Umm…yeah. Apologies in advance for some of our surliness. It wasn’t the challenge of the season, exactly, and maybe fatigue or the point in the game has gotten us to demand too much, but hopefully this doesn’t come off as too harsh.

That said, we all found something to like (even if that something was different). Read on, Survivors. There are only three left after this.

Erik S

Peter sat in the holding cell, going over the events of the night again. It was Saturday night, so he had plenty of company, so much so that it was pretty much standing room only. Even during his booking, the station outside was full of what he assumed were the usual drunks and bums and such, all of whom had little other entertainment than to listen in during his discussion with the booking officer.

He had truthfully recounted his story, though it was met with little sympathy. He’d been drinking a bit more than usual; a common theme recently he realized as he was recounting the story. Andrea had been going on about something (he honestly could not recall what), and he had just snapped. The scene played out again in his head: he had lunged at her with a swiftness that surprised even him, then in quick succession, a slap, a backhand, and then a closed-fisted punch directly below her cheekbone. He even recalled his immediate succeeding emotion: disappointment. He had been disappointed that his blows had sounded dull and unimportant, unlike that meaty smack you hear in the movies.

As soon as he had seen the flashing reds and blues outside, he walked outside with an unsteady gait, hands in the air, and surrendered.

Peter flinched when he heard his name called out loud, and was suddenly aware that his fingernails had been alternatingly digging into his temples as he sat with head in hands.

“Come on, Romeo, on your feet. Your punching bag declined to press charges,” said the officer at the door of the cell, his face an interplay between detachment and loathing.

***

The sun had been down for many hours, but the air still hung thick and sticky. The air conditioner had crapped out towards the beginning of the summer, but they had not had the funds to fix it. He hadn’t done the math, but Peter suspected the half empty fifth of whiskey on the desk had something to do with that. He supposed that if he bought handles he’d save money in the long run, but then he’d probably have to admit he had a problem. Instead, he only bought a small bottle at a time, regardless of the fact he was always going back to the store once or even twice a night. Tonight was going to be one of those nights.

Before the “incident” several nights ago, of which neither Andrea or he had spoken of or to each other since, she had been tenuously, but with increasing firmness, questioning who he had been becoming. His dad, from what little he remembered of him, used to beat Mom from room to room, but he had always thought that had left with his father. In his own mind, he was the same person he always had been; she was the one who had changed. A few nights before his trip to the police station, when he had pointed this observation out, she had been nonplussed.

“Don’t you even see it?” she had demanded.

“See what!?” he had insisted, honestly puzzled. She had gone on about something after that, but he could not recall what.

Sequestered in the study, which was also filled with folded laundry, boxes of outgrown children’s toys, and other bric-a-brac without place, Peter took another heavy pull from the bottle of Evan Williams and continued to stare down at the wrinkled sheet of paper before him. It had been hastily torn from a notebook by the look of it. The words written on it were scrawled and hurried, but unmistakable:

Your in trouble and your gonna die
BK 5 corners
2morrow 8pm

Normally he would have dismissed the note he’d found stuffed into his mailbox as some sort of prank, albeit one in particularly bad taste, except for the fact that he recognized the handwriting: it was his own.

***

Peter reconnoitered the Burger King on the northwest of the Five Corners for almost half an hour, but other than what could be consider usual for the “colorful” neighborhood, he couldn’t find anything amiss, so he ventured inside. He’d run over every possibility in his mind, and had come up blank; only that everything had to be tied together. All that was left was an overwhelming need to unravel the enigma.

He took a belt of brown liquor, exited his car, and made his way to the restaurant. Lost in his thoughts, he mumbled something about “no change” to a homeless man outside and shoved past him, his mind returning to the possibility he was having some sort of breakdown.

Peter ordered a burger he had no intention of eating, and found a seat at a plastic booth. He smelled then heard someone sit across from him, and turned to find the bum from outside.

“Listen, buddy,” Peter said, “I told you that I don’t…”

Peter stared at the man a long time.

“Dad…?” he managed weakly to the man he hadn’t seen in over three decades.

The vagrant smiled broadly, displaying the rotting husks of his remaining teeth. “Hello, son,” the man said in a strangely high-pitched and reedy voice.

Peter saw a lot of his face in the man’s, and at least figured out the mystery of the handwriting. “What happ…” Peter started in the voice of a lonely child, then as the years of absence came back, the anger flooded in. “What happened!?” he demanded.

“Huntington’s,” his father said. “And by the looks of it, you’re well on your way too.”

Peter knew exactly what HD was. His boss’ father had suffered from it. Peter used to dread listening to him complain about it. Until he had been fired at least.

His first reaction was denial. His father must have read it in his eyes because he interjected before Peter could speak. “I saw it at the station. Father and son, arrested on the same day. Ha! Get the test if you don’t believe me. Don’t say I never gave you anything, boy. It’ll show clear as day. Why, look at your hand right now.”

Peter looked down and saw his right hand scratching his elbow, so much so that the skin was raw and threatening to break. He knew then it was true. So many signs were beginning to come together.

“How old are you now?” his father asked. Peter bristled at having to answer the question to his own father.

“Thirty-six,” he said through gritted teeth.

“Yep, that’s about when it kicks in. Your whole body’s gonna turn against you. Your muscle’s will go to shit along with your mind. You’re not going to know your left from your right and your body’ll go a herky and jerky.” His father’s voice was raising in volume and intensity, nearing hysterics, and his face twitched in almost inhuman movements. “Sometimes I can’t talk or eat or chew or swallow or chew or think or swallow or—”

His father stopped suddenly, and looked around, unsure of his surroundings

“What was I saying?” he asked, eyes filled with a childlike fear and perplexity.

Peter raised his hands to his face. They jerked violently along the way.

K: This does tie back to the attack that surprises even Peter nicely enough, but I feel a little icky that this story used something as dark as domestic abuse as a red herring. The bigger issue is that this story is written well and has a nice flow, but the ending seemed to come out of nowhere and the reveal is so gradual that the story ends up with no catharsis. BRONZE

DK: I like the ways draws its main themes out over the course – things like the way the return cements a sense of events repeating themselves, and how the confusion of the character envelopes the way the story reads through that confusion’s development. Peter’s a guy who’s done something despicable, but it’s hard not to balance that with the sense of control abandoning him too. BRONZE

MG: I’m ever so glad this didn’t turn out to be a person meeting their younger self through some kind of time paradox. That would’ve been eye-rollingly cliche. This was in fact a bit of a slow-burner in a good way. The reveal of HD wasn’t a shocker, nor was it telegraphed. In fact, it clarified a lot of things through a new perspective. And yet, there’s a lot in this story that doesn’t quite rise to the level of that interesting development. The piecemeal construction is just short of episodic, but doesn’t give us much beyond a chronological through-line. There’s no sense of development between the sections. Also there are a few pretty awful lapses in editing here. (“Ventured inside” is too easy to mistake for him actually going into the Burger King, which he then does again in the next paragraph). Overall a story that could have used a boost in tempo to fit its interesting core. BRONZE

Christina Pepper

Sure I said I’d never go back to this house, but here I am sitting in the kitchen with Mrs. Lovely. She’s got a kid of her own now—a biological kid, I mean—but the house still smells the way it always did. It’s not bad, exactly—some kind of dinner is cooking—but underneath is something stale. Like they never open their windows or something.

“Would you care for a snack? I don’t think Dahlia has eaten all the Oreos yet,” she laughs nervously.

Sure lady, I’ll take some of your goddamn cookies. Brand name and everything. Quite a step up from the usual foster kid fare. Been on my own for a few years now, though, and I can’t say I’m doing much better for myself. But there are worse things in the world than a ramen-based diet.

– – –

Mom has the voice on she uses for company. I go straight up to my room without even saying hi.

This is not how today was supposed to be. I was going to tell her. I was really finally going to do it. She was going to be in the kitchen making dinner. Before Dad came home I was going to do it.

“Mom, I have something to tell you. I’m a . . . ”

– – –

Turns out the cooking smell was beef stroganoff. I look at the lumps of meat in pale brown sauce sitting on top of lifeless noodles.

Mr. Lovely is here now too. He doesn’t meet my eyes.

“I’m trying to save up for school,” I explain. “Gonna enroll in the fall. I got letters of recommendation and everything.” I gesture toward my overstuffed bag, which contains nothing of the sort.

The daughter pushes her food around her plate. She hasn’t spoken the whole meal, but I feel her stealing glances at me every so often.

“Would you look at the time?” gasps Mrs. Lovely. “Tad and I have a PTA meeting.” He grunts in response.

“How ’bout you stay and keep Dahlia company and we’ll talk about this more as soon as we’re back?” she says. “It shouldn’t take too long.”

She rises and starts to clear the table.

“Don’t you worry about the dishes,” I tell her. “It’s the least I can do.”

– – –

I help that girl with the dishes and try to figure out something to say.

“Your hair is soooo pretty,” I finally say, reaching up to touch one of the dark curls. “I always wanted long hair, but Mom says it’s too much trouble.”

“It’s no trouble,” she smiles at me. “You want me to show you how to do something nice with that hair of yours?”

I nod and lead her to my bedroom. I sit on the bed and runs her hands through my hair.

“How old are you anyway?” she asks.

“Sixteen,” I lie, pretending my school uniform doesn’t make me look closer to twelve.

She starts kissing the back of my neck, and I try to act like I’ve done this before. Her mouth is so big and soft and I don’t care about anything right now. Then she unbuttons her shirt and takes off her bra, just like that.

Holy Mary, Mother of God. They’re just right . . . there.

I want to ask if I can touch them, but I can’t even speak. I did feel up Amy Ballentine out in back of school by the dumpster that one day, but that hardly even counts compared to this.

She reaches under my skirt and I’m not sure how far her hand is going and suddenly I don’t know where I want it to go.

“Shy?” she asks me.

I nod.

“Here,” she says, unbuttoning her jeans and then taking my hand. She slides it down inside the front of her underwear and everything is wet and warm and soft.

I move my fingers around and she leans close, her breath hot in my ear. I try to take it back, but she holds it down there and starts moving around and breathing even faster. Her body jerks and moves like she’s been possessed.

“That’ll do,” she finally smirks and I’m not sure what she means but I think I might and I want to ask but I don’t.

I hear the garage door and run to the bathroom to wash up.

– – –

I only have about 60 seconds, but it’s all I need. The wallet is right on top of her desk—too obvious, really. Fifty bucks isn’t as much as I was hoping for, but beggars can’t be choosers and all that. Anyway, she seems sweet. Here’s hoping she doesn’t turn out as fucked up as me.

– – –

I sit in the back—behind the passenger seat. I could reach up and touch a curl of her hair if I wanted to. No one would have to know.

In front, they’re talking about when Cassie lived with my parents, back before I was born. She was something like 6 or 7, so Mom’s telling her who her friends were, her favorite t.v. shows.

“You remember?” Mom keeps asking.

Cassie says, “sure,” but she doesn’t sound like she does. Her voice is warm and smooth. I want to take it and put in my pocket so I can always have it with me.

“We’ll write you a check,” Mom says, “after the end of the month. I’ve been praying for you all these years hoping everything would turn out okay.”

“I sure do appreciate it,” Cassie tells her. “I try to focus on the positive, but it hasn’t always been easy. I mean, some of the places I stayed weren’t so good. Especially when there was a man around.”

“Oh, Cassie honey,” says Mom.

“But I’m awfully glad you found it in your heart to forgive Mr. Hansen, same as I did. Bygones be bygones, you know?”

“Why, he wouldn’t—he never. No, Cassie. You’re mistaken.”

I wish I could see Mom’s face right now, but it’s too dark.

“I’m so sorry,” says Cassie, and she sniffles a little. I reach up to touch her hair. She shifts in her seat.

“You know what?” she says. “Here is fine. I can walk. It’s just a few blocks.”

Mom starts to speak but then pulls over to the side of the street. I look around, but I don’t recognize anything—we never go to this part of town.

“Thanks for everything,” says Cassie. Then the car door slams and she’s gone.

We sit there for what feels like twenty minutes. Finally Mom looks back at me. “Your Daddy is a good man, sugar. You hear me?”

“He’s a good man,” I repeat. “He’s never laid a hand on—”

“No,” says Mom. “We’re not talking about this. We were never here, this conversation never happened.”

We’re both silent the rest of the way back. When we go into the house, Mom sets her purse down on the counter. She looks inside and then says, “That’s odd. Dahlia, would you go out and see if my wallet fell out in the car?”

I go out and look. I don’t find anything.

K: Any time a story spends that much time on sensuality, it gets to a point where it feels a little exploitative. Luckily, there’s an engaging story with complex relationships surrounding it, although I guess the final moment, like the one in the first story, felt too small for the stakes that had been raised. I wonder if this feels a little too much like the opening of a much longer story rather than a story itself, but meh. SILVER

DK: I think this does a great job of creating two similar, yet distinct perspectives, infusing them with their own voices, and making those voices sound consistently authentic to their ages and their circumstances. The beats of their encounter and then the understated reveals of the ending land pretty powerfully. GOLD

MG: I couldn’t tell if the author made a mistake here labeling the person we’d seen called Mr. Lovely earlier “Mr. Hanson” toward the end. There are a few different logical reasons this might’ve worked, but they aren’t hinted at, nor is it all that necessary. An appropriately dour little piece you’ve written up here, although the story feels a bit rushed-through for all the drama you’re trying to fit within it. I think you would have benefited from not forcing the birth-child as a second narrator. I don’t think the story needed it. On the other hand, it may have been too over the top if we’d been inside Cassie’s head during the intimacy part. It’s hard for me to feel like this story evoked anything in me beyond the surface unpleasantness. Maybe that’s all it needed to accomplish. But whether it was the honesty of the situation, or the lack of an insight into something human and sympathetic, the story just left me a bit cold.

Margaret Martin

The doctors pored over gray and white x-rays. Four lungs, two hearts, one digestive tract, three kidneys.

“The smaller one won’t survive.”

“The parents knew the risk, and they moved here from Tennessee anyway. For you.”

Dr. Cramer studied the images again, pressing his fingers against his temples.
Finally he agreed.

—–

The waiting room had recently been redecorated. There was a black and white television in the corner with the volume down, vinyl furniture. Dr. Cramer approached the Cartwrights.

“Lydia’s doing well. She’s in recovery.”

“Claire?”

Dr. Cramer sighed, rubbing 17 hours of surgery from his bleary eyes. “There’s a lot we don’t know yet. Her lungs and heart are smaller, weaker. She lost a lot of blood, and she didn’t get enough oxygen.”

“But she’s alive?”

“Yes.”

—–

Days stretched into weeks, weeks into months.

With each reconstruction, Lydia grew more vibrant, a fountain of blond hair spilling over dancing eyes, tiny teeth in her perfect pink smile. Reporters and nurses brought colorful toys and clapped their hands as she learned to babble and walk.

But Claire kicked and thrashed. Her eyes wouldn’t focus; her mouth only screamed or growled. A web of veins crossed her pale arms and chest. A demon carved from bleu cheese.

Dr. Cramer sat down with the Cartwrights. “Lydia is ready to go home. She has made an incredible recovery.”

“That’s great, Doctor! And Claire?”

“Claire is physically out of danger. However, the brain damage is severe.”

“We’ll manage.” Marie Cartwright looked at her husband. “Claire seems to respond to us, Doctor.”

Dr. Cramer looked at the tiny blond woman, the cuffs of her threadbare sweater pulled over her cold fingers. Tennesee shivering through the New York winter, no money for a better coat.

“Maybe if you only had one child to consider, but Lydia will have expenses too. We’re recommending institutionalization for Claire. There are excellent facilities in New York. Once she’s admitted, you will be able to devote your time and money to raising Lydia.”

“NO!”

“Mrs. Cartwright, Claire will be disruptive and wild. She won’t be able to go to school, she’ll need a nurse. It won’t be easy for your family, and it won’t be fair to Lydia. If you give her to the state…” Dr. Cramer sighed. “There are also families willing to adopt children whose parents can’t care for them. But not many will take retarded children.”

Maria pictured her girls. One surrounded by teddy bears and songs, the world tripping over itself to make her smile. The other angry, frightened, alone. Only two people desperate to be with her; only two who could love her.

“Are there families who would take on regular children? Because Lydia…” she choked on the words forming in her throat. “…she’d be happy anywhere, with anyone. If someone adopted her, we would be able to…”

Dr. Cramer bolted upright, stunned. “You would consider that?”

Maria looked at Bob, tears pooling in her eyes. Bob grabbed her hand and nodded.

—–

Lydia skipped into the living room. “Class of 88, Mom! We got our caps and gowns today. Sara and Amy are going to do my hair. MOM! Where are you?”
Judy Wallner entered the room slowly. “Lydia, we need to talk. You know that we love you no matter what. We are your parents, no matter what.”

Lydia froze. “Are you and Dad getting a divorce?”

“What? No! Please just sit down.” She gestured at the couch with a piece of paper. “When you were a baby, you were in the hospital, remember? Your intestines? You had to have surgery.”

Lydia rubbed her abdomen, where several long white scars pulled and intersected.
“And you didn’t come home with us until you were almost two.”

“Yeah?”

“Well…” Judy sucked in a deep breath. “Lydia, we are not your biological parents. We adopted you. You had a twin sister who was very, very sick. She needed all the love and help she could get. They had to make the terrible choice to give you up so that you AND your sister could have better lives.”

Lydia’s eyes grew wide with shock. “I’m adopted? I have a twin sister?”

Judy slumped in her chair. “There’s more. Your birth parents died last month. They’ve moved your sister to a home, but… Here. Read it.”

Lydia read and re-read the letter.

“This is crazy! I don’t even know her!”

—–

The attendant pointed to a small girl sitting near the window.

“Claire?” Lydia walked toward the table. She turned and looked imploringly at her parents, who urged her forward.

“Hi Claire, I’m Lydia. I brought cookies.” Lydia set the plate down. Claire brought a cookie to her mouth, but then grinned and offered it to Lydia instead.

Lydia took it, smiling politely; Claire grabbed another.

A nurse in Tweetybird scrubs walked over. “She never learned to talk. But she looks happy to see you. Oh, together again! You two were famous, at least in New York. I was just starting out. Dr. Cramer was on the evening news. He’s retired now, of course. I’m Nancy, by the way.” The nurse beamed. “Here,” she handed Lydia a thick folder, “your parents asked me to give you these before…” Her voice broke, and she turned toward the window.

Lydia glanced at her parents, puzzled.

“Not us, Lydia. Your biological parents.”

She opened the folder. There were medical statements, legal documents, and old newspaper clippings with grainy black and white photographs. She flipped through, images and words jumping from the pages: Cramer’s Miracles! Claire and Lydia Survive! Siamese Twins Separated!

“We were Siamese twins?” She suddenly understood everything. She turned to Claire, and without a word, lifted her shirt to reveal her scars.

Claire stared at the white ribbons, then lifted her shirt and showed her own scars.
She had so many. She was so tiny. Lydia began to cry, great hot tears rolling down her neck.

She turned to her parents. “I’ll do it.”

The transplant was scheduled for the following week. Another set of scars across their bellies, another set of bandages for the Siamese miracles.

—–

Days stretched to weeks, weeks to months.

Lydia was walking into class when the first pain stabbed her in the back and gouged a deep trail around to the front, momentarily robbing her of her breath and her eyesight.

Claire and her nurse came to the hospital with an armful of balloons.
Lydia smiled weakly, her face bloated from the dialysis. “ClaireBear,” she whispered. “Thanks for coming. Mom and Dad are with the doctor.”

Claire bent over and touched her toes. Lydia looked at Nancy, confusion furrowing her brow.

Nancy shrugged. “How are you?”

“Not so good. I hope this works, because we’re out of spare kidneys.” She laughed, but the movement made her gasp. “Do you think she knows?” Lydia bent her head toward Claire, who was bending again.

Claire started to grunt. “Uull.”

“uull llii”

“dii”

“ya!”

Lydia! Shock crossed Nancy’s face.

“Claire! You did it! You said my name!” Lydia patted the bed beside her.

Claire rested her proud head on Lydia’s pillow, a blond fountain falling over the smiling eyes of the inseparable sisters.

K: The opening scene to this story is dynamite. The drama is strong and the weight of the decision comes through, and it’s paid off with a climax that probably wouldn’t be seen coming by many. The story could end there (with a different prompt, of course) and be a rich one. However, the dialogue is a little bland and colorless once we get to the next set of scenes, with everyone speaking clinically and predictably, telling us the story we already know is coming. Claire’s breakthrough could be a really big deal, but the middle area needs some real work for this moment – the biggest of the week so far – to get its due.

DK: Really great, investing concept and I found myself moved by the overall circumstances if not the individual events. In some ways on that latter point, I think this concept required shifting from scene to scene that it dulled the impact of each one, or at least shortened the amount of deepening of the characters that could occur.

MG: Oh man. This is an interesting idea for a story. It’s one that has been approached before, for different kinds of genres and concepts, and it would be interesting to see where this particular take on the separated-at-birth twins concept could go. Thing is, it needs a LOT more room to breathe. I know how strong the urge to avoid a tighter window of time can be: you don’t have to worry about a whole lot of needed exposition being shoved into the reader’s eyes, and you can let your characters show a bit of long-term development. But the way this one got written out, it feels especially clumsy in the way it presents its information. Details are offered up on silver platters, where they could have been evoked through hints and clues. It feels like a story you might encounter on the Hallmark Channel…or even worse, a Hallmark card.

Jack Haas

The three gravediggers were silent as they ghosted through the cemetery. The leader peered at each row of headstones as they passed, each time shaking his head and moving deeper into the gloom. The night was clear and crisp and the sounds of nocturnal creatures in the woods nearby provided a soothing white noise below the whispered argument taking place in front of a blank marker flanked on either side by imposing crypts.

The leader gestured emphatically toward the ground, and all three of them fell to working with their shovels, quickly piling up a mound of dirt at the head of the grave. One of the men paused a moment to lean on his shovel until the leader hissed at him to keep working. The other two kept their heads down, focused on making the hole as big as they could as fast as they could. As the hole got deeper, the leader would occasionally pop his head out of the grave to make sure they were still alone. With each successive survey his face was covered in more soil, slowly darkening to blend with the night. In contrast, his eyes burned brighter the closer the three got to their goal.

The leader heard the splintering sound of decades-old wood failing to stand up to a sharp steel shovel and he once again began fiercely whispering orders to the other two. The shovels were thrown out of the pit, and more carefully the three of them began to expose the length of the coffin. The other two began to lift it, only to be met with another angry hiss. They exchanged a glance between themselves then gently placed the box back in its resting place and climbed out of the grave.

From the dirt below, the leader could be heard prying the lid back from the decomposing box. The smell rising from the hole was surprising in its pleasant earthiness. The other two peered over the edge to catch a glimpse of their potential haul. Inside the box, a skeleton, long past decomposition, picked clean by whatever had wormed its way into the casket, lay wearing a diamond studded gold necklace. The leader smiled up at the two henchmen then turned to the body.

“Thought you could take it with you, eh Duchess?”

The skeleton jostled a bit in the box as he leaned over and whispered in an impossibly dry voice. “I knew you would come, Charles.” The skull leaped forward, catching the leader’s neck in its teeth. He threw a hand out toward his frozen conspirators, gesturing for a shovel, but his words only came out as a gurgle, spraying blood across the walls of the grave. One of the men grabbed a shovel, and watched as the skeleton continued to tear at her former chauffeur. When the empty-eyed grin turned on him, he swung the shovel with all his strength, crushing the top of the skull with a satisfying pop. Both men shoveled the dirt back into the hole in a panic. They stumbled out of the graveyard just as dawn broke, the nocturnal animals now quiet, and the cemetery peaceful once again.

K: This story’s mood comes across fairly well, but man, does the sneeringly evil comment from Charles just break the mood and come off as desperate badguyism. I can’t think of a good reason for him to say anything there, as he’d said it all before to his co-conspirators, one would think. The Duchess’s line didn’t work for me either. The skeleton getting up and tearing Charles apart is fairly terrifying, but a spoken line comes dangerously close to comical. I’m sure I sound like I hate this, but really, other than the big problem with the dialogue, this story does what it sets out to do.

DK: Cool take; I like combining this concept with the horror setting which is something I wasn’t anticipating. Not as much in the realm of character to grasp onto but this sells itself on the strength of its atmosphere and the breaking action in the last paragraph, which works well.

MG: Cool and clever interpretation of the challenge! For a ghost story, it wasn’t much; you had a lot more room to build the tension if you had wanted to (why didn’t you?!), but there was still a nice elastic snap to the telling of the tale anyway. Like many of the others this week, I feel like the essence of a great idea could be harnessed better with more time, more words, more room. But it did have a kind of resiliency in its telling that I appreciated. GOLD

Bret Highum

I’d started down the long slope to the valley before I realized I was home. It had changed over the last dozen years, enough that I had almost not recognized it. I eyed the wide, well-built roadway that wound down the hill, noting possible ambush sites and choke points where it skirted limestone outcroppings and steep-edged ravines. Not for the first time, I was tempted to turn back, but my will is stronger than my weaknesses.
I lift my sword a finger’s width out of the scabbard to make sure it wasn’t stuck from the cool of the morning. Raising my standard high, I touch my spurs to the flanks of my horse and set off down the highway, my men following behind.

King Engvald shifted his weight in his oaken throne and cursed his ruined knee once again. But for that, he’d still be riding and raiding near and far, rather than forced to rule a petty kingdom from a stony castle. Still, he thought as he took a mighty draught from his horn and received a saucy smile from a serving wench, he’d done well. His gaze shifted from creamy white cleavage to a smoke-stained tapestry hanging high above the flickering torchlight. The hound of Castle Martin, a stubby-legged beast with a drooping tongue, was still barely visible on the silken sheet.
“You should burn that thing, milord,” said his brother-in-law, Roald, as he followed Engvald’s gaze to the drapery. “I never have understood why you kept it.”
Engvald sighed mightily and clapped his sister’s husband on his shoulder. “Not all victories are won cleanly, Roald. A reminder that you’ve made mistakes never hurts.”
The farmer’s cottage burns clean, the sedge-thatched roof so tightly woven that the smoke rising off it is white, even as the mud walls crack from the heat. My men are helping themselves to the chickens and the root cellar, but I stand and watch the home burn, like I’ve watched so many others burn since my destiny took hold of me.
“What do we do with the serfs that yet live?” my lieutenant enquires from behind me. What should I do with such people, folk who would accept patronage from a butchering, ravaging savage and support him with the wages of their sweat? The blood of the soldiers that drips from the tip of my sword is the sound of the answer I find myself yearning to give.

The next morning the castle was roused early, as a rider raced in on a faltering horse, the beast dark with sweat and blowing hard through gaping nostrils. “Sire!” the rider shouted in a clear tenor, pulling the horse to a sliding stop near Engvald and Roald as they stood watching the construction of the new barracks. “Sire, news from the east! Raiders, falling on the villages and farms, killing and looting. They say…they say it’s the Talbot, come again!”
Engvald’s face turned dark, his voice gritting the words out like a stone grinding flour. “The Talbot is gone- I killed his father, I killed his mother, and then I killed the boy when he would not yield, a decade and more gone. This is another pretender, and I will not allow him to threaten my people!” His voice was a mighty roar by the end, and all within earshot cheered their lord. “To horse!” Roald cried, caught up in the moment. “Mount, all you warriors, and we will hunt this “Talbot” like the dog he’s named for!”
In the cheers and the tumult as all the men armed and mounted, none saw the wave of weariness cross Engvald’s face, memories of a brave boy standing proud and alone before him, surrounded by hounds. The eyes of the ladies and the children watched the valiant men ride forth, as Engvald trudged back to his hall, alone.

I pick up some bread from a covered bowl that sits on the long table, and wander towards the great fireplace. There’s a spot, under the mantle, where we carved our initials. I let my fingers trail over the indentations, but I don’t bend over to look. My memory is vivid enough. I settle the bars over the doors to the kitchen the servant’s quarters, and then circle back around to the front, where the dogs have their place. One ancient hound, his muzzle frosted with age and teeth worn to nubbins, catches my scent and begins to wag his tail. I fed him a bit of the bread in reward for his long memory.
Engvald paused at the door, his leg aching and his heart saddened as he watched the plume of dust race down the roadway towards the bandits. He longed to ride and punish the wicked, but in his heart he knew he had been the same as them not that long ago, taking from the weak and living for the moment. A flagon of last year’s ale would serve well to dull that ache, he decided.
Engvald was two steps from his throne when I shut the great doors, dropping the metal-lined bar across them with a giant crack. The sudden loss of light and the noise made Engvald stagger into the table in surprise, spinning around on his good leg as his dagger came up, pointing towards me. “Who’s there?” he called, with an old-man quaver in his voice.
Engvald watched as a figure detached itself from the shadows, stepping into the mote-laden light that hung golden in the center of the room. The figure did not speak; just slowly raised an arm, and a long, delicate finger pointed at the tapestry crested with the Talbot of Castle Martin. Recognition dawned suddenly on Engvald- this was the rider who had brought word of the raiders!
“Fie, you lying imp!” Engvald roared. “You’re no Talbot, just another mongrel who thinks a half-man will make easy pickings! Come on, pup! Have at me!”

I settle into a fencing stance, first learned watching the men-at-arms training at my father’s castle, and honed since by years of desperate strife. The old king’s face goes slack in surprise as I flip my hood back and shake out my curls, their fiery red betraying my Lachlannan heritage to anyone with any knowledge of the nobility. To this vicious brute, that means nothing. Still, a flash of recognition lights his eye, even as my rapier knocks aside his dagger and spears his heart.
“The girl…with the hounds…” rasps Engvald, blood flecking his lips.
“No,” I respond coldly. “The lady with the hounds. They were part of my dowry to him. I was eight when we were wed, a noble marriage to cement an alliance. I was here, that night, the first night I’d ever met my husband…” I would tell him more, but the light dies in his eyes and I cannot rail at him for my loss, for the way he took my king and my life from me. I draw my sword from his body and stalk towards the door. There are others outside who share the blame. The blood dripping from the point of my sword answers the question that is in my heart.

K: Here we go, dammit. My confusion at whom was speaking wasn’t for naught, as I was rewarded handsomely for my engagement in this medieval tale, which managed to create sympathy for both sides in what’s still a pretty small amount of words. The twist is handled deftly and the characters are interesting. This story plays at some of my weaknesses – medieval times, flawed heroes and revenge – so my results may not be typical, but I’m growing more in love with this as I consider it. GOLD

DK: This usage of setting is solid and the revenge tale coupled with its big reveal at the ending fit well into that arena. Similarly I enjoyed the writing style since it conveys such a feeling of epic scope to close proceedings. I was somewhat ambivalent about the ways the tenses shift between the perspectives; although it helps signal those changes, it also gives (me at least) a sense of confusion about timing of events that I’m not sure is intended.

MG: There were some key spots where the narrative point of view became confused. The narration jumped from Engvald’s head to Lady Talbot’s, and even to a third-person omniscient one. This was really quite disruptive and confusing, and it killed a bunch of the story’s momentum for me. Aside from that, there’s nothing about this tale that’s notably bad…and there’s nothing that leaps off the page and thrills me either. It’s a nifty revenge tale, and the bloodthirstiness of the antagoness is fun to read (I’m sure it was fun to write), but the language felt dry and forced, and there wasn’t much of a crackle to it as a whole.

Annette Barron

“You nervous?” my wife asked as we pulled into the driveway.

“Extremely.”

“Daddy, are the cousins going to be there already?”

“I don’t know, Chloe. Are you excited?”

“Kinda.” My wife only had one brother and he remained single. This was my first experience with siblings, so a first for cousins. I had already met three of my four younger brothers. Today I would meet the fourth and all their families; my older sister and her children too.

We piled out of the rental; my wife, Cheryl, my ten year-old daughter, Chloe and my seven year-old son, Micky.

My mother’s husband, Brent, opened the front door at our knock. “Hey, hey, hey! Here they are!” His boisterous welcome felt forced; the warmth of his tone didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Come in! Come in!”

The living room was overflowing. Children were on the floor and adults were squeezed in together on the sectional. Dining room chairs had been dragged in wherever there was space. The cacophony ceased abruptly as the occupants noticed us. Brent launched into the breach. “Okay, this is Joe; you haven’t met him yet, right? He’s the oldest of my boys. This is his wife Catherine and their daughters, Madeleine and Bethany. Madeleine is 10, like you, Chloe! You’ve met Jake, this is his wife, Kendall, and their little ones, Sarah and Izzy. You’ve met David. Over there is Grant and his son, Luke.”

I made my way around the room behind Brent, stopping to shake hands and introduce my family in return. When we got to the far side of the room, Brent stopped in front of a woman in her late 30’s, with eyes the exact blue/green as mine and pointed eyebrows to match. “This is Rachel, your older sister. These are her three children: Kevin, Amanda and Brooke. Brooke is 10, too.” Rachel stood to hug me. It was so ridiculously awkward, I had to laugh. She joined in and just like that, we connected.

Brent raised his voice, “Let’s all head out back, the grill is going and there’s a lot more room.” Everyone stood and herded through the kitchen and out the sliding glass doors. The house was on a corner lot and had plenty of yard, both front and back. Micky immediately headed for a large oak; he’s like a monkey. The three ten year-old girls congregated together. They were shy and quiet but it was only a matter of time; they were ten year-old girls, after all.

Rachel’s fifteen year-old son, Kevin, headed up the tree after Micky. Joe and I did some preliminary assessments of each other. He seemed genuinely likable and open, which was the best result so far. David was suspicious of me, like I was after his stash. Jake was aloof and Grant merely disinterested. After chatting for a few minutes, Joe was pulled away by Brent to man the grill. There were burgers and dogs and a couple of chicken breasts for the health-conscious.

I found Rachel at the far end of the yard with her daughter, Amanda, sitting on the stone retaining wall for the raised garden.

“Okay if I join you?”

“Sure. Amanda, go help Uncle Joe. Fetch and carry for him. Yes; eye roll. Go on.” She waited until Amanda left, “You think they have attitude at ten? Wait till you get a load of thirteen! Not for the faint-hearted.” She smiled. “You’re sure a tall one. Sit. Your biological father must be really tall?”

“Apparently. He’s passed away.”

“Oh. Sorry. Did you get to meet him?”

“No, he died years before I started searching.”

“What do you do?”

“I’m a key grip.”

“Really, like for the movies?”

“You know what a grip is?” People usually don’t.

“Only in the vaguest sense. I’ve seen it scrolling by in the credits. I always assumed something technical; maybe lighting?”

“It’s anything having to do with setting up the camera. Tripods, dollies, and I specialize in cranes. Sometimes they need a shot from a hundred feet off the side of a building. I set that up.”

“That is fantastic.”

I laughed, “It’s not as glamorous as it sounds. What about you?”

“I’m the office manager for a small accounting firm. And that is just as glamorous as it sounds!”

We both laughed. Brent announced that the burgers and dogs were ready and that the chicken wasn’t too far behind. We got up and joined the others swarming around the picnic table awash with condiments, chips and salads. Rachel took her plate and joined Joe and his wife. Cheryl and I followed. Dinner was spent getting to know people I shared blood with, which was a trip. Although there was a lot of laughter at our table, no one else joined. I asked Joe about it but he just shrugged, “Families.”

As night fell, I ended up back on the stone wall with Rachel. “So why did she keep you and not me?” I hadn’t realized I was going to ask it until I already had.

Rachel snorted. “She did give me away. When she went to her dad in California to have you and put you up for adoption, she gave me to my biological father and his wife, who also lived in California at the time. I lived with them for almost a year, I think. They brought me back for a Christmas visit and Mom got all verklempt and took me back.”

“Wow.”

“Of course, I got this from my father. I have a good relationship with him now. It’s nice. Anyway, I have to get going. This has been great. Kids! Say your goodbyes and meet me at the car.”

“Will you be here for Thanksgiving? We’re going to try and come back.”

“Michael, if we’re going to have a relationship, it’s going to have to be separate from the rest of this.” She flicked her hand toward the rest of the family, still at the tables.

“Why is that?”

“I really wanted to meet you, so here I am . . . but I won’t be making a habit of it.” She hugged me again; this time we got it right. She whispered in my ear, “You were the lucky one.”

She crossed the yard, waving her goodbyes and not lingering over them. After a couple of beats, I took off after her. I’m not exactly sure what I wanted, but I didn’t feel finished. The kitchen and living room were empty. My mother was right on my heels.

“What did she say to you?” Her voice was tight.

Before I could respond, Rachel walked down the hall from the bathroom. “What are you afraid I said, Mom?”

My mother blanched. I stood in between them, trying to grasp the situation.

Rachel brushed past our mother and paused at the door. “Be careful, Michael. Don’t leave your little girl alone with Grandpa. He likes to touch.” Her voice hardened. “And Grandma lets him.” The door closed softly behind her.

K: Shit. This is clicking along so nicely – the rare CdL feel-good affair – when it feels the need to smack me with an out-of-left-field payoff that’s a betrayal to the tone of the story to this point. For 93% of this story or so, I figured it to be a very surprising silver medal, but man, that ending just doesn’t feel honest enough. I’m not trying to be ultra-conventional and say I need foreshadowing and symbolism, but although I’m sure this wasn’t the case, it really felt tacked on. I’d also like to point out that a Key Grip DOES handle lights, in addition to the camera, but even the Key Grips themselves are usually unclear on what they should be doing, so it’s all good.

DK: I’m touching on authorial style used to place the reader in the character’s position some this week, and this one does another nice job of it, almost overwhelming with NPC introductions in the same way that Michael probably feels in this situation, until those mostly fall away and the real connection with his sister deepens. Also another big reveal that in this case might’ve been a little too direct, but had a strong impact anyway. SILVER

MG: What I liked about this story the most is how authentic and lived-in the family get-together felt. Even with the addition of what could very well have been a foreign and incohesive element with the son given up for adoption, the family scenes and groupings had a very familiar feel to them. I liked being among these people, even as I felt that there was something amiss; there had to be or else we wouldn’t have been there. That amissness, when it became revealed, didn’t come off with a flourish or even an elegance, and as a result it kind of stuck out from the rest of the story as being a bit of a hiccup in what was otherwise a very loose, very genuine and enjoyable piece. SILVER

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So there it is…a week full of stories I liked leading to endings that almost universally made me go “Wait, what?” It was certainly a different experience.

Your lone Immuniteer:

Christina Pepper

Vote for someone else by tomorrow (Tuesday) at 9pm Central and we’ll have the second-to-last elimination before I head to Minnesota and see as many of you as possible. That won’t be many, though, as most of you remaining are out of state. Did you know that all six of you live in different states? That’s kind of awesome and rare. I’m full of useless knowledge like this, gang.

Cheers, Survivors.

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