Here we are, kiddos, with your third to last story. Depravity and darkness abound this week, in a season that really hasn’t been that dark. I have to dispense with further commentary, as I leave for Minnesota early tomorrow and have loads of packing to do.

Bret Highum
Hardy had gotten used to the weight and balance of a shoulder holster. The way the empty holster flopped around under his suit coat was nearly as distracting as the pistol pressing against the small of his back.
The man who had frisked him and removed his gun from the shoulder holster motioned Hardy into a back office, past the cigarette-singed bar that was even gloomier without the usual group of derelicts seated in front of it. Pushing the door closed, the man tossed Hardy’s pistol onto the desk Farria sat behind. Hardy suppressed a flinch as his gun thumped onto the table, though he already had a bead of sweat running down his mahogany forehead.
“He give you any trouble?” Farria inquired, his eyes glinting above a wide nose and darkly-stubbled cheeks.
“Nah, boss. He doesn’t have it on him, though.”

The bright inspection lights from the testing bench cast an odd reflected nimbus across Edward, shadowing the right side of his face and making his glasses a silver mirror. Hardy was glad he couldn’t see the expression in his friend’s eyes, though the pain and shock in his voice was evident.
“You can’t take it, Joel! You have no idea what it’s capable of- hell, I don’t even know how dangerous it might be. Please, don’t…”
Hardy dropped the lead-weighted sap and knelt to check Edward’s pulse. Knocking someone out is tricky, and even trickier if you’re trying to not hurt them seriously. Edward’s pulse was strong and the swelling seemed minimal, so Hardy rolled him onto his side and propped him there. Head injuries tended to make people vomit.
The battery was on the bench, a tiny splinter of a thing almost buried in the testing leads and power cables. Hardy carefully pulled the wires loose, collecting them in a loose bundle. Hesitating only briefly, he also grabbed Edward’s notes, kept in an old-fashioned wire bound notebook.

Farria turned his eyes towards Hardy, reaching down to pick the pistol up from the spotlessly clean center of the desk, running his fingers over the glossy black surface.
“Is James telling me the truth, Hardy? I thought we had a deal- all you had to do was bring me the item, and you would never have to see me again.”
Hardy swallowed hard before meeting Farria’s eyes.
“I didn’t know what you were asking for, before. I thought I was agreeing to industrial espionage. This…this is something else completely.”
Farria’s lip quirked upwards, in what might have been a smile.
“Oh, Hardy, Hardy. It doesn’t matter what I asked you to do for me. You should have just done it. James-” Farria snapped his fingers- “bring her in.”

Hardy had walked right out of Rudra Industries, just as he always did when his replacement showed up at the security desk. Rounds weren’t for another two hours, and even if Jerry noticed the camera in Edwards lab was misaligned, he wouldn’t check it out until after the cricket game was over. Thank God for satellite TV.
Now Hardy sat in his car, reading through some of the notes. He’d been an engineer in his second stint in the army; Rudra Industries had jumped at the chance to hire a security guard who had a little deeper understanding of the hazards specific to their research. The more he read in the notes, the deeper the chill in his stomach grew. A battery is simply a method of storing energy, and Edward had come up with something completely new and much, much more efficient. This could change the world.

James came back into the room, clutching the upper arm of a doe-eyed woman with long black hair.
“Joel!” she cried, and would have rushed to him, except for the iron grip on her arm.
“It’s okay, Sarai,” soothed Hardy, managing to hold himself still, keeping his rage inside. “I’m sorry, I made a mistake. I wanted you out of Pakistan so badly, I made a terrible deal. I promise, I’ll get it worked out.”
Farria watched the interplay with intent fascination, but Hardy didn’t miss that the safety on Hardy’s gun was now off. Hardy turned towards Farria, the deep pit in his stomach threatening to suck him in and drown him.
“Sarai has nothing to do with this. I asked you to get her out of the country, I agreed to the terms. Let her go and we’ll get something else figured out.”
Farria sighed, dramatically.
“I already know you have the battery, Mr. Hardy. The theft has been reported and the police are looking for you. It’s too late to go back now.”
Hardy steeled himself. “No. I will not give it to you.”
Farria’s quirked lip spread until it was a full smile, showing bright, even teeth. “Then your woman dies.” He raised Hardy’s pistol, aiming for Sarai’s head. She screamed and tried to pull away from James, but he shoved her roughly into the wall and pinned her there.
Hardy felt the rage growing, and he fought the urge to charge James and tear into him. Instead he took a step back, settling his back against the wall. He met Farria’s eyes again, and spoke softly. “No.”
Farria regarded him with a little disbelief, then shrugged and pulled the trigger. *click*
Sarai screamed again, then her legs gave out and she sank down, despite James’ efforts to keep her upright. Hardy was shaking, his vision narrowing until it was just a black circle around Farria. He forced himself to unclench his fists and take a deep breath. Farria laughed, a unrestrained snort, and looked at the pistol in disgust.
“I should have known a foreigner would have all kinds of backwards habits. Ah, well- it builds the anticipation.”
Farria grabbed the slide to rack the action, but paused when Hardy spoke.
“You know I can’t give you a bomb. Please, let me find something else, some other way to pay you!”
Farria looked across at Hardy, then at Sarai and James and laughed. “I don’t want a bomb, Hardy. I want a battery. You were supposed to get it for me, and you have nothing else I want. This is your second-to-last chance. I will shoot your woman, then it will be your last chance. Consider carefully- you can give me the battery and leave with her, or I can kill her, and then you, and then I’ll find the battery wherever you hid it. There aren’t that many places it could be.”
Hardy looked at Sarai until she met his eyes, though he wasn’t sure if she understood fully what was going on, before he spoke to Farria. “The difference between a battery and a bomb is strictly a function of how quickly it releases the stored energy. I know what you want the battery for. I can’t allow you to have it.”
Farria regarded him, the smile gone. “So be it.” Farria pulled the slide back to chamber a bullet, and the pistol blew up.
The explosion killed Farria instantly and blew the other three people hard against the walls. Hardy had known what was coming and in his first tour with the army in the Hindu Kush, he’d been part of an infantry strike force. James was still dazed when Hardy broke his neck. Grabbing Sarai’s hand, he pulled her from the room and ran to his car. Brushing the wiring diagrams and tools from the passenger seat, he settled her in gently, brushing dust and grime from her face with a gentle hand.
“What happened, Joel?” she asked, eyes still a little unfocused from the blast. “Are we safe?” She reached out and touched his face, marveling at the tears that were trickling from the corners of his eyes.
“We’re safe,” Hardy replied, the rage in his stomach gone, his energy expended. “How would you like to visit America? I’ve got a boat ride lined up for us in about-“he checked his watch- “forty minutes.”

K: This one, despite beginning in medias res, takes a while to get going. It’s a little predictable throughout, for whatever reason, despite the fact that I grew to engage with Hardy by the end (if not the rest of the peanut gallery). It plays out like a single episode in a network action drama, which while not actively a bad thing, isn’t really a memorable thing either. I have no specific criticisms to give; it just doesn’t reach me on a deep enough level, I suppose.

DK: I like the action and the build of the tension here. The crosscutting scenes were pretty effective for revealing each piece of the whole story at a solid pace, and I was invested pretty well in both Hardy as a character and in seeing his method and execution of getting himself extracted from the situation. SILVER
MG: Oooh, SpyStuff! Really engaging read, one that measured out its surprises and information in very well timed, well sized portions. The characters, even the ones meant to be a little one-dimensional, never felt one-dimensional, and the surprise was actually a surprise to me at the end. The final paragraph was a little too James-Bond’s-Last-Words-Before-End-Credits-Roll pat, but if that’s the worst you can say about a story, you’ve got yourself a good story. GOLD

Christina Pepper

It’s siesta time, but I’m not sleepy. Mamá and Papá are both gone, and Constanza is snoozing on the couch. I walk up to my nanny to be sure she’s really asleep and notice that she smells of oranges, which we’d eaten with our lunch. Underneath that is an earthier scent—perhaps the stale sweat from a morning spent chasing after me. As she lies there, breathing quietly, I study her face, paying special attention to the dark hairs on her upper lip and the small pink dots scattered across her otherwise smooth forehead. Her cream colored blouse rises and falls over her ample bosom, and I try to sneak a glimpse through the gap between the buttons.

My forbidden longings thwarted, I tiptoe into my parents’ bedroom. My birthday present is surely somewhere within this room. After all, I’ve already looked everywhere else in the house. The shades are down to help keep the room cool, and the air feels heavy and still. The bed is tidy and pristine, as though no one has ever slept there. My father’s dresser—dark, polished, severe—is entirely without ornament. My mother’s, meanwhile, is cluttered with everything beautiful. Perfumes in tiny glass bottles, gold bracelets, colorful brooches, even a patterned silk scarf that she must have considered wearing and then discarded before leaving the house.

I decide to search her drawers first, though that may simply be an excuse to plunge my hands into the soft, filmy fabrics within them. I take the scarf from the dresser’s top and tie it around my head, imagining I’m a pirate, or perhaps a gypsy. When we go on the rare trip into San Sebastián, I like to watch the gitano children scurrying along the sidewalks.

In the drawer containing my mother’s underthings, my fingers brush against something hard and metal. I pull it out and discover it’s a picture frame with a photograph of a baby. The infant is dressed all in white, as if for baptism, and is sitting on an upholstered chair that has been in my bedroom for as long as I can remember. Yet, instinctively, I know that the child is not me.

I hear Contanza begin to stir, and I quickly close the dresser drawers and take the photograph back to my room. I leap onto the bed and shove the frame under my pillow, imagining Constanza will believe I’ve been sleeping all the while.

She knocks softly on my door. “Wake up, pequeño. Time to play!”

As always, she suggests we go to the park to play with the other children there. As always, I tell her I detest those brutes. I know she simply wants to sit on one of the wooden benches along the edge of the park with the other women and gossip. But I have no desire to be like the other boys here; they play in the dust and beat one another with sticks. I would rather play with the girls in their frocks and pinafores, but Papá has forbidden it now that I am nearly five. He tells me it is time I start to act like a little man.

“¿Qué es esto?” Constanza asks, tugging on the scarf that’s still wrapped around my head.

“Nada,” I tell her, smiling.

“Oh, pícaro. What will I ever do with you?” she laughs.

I decide to take out the heavy paper and the paints that my mother gave me for Christmas. “I want to make something beautiful,” I tell Constanza.

As soon as I have a brush in my hand, I start thinking about the oranges we ate earlier. They were blood oranges, and the dark red juice smeared across my fingers and Constanza’s. Although she ate neatly, her lips had been stained as well, and I could not help thinking it looked as if we had committed some great act of violence together.

I am still new to painting, and the brush rarely follows my desires, but in my mind I am creating a terrible image. It is my mother, her body slashed open and bleeding. I hate it, but I cannot seem to will my hands to paint anything else. Constanza sits at the table with me, knitting and daydreaming, and I know she has no idea how my mind has been overtaken. In an attempt to atone for this horrific vision, I paint flowers around the edges of the paper.

“Oh, Eduardo. Magnífica!” Constanza tells me.

I slap her and throw myself onto my bed, sobbing.

“Naughty boy!” she chastises me, giving me a smack on my bottom. “No more painting for you today.”

I weep all the harder.

Mamá and Papá both return home in time for dinner. My eyes are no doubt red rimmed and swollen, but no one mentions it. Despite my bad behavior, Constanza loves me too much to report any of it to my mother.

I pick at my lamb stew, and Papá goes on about the gilipollas at the mayor’s office and how they make it impossible for him to accomplish anything. He has been angling for a promotion and a transfer to Pamplona, as he often tells us. I try to sit quietly, but I can’t help swinging my legs, which do not yet reach the floor. Mamá says she was shopping for food and a few other things all afternoon, but she does not share many details. There is a hat in the window of Abaroa’s store that she would like very much, but it is quite expensive.

“Surely you have enough hats already,” Papá tells her.

After the meal is finished, Papá takes a glass of Patxaran to the living room, and I finally have Mamá to myself. We cannot afford many books, but I have a volume of fairy tales that she and I both adore. She readies me for bed, and I settle into her lap. She is wearing one of her perfumes—my favorite—the one that smells of lilies.

“Había una vez,” she begins. Tonight she reads about a dim-witted boy who was afraid of nothing. After he stays in a haunted castle for three nights, a task that killed a great many other young men, he marries a princess and is happy.

“Dulces sueños,” says Mamá, tucking me into bed.

I lay my head on the pillow and then feel the hard picture frame beneath.

“No te vayas,” I implore my mother. I know I’ve done something wrong, but I want to show it to her so badly. I take out the photograph and she gasps.

“¿Quién es?”

“Why, it’s you as a baby,” she says.

“Que no soy yo,” I counter. “I can see it is another boy.”

“Okay. Yes, it is another boy, but it is also you.”

How can this be? I look at my mother as her dark eyes fill with tears. She brushes away the tears before they can ruin her makeup and looks away from me. She stares out the window and strokes my hair as she talks.

“Before we had you, we had another boy. Another Eduardo. When he was born, he was the joy of my heart. But he fell ill, and although we took him to the best doctors, there was nothing anyone could do. I held him and prayed over his body for hours and hours, yet still he died.”

I look up at my ceiling, studying the crack that runs across it—something I find menacing when I am alone.

“Mamá,” I ask her. “What if this crack keeps growing larger and the whole house falls down right on top of us?”

“You worry about the wrong things, mi hijo tonto,” she tells me. “The worst has already happened. God has no choice but to smile upon us now.

“I prayed to Saint Collette after my first Eduardo died, and she heard my prayers. For she brought me you, and you are here with me, beautiful and strong. From the time you were born, I could see you were like your brother, though it is not an exact likeness.”

I ponder this revelation, fascinated to learn of the existence of my almost-twin. How fortunate, in a way, that he was the one who came first and that I was the one who lived.

“Do not ever speak of this to your father,” she says, finally looking at me again. “Do you understand?”

“Sí mamá, entiendo. I didn’t mean to do it,” I go on. “I was only in your room when Constanza was sleeping. I wanted to find my birthday present.”

“Oh, Eduardo. It is still three more days away. How do you know we are giving you a present this year, now that you are so big?”

I study her face, trying to decide whether she is teasing me now.

“I might die of sorrow if I do not get a present,” I tell her.

“Do not ever say such a thing again!” she says, pulling me close.

I relax in her arms and although I know I should be sorry for what I’ve done, I am not.

“Your life is a gift,” Mamá says. “But you must live not just your own life but your brother’s as well. For, you see, you are worth as much as two boys.”

After she leaves, I think over her words, wondering how I will manage to fit two lives into the span of one. I tuck the photograph back under my pillow and vow to keep it with me always.

In the morning, I wake and want nothing more than to throw the frame and photograph out of my window so that I can have the satisfaction of hearing the glass shatter on the cobblestones of the courtyard below. I do not know whether I love or hate this boy who came before me. Perhaps it is both.

K: I adore these characters. They’re nuanced, realistic and worthy of my love. This story never tries to be more than a five-year-old’s struggle to understand the world, and for that I’m grateful. There’s no dark twist (we see the twist coming, and I think that helps) and no attempt at making this story memorable by going crazy in some way, which typically backfires. Eduardo, the mother and the Constanza are all engaging reads, and the more I let this story percolate in my head, the more I think that, despite its smallness, it’s one of my favorites of the season. I’ll bet my left ballsack, though, that the two judges without kids won’t believe a five-year-old can be this finely nuanced. GOLD

DK: There’s a lot to like here and a little that I don’t. The setting and use of the language color the flavor of the story quite well, and a lot of the base emotion of the plot and the main character here feel real and resonant. I’m less sold on this character’s voice as a young child (of almost-five) given the complexity of both his narration and the dialogue he shares with his mother.

MG: This story leaves me in a bit of a confusing mindset. It’s ambitious, and very much delves into a side of human psychology and interaction that few Survivor stories reach for. And it’s intriguing throughout. I never wanted to rush the end or stop reading and move on. But it never felt entirely satisfactory either. The very mature thoughts and insights from the narrator at five years old felt unnatural and convenient, and at times that led to inconsistency of character. The unexpected brutality in some of his imaginings was left unexplained, and the connection between himself and his brother is also poorly expanded upon. No explanation seems to be given as to why this child serves as a special replacement for the other, aside from that’s what the mother tells us. So, props for the ambition, but not so sure it got where it tried to go.

Jack Haas

This is not the same cell. I can’t say how I know that it is different. The bucket is in the same place, still smelling of offal. My bed sits in the corner, the blanket crumpled at the foot where it was tossed in the midst of a guard’s search. The blanket is the only thing I can call mine, it has my night sweat ingrained in its fibers, the fear and shivering energy somehow transferred to it. I am shoved into the center of the room, and my newly bruised legs buckle under me. The guards don’t laugh at me anymore, the door closes, and I’m alone. I crawl over to the bed, pull the blanket down and inhale my own scent. This is my blanket, but this is not the same cell.
I come to and find myself under the bed. Someone is pulling on my feet, my head cracks the end board as I’m dragged out from under and I go quietly. They ask me the same questions, and beat the same answers out of me. This time it’s body blows delivered by one of the guards. I tell them that I can’t tell them what they want to hear. A couple of punches go astray; catch my chin, so they awaken me with cold water. No progress today and they take me to another different cell. Bucket and blanket, but I know. When I explain, they call it brain damage. Too many blows to the head, it starts to happen to everyone here. They don’t mean themselves.
What they want is a location. What I know is not a location. I move to my bed again. Underneath, I count three bricks from the left, and two bricks up from the floor. I tap once with my finger. The wall is solid here, and I have to move to a different spot. I spend most of my respite time tapping brick after brick, but soon it’s back to the white-hot lights and the interrogators. They break two of my fingers today, saving some for the rest of the week.
Broken fingers make tapping an excruciating experience, but fortunately the hollow sound comes quickly, two bricks up and three left from the corner. From behind that brick a scrabbling sound slowly pushes the loose brick out into my hand.
When I awake, the guards are standing over me. They were jovial and thoughtlessly cruel when I arrived, confident in their mission and their method. Now they glower at me through heavy-lidded eyes, and their batons strike with real malice. Three more fingers are broken and a kick shatters at least two ribs. I tell them that I can only say what I know. I haven’t heard from her in months. My body is unconscious when they drop me on the bed in my newest cell. I wake in darkness, and try to find the loose brick. It isn’t where it used to be. I try the locations that I’ve found in all the other cells they have housed me, but my memory fuzzes and I resort instead to random chance. Eventually I find the hollow place, on the other side of the room from the bed. The brick is pushed out into my hand, and Garon, the messenger, follows that out with a tightly rolled sliver of paper. I stroke Garon’s whiskers while I read the too-short sentences. I whisper a response in his ears and send him back along whatever tunnels he uses to find me. She is still safe, I can rest again.
K: This has some real intrigue, but the impersonal nature of the story keeps me from full engagement, even while serving the story given the narrator’s mounting confusion. The main stumbling block in this story, for me, is the lack of clarity as it relates to…”her.” I think I could really get into this narrator’s struggles if I knew all about the woman, even while keeping the narrator and guards nameless. Her presence would really have stuck with the reader if she was the only character we really knew. BRONZE

DK: The starkness and claustrophobia of the atmosphere here are pretty effective in the repetition of the protagonist’s experiences. The character himself isn’t especially sharply drawn, and there isn’t a whole lot of forward movement in the plot; that’s inherent to the character’s situation, of course, but it prevents this story from reaching the fullest impact.
MG: A second straight story that leaves me scrabbling for something to say. There’s a lot of fine writing in this, but there’s so little for the reader to grasp onto that it’s hard to say whether the intensity serves the story. So many prompts in this one that could lead to interesting mysteries to be exposed, or at least theorized about. But the end adds another layer of unanswered questions that left me feeling very unsatisfied. Strokes his whiskers? She is still safe? Who? What gives? I gladly would have traded some of the tension and straight-faced descriptions of torture for some clarity.

Erik S

“Ashe!” his father yelled up the stairs. “Hey, Ashton, come downstairs for lunch!”

No response.

“Come on, Ashe, your sammy’s getting cold!”

Still nothing. He sighed as he ascended the staircase, not really in the mood for difficulties. He reached his son’s bedroom, stood in the doorway, and addressed the structure in the corner of the room.

“Ashton, come on, man, it’s time to eat some lunch.”

Finally, a response, though it sounded small and far away from under the blankets and cushions.

“I’m not so hungry, daddy.”

Lewis clenched his eyes shut and held the bridge of his nose; a move he’d unconsciously inherited from his own father in times of stress.

“Ashe, just come on…” he crossed the room and reached to draw the flap the Thomas
the Train tent.

“STAY OUT, DADDY!”

Lewis yanked his arm back as if burned. The voice had reverberated around the room and the quality of it (“savagery” was the word he couldn’t immediately place) had caught him off-guard. Slightly unnerved, he decided to drop the whole matter. As he was about the leave, he heard the shuffling of the tent flap. He turned and saw Ashton’s head poking out.

It was an impressive fort, he had to admit. It had started out with a simple child’s play tent, but Ashton had spent several weeks modifying and adding on to it with cushions, old bed sheets, push pins, and various other household items. The present structure in the corner currently occupied a full third of Ashton’s bedroom. Pretty impressive for a 5 year old.

“Daddy,” Ashton asked, “where’s Mommy?”

Lewis looked at Ashton for a long time.

“Ashe, you know the answer to that.”

“Where’s Mommy, Daddy?” Ashton asked again.

“Mommy’s gone, Ashton,” Lewis replied to the question the Ashton had asked several times a day for the past 3 months. “Mommy’s gone…”

Lewis watched Ashton’s face for a reaction, but was left wanting once again.

“Come on, Ashe, let’s go have some sandwiches.”

Ashton wordlessly acquiesced, left his shelter, and followed his father downstairs where they ate lukewarm grilled cheese sandwiches with apple juice in silence.

The rest of the week progressed as usual, or at least as usual of a pattern as Lewis had been able had been able to manufacture recently. He had been continually growing more concerned at how much time Ashton was spending in his fort, but, truthfully, the lack of supervision that Ashton required meant he had more ability to carry the load by himself. Still, as a parent, the guilt of not giving Ashe the attention Lewis felt he deserved gnawed at him.

His teachers all said Ashton was a quiet kid, sure, but he wasn’t acting out or disruptive in any way, so that had to be worth something. But still, Lewis was beginning to worry that he would withdraw completely.

“Hey, Ashe, come on, let’s go to the park!” Lewis announced up the stairs. In preparation to leave, he had laid down for a moment, but that moment had apparently turned into several. He felt out of sorts as happens when one naps outside of their sleeping patterns. “Ashton?” he repeated, though he was not expecting a reply.

He searched the rest of the first floor, then moved to the second. Standing in the doorway of Ashton’s bedroom, the child was not immediately to be found. “Ashe?” he said again tentatively. Still no response. Must’ve fallen asleep in there, Lewis thought to himself, and he crossed the threshold to the entrance of the fort. As he reached for the flap, he hesitated a moment recalled the response he had been met with last time.

Lewis pictured himself: down on his knees, arm outstretched and hanging in the air, in fear of rebuke from his 5 year old son. He chuckled in spite of himself, and pushed on ahead.

“Ashe?” he asked quietly as he poked his head inside. He was surprised to find… nothing. Some cushions were scattered around, but there were no books, no toy cars, no crayons. No Ashton. Lewis frowned slightly. He crawled all the way inside.

Once fully immersed inside the structure, he was found it was much roomier than it appeared to be from the outside.

“Hmm,” he said aloud, “not bad, kid.” He peeked under the cushions, found nothing, and scoffed at himself, wondering what he’d expected to find.

Lewis sat in the structure, which was oddly calming and comforting, and wondered where the child could be. A wave of lethargy washed over him briefly, still a little blooey from that nap, he thought, and he shook himself out of it. As his mind focused again, he realized he was looking at an entrance to a small crawlspace. His head cocked to side as he tried to recall if it had been there, finally recollecting that it had been behind a dresser that Ashton had moved out of the way to build the fort.

The upstairs bathroom was on the other side of the wall, so Lewis assumed there must be access to the plumbing back there, but he had never actually been in there himself. He crawled across the floor, hoping that Ashton hadn’t been playing among the beams, and pipes, and fiberglass, and god knows what else.

He grasped the handle to the panel covering the crawlspace entrance and gave it a slight but firm jostle. It appeared to be adequately secure to his relief. In jest, he gave the panel a few raps.

Lewis’ posture bolted straight upright. Instead of the meager “thump” he had been anticipating, he’d heard a deep and rolling echo of the knock behind the crawlspace door which belied its size and function.

He grasped the handle again, much more tightly this time, and gave it strong push. It budged only slightly. Positioning his legs for torque, he drove forward with the full of his body weight. The panel fought back admirably, but eventually gave way and fell to the side.

The diffused light through the bed sheets didn’t illuminate much, figuratively or literally, of what was on the other side of wall. Lewis certainly didn’t see wood beams and pink, fluffy insulation. Instead, he saw, and his hand agreed, what seemed to be dense, damp earth. A slight and musty breeze emanated from inside the crawl space.

“…Ashe?” he said, he voice coming out at barely a croak. Only the wind escaping answered. Whatever was in there, he somehow knew that his son was in there with it.

Lewis took a deep breath, and squeezed himself inside.

He had crawled in about several meters and only found more darkness; certainly no water pipes either. He turned back and found that the entrance was much further back than it should. Much farther back. As he was trying to gauge the distance, he heard a scrapping noise and watched the light disappear as the panel covering the crawlspace slid back into place, making the darkness absolute. In his rush to find his son, he realized he had not brought any sources of light with him.

He slowly rose up, hands stupidly grasping over his head in the gloom, and found he had more clearance than his outstretched arms needed. His other senses stronger, he heard a faint whooshing of air all around, but many sounds below it that he couldn’t quite discern.

Then, he heard another scrapping sound, and an undeniable click of something locking into place. A low rumble could be felt throughout the floor, which he soon understood was tipping at an angle. Lewis fell flat against the floor as it made a transition from horizontal to vertical. He began to slide down, fingers futilely grasping for purchase, until he was in complete freefall.

He had been screaming as he plunged, but as he continued to plummet without end, his cries tapered off. He was still breathing heavily as he waited for the impact that seemingly never came.

After an unknown passage of time, he eventually saw a point of light below him which continued to grow larger and closer. So long had he been falling through the darkness that he wasn’t sure if he was sinking towards it or if it was rushing to meet him.

In either case, the inertia slowed and he was gently placed on the middle of a street of what looked like a large model town: their town.

He looked back skyward and saw thousands of lights twinkling like stars; their cords rising high into the infinite darkness. The houses reached about half way up his shins, and as he walked among them, they would catch the light just so, and their walls would become shimmer with transparency. Every home was completely empty on the inside.
Past the houses was as large forest, right where the Adams Forest Preserve would be in their neighborhood. The trees however, were not also to scale. In fact, they had taken on gigantic proportions.

Whatever the noises Lewis had heard under the currents of the wind, they seemed to coming from inside the grove. He plunged inside.

Eventually he came to a small clearing illuminated by some unknown source. As he entered, he recognized the sound: it was soft weeping, but not that of his son: it was his wife.

She was in the center of the clearing, though it was in the form of a statue made of ice. She seemed to be melting as sheets of water slid down the surface, but the statue never lost its form. Laid around her were countless artifacts of hers: combs and bobby pins, jewelry, her driver’s license, the pill bottle that was in her Lewis came to her after Ashton had come to him screaming that Mommy would wake up.

Lewis fell to his knees as the forest began to shake around him.

Ashton came upon him, and he curled in fear as his son stood as large and terrible as he must when towering above his son.

“DADDY! STAY OUT, DADDY! STAY OUT! GET OUT!!!!!!!”

K: This idea is solid gold and the characters can be quite memorable, but MAN does this story hand over a large percentage of itself to its least interesting component – looking around. The journey inside the tent can be easily scaled way back to give us more time with what became the quick ending, or more time with the opening, which set up interesting character dynamics and a question (Where’s Mom?) that legitimately grabbed me. I assume the long segment in the fort was meant to build tension, but mostly I just wanted it to be over so I could get to the story’s meat.

DK: I liked the initial scenes here, sketching out the relationship between Lewis and Ashton, and I really enjoyed the middle sections where Lewis first makes his way into the fort and down past the entrance; the writing there does a nice job of conveying his state of mind and confusion heading into that unknown. With the ending, I think I like the basic idea here more than the way it’s carried out in this case, but it fits as a mirror to that initial sequence. BRONZE

MG: Man oh man. This was a solid piece of childhood psychological fantasy, and it deserves recognition for what it does. It’s not blow-the-roof-off fantastic, but it’s damn good. Unfortunately…it’s also damn hard to read. So much poor editing here, so many misspelled words, unproofread sentences, and the sins grow in number the closer we get to the climax of the story. Incredibly distracting and so very unfortunate in how it affects the reader. Author, I want to reward you for the intent and spirit of your story, but I’m not sure I can. We’ll see. BRONZE (turns out I can.)

Annette Barron

“Somebody help me bring her out of there,” Detective Erin Harper directed, as she smeared Vicks under her nose. “Time to get this show on the road.”

“Please don’t, Detective.”

Erin turned to see two men she didn’t know enter her crime scene. Her cell phone chimed. “Sir?”

“Feds.”

“I think they just arrived. You might have called just a bit earlier.”

“I almost forgot to call at all. Sorry, gonna have to turn this one over.” Captain Denning ended the call. Shoot! Just recently made detective, Erin had been both exhilarated and dismayed when she got the call to take the lead on the rest stop body. Now that it was being snatched away, she realized exhilaration had been winning.

“Detective Harper? I’m Agent Mosston and this is Agent Stearn.” Both men shook her hand firmly. “Sorry to steal your case.” Mosston looked like he meant it.

“So, serial killer?” Erin realized that she had already suspected as much. She was pretty diligent about reading bulletins and the circumstances of the current case were tickling her memory. “I think I’ve read something about a similar couple of murders. The strangling them with their underwear part sticks out pretty clear in my recollection. It’s panties this time; but I believe that sometimes it’s the bra?”

Mosston smiled at her. “That bulletin is probably three months old, so good memory.”

“Can you tell me about it?”

“Can you keep quiet? There are specifics that we don’t want leaked. It’s always good to have some small detail in your pocket.”

“I can keep quiet.” Erin turned toward the body lying on the dingy tiles. She was folded neatly under the row of sinks, naked, with lurid bruises dappling her bluish white skin. Bright pink lacy fabric was wrapped around her neck, so tight it appeared to have cut into her skin in several places. Her eyes were open very wide; her mouth slack. “I’m sure this didn’t happen here. This place isn’t clean, but it’s too clean for this to be the scene. And she looks pretty sparkly, as well.”

“Very astute. If true to form, there won’t be a trace of evidence on her or in her. She’s number nine. I keep hoping he’ll slip up.”

“Will she have been raped?”

“Some sort of sexual assault will have taken place. There will be a lot of internal damage, suggesting maybe implements were used. There certainly hasn’t been any DNA.” Agent Stearns crouched down by the body. Using his pen, he lifted the victim’s hair away from her neck and face, inspecting the wounds.

“She’s missing an earring.” Erin turned to Mosston.

Mosston put his finger to his lips. “That’s the bit we don’t want out. It’s the only part of this guy that feels human. So far, he hasn’t left us a damn thing. But . . . he takes trophies.”

“You said nine victims now? Not from around here, surely.”

“No, this is Virginia’s first. Ohio had three over the last year. Nebraska three the year before. Texas had two in 2011. The victims step out to run errands and vanish; their cars turn up in mall parking lots. Four or five days later, the body is discovered in a rest stop off the interstate; all scrubbed and antiseptic and basically useless, except to tell stories of torture and debasement.”

Erin swallowed. Maybe losing this case wasn’t the worst thing that had happened to her today. “Your forensic team going to take over?”

“Yes. We just wanted to make sure before we sent in the troops.”

“Do you need anything from us?”

“If you could have some uniforms maintain a perimeter around this rest stop, that would be very much appreciated. And it’s likely that there is a missing person report on her.”

“I’ll call it in.” At the door, she turned back. “Mosston? Get him, huh?”

“Absolutely.”

_______________

Dani got down on her knees next to the tiny agent of chaos. “Jessie, baby, come on! What did you do with Mommy’s keys?”

“Keys!” Jessie crowed triumphantly. She nodded enthusiastically, dark curls bouncing.

“Yes! Keys.” Dani stood. “Damnit. I am NOT calling Daddy and giving him the opportunity to mock me for not using the hook he hung for me! Let’s try to retrace your steps, shall we?”

“Dammit!” Jessie chirped. Her mother laughed before she could catch herself. “Perfect. I have a million things to do today that do not include teaching you to swear.”

Half an hour later, Dani pushed back her sweaty bangs. She’d completely emptied Jessie’s turtle-shaped toy box, the stove drawer full of pots and pans and the floor of the hall closet. She had found her neighbor’s welcome-to-the-neighborhood pie tin, John’s highlighter and Jessie’s missing sandal, but no keys. Jessie had thoroughly enjoyed the process, toddling along behind her and ‘helping.’

Dani wandered into the master bedroom and noticed a red pump peeking out from under the bed. As she hadn’t worn that particular pair of shoes in quite some time, she stared at it. “Jessie? Have you been playing with Mommy’s shoes?”

“Shoes!”

“That’s what I thought.” Dani grabbed the pump from under the bed and opened the door to their giant walk-in closet. The closet was what had sold Dani on this particular rental. The rest of the house was unremarkable, but the closet was extraordinary. It was deep, with built in drawers and shoe racks and double rods for hanging clothes. John loved clothes almost as much as Dani, so it was full to capacity, but organized and easy to navigate. Now, though, there were shoes of all colors tumbled about on the floor, obviously a toddler’s fine work.

“Shoes!” Jessie yelled again, heading for the pile.

“Oh, no you don’t.” Dani grabbed her and swung her up high, nibbling her belly and making her squeal. “You want to go watch Dora?”

“Dora!” Jessie clapped her pudgy little hands in glee. “Dora!”

Dani returned to the closet after parking Jessie in front of the television in the family room with a mug full of Cheerios. With luck, Jessie would stay entertained long enough for Dani to search the closet and return order to her shoes. She sighed in frustration; she had several errands to run and a pediatrician appointment to keep later in the afternoon.

She sat down on the floor in her closet and began returning the shoes to their slots; shaking them out as she did so, in case her keys were hiding in the toe. No luck. There were several shoe boxes on the floor of the closet containing nice shoes that didn’t fit in the full racks. Dani picked up each box and shook it, listening for a telltale jangle of keys. One box did have an faint clink when she shook it. She opened the box to find the shiny black shoes John wore with his tux at their wedding, five years ago. She shook them again and a tiny felt bag dropped down from the toe of the right shoe. Clearly not her keys, but what the hell?

Dani worked the tight knot in the drawstrings until they came loose. She shook the contents of the bag into the palm of her hand. Earrings; nine of them and none of them matched. She stared at them for a long, long time. Finally, she closed her hand into a tight fist, ignoring the pain when the posts pierced her palm.

_______________

John put down his pen and spun his chair to gaze out the window. Rain drizzled from leaden skies, which suited his mood exactly. It was always this way . . . after. Knowing that he would have to wait months before he could experience that salacious thrill again. He just had to ride it out, keeping busy. God knows there was plenty to do.

As the only son of the Wandelle’s drugstore empire, he chose to oversee the opening of each new store personally. His father had opened Wandelle’s in Houston, Texas, back in the late 70s. It had provided modestly for the family for 25 years. After college, John came to work for his dad, infusing the company with new drive and creativity. Twelve years later, Wandelle’s had ten stores and was continually scouting new locations for the next one. John made sure that each new Wandelle’s started off on the right foot. Life was good.

Janice, his assistant, buzzed his phone. “John? Your wife’s here.”

John frowned; he wasn’t expecting Dani. He checked his calendar. “Thanks Janice.” He could hear the two women chatting through his closed office door.

“She thought the best place for Mommy’s keys this morning was the toilet bowl.”

“Oh my God, Dani! She’s getting so big!” Janice cooed at Jessie. “Can she stay out here with me?”

“Sure. Jessie, you stay and play with Janice.”

“Jansss!”

John’s door opened and Dani entered, all 5’2” of her. She was so unbelievably petite and lovely, with porcelain skin and mussed mahogany hair. However, today tension entered his office with her like a miasma. She shut the door firmly behind her.

“Hey darlin, what are you doing here? Jessie stole your keys again?”

Dani said nothing as she approached his desk, pinning him with her gaze. His heart raced. Shit!

Dani dug into her bag and pulled out the small felt bag. John’s heart finished its fall as she cocked her arm and flung the bag as hard as she could at him. He snatched it out of mid air but didn’t bother to open it; he knew what it contained.

“Dani.”

“Don’t! Don’t make excuses and definitely DO NOT lie to me.” She didn’t raise her voice; Dani never yelled.

Peals of angelic giggles drifted into the closed room. John closed his eyes as if struck by a sudden pain. “I’m sorry. I’m jeopardizing everything.”

Softened by the sound of her daughter’s laughter, Dani flopped into one of the chairs in front of John’s desk. “Yes, you are.”

“I’ll dispose of them.” He slipped the bag into his trouser pocket.

“Let’s review.” Dani leaned forward on her elbows, piercing him with her grey eyes.

“We leave nothing and we take nothing.”

“Good.”

K: As gross as the story made me feel, the ending was worse. I’ve never really been big on stories where heartless killers succeed in their plans, and this was no real exception, despite the strength of the writing, as I waited all the while for the ending that would make me hate life all over again. It’s a hell of a thing to judge story structure against the fact that the story made me want to puke and perhaps punch someone in the face, but I grudgingly admit that this story really, truly did work on its intended level. Ugh. SILVER

DK: This could’ve been a little stretched thin, drawing several characters in relatively small spaces, but I think each one gets the room they need here to tell enough of their stories for the overall effect. I really enjoyed the consistency of the hard-boiled tone, especially in the first section, and although the twist at the end isn’t the biggest shocker I’ve ever seen here, it’s effective given the sharpness of how Dani is presented in the previous section. GOLD

MG: Ahhh, nice. Yeah, a decent twist held off right to the end, and dangling just enough info for us to get the implication without needing to spell it out. I’m undecided whether the first section was a smart move or just a convenient one, giving us characters we don’t hear from again to lay out the backstory. But if the ancient Greeks can use their chorus for such a purpose, I guess I can accept it here too. Fun story of murder. SILVER

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With a strong 11-point performance, Annette Barron has grabbed a seat in the final four. Vote for anyone else by tomorrow night (Saturday) at 9pm Central. I’ll actually be in the Central time zone at that point, and wow, 9 seems late me all of a sudden. Anyway, though I have plans tomorrow night, elimination/challenge posts are easy (particularly with this few voters) and I should have no trouble getting this up before it’s ludicrously late.

Two more challenges. You’re almost there. Cheers, Survivors.