Alright, Survivors. We laughed, we cried…well, did we cry? Maybe once or twice. It’s tough to get there. Let’s move on. We did our yearly Brooks-inspired finale, and as was true all season long, the concepts worked. Each story could have used punching up (all in different ways) but each was satisfying in various ways as well. Though this won’t go down as the best final ever – season VIII has that distinction – it was a fun ride and a fair ending to a shockingly well-attended season (though Leif’s nonsub, as we know now, had far-reaching implications).

Let’s do this, Survivors. Game faces.

Erik S

The room, as with the rest of the small apartment, lays empty. As the world moves on around it, it just is. Was. On any night, when you’re doing this or that, time continues to shuffle wearily on. The sun comes up and splashes itself across the floorboards, further burning into a halo of faded wood around the window. The night falls, and stillness and silence with it. The occasional car drives by, giving a faint heartbeat of light and sound, both muffled by the haphazard boards across the windows. Then it fades away, leaving a still corpse again. The wood of the doorway, holding up the ceiling, once also held up hands and backs leaned against it. Now, the knotted and notched wood just leans and rots and molds, and glass lays across the floor like milky, lifeless eyes. The room lays empty. As the world moves on around it, it just is.

***

The room laid empty. One stuffed and scuffed red suitcase sat just outside the doorway in the hall, but that was the last item in the apartment. The storefront below had been empty for the entirety of the time Suzy had lived there. A handful of vacuum parts and old TV tubes sat collecting dust just behind the big display window. That business had been dead a long time.

That always made Suzy sad when she walked past it to the door leading to the upstairs apartment. To balance it out, she’d always tried to breathe as much life as she could into the home upstairs.

It was the first place that had been hers. She didn’t talk much about her past, to others or herself, but she was proud of the life she had finally been able to carve out for her and her baby girl these past couple years. Then, 48 noticed hours ago, that life was ripped from her in the form of the paper taped soundly on the door. She’d had no better luck than the bank tracking down her landlord.

Now, in the empty apartment, with no future certain in front of her, she leaned on the doorway and wept quietly. Janna was at Suzy’s mama’s place for now; an arrangement none of them were thrilled about, and Suzy honestly had no clue where to go next. The car downstairs was packed full; all dressed up with no place to go, she thought miserably.

Her hands ran up and down the series of notches in the doorway left by an unknown tenant. She pushed herself off the doorway and took in the marks, really considering them for the first time rather than just being annoyed by whoever had marred the wood. She wondered what happened to the child/children measured. She wondered what was going to happen to her.

Hoping everyone was going to be all right, she patted the doorway one last time, and
began to drag the suitcase down the stairs.

***

Jon sat on the edge of his bed, the scuffed guitar in the crook of his arm. The witching hour was approaching, and though he had school in the morning, he was still awake per usual. His only company was the moon, which silently embraced him through the window. The rest of the home slept soundly, so with gentle hands and a soft voice, he began to play another song for nobody.

***

Gene slipped the paper behind the roller thing like he had seen done in the movies, and turned it slowly until top of the page poked up around the other side. The white of the paper slowly ascended against the faded gray of the platen, much like the accumulating snow outside his open window.

The newly acquired old, wooden chair creaked in protest as he leaned back and surveyed the scene in front of him. The wooden desk, filled with dents and scratches, was not quite flush against the wall as the top of it went above the window’s bottom that was centered behind it. The typewriter, a battered old Royal, was locked, loaded, and ready to go. An old electric fan with a frightening amount of clearance between the wires of the cage was spinning and buzzing away happily, sometimes keeping the cold, winter air at bay and sometimes unable to stand up against the stiff winds. To the right of the Royal was a freshly poured lowball of Windsor whiskey and lemon sour, and to the left was an unlit cigar resting in a thick glass ashtray with a chipped edge and an advertisement for an auto repair shop long closed.

All of these items belonged to his grandfather Eugene, his namesake, recently deceased. The funeral had been last week, and he had been close to the end of the line to go through his grandfather’s home to claim what he wanted. Truthfully, he felt he’d gotten the best haul.

Gene had loved his grandfather, and the past couple weeks had been rough, but having these items in his room was a small comfort at least.

He stared at the blank page, wondering what he should write. He didn’t fancy himself a writer, but he wanted to write something. For inspiration, he took a deep sip of the whiskey drink pilfered from the dining room cabinet (his mom didn’t drink, so this was kept in the house strictly for when Grandpa was over). Not sure which was worse, the whiskey or the lemon sour, he struggled with both but managed to get them down. Afterward, he stuck his tongue out, retched the slightest bit, and swallowed again, head slightly abuzz.

No longer wanting to, but feeling compelled to, he took a box of matches from the top left desk drawer, and put a flame to the cheap cigar. He knew enough not to inhale the smoke, but the whole business was still quite unpleasant. Geez, Grandpa, he wondered, did you actually enjoy these? He put the cigar in the ashtray and made sure the fan was ushering most if not all of the smoke out the window (Mom wouldn’t be home for a few more hours, and he was ready to be defiant in the name of Grandpa’s memory if need be, but preferred to avoid it if possible), then promptly knocked ashtray and all onto the floor.

“Aww, geez,” he said, picking up the ashtray, and searched for the cigar. After a few moments he found it, rolled under one side of the desk. He rubbed the small burn he made in the wooden floor, and reminded himself not to move the desk in the near future.

The cigar smoke brought back a flood of old memories as Grandpa didn’t smoke them much towards the end. He used to volunteer for an Alzheimer’s charity since his old war buddy Herbert got it pretty bad. They would set up outside a grocery store entrance and ask patrons if they wished to donate. Grandpa Eugene would make sure to ask everyone on their way in, and if someone donated, he made especially sure to ask them again on the way out, starting the rehearsed spiel from the very beginning. More often than not, they dropped even more cash in. When they did, he would drop Gene a sly week.

The memory made Gene chuckle, which only brought on fresh tears. He let them come again for a short while, sniffed loudly, then made a grand gesture of wiping them away.

He readied his index fingers, and through the warped vision of those tears, he pecked the words:

I don’t know if you can read this, Grandpa, but I’m going to miss you so, so much.

***

The spare bedroom was sparse in its furnishings. The battered, sky blue dresser with the accountant’s desk lamp resided on one side of the room, and the twin bed with the sagging mattress coupled by the also and equally mismatching burgundy night table lay on the opposite. All of the furniture had the look and smell of garage sale on it.

Craig sat on the twin bed with his knees at his chest and a bottle intermittently at his lips. He had to admit, the décor complimented his mood quite well. The lamp was the lone light source, its 40 watt barely reaching the bare walls, and only soft patter of falling rain through the open window whispered in his ear.

The scene was almost peaceful, except that every slight move or tremble of Craig’s frame was responded to by an exaggerated shriek from the bed’s frame. Drama queen, Craig thought as he lifted the fifth of Canadian whiskey. The bottle paused for a moment in midair. No, he corrected himself, drama twin. He chuckled sadly at his own wry humor. He swallowed and exhaled roughly. Rye humor, he amended himself again. He didn’t chuckle that time, just wallowed a little further into his own wet pity.

He appreciated Tom and Mary’s hospitality, them letting him stay for awhile, but it came with a heavy toll.

The decorating in this room wasn’t too distinctive from the rest of the apartment. They had almost nothing, but lord, as sappy as it sounded, they certainly had each other. While he sat in his room alone, he would hear spirited conversations or the content clanking of mismatched plates as they did dishes together. Yesterday, he heard Mary let out such a joyful laugh, so full of love and good humor, that he actually winced. He’d hate them if they weren’t old friends who had opened their home to him with nothing but kindness. He took another bitter belt, and swallowed it hard for effect. He only ended up coughing.

Craig had had everything, but that hadn’t been enough to hold Cynthia and him together. Instead, he sat in an empty room, with an empty suitcase, and a freshly emptied bottle.

***

“Tony!”

Tony, trotting around second and relishing the roar of the crowd after his game winning grand slam, somehow heard his momma shouting over the cheering.

“Anthony!”

The third base coach shook his hand as he rounded third.

“Anthony, boy, you get your sweet cheeks out here before I whup them good!”

His team was crowded around home plate, waiting for him to cross it so they could erupt… and standing right on the plate was his momma, arms crossed and foot tapping.

“Boy, this your last warning!!”

Tony’s eyes slowly opened, and focused on the paper and tape covered window, where a particularly hard hit line drive of his had shattered the top pane Tuesday last.

He heard the stomping coming up that hall. That did the trick.

Tony jumped out of bed, grabbing his baseball glove/pillow, and hauled out the door before he could be yanked through it.

***

Bobby’s finger, sticking through the 6th finger hole, was pressed firmly against the finger stop, and had been for several minutes. The line it had embedded in the side of his finger was graduating from red to purple. He knew, once he let go, the cam mechanism would open and close six times as the wheel returned to the home position, and, the final number dialed, his call would zip over the wires and across the neighborhood, and the phone at Collette’s house would ring.

Who would answer? Father? Mother? Brother? Once/if he got past that exchange, what was he going to say to her? He had several scripts in his head, but didn’t trust they would stand up to scrutiny.

Readying to throw caution to the wind, he took a deep breath and prepared to disengage his finger from the rotary.

He took another deep breath and prepared again.

And another…

***

“Quit squirming. And stand up straight!”

Otis made a show of rolling his eyes, but did as he was asked. His mother, Mildred, standing on the tips of her toes with the tip of her tongue sticking out from her mouth, was just able to get her hand above the top of his head. He felt uncomfortable having his mother’s face so close to his, but he soldiered through it for her sake.

She’d been hounding him for the past couple weeks since his birthday, and he’d kept begging her off. However, tonight, he could put her off no longer.

Once the line of the pencil was discernible against the wood grain, she relieved him.

“Alright, you’re free to go.”

Otis rushed out of the doorway, playing as though being chased. He turned to his mother with a grin, but she hadn’t seemed to pay him any mind. Instead, she quietly held the pencil mark in her gaze for a moment, and then her eyes slowly descended down the series of marks below it. She sighed, though Otis could only tell by the slight rise and fall of her chest, and the way she usually scrunched up her mouth. The pencil disappeared into an apron pocket, and was replaced in her hand by a slightly rusted penknife; Otis recognized it as his grandfather’s, whom he’d never met as he’d never come home from Cantigny.

Back on the tips of her toes, she struggled to make the mark permanent by etching it into the doorframe, but was having difficulty getting the proper leverage. Otis watched on and struggled for the proper words. In the end, he managed to hoarsely get out, “Mama, here…” and held out his hand. She looked up at him for a time, and handed the knife to him with a gracious nod. He scratched the mark in the wood good and deep, folded the knife, and returned it.

They both stood back looked at the series of lines, one marked for every birthday and half-birthday of Otis’. After a time, Otis, taken unawares, was almost knocked to the ground by a sudden and hard embrace from his mother, a sturdy woman herself. She didn’t moan or wail, just the occasional sniffle and shuddering of her frame. Again, Otis tried to conjure up the right words to say, but was again unsuccessful. In the end, he held her back, trying to hold back his own tears which had also caught him unawares.

“When that bus picks you up for McClellan tomorrow, make sure you don’t forget about this doorway, you hear?” she said. Otis was amused to find that she was scolding him. “I don’t care where you go, Atlantic, Pacific, wherever, you take care of yourself.”

“I will, Mama,” he managed.

“Like hell!”

Otis’ raised his eyebrows at the stern rebuke, quite unaccustomed to hearing such cursing from his mother.

“I mean it! Don’t you be a fool. You come straight home. The moment you get here, we’ll put another mark on this frame to make up for the ones you missed. Cut it in real deep.”

Otis, chastising himself for poor mouth, simply said, “…I will, Mama.

“I will.”

***

The foundations solid and the walls sturdy, almost all was in order except this last bit of trim. Still thankful to be back from the horrors of the Great War, this was the favorite part of his job.

Knowing tomorrow would be a new job, he relished the last part of this one. He looked around the empty apartment above the empty storefront below. Everything was so clean and new. So wide open to possibility. He wondered about the future occupants, hoping there would be many thanks to his sturdy handiwork.

Holding up the casing to the doorway of the 2nd bedroom with one hand, he hammered the last piece of the building into place with the other.

He admired the straight angles of the portal, gave the fresh and wonderful smelling wood a last, firm pat, and picked up his toolbox while whistling a happy tune.

K: There have been three or four times this season where someone took a pretty similar tactic to the one I felt I would have taken on a challenge, and this is one of them. However, this is still one hell of a risk, because in my idea there was a clear through-line (the notches) whereas in this story, the notches were only made in the Otis portion and the rest were vignettes unrelated to one another. I have to say, it’s hard to decide whether to feel cheated (what happens to Suzy?) or fulfilled by a tale of a house’s life, and the lack of a clear narrative isn’t helping me solve that dilemma. As is, this is an enjoyable swim through melancholy waters, well-written and well-paced. I just wish, so much, that you’d worked the notches into more of the stories or perhaps told fewer (and more emotionally engaging) stories. BRONZE

DK: I think the concept here is interesting and I like framing the structure of the piece as a view back through time. I think to some extent because of that framing, the piece as a story lacks somewhat in terms of narrative thrust, and because each vignette has to establish their own scene, some of them feel a little strained with their explanations and exposition. But most of those scenes do a nice job of realizing their characters in a short space, and I found the emotional impact of each did gain through the piece. BRONZE

MG: The thought that sounds loudest in my mind when ruminating on this story is “ambitious.” It’s probably not that much of a surprise that someone took the prompt and ran with it down the anthology avenue. But making that choice and following through with a batch of enjoyably genuine-feeling stories is an ambitious task to assign oneself. I only wish the content and depth of the pieces had risen to the level of ambition, because many of these vignettes felt distant and fragile to me. The ones that rose above rose quite well (Gene and the typewriter may have been the one most successful to my mind), and others had a fresh enough perspective that they were still enjoyable despite feeling on the light side. The “walls had ears” trope succeeds only when everything they’ve heard is deeply compelling. BRONZE

Bret Highum

Journal
March the sixteenth, Year of our Lord 1715
Port-Au-Prince, Haiti
I find myself in a terrible situation-I, Edward Drummond, a destitute Englishman, held captive in a French colony, under suspicion of being a Dutch pirate and due to be executed in a week or whenever they get around to building a gibbet. I have been imprisoned in a damp and rough stone cell for over two weeks, with my only companion an illiterate half Arawak/half Negro who has been here so long I believe he is likely insane-


Edward paused in his writing and glanced over at the other occupant, a rawboned, dark-skinned man of indeterminate age who sat at the cell entrance, patiently spinning the point of a fire-hardened wooden dowel against the ruddy sandstone blocks that formed the arch of the door.

“Chonga, how long have you been here?” he inquired of the other man.

Chonga leaned back and placed the dowel in his mouth, clamping onto it with his surprisingly white and even teeth, and counted the holes up and over the door frame, pointing at each one.

“Twelve years, blanc,” said the mulatto, removing the rod from his mouth and returning to his drilling. “Four months each hole- one per season- and I called you here for when I finish this one.”

Edward frowned at the odd pronouncement. “What do you mean, when you called me here? The blasted French threw me in here with no cause or provocation, except for the fact that I don’t speak French and I was carrying a pistol. You had nothing to do with it.”

Chonga cackled, white teeth shining in the light of dusk, and Edward caught a whiff of tar and burnt gunpowder. It must have drifted in through the barred window. “Blanc, you wear caught trying to steal one of their ships! But that’s not why you are here- I sent a ghost to fetch me a magic man, and you are who was brought. We will see if the ghost chose right.”

********

Journal
March the nineteenth, Year of our Lord 1715
Port-Au-Prince, Haiti
Chonga has grown stranger, though at last he has stopped with the incessant and ineffectual boring of the portal to our cell, leaving a multitude of shallow pockmarks and notches that have in no way compromised the structure.
However, this morning I caught him biting his tongue and smearing the blood over the edge of the iron bar of the door, and just now he knocked himself unconscious by smashing his face into the edge of his cot. I fear for his well-being, but the guards will not open the cell, and they only approach with crucifixes clenched in white-knuckled hands, muttering Pater Nosters and Ave Marias under their breath. Evidently Chonga has a reputation as a vodou doctor of some sort, and the superstitious folk around here are terrified of him. Why, I wonder if he even did anything to get placed in-


Chonga started thrashing on the floor, his head flopping off the folded blanket Edward had placed under him and striking the floor with a hollow thump. Cursing mildly, Edward jumped up from his bunk and grabbed the stricken fellow, trying to hold him still while the seizure passed. Chonga’s eyes bulged wide, and with an explosive cough, he expelled a spray of blood and spittle and then went limp, breathing heavily.

Edward swiped ineffectually at the red-stained sputum soiling his once respectable broadcloth vest. “Damn it,” he muttered without any real heat, while he wiped Chonga’s face clean with an edge of one of their rough blankets. The dark man’s eyes were open and staring and he was mumbling something in the island patois through his smashed lips and missing teeth. Edward felt a low buzz starting in the rocks underneath them that built upwards as Chonga chanted. Edward could taste hot iron in the air and felt the body in his arms tense and grow heavier as the sky outside darkened.

Chonga suddenly stopped speaking and closed his eyes. The air in the room hung pregnant and still as the seabirds outside over the harbor all fell silent at the same time. Edward felt the air press in on him, like he’d felt once when his ship had been caught in a raging hurricane off the coast of Florida. Then Chonga’s eyes popped open, and the bird’s calls started up again outside.

Chonga sat up straight and reached into his mouth, firmly grasping a tooth with two calloused fingers and casually pulling it free, regarding it proudly as a man viewing a pearl he’d just freed from an oyster. Hopping to his feet, he strode to the door, running his fingers over the frame and the notches he’d made in it, then placing the bloody root of the tooth in one of them and pushing it home with a casual strike of his horny palm, stepping back and regarding his handiwork with satisfaction. Edward watched in disbelief as Chonga roamed across the floor, picking up the other teeth he’d knocked out and placing them into some of the other indentations, on either side of the door.

“What are you doing, man?” Edward asked, incredulous. “This is…this is uncivilized!”

Chonga snorted, and responded without ceasing his macabre treasure hunt. “This is the Caribbean. We have no need for civilized.” Tapping the last vagrant tooth home into the wood, he turned to regard Edward with a level gaze. “I will have you pull the rest of my teeth now.”

*******************************
Journal
March the twenty-second, 1715
Jacmel, Haiti
I welcomed the overland journey from Port-au-Prince to Jacmel as an opportunity to concentrate on escape and survival and avoid thinking about the events of a day ago. Now, though, it seems I must write it down in full detail or risk my memory of it becoming faint and untrustworthy as it fades into the past.
Using a small pair of pliers Chonga had somehow kept hidden, I did as he requested and removed his teeth, something I have done many times for shipmates suffering from toothaches, packing the cavities with cotton and sealing the wounds with tar as I went. I did note that he had two extra teeth growing in behind the canine teeth on the upper jaw, but they were fully formed and rooted and took just as much effort to remove as any of the others.
Chonga took no notice of the pain, calmly taking each tooth as I removed it and hammering it into the doorframe. It soon became obvious that the upper teeth went on the left side of the door as we regarded it, and the lower teeth went into the notches on the right. The incisors were centered midway, and the wisdom teeth were on the extreme top and bottom.
With each successive tooth, I grew more and more unsure of what we were doing, but Chonga insisted we proceed, and I- God forgive me, I kept pulling his teeth, while the stench of tar and blood rose around us. When the last tooth had been pulled and Chonga had staggered back to his cot and collapsed onto it, I sat on my own bunk as dark overtook the skies and stared at my hands, stained with tar and blood- and maybe something even darker and harder to remove.
I was still sleepless, when the sun cracked over the horizon the next morning. Chonga had lain the entire night on his side, his ruined mouth a vertical slit of blackened gums and crusted blood facing towards me, a low susurrus of keening pain issuing from him. I could do nothing for him but dribble some water into his open mouth, but I could not tell if he made any effort to drink.
At the sound of footsteps in the hallway leading to our cell, I sat bolt upright, dread drying my mouth instantly. At the jangle of the key to our cell being inserted into the lock, I jumped upright, wanting to scream in terror but choking instead on the sulfur reek of burning gunpowder that rose from nowhere. I stood frozen, wild-eyed and wreathed in smoke, glaring at the three guards who stood in the doorway, reluctant to enter. Their eyes wobbled back and forth between me and the drooling mess that lay helplessly on the other cot, and I was shocked to see nearly as much fear in their eyes when they looked at me as I saw when they looked at Chonga.
That changed when Chonga’s voice rose in a piercing wail, and they immediately leveled their muskets at him, oblivious to the incongruity of their actions. Chonga saw it though, for he laughed- his gaping mouth opened wide, baring his pulped gums, he laughed- long, low rolling chuckles from his stomach, with no mirth at all. Then, his eyes flashing, he clenched his jaws, tight knots of muscle in his cheeks standing out with the effort.
And the cell door frame, complete with his teeth and his blood, slammed together with the closing of his maw, pulping the guards like a man biting three grapes.
Chonga fell back as his jaws relaxed and he went limp, the warped doorframe falling back into place as his mouth fell open. I leapt up and grabbed him, lifting him like a child in my arms and stepping over the twitching wreckage on the floor. I felt his hand feebly pawing my side and halted, just long enough that his grasping fingers could pull a tooth free from the frame, breaking the mystical connection between his body and the building. I felt a snap of tension, a tension that I had not taken note of until it was gone, and the smoke swirling around my head and the stink of sulfur disappeared.
By the time we’d reached the farthest outbuildings of the settlement, Chonga was able to walk again. By the time night fell, he was more energetic that I was. He took a mighty pull of rum from the flask he’d stolen sometime during our escape and burst into song. The moonlight gleamed off his teeth as he smiled.


Edward and Chonga stood on the beach, watching the blue waters of the Caribbean turn into frothing white waves breaking on the shore. An armed sloop with sails furled and anchor pitched rode the swells a few furlongs out, while a ship’s boat was beached near the sacks of coffee and sugar waiting to be loaded on the next merchant ship. The men from the boat, privateers from their dress and armament, made their way through the loose sand towards the white man and the black man.

Edward spoke. “I’ve made arrangements with Captain Hornigold from New Providence- I’ve agreed to sail with him. You saved my life; I will take you where you wish and try to repay you in any way I can.”

Chonga turned towards him, smiling widely again. Edward cringed inside, thinking about teeth and blood and vodou. “You saved me as well, blanc. I will go with you- you have the blood and the magic inside you. It will make you great, but you must learn, and I will be there to teach.”

Edward stood tall and considered that, scratching the thick black beard he’d grown during his three weeks in their cell. The men from the boat stepped in front of him and their leader spoke, ignoring the half-breed.

“You the one Cap’n said was to go with us? What’s the name, then?”

Edward looked the hardened sailor in the eye, and a whiff of sulfur briefly scented the air as the man flinched.

“There will be two of us boarding. And my name is Edward… Edward Teach.”

K: Man, this one takes hold pretty well by a quarter of the way through and doesn’t let go. Chonga’s bizarre ritual had me rapt with anticipation that grew with every new explanation of the plot to escape. The climax lands loudly and effectively, simultaneously out of nowhere and yet clearly set up for some time. Though I didn’t get a real emotional attachment here because Edward is somewhat cold and proper and Chonga is just so damned out there, I engaged with their plot to escape regardless because the idea of them together made me smile. That they stayed together after the escape is all the better. To me, maybe the best thing is that, yes, this story does reveal at the end that its protagonist is Blackbeard, but it was a damned fun story even before that revelation, which in the end I’m not even sure it needed. GOLD

DK: The conceit/reveal that this is Blackbeard might be a little unnecessarily cute for the intrigue of the rest of the story. And, although I like the interweaving of journal entries with Edward’s narration, I’m a little less sold on the effect of switching to third person near the very end. That said, there’s a lot I enjoy about the tone and the atmosphere here – it’s mysterious and magical without being too portentious or heavy, and the interactions between Edward and Chonga are fun and interesting. And hey, I just like pirates, dudes. SILVER

MG: Okay, so it’s an origin story. Neat little shift in perspective there, but I almost wish it hadn’t been right at the end. I don’t know if it would have affected my sense of the story had it been referred to earlier, but the effect of that kind of unexpected (unnecessary?) pancaking of information makes the “oh” one feels less exuberant than the author might’ve intended. And on the subject of unnecessary formalities, why the journal entries? Two of the three were cut off by story action, and the last one was so chock full of action and rich description that it felt unnatural for it to be in the style of a journal. You proved throughout the rest of the story that you excel at vivid action and fantastic events, so why not let us experience the whole story in the present, visceral and immediate? Which is all to say: I enjoyed the lengths you went to for this story. I really liked how you never shied away from the mystical, the baffling, and the unexpected. Much of the story’s shots glanced off me rather than hitting me with full force, though, and found myself wanting to like it more than I did. You hit your narrative stride several times throughout this story, and I wish you’d been able to sustain it throughout. But too many distractions of awkward period wording and historical coincidence weighed the exercise down for me. SILVER

Christina Pepper

A screwdriver has taken up permanent residence on top of Dave’s dresser. I asked him about it a while ago, and he said he might need it sometime. It catches my eye every so often—okay, daily—and I think about the workbench in the basement where all the other tools reside. I suppose I could bring the screwdriver down there myself, but it’s not my screwdriver and it’s not my dresser.

– – –

“Maxwell,” snaps Dave. “Stop screwing around. I’m tired of telling you what to do. Get in that bathroom and pee right now or it’s no breakfast for you.”

Max, predictably, begins to howl. And that, also predictably, makes Jude start to cry.

“You want help?” I call from the kitchen.

“I’ll handle it. You have to get to work early for your meeting, right?”

“I know what I have to do.”

“Well, good. I said I’d handle it.”

I head upstairs to get dressed, but their voices follow me.

“Jude, you’re fine. Here’s your binky. Maxwell, I said get in the bathroom. Now.”

“Daaaady, I don’t have to go.”

“Listen to me. Your pull-up was dry this morning. I know you have to go.”

“No, I don’t!” Even from the bedroom, I can picture the set expression Max gets on his face when he decides he’s not giving in.

“Come on, Max. Let’s just do this so we can leave. Please just do what I ask for once in your life.”

“Noooooooo! I don’t waaaaaaaaant to goooooooooo!”

I hate the way Dave talks when he’s angry. And I hate how he can’t figure out that the firmer he is, the more Maxwell resists. It’s like one of those ridiculous Chinese finger traps I used to have as a kid.

One second I’m standing at the closet looking for my turquoise blouse, and the next I’m at Dave’s dresser with the screwdriver in my hand. Without even thinking about what I’m doing, I turn and jam the screwdriver into the doorframe. Thwack! Better that than the wall, I suppose.

“What was that?” yells Dave.

“Nothing,” I call back. “I just dropped something.”

“Did it break?”

“Everything’s fine, don’t worry about it.”

I examine the doorframe and see that my rage has created a small gouge. I run my fingers over it. Seems fixable enough, though it’s not like Dave ever gets around to doing that sort of thing. Maybe I’ll just wait for him to notice it.

– – –

Saturday morning, I ask Dave if he can take the boys somewhere for a couple hours so I can clean the house.

“Your parents are coming for dinner tonight, remember?”

“Oh yeah,” he says. “I don’t know about going anywhere with the boys, though. I’m pretty tired—I think I might be getting sick.”

This from the man who was sound asleep when I was up with Jude at 11:30, 1:30, and 4:15.

“Well, let me know when you decide,” I say, turning my back on him and going upstairs. Thwack! Thwack!

He doesn’t say anything about the noise this time.

– – –

I’ve found that two is the perfect number. Occasionally three are required, but generally two good whacks will calm me down enough that I can go back to whatever it is I am supposed to be doing.

Maxwell’s preschool teacher has noticed him biting his arm when he’s upset—hard enough to leave marks. She’s concerned. Thwack! Thwack!

My boss asks why I’ve been distracted and I tell her Jude isn’t sleeping well. “Lola started sleeping through the night when she was six weeks old,” she says. “She was always such an easy baby.” Thwack! Thwack!

Dave has to work late. Jude is whimpering in his exersaucer, Maxwell wants my attention every ninety seconds, and I’m trying to get dinner together. Dave finally arrives home. “Do I smell something burning?” he asks. Thwack! Thwack!

My parents come over on a Friday night so that Dave and I can go out. He spends the entire dinner talking about how he hates his boss and his job is a living hell. I can barely get a word in edgewise. Dessert comes and I bring up the way Max has been biting his arm. “I know,” he says. “I’ve been telling him he just can’t do that anymore. We really need to start setting firmer limits with him. I know you want to do things your way, but I really don’t think your way is working.” Thwack! Thwack! Thwack!

– – –

When I’m alone—when the boys are asleep and Dave is in the basement watching whatever it is he watches on the television down there—I like to study the doorframe. The notches are cute, almost. Innocuous.

Sometimes I go a day or even two without adding to the tally. But after that my fingers are practically itching to pick up the screwdriver again.

– – –

The boys are in bed I’m standing at the sink washing the last of the dishes when Dave comes home from the gym.

“Hey,” he says.

“Hey, yourself.”

“How’s it going?”

“It’s going. I’m almost done here.”

I realize I’m holding my breath, waiting for the thing that’s going to send me over the edge once again.

He walks up behind me and lifts the hair from the back of my neck, leaning down to kiss my neck.

“What’s that?” I ask, not moving.

“A kiss. You remember those, right?”

“I might,” I smile, even as I try not to.

“How about I give you a backrub when you’re done here?”

“But you hate giving backrubs. Your hands always get tired right away.”

“I know,” he says. “But you seem like you could use one.”

“Okay.”

– – –

Jude wakes too early the next morning, and I roll out of bed to go to him.

“I got it,” says Dave. “I can hang out with him for a while.”

“Really?”

“Really. I’ll call you when he gets hungry.”

I flop back into bed.

“We should talk, though. Later.”

“We should?”

“Yeah. About this,” he gestures toward the doorframe.

“Uh . . . ”

He leaves before I can say anything more.

– – –

I drift in and out of sleep for the next hour. I dream I’m at work, but Dave and the boys are there too. Then my office starts filling with water and I have to break down the door so we can all escape.

Bang! Bang!

Wait, that’s not my dream. That’s Max. He must be ramming one of his toy cars into the bedroom door.

I hear Dave’s voice, “Maxwell, stop that! Your mommy’s sleeping.”

“Not anymore,” I say, realizing he probably can’t hear me. “Max, you can come on in if you want.”

I open the door and he wraps his arms around my thighs.

“It’s okay that you woke me up,” I tell him.

“I know, Mommy,” he replies, his face still buried in my legs.

He takes my hand and leads me down to breakfast.

– – –

I usually dread Saturdays, but today doesn’t seem as bad as usual. Max and I play dinosaur during Jude’s morning nap, and we all go out for lunch.

We get home in time for Jude’s afternoon nap, and I park Max in front of the television with a movie. This is usually when Dave goes out to do whatever he does in the yard or the garden—he’s always got some new thing he wants to try out there—but instead he sits down next to me on the couch.

“So.”

“So.”

“What have you been doing in the bedroom?”

“You mean to the doorframe?”

“Uhuh.”

“Well, what do you think?”

“It looks like you’re trying to destroy it.”

“I guess so.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. It’s not—it’s just that sometimes I get so angry.”

“And you attack the bedroom door?”

I start to laugh. Possibly maniacally.

“Why are you laughing?”

“It’s just—it sounds so silly.”

“Well, I’d kind of like to know what’s going on. It’s like your vandalizing our own home.”

“It wasn’t on purpose. I mean—not the first time.”

“This is like a regular thing for you, isn’t it?”

“I didn’t mean for it to be.”

“Well, that’s good.”

“It doesn’t make sense.”

“Does anything?”

“There was a time when I thought it did.”

“Yeah, that’s probably when we were still young and stupid.”

“Anna. I just wish I could understand what’s happening.”

I look at him. I wish I knew the right words to say.

“I’ll try to stop. Promise.”

– – –

My mom calls that night. She asks how the boys are, how work is, all the usual stuff. And then, “Anna, honey, I know you don’t like when I bring this up, but have you scheduled your exam yet?”

“My exam?”

“You know, your mammogram.” She says it in a whisper, as though my father might be scandalized by hearing such a term.

“I’ve been busy. And besides, I’m still nursing Jude, so I don’t even know if they could really do it now.”

“Well, have you asked?”

“I—uh—no, I haven’t.”

“Would you please? I know it’s not any fun to think about, but do it for your boys if not for yourself.”

“Okay, Mom. I’ll call on Monday.”

“You don’t really want to be like me, living out the rest of your days with two prosthetic breasts, do you?”

“Oh, Mom,” I sigh. Her cancer was so long ago, I sometimes forget it happened at all. She was my age when it was diagnosed—I was just a kid.

“I know it’s not always easy with two little ones,” she says. “But this is important.”

“Okay, Mom,” I say. “I’m going to go now.”

– – –

I go up to the bedroom and run my fingers over the doorframe. One one level, none of it makes sense. But on another level, it just feels so good to be able to hit something and mean it.

I look over at Jude’s dresser, and it’s as if the screwdriver is calling to me. I pick it up and study it for a moment. Then I walk over to the window. I open it and pop out the screen. I hurl the screwdriver as far as I can out into the night. I think I hear a soft thud when it lands, but that might just be my imagination. It’s not satisfying in the same way that gouging the doorframe was, but in its own way, it feels good too.

K: I am almost positive that something I said was used in this story, but I’ll withhold that until I know it’s true. Anyway, while I see all the parts of a working story here, I can’t say I ever got to the point where I could root for the character. This woman seemed to be begging to be loved, but outside of Dave’s ignorance making me like him less, most of the time with her was spent watching her unravel and act out destructively. This doesn’t all have to be bad, but this story seems to need, more than most, for the protagonist to have a bigger moment of victory than the symbolic victory over the screwdriver. Her husband is still clueless, her children still stress her out and I can’t see that throwing the screwdriver has significantly altered her situation, nor am I given a reason to trust that she’s about to be different. Yes, the breast cancer will make her rethink things, and I know this is why it’s there, but I feel like the narrator is little more than a character I’ll love down the road in her life, rather than one I can love right now. SILVER

DK: Continuing my theme of nitpicking a little bit this week, here I’m not entirely sure I bought the necessity of the developments in the phone conversation near the end. I think that does enhance Anna’s character, but it’s almost superfluous since every other action she takes and emotion she feels is easily understandable in her situation even without it. Otherwise, that small thing aside, this is my favorite piece this time and with Anna I think it shows the strongest character work of the week. Her internal narration and her relationship with Dave feel fully-formed and dimensional and the release of the ending is well-earned. GOLD

MG: Despite Haitian voodoo and eighteenth century dentistry, I think this was the most satisfyingly unexpected explanation for the presence of the notches in the door frame. And I’ll say this: it’s a story that’s genuinely felt, if somewhat slight in its approach. (If the first two stories epitomized “ambitious,” this one stays safely close to the believable and relatable.) And yet, there’s no question in my mind that this one succeeds better at what it tries to accomplish than either of the other stories this evening. Anna felt like people I know, women I’ve seen suffer and struggle with how a family turns out when their idealizations can’t quite make it into reality. Each thwack of the screwdriver felt earned to me, and was communicated well through event rather than explanation. On the other hand, some the back-end choices start to rob the story of some of its power (a suddenly helpful husband, and the final decision to lose the screwdriver itself….but the addition of the mother and her history with breast cancer adds one last intriguing detail to the mix.) The result is a story that feels very real, very tense, but winds up with a very low dramatic arc overall. But I was still very much engaged by this story, and it worked for me better than the others. GOLD

=============================================

There it is. Christina Pepper has won her third straight Immunity (right? who keeps track of this?) and has until 9pm Central tomorrow to make her elimination. She can go faster if she wants, if she feels certain of what she’s doing. Other guys, you’re at her mercy and don’t have to vote here.

Bravo on this season, everyone. The writers were strong, they showed up, the judges were dedicated, and Melissa was out early. Everyone wins! Not Melissa, possibly.

Cheers, Survivors. Jury, load up with them questions.

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