Of course this would be the night I have to come up with two unclever introductions.

Melissa

A fire blazed along the mountainside, a snake-like trail of orange in the darkness.  Angie watched it for a moment, then shrugged and turned away from the window.  A much worse disaster was coming through the ballroom door at that moment.

Angie tapped Gina on the shoulder and pointed.  “I thought they said Industrial Age theme not Steampunk.”  She snickered and downed another cocktail, wiping her face before remembering the fake soot she’d smeared all over her cheeks.

She directed her anger at this back towards the pair of young women sashaying into the ballroom.  They wore whale-bone corsets cinched down to 21” waists.  Tiny top hats perched atop their ornate curls.  They clutched spectacles that, a moment later, elongated into mini-telescopes that they held up to their faces to observe the room.

Angie rolled her eyes.  “Bitches.”

Gina picked at her teeth.  “Did you try one of the Industrial Age Oatmeal Bars?”

“No.  They any good?”

“I think there were bugs in them.”

“Gross.”

“Not as gross as that kid camped out by the coat check.  I don’t think that little shanty of his is a costume.  I think he might actually be a street urchin.”

They laughed.

Over the next hour, Angie and Gina danced together to the chamber orchestra.  It was easier to do the twist in burlap dresses than they thought, and when they moved into swing dancing, their bonnets came in handy to mop the sweat.  The women in whalebone corsets could do neither.

As the hour struck eleven, and Angie and Gina left the dance floor laughing, the doors to the ballroom opened again.  Angie and Gina paused to see what costume this guest wore, and they both nodded in appreciation.

“That person’s hardcore,” Gina said.

The woman stumbled into the room, and the guests all paused in their dancing to look.  Her clothes were torn, her skin blackened with realistic ash and bubbling skin.  Her eyes were red-rimmed.  She stumbled, fell to her knees.  Blood smeared the floor.  Where her right hand should’ve been were scraps of flesh and a bit of bone.

The woman screamed.

DK: Certainly these aren’t characters I’d want to spend a lot of time with, but I enjoyed their obliviousness here quite a bit, and I liked the abruptness of that cut away from the initial image (and how it was paid off).  BRONZE

K: Why is the woman screaming instead of the partygoers?  That would really drive the horror home more.  The twist is foreshadowed to the point of telegraphing, but all the same, the prose is very strong and I’m impressed that a story with this scope was effectively told with so few words.  GOLD

Dean

Black workman boots leading the way, Jenna confidently stepped over the shards of glass and through the half-opened greased stained overhead doors pockmarked with blossoms of rust and entered the darkened factory floor.  Checking out a party in an abandoned husk of an auto parts manufacturing plant seemed like a fun idea; but scores of neglected 50 gallon barrels leaking a corrosive slough of acid soup, scuzzy tattooed dudes leering at her lithe figure squeezed into her perquisite black jeans, and rats scurrying unabashedly in the dark corners made her seriously question her judgment in Friday night entertainment.  It’s not that I’m scared, Jenna thought as she cinched up her heavy wool coat, it’s just that I’ve kinda grown out of this scene.  She also missed her new boyfriend, although she really didn’t mention the party.

Jenna noticed a few acquaintances from the shop but she needed to find something to drink before she could engage with anyone.  Red dixie cups filled with a greenish-brown liquid appeared to be the drink of choice and a mass of unruly skate punks indicated where the bar was located.  It was only after a few sips of the surprisingly warm concoction did she notice live music playing from the far reaches of the abandoned assembly line.  She followed the serpentine array of canvas belts and the lattice work of steel and sooty plastic until she found herself in front of a band.

She wasn’t necessarily familiar with the band, although later on she remarked they probably were trying to come off as some sort of post-modern Bruce Springsteen with the Midtown Greenway taking the place of the Atlantic City Boardwalk.  She never did figure out if they were serious musicians or if they were trying to be all Gen-X ironic.  They definitely owned the hipster look with their bushy beards, black plastic framed glasses and flannel shirts.

Jenna stood there listening for awhile, kicking away the detritus of the shattered concrete floor from her boots, lost in thought about her plans to jettison her drink and head back to the City.  She took no notice of the band right in front of her.  Even if she had paid rapt attention Jenna would have no idea that the lead singer at point in time was constructing a new song in his mind with her as the subject matter.  Jenna never did hear that song.

DK: There’s an appealing specificity to many of the details here, which gives this piece a distinctiveness, and an undercurrent of some kind of darkness lurking ahead even though the text never quite coalesces into revealing it.

K: This prose is gorgeous to the point that I’m almost a tad annoyed that it’s just a moment in time, and not a complete narrative.  Witty cynicism and smart turns of phrase can go a long way on occasion, though, and this is one of those occasions.  SILVER

Sarah

I bought a metal detector at the sports shop, thinking a hobby would help me sober up. I started sweeping my own yard, inching into the wild tangles where the trains used to run. They shut that down years ago, but I figured the old aluminum plant’s rotting tracks would be a perfect place to hunt treasure; I was right, but it made me wish I’d bought a fishing pole instead.

Until Sunday I’d only found junk: Pabst cans, staplers, hoop earrings – stuff like that. I found a dog collar wrapped in foil, blood on its tags – that was a little fucked up, but it was nothing compared to the hill by the tracks.

I started digging along the rails when the detector beeped at a squishy pile of dirt and gravel. It was concealed by a mess of blueberry bushes, so I set up a little work camp. My metal detector had gone crazy and I was obsessed with finding out why. I hit on something big – a chain the width of my arm, then what looked to be a rusted wheel.

I got about 6 feet down yesterday morning. As crazy as it sounds, I had exposed the side of a train car. I kept digging, headphones on, sweating like a pig. I hit on more strange shit: a jar full of little candies, a dinner plate, a doll’s arm and some ladies’ trinkets, all buried down in the dirt. Pale blue tile – chipped and scorched – was everywhere. I dug out enough dirt to poke around in a shattered side window.

I swept with an old paint brush, like they do on those history shows. I moved the dirt away until these fuzzy ribbons poked through: under those, I pulled out a ruined book and some bracelets.

I stopped when I found the golden hair, mostly burned and matted. I don’t know why I didn’t think about something like that when I was tunneling down – that something grotesque and sad would pop out from this hidden mess.

Somebody must’ve done this on purpose.

I left my tools where they were, calling the sheriff on the walk down the tracks. I made myself a double back at the trailer and listened for the sirens.

DK: Here as well I thought the detail really helped this piece deepen its approach, and this follows a natural arc of increasing interest through the metal detecting, which is also a cool idea to use for this prompt.

K: Wow.  This one gained a lot of love with the final set of reveals, which were not only gripping but actually believable, which is a rarity when the writer goes for something this strong.  It’s a bit clinical to open, but that may actually strengthen the payoff. SILVER

Matt

Maybe this is how death always approached.  Maybe there was a rip in the fabric of time.  Or maybe their minds had all gotten together and decided to pull the greatest head-trip any group of brains had ever conceptualized.  Whatever the cause, the moment the 6:05 jumped the track, Samuel Partridge and Rebecca Davidson, indeed, the whole of car number 8, began to notice something peculiar.  Everything had stopped moving.

To his credit, Samuel’s first instinct was to check on Rebecca.

“Are you alright?”

Rebecca slowly tapped her person with her fingertips.

“I think so?”

All around the couple similar patterns of movement and conversation began to take shape, everything in real time, at least, to the participants.

A man wearing a cream polo shirt crossed to the front of the car and began struggling with the door.  It didn’t move.

“I’m going to have a look?”

It was a question.  Rebecca nodded, and as Samuel stood up she pondered the last time he’d asked permission.

The two men, soon joined by a third, and fourth, could not move the door.  They tested the rear of the car, and the windows too, finding each time that laws of physics and mechanics had been abridged in ways that weren’t entirely convenient.  The parties returned to their seats, no one quite sure of their next steps.  Night soon fell, and Rebecca laid her head on Samuel’s lap as he kept watch against this new reality.  It would be a shame, she thought, if Doris never got to meet him.

Rebecca awoke to find a small plastic cup, translucent white, floating a short distance from her face.  She sat up with a start, and Samuel bounded from a group talking in hushed tones near the center of the car.

“Good morning.”

“Good?”

He looked at the ground.  “No.”

“What?”

“Come on.”

He grabbed her hand, leading her to the group.  A woman in a suit was drawing something on a piece of paper.

“Last night, that tree was almost half a meter ahead of where we are now.”

“So we are moving then?”

“Yes, but at a fraction of the speed as everything else.  The doors, windows, objects in the train.  Everything except people is at normal speed.  We’re crashing in slow motion.”

“How long…?”

“Eight, maybe nine months?”

Rebecca’s hands moved instinctively to her abdomen.

“Eight?  But that’s two months after…”

DK: I’m not always super sold on those last-second reveals, but this one lays the groundwork to prevent it being such.  The slow-motion concept is interesting and unique, and the characters have a definite sense of relationship established within a short space.  SILVER

K: Is the baby really necessary, given the rest of the action?  I mean, there’s a hell of a lot going on here.  Do we really need a second payoff?  My read on this is that the slo-mo gimmick was a little cheapened when we were smacked upside the head with the pregnancy angle, which seemed like chocolate syrup on a pepperoni pizza.  Potentially tasty…but does it belong?  BRONZE

Annette

“The girls are in the principal’s office.”  Lt. Harper Douglas looked like he wanted to be anywhere else.

“Come on, Hap, they’re just young girls.”

“There’s more money and power behind those five girls than . . . well, let’s just say we’d better tread very carefully, Sam.”

“I don’t care what their daddies do; I know they’re guilty.”

“So far, all we have is a blood in a stable with traces of amniotic fluid and five girls who were not where they were scheduled to be.  Guilty of what?”

“Someone gave birth in that barn.  You know it.  Where’s the baby, Hap?”

“Without a body, we don’t have a crime.  No way you’re getting a DNA test without probable cause.  They’re not talking.”

“They’re teenage girls, Hap.  I used to be one.  I’ll get the truth.”

Principals of private schools definitely have nicer offices.  Having spent enough time in one growing up, I knew the difference.

I questioned the girls separately and their stories were well-rehearsed.  They were supposed to be at the assembly but cut it to meet in the empty library and help each other study for a chemistry exam.  They knew nothing about the blood in the barn or a pregnancy.

I brought them in together.  They sat at the polished cherry conference table in a semicircle, a united front.  Hap beckoned to me from the hall, closing the door behind me.

“Anna Ginther’s father called and will be here shortly with his lawyer.  You’re just about done here.”

“Come on!  One of those girls had a baby in that stable and the others are covering.”

“Whoever it was kept it under cover.  Meaning, she probably didn’t gain much weight. The baby may have been a miscarriage.”

“What if wasn’t?”

Hap shrugged, his eyes heavy.

I slammed back into the office and leaned across the table.

“Was it alive or dead, Anna?”

Blue eyes widened.  “Officer Anders?”

“Why the loose clothes, Marta?  Where’s the skinny jeans?”

“Teenage girls often have body image issues, Officer Anders.”

“My money’s on you, Claudia; you’re pale and shaky.  I bet an exam proves you recently gave birth.”

“Do you have a warrant, Officer Anders?”  Claudia didn’t flinch against my gaze.”

Exasperated, I lost my temper.  “Where’s the fucking baby‽”

“We’re done, Sam,” Hap said firmly.  Two suits followed him in like thunder clouds.

To their credit, none of the girls smirked.

DK: I like this setting and the establishment of the narrator character; it feels well-rounded for the genre.  The end sequence could use a little more space, whether this is a result of space or time limitation, the rapid fire questioning doesn’t work as well as it could for concluding it.

K: I know word limits make it tempting to eliminate every single point of reference during a conversation, but dude…don’t.  It was easy to lose track of this one, and the dramatic potential was bogged down by the fact that it was a slow narrative crippled by the reader having to go back to make sense of what was happening.

Sama

“There’s so many options to choose from.”

Shayna nodded. Go back, go forward, stay here. All the lines were so long. She hated waiting.

Then she saw it–no line. No waiting, just a piece of paper. She stepped up to it and a light engulfed her, probing her senses. The card read: “Be almighty. Be ominpotent. Be a superstar.”

“You aren’t serious?” Shayna turned to her ex-boyfriend reading the card over her shoulder.

She shrugged at him and smiled.

“Who’s going to worship you,” he asked and smirked continuing to peruse the selections. He started to drift toward a booth titled “Karma.” Shayna’s smile widened hoping to never see him again.

Shayna put the card back down and a door opened. She walked through it and disappeared into the warm light. Glad to leave all the lines behind and move on.

The light faded into a room of television sets. Everywhere the screens were busy zooming in and out, following people closely or from a distance. Many of the screens had captions scrolling along the bottom. Shayna found she could scan through the words fast. Prayers. People praying to her.

A nice office chair sat empty in the middle of the room. She settled in to the soft leather and turned it around with her feet to take in all the busy scenes.

She wondered how she’d be able to do something with all the requests when a red light started flashing followed by a blaring siren. Shayna covered her ears and breathed a sigh of relief as the siren faded and stopped. She rolled up to the television where the red light had been.

Its screen showed a horrific scene of twisted metal and upended concrete. Smoke swirled and sparks flew around scattering light onto bloodied limbs poking through a warped and massive wreckage.

Shayna couldn’t help but smile and rub her hands together.

“All right, my first assignment.”

DK: I definitely wished this concept had more room to play with, too, and here I almost had the problem of wanting to see what happened next more than anything I’d already seen, but I enjoyed the idea enough to overcome that in this case.  SILVER

K: Shayna could be so damned engaging, but given her complete compliance with the order, this story is robbed of all dramatic potential.  Having the lead character so readily accept the fate of such a shitty assignment might be a decent setup for something else, but on its own, without conflict, it’s just a dick character being a dick.

Gilman.

Three people fell on him when the railcar settled on its side. One adult and two children. He counted the thuds.

The pain was, at first, more bearable than he would have thought. Something in his brain said “That’s shock. You’re in shock to shield you from the pain.” A soft voice it was, either terribly close and quiet or terribly distant and weak. For a moment he couldn’t be sure it was his own mind he heard.

Then his head was the clapper of a bell, impacting, sending waves of pain through his skull. He smelled blood dripping past his nose from a gash above his eyebrows. He heard distant sirens and, ironically, another train passing harmlessly on the track opposite. Moans were there too. Kids crying out. One of these, on top of the pile of bodies on top of him.

One of the voices was repeating “don’t panic. Nobody panic.” Which of course started the pile of rush-hour humanity writhing against itself, a knot of broken toads trying to escape some predator. He felt a high heel kick against the bloody ache on his forehead, and the world went crazy with pain and dizziness. He wasn’t thinking anymore, he was clawing. Clawing to extract himself from the pile of bodies toward the sunlight streaming in through the sliding doors above him. Two hours a day at the climbing wall in the gym was helping, even though his consciousness threatened to wink out with every exertion. He fought it, fought the protestations of the people he scaled, fought the odd angle his left leg insisted it take as he clambered. Pressing into the fleshy hand and footholds his fingernails and shoes created. Reasoned that walls can’t feel pain, they can only be climbed or ignored. Climbed or ignored.

Hoisting himself out of the train car, he rolled slightly until he was on his back against the steel-walled side of his transport. The sun burned uncaring down on him, on all of them. He tried to breathe some relief into his panicky lungs, resulting in a coughing fit. The fit subsided when he remembered his wife and two daughters were traveling with him. Directly across from him when the train leapt the rails. He strained his focus through the soup of voices below him, but he had to admit didn’t recognize anything he heard.

DK: The descriptions of the action are quite good, and this arc is self-contained well.  I think as with some others so far there’s just a remove or distance from the character, since the action needs so much space to develop, that prevents it from resonating fully on an emotional level. BRONZE

K: There’s nothing “ironic” about a train passing safely; nearly every train in history gets to its destination safely.  I wish that was a small thing, but it’s a real standout of a mistake when the week is as strong as this one.  This story does draw me in to the lead character by the end, but it’s…I mean, it’s just a train wreck.  I knew that was going to happen, so what’s the hook here?

Brian

Raul flicked his cigarette to the floor, snubbed it out with his boot, and looked up the steps at Cordy. She tipped her red velvet top hat and smiled.

“Come on,” she said.

Raul had never liked costume parties, but looking at Cordelia – her waste squeezed tight by her corset and her smooth, pale decolletage lined by her low-cut dress – he could see the appeal. Raul pulled his goggles over his eyes, adjusted his leather aviator cap, and took Cordy’s hand.

They walked up several flights of steps before entering a loft on the fourth floor of the warehouse. Raul paused, taking in the scene.  A chandelier, lit with genuine beeswax candles, hung from the ceiling.  A string quartet was set up in one corner,  filling the room with harsh and dissonant melodies. The roof could hardly be seen through a haze of smoke. The place was packed, and everyone in attendance was wearing Victorian-era clothes and carrying a dazzling array of accessories constructed from metal piping and dials.

“Jesus. . .” Raul whispered.

“Yeah, we take this very seriously,” Cordy said.  Then she grabbed her side.

“This is uncomfortable,” she said, grimacing. “Why don’t you take a look around, Raul. I’m going to go. . .adjust things.” Cordy walked away and disappeared through a door.

Raul wandered over to a large banquet table. He was getting hungry, and was more than a little disappointed to find that the  bowls were filled with construction material: nuts, bolts, screws and nails. Raul grabbed a handful and sneered.

“Not to your liking?”

A tall, skeletal man stood next to Raul. He wore red tinted coke-bottle glasses, and steam appeared to be rising from his mouth, ears and nostrils. Raul squinted.

“That’s. . . that’s a neat trick.”

“Yes,” replied the man, “it comes naturally, after a while.”

Raul dropped the metal pieces back into the bowl.

“I’m sure it does.”

The man raised a chalice and handed it to Raul.

“If the food is not to your tasting, perhaps you would like a drink?”

Raul wanted a drink more than anything. He grabbed the chalice and looked inside. The liquid was thick and dark. Raul sniffed.

“Is this motor oil?”

The man in the coke-bottle glasses raised an eyebrow.

“I think I’ll pass,” Raul said, handing back the glass.

Raul walked quickly to the door Cordy had gone through and knocked.

“Cordy, you in there? I could use some company out here!”

There was no answer. Raul’s impatience got the better of him and he barged in.

Cordy was sitting on a bed, facing away from Raul. She had taken off the top of her dress, exposing her shoulders and upper back. The corset had been untied and removed, and underneath there was no skin; only an elaborate collection of gears and rods, moving rhythmically where her mid-section should have been. Cordy was holding a screw driver and making delicate adjustments.

“I could use some privacy, Raul,” she said coarsely.

Raul slowly stepped away.

DK: I think this is one of the more fully-realized settings of the round, with character interactions that feel natural (even in an unnatural location) and a good set of twists and turns that kept me, at least, invested and guessing.  GOLD

K: Now that’s true steampunk.  The prose didn’t grip me like some of the early stories did, but it’s still damned clever, with one of the better reveals I’ve read in a while.  There’s nothing “wrong” with the setup other than it feels a little generic, which of course is a problem if you’re face to face with genius. BRONZE

Zack

Katie’s family didn’t have a ton of money, so she didn’t have a lot of toys. She was a very clever girl and was an expert at combining and repurposing her toys to come up with new ways to play. Today a Bratz doll had kidnapped Ken and tied him to the tracks of her toy train.

“Listen up, Pinkie Pie. If you don’t pay up, Ken’s gonna get it!”

She slowly moved the train around the tracks, while pondering if and how Ken could get out of this predicament.

“What’s up, Sugarpop?” her father asked as he walked down the stairs. When he reached the basement and saw the situation that was unfolding he froze.

It must have been 25 years now, but it all came rushing back like it was yesterday. The squeal of the breaks, the force that he felt from them, the sickening thud that the jumper made as he travelled underneath the train.

He was completely frozen by the icy grip of what he saw that night. No one really understood why his breathing got so short when he waited at train crossings. When he tried to speak, it tightened the grip around his throat.

“Daddy? D…daddy?”

It felt like he was on the bottom of the ocean. Katie seemed so distant, even though he knew he could reach out and touch her.

“You’re scaring me, daddy!”

He mustered every bit of strength he could to try to snap out of it. He wanted to explain to her she didn’t know any better, that she couldn’t have possibly known what this would do.

“Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t.”

This was the best he could manage.

DK: I liked the snapshot feel here, though I think I’d have liked this more if it focused more on Katie or the father as the perspective point.  In fact, setting it entirely from Katie’s point of view could’ve given it an even greater level of intrigue through the confusion and panic that’s probably a natural result there.

K: It’s BRAKES, not “breaks.”  Why is everyone making this misteak lately?  This story really runs in place during the final moments, with no real payoff in sight.  The author got to their payoff a little too early, and then apparently felt the need to write enough words to reach the limit for some reason.

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