Well, this was as weird a challenge as we all thought it was. It was rough going at times (as evidenced by Gilman and me getting fairly surly on occasion), but I do recognize that this was the result of a purposefully vague prompt, which is something I like to do once a season or so to see what happens. Sometimes we soar! Sometimes, it’s a little scattershot. You’ll notice that as a result, judging was a bit all over the place (the very first person was the only one to get three medals, and there are some stories with very disparate comments. I even fear I dislike a story to which I gave a gold, but I…want it to be what I think it is).

Sit back and either enjoy, or be as confused as we were about whether we should love something or hate it. The next one will be as clear as day, I promise.

Annette Barron, Freshly Ruptured Hymen

The temple doors chuffed out and then sucked inward. The violet light pulsing beneath the large ironwood doors jittered and snapped. Moths drawn to the sinister light disintegrated into crackling husks, falling in drifts before the threshold. From the temple belly, eager voices rose and fell in time with the light.

The chanting inside reached a crescendo, then sputtered and died. The doors breathed out once more. Unequal to the force behind them, they blew open. Heavy air tumbled down the cobbled steps, ripe and steaming, redolent of ozone and afterbirth.

K: This was so prosey I thought we might see the word “cicadas” appear. There are a lot of pretty words here, and there’s a hint of a story early on. It might get a bit purple for my liking at times, but there’s an intriguing opening that makes me want to learn more about what’s going on. BRONZE

DK: I like the build this has; the description of the sounds gives it a nice momentum, and redolent is one of my favorite word choices this week. BRONZE

MG: Lots of juicy bits to roll around between your teeth in this piece, maaaybe growing a bit heavy-handed towards the end. I don’t think it needed the “ozone and afterbirth” part; if anything it distracted from the intense visuals of what comes before. Nice way to set up what could be an interesting story. GOLD

Brian David, Liam Neeson’s Walrus

Steam rises from the sink.

Water stretches across the basin and tumbles over the edge, pooling in front of the cabinets. A thin stream breaks away, curving around the tile and into the hallway before slipping down a set of wooden steps.

Drops hit the floor at the bottom, turning red as they mix with the dust. A light flickers, throwing every crack in the walls into sharp relief. There is a thumping sound, steady as a heartbeat, echoing along the concrete. Each repetition is followed by a soft scraping.

K: I wondered if we’d get a lot of horror, because it’s a popular thing to write around here and setting the mood is kind of a fun thing to do. Where’s the line on this challenge in terms of what’s allowed? That’s something I left intentionally vague, if annoyingly so, to see what players would do (I like at least one ultra-experimental challenge per writing season). This suggests a character solely through noise, giving us both an idea of how he looks as well as what he’ll be like, all through setting the tone. SILVER

DK: I like that first image of the steam. A nice, sharp initial picture to set the stage.

MG: This one feels like a close cousin to the first piece, but the meandering of a rivulet of water is somehow less compelling, but more human-like, than anything from entry 1. Again, the ending tacks on a shift in senses that feels a bit unnecessary (and in this case, even more jarring). It lacks a bit of forward momentum, though, and is less of a lure to read what comes next. BRONZE

Will Young, Miranda Priestly’s Unholy Sweater Crisis

Only a broken man searches for treasure. One who is whole feels an occasional pang of desire to leave everything behind, but he is too shackled to family and community to chase his dream. One who is broken feels the opposite. He knows his only pang will be of remorse at not pursuing something more.

Tuesday was another damp day on Oak Island, and the tarp sagged from the accumulated precipitation.

Beneath the tarp, a faint light and sulfuric odor escaped the latest hole. The stench was expected; the light was not.

K: I feel like we have the beginnings to two different stories here, but I’m sure the writer’s intention is that they connect. The trouble is that I don’t know why they connect, or even what I’m seeing here, completely. Something potentially tense is happening with a dead body, I think, but I’m just not sure. For what it’s worth, I DO feel like I might be missing something special.

DK: Here I will note for the first time how many of us seem to like to use sulfuric smells to hook readers. I did really enjoy the usage of the quasi-philosophical musing at the beginning; it made me think enough to keep me engaged. SILVER

MG: This is an unexpected approach, one that delights me. The author avoids trying to paint a scene, but he/she doesn’t go for a tell-don’t-show cop-out either. The commentary on the human condition draws us in to agree or disagree, and then very expertly chosen words bring us into the specificity of the scene being described: the “latest” hole, the “expected” stench. Very canny, very well done. GOLD.

Beau, LNW

Whomever you are, I am truly honored that you’re reading my book.

No doubt you’re aware that several of my men are pointing assault rifles at your head, though you’re probably not surprised given the lengths you went to get your hands on this. Keep reading, and they’ll pay you no mind. However, so much as stand up or close this book and it will be the last thing you do.

Try to enjoy yourself. When you finish, you will be presented with a question about what you’ve read. Your life depends on your answer.

K: I don’t know, man. You pretty much completely introduced the narrator as well as his goons. Even if I accept that they’re not a big part of the story to come – and I really can’t anyway – then this story only comes off as confusing. If he’s not the lead character, who is? It’s a bit of a cheat.

DK: I bought into the idea here solidly. I can’t imagine too many more ways of being straight hooky than that. GOLD

MG: This feels a bit like a cheat, but it’s an entertaining one, so I’m inclined to give it a pass. It’s funny more than compelling, and the joke of it probably doesn’t endure as long as the author would like it to. I think this kind of writing inspires only polarized responses; you either buy into it and get excited at playing with that fourth wall, or you roll your eyes and hope the gimmick serves something more than gimmickyness. SILVER

Christina Pepper, Big Brass…Band

The sun hung low and the thrumming of insects filled the evening air. In the brief Alaskan summer, they lived out their destiny: eat, mate, die. They had no regard for the other inhabitants of the vast and wild territory, save for when they needed a meal. The miners were the easiest targets—too crazed by gold to bother swatting away their winged tormentors.

The lone sign of civilization was a ramshackle cluster of buildings perched along the beach. Rough laughter spilled from the saloon, punctuated by the occasional shout and the sound of flesh hitting flesh.

K: This gets closer to character than I’d really like, but it’s still mostly just atmosphere, so it’s alright. It doesn’t give a whole lot of insight, though, into the story to come, which I’m sure now is what I wanted. If the insects are meant to parallel the attitudes and lives of the miners in the saloon, then I do appreciate the setup there. BRONZE

DK: On the one hand, I like the thorough description of the first paragraph, but I got enough of a sense that the story isn’t actually solely about insects eating miners that I found it a bit unbalanced. Maybe I’m wrong, though.

MG: Flesh hitting flesh, you say? Sounds like my kind of saloon! Nice world-building here, although the opening part about the insects felt more like something I as a reader was just forced to get through. I’m guessing if this were written out to novel length, the mosquitoes would figure into the story some more. But for this exercise, it just felt like filler.

Erik S, BBB

A child with upsettingly white skin was born in Los Caimanes, Chile. Then, one was born in Mumbai and another in Labūnava, each with eyes and hair of muddled grey. As they grew, they never spoke a word; local oddities.

With increasing frequency, these children were born in patternless splotches across the globe. The same white skin regardless of race, all perfectly peaceful, lucid, placid. Mute.

Knowledge of what they were remained limited, but their numbers did not. They
became shunned, exiled, and soon even hunted and slaughtered worldwide. No one would speak for them, until they spoke for themselves.

K: These are clearly the story’s lead characters. I know they’re just symbolic of the mounting terror (or drama) at hand, but the stage is set solely with references to humans. That’s where the entire atmosphere comes from.

DK: That last line made me a a little iffy, but not enough to throw me off totally this time. Otherwise I like both the base idea here and the way the author builds it out bigger and bigger. SILVER

MG: It’s Alexandria’s Genesis 2.0! Nah but fo’ rillz, y’all, this was a clever means of introducing what likely would be a nifty little speculative fiction thriller. It’s ominous, curious, and ends on a note of future dread with that “speak for themselves” thing. Nicely done. BRONZE

Leif Bierly, LNW

The tool factory. That’s what it is, and that’s what it is.

The place where they create the stuff that this distressed town needed to make more work possible for people who like to spend money on tools, and the place where our people could go to get their desperate small-town personalities ground down into robotic parts capable of only believing the future would be better when it is authorized by the tool factory’s executive board.

They want us to believe that the time for us is the future.

Our future here was better the way it was: burning down.

K: It seems a lot of these are cheating in ways I wish they wouldn’t, so I’ll recalibrate my expectations. Even so, this prose is a bit odd. The final line is worded oddly enough that I had to go over it a couple of times and the long sentence (fragment, though I’ll allow it in a conversational opening) ran on forever.

DK: The palpable sense of cyncism and despair here really elevates this one. That second graph could feel unwieldly, but instead feeds into the relentless nature of the hopelessness. GOLD

MG: Mmm…I admire what this one is attempting to do, and I give the author props for almost pulling it off. You stacked the deck against yourself by starting out with that line; it gets explained as you read further, but right out of the gate it feels forced and trite, and tough to recover from. Paragraph two felt like a run-on sentence attempting to be expository and symbolically revelatory at the same time. But just as if it had been spoken out loud, it runs out of oxygen by the end.

Rusty Greene, MPUSC
Watch as the morning sun takes a stab at magic on this quiet city street, staining the blood-red stones of the tenement facade. Do you hear the alarm clock bleating its tinny refrain from the open window above?
It’s been at it for hours.
Ignore the mangy cat at your feet. It will bite you before it purrs. Its twinkling amber eyes are pure madness and its crooked twig of a tail doesn’t deserve your pity. Save your heart. The day is just beginning.
The clock screams into blue stillness.
Come, dear reader. There is something you must see.

K: Though I have no idea where this is going, I’m interested to follow for a while. The “come, dear reader” voice isn’t new and even the wording feels a little derivative, but the reader has gained my trust, at least long enough for me to follow for a while, even if it does feel a little condescending. BRONZE

DK: I didn’t buy into the “speaking directly to the reader” hook as well this time. This doesn’t have quite the same built-in immediacy, and I didn’t get enough of a sense of what this actually might be about.

MG: Oof. This one just makes me cringe. Narration that addresses its own audience, especially with the cloying term “dear reader,” is an awfully difficult thing to pull off. And you would have needed a LOT more than the number of words afforded you in this challenge. Instead of intriguing me, it feels infantilizing and facetious. Lure me into your world with words, don’t command me to follow.

Bret Highum, LNW

The heat waves rising off the highway carried the scent of death. The old hound followed the trace down the hill, past the slow trickle of a summer-slimmed creek and onto a two-track dirt trail leading nowhere. He snuffled forward, up to a circle of shredded sod, half-hidden under low-hanging branches, and pawed half-heartedly at the blood-crusted surface. Bending low, the caws of carrion birds pricking his ears, his nose picked up something else, wrong and perverse, so strong that even the carrion stench couldn’t disguise it. Hackles raised, worn teeth exposed in a snarl, the dog turned and fled.

K: The dog’s a character, but clearly a minor one, and he’s only a device to set the stage for something bigger. As cheats go, this is pretty well on the level. I suspect zombies at the very least and a serial killer at the darkest, but no matter what we’re getting into, I’m all about it. I already eagerly await the first human coming into frame, interacting with the reality of this scenario. GOLD

DK: I probably should’ve told everyone that my sense of smell is weaker than my other senses, so stories that really lean on it here probably won’t hit me as sharply as sounds or strong pictures.

MG: Looks like someone picked up the hyphen variety pack at Costco this weekend. It made for an odd reader’s rhythm, having so many closely packed modifiers strung together. It may not seem like much, but it actually does make the reader work harder to understand what you’re trying to illustrate. Aside from that, it takes me out of any potential for latching onto the kinetic energy of the piece, and by the time the dog’s picked up that new scent, I’m not really invested. This piece needed some engine to drive me to want more once it was over, and it never quite got there.

Rex Ogle, MPUSC

Gravity was five times stronger here than on the old planet, making every step an exhausting workout. The air contained just enough oxygen to make it breathable, but it went down thick and burning, like a shot of sulfuric whiskey. Daylight lasted three and half hours, with the rest of the thirty-six hour day spent in the lockaways beneath the catacombs. But the worst part were the native Denga’ari. The elegant petal-soft creatures were made of pure energy, their awesome beauty eclipsed only by their ravenous, endless hunger.

Living here was hardly an option—yet it was the only option.

K: The Denga’ari are characters, but only in the sense that the birds are characters in The Birds, I think. This one did a good job of suggesting the cruelty to come – humans are unfit to live on this planet but clearly unable to live at home anymore. I think the last sentence can be punched up and can be darker, but I like this one and now I’m just being a dick and looking for things to criticize. SILVER

DK: In some ways, all of these pieces are too exposition-heavy. In other ways, some of them disguise it a little better than others. The last line here was a bit of a struggle, too.

MG: Awfully inventive stuff here, and presented assuredly enough that I didn’t feel like texting Neil DeGrasse Tyson for a fact-check. You get plunged into this alien world rather than slowly introduced to it, and the author made a smart choice to position the narration (and the reader) as a part of the populace forced to endure these trying conditions. I truly want to know what the rest of this story would hold. GOLD

Jack Haas, FRH

The room was covered in grime that must have taken years to accumulate. Three half-eaten meals, a single flannel work shirt and a pair of jeans that could have stood up on their own lay in one corner pushed up against the wall as though trying to avoid the oncoming creep of blood from a saturated silk tie.

K: This was over so quickly I read it again to see if I missed something. I suspect I’ll go into the emails later to see if anything was missed by the gatherer as well. Blood’s creeping, even now, years after whatever transpired here? I hate to discourage brevity because some of the best stories can be the short ones, but this missed a chance for clarity, and I wish it had used a few more of the words available.

DK: Blood flow is another popular image this time around, and the idea of pants trying to avoid it was one of those kind-of like-it things that at least kept me paying attention.

MG: There’s really next to nothing here, as I’m sure the author must be aware. Two sentences when you’re afforded 100 words…it hints at a rush-job. Or lack of interest. I’m hoping it wasn’t the latter.

Sama Smith, BBB

Dripping down the sides of everything.
Burnt, battered and brimming in the trees.
Everywhere. Taking over corners. Seeping into cracks. Curving down streets. Peeking at the morning sun between the tulips. Moving downhill in unrelenting waves and heading for the river bank.
Metal and sulfur linger in the air. It’s the smell of battle; a hint of war that’s yet to come.
Anything left alive only bleeds. But a few learned to hide, burrowed underground; waiting for the blood to recede. They know blood isn’t thicker than water. They know soon there may be no water left.

K: I appreciate what this one is trying to do, but – and I hesitate because I know this sounds mean – this is a little high-school angsty to me. It’s laid on so thick, I just can’t get past it, though I think the concept could work if it was taken further to the extreme to either melodrama or gore. As a drama, it doesn’t capture me.

DK: Speaking of blood, here I think its pervasiveness kept the introduction tied together well. Plus that attractive sulfur smell is back! SILVER

MG: The opening of this piece made me imagine it being recited over a funk groove by Isaac Hayes. “Dripping down the sides of everything, ya dig?” “Blood!” “Yer daaamn right.” Honestly, we get it, blood, there’s blood about. Lots of blood. For a war that’s YET TO COME? And the only ones left alive bleed, JUST bleed. Oh, except for the ones that learned to hide. This piece feels like it doesn’t know what to do with itself.

Colin Woolston, LNW

Amid the mist that hung about the city moved a silence. It was in the pause between thoughts; it followed the averted eye, and it moved anxiously.
The silence, as does all things, had a counterpart. It was in the laughter, rich with drink, of desperate women. It was in the empty, murmured threats tumbling from dripping tables, and it moved hungrily.
The silence and the sound found each other among the rank market stalls and overcrowded public houses, and together they moved the thoughts and deeds of all.
Together they were the first breaths of war.

K: Alright…okay. This is fairly absurd, but I have to say you’ve done a very good job of piquing my interest. I don’t know HOW the hell this could be sustained for a novel, but given that it could, I have to accept that this opening has me completely intrigued about the strange and difficult to describe war coming, that could be played for either melodrama or comedy pretty well. Of course, this could all just be symbolic, but if so, it’s still every bit as gripping, for me. This stands as one of my most self-doubtful golds I’ve ever given, as it could be word porn without the absurdist thought that I’m applying to it. If it’s not striving for absurdity, it’s just annoying purple prose. GOLD

DK: Like I was saying, here using the presence and absence of sound stood out stronger for me, helped me conceptualize what the author was going for, and made the intro more attractive. BRONZE

MG: Okay, wait. I know it’s nice for a writer to get deep into their vocabulary and paint a picture for the reader. But there’s got to be some sensible through-line to it all. There’s a silence…but then there’s desperate women laughing…and that’s the first breaths of war? A pause follows an eye that’s averted? Tables are dripping? There’s a lot of density in the words this author chose, but almost zero gravity. I hate to say it, but this one wouldn’t have felt out of place during the Bantam Bulwyr challenge.

Margaret Martin, LNW

Thick yellow clouds blanketed the ruined cities along the coast. Smoky fingers of sulfur stretched eastward, faltering and dissipating at the jagged breakwater. Beyond their reach, clear skies teased the naked sea, a billion achingly distant stars winking and twirling in the inky dome of night.

A vessel sped toward the battered western shore, a velvet shadow slipping past moonlit waves. Cloaked in deep magic, camouflaged with superior technology, it swiftly bore the package to a nation choking on despair and ash.

The package lay in the ship’s hold, emitting the faint hum of tightly-coiled power.

K: It’s Sulfur Week at CdL! This one does well to get across a human battle without bogging it down with humans, and though this has mostly been a rough challenge I do hope it’s given some people ideas on stage-setting and how wide open those options can be. This one really does encapsulate what I asked for, even if it doesn’t have the dramatic pop of one or two that came before. SILVER

DK: I’m not sure I’m interested enough in the vagueness of the package, although you got me interested at least in the idea of “choking on despair and ash”.

MG: Lots of ruination and apocalyptica in tonight’s entries. This one holds together well, painting the devastation keenly while including a little action and hope in the mix as well. This is one that made me want to know more. Compelling is good. SILVER

Roman Feeser, MPUSC

Hawaii was completely gone. Alaska was still very much free, the only escape for fearful Americans. C2AF, an underground railroad that sliced through Canada wasn’t the safest route. Canadians couldn’t be trusted. They too were a country divided.
The day the South rose again was known as Ol’ Miss Monday. The regressive region was seen as a breeding ground for fat, uneducated dimwits.
It awoke like a hungry zombie. Eight states had joined together in secrecy to form a coup that implausibly conquered the existing forty. America birthed a cabal that hated the government more than they loved their country.

K: This one certainly rushes to get where it’s going. Though the breakdown of civilization can certainly make for a strong opener, a stronger focus on just one place would have gotten the story across better, with maybe a quick blurb about another fallen part of the nation where appropriate. A good idea that could be worked into something even better.

DK: The idea might be a little much, but on the other hand I kind of appreciated its specificity in a set where a lot of these go for generalized dread or suspense. Calling the South a “hungry zombie” is loaded enough to amuse me, too. GOLD

MG: Dammit, those bumper stickers were right?! Hey, this was a nice idea, but it felt like the opening tone and narrative perspective shifted a bit too dramatically for its own good. The last two thirds were strong, though, and I do admit that there’s something chilling about the threat of another civil uprising. BRONZE

Sarah Wreisner, BBB

The house was perfectly silent. Its screen door, patched with electrical tape, banged shut in a puff of rotten breeze. A yellow flowerpot stood before a ragged, newly-formed cave, gaping from the ruined tomato garden. Grotesque ribbons hung in the trees and the lawn was dotted with tufts of fur. The sky was crayon-blue and cloudless; several birds, unaffected by the night’s phenomena, trilled from charred branched. A dog barked.

In a root cellar next door, a pile of broken glass and limbs shifted slightly beneath a bright square of peach-colored sun.

K: Was there more than one phenomenon last night, or is a case where the writer doesn’t know the word from phenomena? I’m not accusing; I’m genuinely curious (and I’ve seen that mistake here many a time). “A charred branched” detracts from the opening here as well. It all seems a little by the numbers, and though it didn’t do anything wrong, it doesn’t stand out in a sea of stories with decent dark atmosphere that I’ve read over the years.

DK: This is basically all image, no sense at all of what’s going on for me. Even less than some others. I like some of those individual images – i.e. the ribbons – a lot, but man, I don’t know what to do with it as a whole.

MG: There were just enough perfectly-placed touches in this piece to keep me hooked in. The author seems to comment on things with equal weight, the mundane and the supernatural, and that helps give the whole enough intrigue to make me want to know what has happened. And ooh, that image of broken glass and limbs. Could be trees, could be humans….Nice. SILVER

17 The farmhouse stood aflame on the hill. Sirens sounded in the distance, growing closer. Before the trucks arrived, the flames would consume the crude swastikas covering the outside wall.

K: See? This is all the longer it has to take. The story has purpose, and a line in the sand, and already has action and tension. Lovely. GOLD

DK: I get as good a sense of the setup here as any of them, in a short, concise space. I kind of appreciated that concision, and the burning wall image was pretty punchy. BRONZE

MG: Another rush-job, or last-minute non-sub avoider. The mention of swastikas is just not enough to intrigue the reader when there’s so many words left unused.


Where does this bizarre challenge leave us?

Miranda Priestly’s Unholy Sweater Crisis: 8/1/8/6 = 23/4 = 5.75
Liam Neeson’s Walrus: 4/8/5/5/6/6/6 = 40/7 = 5.71
Freshly Ruptured Hymen: 7/0 = 7/2 = 3.50
Big Brass…Band: 1/4/3/3 = 11/4 = 2.75

As recently as yesterday I was proclaiming that BBB wouldn’t lose again before the merge. Who knew? They dominated a couple in a row, but must get an elimination vote to me by Wednesday night at 9pm Central and we’ll get you a number of words that should make you happy, and will make my co-judges want to murder me. Don’t get used to it, as it’s another double-deadline one where I’m stepping up words considerably just once before dropping back down for a while.

Cheers, Survivors.