested the boy, I made my way over ‘nd sat in front of the kid’s cell, waitin’ for myself to rematerialize. When I finally did, poor boy looked like he seen a ghost.

“Been this way a long time kid,” I said to ‘em. “Don’t rightly know where it comes from. But a reputation gotta come from somewhere, ‘nd now you know how I got mine.”

K: The language gets a little heavy-handed at times, but our protagonist is a star without being the star in a story that just sails wide of the rules. There’s a lot more to the protagonist’s story, and I have a good idea of what some of that is. BRONZE

P: I like the concept, and it pulls of the conceit well enough, but something feels kind of ‘off’ here. The “rootin tootin chicken fried” accent is a tough one to make believable, because any lapses at all bring the reader right out of it (hell, half the time when it’s done well, it’s hard enough to stay in it, because you keep re-reading it to figure out what in the hell the dude is saying). Like I said, I like the idea, and I certainly like parts of it, but as a whole it doesn’t quite gel for me.

BRONZE

3 Erik Sundberg

It’d been a normal night at the `Kato. The usuals offered the usual: Mark was yakking and laughing at his own jokes, Eddie scoffed at his pull-tab results, and James was telling Beth how worthless she was through slurred obscenities.

It seemed James started early today. I had the usual urge to say something, though I guessed I never would. I told myself I would say something in any similar situation, though I knew it was because I’d fallen slightly in love with Beth.

Cynthia left about three months ago, something which surprised me a lot less than I thought it would, and I moved here looking for a change. Within walking distance, the `Kato quickly became habit. The locals didn’t know much about me, but I knew plenty about them.

Take James. He was a complete shitheel. I’d pieced together enough of his story, but never could figure out hers. God knows what he’d done to wear her down to his level.

Beth eventually convinced James to leave. James walked ahead, berating her on his way out. Beth and I had met eyes many times. All I could ever do give a sympathetic nod. As she walked passed, I wanted to say something. Anything. I even opened my mouth a little. But, as had happened countless times in my life, I stood mute.

James killed her that night. Nothing savage. He smacked her a little too hard, the back of her head slammed into a brick wall, and her forehead hit the sidewalk. The piece of shit fled instead of getting help while she bled to death on a chilly, autumn night.

I’ve told myself there’s nothing I could’ve said that night, and that’s probably true. Still, working on a case of PBR in a sparse apartment, it doesn’t exercise her hazel eyes from my mind.

K: There’s a lot to digest in this small space – perhaps too much, but we do get the pertinent information through the static. The line “nothing savage” is fairly chilling, given the murder. James is probably too one-dimensional for a regular story, but he works in this space, since we only get a limited view of him through the eyes of our narrator. SILVER

P: I don’t knock for misspellings or grammar, but I have to admit, having exercise instead of exorcize for this one right at the crucial crux of the story is a tough break. I think it would’ve ended up right abut where it is, anyway, but still. This one got ahold of me, actually. Initially, it sort of feels like it’s mostly telling, not showing, but when the knife goes in for the reveal, it’s brutally honest about it, and that gets points from me.

SILVER

4 Andrew McGuire

Deb stood horrified in the doorframe, overlooking the grizzly scene. Every fiber of her being ached to scream and turn away, but her entire body was in a state of shock-induced paralysis. Deb had been on the force for 15 years, the last 8 in homicide. At countless scenes, she’d been more or less unmoved, able to go about the business of her job.

Here, in a dim, dank apartment somewhere deep in the part of the city where only the forgotten and lost dare tread, Deb was awash in a feeling of dread the intensity of which she had until now not known to exist. Her eyes were locked on those of her mother, whose body lay lifeless on the floor before her.

Until now, Deb had considered her committment to the job unshakable, but the message here was clear and unequivocal. In that moment of terror, Deb knew the cartel had won.

K: “Grizzly?” Oh well. This story has potential, but if Deb is going to be called to her own mother’s homicide, I have to know why such a stupid mistake on the part of the force could happen. This is all too convenient. BRONZE

P: This one, on the other hand doesn’t feel entirely honest. It feels overbaked, and by the time we get to Deb’s mom – who we don’t know or have any connection to – I’ve sort of checked out. I don’t feel like it earns its melodrama.

BRONZE

5 Cathy Wells

Harry could hear the opening bars of “At last” and so vividly envisioned his love dancing in the arms of another that you could scarcely imagine that he wasn’t there. He’d had his chance and let his basest desires determine the path his life would take. So now he was here, sitting in a hotel bar two floors below the ballroom in which Amy Harris was becoming Mrs. Amy Dennis. He’d heard she was engaged and in a moment of sheer masochism discovered the time and place of the ceremony. He even rented the room next to the bridal suite. But he’d never intrude, he’d never profess his love because he wasn’t sure he even knew what that meant. He did want her to be happy and knew he couldn’t be a part of it if she were to stay that way. No, he knew she would never think of him. She wouldn’t even notice the paramedics carry him from the bar or the small obituary in the paper. She’d be on her honeymoon, but for now she’d dance and Harry would drop a few more pills into his selzer.

K: That final misspelling is sort of a story-killer, eh? I kid. Sort of. Again, there’s potential, but I get the feeling that this story was rushed. Harry admitting that he doesn’t know what love is is a great character moment, and I would have liked to spend more time getting to know this sociopath so I could feel something when he took his life. BRONZE

P: The pedal gets put to the melodramatic medal pretty much from the opening word. Harry is a sadsack protagonist, albeit one with a past I’d like to have a bit of light shed on. It seems his past is more interesting than the present, in fact, because all there really is for him here is semi-creepy stalkerism and… suicide? Huh.

BRONZE

6 Shawn Ashley

I remember the smell most of all. It made the whole house smell sour. Or kind of like what Blinky’s cat box smelled like when it was overflowing with damp litter and her turds.
I would hide at the top of the stairs and listen. I wasn’t sure what they were doing but I knew that they were cooking something. Mom told me never to go down there and not to get near the door; ever. But I never listened to her.
The day the world exploded started just like all of the rest of them, only today Mom didn’t make me change out of my pajamas. I think she may have forgotten about me completely because she didn’t come in my room to wake me up or feed me breakfast.
I ate half of the box of Fruity Flakes. I almost threw up. Mom always warned me that five year old boys weren’t supposed to eat that much. Of course I didn’t listen.
I watched a bunch of TV for what seemed like hours and I still hadn’t seen Mom. So I walked to the basement door and pressed my ear to it. I could smell the familiar odor wafting through so I knew she was down there. But my heart started to race that I hadn’t seen her yet today.
“Mom..?” I called softly.
Nothing.
“Mom?” Louder this time.
I was rewarded with a loud boom and a blast that shot me back into living room.
When I came to, I saw the guys loading me into a van strapped to a bed. Their lips were moving but I couldn’t hear them.
I thought I started crying, “Mom”, but I couldn’t tell.
So I started screaming. At least I thought I did.

K: The displaced child gets me every time, whether or not he or she is shot at the end of it (actually, I think it hurts worse when the child is left unharmed, but without a parent). It’s too manipulative, but only by a bit. Because it played out in vague descriptions rather than gore, it worked. Although: fuck you. SILVER

P: I’ve been watching Breaking Bad recently, so I’m in the frame of mind to like this to begin with. The fact that it finds good use for the constraints of the challenge is certainly an added bonus. The final couple of lines are quality.

SILVER

7 Dean Carlson

David Lee Roth was in back of the studio chatting up the hot little number in black leather boots from catering when Sammy Hagar walked in and gave hugs to Eddie and Alex. While he was imaging that in a few short minutes he’d be snorting coke off the caterer’s pert breasts, Roth barely thought it was interesting that the Red Rocker was in the studio “hey it’s Van Halen, celebrities were always walking in the studio, especially rockers trying to learn something from the master of the stage” mused Dave.

Twenty minutes later as he was in the sound engineer’s office going down on Heather, the caterer’s assistant, he thought he heard Eddy and the boys kicking into Panama. It first Dave thought it was the guys showing off for Hagar but then the unmistakable growl of Sammy Hagar kicked into the first chorus.

“Don’t ya know she’s coming home with me
You’ll lose her in that turn
I’ll get her!

Panama!”

Huh, that’s kinda cool, they’re letting Sammy sing with the band. God Damn! He doesn’t actually sound that bad, thought Dave as Heather rubbed baby oil all over his chest. Maybe I should go out there and show Hagar how to do a stage kick, or at least see if he has any hash. Everyone knows Hagar has major contacts in Morocco.

David Lee Roth finished up with Heather, gave her a fake phone number, put on his tights and headed toward the studio. “Hagar, what you doing here dawg, trying to steal my gig? Ha ha ha. Seriously what kind of drugs you got on ya? After Heather I’m in the mood for a major buzz.” Before Sammy Hagar could speak, Eddie said, “say Sammy can you step out, me and Alex gotta talk to Dave.”

K: Who wrote this? Har. Too many weird grammatical mistakes here, and Van Halen breaking up really doesn’t qualify as a major event, right…?

P: Van Halen. Is this becoming an inside joke at this point? It starts with the two jokes it’s going to use (sex! Roth getting replaced but being too stoned/sexed up/stupid to notice!) and runs with them. Sure, it runs them into the ground, but… at least it’s about Van Halen?

8 Ian Pratt

“Computer!” Shelby yelled.

“Recompression in forty-one seconds,” the computer drawled back.

Shelby paced the length of the tiny airlock, eyes trained on the
window. Through it she watched as her crewmates Winter and Fujita
faced each other. Winter gripped a long, heavy wrench already dripping
with bright crimson. Fujita stared at him down the barrel of a
stub-nosed concussion rifle.

“Just fucking shoot him!” Shelby shouted to Fujita, her voice echoing
harmlessly inside her helmet. By design, Fujita’s gun wouldn’t
penetrate the walls that shielded them from the vacuum. But he’d
always had a thing about the hull. Winter knew that too.

Shelby gripped her own sidearm, a lean black pistol. A real weapon,
not like the toy that Fujita held. Her finger ached to pull the
trigger. She watched Winter jiggle his wrench, flicking blood in all
directions. Fujita took a step backwards.

“Computer!” she yelled again.

“Recompression in thirty-two seconds.”

An alarm chirped at the 30-second mark. Winter turned his head towards
Shelby, noticing her through the window for the first time.

“Hi Shelby,” he mouthed with a boyish grin.

Shelby pounded her fists on the door, shouting curses and violent
promises that only made Winter point to his ears and shrug.

Shelby didn’t hear the sound Fujita’s gun made as he shot and missed,
or the sound of a wrench meeting a skull as Winter fell upon him; only
the adrenaline-soaked roar of her own futile anguish.

“Recompression in ten seconds.”

Winter’s face appeared in the window, his boyish grin beaming through
the blood. He gave Shelby a taunting wave, then in a calm, agonizingly
slow walk, drifted down the hall towards the heart of the ship,
towards the rest of the crew. Shelby wondered if she would be quick
enough to save them.

“Recompression complete.”

K: Winter has some wonderful space madness here. I know I’ve said this before, but if you’re going to do insanity, it had better be good, because it’s not very interesting as a motive. This worked because the “watcher” in the scene is clearly setting the rest of the plot in motion. I had to read over it again after I was about halfway through to really catch Winter’s crazy drift (I don’t go looking for insane characters, as a rule), but that’s fine with a story this short. GOLD

P: I want to read this book. After that, I want to see this movie. Space seems like such a great place to do proper horror, but there are very few that do it well at all (even Sunshine, which I very much liked, and parts of which this sort of reminds me of, had major issues when it tried to bring horror into the mix). The tension and hopeless resolution make this a winner.

GOLD

9 Bret Highum

James watched the men manhandling her, while he hung from a rope strung over a rafter. “No, no, no,” he mumbled through smashed lips and broken teeth, one eye hidden by the swelling of his split eyebrow.

She had arrived on a schooner from Haiti, a ravishing woman with brilliant red hair. James had been finishing up the accounts on his brother’s ship when he saw her. He had immediately abandoned that thankless task so he could offer to escort the lady, to hell with what his brother would say tomorrow! He couldn’t believe she accepted, but he wasn’t going to question his luck, not when it had brought him the pleasure of Miss Lily Marbas’ company.

They had soon found themselves accosted by four ruffians and dragged into a warehouse. The men thrashed James soundly before tying him up, while Lily was slapped to the ground. One man cut her clothes off as her nose bled liberally onto the rough planks. Lily’s fingers clawed through the scarlet puddle as the louts began to argue over who would rape her first.

James’ eye was suddenly caught by the lines Lily had drawn in her blood. He could almost read it… He glanced at Lily, and she winked, running a bright red tongue over sharp, pointed teeth. Her mouth gaped wider and a lion’s roar issued forth, causing James to flinch in terror.

When he opened his eyes again, a sleek red lion stood over four ruined carcasses. James couldn’t move as the lion, splashed in gore, padded towards him. The dreadful mouth opened again, reaching for him, the breath reeking of hot blood and shredded intestines. James pulled away as far as he could, but he couldn’t escape the swipe of a giant, sandpapery tongue and a bone-rumbling purr.

K: Is Lily attacking James, or showing affection? I’m not sure. This story’s prose is okay throughout most of it but really picks up when the story goes where it was really meant to go. The lead character might be too much of a participant in this one, but I’ll let it slide since I know how the writer saw it. Now I’m just wondering if “James and Lily” was a reference to Harry Potter’s parents. BRONZE

P: That was… unexpected (though if I’d read the Wiki article sooner, it wouldn’t have been nearly so). The story takes a certain wicked glee in its secret, which is fun to see, and it certainly takes pleasure in the ruffians’ fate. I feel like it would linger on their ruined corpses longer if given the opportunity. Heck, I think I’d be okay with that.

GOLD

10 Colin Woolston

As she rose from the impossibly soft blankets, part of Anoushka’s mind noticed that she was naked; but only in passing as her conscious mind was focused on the world collapsing in front of her. She pressed her delicate hands against the (glass?) of her spherical prison, hoping that she would feel something, anything of the earth that had been her home.

Some private, tucked away thoughts thanked the ridiculous half-ostrich god that had made her his pet and taken her away from the war. Well, not really a war; the word implies a fight. This was a massacre. Fiery beings roamed about, tearing at the fabric of the world. One, its indifferent behemoth hand grasping at the life force of a mountain and pulling it glacially upwards, turned its gaze toward Anoushka. Its featureless eyes in its expressionless, magmic face somehow communicated a proprietary benevolence.

The thing was, Anoushka had seen it coming. Once she had dipped her finger into the sauce of the universe and started exploring the ingredients, it wasn’t much further to go to discover the matrix that mapped out the world as she knew it. From there, things got sticky. She had moved past particle physics and all the theories that science had to offer, she had realized that all that was left was faith. This pissed off her brain, at least until she met her first god. Then her brain took a back seat to experience.

It wasn’t long before she realized that she wasn’t the only one who had come to the same conclusions. Not only that, but also that this little drama had been playing out for millennia. Apparently the gods were tired of these pesky little humans meddling about.

Apparently Anoushka was about to see what else there was.

K: This is a daunting but fun display of a dichotomy in language – beautiful passages are interspersed seamlessly with snippets like “This pissed off her brain.” I’m not generally the type to go for stories that pop around like that, but this fusion hit the right notes. GOLD

P: Cool name, and a very cool concept. I think something like this could be greatly expanded – I’ve actually toyed with a similar idea, myself. Anoushka’s character goes through a lot in a very short period of time, to the point, where it’s hard to not wish there was about 20 times more here than we’re given. That said, the writing lives up to the concept, and that’s no small feat. Great stuff.

GOLD

11 Brooks Maki

“hey, what’s going on?”

“nothing.”

K: I hate you, and I love you. I can’t give a medal to a story that was a last-ditch effort to sidestep a non-sub, but I did laugh.

P: Oh, you.

12 AMR

Though it had snowed three inches less than a week earlier, that had melted the next day, and there was nothing to dampen the sound of frosty leaves and grass crunching underneath Anton’s boots. He walked slowly to his stand, pausing for a minute every 30 yards or so, to let the woods calm down around him before moving again.

In the stand, he waited for daybreak flexing his muscles to keep warm while keeping still. First one leg, lifted, stretched out, and gently set down. Then the other. Then each arm, his back, his neck, and then each again. He always kept one hand on his .410; he’d be ready this time.

Anton slowly rolled the gun flat and checked that there was a shell in the chamber. Yes, just like every other morning since the one when there wasn’t.

As the sun rose closer to the horizon, more and more of the woods around him became visible. Anton watched every shooting lane he had cut that summer, waiting for one to be bright enough to shoot down. He still hadn’t decided on whether he’d shoot if he saw a doe. He had the only permit in the party of four, but he wanted to have antlers to show for his first deer. He was still surprised that it mattered to him now that he was an adult.

Just minutes before he felt he had the light to shoot, Anton heard first a distant rumble from miles away, then four nearby shots—his father in-law—in quick succession. BAM! BAM! BAM! BAM!, and then a fifth shot… a kill. As the light became full, more shots rose from locations near and far, and echoed through the valley, Anton said a short prayer, “Let one come my way.”

K: There’s nothing really wrong with this story, but there have been a lot of stories about hunting – most of them by Bret – that have left an impression on me, whereas this one relates an everyday occurrence. Sure, it’s an everyday occurrence that I’ve never partaken in, but still…there’s just no “pop” here. BRONZE

P: True story, I love the name Anton. I’ve actually never been deer hunting, but a lot of the feelings here translate fairly well to the universal human experience (not being able to shoot things… impatiently listening to other people shooting things, etc). Fairly low stakes, I suppose, but it’s still a good story told well.

BRONZE

13 David Larson

“I may not be the sharpest blade in the razor, but I had no problem getting a security clearance here, and in this economy, a job’s a job, right? Okay trainee, just tag along with me while we walk the mail cart…

“The left door is Dr. Teliknisharma’s lab. Lots of weird stuff goes on in there. Hold it open, will you? Thanks. Looks like the doctor and staff are working in the sealed room, where the bright blue glow is behind those windows. Look, all the staff in there is jumping and waving at us — hey, how’s it goin’? – no time to visit, though…

“This next lab gives me the creeps. Dr. Spencer is pretty cool, but he works with dangerous insects and stuff., so I don’t hang out here very long. Get the door again, will you? HEY DR. SPE…oh, shhhh! He’s sleeping over there on the floor! Just lay his mail on his desk and we’ll let him sleep. He puts in some crazy long hours.

“Dr. Cortez and Dr. Helvetica work over here. They do some pretty funky stuff with lasers and things, I guess. We have to put on these goggles before we go in, but careful, it’s hard as heck to see with these things on. Hey, thanks for getting the door! MAN, I CAN HARDLY HEAR OVER THE MACHINERY AND THE SHOUTING! HAND ME THAT STACK ON THE TOP AND LET’S GET BACK OUTSIDE AGAIN! Whew — they must be running another safety drill in there or something.

“We tend to learn a lot of new names; there’s a lot of turnover here — did that sound like an explosion to you? — and often we have to learn different routes, too.”

K: The joke comes dangerously close to wearing out its welcome, but I smiled throughout. I liked the choice of using a tour guide and had fun imagining the new hire…is he clueless, or horrified? Funny either way. GOLD

P: I should be rolling my eyes at the gag, but I laughed at just about every one. The oblivious security guard is such a trope that it’s not even funny…. only it obviously still is.

BRONZE

 

—————————————

Nonsubs: Gilman, Eric Schapp, and Joseph Rakstad.  I guess the long break should have warranted a reminder email.  Okay, admittedly, Gilman said he’d probably be a nonsub because he had no internet access today.

Congrats to Colin and Ian, your double-golders this week.  Erik S is suddenly on the brink of breaking into the playoffs, and Colin would be waaaaaaay up there without his three nonsubs earlier.  Oh well.

Your final challenge of the regular season, due Friday with a limit of 300 words, is to write a story about characters saying goodbye.  Awwwww.  It’s been a hell of a season, Prosers.