Damn, yo. I can’t keep throwing these word limits at you in the short term – predictably, most of you used as many words as possible – but this one produced results. I know some of you are backlogged and some avoid reading these altogether for whatever reason, but just do it for once, okay? You owe yourself these stories.

Onward, final thirteen.

Brooks Maki, Liam Neeson’s Walrus

Every time Juan found a camera in the field, he kicked at it until it pointed up to the sky. It could point anywhere as long as it was away from his home. The news crews had come and gone from the “town that would not hide”, now only the remote cameras remained, feeding their images back to the holes and underground bunkers scattered throughout the country.

His mother wouldn’t like him messing with the feeds, she wanted to be remembered. They all did, probably. The town would lock arms in just a few hours, everyone in the main square looking up to the sky where the “extinction-level event” was coming from. They would try to appear brave so that those in the bunkers would tell stories of them or some other bullshit like that. As if the survivors would have any time to compose ballads while they scrambled for food and water. Juan shook his head, staying above ground was the right decision. Suicide by Armageddon, the news reporters had called it. As if there was a better use for the end of the world.

The camera he had just dislodged clicked and whirred, slowly bending its lens back toward the main square. Apparently someone was still maintaining a satellite signal. Juan bent down to consider the camera; he had found thirty or so of these things in various parts of town over the last two days. He had disabled most of those already, if he hadn’t missed any of them, this would be the last.

“This is not for you.” Juan muttered as he cut all the cables he could find on the camera. He gave it one last kick as he turned toward the square, the camera swung listlessly away, pointed now at the street leading out of town.

He saw his mother join the mass of people in the square and he tried to make himself walk over to her and join the town in their final defiant demonstration against an uncaring universe. Instead he climbed the stairs of the hotel on the south side of the square. He came out onto the roof just as everyone linked arms below him.

A fireball built to blinding white in the sky.

K: Despite the complete disregard for the semicolon in this story, I got a good feel for Juan even without him having any interactions with people. I like him, and I think I might do the same thing (assuming my wife and children had been lost). I also found this “big brother” take on the armageddon to be pretty new and amusing. The media keeps plugging away, because they don’t know what else to do. BRONZE

DK: This is a good concept for this challenge, and I get a strong sense of Juan’s outlook and why he takes the actions he does. I think there’s a few sentences structured somewhat awkwardly that interrupt the flow of reading a little bit, but otherwise this is a nice piece of bleakness.

MG: This was a really cool concept and it had lots of room to breathe and be drawn out, and it just felt barely-plumbed. You may have undone some of your own story’s strength by making Juan’s mole activity so subtle in the face of some heavy group efforts: the survivalists down below, and the defiant suicidageddonists above. Either one of those groups could have had a mole involved to disrupt their grand purposes. And while it’s admirable that you made the mole an anarchic presence upsetting the efforts of both groups, it felt like he acted mostly out of boredom, sadness, frustration, and fatalism. Not out of a distinct desire to undermine the core purpose of either group. Yeah, I needed more about the event, the conflict between the groups, and/or the alienation Juan experienced that brought him to this point.

Roman Feeser, Miranda Priestly’s Unholy Sweater Crisis

I couldn’t focus. Although I had only been standing at the sink for less than a minute, I scrubbed the serving bowl for what seemed like an hour.

“Here’s the last of the dishes from the table.”

The ceramic bowl took flight from my hands and crashed to the bottom of the sudsy sink.

“Tinlee, you startled me.”

As expected, the rest of the sisterwives, one by one, came rushing into the kitchen, Adaleen first, then Jaleen, followed by Kyla.

I couldn’t decide whether it was the noise itself or the likelihood of some potential gossip and excitement that brought the women beckoning to the kitchen at such lightening speed. Either way these women weren’t living, they merely existing.

“Is everything alright?” Adaleen, the concerned one.

“We heard a crash. Which dish broke?” Jaleen, obsessed with the material world.

“We thought perhaps you threw a dish at Tinlee.” Kyla, always cracking jokes.

“I startled Rima is all. ” Tinlee, protective as always.

Tinlee approached the sink and carefully removed the broken pieces.

“What’s all the ruckus in here?” The noise had awoken The Giant.

“Rima almost cut her hand open on a dish.” Thank you Adaleen.

“Rima broke a dish.” Fuck off Jaleen.

“There’s no use crying over spilt dishes.” Funny, Kyla.

“It’s my fault.” Tinlee, my favorite.

“What’s gotten into you Rima?” The Giant speaks.

“I don’t know.” Lies. It was this God forsaken chaos you had forced us into…

“Why don’t you clean up this mess and join us for evening prayers. Jaleen, you stay and help her. The rest of you get the children to bed and prepare the living room.”

Jaleen? Really? I’d rather do it myself then get stuck in here with her.

It was obvious why The Giant chose Jaleen and not one of his other homely wives. She was the newest and the youngest. Only fifteen. Jaleen, the fifth wife, has yet to bare him any children and since that is the main priority of a Fundamentalist Mormon woman’s earthly mission, she receives the most punishment disguised as responsibility. Jaleen has taken the back of the hand more times than I can count on all of my fingers and toes.

The Giant loves Adaleen the most. She is his first wife and by her he has eight sons. Three of which were recently forced out of the community and sent up to Salt Lake, left to fend for themselves. When boys like that get of age they become a threat to the menfolk. Hormones develop and pretty girls become a desired commodity.

Kylan is The Giant’s sister once removed. She’s almost as tall as him. Her last baby came out deformed. The Giant took it out back to the creek and settled that. “The LORD is a jealous God, filled with vengeance and wrath. He takes revenge on all who oppose him and furiously destroys his enemies! We need to pray harder!” The Giant say. Repeatedly. And we did, on uncooked rice. The Giant likes to spread it all over the floor of the living room and make us kneel on it. “We need to be strong for the LORD,” he says. I spent a good three days picking those hard long grains from the scabs that would develop from praying hard the last time.

Tinlee is the prettiest. The Giant spends a lot of time with her in her bed. She has seven children. Two sets of twins. The Giant had “inherited” her from his brother who passed away from ass cancer leaving eight wives and seventeen children. That’s a lot of mouths to feed with no provider. The Giant refused to take any of those wives unless it was Tinlee. I like her best.

Then there’s me. Rima. I was married to The Giant from the Prophet’s Look Book. The Giant paid a handsome price for me. Not because I’m overtly pretty or anything special, but because he hates my daddy and that’s reason enough. With him I have three children, with one on the way. I would do anything to get away from here. Even leave my three children behind if I had to, as sad as that sounds.

Ouch!

“Are you ok?”

“I’m fine Jaleen. Tinlee just missed a piece of the serving bowl in the drain here is all, and it cut my finger.”

“Let me see.”

Since when do you care?

‘That looks deep you may need to go to the hospital.”

“I ain’t going to no hospital. You think he wants to pay for stiches? It’ll be just fine.”

“Well we had better finish up here and get in there to pray. It’s for the good of our family and our Church.’”

“I guess you’re right Jaleen.”

“Rima, why don’t you go upstairs and take care of that and I will finish the dishes for the both of us. “

“Have you gone down with fever Jaleen? You’re gonna finish these dishes? By yourself?”

“I will. It’s the right thing to do. Go on now.”

***********

“Are you sure you were not followed?” asked The Man with the shiny badge.

“No I’m not sure. This is NOT easy for me. If he catches me, well, only the LORD knows what he will do to me.”

“Did you get what we asked for?”

“It’s all here. And some photos too. I was able to grab some bank records and my marriage certificate. Do you think you can get me out of here?”

“We’re working on that Miss. We just need the right amount of evidence to get a warrant. Once we get that, you’ll be as good as free.” The Man lied.

“I need to get out now. I’m pregnant. I can only hide this so long. I do not want to bring a baby into this crazy world.”

“Like I said. We’re doing the best we can.”

“What about the others? What will happen to them? Will they be safe? I don’t want anything bad to happen to them. They ain’t bad people. “

“Yes, we will make sure they are protected.” He lied again.

“Ok. I gotta get back to the Temple. They think I went to the bathroom. I’ve been gone way to long. See you soon?”

“Just get us what we need. I’ll be in contact soon.”

Jaleen left the car and made her way through the overgrown brush that surrounded the back of the Holy Temple. It started to rain. How would she be able to explain her wet clothes? She would think of something. She could hear her sisterwives singing joyfully through the open windows. She was getting out. She was going to be getting out!.

The Giant felt his cell phone buzz in his pocket. He was not one to allow distractions during services but this was important. He needed to know now. He clicked open his phone and read the text message. Emotionless, The Giant snapped his phone shut and returned it to his pocket. From the corner of his eye he could see Jaleen enter the end pew next to his youngest boy Jacob. She glanced over to him and gave a seductive nervous smile. Filled with rage, he returned the gesture with a slight nod. He would take care of this later.

K: This is about as cynical as it gets. Because of the cartoonish elements, though, I think the writer gets away with it. The issues come from the editing (it needs some) and the italicized portions that come off as a Dramatis Personae page at the opening of a play. We’ll learn about the characters on our own if their personalities shine through. I suppose in what’s still a short story the writer was worried it wouldn’t be clear, but it wasn’t necessary. This is an intriguing idea that needed polish.

DK: Another concept that fits well (as you’ll see later, well enough to be incorporated multiple times) and I like the attempts to draw contrasts between the wives. Again I think there are some spots here that could’ve used another go-over of editing, and some sections – especially the extended dialogue back-and-forths – lack something of propulsion to keep the momentum going.

MG: Minor quibbles first: there were some grammar issues throughout and I don’t think you used the word “beckoned” correctly. Also, the shift from first-person to third-person was distracting, and it didn’t feel like it was necessary for the story until the very end, where you needed to relay what the Giant was thinking as he checked his phone.
That said, I think this was a good kernel of a story, but it really didn’t feel well executed. The beginning was a big rush to introduce characters and characterizations that really didn’t wind up affecting the rest of the story. Your method of doling out personalities as dialogue was spoken felt like a rushed, removed kind of informing, like you would have rather had a dramatis personae the reader could have worked from. And why not have the interaction with the policeman take place in first person as well? I’m sure you could have given the reader enough seeds of doubt about the promises they made to Rima without shifting to an omniscient narrator. All in all, I don’t think this idea was afforded a lot of opportunity to shine as a story. After all the characterizations, set-up, and intended ramping up of tension, this story kept me at arms length throughout.

Margaret Martin, LNW

It wasn’t a perfect day. The sky was white with haze and humidity, and it was 95 degrees in the back seat of the van. Pete tried to stretch his legs, but there wasn’t enough room because of all the crap toddlers have to have with them for a day at Paul Bunyan Land.

Pete didn’t even bother concealing his contempt at Babe the Blue Ox as the tires crunched over the gravel parking lot and kicked a cloud of hot dust into the air.

Aunt Mel got out first, and unloaded the little ones. Susie and Amanda peeled their chubby thighs from their car seats, grabbed Aunt Mel with sweaty hands, and plopped onto the gravel. They squealed with delight at Babe, and ran to him. Aunt Mel followed, trying to toss multiple bags over her shoulder, uselessly scolding about being careful of the cars in the parking lot.

Uncle Stuart came around to the open door and helped Jimmy and Joey hop down next. They were older, eight, but they were just as sticky and noisy as the little ones. Once Joey unglued himself from the seat, Pete felt cool air on his arm for the first time the whole trip.

He hopped out last, ducking to get his head out the door. He shuffled over to clan gathered by Babe the Blue Dork. The girls were hugging his black hoof with their sausage arms, and the twins were up under his nose, their arms forming a damp, Cheeto-stained muzzle.

Aunt Mel waved, trying to get him to hurry. “Pete, get in the picture.” Pete grumbled, wishing he was home with his X-box, and deliberately slowed his steps.

“Why don’t I take the picture, Aunt Mel? Then you and Uncle Stu can be in it too!” He silently congratulated himself for avoiding a mortifying facebook tag.

“That’s so sweet! I’m so glad we insisted that you come. We are going to have so much fun.”

“Say cheese!” Pete decided it was going to be the worst day ever. Maybe if no one enjoyed it, they could leave early.

They gathered up the wilting children and headed indoors. Uncle Stuart bought tickets, and Pete plotted how best to ruin Paul Bunyan’s welcome for the little kids.

He gathered them close and said, “If Paul Bunyan says your name, it means you were naughty! He’ll try to get you the whole day!”

At the park entrance, the statue of Paul towered over them in boots and red plaid. It called out to them. “Hi, Pete! I hear you’re the special guest today!”

The babies turned and looked at Pete, eyes wide. Jimmy and Joey started to taunt him. “Pete is naughty! Paul Bunyan is gonna get you!”

“Jimmy and Joey, if Pete is naughty, you better put him in jail!” Paul winked a mechanical wink, and launched into a tale about cutting his dog in half. Pete rolled his eyes.

Kaleidoscope rides beckoned from the left. Ferris wheel, bumper cars, the roller coaster, the haunted house. The children started pulling Aunt Mel’s hands toward the midway. Pete got another idea.

“Aunt Mel, can we please start at the petting zoo? I love it there!”

“Of course, Pete. Come on, everybody! Let’s go see the goats and geese!”

Pete smiled, a little victory. Dumb, boring goats. The kids would act up; he was sure of it. They’d be home before lunch.

They came across a gumball machine full of pellets. The whining for quarters began immediately, but Uncle Stuart had just bought tickets and was not feeling generous. Pete got another great idea. Fishing two quarters out of his pocket, he got some feed. He dropped a little into each of the toddler’s pockets. The ponies and goats would go for it for sure, and that would scare the crap out of them! They’d be crying in no time, giant tears leaving streaks on their dirty cheeks. Like the streaks their tires would leave on the way out.

He held Susie over the fence so that she could reach down and pet the pony. Just as planned, the pony sniffed out the pellets in her pocket and started to nose her waist. She shrieked! Pete was deeply satisfied. She gasped and wiggled, and he turned to see her face contorted with… laughter. Crap. Immediately Amanda began to pull on his shorts. “Me next! Me!”

Well, that plan didn’t work. Pete thought some more as he lifted the giggling girls over the fence. “Let’s go see the old-time buildings in the town! I love looking at all those old cameras and musical instruments!” Snoresville. The kids would be wailing for sure.

They started at blacksmith shop. It was full of mind-numbingly boring iron tools. The boys started playing tag in the grass, and the girls clung to Aunt Mel’s legs. Pete smiled. Then they walked into the log cabin bunk house. Uncle Stuart walked over to the wall, and suddenly the room sprung to life. Miniature loggers magically chopped at trees, pulled logs to the river, flipped flapjacks and skated on a frozen lake. The children were mesmerized.

Pete needed a new tactic. Bumper cars! He could bang into the boys and make them mad, maybe even give them little headaches. He imagined himself lounging in front of the TV, AC set to North Pole.

“Uncle Stu, can I take the boys over to the bumper cars?”

Jimmy and Joey jumped at the offer, and they made their way to the head of the line. Pete gave them some instructions. “You have to push the pedal, and you can turn or go backward with the steering wheel. Just try to go in a circle. I’ll follow you.”

Jimmy crawled into a yellow car. Joey grabbed the orange one next to him, and Pete chose one with a clear path right into both. By the time they figured out how to push the pedal, he’d ram them and make their teeth shake! At the signal, Pete slammed on the pedal and headed straight for them. But Joey was spinning in a circle, and his tail end whipped into Pete’s car and stopped him before he could get to Jimmy. Trying to regain some speed, Pete maneuvered his car behind Joey’s and prepared to bump him from behind. But Jimmy came whizzing up, laughing, and hit Pete square in the side. Pete’s car slid away from Joey’s, and Jimmy reversed. It went on like this until the cars whirred to a halt. Pete had not landed a single hit, but the twins were high-fiving and laughing and begging to do it again.

They walked toward the haunted house. It’ll scare them! They’ll wet their pants! Pete jumped and screamed at every lame scene.

“Don’t be such a baby. Those are just dolls,” Joey chided.

Jimmy looked behind the moving parts to see how they were operated. “Hey look, a cool robot arm!”

Maybe the Magnetic Mine. That was one freaky funhouse. Maybe someone would get sick so they could leave. But they just laughed as they lurched and staggered through it. Maybe the spinning teacup ride? That makes everyone sick! But they just laughed as they fell dizzily onto the cool grass. The ferris wheel? Pete made the seat swing, pointing out the rule that said that he shouldn’t, predicting they would fall with a voice of doom and raised eyebrows. The boys just laughed and tried to swing it themselves.

They returned to the middle of the park where the baby rides were. The girls were going around on the airplane carousel, blue slushy stains around their smiling mouths. Aunt Mel was resting in the shade, the bags gathered around her on the grass like children at a story hour.

“Aunt Mel, we’re hungry. Can we get hamburgers in the restaurant?” She’d probably say “no” – she’d make them eat soggy sandwiches and hot, slimy watermelon from the cooler. Nobody would enjoy that! Let the crying commence.

She called over to Uncle Stuart, who was helping the girls out of the World War II bombers. “Stuart, the boys are hungry, and we could all use a cool-down in the air conditioning.” And unbelievably, they headed into the restaurant, where they enjoyed real logging-camp food in a real log cabin. The toddlers couldn’t finish their Woodpile Fries; Pete stuffed himself on their leftovers.

On their way out of the park, Paul spoke to them again. “Jimmy and Johnny, did you see the jail cell?” A cool breeze sprung up and lifted their hair from their sweaty scalps.

“Yes Paul Bunyan, we did!”

“Did you put naughty Pete in it?”

“No way! Pete is the best! We had fun!”

Aunt Mel chimed in. “Yeah, we were planning to leave before lunch, but Pete kept asking to do one more thing.”

K: This wasn’t a laugher or anything, but I was amused throughout as the perfectly loathsome Pete repeatedly received his comeuppance in the form of fun. His internal monologue about the other kids set me up to really dislike him, so it was satisfying to see every single one of his plans fail. I thought the writer might be tempted to pay it off with a victory, but I’m glad he or she didn’t. This wasn’t the tightest or most gripping prose you’ll ever read, but it was fun enough and annoying to me that I had to leave it out of the medals.

DK: I can’t help but laugh at the spin here that Pete’s schemes kept failing. I think this does a really good job of presenting Pete’s worldview in a true voice. The balance is maybe a little off between the intricate detail of his early attempts versus the fast-foward through the last couple, but still, pretty funny.

MG: Ha! This is a cute one, definitely. Not the kind of story that’s gonna shake the rafters and devastate the townsfolk, but it set itself up admirably, and executed well, with a lot of good meaty, believable interactions and descriptions along the way. Some of the situations were dragged out longer than they might’ve, and some outcomes were telegraphed, but you can’t really throw up too much of a counterargument against a story as plausible and enjoyable as this. BRONZE

Jack Haas, Freshly Ruptured Hymen

“Suppose there be fifty tzaddikim within the city; wilt Thou also destroy and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty tzaddikim that are therein?”
–Bereshis 18:24

The kid ran in front of them down the sidewalk, his aluminum bat bouncing loudly off the metal fences boxing in the concrete apartment buildings that loomed over the street. Rinesh wanted to shout at the kid to knock it off, but he glanced at Gordon’s implacable face and swallowed his words. Faces began to appear in the windows, and as they progressed down the street, the incessant clanging of the kid was joined by a woman leaning out of a third story window slamming two frying pans together. A man sat on his balcony and began blaring an air horn as they passed. Still, Gordon said nothing. Now more people began to shout, to scream, a wordless yell that followed them as Gordon grabbed Rinesh by the elbow and steered him into a narrow alleyway between two buildings. Instead of fading, the cacophony screamed down the narrow corridor bouncing from wall to wall, striking the two men with an almost physical force.

“What…” Rinesh couldn’t stay silent in this noise.

“They see us. They tell of our approach.” Gordon did not turn, did not raise his voice, yet somehow he was easily heard. Rinesh stole another glance at the man, still calm, the tattoo at his throat pulsing lightly with his heartbeat. Two leaves sprouting from a diagonal branch, the mark of the faithful. The sound continued as Gordon strode forward. He placed his palm on a door half-hidden behind a dumpster and stepped back. At the mouth of the alley, the kid with his bat stood, surrounded by dozens of others, all of them continuing to shout. Rinesh was beginning to realize that the noise was not wordless; he could almost make out rhythms and syllables. Three minutes passed, the door remained closed. The crowd screamed on endlessly, but never advanced. The word at the base of their chant was becoming clearer; Rinesh was trying to decide if it was “Savior” or “Traitor” when the door opened and Gordon prodded him forward.

The silence of the tunnel behind the door was complete. Though Rinesh could no longer see them, the people in the street had stopped as one when the door closed. They filtered back into their buildings, soon leaving only the kid. The bat dropped with a single metallic clink as the boy made his way down the alley. He stopped in front of the door that Gordon and Rinesh had just passed through and carefully laid his hand exactly over the place where Gordon’s had rested. He stepped back, his eyes fixed on the hinges.

Rinesh moved forward through silence and dark. A voice intoned from somewhere ahead of him “Do you come to protect this city?”
His throat was suddenly dry, “I do.”

“In order that you may be counted among one of the faithful, do you forsake sin and darkness?”

“I forsake them.” No sooner were the words out of his mouth than the lights went up, throwing the space into an almost surreal brightness. Twenty men and women sat around the room, all with the same branching tattoo, all regarding him with quiet but intense inspection.

“So few?” The words escaped him before he could control them. Uneasy glances told him he was not the first to notice. It was Gordon that finally broke the resulting silence.

“If we were numerous, we would not be necessary. All of you have been through the trials; there are few that can hold to our faith. Though, we are an integral part of this city, in order to be effective, we must be exclusive.”

The door remained closed. The kid’s patience expired and he ran for his bat. He swung again and again at the metal door, the sound reverberating in the empty alleyway.

Inside, the dull pounding thud barely reached the central room. Gordon spoke on, ignoring the sound. “While we hold to our faith, no harm will come to the city. Our numbers do not matter, only the strength of our devotion to that ideal.”

Faces began to appear at windows that looked on to the alley. They watched the kid, his energy unflagging as he continued his attempts to beat down the door. Only a small dent showed, and he began to grunt with effort.

Rinesh hesitated, uncomfortable what his question might mean when placed against Gordon’s faith. But this was why he was here, “The city gets worse every day, harm already comes, but not from the heavens. You heard the people as we entered. They were not marking our passing, they were going to lynch us. Do they want to be saved?”

People began to appear at the end of the alley, murmuring quietly among themselves. The kid’s hands had begun to blister and bleed, the blood running down the barrel of the bat to be deposited in sprays on the door.

Gordon was unperturbed. “They did not sing for our blood. We are part of the city as they are. We are the part of the city that wants to be saved. That is enough for the heavens to stay their hand. It has to be.”

The crowd pushed forward, now singing with the rhythm of the strikes on the door. They wrestled the bat from the kid’s hands, incorporating his scream of frustration and rage into their song. They did not clear the alleyway when the assault on the door stopped. They did not stop singing as the bat was passed back through the mob to the street. When Rinesh opened the door hours later, his new tattoo glistening, they still sang and screamed with the kid’s voice, although his body had long since quieted.

K: This one hooked me from the opening holy book passage. The journey was interesting, the mythology was familiar but manipulated enough to feel new and I got a clear sense of the pulse of the city. BRONZE

DK: This uses its cross-cutting structure very effectively, keeping the action rising in both scenes to a solid climax. I also liked the uniqueness of and the way it builds the setting a lot. BRONZE

MG: Deftly layered concept; interestingly executed as well. Seeds of doubt reflected in the over-enthusiastic nature of our little batsman made for an interesting parallel mole situation. There are a few parts of this that I think are a little too melodramatic and overly symbolic for my tastes–at times it verges on esoteria. But it inspires reflection and thought, rather than harangue or force-feed an idea to the reader, and that’s admirable. For a story as fantastical as this one, I am pleased by just how tightly it all hung together. GOLD

Rex Ogle, MPUSC

“Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention?” the Public Relations Manager asked, tapping on the microphone. He worked for Madison Martin, the international triple threat—a model, an actress, and of course, a singer. He’d called together all the major news outlets, promising each the interview of a lifetime. All the celebrity magazines and gossip blogs sent their top reporters to hear what Madison Martin planned to announce. The bigger news outlets and TV channels had to be paid to attend since they didn’t exactly consider the global diva newsworthy. “Thank you for coming today,” the PR Manager said. “I’d like to present Madison Martin.”
Applause surrounded Madison as she stepped to the front of the pulpit. Wearing a glittering white-sequined jumpsuit with high leather fuck-me boots, she gave her signature hair flip and a wink. But for the first time in her career, she did not approach the stage alone. Standing next to her, a shirtless bronze-skinned male wore only a red pants and boots. He had his sword attached to his belt and flexed his muscles, just oiled by Madison’s make-up team. Two more companions stood to her other side: an unusually tall girl wore black veils from head to toe, and a young boy wearing filthy pants, a dirty wife-beater, and a scythe strapped to his back. His name was Mateo, and he’d never even held a scythe before, but Madison’s “mom-ager” insisted it would complete the “look” they were going for.
The four of them standing together, in these absurd costumes, made them look like a new band that promised heavy metal and raunchy lyrics about having LCD sex with Cthulu. Mateo thought they looked ridiculous.
“Madison! Madison!!” one of the reporters screamed, raising his handheld recorder. “Are you starting a band?”
Madison batted her eyelashes. “Actually, this group is a little… bigger than my music career.”
Another reporter leapt up. “Madison Martin! Is this a first look at your next movie project?”
“Now, now,” Madison said sweetly. “I need all of you beautiful creatures to give me and my friends a moment to actually give the press conference. So, let’s hold the questions for a few minutes, okay?”
“Madison!” another reporter shouted while her cameraman angled his lens behind her. “Is there any truth in the rumors that you’ve been having an extramarital affair with—” The female reporter didn’t have a chance to finish before her microphone burst into flames. She was startled, but unharmed.
“Madison asked for a moment to speak. You will listen,” the oiled male said. His eyes sparked with flames, and the crowd gasped.
“So, uh, yeah,” Madison began. “I have an announcement to make. As most of you know, I am self-made and empowered woman. My CV includes everything from modeling and music to movies and TV. Recently, I even started my own clothing line. But today, I’m here to come out of the metaphorical closet—” Madison paused for dramatic effect. “I’m one of the Four Horsemen of Apocalypse.”
The crowd fell silent.
Mateo held back a laugh, as Madison’s face fell.
“Would you repeat yourself?” one of the reporters asked. “I think everyone’s just a bit confused.”
“My name is Conquest,” Madison said. “The First Horsewoman of Apocalypse.”
A few of the reporters looked at each other with questions. Some chuckled. A few others got up to leave.
“Wait,” Madison pleaded. “This isn’t a joke. This is great news. We’re not here to hurt you, we want to help!”
Pestilence cleared her throat, suggesting to the swordsman War that he should step in. War, an eloquent but quiet man, snapped to attention. Stepping around Madison, War took the microphone. “We understand this may come as a bit of a shock. There are dozens of religions all over the world—each privy to its own gods, goddesses, and belief systems. I myself am a Muslim, so imagine my surprise when one of God’s chosen angels came to me and my parents with this news. Like Madison, I am a Horseman. I am the second, and the name God granted me is War. Here with us, are Pestilence, and Death. Together, we could end humanity. It is God’s design that we should. But instead—instead, we choose not to. We choose instead to let mankind live. In exchange, we ask for very little.”
A reporter shouted, “So this is for your next movie, Ms. Martin. But which is it? I’m not familiar with your role in any apocalyptic films—”
A ring of fire ignited around the reporter at the snap of War’s fingers. “This is not about a film. This is about the world. This is about the fate of man. This is about standing up to our maker.” Some of the reporters began to scatter. With a gesture, a wall of flame exploded around the crowd. No one could leave without risking being burned to death. “I am War, and the purging fires are my gift. Now have a seat, and listen to us. We will not harm you, but we need you to give our message to the world.”
The reporters resumed their seats. The celebrity and gossip reporters were terrified, but the true reporters were suddenly interested. This is what they wanted to report on, something sensational enough to tune in millions of viewers.
“We each have abilities—gifts from God—that were designed to murder the human race. But we will not—if you agree to our terms,” War continued. “Twenty-four hours from now, world leaders will gather here in Los Angeles, the new global capital. They will come and they will begin peace talks. After, they will find a way to create free global healthcare. Then, we will find a way to provide clean water and food for those who need it. Free education centers will be opened for all. Weapons of all sizes and shapes will be destroyed. We have no intention of ending the world, but fixing it.”
Mateo rolled his eyes. He was so bored and annoyed. When the other three Horsemen had found him in a trailer in Texas standing over the corpse of his “parents”, he was excited. He thought the four of them would lay waste to the world. He wanted to see the look on all the faces of all the bullies who had ever beat him up or called him a faggot or flushed his head in a piss-filled toilet. He wanted to punish every parent who had ever hit their kid, or told them they were worthless. He wanted to murder the government officials responsible for a shitty foster care system that landed him in a trailer in Texas with two crystal-head deadbeats who needed the extra money. He often masturbated thinking about destroying the world, reveling the flames of destruction and bathing in the blood of the weak. But when he finally met the others he had dreamed of all his life…
Well, instead, he ended up with three complete and utter pussies. They weren’t Horsemen. They were pacifists. They wanted peace. Conquest could manipulate minds. War could control fire. And Pestilence could bring a swarm of insects down from the skies to devour flesh from bone. But that’s not how she used her power. Instead, she used the insects to pollinate crops. Just thinking of all their do-gooder ways made him sick. He felt ill just being around them. Of course, all the weed he smoked helped with that. And so did his plan. Tonight, while they slept, he planned to try his powers on them. He could kill a living thing just by touching it.
A dark smile crawled over his face while the others held their press conference about peace. He’d always been a fan of Madison Martin. Now, he wondered what it would be like to have sex with her corpse.

K: I don’t know why, exactly, but I correctly predicted that the final passage would be disgusting. I think the idea of the four horsemen of the apocalypse giving a press conference is pretty hilarious, though this wasn’t played for more than a few laughs. Death, of course, is our rebel, and I would have liked to live in a few of his moments as part of this story. Having him clear a path through the throng of reporters with a few well-placed hands could have been a nice button. I dug a lot of this, though I think given the absurdity of the situation I would have embraced a bit more black humor.

DK: I give this points for both idea and execution. The hilarity of the central idea for the Four Horseman is self-evident, I think, and the writing pulls off keeping that hilarity going through the crispness of both its dialogue and its internal narrating. GOLD

MG: Uh. I was sort of invested in this idea at the start, when one of the apoca-jockeys was revealed to be a pop media superstar. That’s a concept with legs. And the twist of using their god-given powers against their creator and for the good of humanity is a fertile ground for social satire or even religious conflict. But making the rest of it a small issue of personal pettiness and latent vigilantism just deflated any investment in the story I had. If the author wanted to engage me with Mateo’s plans and history, they should have explored that rather than devoting so much space to the media event announcement. As a result, so much of the effort in this story feels wrongly directed.

Colin Woolston, LNW

Carlos was aware that Luis was not a good man. Aside from the things he had witnessed himself, he had heard that Luis had once shot a child, a young girl, for screaming too much during a bank job. Carlos thought of Luis as an artist; almost all of the tags around Echo Park worth looking at were his or by the many neighborhood kids that emulated him. Carlos felt more strongly about Luis than any other man he had fallen for, and he hoped to tell him someday. Today however, Carlos knew, was fucked.
Cars, blinding in the California sunshine, lined the street of Rigo’s house. Rigo was the man. At thirteen he had arrived in the Echo Park neighborhood with nothing but his desire to feed his mother and an even greater desire to kill Nortenos. In six months he had gone from lookout to runner to transport. Today, his word was as good as from down south. Now, he was giving the word from down south to his operations men. Carlos pushed the record button on his phone, tucked in the pocket of his hoodie.
Rigo posed in the doorway to his kitchen, looking around at the men gathered in the room. “Old Man says we need to make an impression on the Ene bitches moving south.” He waited while a few of the younger and more eager men spoke up on the Nuestra Familia. “I know. But I’m not going back to the Old Man to tell him that we don’t want to waste our time on a bunch of farmers. Old Man wants the farmers to know, this time, that they stay in the north. None of those Ene motherfuckers puts a foot down in LA, gets to go back home. OK?”
“You want us to kill them?” A few laughed at Carlos’ question. Rigo folded his arms over his chest and stared into Carlos. Carlos’ heart stopped; it felt like someone was sitting on his chest. He stole a glance at Luis, standing, leaning against the far wall. Luis seemed lost in thought.
“No, Carlito. I want you to cut their fucking dicks off, ai cavron? I want you to take their fucking soft little Ene balls and put them in their empty fucking eyeholes. OK? or do you need something clearer?” Rigo never raised his voice. Carlos always thought of him as prideful, and this was a moment that validated that thought for him. Rigo’s anger was palpable, and his eyes were wide and dangerous. The affected calm voice seemed out of place and childish.
“I get it.” Carlos slid a hand into his hoodie pocket, cradling the phone.
“Are we fucking clear, Carlito?” Carlos had to suppress a smile. He looked away and into the eyes of Luis.
“Clear.” said Carlos. Luis was staring at him, his eyebrows drawn slightly together. Carlos knew that face. It was the face he made when he getting ready to bomb a newly cleaned wall. Luis would stand with a spray can in each hand, and tilt his head and stare at the wall for a long time before he would start to paint. Carlos had to look away. Rigo was still staring at him, his face a blank mask. “When and where?”
Rigo smiled. “Manuel has the details. That’s all for now. Maria has made some sandwiches and lemonade so you motherfuckers say thank you and then get the fuck out.” He turned into the kitchen and was gone. Most in the room made to leave almost immediately, opening phones to put the word out. Carlos pulled out his phone to stop recording.
“What’s up Eme?” Luis was standing over his left shoulder. Carlos dropped his hand with the phone and stood to face Luis. “You ready for some action, big man?” Luis’ smile was perfect.
“Fuck yeah, I’m ready.” He held the phone back in his hoodie pocket, his thumb poised over the stop-record icon. “I just want to know something more specific, you know? Like where are these motherfucking Ene bitches coming into LA, you know?” Carlos’ voice sounded off to him, like when he was a kid and couldn’t control it. His mouth felt dry. “I was thinking, you know?”
“What were you thinking?” Luis took Carlos’ arm and pulled him toward the door. It was gentle and firm – Carlos could not help but take in the way the filtered sunlight illuminated the hairs on Luis’ hand and forearm. “Thank you Maria!” Luis yelled into the kitchen. Carlos let Luis pull him through the front door, down the steps onto the lawn and over to Carlos’ truck. Luis let him go and pulled open the passenger door. Carlos countered around the front of the truck and climbed in the driver’s seat. “Drive me to Pino’s.” Carlos started the engine.
After a few miles of silence, Carlos reached into his hoodie and stopped the recording. “I was thinking you should get a new tag on 18th. Let those Ene bitches know what’s up.”
“Is that what you were thinking?” Luis looked out the passenger window, his eyes squinting in the sunlight. “You weren’t thinking about turning that phone recording over to anyone?”
Carlos gripped the wheel. His head spun. “No. What? I don’t have that.”
“Pull into there.” He pointed to an alley to the right. Carlos turned the truck and pulled up just beneath a wisteria tree. “Get out.”
Carlos slid out of the driver’s side, and turned to see Luis sliding across the seat, pistol drawn. “What the fuck, Luis?”
“I seen you have your phone out before we went into Rigo’s, Carlos. I seen you put that voice record app on there. I know you, Carlos. Tell me what the fuck is going on.” Luis was out of the truck and holding the pistol, almost casually, at waist level. He was less than a couple feet away.
“It’s not what you think. I’m not.” Carlos knew, as a flash of insight, that this was possibly the only moment he’d have to tell Luis the truth. “I want to tell you something, but I need you to listen.”
“You’re talking to the cops, Carlos?” Luis gripped the gun a little tighter.
“No, Luis. No. No. Fuck that.” Carlos’ mouth hung open, his eyes searched around for something.
“OK. OK, man. You say that and I’ll listen and say OK, for now. But you tell me what the fuck is going on.” Luis reached out and gripped Carlos’ shoulder, gave him a shake.
“I need you to listen, man, OK?” Carlos pleaded.
“Yeah, OK, man. OK.” Luis tucked the pistol into his pants. His eyebrows drew together, and his dark green eyes held Carlos prisoner.
“I have to tell you something that is going to be hard to hear, Eme.” Carlos pulled his gaze down to the pavement. A 9mm shell gleamed next to his sneaker toe.
“Do you know the rules Eme?” Luis’ voice hardened, and he spoke quickly.
“Si Eme.” Carlos’ voice was soft, demure.
“You don’t disobey orders, you don’t disrespect your brothers, you don’t betray your brothers. Right, Eme?” Luis grabbed Carlos’ shoulders, and held him firmly. “You don’t do that and you live, right?”
“Right. That’s not it, man. Look. I see a way, man. I see something I think you don’t see.” Carlos’ head moved back and forth, lost.
“What’s the fourth rule, Eme?” Luis’ eyes were as hard as his voice. “What is it?”
“You don’t understand, Luis.”
“What’s the fourth, Eme?” Carlos tried to move away but Luis held him fast. “You going to say it, Carlos? You going to say it?”
Carlos eyes filled with tears. “You don’t know, Luis. You could be an artist.” The knife was buried in his chest before he felt the blade at all. “You could be so beautiful. I see a way out, man.”
Luis covered his mouth, and watched as the light began to leave Carlos’ eyes. He stabbed him again. “You don’t fuck your brothers, Carlito. Everyone knows. You think we’re blind? We just needed you to say it. You don’t fuck your brothers you disgusting piece of shit.” He stabbed him again.
Carlos pulled in a breath through the blood gathering in his throat and lungs. “I have to tell you. I l-”
Luis stabbed him in the throat, and dropped him onto the pavement. “Shut the fuck up, fucking maricone.” Luis wiped the blade on Carlos’ pants, emptied Carlos’ pockets, and got into the truck and drove away.
Carlos lay under the wisteria tree, the sunlight dancing through the purple blooms and truck exhaust filled the world as his last breath left his body. “I love you Luis.”

K: It took a while for this one to win me over, but I got there. It was tense enough to be believable and the tagging subplot seeped seamlessly into the main story when it was time. Sometimes killing off the lead character seems like a desperate attempt to make the story memorable, but this was a heartbreaking moment that I nonetheless assumed was coming given the tone of the story and the well-established rules of the gang. Very nice structure here. BRONZE

DK: I was surprised how emotional and invested I found myself getting in this story of forbidden love of a sort. I also liked a lot of the detail that colors the piece – from the character of the dialogue to Maria having made sandwiches and lemonade. SILVER

MG: Pretty straightforward little tale of gang intrigue, even with the attraction element tossed in. As a small twist on the expected, the romantic element didn’t really add much to the story, although I think the author was hoping it would. Solid writing, very strong sense of occasion and realism, but not much more than an excerpt from a longer episode of some yet-to-be-made serialized crime series. I’m giving the author a LOT of points for how authentic it all felt, though. BRONZE

Rusty Greene, MPUSC

PART II: THE MOLE

Inman beat at the low hanging branches with both arms, the sticky afternoon pressing in from all sides. The landscape was prettier in pictures. Glassy salt lakes stretching to the horizon, jagged mountains kissed pink at dusk. Apparently no one decided to snap a picture of this particular thicket, he thought as he stomped on a moss-covered log. It crunched under his boot, coughing up earthy dust that reeked of mushrooms.
“Utah, you’re ugly,” he mumbled, wiping his forehead. He glanced at his watch to check the time and found nothing but wrist. This constant checking in with the distal part of his right arm was making him nuts. He felt deprogrammed.
Of course he couldn’t have taken his watch with him. Ticking, shiny things would have looked suspicious. Especially ones that beeped when your boss thought at you. Hell, from what he had heard about these lunatics, a toaster would have looked like the work of the Devil. Dark times, indeed.
The Hive had been operating outside of Provo for years. Protected by a Supreme Court made up of Holy Freemen who had unanimously agreed to the validity of Tea Party’s Religious Liberties Act of ’38, the cult was virtually untouchable by the last sensible members of the American government. They paid no taxes, they came and went as they pleased, and they stole little girls.
“Why little girls?” Inman had asked Agent Perez on his way to the drop off. “How did they get away with it?”
“They were the lost children of war,” Perez had explained, navigating his way on a narrow dirt road. “After the Vegas bombings, orphans scrambled into the desert. They were rounded up and shipped off to all sorts of places. We couldn’t keep track of them, let alone protect them. Some ended up in brothels that sprung up in Death Valley. Some got sold to traders. Some escaped and fell in with The Father.”
“So maybe The Hive isn’t the worst place to be,” Inman said.
“Okay. Go with that. So you’re twelve years old and you get your period. You think you’re bleeding to death and instead of comfort you get raped in the middle of a group of strangers. Then when your baby girl is born, she gets to go through the same thing. And you get to watch. Yep. Goddamn paradise.”
Inman was given a GPS and told to destroy it when he found Sarah. He was provided the coordinates of the rendezvous where Sarah was ordered to go if she ran into trouble. He was told that his mission was a matter of national security and he would be debriefed upon completion.
They told him to set fire to The Hive.

***

“You look better than your picture,” Inman told her, eying her over the campfire.
“Thanks,” Sarah said, poking at the embers with a stick. Sparks danced into blackness. “It’s the uniform, right?” she asked flatly. She was dressed in a gray ankle-length burlap skirt, a starched black smock and a white bonnet. The women in The Hive had a strict dress code.
“Yep. It’s like you’re from Little Fucked Up House On The Fucked Up Prairie.”
“Nice.”
“Yeah. It’s sexy,” he joked. “Really, you looked like a bitch in the picture.”
They stared at each other. Sarah tried to hold a glare but a smile slowly crept in. “So they sent an asshole. My Tracker busts, I stay the course, and this is my reward?”
“Easy,” Inman warned. “I’ve killed people for less.”
“So have I,” Sarah said. She didn’t smile. “So, let’s go over this one more time. I’ll attend Union tomorrow morning. You climb the pine tree at the edge of the clearing. Send thoughts back to Price on everything you see. Everything. Especially the levitation and the telepathy. These fuckers got crazy after I lost my Tracker and Price doesn’t know any of the details. After she gets the intel, we can figure out the extermination.”
“Deal,” Inman said. “Why are we doing this again?”
“National security,” Sarah said.
“What for?”
Sarah sighed and looked at him. “Man, we’ve been over this. They can move things with their minds. Big things. Like cars. He’s just breeding his skills into a whole sideshow that left unchecked could become an army. And Trackers? They don’t need them. They just sit and have long conversations without saying a word. You don’t get why Price would be worried about that? Let’s just get rid of them and move on.” Inman looked away and said nothing. “Seriously?” Sarah taunted.
“Fuck off,” Inman said.
“Listen. You’re done after this, right?” Inman nodded. “Me too. Stop thinking about it. Let’s get it done, collect our cash and disappear.”
“Together?” Inman flirted as Sarah walked away into the night.
“I don’t know. I’ll have to ask my wife,” Sarah said.

***

Inman shifted in the crook of the tree and watched as the sun crept above the horizon. The soft morning glow washed across the clearing, turning the needles of the knotty pines a blazing green. Union Church stood quietly below, it’s weathered clapboard skin changing from white to gold in the dewy light. Inman inhaled the crisp morning air and held it. He felt revitalized. Okay, Utah. You win, he thought. Prettiest girl at the prom.
The heavy wooden door at the front of the church creaked open. Inman watched as 16 barefoot children filed out one by one. They emerged from the darkness of the church, materializing from the gray murk of the building’s insides. They were utterly silent, walking heel-to-toe in a perfect, razor-sharp line.
The children had black hoods over their heads. They were dressed in large white pillow cases, holes cut in the corners so their emaciated arms could poke through. They marched to the small yard at the side of the church and positioned themselves in a circle. Slowly, as if hearing a silent cue, they raised their hands to the sky. Inman held his breath as a trickle of sweat snaked down the inside of his arm.
Camille, the Union is beginning, he thought, hoping she caught it.
A moment passed. And then the humming began. One low note from every child, mingling in the air above the clearing. It started softly and then rose in intensity. Then it began to pulse. The staccato rhythm became a wordless chant. The children stood motionless as The Father appeared.
He ambled onto the porch from the open door, hands behind his back. He wore a black, hooded robe with a frayed length of twine wrapped around his waist. Trinkets dangled from the makeshift belt. There were bits of twisted metal, gray feathers, braided bits of twig, and what appeared to be gnarled pieces of bone. He smiled, took a deep breath and looked into the trees. His eyes landed on Inman.
Inman froze.
The Father’s eyes were the eyes of the dead. He stared at the man in the tree and then an open-mouthed grin spread across his face. It was the smile of a gleeful circus clown without the greasepaint. He cocked his head to one side, raised his right hand and waved. His fingers were covered in blood. Inman swallowed a scream.
With his left hand, The Father brought Sarah’s severed head from behind his back. He held it above him and squeezed the tattered neck like a grisly sponge. Blood poured from the dangling meat, dousing The Father’s face in a crimson shower. He started to hum along with the children, never taking his eyes off Inman.
The circle in the yard turned toward Inman. 16 sets of index fingers pointed at him. He began to feel himself rising into the morning air. He grabbed a branch with both hands and yelled until he fainted.

***

Camille, he thought into the dark room. I’m here, Camille.
Minutes passed. He gingerly traced the gash on his forearm where he had installed the Tracker. He tried again. Camille.
He listened to the patter of tiny feet above. Someone giggled and then a mattress creaked. He smiled. Probably Aurora. Always the night owl.
You’re engrafted? Her first thought was almost a shout. He could hear her grin.
Affirmative, he said.
Inman? she asked.
Yes. Are you getting this on your watch?
Loud and clear. Sarah?
Gone.

There was a long pause. Then she laughed. These assholes around me aren’t going to know what hit them, she said. The Father chuckled. How did you find Inman? she asked.
Campfires are quite conspicuous, he said. Rest, Camille. Tomorrow we begin.
Her sigh passed through him. Goodnight, my love, she whispered and then pulled away.
The Father rose from his chair and closed his eyes. He willed himself free of all thought and surrendered to the darkness. The night stayed silent. He stood motionless in the center of the room until sunrise.

K: The Father might be the most terrifying character I’ve ever read here. His powers are frightening but are never rolled out in a way that makes him cartoonish or ridiculous, like a young reader’s idea of a comic book supervillain. I liked Inman enough by the end that I was cheering for him despite seeing the futility of his circumstance, and the final moments with The Father doing nothing all night but standing motionlessly will stick with me for a long time. GOLD

DK: In a week with 13 hugeass stories, I’m not going to go back and read something from last week again, so I looked at this as a standalone piece. For the most part it works on its own, and a lot of the prose is really strong and vivid. The mole reveal at the end doesn’t quite work without, I’m assuming, whatever was established previously, since Camille barely exists as a character in this piece, so that turn doesn’t have much of an impact.

MG: Who moles the molemen? It’s a clever idea and it is carried out well, no denying that. I’m soured by the fact that I know going in who the author is, though, even though there’s no real competitive advantage or disadvantage for doing so. It just feels wrong to have such a big gulf between you and the other authors. Whatever, the story here ranges from unobjectionable to well-crafted, even if the whole of it feels like a page-turning pulpy thriller than anything I’d enjoy lingering over and dwelling on for a while. Takes all kinds of genres, though. BRONZE

Brian David, LNW

Damon stuck a thin metal pole into the ground, pushing the end several inches deep. He put a round ornament on top of the pole, and with a quick flick of his hand, set the ornament spinning. It glittered in the firelight, never slowing in its rotation.
Washington stood a few feet away, eyes wide.
“How d-d-does it do that?” he asked, voice shaking with a stutter.
Damon moved a short distance and stabbed another pole into the ground.
“Magnets,” he muttered, the movement of his mouth almost entirely concealed by a large red beard. “Keeps ‘em confused.”
Sparks flew up and the fire hissed as fat from a cornish hen dripped onto the coals. Custer sat by the fire, turning the spit slowly. He laughed.
“Keeps ‘em confused,” Custer mimicked. “What a crock of shit.” He turned toward Damon and raised his beer.
“How many of these things have you caught before?”
“Caught? None,” Damon said, putting another poll into the ground and spinning the silver globe. “Seen ‘em a thousand times, though.” He spread out his arms. “Huge birds, with a wingspan like you wouldn’t believe. Some of them carrying away boars with no problem.”
Custer grunted and turned back to the fire.
“Crazy shit. It’s like some fuckin’ reality show, or something.”
“Say what you want,” said Ellis, who sat across the fire from Custer. “His money’s as good as anyones. And he certainly has a lot of it.” Ellis adjusted his baseball cap, which he wore even at night, and lit up a cigarette.
Custer shrugged and drank his beer. Washington remained at the edges of the campground, staring at the spinning ornaments.
“And there’ll be a whole lot more once we’re done. Several thousand for the talons alone,” said Damon as he sat down on a dry log near the fire.
Through a small gap in the forest canopy the tip of a mountain could be seen, looming in the distance. Clouds had rolled in, flickering with the occasional burst of lightning.
“They’re getting close,” Damon said, looking up. “We’ll be safe for the night.”

The clouds still covered the sky the next day, and the forest was hot and humid. The four men wound their way up a thin trail, boots crackling softly on the rocks. Custer, who was much larger than the rest, lagged behind, breathing heavily.
“Jesus,” he said hoarsely. “How much farther are we going?”
Damon looked up and squinted, trying to make out the density of the clouds through the tiny spaces between the leaves.
“Not much longer,” he said.
Custer sighed loudly. “And what’s with the goddamned hat?”
On top of Damon’s head was a tall, conical hat that ended in a slightly bent tip. It was gold and made of felt.
“I made it myself,” Damon said. “It’s good luck.”
Custer chuckled. “Yeah, well it makes you look like a fuckin’ dwarf.”
Ellis picked up his pace, a lit cigarette dangling from his lips. He walked up next to Damon.
“So, how are we going to go about nabbing one of these things?” said Ellis. He looked around at the other men. “If they’re as big as you claim, none of us have anything with enough power to bring ‘em down. And you don’t have much besides those polls and that weird hat.”
Damon unsheathed a knife that hung around his waist. The blade was long and made of black stone, polished and sharpened. He turned the knife around in his hands.
“They’re heavy sleepers,” he said, and then pointed the knife up towards the top of the trees. “You do have to do a little bit of climbing.”
“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” grunted Custer as he struggled to keep up.
The men continued walking. A gentle tapping sound began to fill the woods, slow at first but steadily increasing in rhythm. A large drop of water fell onto Washington’s face. He quickly turned his head down and started brushing the liquid away.
“Rains s-s-started,” he said.
“Alright,” said Damon. “I know a place we can take some cover that’s not far from here. We better be quick.”
The wind picked up and rushed through the trees. The drumming of the rain became steady and unbroken, droning loudly through the forest. The clouds hung low and dark, letting very little light through to the forest floor.
Ellis looked around nervously. “This is getting a little out of control,” he said. “How much farther is this place?”
“Not far,” Damon replied. He turned off the trail and headed into the woods, practically running. Ellis and Washington followed closely, but Custer had now fallen far behind.
“Hey. . . you bastards!” Custer cried out, one hand gripping his side. “Wait up!”
Washington just barely heard Custer through the wind and the rain. He turned around and raised his hands to shield his eyes, trying to make out Custer in the dark.
Light flashed across the forest, briefly covering everything in a blanket of white light and quickly followed by an ear-shattering explosion. Washington fell to the ground, covering his eyes with his hands. A sharp ringing pierced his ears, drowning out everything else. For a long time, he sat motionless on the forest floor, terrified to move.
A hand touched Washington’s shoulder, jolting the man to his senses. As the ringing left his ears, he noticed with some surprise that the forest remained quiet. The rain had stopped and the wind had died down to a gentle breeze. Washington stood slowly, his legs trembling. In the woods ahead of him he could see fire licking the sides of several trees. There was no sign of Custer.
Washington turned around. Damon stood there, his face and red beard illuminated by the distant fire. He seemed calm, almost emotionless.
“Where is everyone?” asked Washington. “Wh-what happened?”
There was some movement behind Damon. Large figures were outlined in the dark, shaking and bending over something on the ground. Soft, wet sounds could be heard each time the shadows leaned over. Washington thought he saw Ellis’s baseball cap laying in the dirt nearby.
Damon stepped back.
“We found our prey,” he said.
Damon pulled his orange cap down over his face. The point of the cap hooked forward and now seemed to be made of a solid, sharp substance. Damon’s shoulders puffed up and expanded, feathers forming around the man’s clothes and soon covering his whole body. His arms shifted and grew, spreading out into curved wings. He moved forward, steadying himself with talons that dug into the ground.
Small streaks of lightning shot out from Damon’s white eyes, dancing around his golden beak. He screamed loudly into the night air and the forest shook with the response of a hundred other creatures, shaking and bending the trees under their weight.

K: So why did Damon bother with being a double agent? Is it particularly difficult for the bird people to find food, or is there something special about Ellis, Custer and Washington? Also, was there something specific with these historical names? I was trying to put them together somehow, probably without reason. Anyway, there’s some nice writing here and Damon’s identity is well-hidden (but hints are there). The downside is that the story runs in place for a while with some padding about Custer being slow, which serves to merely add words rather than add to the narrative.

DK: This does a good job of establishing its atmosphere in the wilderness setting. A lot of those descriptions and images are very sharp. I also enjoyed the contrasts drawn between the four characters – each one is differentiated distinctly without too much exposititory usage. BRONZE

MG: There was a lot of fine descriptions in this story; the concept is an intriguing one for what it is. And the ending feels…tension-packed? But at the same time, this feels pretty rote. Not to say I saw all of it coming, but when it came it wasn’t anything I hadn’t seen before, nor was it executed all that grippingly. There’s a reason “the hunter has become the hunted” is a cliche.

Bret Highum, LNW

Elrik watched Mother Sun, pale and gravid, as she rose through the wispy clouds hugging the horizon. The crowd behind him rustled fitfully as she ascended, the clouds burning away under her furious gaze.

“Are you ready to lead us?”

Elrik turned to face Mamet, the thin-haired lead priest. “I will lead them when it is time, as my father did and his father before him.” He pointedly turned away before the priest could open his mouth, and resumed watching the yellow orb slowly crawl up from the southern depths.

More and more individuals slowly joined the mob, anticipation growing as the morning dragged on. The youngsters got rowdy, ran around raising dust and their parents’ ire, then settled into sweaty sluggishness as noon neared.

Elrik stood, nearly as straight and still as the obelisk next to him, watching the shadow slowly shrink. There was an audible gasp from the host as the shadow revealed the first line cut deep into the shale, but Elrik’ only reaction was to turn to face the host.“It is time! Mother Sun has called on us and showed us the way!” Mamet’s voice, usually thin and reedy, steadied and swelled with his fanatical oration. Elrik stood, eyes closed, and let the priest’s voice wash over him.

“Are you ready for this?” came a whisper from behind him, a throaty female voice that sent a shiver down his spine. He turned to face Brigit, the sight of her sending a thrill through him, as it had since the day she had first joined his clan two years ago.

“I feel I have no other choice- is this not the way? Did your kin not set out when Mother Sun decreed?”
She came a step closer and shook her head, her soft hair brushing his shoulder. It was all he could do not to tremble, but he stood his ground.

“We did rove when the time came, as all clans do. Difficult journeys, hundreds of miles, full of hardship and loss. It makes us pure, hardens us to want, proves us the rulers of the land. The priests know this, and they will guide us as they always have.”

Elrik nodded slowly, his massive frame relaxing a bit from the unconscious tension he’d been holding himself in since the sun had reached its apogee.

“You’re right, Brigit. We must do this.” Turning to the crowd, he raised his voice in a bellow that completely drowned out Mamet’s continued sermon.

“We leave in the morning! Feast tonight- we eat all we can’t carry with us!”

Elrik had to admit, the priests were very good at organization. By the time he had woke and splashed chill water from the glacial stream on his face and whiskers, Mamet and his sub-priests had the clan in a column, ready to march west. Elrik strode past where Brigit stood with a group of foragers, ready to go out in front of the column and secure what supplies they could in advance of the main group. A glance at her bright, excited eyes buoyed his spirits and hardened his resolve to lead the clan to the future Mother Sun promised. As he came to the head of the column, he didn’t even slow down, simply raising his head high and shouting, “Onward!”

The first week went well. Elrik found himself as the main arbiter between the foragers and the priests, trying to balance the priests’ demand for maximum distance traveled with the foragers’ requests for more time to gather provisions as they moved through the rough countryside. He calmed squabbles between families and negotiated rest times with Mamet. He spent as much time as possible with Brigit when they stopped for the night, but found himself thinking of her as he roamed up and down the column, chivvying the stragglers and trying to keep the group a cohesive whole. Then came the thing he’d dreaded, late one evening as Mother Sun tucked her face below the edge of the mountains.

“Attack!” came the panicked call from the back of the column. “Raiders! We’re under attack!”

Elrick tried to push his way towards the rearguard, but the unnerved horde was in full flight, dragging him with them as they stampeded uncontrollably forward. He caught a glimpse of Brigit, just before she was trampled under. He started striking out, pushing his way towards where he’d seen her go down, finally fighting his way free of the terrified mob as they streamed blindly forward.

He found Brigit, frozen in terrible stillness, blood streaking her face. He leaned over her, nudging her gently, hoping for a response. Into his narrowed field of vision came a familiar set of feet. Elrik raised his gaze to Mamet, expecting to see the same despair and anguish in the priest’s eyes. Instead he was greeted by a maniacal grin.

“Where is your precious clan now, great leader?” taunted Mamet. “I think if you listen closely, you can still hear them screaming.”

Elrik stood, shaking in anger. “Why? Why would you do this to us?”

Mamet’s worn teeth bared in a snarl. “You aren’t worthy of procreating, Elrik. Sometimes, the gods see fit to end a line, if they deem it’s become…unfit.”

With a wordless roar, Elrik threw himself towards Mamet, but was quickly overwhelmed by three of the sub-priests, who bundled him up and carried him to the edge of the fjord. Looking down at the stony beach far below, Elrik could see the limp, bedraggled bodies of his clan, smashed on the sharp rocks or bobbing in the icy saltwater.

Raising his eyes to meet the insane orbs of Mamet, Elrik spoke calmly.

“This is not over. I will have my revenge.”

Tearing free of the grasping paws, he threw himself far out into the darkening sky as the angry chittering of the mad lemming priest filled the air behind him. He dove deep into the arms of Father Sea, surfacing with a gasp and paddling with all his might for the far shore of the narrow fjord. A white-hot furnace of anger beat deep in his furry chest, rage and loss driving him onward.

K: There are a lot of evil leaders and weird myths this week. That’s not a bad thing, mind you, though this is the second story of the week to have a misspelling of one of its characters’ names. This moves along well enough, though it spends a lot of time on exposition and too little on action, and gets to a fairly clear payoff (there were only a few characters in this, and Mamet didn’t have much of a reason to exist in the story so I figured he had to be bad guy. Plus, a guy named “Mamet” betraying his people is pretty believable). My main beef is Mamet’s sneering silent film villainy. In a story with complex relationships it stands out as too black and white. A little empathy on the part of the villain goes a long way in making the audience believe him.

DK: I feel like I haven’t gotten into these fantastical settings as much as I have in past seasons of judging, and I’m not sure why that is. Most of the necessary pieces are here – an interesting and unique world set up with subtlety, some distinct characters and struggles – but as a whole something about this one didn’t pop for me.

MG: Another story that feels like an excerpted chapter from something longer, something that has more of a story to tell. I guess this is one of the times where the author’s need to fit the challenge became the kinetic energy of the piece. I’m not a huge fan of fantasy worlds, so maybe the biggest delights of this kind of story are bound to elude me. The details and decoratives were very well done, the story well constructed if a little cramped. But the whole thing was very flat in its forward motion, and the ending wasn’t an ending, if you know what I mean.

Christina Pepper, Big Brass…Band

“Greetings from the flight deck, ladies and gentlemen. This is your captain speaking. Based on reports from other planes, we’re going to be for a bumpy ride this evening. We’ll be crossing over a large storm system that extends from Wisconsin into the Dakotas. We’ll do what we can to avoid the worst of the turbulence, but I expect the seatbelt sign will remain illuminated for much of the flight, and we may need to delay beverage service.”

– – –

Mira reached for her belly. She’d noticed herself doing that lately, though it was just beginning to bulge. The months of queasy exhaustion were finally over, and she couldn’t decide whether the new movements within her were soothing or unnatural.

She looked over at the nun in the seat next to her. She had to be in her seventies at least. Although she was fairly thin, her pale fleshy cheeks hung down slightly. She wore a head covering and a heavy cross that hung from a chain around her neck. Mira considered saying something—conversation might prove a useful distraction—but the conspicuously bare ring finger of her own left hand gave her pause.

– – – –

Ben took Rachel’s hand. She smiled slightly, but her jaw remained tight. It was the sort of thing he never would have noticed in the early years of their relationship, but now he was all too well attuned to her small signs of tension.

“It’ll be fine, honey.”

When was the last time he’d held her hand like this? After ten years of marriage and two kids, most of their efforts went into simply trying to make it through the day. When he’d mentioned a conference in Seattle, he’d been pleasantly surprised that she suggested taking a few days off to tag along.

– – –

Travel was such a blessing. She’d been pleasantly surprised at how much she’d enjoyed Italy, and now Esther felt ready to return to more familiar surroundings.

She’d been delighted observing the goings-on at the Vatican and meeting sisters from so many parts of the world. She hadn’t mentioned to anyone that her monastery (for she was Benedictine, and that’s the term they used) had no picture of the pope on display. She didn’t want to call further attention to the so-called deviant ways of some of the Americans.

She’d been to Rome once before—a lifetime ago—with Hugh. After losing him to a heart attack, taking those vows had seemed like the most natural thing in the world.

– – –

Death. His father’s death, specifically. His sisters were the ones who’d lived near him, the ones who’d doted on him. The ones who’d sent Doug the late night email updates.

Should he have flown out sooner? Of course he should have. But the IPO was next week. He’d never really tried to explain his work to his father, and now his mind was filled with everything that had gone unsaid.

He’d been telling himself all day that he just needed to make it to the plane and then he could have a drink, and now it wasn’t even certain that the flight attendants would serve anything. Should he press the call button? Would that look too desperate?

– – –

The plane hit the first small hints of turbulence. They might have gone unnoticed if not for the fact that much more was almost certainly to come.

– – –

“Why won’t you tell us?” Mira’s mother had pled over the phone. “Even if he’s not Indian, it will still be all right.”

The phrase sounded nice, but they both knew it was a lie.

“We just want to help, honey. And we want to figure out a way for you to finish your degree.”

“I told you I can handle it,” Mira said. “I’ll go to an adoption agency. Soon. You won’t have to deal with any of it.”

She still hadn’t figured out what she would tell the guests at her older brother’s wedding this weekend.

– – –

“Hey, have you figured out what you’d like to do?”

“In Seattle?”

“Of course,” Ben gestured toward the guidebook in Rachel’s lap.

“I don’t know. Wander around, I guess. I used to love going off by myself in a new city, soaking it all in.”

“You did? How did I not know that about you?”

She rolled her eyes.

– – –

Esther’s eyelids were heavy, and her breathing was slow and steady. Perhaps it was merely the onset of jet lag, but a sense of deep peacefulness washed over her.

She turned to the woman next to her; she was gripping the shared armrest as though her life depended on it.

“Are you all right, dear?”

– – –

Doug didn’t believe in prayer, but the sight of a nun a few rows ahead of him almost made him want to try. He reached for his phone, then remembered he’d turned it off for the flight because the battery was nearly dead.

“I want to come with you,” Martin had told him. “Meet your family.”

“You don’t understand what they’re like,” Doug replied.

“Not if you don’t give me the chance.”

“No—they just—so much revolved around my father. They need time.”

Martin had simply sighed.

Doug reached for his phone again. Dammit.

– – –

The jolting became more violent. The occasional flash of lightning punctuated the darkness surrounding the plane at 30,000 feet.

– – –

“Do you think we’ll make it?” The question flew from Mira’s mouth before she could think of something more dignified to say.

“We’re in God’s hands,” the nun responded calmly. “At least, that’s what I believe.”

“That’s beautiful,” said Mira.

The plane bucked forward and she grabbed her belly.

– – –

Rachel’s stomach began to churn.

“I hate this,” she said, her eyes closed.

Ben took her wrist and held two fingers firmly over the pressure point that relieved nausea.

“I hate everything,” she said.

He let go.

– – –

Esther reached in her pocket for her prayer beads.

– – –

Doug looked up at the overhead bins, wondering if he could reach his suitcase. Did he still have any of those anti-anxiety pills the doc had prescribed a while back?

– – –

The aircraft plunged downward.

The freefall lasted no more than a second or two, but those seconds felt like minutes. The main cabin was silent for a moment and then . . .

– – –

“I haven’t told my parents the truth.”

“There’s something you should know, Ben.”

Our Creator

Doug unbuckled his seatbelt.

“How can I tell them it was my uncle?”

“I’ve been having an affair. I was going to tell you after we got back home.”

who art in heaven

He rose to his feet, gripping the seat in front of him.

“I was in denial about it for months. He said he and his wife will adopt the baby.”

“I have failed you in so many ways.”

hallowed be thy name

A jolt knocked him into the aisle and he stumbled forward.

“He made me promise not to tell.”

“I love you, Rachel. I will always love you.”

thy kingdom come

“Sir,” called out a flight attendant. “Return to your seat immediately.”

“I don’t know how I can ever forgive him.”

“I don’t deserve you.”

thy will be done

The plane shuddered and he fell to the floor.

“I don’t know if I can go on.”

“I don’t deserve anything.”

on Earth as it is in heaven.

“Let me die,” he whispered.

Amen.

K: Let me get out of the way that sprawling stories that move like this, with a lot of components, are something of a weakness of mine. I became invested in each of the stories, which each held their cards for the right amount of time. Learning that the “rebel” in the story was the nun who actually wished to be saved while all others begged for death was a great revelation, and though stories with open ends tend to bug me, I think we can make an educated guess given the frenetic pacing of the ending and even if not, this wasn’t about life or death; it was about wishing to live or die. Lovely construction. GOLD

DK: Here’s another one with both greatly timed cross-cutting and several characters established strongly with an economy of space for each. The way this cuts down each section shorter and shorter as the story progresses is a great way to keep the momentum flowing and the reader engaged. SILVER

MG: I’m immediately biased toward giving this story high marks because it pulls off its conceit quite deftly. So much so that the final section of it had me white-knuckling my way through the tension, wanting to see how it would all come together. It didn’t exactly come together, per se, but it did come to an interesting final line, and the excitement was worth the lack of any kind of real resolution. I am still puzzled about who to consider the mole here, and that’s making me worried about both my reading of it, and the impulse I have to call this one out as one of this week’s best. In terms of bringing me into its pace and energy, it’s topped the rest. SILVER

Beau, LNW

Part 1: Gary

I can’t believe I agreed to rob a bank, especially just seven months out of prison. But Ron assured me that as long as I stick to the plan and don’t do anything stupid I’ll be okay. Rewarded even. We’ll see. At least my part is easy. They didn’t even give me bullets. I just stand in the corner and hold a gun at my waist, looking serious. I was told I could yell at people to get down if they moved, but thankfully that hasn’t been necessary, what with no customers around. The few bankers that were lucky enough to be here at this hour are being smartly compliant. And rather calm. Almost as if they were expecting us.

Part 2: Reginald

The money has been nice, of course, though there’s easier ways to swindle money. It’s the thrill of planning a heist and the adrenaline rush of pulling it off that can’t be beat. Thanks to my size, and my ability to properly enunciate demands, I’ve always been the lead guy. Today is no exception despite our special mission. And I nailed it. Despite their palpable fear, the bankers (six, as we expected) are not panicking, following my orders swiftly and accurately. Four are on the ground, hands on their heads, being guarded by Gary. One is emptying cash from the tills. And the manager, Aaron Conley, is heading towards the vault with Ron. Everything’s perfect.

Part 3: Justine

Guarding the doors is the hardest part. The last thing you need is an oblivious customer walking inside and fucking things up. So far, so good today. Ron’s already in the vault so this should be over soon. Gary and Reggie assume Ron is the brains behind the operation, and that’s fine. It’s better that way. They’d be useless if they thought I was in charge; it’s hard to follow orders when you’re gawking at breasts. If I told Reg to steal a piggy bank he’d probably come back with a live sow. At least Gary is sweet. Hell, if I wasn’t worried about Ron losing his shit I’d probably entertain Gary’s crush. Ron thinks he’s in love with me, but he really just needs me to fuck him so he can relax before a heist. If there were no banks, there’d be no us. And tonight will be our last bank.

Part 4: Ron

Aaron’s a weasel, but he’s harmless. When I called him a month ago to make him an offer, he agreed almost too readily. But it made sense. Failed marriage, no children, large gambling debt. He was the perfect target and I gave him the opportunity. He assured me the bills wouldn’t be marked and we’d split the profits five ways. I agreed, knowing full well I had no intention of giving him anything. I think he suspected that too, but it was a pretty safe bet for him. If I come through, he’s rich and gets to run away from his shit life. If I don’t come through, the authorities are none the wiser. Either way, starting tonight my life’s coming up roses, especially after I ask Justine to marry me.

Part 5: Aaron

I know there’s a next to zero chance that Ron is going to come through for me if I just empty the vault and wave goodbye. And I can’t take that chance. He’s a dangerous man, but it’s worth it if I don’t have to spend one more night with that bitch. Needless to say he’s surprised when I tell him to take me hostage. He protests, but I inform him that if he doesn’t take me, the dye packs I forgot to warn him about are going to explode before they get halfway down the street. It’s a bluff, but Ron folds like a dead accordion. Less than twenty minutes after they walked in, we’re out the door and in the armored truck with nineteen million dollars. Destination: Mexico.

Part 6: The Driver

Outfitting the truck with hidden audio surveillance was working out splendidly. For starters it was entertaining. Reginald wouldn’t stop bragging about how he pulled off the heist of the century. Gary was whining about his unloaded gun. And Justine had the dirtiest mouth this side of the Rio Grande. Ron was quiet, but that was okay. Not twenty miles out of San Antonio, Aaron began to talk. And boy did he sing.

I pulled into the first empty lot I could find and pulled out the Glock 22. Whistling, I unlatched the back door and lifted it to see one seriously surprised motherfucker.

“Mr. Aaron Conley. Threatening to take all the money for yourself was not a good idea. You are under arrest for burglary, terroristic threats, and probably a whole bunch of other things.”

I’ll never forget the look on his face. Eight years it took me to nail the son of a bitch. I waved his accomplices–or rather, mine–out of the van.

“Ron, Justine, Reginald, Gary. The United States Government would like to extend its sincere thanks for your cooperation.”

K: This is a really smart payoff – which one is the cop? Oh…almost all of them. It seems like a lot of work and danger to nab one man, though. It’s also a little intellectually dishonest. Gary’s segment up top says “Almost as if they were expecting us.” Gary KNOWS they were expecting it, of course. The biggest issue is that this was told in the first person and every character narrated in the same way. Same vocabulary, same occasional use of sentence fragments and sentences starting with “and,” same essential attitude. The narration occasionally alluded to characters having greater depth, but we never saw that from each speaker. If that single thing was attacked hard by the writer, this would be excellent.

DK: Here too, I like the idea to show this from each character’s perspective, although in this case I’m not sure each one got enough space or detail to really distinguish themselves as characters from each other, other than perhaps Justine.

MG: I think this was one of those storytelling experiments that had about a 50/50 shot at succeeding. Making it so deliberately episodic kind of telegraphs exactly when and where we can expect the mole to reveal himself. The twisty ending didn’t really inspire me to go back and reflect on what the earlier sections had said through some new kind of prism, because the twist itself wasn’t that brazen and wasn’t that devastating to anyone, really. As it was, the six parts read like stage directions in a sense. Just a means to get from here to there, and then the story was done.

Annette Barron, BBB

Her breast was perfectly formed to my hand. Her hand rested comfortably on top of my sweaty groin. I still felt bewildered by my luck. Kyla Alvarez was so far out of my league. I’m okay looking, don’t get me wrong, but Kyla is . . . exotic. The product of a Puerto Rican mother and a black Cuban father, she’s darkly arresting. When I hired her as my sous chef, I never considered the possibility that we might hook up; she was sincerely the best candidate for the job. Kyla had just returned from three years in Europe, studying under some of the best Michelin-starred chefs. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to hire her.

“Are you nervous about tonight?” Her hand lazily teased my cock. Although recently satisfied, it stirred thoughtfully.

“Terrified.” My hand started drifting down her belly, temporarily diverted by her perfect navel.

“Is it because you know that The Dickster would never even consider reviewing your restaurant, if not for the ‘Great Molé Scandal?’”

“Ouch.” I rolled away to sit on the side of the bed.

“Ooooh!” Undaunted, she poked me in the back with one stubby nail; perfect manicures had no place in a professional kitchen. “I found a tender spot!”

“I need to get going,” I mumbled on my way to the bathroom. Her unrepentant giggle chased me into the shower.

Tender spot, indeed. Roger Dexter, ‘The Dickster’ to the restaurant community, was the Times’ food critic. His say so could make or break a restaurant and he was going to review my food. The Dickster didn’t usually visit his critical taste buds upon an establishment until it had been in business for at least two years. Why bother if they were just going to turn around and close their doors after six months?

The glass shower door opened as I was soaping my junk. Kyla leaned in and bit my shoulder. “Didn’t mean to get you all riled up.” It was probably the closest thing to an apology I was going to get. “Tonight is gonna be estupendo,” she promised. She pushed me toward the spray to rinse, then pulled me toward the edge of the shower and dropped an oh-too-quick kiss on the head of my dick. “Later, big boy,” she admonished it. It bobbed in agreement.

“Wait!” I held the door open, “I thought we’d ride together?”

“Nope,” she said airily, “I won’t be in until around 2:00.”

“What? No! Why?”

“Calm yourself, Diego. I have an appointment.” She held up her hand before I could object. “You’re fine! The peppers are perfectly roasted. You spent all of yesterday fussing over your stock. You don’t need me now. “ She once again started to close the door. “I’ll be back in plenty of time. I promise to do your plating while you obsess over the tapas. We both know I have the better eye.”

I couldn’t really argue with her logic, so I didn’t. I turned off the shower. The rest of my line would help me with the prep and I wouldn’t let anyone else make the molé anyway. I just wanted Kyla with me, not that I would ever say so; she’d eat me for breakfast and not in a good way.

My staff was there before me; two line cooks and three kitchen staff/prep cooks. We gathered around the espresso machine for caffeine and strategy; each of us in our chef jacket, freshly bleached and ironed.

Emilio was new to my prep line and new to restaurant work, yet wielded a knife like a pro. His work had both artistry and speed and I recognized the hungry fire of ambition behind his respectful gaze. He’d only been working for me for a couple of weeks, yet I was impressed with his quiet efficiency.

Michael and Pam were decent, if uninspired, line cooks who went to the culinary institute with me. The three of us had been inseparable and I considered Michael to be my best friend in the world. Both of them were like family. They took a chance and quit their reasonably good jobs to jump off the ledge with me at Diego’s. They were also my unflinching supporters in the storm of gossip after I opened.

Hatty and Spence have been prepping for me since the beginning and rightfully expected to move from prep to line cook soon. Spence was a goofball who loved to prank everybody, but Hatty was as sharp as a filet knife. She wouldn’t be working for me much longer, I suspected. Unless I opened another restaurant, there wasn’t enough room here for her to grow. Still, for now, she accepted being a part of my kitchen.

They all knew how important tonight was for the restaurant. A thumb’s up from The Dickster was money in the bank and job security. “Thanks for being here early, guys.” My throat tightened. “I’m going to work on the molé. If you all could just handle lunch while I have a nervous breakdown in the back, I would really appreciate it.” They chuckled, as they were meant to. Sure, I was doing the lion’s share of the cooking for Dexter’s meal tonight, but my fate still rested in their hands. If tonight didn’t run smoothly, The Dickster’s poison pen would take note.

. . .

It all went off without a hitch. Kyla worked her magic and my plates were poetry. The molé had never tasted so rich and full of nuance and it topped a perfectly grilled chicken breast. I spent all afternoon making the tapas. Dexster and I got on reasonably well, which translated to him mostly ignoring me unless he needed a wine refill. I couldn’t read his face. I was exhausted but exhilarated when we closed the doors behind the last patron.

Sex that night with Kyla was a concert; full of bass and drums and reeking of sweat and lust. I more or less dropped into a coma when she was done with me. I awoke to the splat of a newspaper across my chest.

“Hey, wake up and read your review.” Kyla’s eyes were enigmatic.

“You’ve read it? What did he say?” I was frantically thumbing to the food section.

In view of the controversy among the foodies in this town, I decided to review Diego’s, even though it is a newcomer on the scene, touting itself as authentic Mexican food fused with Spanish cuisine. I ordered the chicken molé, as is my custom when reviewing a new latin restaurant. It came paired with a plate of tapas that I admit I enjoyed. Crayfish in garlic butter, a thin slice of baguette with a perfectly cooked quail egg and chorizo, mussels in sherry. I’ve had better, but not much better.

I swallowed as I turned the page; that wasn’t too bad.

But let’s get to the heart of the matter, shall we? You all know what a big fan I am of the molé at the Paradise Grill. Rumor has it that Diego stole many of his mentor’s recipes, especially the molé. Diego advertises it as his Grandmother’s sauce, which he learned to make in her kitchen at the tender age of seven.

I can unequivocally lay these rumors to rest. While the molé was quite pleasant, it was no better than any good home cook’s sauce and no where near the calibre of Carlos Montoya’s. Although the tapas was tasty, the plate was clearly overpriced at $75.00. This grub could easily be found on a decent food truck; but to be fair, it would probably be parked in the high-rent part of town.

“I’m ruined,” I whispered. “But, how . . . ?”

“You mean how could he say such a thing when it really is my cousin’s recipe?” Kyla’s eyes bored into mine.

“Your cousin?” I repeated numbly. “Carlos is your cousin.”

“Carlos asked me to apply for a job here, after you left to open your own place.”

“Carlos asked you to sleep with me?” I was incredulous.

“Oh. No. That was all me. I do what I want. You’re not a bad lay.” She patted my knee and turned toward the door. “Your Abuela made molé for our lunch yesterday. Such a sweetie! She was quite flattered that I asked for it. I left a jar of it in the fridge for you.” The finality of the apartment door closing behind her felt like a cleaver to my chest.

K: Although it wasn’t difficult to discern where this story was going to lead, it was fun as hell to get there. Did everyone notice that our Carlos count and our Kyla count both reached two with this story? Also, did everyone notice that there are a ton of Hispanic characters this week? Anyway, Diego is easy to like and the evil turn came off a lot more realistically than the evil turns in a lot of other stories. I appreciated the food-based analogies (this should be obvious stuff, but too few people here pepper their stories with a consistent theme). This was quite enjoyable. SILVER

DK: The mole sauce mole is definitely my favorite concept in a week where I enjoyed a lot of the concepts. It’s not hard to see where this is going, but getting there was plenty of fun and I found myself anticipating seeing how the turn was revealed anyway. Plus, the dialogue and interactions really crackle. GOLD

MG: First off, I’m the owner of a cock, and never once in my life has it ever stirred thoughtfully. Maybe I haven’t sent it to the right kind of schools, but that bastard is one of the most thoughtless entities to ever swing about two feet above the ground. Now, onward. This story unfurled like a little whodunnit, although it might have been nice to know earlier what the who’d dunn. Instead the conflict was gnarled up at the end of the story, which made it feel a tad too slick. However, it was an entertaining read with a lot of glorious details on the food and restaurant industry (which I am a sucker for, thank you). So I got a lot of enjoyment out of this story even though it gives far too much credit to the male reproductive organ as a selfless, enlightened appendage. SILVER

Erik S, BBB

In long, shapeless stripes, the rows of fluorescent lights feebly reflected off the cement floors, dark grey with years of wax, dirt, and wax. An unstable foundation pitched whole sections like tectonic plates; deep craters sometimes filled with cloudy epoxy. Cobwebbed speakers hung from the rafters, the old relics issuing a brassy silence over the store, muffling the scrape of wire hangers across creaky display rows and the twitching of hobbled shopping cart wheels.

Men’s Activewear Tops slid past Andrew’s eyes in quick, staccato bursts, less than half actually registered. The setting sun through the yellowed windows of the secondhand store gave his skin with its last wisps of acne an unhealthy pallor, an effect made more unsettling by the vacant gaze in his eyes.

shhhhhTINK shhhhhTINK shhhhhTINK shhhhhTHUNK

Andrew’s eyes blinked into focus. He squinted as the sun slipped down the window to an opportunistic angle, dazzling him and causing his face to pull up into a grimace. He averted his eyes.

Among the hoodies with tattered cuffs and twice used jogging shirts, he found himself holding a worn but not faded U.S. Marine desert jacket. Surprised by the odd garment, he found himself momentarily lost in the distinctive camouflage pattern, strange groupings of squares instead of the old rounded splotches. The fabric was thick and did not yield easily despite the speed of the wind as Andrew left the small, dusty town behind him, the descending pitch of the RoadMaster’s twin-engine whine ushering the young runaway out of town.

The sandy hues of the jacket matched smartly with the palette of the parched landscape as it sped by. The angry hornet whine of the small engine cut across the flat, empty expense. Dust kicked up by the bike’s back tire was set aflame by the falling sun.

+++

The old Honda settled to the tenor growl as Andrew slowed then stopped in approach to the crossroads ahead. He cut the engine and contemplated the intersection. The sun had completed its escape and the air hung heavy in the still, sticky August night. The only sound was the tick of the blinking yellow caution light hung over the middle of the intersection by intersecting cables, and the scuttle of small insects through the dead, yellowed grasses.

+++

Andrew pulled the bike into the old filling station, pushing hard with his legs to get it over the hump of the curb. He leaned it on its kickstand in front a lonely pump and walked to the store front. Holding the cuff of the jacket with the lesser half of his fingers, he scrubbed out a circle in the grime of the front window. Scattered invoices and phone books, fat with age and mold, sat in piles along the counter, with the whole operation was covered in a thick, undisturbed layer of dust. The door to the back room was ajar, but the light offered by the last soldier of the canopy fluorescents, flickering like a wishing star, was not enough to penetrate its darkness. He backed away and eyed his surroundings. The land stretched on dark, desolate, and empty.

Andrew tried the old fuel pump anyway, tearing an intricate spider web between the nozzle and base asunder. The pump clanked into the empty tank, and Andrew depressed the handle. Nothing. He gave the pump good kick, heard groans in the ground beneath him, and the tumblers on the price gauge slowly started rolling to life, protesting with clinks and tinny bells.

“Got a light?”

Andrew turned. Their backs leaning against the station, Andrew saw two figures just outside the edge of the light. He nodded without seeing their faces, and found his hand had reached into a jacket pocket and produced a small box of matches. He tossed it to them.

The match cracked and illuminated two grimy faces, a young man and girl maybe a few years older than him, both with well-rolled cigarettes between their lips. They simultaneously ignited the tips of their cigarettes, then regarded Andrew for a brief moment. They could’ve been mistaken for siblings, but Andrew could tell they weren’t even in the poor light.

The male had a slender face with longer, greasy hair parted slightly right of center, and an uneven, patchy bread. His eyes betrayed no emotion, but no malice either. The girl had a wider face with prominent cheekbones, and faint, gentle smile. She had long wavy, unkempt hair with short bangs and roots several shades darker than the rest of her hair. She smirked and blew out the match flame, returning the couple to the edge of the darkness.

Andrew carried on the conversation with two dancing points of light which every now and then centered and glowed brightly as the cigarettes were inhaled, giving soft amber impressions of the faces behind them.

“Where you going?” the male asked.

Andrew shrugged and considered the question for the first time in days.

“What’s your name?” the girl asked.

“He’s Cross,” the male said, motioning to the last name printed on the right breast of the jacket. Andrew looked down on the name, really noticing it for the first time.

Still looking down, he shook his head softly before speaking. “No, I’m Andrew.”

“Well, Andrew,” the girl said, “we’re heading west.”

“Just west,” the male cut in before Andrew could ask the specifics. “He’s following us.”

“The Warden?” Andrew asked, not knowing where the question came from. The couple both solemnly nodded their heads in response. They turned to each other for a moment, and girl nodded in agreement.

“Come with us.” she said, and brought the cigarette to her lips, its cherry rising up like the first hints of sunlight began to creep over the horizon and illuminate the interior of the old farmhouse. The warped floor creaked and groaned under the weight of the bed and the thrusts of its occupants. Sonja’s feet were high in the air as Andrew pushed himself against the backs of her thighs, their legs like an X from above, as Jason lay at their side, his hand between Sonja’s legs as he kissed her neck. Her cries carried out of the broken windows, echoing among the brown blades of grass that cringed as the first rays of the morning sun penetrated the small valley.

+++

The smoke drifted slowly up from Sonja’s lips as the trio lay splayed across the bed. Their sweat captured and concentrated the grime of the abandoned home and left tributaries of dark, smudgy lines across their bodies. Andrew lay in the center with Sonja’s head resting on the crook of his shoulder and Jason lay on his side opposite of her, his finger tracing lazy outlines along the shapes and bumps of Andrew’s chest.

Sonja blew out smoke rings and giggled. “Again?” she asked, and Jason’s hand started migrating down Andrew’s torso towards his stiffening cock.

“What?” Andrew asked?

“You’re doing it again!” Sonja screamed accusingly.

Andrew looked down and found the old penknife in his hand carving two intersecting lines on the side of the fencepost he was leaning on. He stared at the knife, the one he had last seen tumbling in the air as it plunged into the wide river below from the bridge Andrew had tossed it off of, then looked up at Sonja with unsure eyes.

“He’ll find us!” she screamed and stormed away westward. Jason regarded him expressionlessly for a moment, and followed after her. Andrew, stared stupidly at the small, rusty blade, and was left alone along the long row of highway fence posts, the sides of each one covered up and down in roughly hewn Xs for miles and miles.

+++

Andrew sat on a large stone next to the entrance to the woods behind him. The Warden approached, not so much seen as not seen; a blackness revealed only by its outline against the stars behind him.

“Where are they?” the Warden asked.

“They’re not here,” Andrew replied. “I sent them away.” He felt the Warden gaze into the forest behind him, and felt his dissatisfaction. Andrew was terrified, each muscle as tight as the rope around Jason and Sonya’s necks as they twisted in the woods, roughly hewn Xs across their faces.

Andrew sat there until the first glimmers of dawn, unsure when the Warden had departed.

+++

The foam of the soap was pink and plentiful as Andrew scrubbed the sleeves of his jacket with a found toothbrush. His wrist was sore and his palm raw from the brush repeatedly going past the edge of the sleeve, stained dark brown with ichor.

As the sun set, he arms continued their abrupt back and forth motion, carving the saltires deep down into his palms.

K: Early on, this story has far too much atmosphere for its own good. The prose was like candy, but I was fully prepared to complain that it left me feeling sick without any meat to calm my stomach. Thankfully, once the story hits its stride and becomes a story, it becomes a rather good one. We still only have rough outlines of what’s happening, but it’s enough to understand what’s going on and what’s driving each character. The story’s bite-sized pieces worked for it rather than against it, as (again, once we got to the story) unnecessary bits were left out. I also loved that the character leaving a trail of “X” marks is wearing fatigues that say “Cross.” If that wasn’t intentional, don’t admit it, but given the smart storytelling I’ll assume it was. SILVER

DK: Another understatedly bleak atmosphere I enjoyed. Andrew’s character and his progression through these situations is my kind of weird, and this constructs the settings around him that really make that weirdness stick out. BRONZE

MG: It takes guts to write something as baldly experimental as this story is for a writing competition. And for the most part, the risks are justified by the results. I’m a fan of non-linear storytelling as long as it serves some purpose and isn’t just headscratchy for funsies. The fusing of events over a hiccuping timeline, the repetition of crosses and Xes throughout, the unexplained relationships between strangers, lovers, partners, and hunters give this one a very cool, very assured sense of itself even if the reader is left somewhat in the dark by the crossups of timing and relationship. I would have liked more of an understanding about the Warden. I would have probably ruined some of the magic of this piece if I’d gotten it. One of my favorite stories this round. GOLD

——————————————————————-

Hoo boy. I hope you read all that. If you didn’t, do so now.

Hooray for small teams!

Big Brass…Band: 11/9 = 20/2 = 10.00
Freshly Ruptured Hymen: 7/11 = 18/2 = 9.00
Miranda Priestly’s Unholy Sweater Crisis: 0/5/6 = 11/3 = 3.67
Liam Neeson’s Walrus: 1/1/5/1/0/0 = 8/6 = 1.33

Scores of 9 and 10 for teams? Has that happened before? Anyway, Walrus folk, have an elimination vote to me by tomorrow night (Saturday) at 11pm Central. That’s entirely too late, but I work entirely too late, so there you go. If you have all your votes in early I’ll hopefully be able to do something about it.

Monstrously good week, folks. There were some triple non-medals that I loved. Just really, really fun stuff (which we appreciated, given the word limits).

Cheers, Survivors.

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