Yeah, I like this challenge. It’s a way for me to ask for what I want in a story anyway and make a whole specific prompt out of it. Many of you brought it, and I’d suggest using this concept to power other stories. HINT HINT, MOTHERF*&KERS.

But let’s just get to it. Everyone’s nervous and stuff, what with this being the endgame. Read on, Survivors.

Annette Barron

He leaned down to drink from the river, powerful haunches rippling under inky fur. His ears flicked and his nose sifted the warm currents of air for danger. Large and in his prime, very little could threaten him in deep virgin jungle. The scant remains of a caiman lay behind him, rich in coppery death; its blood crusting his paws.

Fourteen feet of well-armored teeth exploded out of the murky river, massive jaws clamping down on his shoulder, teeth sinking into his chest and neck. The crocodile immediately began backing into the water, impervious to his teeth and claws. Desperately, he arched away from the reptile, twisting and ripping his shoulder out of its maw. It lunged at him again, but he leaped out of reach, his wounded leg dangling. With a single bound, he leaped from the river bank to a narrow, rocky ledge ten feet above. He lay on his side, panting; blood seeping from the punctures in his side and neck.

********
She scented him just before dawn, virile and male, but with the sweet stench of corruption. Ordinarily, she would strike out for new territory right away; she couldn’t fight a full-grown male. But she was so depleted; she had to find food.

She patiently stalked the river banks, occasionally hiding in bushes to watch game trails. She preferred hunting at night but she couldn’t wait for dark; his scent warned her that he was closer. Her patience finally paid off when a doe and her fawn cautiously approached the water upwind to drink. With a single leap, her jaws closed around the fawn’s windpipe, crushing it. The small body went limp and she took off through the jungle with her prize.

********
Feverish and starving, he was too dehydrated to wait any longer. He leaped from his ledge to the river bank, stumbling and rolling on his injured shoulder. Growling at the pain, he crawled to the water and weakly lapped it until his sunken belly bulged. He laid his head on the cool mud and closed his eyes.

Later, he limped through the jungle, his wounded leg tucked under. Occasionally, he put weight on it, testing. Pus crusted on the wounds in his skin, but no longer oozed. The scent of an adolescent intruder sent him north, into the territory of the neighboring female. His condition made him too vulnerable to deal with the affront and he had to find food.

********
She dropped the fawn to the jungle floor, raising her head and flaring her nostrils. Her lip curled and a low growl emanated from her deep chest. She lowered her head and ripped open the belly of the little deer, devouring the heart, liver and kidneys. Still ravenous, she pulled out more of the fawn’s organs, bolting them down. Licking her chops, she backed away from the meal and crouched, the tip of her tail twitching.

********
He ventured further into the female’s grounds, looking for easy prey. He couldn’t fish; his leg could not support him. His speed was diminished; he was weak and his movements sluggish. He stopped to huff the aroma of the female’s urine mark. He lifted his head, facing east. He could smell her, close now, and something else . . . something exciting. As he puzzled over this new smell, the scent of blood hit him and his belly tightened. Fresh kill engulfed his senses and spurred him toward her; hunger overruling caution.

********
She heard him coming, he was not stalking her but crashing through the brush toward her. She darted forward and grabbed the fawn by the neck, backing up, her growl escalating. All her muscles tensed as he left the brush and stepped into view. His sickly smell assaulted her.

He let his damaged paw drop to the forest floor when he saw her. He dropped his head slightly and focused his menacing gaze on her. Their eyes locked and she continued to growl her warning. The roar started deep in his belly and erupted, full-bodied and deafening, from his throat. The canopy above them fractured into colorful bursts as the birds in the surrounding jungle took to the air in response to the threat.

She dropped the carcass. Quivering, she backed away from him, hunched and poised for flight. He put his bad foot forward and stepped toward her, hackles raised and teeth bared. She wheeled around, sprung over a fern and disappeared into the jungle in the space of a breath.

He limped to the fawn and laid heavily on the ground. The smell of the deer’s tender meat drove him to weakly lick the blood from the empty abdominal cavity. The taste flooded his mouth with saliva and he laid his good paw on the fawn, licking away the hair in slow, steady strokes.

********
She dashed at full speed into the jungle, alert for sounds of pursuit. She stopped, cocking her ears, spending several long breaths reading the air. Retracting her claws, she slipped silently through the jungle, heading east. She loped in a wide half circle around the male, well out of scent and sound. Stopping at a large Kapok tree, she chuffed softly. Two small shadows slipped down the tree, tiny claws gripping the rough bark. Instinct kept them silent, while their mother sniffed them over. Tale high so they could follow, she continued east.

She pushed them as far as they could go. As night fell, she tucked them into the base of a hollow tree. The cubs nuzzled her teats, kneading her milk sacs with their hungry little paws. She bathed each one in turn with slow, steady strokes.

K: I…like it? I think? I like it as a curiosity, for sure, though it really does keep me at arm’s length with the lack of dialogue (well, duh) and lack of nicknames or even too many mentions of the actual animals involved, which would really have helped paint the picture that the action was managing well. I can’t even begin to fathom how this will land once I’m done, but I thank the writer for the risk.

DK: A lot in here to try to parse out. Some really great individual pieces of prose writing though, the setting and action come off vividly and this concept is definitely unique among many this time.

MG: There’s something about the flat-out animal nature of this that makes it hard for me to lay it flush and completely within the parameters of the challenge. I mean, these two were incidental nemeses at best, and neither of them acted exactly out of duplicity. Manipulation, maybe…but it’s closer to just animal instinct, isn’t it? Maybe I’m being picky. The truth is, the narrative distance employed makes sense for a story such as this, but it didn’t make the reading of it all that exciting to me. Just beasts doing their beastly best to survive.

Jack Haas

An atheist walked into the abbey on a Thursday, quietly signaling to the abbot that he desired an audience.

The abbot did not recognize the non-believer for who he was, he knew the hand signs of the order and that was enough.

In the enclave behind the altar, the atheist quietly shook the faith of the abbot, while the abbot tried to stand fast under the unexpected assault.

The abbot replied with damnation, which he realized would be ineffective against a man with no beliefs.

He signaled under the desk to his assistant, watching outside the room.

The atheist continued to strike at the abbey while the assistant collected candles.

The abbot did not respond to the atheist taunts.

He took the candles and methodically lit each of the four corners of the alcove alight. He locked the door. He locked eyes with the atheist and without a word challenged him to ignore the heat of hell’s flames.

The atheist held the gaze of the abbot and asked only what God would absolve this action.

K: Maybe it’s because I’m an atheist that I demand more than this. This is a very strong backdrop for this challenge, but either someone ran out of time or assumed broad strokes would aid the story rather than detract from them.

DK: I appreciate the succinct nature of this one this time around, and going back over it I’m pretty confident it doesn’t need much of anything more to tell its story. I like the build, I get a sense of the character motivations, it comes to a solid conclusion. BRONZE

MG: Wow, if the previous story’s narrative kept me at arm’s length, this one had a 500 foot restraining order on me. This just reads like a bridge column, or crib notes, and is sketchy and impersonal enough to make me question the author’s faith in his character’s capacities. It’s like writing “and then the hero saved the day by doing heroic things.”

Bret Highum

The old man reeked of tar and wetted copper; badly enough to be noticeable even in the smoky tavern. Herlan was intrigued enough by the giant egg the old man held that he didn’t care.
“You say it’s a dragon egg? Looks like a big goose egg to me.” Herlan did his best to look disinterested, but the old man had already noted the greed in his eyes.
“Yes, dragon egg, like I say! Is one good way to test- try to break, please.” He leaned back in the booth, a wide smile revealing surprisingly pointy teeth and pasty white gums.
Herlan considered for a moment, shrugged and reached out a beefy hand to give the egg a solid rap with a dirt-blackened knuckle. Instead of the crack he expected, the impact sounded more like he’d struck a brass teakettle. Frowning, he picked up his knife, flipping it over to hold it by the blade. Herlan glanced at the old man, who nodded smugly. Raising the knife high, Herlan smashed the handle down onto the egg.
The egg pealed like a gong, halting all conversation in the bar as everyone looked over at their booth. Herlan glared back at them and they all quickly returned to their drinks, none of them interested in a confrontation with the burly woodcutter.
“Fine,” Herlan grudgingly admitted, “It’s not a normal egg. Why do you want to sell it?”
“Easy,” said the old man. “I can no eat or drink egg. What good does dragon egg do me?”
Herlan considered that for a moment, then took a long swig of his beer as he stared at the egg. The old man had asked for ten gold. That had seemed like a lot when it had been just a giant egg. Now that it seemed it was something more…
“What the hells would I do with a dragon egg?” he demanded grumpily. “What would I do with it, anyhow?”
The old man jerked and gurgled. It took Herlan a bit to figure out he was laughing. “You hatch, of course! Can sell baby dragon for lot more than egg!”
That made sense, Herlan admitted to himself. Still, there was a catch here, if he could find it. “How do you hatch it?” he queried.
The old man pursed his wrinkly, black-stained lips, and answered reluctantly. “Need heat- lots of heat. Has to sit on very hot fire… for one year.”
“Hah!” barked Herlan. “That’s why you don’t want it- there’s no way you could hatch it! Tricky, old man- but you can’t fool me! I’ll give you two gold for it, and count yourself lucky.”
The old man let his breath hiss out, frowning. “Five. Is last dragon egg. Has to be five golds.”
Herlan reached out with his knife again, and lightly tapped the egg, cocking his head as the shell sang in response. “Four. And I’ll pay for your beer.”
The old man grumbled, but Herlan had read him correctly. Herlan handed over the coins, listening to them chime together in the old man’s palms, and took the egg from him, cradling it like it was a baby for a second before remembering it was likely harder than most armor. Tucking it under his vest, he strode quickly for the door.
What the old man didn’t realize was that Herlan had bigger plans for the egg than hatching it. The duke had a sickly son who collected things like this- basilisk scales, manticore stings, anything from fantastical beasts. Herlan could sell the egg to the duke for at least ten times what he’d paid, once he’d demonstrated its nature. Then the best part- Herlan would sell the duke the wood he’d need to hatch the egg! Cutting that much wood for a whole year would keep Herlan busy even during the normally slow summer months. Best four gold Herlan had ever spent.

The old man slowly sipped his beer, relishing the sting of the alcohol and the feeling of looseness it brought to his lips. He spun the four coins between his numb fingers, watching them glitter and sparkle in the lamplight. On impulse, he placed one on his tongue, the greasy feel of nearly-pure gold sending a thrill through him. Tilting his head back, he swallowed it, the lump visibly sliding down his throat. It wasn’t much, but it was a suitable start for a dragon hoard.
He left the booth and walked outside, turning down the narrow alley leading to the forest, swallowing another coin as he went. There was a cave, deep in the woods, where he normally slept. It would do for a while even after the dragon hatched, though they would have to move to a larger cave eventually. Scratching at the corner of his mouth as he swallowed the last coin, he tore a strip of flesh loose from his cheek, revealing his pebbled, green-streaked skin. Impatiently, he scratched with both hands at his face, pulling away the dead skin and the tar that held it on. Shaking loose of the fouled robes, he stretched his tail out and hissed in pleasure, forked tongue flicking through his teeth.

K: Alright, that’s a hell of a final punch there. For much of the story I felt that we were rushing along from beat to beat, and I was temporarily convinced that the “payoff” was much too small. Of course, the old man changes all that, and I’m a sucker for a fun twist on the heels of a lesser, more obvious twist that would otherwise disappoint. SILVER

DK: There’s a couple here with a character involved in the manipulation who is not the being he seems to be, and I liked this one’s reveal of that true nature. I also enjoyed the tweaks in the old man’s ways of speaking – helped created a more standout character. BRONZE

MG: I dug this story hardcore; it read like both a fairy tale and a modern fantasy story. It managed to be sneaky and observable at the same time, revealing most of its secrets so the reader knew who was zooming who…but concealing just enough so by the end, the reader knows he’s the one who’s been (pleasantly) zoomed. SILVER

Rusty Greene

President Flores considered the colossal beige walls of the UN’s General Assembly Hall. For a room frequented by a colorful sampling of world leaders, it was surprisingly unfashionable. We should all chip in and commission that guy who redecorated the Oval Office, Flores thought. Work in a Warhol and some sconces.

Agent Oliver Tisdell leaned down and whispered in the president’s ear. “Phase One successful. Operation Swallow Song underway.”

“Oh good,” Flores said and then squinted. “Operation Swallow Song? Really?”

“Tight deadline,” Tisdell explained.

“Oh please,” Flores scoffed, never taking his eyes off the faces of the 37 nations before him. He bet he looked important, like he was doing real double-oh-something stuff. “It could’ve sparkled. Something about liberty… or freedom… or eagles.”

“Just go with it, sir,” Tisdell explained.

“It’s dumb,” Flores said glumly.

“It’s fun. Swan Song… Swallow Song.”

“I get it.”

“I think it’s cute,” Tisdell challenged.

“Stop talking.”

Three seats down, King Dong-Yu Pong rose to his feet. He held a fist to his gut and choked back a wet burp.

The ship listed violently as a forceful jet of gastric juices blasted its hull.

Commander Buslov popped up from a hatch in the floor, clutching a navy blue watch cap to his head. “Quickly, comrades! Critical dyspepsia!” he shouted. The door slammed shut and Buslov was gone. Alarms began to blare.

Pfc. Peter Elliot poked the pulsing red button on the wrist of his spacesuit. A series of polymer rings snapped snugly into place along his limbs. He scrambled for his helmet as a deep, tooth-rattling burp shook the submersible and nearly knocked him off his feet.

“Elliot!” Dr. Hallstrom yelled from his computer screen, gripping the corner of his desk. He looked up; his right eye magnified behind the thick lens of a monocle. He waved a platinum tube. “It must remain sheathed until you reach Pong’s tonsils. The recoded DNA is housed inside. Go! Now!”

Elliot grabbed the tube and shuffled to the airlock, snatching his canvas bag of ice hooks on the way. He looked out the window at the gooey, ribbed esophagus above. It was his first day with the International Coalition For Microscopic Combat… and it was already too long.

Pong waddled across the stage in an orange smock and a maroon sarong. A brimless cap barely covered a shiny head too big for his five-foot frame.

He approached the podium and glowered at the stack of Manhattan phone books at his bare feet. Flores stifled a giggle. Not one country had allowed the king the dignity of a footstool. Not even China. Pong climbed up as the lights dimmed. On the giant screen behind him, an enormous haloed Pong head appeared.

This is what happens when you grow up without running water or Netflix, Flores thought. Let’s go, Stretch. Bring on the crazy.

“Dear power leaders, guests and excellences,” Pong squeaked into the pencil mike. “I am most honored to be in this places. Listen well! Fallopinesia will not be daunted by your progresses!” He slammed his baby palm into the podium.

There it is.

Elliot kicked his right crampon into the slippery wall and pulled the tube from his front pocket. He unscrewed the lid and tapped the marble-sized globe into his hand. It swirled and pulsated in cloudy purples and greens.

He dropped the tube into darkness. It landed near Pong’s pyloric sphincter. The thin membrane’s wet flaps nibbled at the sheath and then devoured it with a mushy slurp.

Elliot gazed at the engorged tonsil above. He closed his hand around the sphere, shut his eyes, pulled back his arm and punched his fist into the swollen gland. Elbow deep in what felt like raw chicken breast, he gagged and released the DNA. He yanked his arm out with a soggy plop.

Without warning, a gale force bellow ripped through the tunnel. Elliot lost his footing and plummeted, his arms flailing.

Pong cleared his throat and the room gasped. In the back row, Canada suddenly paid attention. For a brief moment, French ambassadors abandoned their debate on the mediocrity of American finger food. In Germany, Herr Kunstler looked up from the midget porn on his iPhone.

The world sighed as Pong continued. “All should fear my superior destruction weaponries!”

Tisdell leaned in. “Dinner and then my place tonight?” he whispered.

“Yeah,” Flores grinned. “Nobu?”

“No. I got sick on the eel last time. Craft?”

“You can get a reservation?”

“I can do a lot of things,” Tisdell teased. “Sir.”

“Yum.”

Elliot lay on the cool roof of the ship and allowed his breathing to return to normal.

Pong’s indigestion had subsided. Above, the oozing hole he had created began to spark under a thin blister. He chuckled through tears.

It worked.

In three days, the genetic fabric of Pong’s body will have been completely manipulated. His kidneys would be the first to go, rotting to soft globs of jelly that would send deadly toxins coursing through his veins. Then the bleeding would start. He would be dead within a week.

Elliot croaked the completion phrase into the microphone on his wrist. Below him, Hallstrom pecked the words into his keyboard. The message reached the Pentagon instantly. Seconds later, Tisdell’s headphone crackled. He bent down. “The swallow’s song is sung,” he said into the president’s ear.

Jose Manuel Flores III rose from his chair. At that moment, he made a move that would be reposted and pondered for decades to come. Beaming behind Pong, he raised his right hand, paused, and then gave the entire room the thumbs up. 1241 pairs of hands from every corner of the globe erupted into riotous applause.

Surprised by the unexpected success, Pong bowed and descended from his perch. He tottered back to his seat, suddenly confident that he had terrorized the free world into an existential tug-of-war. He coughed into his hand and sniffled. When he sat, he got a standing ovation.

K: Man. This one seems to start slowly but once the reader hits words like “dyspepsia” it’s clear we’ve headed somewhere pretty weird. I chuckled at the commitment of the story to its idea and appreciated that the comedic possibilities weren’t beaten out of the story with unnecessary punchlines. The final stinger is truly hilarious, and is just what this challenge is all about. GOLD

DK: I laughed a lot here, and I think I needed to this week. The language used (it’s interesting how so many of those kind of words sound as gross as what they describe) helps really paint the picture of this crucial mission. I also, for some reason, really enjoyed Pong’s broken English this time around (I definitely owe a “Sorry, Colin” for that one if he’s still reading this). GOLD

MG: I laughed pretty much all the way through this. I wonder if there was any temptation to play this more straight than you wound up doing. The tone and detail of the interior scenes were luscious and perfect and gross. The conversations were fun, the light satire on the other member nations was a lovely touch. Nicely done. GOLD

Brian David

The wind blows through the trailers of Chapparal, swirling the dust into small eddies along the gravel road. I pull the brim of my hat low and push my sunglasses up. The plastic cooler rattles as I drag it over the rocks, skidding whenever one of the wheels catches.

I can’t see more than four or five lots ahead; the dust is heavy and obscures everything in a red haze. I make my way through the trailer park, following the usual landmarks: the twisted stop sign, red paint scraped half off; the trailer where Chavez used to live, roof collapsed and furniture covered in dust; and the chain link fence at the edge of town. A metal sign hangs there and reads:

Beware the coyotes

I look past the fence into the desert beyond. I can see the sun hanging low in the sky, dimmed so much by the clouds of dust that I can look directly into the light.

Leaning over, I pop the top off the cooler and grab one of the dead rabbits that lay inside. The smell is horrible; these ones had been sitting in the heat for a few days. I toss a rabbit over the fence and watch the corpse land with a muted thud. I find myself strangely jealous of the rabbit; it had found a way to escape this town, to leave the storm that has settled over us.

I continue walking the length of the road and throwing a rabbit every now and then. The routine is calming, one of the few things I have to help keep my head together.

At the end of my shift, as usual, I find myself standing in front of the darkened gas station. I walk inside and grab a twelve-pack of warm beer, setting it inside the now empty cooler. Then I rush to make it home before it becomes too dark to find the way.

* * *

“Get off the fuckin’ couch, Gonzales!”

I open my eyes and lean forward, knocking a few cans to the floor. My head is pounding and my stomach burns.

“What –?”

“Get off the couch!”

A pair of arms grabs me and pulls me to the floor.

“What the fuck, Chuy?” I mumble, turning around.

Chuy has rushed to the trailer door, frantically helping Ramirez carry someone inside. The wind streams into the trailer, blowing cigarette butts and empty bags of chips against the walls. My two roommates fumble awkwardly until they finally drop the body onto the couch. It’s Jason Huber, a neighbor from a few lots down. His eyes are wide and glazed, and his breathing comes in short, rhythmic gasps. The bottom half of his left leg is a pulpy mess, flesh torn like rags. Blood drips from the exposed muscle and bone, seeping into the couch. Ramirez struggles to push the door closed against the wind. Chuy pulls off his shirt and wraps it around Jason’s leg, tying the cloth tightly against the wound.

I can feel my stomach turning, and I run as fast as I can to the bathroom, shutting the door behind me and barely making it to the toilet before the beer comes rushing up. I hang my head for a while above the bowl, body shaking in the dark.

After a few minutes, I stumble back into the living room. Chuy is binding another shirt around Jason’s leg, desperately trying to stop the bleeding. Jason stares blankly at the ceiling, occasionally licking his pale, dry lips.

Ramirez is pacing the floor, wringing his hands. He sees me and immediately runs over and grabs me by the shirt, shoving me against the side of the trailer.

“What happened, Gonzo?!” Spit flies from Ramirez’s mouth.

“What are you talking –” I try to say, but Ramirez pushes me tighter against the wall, knocking the wind from my lungs.

“What the fuck were you doing today?!”

I gather my strength and push Ramirez off. He tumbles back a few feet, catches himself and then starts pacing the floor again.

“I was out tossing rabbits, what the fuck do you think?”

Ramirez turns on me and points sharply.

“Don’t lie to me, you piece of shit. The rabbits are still out in the yard, same place they’ve been for three days. What were you doing, you fuckin’ drunk?!”

My visions loses focus momentarily, and I squint my eyes. What is Ramirez talking about? What is he trying to do to me?

“Why do you think they came? Look at him, Gonzo! Look what you fuckin’ did to him. What are we gonna do?!”

I feel dizzy and walk back to my room, locking the door behind me. The sound of the storm is deafening now, buffeting the side of the trailer. I think I can hear them, their howls mixing with the wind. But how can that be?

I know I put the rabbits out. Same as I’ve done every day since the dust came.

The trailer shakes violently, and I hear the sound of glass shattering. Ramirez and Chuy are shouting now, loud screams that soon turn high pitched and desperate. Something starts slamming against the wall outside my room, over and and over again. The floors shake and my television set tilts and leans forward. I can barely hear the screen shatter.

Then it stops. The wind slows, and the screaming is gone. All I hear now is a soft, muffled noise through the wall; the sound of something wet. . .

I sit on the floor, staring at the closed door.

They can’t be here. I know they can’t. I remember the rabbits, the feel of their matted fur, the stench of their rot.

Something is scratching on the other side of the door now, and the wind begins to pick up again. I wrap my arms around my legs and close my eyes.

They can’t be here. I know it.

K: Chupacabras? I’m not sure what we’re dealing with here, but I think that helps rather than hurts. There’s no character to really get behind in this one, and it’s driven more by the plot than the characters, despite the characters having some interaction. It does handle the tension and action rather well, though, and by the end I felt like I did at the end of early LOST episodes: annoyed but more intrigued. BRONZE

DK: I loved the desolate atmosphere here, and the sense of both foreboding and confusion this situation created. The interactions between the characters were also sharp and punchy. SILVER

MG: I won’t say this isn’t a compelling story–it is. It’s very well done, in fact, and has an edge of the unstated and mysterious as sharp as a knife. But I can’t for the life of me tell who the other half of this story’s dual manipulation was supposed to be. The coyotes? Considering how powerful they appear in the story, they hardly need to spark any in-fighting among the survivors to get a meal, right? If Chuy or Ramirez had an ulterior motive, it was never really hinted at. I honestly don’t know what to make of it, but I’ve been proven dumb before. Regardless, out of utter respect for the quality of writing, this one might just earn some hardware. BRONZE

Roman Feeser

September Mikas started her server shift as she always did, with one shot of top shelf tequila and a breath mint to hide the theft. September or “Sept” as most of her co-workers now called her, was a tired looking 20-something. Imagine Emma Stone with sandy blonde hair, 40 extra pounds and teeth that were just a little too big for her mouth and that was Sept stuffed in a black server outfit with dull, red trim.
She wiped the shot glass out and put it back without even washing it. “Fuck the customers,” had always been her mantra. This bar, this place— could go suck it.
Sept had met Darren in a Starbucks at Mays Landing. She knew five seconds into their first conversation that she’d have sex with him. He was cute, smelled great and his politeness was instantly endearing. At the end of the first date, they had kissed passionately. At the end of the second, they had made out on the park bench on the boardwalk. She was half tempted to whip him out right there in front of the seagulls. Friday, the third date, was going to be Bang City. Population her and Darren with more intoxicating politeness over eggs in the morning.
But only if she could get Saturday off from Mike the Asshole.
Mike was sitting in his office watching her put the shot glass back over the security monitor. He was a fat, balding little weasel, stuffed in a “Honcho’s” black collared shirt and khakis. The corporate guys at Honcho’s had always complimented him on his “branding techniques” back in training, then rewarded his loyalty by sticking him in the least performing bar in the Honcho’s Corporate Empire in Atlantic City.
Mike’s motto was “Fuck corporate and the customers”. He didn’t care that Sept was stealing tequila. He had fucked her once, a drunken night after last’s year’s corporate holiday party. She was a terrible lay. She loved every minute of it and he knew she wanted more but was afraid to ask. Probably afraid of his position in the company and how it would look. He’d been working to get her get her to go out with him again but for now he needed September to work a party on Wednesday that none of his staff would volunteer for while in their right minds. It was a meeting of the Ventor Avenue Business Association. They were a group of local businessmen that got together every month for a meeting. The casinos and the chain stores in the center of town were slowly squeezing most of them out. They were all AC hardliners and notoriously cheap. Mike had had trouble getting the servers just to bus their tables. He would have a full-scale mutiny on his hands once his employee found out the Wednesday party was the annual VABA meeting.
If September volunteered to cover it, it would be her problem not his. He could take credit for booking a party, which meant guaranteed profit. That was something the guys at Corporate would like. Then maybe he’d be considered for a transfer to a real market or a regional position even.
“Hey Sept,” Mike the Asshole began with his opening volley of charm. “Friday shift, huh? Big money, big prizes.”
“Yeah,” September replied as she arranged napkins, perplexed at his friendliness. “You need something, Mike?”
September glanced around, noticing that they were the only two employees in the immediate area. The bar hadn’t opened yet. The cooks were in the back prepping and the bartenders were back by the dumpsters grabbing a smoke. Things had been weird after the holiday party. Somehow she wound up with Mike at the Showboat Hotel. He could barely get it up and smelled of four-day old ball sweat. He kissed like a Singer sewing machine, his tongue darting in and out of her mouth. His breath like the inside of a freshly emptied tuna can.
“You got enough dishware behind the bar?” asked Mike, feigning concern. “We ran out that one time.”
“We’re good, we’re good,” she assured him. “Things have been a bit slow here recently. Especially the weekends, don’t you think?”
The weekends had been pretty solid. Honcho’s located in the worst section of A.C., suffered the most. Mike wondered if she was looking for a raise, he knew he was.
“Not really,” said Mike, lapsing into Asshole mode, then shifting. “But, uh, maybe on the tips. You know, we get a lot of weirdos in here.”
“Yeah,” admitted September. “Kind of wears on me after a while. Could really use some—”
“A raise, I know,” said Mike, assuming the worst. “But, Corporate controls that, not me. And like you said, it has been slow. But uh, maybe you’d be interested in working an extra shift?”
“Oh, wow,” said September, trying to stall as she thought.
“Great,” she thought. “I’m trying to get a day free and he’s trying to work me harder!”
“Listen, Mike, my grandmother has been really sick. My family’s going through a lot, so…”
“Oh, sure, I understand,” said Mike.
Mike took a stab in the dark. The servers often fought over Saturday, but maybe September needed a break.
“What about a switch? Take tomorrow and Sunday off and work during the week, huh?”
“Perfect!” thought September.
“Yeah, Mike,” she said, a little somberly. “It gets a bit crazy here on the weekends. I could use a break this week.”
“Great-great,” Mike said walking away.
The GM turned back towards her, adding, “But you can cover a party, Wednesday. No big deal, right?”
“Oh, sure, Mike. No problem.”
“Great-great. I really appreciate it.”
Mike went back to his office, smiling to himself.
“That little ho walked right into it!” he thought. “So stupid.”
September texted Darren. She was going to rock his world Saturday.
“Mike the Asshole’s not so bad,” she thought. “Stupid as shit, but not so bad.”

K: While this one never reaches past a somewhat banal backdrop, I have worked in that world and I recognize both Mike and Sept. The inner monologues shown in quotes are unnecessary, as this story did a pretty good job getting the real point across. Though the stakes are low (I suppose not for September, but whatever), the recognition is through the roof here, and just drab enough to paint a pretty real picture. BRONZE

DK: I didn’t get super into the characters here, or the relative mundanity of the situation, but it’s a nice slice of that sort of thing. I did enjoy the way the two characters pulled off getting exactly what they thought they wanted from each other.

MG: Played out the prompt to a tee. I like how deftly the narration leapt from character to character, taking on their perspective and presumptions easily and without needing to nudge the reader in the ribs with just how far off each of these jerks were. Fun little piece, author, and it made me thirsty for tequila. BRONZE

Erik S

Paul

Ha. Got you right where I want you. That Consumer Report subscription was totally worth its weight in… well, gold, or whatever. Bite Coins. Yeah, sure, those. You can’t put one past me. I’m armed with information. You’ve still got about a thousand or so to drop until we get close to your dealer purchase price.

Larry

*Sigh* Good lord, I’m so sick of this dance. Yes, yes, I see your smug, little knowing smile. Come on, genius, you’ve still got $1,000 to go before I can put that pained look on my face and grudgingly accept your offer. Something as infallible as a Consumer Report surely couldn’t be wrong, right? Shit, what time is—wait until he looks away… 8:45? Come on, man, get to it. If I get home soon enough, I might be able to stick it to Jane if she’s still awake. Jesus, what’s been with her lately?

Paul

He’s cracking. I saw that watch check. He’s only got a few a minutes to close this deal. Right where I want you, Buddy. Sure, Linda nagged enough to get a Minivan, but anything was fine except the Convoy. ‘It’s too powerful!’ she complained. ‘We don’t need all those features!’ Pfft. What does she know about cars?

Linda

That Convey has it all. I can’t wait to drive that thing around. It’s going to be great to see the look on Regina’s face when I drop Abby off at preschool. Paul is so wonderfully predictable. Just like any boy, they want what they can’t have…

Abby

Candy. Candy, mama. Come ooooonnnnn. I’ve been real good! See me smile! Yay! This is boring. I’m bored.

Paul

I can’t believe Abby still thinks those Vitamin C supplements are candy. Kids. Yeah, she’s a real cutie, isn’t she, Larry? He looks like he wishes his kid was that cute.

Larry

Wow. She just gave her that candy. That ugly kid is going to be such a spoiled brat. Where’s she wandering off to? Do they even care?

Linda

I love those leather seats. Oh man, Regina’s gonna shit in her purse.

Paul

All right, now it’s time to go in for the kill.

Larry

Oh boy, he looks like he’s about to go in for the kill. Come on, genius.

Abby

Ooo! Is that a piece of candy under that car!?

Paul

BOOM! Dropped the hammer! You’ve only got a few minutes before the promotion ends and I walk out this door. Take it or leave it, sucker! I’m a genius.

Larry

Hmm, didn’t quite nail the beat on that reluctant sigh this time. Good delivery on the ‘Let me talk to my manager,’ though. I’m tired, I’ll get it next time. Why is Eddie’s office so far away? I’m so sick of walking to the other side of the building just to pretend to talk to him.

Linda

Hmm, that Larry has a cute little rump. Maybe if I give him some eyes it will grease the wheels a little.

Eddie

Jesus Christ, Larry, what do you want, a cookie? Yes, fine, good, now get out of here. These young Filipino boys aren’t going to find themselves on Craigslist.

Larry

Eddie’s sure to give me that promotion. He tries to be so gruff, but I know he’s just trying not to show favoritism. All right, be sure get the right mix of weariness and acceptance once you get back to the desk– what’s with the eyes, lady? Was that a twitch or a wink? Whatever, just smile and nod.

Linda

Mmm-hmm, they all want what they can’t have.

*TSSCHH* YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE, EDDIE M.’S AUTO EMPORIUMWILL BE CLOSING IN 10 MINUTES. WE THANK YOU FOR YOUR BUSINESS*TSSCHH*

Paul

He’s stuck! You’ve gotta accept the offer now.

Larry

He’s stuck! He’s gone too far to back out now.

Abby

I’m stuck! I can’t get back out now! Help!

PA Announcer

I’m a genius. We don’t close for 15 minutes. Oh man, that’s gonna blow everyone’s mind!

Paul

Aaaaaaand, bingo. Fuckin’ nailed it.

Larry

Nailed it. This one’s going to be a nice little chunk of change. Now to punt these guys off to Financial so I can try to give Jane the high hard one.

Paul

Look at him, he can’t wait to get us out of here. Betcha Eddie back there is going to give him a tongue lashing for this one.

Eddie

Oh, wow, I’m going to give that sweet boy’s little asshole such a tongue lashing.

Larry

Seriously, lady, are you having a seizure? I’m outta here. It’s really hard to be sincere this late. Yes, lovely to have met you. I’ll sign your Christmas card in 2 months and have no idea who you are.

Linda

Geez, all these boys are so easy to control. Maybe I will start that Ashley Madison account. Paul would never suspect a thing.

Paul

See, honey? See what your man pulled off tonight? I can see how excited she is. Maybe I can get a BJ out of this coup.

Larry

Sucker.

Linda

Sucker.

Paul

Sucker.

Abby

Ooo! Is that a sucker!?

K: Huh. I spend most of the time begging for dialogue dripping with subtext, and instead this one gives me subtext without any dialogue. I kind of admire you for your brash disrespect. As to the story itself, it’s a decent place to put this challenge and there are some moving parts that could drive real humor, but with everyone “saying” exactly what they think it really does slap the reader over the head and I felt robbed of the manipulation. I hate it when I can’t reward something new and different, but the execution didn’t buoy the concept.

DK: Another one that does a pretty good job of showing every character coming out thinking they’ve won. I do like the form this takes too; using only each character’s thoughts is pretty distinct. I got lost a little on the whole “Filipino boy” thing, but hey, sometimes I find that kind of thing funny, sometimes I don’t.

MG: This is a pretty clever idea, and the difficulty of juggling so many characters is admirable. I don’t think you quite nailed the humor and insidiousness you were reaching for (and some of the lines came off as cheap-ish echoes), but I can’t deny this was pretty fun to read. Script-style dialogue is always a coin-flip in these challenges. I don’t know that it helped all that much (or hurt for that matter).

Christina Pepper

I hold tightly to the pole as the train leans around a curve, careful not to bump into the passengers around me. The familiar whine of wheels racing along the tracks is oddly soothing. Transfer to the 1 at Gare de Lyon, transfer to the 1 at Gare de Lyon. I have to get this right.
– – –
“Où vas-tu, mon p’tit chou?” Jean-Marc inquired teasingly.”
“To the Champs Elysées, bien sûr.”
“Pourquoi?”
“I don’t know. It’s just such a famous street. I feel like I should see it and take a picture or something before I have to go back.”
He was silent for a moment, gathering his school things.
“I’m sorry. I know you don’t like when I talk about leaving.”
“Pas de tout,” he pulled me toward him and began kissing my neck.
“You don’t have to go to class today, do you?”
He smiled but pulled away, leaving me alone in his tiny studio apartment.
– – –
When I first arrived, I’d be exhausted by late afternoon. My brain had been struggling to decipher the language all day, and my mouth would ache with the effort of trying to make the right shapes and say the right sounds.
Yet I’d learned—along with the rest of the American students—not to let down my guard as long as we were out in public. Becky and Kate were both pickpocketed within the first couple weeks. I kept zoning out and missing my Metro stop, mesmerized by the sights and smells and crush of people all heading somewhere.
– – –
As soon as Jean-Marc was gone, I stripped down to my bra and underwear and began digging through the tangle of laundry on the bed. Blue jeans seemed like the right choice, but what about a shirt? I opened a dresser drawer and spotted it balled up in the back—the ill-fitting gray t-shirt with the name of my school on the front.
Shoes next. If only I had a pair of white sneakers. Tant pis. My black Tevas would have to do.
My hair was easy—I pulled it back in a ponytail. Makeup seemed unnecessary other than lip gloss, and that was really just for my own vanity.
What to put in my purse took a bit of thought. Lonely Planet Paris, yes. Passport, yes. I shoved a handful of coins into my wallet to give it some heft. Any bills? Maybe 5 Euros—it would be odd to have nothing in it. My driver’s license. I tucked everything else from the wallet into the money belt my father had given me the night before my departure.
“You’re a young woman alone in a foreign city” he told me every time we talked. “I worry about my little girl out there on her own.”
I had considered telling him I wasn’t alone—that I had Jean-Marc—but I thought better of it.
My phone went in my front right jeans pocket. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I wasn’t actually an idiot.
– – –
Transfer to the 1 at Gare de Lyon. No zoning out. Not today.
Here we are. I move with the crowd exiting the train and walk toward the 1 line. Which direction? Oh yes, La Défense. Waiting on the platform, I stand near a man playing some sort of African drum. The movements of his hands momentarily entrance me.
Ba-bada-ba-bap! Ba-bada-ba-bap!
I think I’ll even miss the street musicians.
I’ll ride until the George V stop. That should be far enough. I could get off at Franklin D. Roosevelt instead, but that doesn’t feel right.
The train pulls up and I look for a spot in the car’s midsection, not too far from a door. I figure access to a quick escape route is important. I pull out my book and turn to a woman near me.
“Excuse me,” I say loudly. “Is this the way to the champs ee-lee-zees?”
She nods curtly and averts her eyes. Perfect.
I flip through my guidebook, wondering when it will happen.
“Madame.”
I jump.
“Attention à ton sac.”
I’d flung it behind me and left the zipper open. Too blatant?
“Merci,” I say, once again too loudly.
I pull the purse around to my side and fiddle with it but leave it unzipped.
By the time we’re approaching the Tuileries stop, my eyes can hardly focus on the words in front of me. I know my breathing is shallow, but I can’t seem to find a way to change it.
Then a man—medium build, dressed like any other commuter—drops his newspaper at my feet. I instinctively reach down to help him. He’s quick, though. He reaches the paper before I do and in a feat of impeccable timing, he rises just in time to exit the train. The tone signaling the closing doors rings in my ears like an alarm. He must be the accomplice.
I haven’t felt a thing and I wonder if I’m delusional. I’m too afraid to check and find myself disappointed.
I remain on the train, dumbly holding my book in front of me. Finally, finally, we reach the Charles V stop. I follow the flow of people up to the street and only then do I reach into my purse.
Empty. Even though I expected it, I still feel somehow violated. Tears well up in my eyes, unbidden.
I reach for my phone. Jean-Marc is still in class, so it goes straight to voicemail.
“J’ai été volé,” I say, surprised that my voice is shaking.
Next I text my parents: Wallet stolen. Passport too. Can’t fly back tomorrow.
I take a deep breath and begin to stroll along the Champs Elysées, remembering the song we learned in French class so long ago: “Il y a tous ce que vous voulez aux Champs Elysées.”

K: This was a lot of fun to read. I’m always game for a rare step into a foreign world if I feel the writer has done a good job of taking me there, and that’s how I felt. Even though I didn’t have any sense of where the story was taking me, I found myself enthralled by the world to such a degree that I was willing to trust it. My trust was rewarded. Thanks, Survivor. SILVER
DK: I really liked this use of the setting in Paris, and this is one of my favorite character portraits of the week. The way the true nature of the gambit unveils itself is doled out with good pacing and interest, and I like how at the end there’s a real flash of emotion despite the calculation. SILVER
MG: It’s interesting, once I’d finished this story I immediately reflected on how slight it really was…but it never felt that way. I realized I’d been tantalized by so much unexplained, deliberate, detailed action and planning on the protagonist’s part that it kept me alert to any clue as to what the girl was actually trying to accomplish. A subtle subversion of expectations worked wonders here. SILVER

Margaret Martin

The man approached the stage feebly, clinging to his walker, legs and lips trembling. Jeremiah lifted his hands and the walker flew from the man’s grasp. Slowly the believer straightened his spine, gaining strength and stature before the hushed congregation. The organ bleated, slowly at first, then with increasing frenzy. Finally, he took a step toward the new preacher.

Jeremiah grabbed the old man’s hand and addressed the crowd with a loud cry. “Faith makes the lame walk! It’s a miracle!”

Shouts of “Amen” and applause filled the tent. The organ launched into a twangy hymn as the donation basket made its rounds.

Jeremiah studied the faces. Farmers and their daughters, carnies from the fair up the road, hairdressers and grocery clerks from the small towns along the highway. “I’d like to stay here longer, stay here to heal you all! And I would stay, my friends, if I had the means.”

The faithful reached deep into their pockets. Night after night they came to the tent, dressed in their Sunday best, fat with hope and cash.

After the crowd dispersed, Jeremiah turned to the hitchhiker the organist had recruited. “Nice work! Very believable.”

“Why, thank you. I believe he said $100.”

“Rightly so, rightly so.” Jeremiah pulled some twenties from the donation basket and handed them to his miracle. “Straight out of town, now.” Jeremiah tucked the remaining wad of bills into his pocket.

Money makes the walking lame. It’s a miracle!

The next day, the tent began filling early. Jeremiah stayed in his trailer until the last moment, counting the week’s take. God, what a bunch of suckers.

Eventually the organist came to rattle the trailer’s aluminum door. He pushed his glasses further up his nose. “Jeremiah, we’re ready. Your miracle is a whore from Rivertown. In red, front row.”

Jeremiah inhaled deeply and ducked into the tent. It was stifling, bloated with human gullibility. The organ whined like a water fowl, the florescent lights buzzed a sickly green.

Jeremiah’s voice soared, rising and falling like a siren. “Brothers and sisters! Who has the faith?” He stared for long minutes, the crowd hanging from his silence. Finally, he gestured toward the young woman in the red dress.

She rose from her chair and approached, trembling.

“You suffer for your sinfulness! Believe that you are worthy, child, and the Lord will heal your lust!” He held his hands out toward her. Groaning under the ghostly lights, she clutched her stomach convincingly and reached out to take his hand.
As she straightened herself and wiped invisible tears from her eyes, he proclaimed loudly. “It’s not only our bodies that rot and decay! Our hearts and souls do as well. But true faith has turned this woman from evil. Witness the miracle!”

The congregation burst into cheers and hallelujahs for their sister’s salvation. The organ ground out another hymn, and the collection basket overflowed.

When the crowd left, Jeremiah turned to the prostitute. “Such a talented actress! You were offered $100, right?” He pinched her ass through the skin-tight red dress, pulling her closer to him. “We can make that $150. My trailer is right over here.”

For weeks the tent fluttered in the fallow field, beckoning bored townsfolk, comforting lonely truck drivers, reeling in gas station attendants and bank clerks and road crews from across the county. They parked their vehicles on the dry grass, trampled a path of cracked earth to the tent’s opening.

Jeremiah couldn’t believe his fortune. His trailer was packed with cash. He stuffed bulging envelopes into the chrome and formica cabinet drawers, locked the big bills in his peeling pleather suitcase. Each day the organist found a willing conspirator. Each night the locals dropped money into his basket. It was a miracle that there was any wealth left in this dusty, backward county. It was a miracle that nobody had caught on.

Three months of work, and Jeremiah was already planning retirement. Just a little more, and he’d be on his way.

Summer gave way to September. The days grew shorter and cooler, and the trees burned like the sunset, yellows and oranges, reds and purples. The night of September 21, the field was ablaze with headlights. The crowd spilled from the overflowing tent. Their money spilled from the preacher’s overflowing trailer.

Jeremiah addressed his flock. “Abundance! It is given to us by the Lord! It is the gift of faith! He threw his arm wide. “Witness the miracle of abundance!”

Shouts of “Amen!” rippled across the crowd.

“Your faith has brought you healing. Your faith has brought you peace! You have made the sacrifice and reaped the reward!” The organ wailed in the background, growing louder and more tremulous as the crowd foamed.

“Who has faith? Who will grab this hand of healing?” Jeremiah reached out to the pot dealer in the front row. Abruptly the organ stopped, and the organist stepped forward instead.

Jeremiah shot him a look. The audience began to sway, the lights gasped and flickered.

“What are you doing?” Jeremiah hissed. But the organist circled behind him and gripped his arms. He was stronger than he seemed.

Jeremiah struggled against his captor but could not break free. A dark smudge began to take shape in front of him, a clammy, swirling cloud of black, gaining form, growing, its mouth a gaping hole rimmed with demon teeth. Finally the organist let go. Still uncomprehending, Jeremiah flailed as the demon swallowed him whole.

The faithful cheered with flushed faces as their God turned toward them.

“My servants! Your sacrifice was pleasing. So wealthy! So confident! His traits will be passed on to you. Another year of prosperity and surety will be yours.”

Then it disappeared, a black whirlwind closing in on itself until it was gone.

The congregation departed, but the organist remained where he had been standing, shuddering as residual waves of black power surged over him.

When all was quiet, he walked over to the trailer.

K: Okay, you got a sustained chuckle out of me with the end of this. I knew the organist was important (why else would he be so heavily featured?) but naturally, I didn’t see how he’d fit in, exactly. The whole ending bit worked on me exactly as planned by the author, though I’ll admit that in the wake of it I feel like the story was 65% exposition and padding, just to work as a red herring. Oh, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I liked the use of “God” and “miracle” when the healer was mocking the faithful.

DK: I think I saw the “organist is a demon or something like that” thing coming a little too early for it to grab me as much by the time we get to that ending. I was somewhat hoping it was going to take a different kind of turn somewhere. But, I did like the feel of the initial parts of this guy’s scam and the people he’s supposedly working over.

MG: This one has to get dinged on a technicality, as the preacherman obviously didn’t walk away from this incident feeling like he’d succeeded at his ploy. (He didn’t walk away at all, in fact.) It’s not your fault, but a story that leans this hard on the supernatural in a week with such strong and believable real-world scenarios has some momentum working against it. It was enjoyable, but not a stand-out in my mind.

———————————————————————————————–

Is that only the third triple-gold of the season, after Beau and Rex? I think it is.

Anyway:

Rusty Greene
Christina Pepper

They’re immune. Go another way by tomorrow night (Wednesday) at 9pm Central and we’ll have our first jury member.

Cheers, Survivors.

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