PWTP4-SF

I liked all four of these stories.  I’m writing this introduction right now because otherwise I have to go in there and sort out what medal to give to what entry and that is too daunting of a task.  If this is how good the semifinal is, this final is going to be something.  I’m just glad I don’t have to judge that.

What’s that?

I do?

Oh. Then I suppose we should figure out who is going to be there.

Brian

Garrison struck a match against the ceiling of the crypt.  The flame jumped to life, and he held it near the wick inside a small lamp.  Once it had caught, he shut the glass cover and lifted the lamp high.

In total there were three stone sarcophagi inside the tomb.  Garrison passed slowly by each, carefully studying the designs carved on the lids.  All of them were etched with a similar geometric motif, but Garrison was looking for one in particular: a five-pointed star, tip facing south, wrapped inside a circle.

He found it on the third sarcophagus, at the farthest edge of the room.  Leaning over, he blew the dust from the markings, clearly revealing the star, as well as several rows of undecipherable writing.  He remembered being told that the script contained an important mathematical proof. He did not care.

It took thirty minutes and a crow bar to finally push the lid to the ground.  It took another ten minutes before the dust had settled enough to see anything.

Now covered in dirt and ashen gray, Garrison peered inside the ancient coffin.  At the bottom was a small statue of a frog, carved from jade and set with ruby eyes.  There was nothing else.  Garrison smiled and lifted the frog close to his face.

With a barely audible hiss, two puffs of green gas shot out of the frog’s nostrils.  Garrison squeezed his eyes shut and curled his nose at the stench, his thieve’s hands stubbornly holding onto the statue.

Then he started coughing, and he couldn’t stop.

Setting the statue down as his body convulsed, Garrison brought his hands to his face to rub his stinging eyes.  He felt something wet. With some effort he opened his eyes and looked down.  His hands were covered in red.  He could feel the blood leaking from his eyes and down his cheeks, ending in a steady stream that plummeted from his chin onto the floor.

Garrison tried to crawl to the rope ladder he had left hanging from the ceiling of the crypt.  But his arms and legs had grown heavy, and the coughing fits made it impossible to control himself.  He laid down on the stone floor and closed his eyes.  The coughing eased, and Garrison breathed weak and raspy in the flickering lamplight.  Then he went quiet and his body stiffened.  A halo of blood slowly formed around Garrison’s head, seeping across the ground.

Silent moments passed until a scraping sound came out of the darkness. The cover of one of the other sarcophagi slid aside and fell to the floor with a deafening sound.  A pale hand reached out, holding a knife.  The hand was attached by thick leather stitches to the wrist of a thin, naked man.  He was bald and stared straight ahead with milky eyes.  Stepping out of the coffin, he lurched stiffly forward.  More stitches circled his neck, waist and knees, holding the strangely proportioned limbs fast.  His other arm ended in a stump.

Most of Garrison’s face and neck was now covered in a blanket of green mold.  Tiny mushrooms had sprouted around his nostrils. The pale man knelt down next to the body and raised the knife, bringing the blade down repeatedly until Garrison’s right arm had been coarsely severed at the joint.

Still staring forward, the man set the knife down and grasped the bloodied limb.  Then he stood and lumbered back to the sarcophagus.  He set the arm aside, and reaching into the coffin, he pulled out an ivory needle and a long strip of leather.

DG – The patchwork man is pretty cool and took this story in an interesting direction for me.  I like a good horror story and I like this one.    Occasionally the description was a little straightforward, but I enjoyed this one all the way to the end.  In the end, this one just lost out to some really good other stories (Did I mention that I thought all the stories were good?).

DK: The atmosphere here is very good.  This has a lot of details of the setting and environment that contribute well to the creepiness factor.  I also found the specificity of the ending – the, ahem, swapping of Garrison’s arm – very fitting.  I think this suffers a little in its character development, though; neither Garrison or his counterpart quite coalesce into characters whose situations I am invested in beyond my interest in the tension, and so it doesn’t hit the same level the other stories do.

Bret

I came into the world with death.  I had a twin brother in the womb with me.  I ended up being delivered by c-section after he got stuck breech in the birth canal and strangled by our umbilical cords.  My mother never really recovered.  She died my first day of school.  I found her in her chair, waiting for me to come down the street.  She looked nothing like the bodies that my father prepared for burial.

Brother Francois adjusted his cassock and patted the leather satchel at his side, absent-mindedly reassuring himself.  Holy water, Bible, and other more esoteric items- seriously, he had a molar from Saint Ignatius in there- all ready to go.  Read some Psalms, walk around the “afflicted” area while swinging a smoking censer and sprinkling around some water, and pronounce the problem solved.  Taking a quick glance around the empty graveyard, Francois took a quick swig from his other flask, the gin burning a little.  Fortified, he ventured forth, looking for Jake.

The good brother was not impressed when he found him; sitting in an emptied grave, filth and detritus strewn above and below.

“Jacob!  How dare you defile this ground!  This is a resting place for the dead!”  Francois fumed, his anger as much at the disrepair of the graveyard as the poor man in front of him.

I grew up with death.  My father was a mortician.  From the day my mother died until my father died five years later, I spent hours each day at work with him, watching everything he did, from consoling grieving family members to embalming the bodies.  Though I marveled at the variation in his duties, I had no interest in it myself.  The body after death was an empty vessel, due little respect and less notice.  I was far more interested in what happened to the animating force that had departed.

“Easy, padre,” drawled Jake, his thick American accent an annoyance to the French holy man.  “Someone emptied this out long ‘fore I got here.  What you need to be concerned with is just over that way.”  Jake pointed with a blunt, dirty finger at a mausoleum.  “That’s where I saw her, last couple nights.  Little gal, fancy grey dress, moping around.”

Brother Francois drew himself up indignantly, ready to put this ignorant interloper in his place, but something made him desist.  Maybe it was Jake’s patient stolidity, or maybe it was the gin.  Either way, Francois puffed out his cheeks and blew out a long, calming breath.  Keep him happy and earn some trust, maybe he’d move out, he thought to himself.

“Sure, I can do that,” he responded, digging in his bag.  “Just give me a minute.”

I lived with death.  Everywhere I went, people died around me.  I thought it was normal, but I slowly came to the realization that other people could have friends and family for their whole lives, where I had no relationships that lasted longer than a year or two before death inevitably came.  Then something changed.

Francois got the incense smoking and stood up, glancing at Jake.  The censer fell from his nerveless fingers at the sight of a little girl in a grey dress standing behind Jake.

Brother Francois fell to his knees in front of the specter.  “Oh, my Heavenly Father!  Amelia!  How?  I’m sorr-“

The chunk of degraded concrete Jake swung into Francis’ skull made a dull thud in the still air.  Jacob looked over the twitching corpse to the girl-ghost, who nodded back to him, once, solemnly, before disappearing.

Jacob was turning to leave but came up short when another ghost appeared, a short Spaniard in a brown tunic, standing next to the satchel.  Jacob picked up the bag and rummaged through it, finding an ancient brown tooth.

“Well, partner, I guess you’re up next,” Jacob stated calmly.  “Lead the way, amigo.”

Death is my constant companion.

DK: I think I’ve probably demonstrated over my time judging that I often enjoy these kinds of stories that switch, not exactly perspective, but the source of the narrative, as long as they flow well and aren’t confusing.  Also one of my sweet spots is emphasizing the recurring death motif.  Put those together with the understating tragedy of the first-person narration and the character detailing included in the other sections and this one comes out a winner in my book.  GOLD

DG – I like both parts of this story, and it seems like they fit together well.  I like the way the action is described and how the connection is revealed.  The only thing that gives me pause is the “then something changed” line.  It draws attention to the fact that all of a sudden our narrator isn’t visited by death like in the first half when those around him die, but now is causing death, or is haunted by the already dead.  There’s some hints at that change  before – “I was more interested in the animating force” for example, so it still works well. SILVER

Melissa

    Mr. Bones — whose real name was something like Mr. Graham or Mr. Grand but everybody called him Mr. Bones — had worked at the cemetery for 50 years.  He was the caretaker, the gravedigger, and the guy who played taps at the military funerals.  On holidays, he arranged flowers from his garden into wreaths for the tombstones.  He had a little house in the back of the graveyard, but no one ever saw him go in and out.  Some people said he lived with the dead, just buried himself every night and dug himself out of his grave every morning.  Others thought he slept outside because dementia had hit and he couldn’t find his keys.

    “Maybe he’s not even real,” my sister said one day while we walked past the cemetery on the way to school.  “Maybe he’s a ghost.”

    “Ghosts don’t smoke cigarettes,” I said.

    “Why not?”

    “What would be the point?”

    “He’s like, a hundred years old.  Maybe he thinks it still looks cool.”

    Sometimes, I stood outside the black cemetery gates in the summer, watching Mr. Bones go up and down the cemetery lawn in his riding lawnmower.  He never looked up, just stared straight ahead at nothing in particular.  He’d adjust the hat on his head occasionally, scratch at his toothless mouth when the cigarette wasn’t poking out between his lips.  I’d watch him all day sometimes, to see if he ever went into that little caretakers’ house, but he didn’t.  He’d go in the shed with the tools, but not the little house with the curtains drawn.  He’d shovel the walk of snow in the winter, but he never went in that front door.

    Lee Anton, who’s in the senior year at my high school, tried to sneak into the cemetery once.  Mr. Bones shot at him with a BB gun.  Lee still has BB scars in his left leg.

    “You don’t go pokin’ ‘round the dead!” Mr. Bones shouted at him.  He shouts that to anybody who disrupts the cemetery.  He never says a word otherwise.  “Let them rest in peace, you little assholes!”

    It took sixteen years of walking past that cemetery — in my stroller with my mom, pedaling past in my big wheel, racing by with my sister, driving along in my car — before I saw Mr. Bones disappear into the ground.  It was one evening in June, right after the cemetery closed to the public and the sun set behind the mountains.

I glanced to my left and right and saw nobody coming down the back road.

Ten, fifteen minutes later, Mr. Bones still hadn’t climbed out of the ground.

    I leapt over the fence.

    It made a racket, but Mr. Bones didn’t appear with his BB gun, so I kept going.  I crept over the grass, still wet from this morning’s rain, and past the honeysuckle that lined the fence and made my nose tickle.  I could hear crackling, like a fire, and something of a low murmuring.

    Then I came to a grave, and in it, Mr. Bones.

    He sat next to a fire, warming his hands and muttering to himself.  “Don’t worry, Gladys,” he said, “I’ll make sure the stew’s warm tonight.  I know how much it hurts your heart to have cold stew on cold nights.  What was that?”  The man paused, looked pensive.  “Oh no, I don’t have wine tonight.  I have whiskey, though.”  He unscrewed the cap of a bottle, took a swig, then laughed to himself.  He raised the bottle to something in the darkness with him, grinned, and nodded his head.  Then he looked up and saw me.  He froze.

    The bottle of whiskey dropped.

    He grabbed his BB gun.

    I had just enough time to glance at the gravestone.

    Gladys Graham, loving wife, 1930-1952.

    A BB hit my left hand, blood splattered my cheek.

    I ran.

DG – I like the assumption that someting supernatural is going on early in the story even though it turns out to be a man’s grief.  The idea of a private grief that can’t be shared or understood by anyone appearing to be otherworldly is an interesting one.  The narrator isn’t much more than a set of eyes for the reader, but Mr. Bones is the main character anyway, so it still works just fine. “Ghosts don’t smoke cigarettes, what would be the point?” is my favorite line of this week.  GOLD

DK: I really like the tone here; it presents a nice contrast, and the perspective of the narrator is well-written to fit with his age.  The reveal of what Mr. Bones is doing at the end didn’t come as too much of a surprise given this context; but that’s not really a detriment here, since Mr. Bones is established as such an interesting figure throughout the first part of the story.  BRONZE

Christina

Pajama clad and smelling of bubblegum flavored toothpaste, Max comes downstairs to bestow goodnight hugs. Adrian gives me a look.

“Mama will read to you again tonight,” I say as I bury my nose in my son’s dark unruly hair.

He leads me by the hand to his room and I try not to wonder how soon he’ll outgrow such gestures of affection.

“Shall I keep reading this one?” I ask, holding up the book Adrian is avoiding. “Because otherwise we have that Majestic Voyage of Bertrand Windvane book Grandma sent.”

“Not Windvane, Mama,” he tells me firmly. “I want the scary one.”

I hold back my sigh. He picked it out himself at the library after he overheard some older kids talking about it. Adrian started reading a chapter per night, but he’s been turning the task over to me all week. So here I sit, my body crammed into this too small chair.

Jack squared his shoulders and strode through the entrance 
gate to the cemetery. He gripped his flashlight tightly and 
headed purposefully to the oldest section of the graveyard. 
If he could stay by the grave of nefarious criminal Buster 
Baffles for an hour, he’d win the bet.

Suddenly, he saw a flash of light out of the corner of his 
eye. He felt a scream rising in his throat. He looked around 
but noticed nothing unusual. Or did he? A plume of smoke 
seemed to rise from the ground in the distance. Surely his 
imagination was playing tricks on him.

I glance up from the page to study Max for a moment. He’s slouching against the headboard with his knees pulled up in a position only a 7-year-old could find comfortable. A look of anticipation flickers across his face.

Jack sat uncomfortably on the cold, hard ground next to the 
headstone. He knew Hank was standing guard at the gate—the 
only way in or out. If he tried to leave before the hour was 
up, he’d be known forevermore as a coward and a sissy.

What was that? Did he hear something? His heart began to pound. 
Then—over there! The strange flash of light appeared again. 
Closer this time. Jack swallowed hard. He told himself the 
rumors couldn’t possibly be true. The ghost of Baffles didn’t 
really haunt visitors to his grave. Or did it?

I set down the book.

“Just one more chapter?” Max begs, his eyes bright. “I got ready for bed all by myself.”

“Max. We expect you to get ready for bed all by yourself every night.”

“Oh, c’mon Mom. Pleeeeeeease?”

“It’s late, honey.  Your light was supposed to be off 15 minutes ago.”

“Mom?”

“Yes?”

“What if I see a ghost? What if one comes while I’m sleeping?”

“Sweetie pie, there’s no such things as ghosts.”

“But ghosts are cool. I really want to see a ghost. Can you tell me about them?”

I kiss him on the forehead and flip off the light. Maybe Adrian is right. Maybe this book is bringing up questions we’re not ready to answer.

“Night, Max,” I call from the doorway.

“Night night,” his small voice calls back in the dark.

– – –

Adrian is still on the couch when I return, playing some game or other on his phone.

“How is she?” I ask.

“No change.” He doesn’t look up. “Doctors say it could be tomorrow, could be a couple weeks.”

“You have to tell him. Adrian, you have to. You can’t keep pretending she’s going to get better.”

I take his phone and set it on the coffee table. He finally meets my eyes.

“But if I tell him,” he says, voice unsteady, “that will mean she’s really going to . . .”

“To die,” I finish the sentence for him.

 I slide closer and he wraps his arms around me, collapsing into my body.

DK: I have to say upfront that the writing of the book sections didn’t really grab me.  That might be a measure of its success as writing of a children’s book, however.  The emotional arc of the main story is powerful enough to overcome just about any hangups I had there, and the little touches between the main character and Max – the hand-hold, the exchange of good nights – made that even more poignant.  SILVER

DG – I like the characters all trying to deal with the situation in their own way.  It draws them quickly, even the fact that Adrian is playing a game on his phone is the perfect avoidance behavior for that character.  After I read it a couple of times, the son is the character that I find myself thinking the most about, he’s trying to understand and somehow figuring things out that his parents can’t or won’t tell him.  The story is understated, and I tried very hard not to hold that against it, but I just barely liked some others better. BRONZE

———-

Did I mention this was hard?  I still think all of these stories deserved a higher medal than what they got.  Of course, if we just moved everything up one notch it wouldn’t change anything since they are competing against each other, so I guess there’s nothing left to do but to tally up the medals and see what kind of a championship we’ve got here.

Christina and Brian, I fear that we must now say goodbye. You both get to go out on a stellar story, but Melissa (G+B) and Bret (G+S) got the golds and that’s enough to move them on to the final challenge.

The two finalists will be inspired by the following picture before Monday, January 13 at 8 PM.  They will each write a story that is no longer than 700 words.  Hopefully, they will then submit that story.  If at least one of them does, we can crown a PWTP4 champion. To borrow a phrase from our beloved webmaster: Woo!

PWTP-FINAL

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