Alright, gang, we’re up and running. I’m in LA, and after forgetting my messenger bag with all my smart devices and finding a way around that while working on a Mac that doesn’t like to cut and paste, I have some results for you.

If you wanted three wildly different judges, you’ve got them. Who was the wordiest? Who was too tired to write very much? Who has a terrifying, psychopathic hatred of one of the world’s great animals?

I’ll have your scoring spreadsheet up and running soon, when I can stand to use this Mac some more. Not to be a fanboy, but holy hell, this thing can suck my ass and like it.

So, gravedigging! Yaaaaaay

Jack Haas

Black earth, rotten wood. Crumbling teeth gnaw against silver shovel-spike drilling coffin down. Skull cracks in bubble-wrap pop. Heels over head, stone tumbling and tangling long white legs into shards.

Lift.

Throw.

8x4x6 feet. Empty space. Rest for now.

K: Is the lack of articles a stylistic choice or a constraint of the word limit? Can’t it be both? Transparent though that may be, it still evokes some strong images and sounds. BRONZE

MD: I’m not sure what’s going on here. I’m getting the impression that this grave digging is happening in a grave already dug (hence the teeth gnawing against silver shovel-spike). I like some of the description (the skull cracking like bubble-wrap, for instance), but I think you may overall have been too ambitious with the language. The prose ends up being too purple and the action too abstract to really get a solid idea of what’s happening and whether it’s even a story. You had room for more words and probably could’ve benefited from using them.

W: Very sparse and almost reads like The Road. I would imagine that Gravediggers (and other people in less desirable jobs) need to blot out the nature of their work and focus just on the monotonously small tasks involved. Bronze

Dean Carlson

The last thing that flashed in Portney’s mind as the pointed end of Hector’s muddy spade split through his cranium and pierced his occipital lobe was that although the tree-lined lakeside view was to die for, this was a lousy place for one’s final repose. The soil was mucky and Portney always hated the humidity.

K: Oh, man. This gag is delivered with confidence and competence, never overreaching and it gets to the point. I mean, it has to because of the 59 thing, but…you know. GOLD

MD: That first phrase is awfully passive, and then there’s all the word play: the first thing that flashed through his mind was a thought, but the second was clearly a spade (got it!). Then there’s the whole “to die for” thing. Ultimately, though, the word-play wasn’t snappy enough, and that last sentence lacked the punch that could’ve pulled this story up a little more in the ratings.

W: I guess Hector was also a gravedigger, but this story makes him seem more like a henchman. I do like the dichotomy of the location being both appealing and awful.

Annette Barron

My name is Azrael. I was caught stealing fruit and sentenced to lose my hand or serve in the brick pits. Six full moons of stomping clay and hay, my smallest toes had rotted off.

I rejoiced when chosen to dig tombs. But when I saw the quality of the burial goods, I knew the grave was also mine.

K: The prose is imperfect (the first comma should be a semicolon. Do not fear the semicolon!), but this idea is dark and fun.

MD: This one has a full story within it, which I appreciate. We get background on Azrael, a moment of how things are currently, and a glimpse at her future. You manage to pack in setting (and that it’s not our typical world), the movement of time, the characterization of Azrael, and the prospect of the future. That’s a lot in 59 words. BRONZE

W: I think the story worked better without the “twist” at the end. I would rather focus on the reason Azrael would see Gravedigging as an improvement in punishment.

Bret Highum

Warden Redfield sent another con to help me dig.

I recognize the creep from his trial. Worst charges were “dismissed on technicalities”.

Couple hours in, the creep is whinin’, “This hole’s already too deep…”

The guard stretches, then tosses me his half-full pack of smokes.
“I’m outta cigs. Back in a bit.”
Redfield runs a clean joint. I help.

K: I figured we’d see a lot of murderers this week. It’s a pretty obvious concept, but I liked the way it was done.

MD: The pronouns are, at first, difficult to sort out. “I recognize the creep from his trial” — is the “creep” Warden Redfield or the con? I think the word count was hurting you on this one as the words you chose to remove would’ve probably clarified things or at least made the sentences less choppy. However, this does tell a story and gives us a character portrait and a hint of his story. SILVER

W: A solid example of showing rather than telling. I love the little world created here. One minor nitpick is that I don’t think the last sentence was needed. Gold

Matt Novak

He hasn’t used the tape to figure depth for years. His pace is like clockwork. Literally. He sets an alarm to tell him when to stop. The ladder descends as he digs, the bottom resting just above the newly carved floor. Precision.

Now he feels a drop and looks from grave to heavens.

“Shit,” he says, “Forgot the alarm.”

K: This will probably feel most like an actual gravedigger by the time we’re done. I think I’ll like the occasional story where the worker is just doing his thing. SILVER

MD: Because Kelly will yell at me if I do it, I won’t base my judging here on the fact that my interpretation of what’s going on is probably cooler than what is actually going on. But then, maybe it’s not. I like the use of language — not too purple, not too plain — to pull off characterization, setting, and ambiance. The story may be somewhat vague, but yet somehow intriguing. GOLD

W: I like the way the portrait of this character as being so effective at (and the small details that indicate he is also quite proud of) the job that he can lose himself in his work. Gold

Margaret Martin

Gerry’s spade scraped the heavy clay. His gleaming golden carrots would take first place at the fair. A vegan delight!

Chuckling softly, he dropped to one knee. Sliding gloved hands into the trash bag, he carefully extracted a mass of blood and bone and hair – his secret ingredient.

It stands to reason that if vegans eat carrots…

K: Kind of an odd logic this guy has. It’s got the darkness I love, though it doesn’t quite come together perfectly. I’m also no fan of the finishing ellipsis. It’s always a joke that’s telling you it’s a joke. Then, on top of that, I don’t see how the joke comes together.

MD: If vegans eat carrots, then…um…carrots can eat vegans? Then vegans make good carrot mulch? No, no! Vegans will TASTE like carrots! The punchline eludes me. This is a much more liberal use of the term “gravedigger”, which I want to score higher than the typical idea of a gravedigger. However, the seemingly grim joke is kinda lost on me, and this round, I’ve read others that performed ambience and grim humor a little bit better.

W: For some reason Gerry’s “soft chuckling” doesn’t work for me. I think it makes him too pathological rather than just someone who stumbled onto the perfect fertilizer. Also, wouldn’t bone, blood, and hair be multiple ingredients?

Sarah Wreisner

We wrapped the tiny wet body in plastic. We lost one ten months earlier – that one had a name so it’d been a lot harder.

“There’ll be others,” my wife whispered, touching our daughter’s head.

We dug into the crabgrass, the thick blades dabbed in grasshopper spit. Its scales flashed in the morning light as I dropped it in.

K: Good God. This unfolds expertly. The prose is beautiful and the payoff is a shocker that doesn’t come off as begging for attention. GOLD

MD: Part of me feels manipulated by the use of a baby. STOP IT! The other part of me is intrigued by the fact that 1) this baby appears to have had scales, and 2) the family has done this before and for reasons that may not be typical. I can either score this low for leaving me with way too many questions, or I can score this high for inspiring me to question at all. There is a mini-story here, so between that and how this stokes my imagination, I’ll rate it higher. SILVER

W: Cute, and a good throwback to one of the better episodes of The Cosby Show. Silver

Brooks Maki

Every digger’s career ends the same way. They watched him, silent. Even knowing what came next, they had the respect not to question his methods. He stopped and surveyed his work. Four corners, neat and square. Four walls straight down.

He glanced up with a wry smile, “You aren’t going to ask how I’m going to get out?”

K: This is another decent slice of life; it’s the kind of story that I enjoy reading but won’t stick out at the end, unfortunately.

MD: Well, he’s going to ascend to heaven, obviously. Isn’t that how everybody gets out of their grave? This story was too big for the 59 words and doesn’t manage to paint clearly its setting (whereas other stories in this round have managed to world-build pretty succinctly, so I have that for comparison). The biggest thing missing is who “they” are. They were faceless, and having no concept of what group was watching the gravedigger or why, the story ends up lacking depth and purpose. Are “they” other gravediggers? The gravedigger’s family? An army of ants?

W: Is there a secret alliance of gravediggers? Unfortunately, there just wasn’t enough groundwork laid in this world to completely draw me in.

Brian David

Shovel against rock and whispers in the distance. Dust falls from startled skin, chalk-white arms reach out. Wood cracks and dirt pours down, shaking violently, dragging, squirming upwards. Blindly crawling, hands sink into fresh earth, then scrape and pull, down and down until they press against cold skin. Still soft, he pulls her close and drifts away.

K: In the third sentence, the subject changes. Unfortunately, that’s kind of a big deal when the week is this strong, as it’s the only one I’ve had to read twice so far. The imagery is definitely here, though.

MD: The only reason I know this involves a gravedigger is because the prompt says it should. All by itself, it’s difficult to pull meaning out of it. It’s difficult to tell who is making the actions or who is being described. The two characters appear to be a dead woman and the man who lost her. I get that information only from the last sentence, though. From that sentence, too, I figured it’s the man undigging the grave and the woman who’s dead. The startled skin from which dust falls, though — whose skin is involved here? And the chalk-white arms reaching out…the dead woman’s, or the near-dead man’s? It’s just not clear enough.

W: This starts out entirely too mysteriously for its ending. It could be a great story about someone unable to cope with loss, but the vague references at the beginning hinder the mood.

Jonathon Pope

You work for love or money. I don’t do this for the money.

She was my first. I cried that time. Every shovelful of dirt felt like a betrayal.

After her, I never stopped. Every corpse a chance to feel closer to her. Every shovelful of dirt a reminder. I dig, until my own grave reunites us.

K: My best friend became an undertaker in order to deal with his brother’s death. That’s not exactly what we have here, but it rings true for that reason. The prose doesn’t quite crackle like some, but the internal monologue is interesting.

MD: This does what the previous story did not. That is to say, within the confines of 59-words, it manages to portray character, emotion/motive, action, and plot. The emotion is a combination of understandable and grim. This is the story of a serial killer, or someone equally reprehensible, yet you manage to make his “love” poignant or, at the least, something for which one could have empathy. Or maybe there’s something wrong with me. Very nice! GOLD

W: I don’t want to be THAT guy, but this was very much an example of telling rather than showing. I would rather explore how digging rekindles his connection than just being told that it does.

Colin Woolston

Dear Angela ,
For the last time, your shovels are not only sub-par, but your promise of an everlasting blade is total hogwash. I hope we meet, in a professional capacity, soon.
Yours,
Mortimer Spadleich
Senior Excavator Specialist
Crazy Dave’s Ground & Urn

K: Oh, you. I smiled. BRONZE

MD: Humor at last! Humor about gravediggers is harder to do than horror or fantasy or drama. This story is silly yet not bad silly I love that the name of the place is “Crazy Dave’s Ground & Urn” because it’s absurd and because the gravedigger appears to actually be named Mortimer. I also chuckled a bit at his threat to meet her in a professional capacity, and I like the way the old school language (hogwash!) manages to match the personality one imagines a man named Mortimer may have. SILVER

W: Nice burn, but it didn’t need the commas! Silver

Sama

“They’re piling up, Sal.”
“No need for reminders, man.”
Watching the world burn, being the only really useful guys around. What a bummer.
It’s all sweat, dirt and shovels now. Dig the holes, fill them, repeat.
No more lazy days. Just bodies. So many bodies.

K: I absolutely love this concept. I’d take a little more explanation and cut the banter some, but although I’d pass through this and rewrite it a bit, it’s a memorable idea. SILVER

MD: Nice. This is an example of how it can take only a few words to portray a setting that’s not supposed to be our usual world. It has an underlying dark humor to it, too, different from the last story (which had sillier humor). In addition, I like the concept that, in a world coming to an end, the most useful guys really would be the gravediggers. The characters take it with a grim resolve, while also making it clear that, though they’re trying to hide it with supposed acceptance, things are pretty awful. GOLD

W: If he and Sal are the only two useful guys, I would think the world would be better off with them doing something beyond digging mass graves. Plus, what useless person delegated the work to Sal and him? The more I stew on this one, the more questions I have. In this case, that’s a good thing. Bronze

Ian Pratt

Digging a grave in the Sahara is Sisyphean. Sand slides and shifts into any attempt at a hole, and the wind can undo all progress in seconds. Antonio had worked on this grave for twenty minutes already, but he was getting faster. His Capitano watched idly as he dug, sipping from a canteen. Faster, Antonio thought. Only ten more.

K: I didn’t even need the payoff for this to be a lot of fun. The exercise in futility made me smile. Could this be based on a true story? It has that feel. Either way, I dug it. SILVER

MD: I do like the description of the “Sisyphean” burden of trying to dig a hole in the Sahara. Outside of that, the plot of the story isn’t clear. Perhaps I’m missing a reference to which the names provide clues, but I don’t know what’s happening or why, even when I go back and read it several times over. All that I can discern is that a man is digging a grave, and that’s enough to bolster me into giving a medal. Sorry.

W: Was the alliteration intentional or just accidentally distracting? I liked the image of trying to dig a grave in the desert, but I could have used more development of the Capitano as a villain. Bronze

Erik S

Thurston nailed the last board of the support into place, then patted it gently. That would hold the walls square for several years if necessary. He climbed the old ladder, unsure which creaks were wood and which bone.

Blowing a kiss to the freshly filled grave next to this new hole, he left to prepare the widow Jackson’s plot.

K: This is another fairly obvious concept (maybe I feel these are obvious because of the darkness in my heart, but that’s another conversation) but the line about which creaks are wood and which are bone is excellent. BRONZE

MD: The action is clear, and the writing isn’t choppy or rushed. However, I’m not sure a clear story is told here. After several readings, I’m wondering if perhaps this new hole belongs to Thurston, and the freshly filled grave is his wife’s or another loved one. Even if it is, what is Thurston’s motive? Is he planning to off himself soon? Is the new grave for the man who had the affair with his wife who Thurston shot at the same time he shot the cheating wife? I think that last sentence is supposed to give a clue to the relationship you’re portraying with Thurston, but it it doesn’t clarify the purpose of the story.

W: Fifty-nine words is entirely too constraining to a story like this. My only quibble is that digging the grave seems like the first preparatory step in the widow’s plot. Silver

Ben Johnson

Nearing the end of my second century, I think back on my conception.

The man dug painstakingly through matted layers of dead sedge and grasses, topsoil, and a seam of sandy gravel. He lingered, then slowly refilling the cavity, placed me gently in a small depression and covered me with loamy black earth.

She provided nourishment and I flourished.

K: Huh. That’s a different way to do this. I wish it had a stronger payoff, but it’s a great way to break from the norm. BRONZE

MD: Nice set up with that first sentence. The rest of the story isn’t as strong as that opening line, but that’s okay, the line propels me to want to know more about the 200 year old character. Who is apparently a tree. I appreciate that the characterization is clear but not too clear, but I’m not sure that just a characterization (without a clear plot or action) brings the story past bronze level. BRONZE

W: I like the idea of death spawning great life. I’m no arborist, so I have no idea if a tree can subsist that close to a body, but I’ll gladly give this story the benefit of the doubt. Gold

Christina Pepper

“Ain’t no place for a woman,” Mama said, but by that time I’d been a whole lotta places she didn’t approve. The pay was good, and no one bothered me none.

Then her heart gave out. I hurt so bad I could hardly breathe. And all I could do was dig her the best damn grave I knew how.

K: I feel like another 25 words between these paragraphs would really help. As is, it seems like two different thoughts that don’t quite come together. I enjoy it despite this, but I wish I could read more of it.

MD: This tells a relatively long tale in only a few words. I appreciate how you built the relationship between the gravedigger and her mother succinctly, and painted the emotions well enough that one really does feel the sadness the gravedigger feels at burying her unsupportive mother. There’s a lot in this little story. BRONZE

W: I liked the first paragraph, but the three sentences in the second paragraph don’t really coalesce into much. I think the middle sentence of that paragraph just doesn’t fit.

Pete Bruzek

Rachel awoke with a start to the sound of shovel scraping dirt.

The shoveler paused and looked sadly at her. Glancing around the dig site, he found a penny in the grass. “Close enough” he sighed, “Ready to go?”

She nodded and closed her eyes as the man laid her into the ground.

K: I’d like to like this, but man, that penny’s significance just isn’t coming to me. I’ll sleep on it since Will hasn’t started anyway, but I honestly have no idea what the deal is.

MD: This is potentially interesting, but either I’m not getting the references (such as the penny in the grass and the man’s response to it), or it’s simply not clear what’s happening. At first, it seems that Rachel is surprised to be where she’s at, perhaps kidnapped by this man digging her grave. Then the store closes with a statement that makes it seem Rachel was part of the plan for this to happen. I’m not sure what to do with it.

W: I love the melancholiness of this story, but it didn’t need the abrupt beginning. Instead of feeling bad for whatever put Rachel in such despair or feeling bad for the digger for being willing to help Rachel despite his misgivings, I’m wondering why she was startled awake rather than just walking around helping to pick the site. Bronze

Zack Sauvageau

I’ve got my special pants on, I’ve got my favorite shirt on. Tonight’s going to be romantic.

Just grabbed my trench coat, I’ve got a bottle of lube. I’m going to have fun tonight.

I love it when the monster trucks come to town.

I’ll time my climax to Gravedigger’s final heat of the night.

K: I’ve been waiting for a reference to Gravedigger, the monster truck. I’d go wild for a story that uses it in a big way, but this one goes so far for shock it’s almost desperate. I think it would have been pretty funny if it embraced romance rather than lust.

MD: Gross, dude. I did like the dorkiness of the first two sentences, this guy donning his “special pants” for a romantic night. Then you mention the bottle of lube, and I already know this is going down hill. I appreciate you using the monster trucks as your option for Gravedigger, even though, clearly, our protagonist is a gravedigger, and that would’ve been enough. I want to score low for not having lovely or complex language (and all the phrases ending in prepositions!), but the fact that it grossed me out and made me shake my head makes me want to give it props, too.

W: I’m a little grossed out by the “special pants,” but I love someone being put in heat during the final heat. I just wish the character wasn’t quite such a caricature.

Beau

Hazel’s arthritic hands could barely affix the grave marker.

“You were the most precious kitty,” she wept. “I’ll never forget you.” She stepped back to admire her work.

Sadie XCIX
2013-2014

Whiskers brushed her leg. For the last time, purring broke her silence.

“There, there Sadie.” Hazel scratched her behind the ears. “I’ve saved room for you, too.”

K: I assume Hazel’s burying them because she’s about to die? The darkness works best if I make that assumption, so I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. Or she might just be crazy, given the insane number of Sadies, which is also fun. GOLD

MD: This made me laugh mostly because I was expecting another soon-to-be-offing-herself widow story and, instead, Hazel’s burying her cat. There is so much hiding between the lines in this story. It’s a good use of 59 words, even if the concept is kinda silly. She’s buried thousands of cats, all named Sadie, and apparently this one only lasted a year. She’s saving room for the other Sadie, who is, for some reason, WITH her at the gravesite. She had a gravestone especially made for her bazillionth dead Sadie. It’s all so absurd. BRONZE

W: Full confession for the rest of the competition: in my mind, six feet under is the best place for almost all cats. Bonus points for killling a cat, hinting at the deaths of 98 other cats, and implying the future death of a cat, but it’s just not quite enough for me.

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Sir-Not-Appearing-in-this-Challenge was Kate Crisp. And I was so excited for her long-teased debut, too.

Anyway, there you have it. Did I overrate Dean’s? Possibly, but YOU try judging at midnight and see what tickles you. I’m going to load myself with more Nespresso now and try to warm up in this startlingly cold house (it’s much warmer outdoors. What the hell, guys?). In the meantime, I have a nice, wide open prompt for you:

By Thursday at 8pm Central, have a story to me about a Server.

This season’s “People who accidentally sent story to spooky’s regular email account” count: 2

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