My thoughts on this challenge were that it would be both fun and difficult; I think I see evidence of both in the stories. Though many of them missed the high marks of which their ideas were capable, the ideas were most definitely there in what was one of the most creative weeks of Spookymilk Survivor we’ve ever seen.

This high praise doesn’t keep us from powering through with our eliminations, of course…so let’s find out who’s got to chuck another team member (or a first one) from the game.


Bret Highum, Liam Neeson’s Walrus

“My name is Rachel, and I have a superpower.”
Rachel stood, fidgeting uncomfortably, as the applause died down. Dave, the group chair- a saggy man with an enormous nose- stood and mumbled nasally in her direction.
“Glad to have you here at SupesAnon, Rachel. Would you feel comfortable telling us about your power?” Dave covered his super-charged nose back up with a limp handkerchief and blew noisily into it.
“Umm, yeah, I guess,” Rachel squirmed a bit, and then levitated off the floor, the toes of her Keds less than an inch from the hardwood. “I can fly.”
“Oh, that’s rough,” sympathized a younger fellow whose hair was constantly waving in a breeze no one else could feel. “Barely being able to lift off the ground? That’s pretty limiting.”
“Yeah,” chimed in Francis, the bus driver who could talk to female rats. “You were so close to being one of the lucky ones!”
Rachel hovered as the group talked, their compassion and kindness washing over her. With a whimper, she squeezed her eyes shut and forced herself higher. She slowly rose upwards- three inches, six, a foot and more into the air. The group’s babble ground to a halt. As the silence deepened, her eyes popped open and she gasped, dropping back to the floor, collapsing onto her hands and knees. Francis and another woman rushed to help her, but Rachel regained her composure, shook them off and stood, shakily.
“No, you don’t understand,” Rachel said, looking around the circle, trying to meet their eyes. “I can fly. Full out, zoom-around-like-Superman fly. But… I’m afraid of heights.”
The helping hands slowly pulled back, the welcoming gazes hardening into guarded coolness.
“Then I’m sorry, Rachel,” said Dave, his eyes mournful. “You don’t belong here with us.”

K: This has some comedic potential. “The bus driver who could talk to female rats” is amusingly specific. For me, though, a support group is such a trope in writing that you have to work a little harder to make it pop. I’d much rather have seen Rachel’s difficulties in the field and hear a quick blurb about her inability to join support groups because of her singular problem.

DK: Pairing the power to fly with a fear of heights fits really well together, and the idea of a SuperAnon group is also nice, although I’m not sure that setting was developed here as much as it could have been.

MG: I wanted to like this story more than I do, because the idea (while not exactly super-original) is a very cool one. Two castes of failed superheroes makes sense, even if the distinction is somewhat arbitrary. But the way it’s delivered here just feels like a shrug instead of a revelation. It’s a slight story from the get-go, with a great idea that feels like more could have been done with.

Colin Woolston, LNW

Ice froze. The gamma beast had grown tired of the lifeless bodies and was searching for her. Glancing around, Ice saw two immediate options for a daring last stand and one for a cowardly escape. She saw that either stand would be brief, and likely end with her as an unrecognizable pile of mush.
The beast seemed to anticipate a courageous and honorable battle; it sat back on it’s deeply scarred haunches and tossed it’s head about- it’s obsidian horns trailing ken-fire in a lazy figure-eight.
Ice knew this was her only chance. She unleashed her ken and a low bridge of ice formed behind her toward safety. Ice turned to flee only to see her bridge shatter about the head and shoulders of a barren-born. He was screaming and his eyes were wide and bright with fear- and alive with ken.
Ice had never met a barren born, and all she knew of them was that they were born without souls, and had no ken. This one clearly had the wind ken, and clearly had no idea how to focus his mind.
The barren, she now saw he was only a boy, continued on his path upwards, arcing towards the beast. He was crying. Ice had never witnessed such a display of weakness. Unexpectedly, she felt compelled to try to protect the mutant child. After all, it may be valuable to understand how the boy had come to know the wind.
Ice focused her ken again, this time toward the beast, but paused and held her ken close. The beast had sensed the boy coming toward it, and reared and let loose a booming cough. Ice imagined it the beast’s laughter, and felt her hold on her ken slip slightly.
Ice turned and loosed her ken toward her escape, and felt an unfamiliar pang in her breast as the boy’s screams stopped abruptly. As she sped toward safety, she pulled her dagger and marked a meticulous B into her arm. Her ice ken faded slowly behind her, evaporating before ever touching the ground.

K: This one had a lot of work to do after it opened with “Ice froze,” which really only works if the reader already knows that a character is named Ice (and even then…it’s an eye roll). The misuse of “it’s” instead of “its” was bad, too, particularly as it repeated three times. These mistakes are a shame, as I think I could have gotten into the story’s backdrop better otherwise.

DK: I had trouble getting into both the character and the world here. It reads somewhat like a step by step list of action rather than investing me in the character’s situation more deeply.

MG: And here’s a story that tries to do a little too much. I appreciate using the Scottish-derived sense of “ken” to stand in universally for a range of super-powers, a semi-familiar proper noun wasn’t the best choice of a word to be repeated so much without exposition. The high-detail of the action scene would’ve been better off without the sudden arrival of the barren, who also needed a good amount of explanation for the reader to get everything the author intended to put across. The whole thing felt rushed and thin, and I wound up feeling nothing for the lost Barren, nor the cowardly heroine by the end. (also: “it’s”???)

Will Young, Miranda Priestly’s Unholy Sweater Crisis

Wilcox saw the soldier’s right leg was missing. He lifted his gaze and made eye contact with the solider. Fourth fucking time, Wilcox thought, and he spun out of the room.

He shuffled down the hall needing solitude. “Wilcox, we need you,” he heard as he passed by a room. He continued without slowing. “Wilcox, that’s a goddamn order! Get in here, and give us a hand!”

He slunk into the room with his eyes glued to the floor. “He’s losing a lot of blood,” the captain told Wilcox. “He doesn’t have much time.”

“Where’s the wound?” Wilcox muttered.

“On his right side. The shot went clean through; he’s losing blood, and his lung is filling with blood.”

Wilcox stepped forward and rubbed the entry wound. The blood instantly coagulated, and skin began forming over the hole. The captain tipped the wounded man on his left side. Wilcox poked his finger into the exit wound, probed around a little, and then rubbed it shut. Again, skin formed over the hole. The man’s vital signs immediately improved.

His performance this week had been astounding: fifty people had been brought back from within hours of death and more than 150 more regained lost limbs or digits. Of those, Wilcox noted he had treated at least thirty before.

Before the captain could thank him, Wilcox left. He ducked into a supply closet, pulled the door shut, and crumpled to the floor.

When he swallowed the pills two weeks ago, the first responder placed Wilcox’s hand into his mouth and rubbed it against his torso negating the attempt. Since then, Wilcox hadn’t been left alone for longer than ten minutes a time. Within minutes, they would come searching for him. Wilcox rubbed his temples and sobbed.

K: This one had a misspelling too! “Solider” for soldier. However, it did a good job of getting on track after that. I believe both Wilcox’s incredible stress, and the manner in which the first responder saved him. This could be a pretty powerful graphic novel, methinks. BRONZE

DK: I can be kind of a sucker for this kind of thing, but I found this pretty powerful, and I empathized a lot with Wilcox’s situation. His own power keeping him from getting the release he needs is just plenty sad. SILVER

MG: Ouch. Here we go; a very well-thought-out and expertly paced story of a person whose circumstances were beyond his control. Thank you very much, Mr./Ms. Author. This is just the sort of dilemma I imagine true super powers might spawn. GOLD

Rex Ogle, MPUSC

“For some people,” her mom said gently, “the change comes later in life.”

“How would you know? You’ve been able to shoot cosmic rays from your eyes since you were three,” Roxy shouted. “I’m a freak, okay? I don’t have any powers! Just leave me alone!” Her eyes began to sting as they welled with tears. Roxy stormed away—not flying, not teleporting, but the old way—the Homo sapien way.

It was so embarrassing. Roxy was almost sixteen, and her mutant ability hadn’t manifested yet. Everyone she knew had already changed into the thing they were going to become—everyone, that is, except for her. Roxy’s (former) best friend could transform things into ice with a touch. The quiet boy who sat across from her in math class could read minds. Even Roxy’s little brother had sprouted wings last week, and he was only nine!

“My life sucks!” Roxy shouted, slamming her door and throwing herself onto the bed. She began to cry into her pillow. Sure, she wanted to be like Miracle Girl, who could grant her own wishes, or like Supernova, the hero who was stronger than ten men and faster than a bullet. But at this point, Roxy would settle for any dumb power, like wind manipulation or X-ray vision. “It’s not fair,” Roxy sniffled. “It’s just not fair.”

Roxy was crying so hard that her eyes burned. But then she felt her hands burning as well. She opened her eyes to find her pillow charred and smoking. She smiled as her eyes burst into flames. “Mom!” she shouted, “It’s happening! I’m changing!”

Flames crawled up hers arm, before igniting her whole body. She laughed ecstatically for only a moment before realizing—just because she could create flame, it didn’t mean she was immune to it.

K: I was expecting/hoping for some powers to show up that the characters aren’t immune to. The whole Human Torch thing really bugged me as a kid (it didn’t keep me up at night or anything…I was never THAT into comic books). The large amount of exposition was well done, but it did feel to me like I was just waiting, rather than experiencing. I would have cut about half of the first 80% of this story and added more about the flames licking at Roxy, but the concept is strong.

DK: Although in one way it draws the ol’ smirk with the “be careful what you wish for”, in another way this is almost a little too silly of a tone for the bulk here for that dark note at the end.

MG: Supers, man. They gots problems. Seriously, I think I kind of saw this one coming, but it didn’t diminish the pleasure I got in reading it through and getting to the ironic Twilight Zoney kicker at the end.

Leif Bierly, LNW

As he put his foot in the cold bathwater, Travis reflected on how small the giant Sequioa seed was rolling around in his mouth. This little nut would be the last thing he grew.

It had always been such a pleasure to grow things, and despite the fact that the government was forcing him to do it now, he had marveled at how large those trees grew out of the little nuts like the one now on the tip of his tongue.

It had always been such a pleasure to want things to grow. To will them to live, to watch them stand on their own freely alive on the earth. It was these simple thoughts that started it all way back when. Now they would end it.

Turning toward the sunshine through the small window in this little room, Travis wondered just how big the tree would get with just his body’s nutrients to feed off of.

Big enough.

There wouldn’t be any escape from the captivity this time.

Travis choked a little, almost losing the seed down his throat.

Shit!

Closing his eyes, he quieted himself to perform.

Emotion wouldn’t help him with this. It used to… love used to.

There was the whole time in his youth where he felt that his love was why he had his power. He had found out that love had nothing to do with it when he was kidnapped by that cartel to grow their product. And when those private paramilitary thugs killed his family and forced him to grow fields of that shitty genetically modified fruit. There was no love there, and none for the last few years in government “protection.” None.

Sun, light, food, and his power.

Travis was good at this. Always had been.

His mouth opened wide.

Misspellings are the order of the day! (“Sequoia” this time). This is a strong concept with a character who becomes pretty sympathetic by the end. If “supers” were real, and especially if they were rare, I do think they’d be a target for those who seek to exploit the powers for their own gain. This feels as grounded in reality as a story in such an arena can feel, and I appreciated it. SILVER

DK: Again, thematically the idea of one’s power trapping someone in situations they don’t want to be in (as in, beyond just having an effect of the power itself that is bad) is something that resonates repeatedly with me. Here too I appreciate the mechanics of how Travis’ power both traps him and could grant him that release. BRONZE

MG: This was a nicely original superpower, and an interesting point at which to start the reader’s understanding of this poor fellow. The writing was a little choppy and repetitive (at times literally so), and I think the author wound up over-explaining some parts. Still, plenty to like here in the creativity department. BRONZE

Joe Harrell, Freshly Ruptured Hymen

Ketamine, Prozac, Lithium, Valium, alcohol, pot. Nothing helped.

Tariq stood at the door, looking down at his feet. “I can do this.” He exhaled and opened the door. The sun wasn’t even yet in sight as he stepped on to 8th Avenue. The crisp morning hit his cheeks. He paused and closed his eyes, breathing in and smiling. As he’d hoped, the sidewalk was empty; a few cabs passed, and he could see the guys carrying boxes into the deli a couple blocks down. As he approached 14th, it hit him, tugged at his core like a weight attached to his heart. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of the destitute woman leaning in the doorway, eyes empty and focused nowhere.

This is why he moved from Yemen. Too much heartache. Too many feelings. “God gave you a gift,” his mother would say. “But I can’t do it anymore,” he responded. “There’s too much heartache here. I have my own pain. Feeling yours and Shaima’s is too hard. I will only find peace if I go where I’m a stranger, insha’allah.”
He looked away from the woman and closed his eyes again, but the heartache and anger moved from his stomach to his throat.
Maybe not today. Maybe tomorrow he’ll be able to see the pain and joy without having to consume it. He turned north and quickly walked towards his apartment. Without realizing it, he began to cry and tremble. It would all subside once he got inside.

His hands were still shaking as he lifted the tea pot from the stove. Lights dim and mug in hand, he slowly settled onto the couch, enjoying the silence and peace. “Tomorrow,” he said. “I’ll try again tomorrow.”

K: I agree that unlimited empathy would be a hell of a thing to carry around. Perhaps in a longer story I’d appreciate a bit where the character is party to a mass tragedy, and how it nearly kills him and he awkwardly becomes a focal point as he’s forced to feel the grief of thousands at once. Getting back to what’s here, though, I know I’m a broken record but I thought the writer did a good job of taking this “power” and surrounding it with real consequences and reactions.

DK: I found the relative simplicity here even more effectively poignant. There’s a nice uniqueness to Tariq’s character that fits with the uniqueness of his circumstance. The descriptions add to the feel of the weight of his repeated attempts to break free as well. GOLD

MG: This story feels like 20% excellent idea, and 80% explanation and filler. It doesn’t seem to be able to do much more than show us an interesting guy’s struggle with an unusual power on one specific day of his life. The flashback’s specificity of place and circumstance didn’t bring much to the story that a simple exposition would have. Basically, the idea’s doing so much more than the writing is.

Rusty Greene, MPUSC

His first duplicate was defective.
Max was standing in line at a drug store with a bottle of bronzer when he realized his ability. He caught his reflection in the glass door of a display case stocked with soda. “Looking good,” he said to himself. “Oh yes.” He smiled and winked at himself.
There was a faint popping sound. A gasp escaped a dwarfish hag flipping through a People magazine in front of him. Max turned his head and met the face of his first clone. It had his impeccable hairline, his perfect row of gleaming white teeth and those sexy blue eyes that were legendary at breaking the hearts of mediocre women.
For a moment he stood in awe of his creation. Then he realized it had no ears. He blinked hard to clear his vision, and just like that… the duplicate vanished.
Over the next month, Max became obsessed with creating his ideal self. His power became a pleasure, and he became unhinged. He rarely left his apartment, spending long days winking in the mirror to produce the perfect duplicate. He pined for a second Max to go on tedious dates with potential wives who lifted overpriced drinks to less than kissable lips.
One clone looked like Tyne Daly. It never made it to a second breath. Blink! Another had a peanut allergy. It lasted a bit longer until an unfortunate incident with a granola bar. Blink!
And then one day he did it.
Max stood beside himself in his bedroom after weeks of practice. He gazed lovingly at his twin. The duplicate looked deep into Max’s eyes. It sneered. And then it winked.
With a tiny squeak and a tinier pop, Max disappeared.
He was the first self absorbed in a war that would span millennia.

K: Ah, Narcissus, will you ever win? This works on a satirical level early on and the small jokes work as well (and they even serve the story…how about that?). I really dug bits like “breaking the hearts of mediocre women” and “overpriced drinks to less than kissable lips” as insights into Max’s self-absorption. I loved the final twist and didn’t see it coming. I’d cut the last line and let the punchline linger, but that’s my only real quibble here. GOLD

DK: I came really close on this one, since I found the power funny and Max an interesting character, but that last line just threw me off a bit much. I just didn’t think it needed to reach that big for scope after the focus of most of it.

MG: I like the eruption of scale that occurs in the very last line of this story. Before then it’s a pretty agreeable piece as well, and the turn-about victory of clone over original was clever enough. A nice chuckler of a story that ended, for me, on a nicely surprising high note. BRONZE

Annette Barron, FRH

Oscar Wilde said “When the gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.” I don’t know if it was gods, sun spots or some pranking alien just passing by, but when it happened, it felt like a cold breeze blasting me from inside my belly. That’s the only way I can think to describe it. Jason felt it, too; I could see by the puzzled look on this face and the brief lifting of his hair.

At the exact moment it happened, Jason, my best friend since we were five, was wishing out loud that he was a better runner while I was wishing (in my head) that I was the kind of girl that boys went wild about. Jason, for instance.

That was three months ago. Jason, now an all state champion, has given up running in order to chase me full-time. Him and every other boy (and several girls) in my senior class. Even my teachers; Ugh. I still see the same mouse-brown hair and eyes on a straight-as-a-stick figure, but apparently I am irresistible.

Today, I tried to talk to Jason about our math test. I got nothing from him; he just wants to hook up. Emma, my best girlfriend since junior high, hosted a pizza and makeover party last weekend. For the first time in five years, I wasn’t invited. I keep going back to the exact spot where it happened, but I can’t wish it away.

My parents are deeply concerned. “It’s not healthy to be so isolated,” my mother insists. “You seem depressed, honey.” What am I supposed to say? “Well, mom, a cosmic space ray made me super hot and now I want to kill myself.” They would lock me away.

Maybe I want them to.

K: This starts reaching for comedy, early, then switches gears and drops all of the comedic potential to focus on the angst. Both are legitimate choices, but more of one or the other is in order (this one feels like a natural comedy to me, but I’m interested in both ideas).

DK: This is a nice idea too. I found the mannerisms of the narration a little off with what I imagined the age of the character to be, although maybe I just don’t understand the teenage mind.

MG: Nothing new about the idea of a person who regrets getting what they wish for, but even given that, this story felt like it didn’t know where exactly to go with its conceit. The stakes get raised in a descriptive monologue that feels like the speaker isn’t that upset by it really. And the ending feels like a shrug, rather than a stunning sense of the main character confronting the hopelessness of her situation.

Brian David, LNW

I’m standing in front of a door.

Taking a deep breath, I pull down the handle and walk through.

At first I see nothing. A ventilator pumps rhythmically in the dark, accompanied by the chirping of a heart monitor. As my eyes adjust, I start to make out the lights dotted along the surface of the monitors.

Then I see her eyes, looking at me.

Sitting down on a chair near the bed, I reach out and take her hand. She continues to look at me, lids heavy and irises faded and milky.

“Anna.”

She gently weaves her fingers through mine.

“I had a dream last night,” Anna says. “I was putting clothes into a leather bag. Not too many. Just enough for a few days.”

“I was happy. I was going to take a trip. Somewhere far away.”

She turns her head.

I reach into the front pocket of my jacket and pull out a small box. My fingers grip the edges of the lid and pull back, revealing a tiny, silver bell.

“It’s important,” I say, setting the bell into Anna’s hand.

Anna says nothing for several moments. Then she closes her fingers around the bell, eyes still focused on me.

The veins in her neck bulge and her chest begins to throb. Her breathing changes, turning into long, extended gasps. I know she is trying to scream.

Anna’s head tilts forward and she is quiet. The bell falls out of her hand, ringing softly as it rolls across the tile.

“She’s dead,” Anna says. My chest tightens. I reach for the bell, but Anna grabs my arm.

“All of them are dead.”

For a moment, her eyes are a vibrant green. Then the white seeps in along the edges and the color is gone.

K: I want more. I don’t know what I need in particular, unfortunately, because this comes off as a mere idea without enough substance. If there’s an obvious backstory to this, then unfortunately I’m not grasping it, so all the atmosphere in the world isn’t going to stop me from feeling a little cold as we reach the end. It’s unfortunate, because I really dig this prose. (Some time later: could this be referencing Frozen? If so, it’s waaaay clearer what’s going on, though the fact that it took that much thought turns me off a bit).

DK: This might be a little too inscrutable. There’s some nice emotion built up in here in the characters’ interactions, but it’s difficult for me to tell where it’s coming from or going to.

MG: Some thrilling, confident prose here, but it’s all in the service of something that the author can’t quite get across to me. This past week, Kelly chided me for not having gotten the authors’ intent a few times this season, and okay, maybe. But this one’s either really elusive, or I’m one dumb person. Sorry.

Roman Feeser, MPUSC

Andy Capp was in trouble.

He had promised his mother, that he would head directly to school that morning. “Do not stop off anywhere. You’re to go to school and come directly home at 3PM when that bell rings. Do you understand me young man?”

He should have heeded her warning. He barely got a wink in last night, after his parents had told him that he was different than his middle school peers. He had superhuman powers, a gift that ran in their family. His parents confessed they knew of the genetic abnormality when he was a baby. Now that he was coming of age he would begin to see some changes in his body. They warned him that he needed training to use this gift. Once school had ended, he would leave for Camp Mutation in the Berkshires.

Andy lay down on the fresh cedar chips beneath the still moving swing set. He could clearly see his arms and hands dangling, wrapped tightly around the tops of the chains that allowed the swings to hover. His legs hung in an upside down V shape over the top of the set’s rusty bar, his high tops and favorite striped socks in place. Who knew that having detachable arms and legs could be considered a gift? What purpose would that serve? When would he ever need this “superhuman” perk? and Would anyone find him the corner of this desolate park? His dad would find this funny; his mom was going to be pissed.

Andy looked to his left and saw his backpack and all it’s contents spilled out onto the grass, including the brown paper bag that contained his tuna fish sandwich and Welch’s Fruit snack pack. Shit! He thought. Can’t even eat lunch!

Yes, Andy Capp was in trouble.

K: It took a bit for me to visualize this correctly. Once I did, I found it pretty amusing. I would have opened this one with the imagery and then talked about how Andy got there, but whatever. Though: why “Andy Capp?” Was my mind meant to go to that old somewhat lame comic strip, or was it a coincidence? It had me trying to put something together that wasn’t there. (Also, another misuse of its/it’s). Still, this was a tough one to leave out as I really dug the imagery.

DK: I was having trouble understanding what his power was until the direct statement of it (after the description of it) but that’s probably judicial error. I do like how his “problem” fits well with his worldview and perspective, though.

MG: Hopefully the reference to that charming old cockney drunkard from the comics pages was unintentional. In any case, yeah, detachable arms would be pretty inconvenient if you weren’t swinging with a spotter. The visual of the third paragraph was handled very deftly, and as a result was pretty funny. But the story itself was a pretty light one.

Sama Smith, BBB

“Dark places. Ooooh, yeah, I love me some dark places. That back booth in a seedy bar. The edges of an alleyway. The shadows under a bridge. That’s where I go. That’s where I find home. I don’t need money. No material shit for me. I could get what I want, but I don’t wanna bother. And I don’t like to be bothered, ya hear?”

The shriek and hum of a train on the tracks above him replied. “Too noisy here. Time for a move-on.”

An unlocked house full of secrets. “Time to hide and seek.”

Daisy heard his muttering first and thought he was another monster. But he said he killed them all. She said he’d forgotten one.

“Ya don’t get it. I like to be alone. But I ain’t alone, ever. I hear the city. I hear the howls. I hear the screeches. I hear the streets. I hear your tears.”

Under her bed, his mumbling soothed her to sleep. And hiding there he’d hear her pleas and the mattress springs groan from more weight most nights.

“I see everything going on. I see what happens in the dark.”

She got used to him fading in and out. She brought him food, put it under the bed and he’d drink Daddy’s beer. The less Daddy drank the better, at least that way she’d get more sleep.

“I blend in. I dissolve. I drink in smells. I ain’t really here. Got it? I don’t have to ‘splain myself no more to you.”

Little Daisy nodded. They had a deal, after all. She knew how to keep secrets.

“He’ll get what’s coming to him,” he told her. “Then I’m on my way. I’m just passing through. Soon, you’ll face the darkness on your own.”

K: Dark places indeed. This is a killer concept, and I love the complicated reality of the monster under Daisy’s bed and the suggestion that he was naught more than Daisy’s way of dealing with her alcoholic father. Straightforward stories about children in broken homes often come off schmaltzy around here, but a little symbolism can go a long way. GOLD

DK: I like the, uh, darkness here. This story hits those effects of claustrophobia and tension pretty well, and I felt myself in Daisy’ mind without too much exposition necessary. BRONZE

MG: Golly. The delicate touch that this story brings to some heavy concepts is really effective. What’s more, I really wind up liking this presentation of the thing under the bed. There’s something quite agreeable about his mystery, his lack of corporeality, his mumbles…how that can all be interpreted by a little girl. And how it can be just what a little girl needs to keep other, more horrible monsters away. Very nice. GOLD

Sarah Wreisner, BBB

I can’t be the only one.

It doesn’t matter. When you find me, I’ll be rotting, blissfully covered in flies and sand. I’ll deserve it. I’ll be sucked clean of what I once skipped through life with.

I always healed quickly – then, by accident, I learned to accelerate it. My infections evacuated when I joined a crowd; burns and gashes slunk away to collect on strangers. When I was diagnosed with hepatitis I spent an afternoon in a nursing home in Queens. I didn’t care. They were happy to have me.

I picked through crowded malls, bleeding or burned or feverish, ridding myself of whatever I’d recklessly picked up. I’d host parties and my guests would develop coughing fits and fractures. I never thought of what I was leaving behind. Then I broke my back.

I was taken to the ER after I fell down a flight of stairs, drunk. I woke up in a cast, completely healed – I could feel it. I had never recovered from something that serious before. The hospital staff hadn’t even noticed the miracle yet. Why? The birthing wing was falling apart.

In the nursery, about a dozen babies had withered and curled up during the night. While my body flexed and reknitted itself, their lives leaked from the maternity ward and curled through my body like warm honey.

I’m drinking myself to death, locked in a beach house I inherited from a woman whose death I caused. I may be tortured with guilt and sorry for what I did – unknowingly or otherwise – but I am still a monster. I need to stay here. I’ll live with my typewriter and my dirty jar of gin until I am pinned down with death.

Don’t come for me. Don’t let me heal. It’s for the best.

K: I normally wouldn’t be into the narrative voice here, given that it’s a retelling of events, but it works so well because it’s the narrator’s attempt to avoid all human contact. In a week of tragic characters this is the most tragic one so far, and the devastating effects on the world – and the narrator’s seeming lack of options to stop it – make for strong drama. I’d read a lot more of this story. SILVER

DK: I loved this idea (healing oneself and passing the ailment to others) and I loved the execution of it. The desperation of the narrator permeates the whole piece, and again I’m very into seeing the search for an escape route, even the permanent one. GOLD

MG: Cunning little concept that’s carried out to a somewhat logical conclusion. I would have liked a bit more than what seems to be a self-penned eulogy though. While the descriptions are expert in some cases, they really don’t function beyond descriptions. It makes the story less of a story and more of an essay, I feel. A series of opportunities to try out how various adjectives would feel hung onto different parts of this person’s story. Nice enough, but not as substantial as an idea like this could have brought. SILVER

Margaret Martin, LNW

Merveille squeezed her mother’s hand as they approached the teller, earbuds in, hat pulled down, hood tied tightly over the top.

She heard a man tapping his foot. Identify it. Ignore it. A teenager cracking his knuckles. Identify. Ignore. An irregular click in the overhead fan. Ignore. Rustling paper in the office by the window. Ignore. Sniffling. Gum chewing. Ew, Marissa from school! What a cow. Ignore.

Tapping. Metal on stone. Merveille scanned the room. Tapping. Identify! Merveille grew more agitated. Where was that sound coming from?

Behind the teller. “Mom, what’s that door? Something in there is driving me crazy! MOM!”

“That’s the safe. Oh my God, is that smoke?” Her mother waved down a security guard, who saw the smoke and immediately radioed others.

The tapping stopped, and Merveille exhaled. Ignore.

Now ticking. Ticking. TICKING. Merveille grabbed her mother’s sleeve. “Mom, there’s ticking!”

“Ticking? Everyone, GET DOWN!” The safe door exploded.

Merveille sobbed into her mother’s sweater.

“Shh, we’re safe, sweetie. You warned us just in time.”
_ _ _

Merveille squirmed in her seat.

“The Roman Empire stretched from…” Ms. T’s voice was getting drowned out.

Lydia jiggling her foot under the desk. Identify, ignore. Breathing like sandpaper. Identify? Michael’s asthma. Ignore. Something dripping. Merveille whipped her head around. Not the science lab sink. Not the drinking fountain. The bathroom? The rain gutter? Identify? Please, IDENTIFY!

She squeezed her hands over her ears, a voiceless scream issuing from her open mouth.

“Merveille! Can you identify it? Ignore it?” Ms. T rushed toward her. The other kids immediately froze, still and silent.

Drip. Drip. DRIP. DRIP! It swelled in her head, threatening to crack her skull. She clawed at her ears and scalp.

“Stop!” Her fingernails were bloody.

Ms. T dragged her into the hallway.

K: Shit, you lot have a way with mounting insanity. The “identify, ignore” concept was strong enough to begin with, but the teacher’s empathy and use of the language was a brilliant touch. I CANNOT STAND IT in stories or movies when a character very clearly has a special power and those around her deny the obvious for the purposes of falsely creating drama. The drama here is in the kid’s head and no tedious doubtful authority figure is necessary. Thank you for handling this subject so deftly. GOLD

DK: I think I’ve read a thing or two recently about the sensory overload that many autistic individuals experience. I hadn’t associated that with this challenge until this story, and now it makes perfect sense as a “superpower” with a negative backlash. I don’t know if you were thinking of that too, author, but I wouldn’t be surprised. I also thought the writing here allowing me to, uh, identify with Merveille’s escalation was really strong. GOLD

MG: Poor kid. I like the second half of this very much, and I wonder if there was some way the first half could have been less like telegraphing the underlying power this kid has. I don’t know how I would have handled it, though, so I can’t give too many demerits for that. As it is, it’s a pretty compelling piece of writing. SILVER

Beau, LNW

Dinner was almost ready. Neatly folded napkins and sterling silverware adorned each setting. An ornate, silver candelabra dominated the center of the table. Five candles were waiting to be lit, each one in honor of the seated guests. A sixth setting at the table was barren save a golden timepiece.

Last year, Colby found the damned thing on a trip to the Solomon Islands. What had been a refreshing retreat instantly turned into a living hell. The watch kept time perfectly when it was open. When it was closed, time froze for everyone but Colby. Impossible to resist and only fun for a few months, the watch isolated him from society. But tonight was special.

Jerry, his boss at the firm, was at the head of the table. Colby recently quit his job, as money was easy to come by now. But Jerry had financed his trip to the Pacific, so he deserved to be treated.

Mom was sitting next to him. She talked him into going on vacation. Said he needed a break after Kathryn cheated on him.

Kathryn was next to Mom. He still loved her, despite what she had done.

His best friend Jake was able to make it as well. He introduced him to Kathryn. It seemed appropriate they be seated next to each other.

Finally, there was Carl. He cut Colby off in traffic this morning.

He lit each candle as a silent thank you to his guests, who smiled back at him.

Each of them had a gift for Colby on their dinner plates. Surveying the table, he laughed. Jerry’s right hand. Mom’s tongue. Kathryn’s breasts. Jake’s testicles. Carl’s middle finger. Dinner was ready.

Colby opened the watch.

K: This watch is one of the single most fun ideas we’ve ever had, and I’ve half a mind to run a challenge around it. The list of guests seems almost clinical and I was all, “get on with it” until we got the money line about Carl cutting Colby off in traffic, and I knew we were headed for a good bit of comedic horror. I grinned hard at this wicked revenge fantasy. SILVER

DK: I don’t know, man. It’s not really his mom or Jerry’s fault that the trip turned out bad, is it? I mean, the rest of them I get, at least in the context of “dude be crazy”, but he’s spreading the blame around a little wide even for me.

MG: Eesh. Not at all where you’d expect this little superpower conceit to have gone. Grizzly scene not at all hinted at before the smack to the face arrives. SILVER

Jack Haas, FRH

I walk everywhere with my eyes closed now. The wisps of the phantoms slide sharply just below the surface of my skin whenever I blunder into one, reminding me constantly of their presence. I began to see the dead a month ago, but now they are too many and I’ve traded in that sight for barked shins and bruises.

When it started I tried to bring them peace.

I researched their lives,
I set right their wrongs,
I appealed to lost loves,
I comforted close friends,
I avenged a death.

The man knelt in the alley, his hands shaking behind his head. “I didn’t do nothing, man! I don’t even know this Gavin you’re talking about.” The blank, black, bottomless pits of Gavin’s eyes hovered an inch from the man’s face. Gavin rose slowly from in front of the man, fixing me now in his stare. The gun wavered in my hands as Gavin approached, but he seized them; the long tendrils of his fingers inhabiting mine, trying and failing to make them stronger. I felt those fingers reaching for the trigger and then withdrawing. The noise was so sharp, so final, when I fired that I couldn’t believe Gavin remained. When I opened my eyes, there were two of them, watching me with the same dead stare.

A specter wafts across my clenched shut eyelids, a knife’s edge scraping through the sclera. If that were enough to blind me, I would welcome it, but I know all too well that the dead cannot affect the living. I’m beginning to suspect that works both ways.

K: “A knife’s edge scraping through the sclera” is such an aesthetically pleasing phrase to me. The story itself is an interesting idea that doesn’t quite seem to reach the stakes of some of its competition, unfortunately. The prose is nice and the idea is as well, but I think the fact that the story’s ending is the same thing that always happens to the protagonist is preventing it from standing out. BRONZE

DK: This is suitably eerie, and I found myself lost in a potentially neverending thought loop considering the possibility of one kill leading to another to another to another, in perpetuity.

MG: It always bugged me that the kid from the Sixth Sense couldn’t see all of the dead people who’d ever died wherever he went. Seemed too convenient to just make it about a few of them. This comes closer to the sheer awfulness of what that curse might be like. Feeling like there’s got to be some reason, some purpose to that kind of power, but realizing that it’s as futile as avoiding death can be when you’re alive. Well thought-out, well wrought little story here. Rises above a bit of muddle at the beginning to deliver something cautionary and thoughtful. GOLD

Christina Pepper, BBB

Sunlight filters through the leaves of the trees surrounding the lake and glints off the water’s surface. I stand on the shore, toes digging into warm sand.
—-
The morning of my eighteenth birthday, I had been summoned by the Seer.
“Nimab,” she proclaimed, “Many creatures in our land are suffering. They need your healing powers. You will be able to roam wherever you choose, but you must never return to Lake Salta or your abilities will be lost.”
When I asked why, she simply replied, “It knows your secrets.”
With the world before me, of what consequence was one small lake? It had simply been a place to pass away the lazy hours of my youth.
I had plenty to tend to: the farmer’s ailing flock, the noblewoman’s skittish steed, the young boy’s whimpering puppy. I would lay my hands on the animal, whisper in its ear for a moment or two, offer a sip of water, and it would be restored.
Then the dreams began. I approached the water’s edge and stripped off my clothes. Just before I stepped in, I’d wake with a rushing sound in my ears.
Word spread of my abilities, and the demands upon me increased. A man summoned me and presented a squealing, flailing newborn. I was no help.
I became gripped by an unquenchable thirst. The more I healed, the stronger it became. The lake began to dominate my thoughts—the caress of its waves as I floated effortlessly, the exhilaration of diving into its unknown depths.
—-
So here I stand, parched and empty. Surely someone else can help the animals. There must be another way. The water is so pure, so clean. How could I ever doubt that this is where I belong?
I kneel, part my lips, and begin to drink.
K: This is a seriously fantastic concept that may not be done justice with this word limit. Tom Robbins had some fun in one novel with characters who suddenly HAD to do the one thing they were forbidden to do and I loved it here just as I loved it there. He, though, had hundreds of pages to pay that off, and here it was a blur as we had to get to several story beats in a small space. For a story with this much potential substance trapped by 300 words, it did very well. BRONZE

DK: I like both the world building and the character development here. The build of momentum to the ending is shown early but that doesn’t blunt its impact. SILVER

MG: I really admire the style of this story, and I think it’s a pretty good approach to the prompt. I just wish there had been a bit more of a connection between what the seer says about the lake knowing secrets, and the eventual ruination of the main character. Still, it’s a lovely piece. BRONZE

Brooks Maki, LNW

“I think it’s barbaric. What is this, the Wild West, that we have to worry about bank robberies now?”

“From what I heard, no one was hurt in any of them. We should get a bottle of wine, white or red? You know what, forget it, let’s get one of each.”

“Well that’s the other thing, how is there not one witness to these things? Sounds like an inside job, I mean it’s impossible to get into those vaults and out again without being seen. Just the sort of cover big banking would use to screw over more little people.”

“Impossible? That seems like an overstatement. Maybe the robber can turn invisible. Or he can teleport.”

“You’re not funny. Would you stop eating all the bread? I’d like some too and I don’t want to have to order another appetizer. And you sound like you’re saying these are no big deal. Those are the life savings of people that we know. And now they’re gone.”

“I thought you were all about the redistribution of wealth.”

“That’s not funny, and anyway, before this conversation I thought you were too. Since you bought that new car last week you seem so … capitalist.”

“Money isn’t evil. No matter how much you want it to be.”

“I can’t believe I just heard you say that. I think you should go.”

“Fine.”

“You’re not fooling me. Those hundred dollar bills aren’t just caught in an updraft floating there. Leave. And take your money with you.”

K: A conversation without occasional references to its participants is always a little difficult to read. The douche definitely comes through douchily, which helps. His obsession with money but lack of real appreciation for the finer things (“white” or “red” wine? What a layman) is a nice touch, though some internalizing and action could have helped this along.

DK: See, I can sometimes get things that are revealed subtly. You guys probably knew that, but I felt like I was missing more than I used to lately, so I wanted to make sure. Here I think using nothing but dialogue to unfold the nature of the situation works really well to put a fine point on it. SILVER

MG: Huh. I guess I liked the impulse behind this story, and the dialogue-only execution. But it didn’t quite hit home for me. Maybe it was a bit too clever at times, and maybe the ending seemed to be a little too by-the-way for that dinner date character to seem in keeping with her tone. I don’t know. But it’s nice to find someone taking this approach this round.

Erik S, BBB

The violent orange of the sunset overpowered the meager fluorescent light of the office fixtures. Jerry stood in silent watch over the city from halfway up the skyscraper, his eyes slitted against the sun.

But there was nothing warm about the amber glow on this evening. Jerry gritted his teeth. He was tired. Very tired.

Ever since he emerged from under that toppled pile of Summary of Commentary on Current Economic Conditions Books at the Eccles Building, he had been the first and last line of defense.

He checked his equipment again. His Silver Slide Rule and SuperWang 144-T were impeccably prepared, per usual.

Those Beige Books should have killed him. Instead, that nasty bump on the head awoke his wonderful and terrible powers.

Jerry neatly tucked his Power Cheaters into their case, and took a deep breath, steeling himself.

They had asked him to save them from the horrible Euro Debtvestator, to protect them from the dastardly Taiwanese Steel Dumper; he did all they asked and more.

He whipped out his Kent 113mm, and slowly dragged the turtleshell pocket comb through the pomaded remnants of his hair.

And they always asked more. You’re the only one who can save us! they cried. Yeah, well who was going to save him!?

Jerry clipped on his cape and his tie, and readied himself to do battle with the Deng Brothers and their Abacii of Peril. He wasn’t sure if he was strong enough.

He swore to himself, if he made it through this, he’d just disappear. Maybe show up in a small accounting firm in Nebraska. Fight the terrors of the Alternative Minimum Tax for awhile instead.

“They’re ready for you, Fellow Chartered Accountant,” the young soldier said from the door.

Jerry wiped away a tear, and walked into the hall.

K: Man, this one has real potential, but it feels rushed and last-minutey to me. This world can be mined for a lot of absurd comedy and, as I’ve said enough times to be annoying this season, I just wanted more. I REALLY would have liked to see the protagonist stuck in a “superhero battle” and not just have seen him pushing pens (though I know this was kind of the intent). It’s so close to absurdism, it might as well go all the way.

DK: As a joke machine I enjoyed this quite a bit. I also enjoyed the parody of other superhero imagery that I thought I could read into it slightly between the lines. BRONZE

MG: The burdens of the white collar wearers. Ah, me. It’s cute that this one ends with a little hint that there might not be any actual super in these superpowers. Admirable how tightly the author clung to his conceit, though, and all that inside-baseball terminology was quite amusing.

———————————————————–

I’m pretty sure this was close again, guys. Well, Big Brass…Band wasn’t, but whatever.

Big Brass…Band: 11/11/5/1 = 28/4 = 7.00
Liam Neeson’s Walrus: 0/0/5/0/13/6/3 = 27/7 = 3.86
Miranda Priestly’s Unholy Sweater Crisis: 9/0/6/0 = 15/4 = 3.75
Freshly Ruptured Hymen: 5/0/6 = 11/3 = 3.67

…you have got to be kidding me. FRH, I hate to say it, but although it doesn’t get much closer than this, you’ll have to make another vote by Saturday night at 9pm Central (let me know if Saturday isn’t long enough this weekend, but with three people I’m guessing it will be) and we’ll move forward with a two-person team (and specific rules on how that’ll work if they have to eliminate someone again before the merge).

Cheers, Survivors, and if you stayed awake, I hope it was good news.

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