I don’t know about you guys, but I love a good story about pants. That is the kind of thing that I would certainly never miss a chance to write about. Don’t you agree? Well, I know there are at least two of you who don’t agree with me on that one, but that just means more medals for the rest of us.

What’s that? I don’t get to keep any of the medals? I have to give them all away?

Fair enough. Let’s get to it.

(Spooky chimes in)

Howdy, chilluns! Milkman here with the Ampersand side of things, where everyone that responds to “Eric/k”, “Mr. S” or “Hey, Dickwad who nonsubs all the time” nonsubbed. It was a bit of a rough week, to be honest, though there were some real flashes of brilliance here and there (Brooks and I may have disagreed about where they were, somewhat, but they were present). Once again, we didn’t fail for lack of ideas; it’s taking those ideas and turning them into stories that will be key in the long term.

Brooks here.  Nor did we agree on who was going to post this damned thing.  Whatever, let’s jump and find out who got some rewards.

Bret Highum

I didn’t realize it was ash that fell from the skies. The amber glow of the streetlights didn’t reveal the grayness of the soft flakes, so the light fluff drifting down from the empty black heavens seemed the same as the highlands snow I knew. I was too busy gawking through windows and watching the fine folk as they strutted to the shops and restaurants to pay attention to the soot underfoot.

Tinkling laughter caught my attention, and I looked back across the street. The source of the mirthful sound was not dressed primly, as were the ladies who were being escorted to their toasts and their teas, and it only served to draw a more vivid contrast between their powdered faces and her rouge-hued vivaciousness. A handful of men crowded around her indecently-ruffled skirts like hound dogs after the fox.

I turned back to my perusal of the world inside the glass, where the women sat demurely, holding fragile porcelain teacups and taking dainty bites of delicate white cakes whilst hiding their teeth behind their gracefully unsmiling lips. But again the unrefined gaiety issued forth from somewhere inside the ring of overcoats and Homburg hats, and I found my teeth gritting as the luminous vision inside the elegant shops was soiled by the crassness of the life outside.

Eventually stepping away from the light, I kicked a gathered drift and realized its true nature. The powder swirled around my legs and clung to my uncuffed trousers, filth overlying filth. A light clammy fog had arisen from the Thames, tinted yellow by the lamplight and lingering in the still air. I pulled my old coat tight and my scarf high up my face, ducking my head as I wandered erratically towards the boarding house where I had arranged lodging.

I rounded a corner too closely and collided heavily with another pedestrian, both of us falling on the deserted cobblestone street. Apologizing, I reached out a hand to assist and froze as I was confronted by the vulgar vixen with the entrancing laugh.

I wondered if her true beauty was inside.

K: Though we never do reach what I’d consider “story” here, the time and place is palpable and I was really digging the transportation to a lost, but vibrant, world. It’s not often I can really feel a story that doesn’t even give its characters names, but despite this one’s coyness, it was a good read. SILVER

DG: Jack the Ripper? Maybe that’s my CdL goggles making everything needlessly dark, but I got a little bit of that vibe here. Occasionally the language felt a little forced and clunky, but the contrast of the high society and the life of the street was onsistent and served a purpose in the story. BRONZE

Jonathon Pope

I stare at the water and listen to the seagulls, and wonder how many times I’ve done this. Stood in this exact spot, with this exact view. I take a sip of my coffee, and remind myself that it is never exactly the same. It changes constantly, with an infinite number of possible variations, and yet the changes are so minute as to render them meaningless to my senses.

Will today be the day?

I sip my coffee again; it tastes good today. I close my eyes and contemplate the ocean floor. I can feel the water move around me and I wonder at what I see. The seagulls cry breaks my reverie. I sip the coffee again.

Not today. Not while the coffee tastes good.

Today the weather is fine. I shall roll my flannel trousers and walk along the beach. I will smell the air and listen to the waves. As the sun goes down, I will shout my plans at the sea. I will tell Poseidon that I am coming for him; that I will take his crown and scepter. I shall commission the mermaids to write him a sad song of his downfall, that they will sing as they march to his throne with me. I shall not roll my pants that day.

I smile to think of the quaking sea god, as the sun plays gently on my face. I’ve seen all of this already, but I will take another cup of coffee, and see it all again.

K: Hm. That’s a second straight story that keeps the reader at arm’s length by not revealing names (well, except Poseidon’s) and eliminating all dialogue and human interaction. I want to be more into this one, but it felt like any old day in the life of this old man. If the Poseidon business is literal, maybe that’s something, but it didn’t come off that way.

DG: Who among us hasn’t railed against Poseidon a time or two? I like this character and their ridiculousness. I’d like to think that the narrator is self-aware and that the revenge is a put-on. Reading it that way gets a medal from me, so if I missed the point, nobody say anything. SILVER

Ian Pratt

Lisi found her pants in a square of sunlight streaming through the window. She stepped carefully from Paul’s bed to grab them. The floor was freezing. She took a sharp breath with each tiptoe.

“What time is the service?” Paul asked, sitting up now but showing no indication of rising.

“Four,” said Lisi, glancing at Paul. He was looking somewhere past her. She buttoned her pants and looked around for her other clothes.

Her shirt, the light blue cotton button-down she wore for work, was still nestled with her bra in the tangle of blankets at the foot of the bed. She slipped them both on and turned to Paul, who had lit a cigarette. The smoke wound its way towards her, carried by an unseen air current. The room’s only warmth came from their two bodies and a small space heater next to the nightstand, struggling to contend with the early winter chill. Lisi turned from the smoke and peered out the window. A small cloud, a little gray puffball, was moving towards the sun. It would block the light in a minute or two, she figured.

There was a quote that Lisi remembered, though she couldn’t remember who said it: “Time doesn’t move fast, or slow. Time doesn’t move at all. Time is a vacuum. The moment we are in is the same moment the universe was born, the same moment as your happiest triumphs and most sorrowful disappointments.”

Lisi stood barefoot, she still hadn’t located her socks, watching the cloud’s progress. It was losing momentum, slowing to a stop just before it reached the sun. A few wispy tendrils blossomed forth, exploring the air around it. It looked unsure.

“I know I never met your dad, but I can go if you want, or…” Paul trailed off, reaching beside him to ash out his cigarette.

She closed here eyes and took a deep breath that nearly caught in her throat. When she opened her eyes the cloud still hadn’t budged. Bright sunlight still streamed through the window. The cloud would be casting a shadow somewhere, Lisi knew.

K: Early on this one really looks like it’s going somewhere, but by the end I felt it was a tad unfinished. The characters are revealed rather ably by the action, but once we get bogged down by the dopey college bull session quote about time being in a vacuum, the story stalls and gives us nothing more to latch on to. It’s a shame, because up until then, I was pretty engrossed by the characters. SILVER

DG: Moody and reflective. There’s a well-drawn image with the cloud and the expected shadow that never arrives. Appropriate melancholy for the situation, it seems like there’s more loss going on here than just the funeral. GOLD

Pete Bruzek

When the new kid said that his favorite show was Matlock, we sort of shrugged and thought “hey, maybe he’s got good memories of watching it with his grandpa.” Steve was a little ‘off’, but it’s not like we could be choosy if someone wanted to hang out with us.

We would invite him out to Old Man Szczepan’s shed to smoke cigarette’s and talk about the house’s wacky former occupant. Kids made up all sorts of stories about the old coot. Some of them funny, most a little mean, some of them a little creepy. Steve would just stare at us wide-eyed and sometimes laugh with this awful exagerated laugh.

No one thought anything of it until one day, Larry started knocking on our door like a madman in the middle of the night.

“What’s all this about?” asked my mom. He wouldn’t tell her. He wouldn’t even tell me until we were alone in my room.

“Zach” he said breathlessly, “You’ll never believe this. Steve is Old Man Szczepan!”

I didn’t believe him, but he came up with convincing proof of the old man’s dalliances with dark magic, and the kid did look and act like someone who had no idea how to be a kid in 1990. It all checked out.

He didn’t have many friends after the news broke. No one wanted Old man Szczepan to put a spell on them.

Of course, it turned out later that there’s no such thing as anti-aging magic, and that Steve’s family had been homeschooling him for years until the fourth grade. They pulled him back out of school after that year was over.

We felt pretty silly after that.

K: I think there’s an awfully good story here, though the flat ending, superfluous apostrophes and misspellings kept it from getting its due. More than anything, though, it needed a rewrite. The idea is a really fun one, but having a story told to me by some dude long after the fact isn’t half as interesting as experiencing it. BRONZE

DG: The logic of the narrator hurts my head a little bit, but it’s a kid, right? I do feel like this just lost its way trying to keep a foot in both a silly and a dark story. I’m also not a fan of that last line, it just seems to negate a lot of what came before.

Jack Haas

Charlie was the only one stupid enough to open the door. All of us knew Mr. Axley would come back out eventually. No point in disturbing him. The house and the fields lay quiet during his retreats, sometimes for as long as two weeks.

When Charlie went in, Lance tried to bet anyone five bucks that he wouldn’t come back out. Nobody took him up though, we knew Axley wasn’t a bad man, but we knew even his friends didn’t stop by once the house closed.

There was no scream, no blinding flash of light. Charlie walked slowly back out of the house. He closed the door carefully behind him. No one had the nerve to ask what happened. All Charlie ever said was that Axley sat on a chair in the living room, his pants rolled to his knees, soaking his feet in a cast-iron tub of steaming water.

We all knew that he had seen something else. No one was surprised when Charlie disappeared a few days later. Lance said he saw him walking across the fields under the moon, but no one believed that.

K: There’s an effective mood here, but damn, I feel like you just teased me and walked away for a while and I’m left standing here begging for more details. You don’t have to use all the words, as I’ve proven time and again with my feelings on these, but with so many words left available and so little told, you had time to create a more effective mood leading up to Charlie’s disappearance. It was hard to care about the disappearance when I didn’t know anything about Charlie but his name.

DG: This one doesn’t over-explain itself at all, does it? It’s a bit interesting how everything is defined by the negatives (what Charlie didn’t tell, what the narrators didn’t ask, the lack of exciting action pretty much throughout). That seems like something that could play out really well, or miss completely. I just couldn’t believe that this story is just about an old man soaking his feet for two weeks, so the hinting works mostly because the alternative is so drab. SILVER

Beau

I have to make sure this never happens.

The fluorescent lighting of the hospital room made him look ghastly. Not that the decrepit man in front of me needed much help. His skin was blotchy and struggling to hang on to its skeleton. His mouth hung askew, a poor sluice for the saliva collecting on his gown. A mechanical pump was delivering a beige goo directly into the man’s stomach. Mine lurched.

The near-corpse finally noticed me.

“Is your name Carsten Winfield?”

The man nodded. His eyes followed as I pulled out my wallet and removed a photo. If you weren’t there when it was taken, you’d probably think it was one of those accidental shots of one’s arm while trying to raise the camera. But I was there, my arm revealing a faint red mark where I had cut. My therapist would have called it superficial. To me, it was the first day I started living.

No one had ever seen the photo. I held it up for him.

He squinted his eyes, blinked. Then he recoiled.

A nurse entered the room. “Carsten has a visitor! Friend, family?”

“Family. I’ll be leaving soon.”

“Unlike Carsten here,” she said dismissively, checking the gastric pump.

“Do you know where I can get a DNR form?” I placed the photo in my jacket pocket.

“We have them at the nurse’s station. But I’m afraid it’s too late for that.” Her ability to remain monotone was chilling.

“Actually, it’s for me…” I said, as if she was listening. “Thank you.” I glanced one more time at the depressing man before me. I reaffirmed my vow and left the room.

“Sir? You forgot your wallet…”

The nurse would check my wallet for identification. She would do a double-take when she read the name on the ID. She would try to track me down to ask me about it. But I, Carsten Winfield, was already gone.

K: Gorgeous. It was smart, the characters were well-drawn and the payoff was fun (if a tad overexplained). This is one of my favorite ultra-short stories in a while. GOLD

DG: Too much explanation in that last paragraph. I think the plot itself is pretty good, to me, it needed to focus a bit more on why characters did what they did, and a little on less on reporting what they did. BRONZE

Joe Rakstad

He stood there stoically as they slapped the cold steel shackles upon his legs. His captors reveled in his misery. The sent him to his cell, absent any sunlight to give him hope. His eyes wandered around the dark, damp cell surrounding him. There were scratches on the wall where prisoners of ages past had counted their days. Never more than a hands worth together. His time would be short. He was thankful for that at least.
He would heap revenge upon his father, should he ever escape. This betrayal had burned, like salt upon an open wound. “This is the price of peace.” The last words his father would utter to him. Peace for his father, while he bore the price. He wondered if his father had any idea what was in store for his son. The pain and humiliation he would bear. The mockery of the kingdom he had been sold to. The kingdoms would feign peace in their encounters, but make no mistake, his father would be seen as weak for all ages to come.
His captors dragged him out of his cell to the outside world. The sunlight burned his eyes as the entire kingdom watched the prisoner before them. His captors placed him in the stocks and proclaimed his name to the crowd. The people mocked gleefully, just as the captors had before. Their disdain for him was clear. He watched calmly, his face never changing. He would never give them the satisfaction of knowing how their sting had pained him. He recalled the scratches on the wall, and prayed for the end that was just a short time away…

****************************************************************************************************

“Nice bell-bottoms freshman!” heckled a senior walking by.
“Sorry, Tyler, either their too small with the right length or they’re too long with the right waist.” His mother was trying to reassure him, to no avail. “I suppose we’ll just have to roll them up.”

K: Either “their” too small? For shame. But hey, the payoff did get a smirk. I think this would be stronger with interlacing rather than just a stinger at the end, as I was kind of tuning out by the end of the bloated martyr section, but the idea is solid and I think some more time in the character’s head would do nicely. BRONZE

DG: High school is the worst (full disclosure – I didn’t really mind high school all that much). Why the switch from father to mother in the two sections? I kind of get what the aim was here, but it doesn’t seem consistent and so it loses some impact.

New challenge will get a new post once the judges decide what it is.  Given how organized and in agreement we are, that should be no problem.

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