Well howdy-do, Ampersands! It’s early in the season, and…well, at times we could tell. We had some good ideas with okay execution and some meh ideas with better execution, and just once or twice we got both. I can tell it’s going to be a good season, though, even if the first week perhaps had no runaway classics. There’s much to enjoy here, and much to build on.

Beau

August, 1995

“Ready? Set? Go!”

His son was getting quicker, perhaps even a little smarter. But he had a long way to go. Gary deftly hopped over the jousting stick and on the way down landed a blow right behind the shoulder blades. His son collapsed off his platform.

“You okay, sport?”

“Yeah, Dad. Let’s go again. This time, I’m knocking you down!”

“Tell you what, let’s take a break from that and try the atlaspheres.”

His son’s eyes lit up. “Really?”

“Yep! I think you’re ready.” They walked to the backyard where Gary had set up the course as well as the two giant hamster balls. He opened up the door on the first one and urged his son inside.

“Um…”

He could tell his son was scared. “Look, I know you’re frightened. But I can assure you it’s completely safe. And if you’re ever going to be an American Gladiator–and I know you will be– you have to train early.”

His son beamed. Nothing made Gary more happy than knowing that his son shared his dream. A dream that ended six years ago when the producers chose the better looking Rico Constantino over him.

“Dinner time!” Mom’s voice shattered the shared moment.

“But Mom! Dad’s letting me use the atlasphere!”

She shot a glance at Gary before responding. “Now Force, remember what I said?”

“Yeah, Mom,” he groaned. “A true gladiator eats well and obeys his mother.”

“That’s right, Force,” Mom said. “Oh, and Gary, before you come in will you put the air cannon in the garage? I don’t want to scare the neighbors.”

K: Utilizing a pro wrestler? SOMEone knows me (Rico Constantino worked as a pro wrestler for some years after his stint on Gladiators). As a story, it’s certainly charming, and the gags work as intended, though I don’t feel like we got any kind of resolution at the end. It’s great for an anecdote and okay for a story.

CP: I don’t know what I was expecting from this prompt, but it definitely wasn’t this! I like the goofiness of the situation, but ultimately this feels more like a joke than an actual story–nothing really happens to our main characters. Some of the writing also feels cliched, such as the son’s eyes lighting up, or redundant, such as the sentence stating Gary could tell his son was scared, which isn’t necessary given the dialog that immediately follows it.

Bret Highum

The hammering reports of a Schmeisser machine gun broke through the clear soprano voice. The German SS squad kept firing as they surrounded the building, but they all hesitated at entering the room when they saw what was inside.

The blonde singer, the spell of her voice shattered, shrieked in rage as her eyes bulged madly. The pitch and volume of her scream ascended higher and higher until the troopers fell back, holding their bleeding ears.

A single shot rang out, from a sniper sitting on a distant edelweiss-crowned hill. The banshee scream gurgled to a halt, and the troopers stood up, trembling, hesitant to approach the thing as the remainder of its life twitched away.

The lieutenant entered the abattoir once the flailing limbs had ceased their movement. Blood and gore stained the rich carpet and was splashed over the walls. The remnants of the Captain were only recognizable by his uniform, mixed with parts from other corpses. The officer stumbled from the house, his face ashen, and ordered the place burnt to the ground.

The five children led from the estate refused to speak of what had happened. They later had to cloistered in a remote hostel in the country, they would become so distraught at the sound of music.

K: That’s a long way to go to get to a joke we already understood. Using the actual subject matter of the quote as the story isn’t the most intriguing choice (and as someone who’s acted in the show twice, I’ve experienced it enough for several lifetimes) though I do understand what you were aiming for here. At this point at CdL, though, a pile of gore on its own isn’t going to capture attention. All this said, the prose is strong and may carry it to a medal. I guess we’ll see.

CP: Oh, my. This is a fine concept (and by fine I mean horrifying), but I think it could have been even stronger. I’m not sure I entirely grasp the situation–was the von Trapp family all together in this room before the attack? Are we meant to assume two of the seven children were killed along with the Captain? Some details feel unoriginal, such as shrieking in rage and the officer’s ashen face. You’re also missing “be” in the final sentence. But the distant edelweiss-crowned hill is fabulous.

Pete Bruzek

In the beginning, there was nothing.

A shrieking C chord suddenly filled the room, seeking out every corner for new eardrums to perforate. It was followed by a tinnitus-inflicting D chord, progressing slowly to a heartstopping E. The crowd began to stir excitedly in the dark, hanging on every new note the guitarist fed them.

“Is he…doing scales?” asked Cynthia, incredulously, covering her ears. Brandon just rolled his eyes and glanced eagerly back at the stage in anticipation.

Suddenly, the rest of the band joined in, and hall was bathed in sickly red light. Gallons and gallons of fake blood rained from the ceiling, covering everyone in attendance.

“What the FUCK?!” Cynthia shouted, her newly purchased top completely ruined. Brandon didn’t even acknowledge that anything had happened. He just stood there, transfixed as the band launched themselves into their first song of the night.

“Ooh! Check out the guitarist!” Brandon said, turning to Cynthia, “My god the palm-muting…” he trailed off as he saw her storming to the exit. He thought about following her for a second…but only for a second.

He turned back to the stage as the show raged on. Fuck yes. This was going to be an amazing show.
Fuck yeah. This was going to be an awesome show.

K: Wow, that whole last paragraph seems to be the product of a very drunk person who hasn’t realized he’s already said what he just said seconds ago. The payoff isn’t as funny as the setup and I think I would have dug it more if we’d just enjoyed the girl’s amazement at the chords, but it still got a chuckle from me, and that ain’t bad. BRONZE

CP: More shrieking! I like the pacing here and the way the story unfolds. The stakes are pretty low, but the story successfully accomplishes what it sets out to do. And while Brandon does act like a jerk, by the end of the story I still wanted him to enjoy the show. To nitpick the writing (one of my favorite things to do), you don’t need “in anticipation” after “glanced eagerly at the stage.” Also, how can he be glancing anywhere if everything is still dark? SILVER

Joe Rakstad

“Sir, shouldn’t we start at the beginning?”

“I prefer to start at the middle, get a good head start!” Professor Lamping trudged on, ignoring his colleague’s pleas for reason.

“But, sir, wouldn’t this be considered cheating?”

“It’s only cheating if it’s in the rules. Professor Ludwig said that there were no rules. Therefore we are perfectly fine to be where we are. Enough questions now, come along.” Barnaby just shook his head and continued to climb, just a few metres behind the Professor.

As they approached the crest of the hill, the sun welcomed them with open sunbeams. Professor Lamping smiled and gazed upon the field below. The maze was nearly ready, and he could see the officials scurrying about preparing for the big day. Professor Lamping hid behind the tree and motioned for Barnaby to do the same. He then rifled through his pocket, searching for the bibs that he had procured. He handed one to Barnaby.

“Here, put this on.” Professor Lamping looked more forward to this day than Christmas. Forty years he played and forty years he finished other than first. Last year he asked Professor Brunk, 4-time champion, recently retired, what his secret was. Wait by the old white elm on the hill and sneak in through the side. No one remembers who started the race; they only remember who showed up at the finish line.

Barnaby donned his bib and Professor Lamping watched for an opportunity to enter through the side. “C’mon!” he whispered loudly to Barnaby, and they took off when the coast was clear. He passed through the outer wall of wheat, and to his surprise collided into a man with an official red cap and green vest.

“Ha-hah! Caught ya!”

“Gah! Bloody He…. Professor Brunk?!”

K: The ending’s a bit abrupt – yes, in action, but also the payoff itself, as we’re given no insight into why Brunk would go to the trouble to help someone cheat just to bust him. Outside of that (admittedly huge) plot hole, I was amused by the opening and its use of the subject. I giggled and I’m feeling kind of generous in return for laughs. BRONZE

CP: I enjoyed the strange circumstances and the characters here. I don’t think we need full explanations for everything going on in the story, but I wish we knew more about the relationship between Professor Lamping and Barnaby. The writing fits the mood of the story, though I was puzzled by the sun welcoming them with open sunbeams. I wanted the story to go somewhere, which it sort of does, but the ending felt a bit anticlimactic. I think a bigger payoff might have been more satisfying. BRONZE

erik s

Increasingly aching knees scratch a shaky smile across a whiskered face. Storms crash in from the west over vacant Kansan plains. After internal haggling, the view from the day room wins out over a night of sore extremities.

Measured paces were important. The desired destination tiptoes ever maddening along far down the hallway.

The threshold to the room is overtaken. Eyes embrace the favorite chair along the window, which is soon settled into as gingerly as a warm bath. A weary thumb depresses the switch of the weathered Japanese cassette player and worn plastic sings the smothering sorrow of Adagio ma non troppo e molto espressivo. Ebbing senses plunge deep below the surface as soft raindrops crash against the glass.

In the back half of the fourth movement, Disney show tunes overtake to gentle strings. The nanny’s lofty tones breaks the spell as the first rays of sunlight crack through the crusty extrerior of beloved storm clouds. The populous drivel angers old blood.

A brash and futile counterattack is mounted against the crowd of fellow residents garrison around the television. The partisan is easily routed by orderlies.

The feeble rebellion draws temporary attention from a bored teenager in the corner; the eye of the phone’s camera stares briefly at waterstained ceiling tiles, then resumes its accustomed patrol of greasy foreheads.

The rebel is quietly led back to his cell as the remains of the storm drip from lush green leaves outside the compound.

K: I’d really like for this to be as good as the writer was reaching for, but there are some grammatical errors here and there, and in the end, I have to ask: Why does this story exist? Is the prompt attacked fully? The story is a little vague, whether it means to be or not. I’d love to get into the rebel’s narrative, but other than “mental patient attempting escape,” and even that is a partial guess, I just don’t know who the hell he is or why I should care. I also don’t know whether the writer thinks The Sound of Music is a Disney movie (it’s not) or if the patients are watching something else.

CP: Hubba-wha? I’m trying to figure out exactly how aching knees scratch a smile. I get that you’re using language in a somewhat unconventional way to set a certain mood, but it’s not entirely working for me. Some parts feel unnecessarily hard to follow, and it takes quite a long time for the actual conflict of the story to get underway. Also The Sound of Music is not a Disney movie, so I spent a while thinking that the nanny was a character in this story. I want to reward the risk you took here, all the same. BRONZE

Jonathon Pope

“I’d like to thank you for volunteering in our time-travel experiment. They have filled you in on the potential dangers?”

The doctor fiddled with a camera as she spoke to Henry.

“Yes, doctor. Thank you for this opportunity.”

“We have your application on file, but please repeat for the camera your reason for wanting to take part in this experiment?”

Henry took a deep breath. “Yes. Um, I want to stop something I saw from happening. Or at least prevent myself from seeing it. A man fell to his death, you see. I don’t know who he was, they never found out. They say he must have jumped from a window, but it happened so fast, I just saw him for a second, but he locked eyes with me, And I dunno, I just felt this connection. And then he was mashed on the pavement. I’ve never been able to shake the feeling I’ve had since then. I think that’s why my life is a mess. I want to go back to where this mess began, see if I can fix it. Y’know?”

The doctor shut off the camera. “Perhaps that’s what makes you so suitable for this test, Henry. You seem to have had no discernible impact on the world around you. If you’ll just step over here, we’ll begin.”

Henry shuffled to the device and stood in front of the opening that would serve as his portal to the past. The opening lit up. “Step through at any time Henry. Please remember that the device is still not as precise as we would like. You may have to move quickly to accomplish your goal. Remember your instructions; once you have completed your task, check in at the appointed time.”

Henry stepped into the portal and stared at the ground 500 feet below him. Panic surged instantaneously, as he locked eyes with himself.

“Shit, it’s a loop!”

K: A little pet peeve of mine is spoken lines that wouldn’t be spoken, like the last line here. Internalizing is fine here, and perhaps gets across the futility of the situation a little better. Time loops are an occasional weakness of mine but they also often lend to laziness; this one is over so quickly that I can’t decide which way it leans. The story may have been too big for the word count’s britches, because the idea of Henry being suitable because he’s a loser is an interesting (and funny) one. I’d also rework Henry’s monologue a bit. He’s a nerd, but in that monologue, it’s a bit cartoonish.

CP: Huh. It’s possibly I’ve been hanging around this site too long, but this feels like a very CdL-ish twist to me. This story doesn’t go anywhere, but that’s the whole point–it can’t. That said, the pacing is good and the reveal is handled well. However, I wish I could have felt more of a connection to the main character. (Uh oh, I’m starting to sound like DK!) I just didn’t know enough about him to feel very bad when I got to the end. SILVER

Eric Schapp

Mary looked down the slopes of Les Pléiades toward the lake far below. The Vevey marina was filling with boats coming in from early morning fishing.

Viewing the calm water filled her with solace, a momentary respite from actions of men surrounding her. It wasn’t long ago when she’d enjoy walking and singing in the woods outside of her home. But that is all gone, overtaken by a wave of ideology she was never meant to understand.

Turning around the Chalet once again comes into view, a far cry from her childhood estate. Consisting of a leaky roof and four drafty walls, the shelter wasn’t meant to protect against the cold mountain winters. Mary turned her attention back to the task at hand. Turning the shovel over in her hand the pile of dirt slides into the hole she dug earlier that day. Tending this garden will keep the family fed. Some chores never seem to end when survival is at stake.

K: This is an example of a very short story that doesn’t attempt to be huge when there are just no words for it. The prose is nice, there’s drama but no twists that feel dishonest in the space allotted, and the subject matter is specifically referenced but not in a way that feels cheeky or nudge-winky. Use the words carefully, gentle Prosers, and remember the constraints. SILVER

CP: Ah, so this is what happens after the end of the movie? It’s interesting in that respect, but as a story, it doesn’t have much going on. Basically Maria/Mary just looks around for a while, remembers some stuff, and starts to dig. (Not that you can’t pull off a compelling story with just that, but it’s tough!) I wish there had been a little more action or a change of some sort–the whole story has a feeling of resignation about it. And to nitpick, a few more commas would have been helpful.

Jack Haas

Charles’ finger hovered over the button. The sun blazed through the viewing screen, heating the interior until sweat pooled in every crevice of his body. The order had been given, but he could still claim that he hadn’t heard it yet, time-lag over these distances could be useful for giving voice to those second thoughts.

He sighed, realizing the time for disobedience had passed. That time was when he was loaded onto this rocket. That time was when they explained the mission to him, when he was halfway there. Now he really had no choice.

The button depressed on its own without Charles moving. The charges dropped toward the sun. Charles watched. A spectator to the end of the world.

K: Whoa. The Big Bang. Clever girl (or boy, rather, considering this is the Ampersand Conference). Stories like this can also seem a little cheeky, but the author smartly avoided punchlines in favor of letting the dark humor pass through the cracks of the dramatic action, and it worked to his advantage. I’d love to read more about Charles; I already know him a little and now he has to spend eternity alone. The downside: there’s a comma where a semicolon should be after the word “yet” near the end of the first paragraph. For shame! SILVER

CP: Missed opportunity for a semicolon in the final sentence of the first paragraph! While you certainly don’t have to use all the words allotted, I feel like this story would have benefitted by being fleshed out a little more. Why is Charles on a mission to blow up the sun and destroy the world? There must surely be some interesting circumstances behind this. Charles has such a sense of resignation and he, the only character, feels so passive that it’s hard for me to connect with him.

Ian Pratt

“At Klein-Mueller, we aren’t interested in reinventing the wheel. We want to take the word ‘wheel’ apart letter by letter and redefine what the very concept of ‘wheel’ means. Klein-Mueller is reinventing the A-B-C’s.”

I re-read the press release as I sat in the lobby. It was one of the most spectacularly bad mission statements I’d ever seen. I felt sorry for the frazzled underling who was undoubtedly bootstrapped into writing it. I wondered if it made sense even to them.

Klein-Mueller was headquartered high up in the Francisco building in downtown Wonder City. The lobby was small for a firm with that kind of bankroll, but it had a luxurious Art-Deco feel to it. I figured my scheduled interview would take around 15 minutes, just a breezy run through of whatever inane talking points. After that the wet work would take just a few seconds, but I’d need at least half an hour to set up the forensics.

“Mr. Mueller had to jump on an emergency conference call, but he apologizes again for the delay.”

I started tapping my pen against my watch, a deliberately offensive habit I picked up from a particularly annoying colleague. The receptionist frowned. She was young, in her twenties, and her nameplate said Alice. I wondered if the press release had come from her desk. I thought about other ways to annoy her. I cleared my throat and ostentatiously straightened my tie. She sighed, then picked up her phone and pretended to dial for several minutes until it beeped in earnest and she waved me in.

On the way out I stopped again at the receptionist’s desk. She was typing something.

“Sorry to bug you Alice, but I have to go write up this interview. Can you recommend a good restaurant or coffee shop or something? I’m new to Wonder City.”

She squinted at me, truly aghast.

“Good god, no,” she said.

K: I kind of love this. The story drew its characters better than any other of the lot, and I’m already willing to read the protagonist for many more pages. The story goes nowhere, more or less, but in a rare move I can forgive this since that’s the clear mission statement (ahem) of the piece. The corporate BS is sent up nicely without being overly cynical or obvious, and the idea that the protagonist just wants to annoy Alice had me giggling far more than it should have. This little story was a lot of fun. GOLD

CP: That is a wonderfully awful mission statement. You’re deliberately keeping us removed from the action of the story, and I can’t decide how I feel about that. Despite what’s not revealed, the characters feel nicely developed, and the writing here works well for me throughout. I want to reward the ambition even though I wish I understood a little better what happens at the very end. In a company that’s reinventing the alphabet, are they above such ordinary places as restaurants or coffee shops? GOLD

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So there’s your first result, Prosers. Ian has jumped out to a commanding lead which he’ll need as a buffer once he inevitably stops showing up for reasons only he can explain. As we move on, I look forward to bigger and better things as every one of you showed an adeptness with character, structure or humor, and once you start putting together all three (or other elements) this will be a real wicked season we’ve got going here. Welcome back to Play with the Prose! I had no idea how much I was missing it.

Brooks will put up the Interrobang results later along with the next prompt. It’s so top secret, even I don’t know what it is! GET EXCITED

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