The challenge was to write a story in 500 words or fewer where a character has less than a month to live, and knows it.

There was a nonsub. No, really. Now THAT person has less than a month to live, if I have anything to say about it.

1 Sarah Johnson

The toy was a gift from her grandfather – my great-great-grandfather, a Polish immigrant. He drowned in a creek in 1931 as she scrambled from his grip, slipping through clouds of mosquitoes and leech-choked mud. Grandma clasped the toy birdie all evening while the swamp permeated her frail child’s body. He’d wanted to die. Her fever broke a month later but she never left that shore.

It was crafted from the leftover mahogany used to make her brother’s crib: a gnarled, broken sparrow with a missing eye. I was afraid of birdie. Grandma said it kept people’s promises.

Birdie fascinated me during my early summer visits down south. Grandma’s toy faced the lead glass windows in her alcove, boldly leaning on a cracked leg. I played make-believe with it once, setting it in a downy, yolk-dried hollow of a robin’s nest. I watched the blinking dust motes descend from the willow trees, swirling in a deliberate, twinkling eddy above the sparrow’s poked-out eye. I tried to return it to the ledge, but its milk-paint feathers splintered my thumb and I fainted.

I woke up in a wedge of sunlight in grandma’s room, my front tooth lost in the fall. Birdie was on its ledge and grandma was baking meatloaf; I got five dollars from the tooth fairy. Grandma never explained.

When my grandpa died, she dragged birdie to safety to the nursing home in town.

I avoided grandma’s trinkets for the rest of her life – the rotting dolls and beaded charms. I’m not afraid to admit it now: birdie called to me like a lullaby, a whispering bedtime story of bad luck and inherited nightmares. Grandma loved it. I kept out of its way.

Grandma thumbed birdie’s underbelly through the worst of her morphine death throes. She’d gasped in my ear, the vapors of death punctuating the room while I braced the hospice rail. “Keep birdie safe. Keep birdie with you. Promise us. Promise us all.”

I never touched birdie again – not until grandma died. It arrived in the mail the day before the wake – an old cigar box wrapped in parchment paper and ribbon.

I think of grandma a lot lately. I think of grandma’s death and then I think of my own. Then I think of birdie. I’m dying.

I’m done with follow ups. I won’t do hospice. The CT scan explains everything – the nodules are growing exponentially. My ability to regenerate is smothering me, my own tissue choking me to death. I’m drowning, and I have weeks to live. I imagine leeches are lining my chest, clinging to pink membranes while I scream for air. I imagine lying face-down in a creek, reeking of moonshine and hot Kentucky dirt. I’m afraid.

It broke my heart to ship birdie away – I didn’t like grandma’s toy bird, but I swore I’d protect it. My sister has shadowboxes; I hope she keeps her promise. Some things shouldn’t end up in a thrift store.

K: As a rule, I don’t get into a lot of stories with no dialogue or anything seeming to be in the present tense. This one breaks those rules, as the rich history of birdie is explored in a way that allows the reader to connect to several characters at once. It also had a complexity that’s uncommon in stories around here – our narrator doesn’t like the bird, but protects it anyway. It sounds like a tiny thing, but it does well to create tension and drama in a small space, in what really is a small story, as well. GOLD

P: This is a hell of a thing – at once beautiful and malicious. The descriptions are great throughout, and the author makes a myth all its own and lets it loose upon the poor bastards who inhabit it. Great stuff.

GOLD

2 Erik S

Manny stopped in his tracks. He felt it against his face. The breeze wasn’t strong that day, but contained within it was the first wisps of chillness that certainly foretold of the inevitable autumn and winter to follow.

He thought how strange it was. The entire summer had been beautiful; ample sun, rain welcome when it came, and general contentment throughout. Then, strolling through the tall grass one day, a hint of crispness in the air slid through him like flying shards of glass. He exasperatedly stared up into the heavens, and the exhalation stuck in his throat when he spied a single, yellowing leaf swaying on the end of a tree branch in that fateful, gentle wind. He knew he had a few weeks or so before his duty was expected of him, but anything beyond that wasn’t guaranteed.

Manny shook his head, but moved on ahead.

***

Something clicked over in Manny’s brain. 12 hours of sunlight. Today was the equinox. He knew his time was getting shorter. If he wanted to survive this one way or another, he was quickly running out of time.

He shivered a little in the increasingly cool night, and continued on ahead, searching.

***

After weeks of searching, he came upon her.

He had gone deeper into the woods than he had before. He came around the bend, and there she sat, as if she had been waiting.

She eyed him up and down, and then turned her back on him, as though dismissing him. Within seconds, he closed the gap between them and leapt upon her. He pinned her down, clutching her around her breast, pinning her arms down in the process. She struggled, but not enough to separate herself him. He breathed deeply as his back arched in preparation to invade her…

Moments past, and he finished, spilling himself all over her. He stayed still, focused, still clenching her close to him. The next few minutes would be critical. He felt her tensing body, and waited just the right moment to disengage from her.

Feeling the moment approaching, he counted down in his head. He prepared. 3. 2. 1. He disconnected and turned to flee into the night.

He made it one step away when he was grabbed by her powerful femurs, the spikes piercing through him, holding him in place this time. He immediately knew he had met his end. He went limp, acceptant. The next moment, his face was gone, replaced by deep gashes where her teeth had struck through it.

***

She finished her meal, and dropped Manny’s headless corpse to the ground. She smiled inwardly; her stomach full, her eggs fertilized. A froth from her glands seeped around them, already hardening. She hopped off into the night in search of a trusty place to deposit the ootheca.

K: I started to get this at just the right time. The lead character seems awful until we realize it’s just a bit of science, and from there, it’s a fun revelation rather than a groaner. The prose had the unlucky duty of following the prose in story #1, and it occasionally didn’t hit the mark. The concept, though, was executed beautifully.  Also, I’m glad I’m not a mantis.  Just wanted to throw that out there. SILVER

P: Spider snuff porn! I saw this coming with a couple paragraphs to spare, though I don’t know if that hurts my overall opinion of it or not. The prose itself is descriptive, though it doesn’t quite pop like the other stories do.

SILVER

3 David Larson

Hal noticed the large foldout tucked into a family history book from the recently discovered cache of his late, great uncle’s memorabilia. All the intricate writing and curiously connecting lineages of the family tree drawn upon it absolutely fascinated him. Tracing various lines with his finger, he located his Uncle Ted, where Ted’s remarriage a month ago was duly recorded…and yet, this book had been in storage for at least four years. Hal noticed other recent family events were also noted with their dates as well. Looking closer, he began to identify dates in the future, some as far as 2080. How could that be? And then he froze at an item in his own small rectangle:

Harlan Joseph MILLER
DOD 10-5-2012
His own death, barely one month away! Hal quickly refolded the page like it was about to burst into flames, and put it back on the shelf.

For the next four weeks as Hal tried to go about his life as a HS sophomore, when he thought about the prophetic missive he found himself alternating between an icy chill down his back and uneasily trying to dismiss it. He never told anyone – how could he? He wasn’t sure he believed it himself.

On that fateful day, Hal thought about saying something on his Facebook page, but couldn’t see how he could and not have it look like a suicide note. Throughout the day he kept picturing himself in bus crashes, falling down stairs, ingesting spoiled cafeteria food (which it was most days), even seeing Ms. Tingle naked and subsequently having a heart attack. Still, he returned home from school just as alive as ever.

That night he gave his parents each a hug and went to bed. He lay awake a long time, wondering how it would feel dying in his sleep, which of course kept him awake. He put his headphones on and found a good station with some quiet music playing…and came suddenly awake at three in the morning. Hal threw off his headphones, got up, and walked over to the storage room and lifted down the box containing the family history book. He carried it back to his bedroom, where he carefully unfolded the large page under his desk lamp. There is was, just as he’d remembered it. This time, though, he scrutinized the area around his name closer.

Married 6-6-2018

There was a wife, kids, grand kids – his line continues! After spending over an hour tracing different lines and studying the foldout further, Hal came to a conclusion: he’d found more than one name misspelled and other minor discrepancies – his death date was a typo. Hal sat back in his chair, a heavy weight lifted off his chest. He refolded the page, flipped off the desk lap, and climbed back into bed. The last thought he had before falling back asleep was, “I need to check Facebook and find out who Carly Lynn Fassbender is!”

K: I rather enjoyed the fact that I finished with a happy ending this week. I always like that, actually, to cleanse my palate after the ball-kicking depression everyone else puts me through. The story is told in too unexciting a way – I think there was potential to show us some close calls with death before the narrator finds out he was all wrong – but I like where the story took me in the end. The theme was a bit of a cheat, but for me, it was fine. BRONZE

P: This sort of feels like cheating. It’s also a little weird to have Facebook be such an integral part of the story (being referenced often). I really like the idea of a person finding a family tree book with prophetic information in it, but the fact that it’s riddled with typos sort of ruins it for me.

BRONZE

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And your nonsubmission comes from…Ian. Well, there’s an enormous kick in the throat.

Meanwhile, Erik continues his roll after an unlikely (and unwanted) move into the playoffs. Sarah, of course, nabbed the double-gold with that excellent mood story.

For Monday night at 9pm Central, the finalists will write, in 500 words or fewer, a story about an explorer making the find of his or her life.

Good season, everyone. I’ve said that before, but I’ll be saying it once more, too.