Welcome to Ampersand, your guaranteed three-nonsub division! Well, we thank those of you who deigned to show up. Fun Fact: Google Docs does not recognize the word “deigned,” perhaps assuming it to be a misspelling of “designed.” I want to say something about deigning to continue to use Google Docs, but it’s clunky and awkward and KELLY WHERE THE F(*& ARE THE RESULTS ALREADY

Um. Here.

Bret Highum

The pack milled in slow circles around their prey. The bull was past his prime, slab sides frosted with gray hairs, but his antlers were still sharp. Cagey and rangy, he’d held off the pack for miles, but then he’d turned into a valley drifted three feet deep in ice-crusted snow. The wolves had ran smoothly along the top while his hooves smashed through, and finally he’d stopped to face them, plumes of vapor shooting from his nostrils.
The younger wolves were the most aggressive, darting in and out at the elk’s hooves and fetlocks, nipping and slashing with gleaming white teeth. A few bore bloody gouges and one limped badly from a stomped foot. Some older wolves, grizzled with age and gaunt, joined the young wolves in harassing the bull. Four wolves sat at a distance from the fray. Larger and well-fed, they waited with calm patience.
The bull turned slowly, stamping his hooves and tossing his mighty rack from side to side. It wasn’t the first time he’d been cornered. He churned the snow, breaking the crust to expose the feathery ice crystals underneath, backing up against a windblown pine. The wolves withdrew to the edge of the crust, snarling and yipping.
It was one of the ragged wolves, ravenous and desperate, that finally committed. Diving into the snow, he tried to twist away from the hooking points and reach the vulnerable hamstring. He failed. The longest forks slammed into his side, spearing a lung. With a heave, the elk lifted the writhing canine into the air, blood spraying.
But the bull’s success came at a cost. With his antler trapped in the wolf’s ribcage, he couldn’t defend himself. The rest of the pack raged forward.
A crack speared through the chill air and a gout of snow spurted up between the wolves and the elk, bringing the pack to a halt. The hunter aimed carefully and fired again, the bullet smashing into a small pine tree. With snarls and growls, the pack fled across the snow.
The hunter looked at the bull with his gory ornament and shook his head regretfully that he only had an antlerless tag. Slinging his rifle, he set off down the far side of the hill.

K: This is a little like the end of Gangs of New York, where an epic battle is waged in the streets and halted by a third interested party. I’m not the biggest on animal stories, but this one drew me in with a palpable will to survive on the part of all parties. I kind of can’t believe how much I liked this. SILVER

CP: This feels very Bret-ish to me. Especially since you used the term gout in this way earlier in the season. ANYWAY . . . as far as the story itself goes, the descriptions of action here are pretty good, though there were moments when it felt like perhaps just a bit too much of the play-by-play. I know nothing about hunting, so I’m trying to figure out why someone who had an anterlerless tag would shoot at something with antlers. That question notwithstanding, what transpires fits the prompt impressively well, and I like the mood at the story’s end. SILVER

Ian Pratt

“The director was standing… where? Here?”

Horace knelt down to mark the spot with a piece of chalk, then straightened up with a deep breath.

“How many shots?”

“Three shots,” Violet answered.

Horace sighed again. It was an irritating habit, he knew. Violet gritting his teeth whenever he did it. But it was between that or yawning. How many hours had he slept last night? Or any night?

Violet walked across the stage to join Horace at the X. They stared together up to the balcony, where the three shots had come from.

“So…” Violet started. “Shit.”

The stage lights were on, but the rafters were still dark. Horace had done a play in the fourth grade. He he’d been half of the donkey in Pinocchio. That was the first and only time he’d ever been on a stage. It wasn’t a happy memory. There was something more sinister now, standing in a spotlight in the exact spot a man had been killed. The theatre was empty besides him and Violet. Why the hell hadn’t they turned the rest of the lights on?

“Hit the lights, will you?” he said to Violet, pointing offstage in the direction of where the switch might be. He sighed as his partner sauntered away. He heard Violet snicker.

Standing alone on the stage, the spotlights seemed even brighter. Horace looked down at the chalk X at his feet. The heat from the lights was stifling. He lifted a hand to wipe the sweat from his forehead, revealing the swampy state of his armpits. Jesus, it was sweltering.

“Hey Violet,” he shouted. “Kill the floodlights too, huh?”

He listened for an answer. He squinted around, but he couldn’t see anything in the stage margins. He felt his pulse in his breath. He tried to sigh, but it hitched. The killer had fired three shots from a Remington 597 semi-auto .22.

“Violet!” he shouted again. Was the spotlight getting brighter? Was the spotlight narrowing?

“Turn off the fucking spotlight!” he bellowed. Offstage was nothing, an empty void. His right hand twitched at his side. Opening night, when the director was introducing the play. Right after he thanked the audience. Blam blam blam.

Horace’s voice cracked as he screamed “Violet” once more.

K: This is a pretty engaging idea – you’ll certainly catch my notice by putting a story onstage – but the prose is a little singsong and repetitive and doesn’t instill the type of dread that would really make it a thriller. I like what this almost is. BRONZE

CP: This gets nicely creepy as the story goes on, but I wish there was a bit more about the murder and possible motives and not quite as much about the detectives, who themselves aren’t very interesting characters. BRONZE

Jonathon Pope

Harry laughed to himself as he walked away. He thought that if anyone were paying attention, they would notice the bitter edge to the laugh, but nobody was.

He had been enjoying the party. As much as he could, anyway. Parties weren’t really his thing, but he liked all these people. That had a tendency to help relieve some of his tension. After a couple of beers he realized that he was having a good time. In fact, everybody seemed to be having a good time, he marveled. Even Becky and Steve seemed to be getting along, where normally they would be sniping mercilessly at each other while everyone else clucked behind their backs “why do they stay together?”

His laugh was at something that the hostess, Lauren, said, as she flitted from conversation to conversation. “Good to see you Harry!” she told him. “Now, you’re not going to pull your usual Irish goodbye tonight, are you?”

The usual party tension returned in full force after that. He hung around for another half hour; he felt himself drawing closer to the door With a sigh, he decided to give in to the gravitational pull of the exit, and gathered his coat and hat. He meandered toward the door, and tried to catch anyone’s eye, but everyone was too engaged to look his way. Irish goodbye. Really? I’m already gone as far as they’re concerned. As he put his hand on the door, he heard his name called out. Lauren charged across the room at him. Harry thought she was really angry until she threw her arms around him and said “Dammit Harry, I told you not to pull this shit! I’m really glad you came out tonight.” She released her hug, gave him a peck on the cheek, and walked away. The rest of the room, startled by Lauren’s outburst, was looking at Harry. He smiled, opened the door, gave a wave, and with a cheery “goodnight all!” slipped into the cool night air.

K: Try as I might, I can’t figure out why this story exists. Harry is a wallflower – alright. Why is this story important enough to be written? I got a great sense of character that never materialized into a narrative; I come away liking Harry a lot, but wondering what happens to him when he’s locked in a real situation.

CP: Oh, Harry. I wish the story hadn’t come out and told us so much about him and his frame of mind. It would have been more interesting, I think, to have it worked into a scene where we saw him interacting more with the other people at the party. (This, of course, is harder to write, but that’s why we pay you the big bucks, Prosers!) I did, however, enjoy your correct use of the subjunctive tense in the second sentence!

Joe Rakstad

Maria opened her eyes to shallow morning light. She could smell the crisp clean cold air seeping through the window near her bed. She lifted her head gently to see the fresh blanket of sugar snow over the trees outside. Here it was, the moment she had been waiting for.

She peeked over to the other bed, where her older sister Lilly laid sound asleep, oblivious to the time and date. Maria considered waking her, but it wasn’t worth it to make her grumpy. She tiptoed out of her bed and into the hallway. She softly tried to open her parents’ bedroom door, but it was locked. She dared a soft tap-tap-tap to see if they were even slightly awake. She awaited a response, but it was not to be.

She padded quietly down the stairs to see if he had come. When she got to the stair that opened up to the first floor, she slowly craned her neck around the corner to see if she could see the fireplace. Sure enough, there were brightly wrapped boxes scattered over the floor. She knew better than to peek at any of them, but just the sight of them made her smile.

Just one more thing to check. She padded down the stairs a little faster and went to the mantle. She walked lightly, taking great care not to step on any of the presents. She stretched to her tippy-toes to look at the Nativity. The manger that was empty the night before now had a tiny ceramic baby Jesus laying there. Maria smiled joyfully. She knelt where she was and said a quiet prayer, “Thank you God for sending your son Jesus to us.”

K: I’ll be damned if this isn’t a sweet little thing. Unlike the last one where the ending told us something about an ancillary character and the lead only had something happen to him, this one had the lead character’s convictions front and center, driving the narrative. This is a very small story, but one with a rather memorable lead character. SILVER

CP: This is a sweet but rather slight little story that hinges upon an unexpected reveal. I wish there had been just a bit more tension leading up to the reveal and that Maria felt a bit more vivid–she’s the only character who’s awake in the story, but she’s a bit bland. I also think the number of adjectives could have been cut down, particularly in the early paragraphs. BRONZE

Beau

She smelled fantastic. He inhaled her scent again, tweaking a nipple with his free hand. They had met only hours earlier, but it felt like they had a connection. Not like an infatuation, though he’d experienced that more times than he could count. This woman felt less like a conquest, and more of a partner. She anticipated his desires, ones he didn’t even know he had. That’s why he was staying longer than usual, and why he was sad that he had to leave.

“I wish you didn’t have to go,” she said in earnest. Grabbing her nightgown, she went to the bathroom, leaving the door open a few inches. “I really enjoyed you.”

He agreed. He made a point of loudly getting dressed, and prattled on about the office and what an ass his boss can be if he’s late. Opening his briefcase, he pulled out his 9mm and aimed it at the bathroom door.

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

He was an amazing lover. She had come three times and she was thinking of asking him to go again. Most of these guys were pitiful. She had to fake pleasure–and entire conversations–more times than she could count. It was a new thrill to almost be in the moment with someone. She told him as much, then grabbed her nightgown and headed to the bathroom.

“This has been an amazing night,” he said in earnest. But the rest of his conversation was obviously contrived, as was the noise he was making in the bedroom. Without hesitation, she grabbed the 9mm behind the toilet and threw open the door.

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

“This is unfortunate,” he said. “I really like you.”

“I like you too.” Her voice was weak, belying her position.

“We would make a great team.”

Her lip quivered. “Do you think…could we?”

He could really use someone like her on his side. And some joy in his life. “Yes,” he said. He lowered his weapon and smiled. Then he crumpled to the floor.

”I disagree,” she replied to no one. She watched his lifeless body bleed out before her. “Though I wish I didn’t.”

K: Alright, ya got me. This is almost too Hollywood blockbuster, but a complicated relationship will draw me in every time. I think a no-death ending would have actually worked better dramatically, though I understand the urge to make it feel like the story’s ending. Anyway, I suppose it’s a little predictable, but the prose was smart enough that I’m not sure how much I care. GOLD

CP: All right, I snorted when I got to the end of this one. At first I disliked the writing because it tells way too much and shows way too little. But once the woman grabbed her gun, all was forgiven. This is ridiculous, and I mean that in the best way possible. SILVER

Pete Bruzek

Franklin lingered for a moment at the doorway, then stepped in. There was no sense of dread, just one of impending loss. The loss of what, exactly, Franklin wasn’t sure. He felt it all the same.

The man that Franklin had spoken to earlier was there with the contract – thirty years, Franklin and his ten specified individuals would have all debts – both retroactive and proactive – forgiven. Franklin signed the document. They noted that he hadn’t filled out the beneficiary list and asked if there were any last second changes to be made. Franklin shook his head slightly.

They took him to the interfacing room. The walls were a soft, neutral color, and the machines didn’t look as menacing as their purpose would have you believe. The bed itself seemed comfortable on first glance – a theory that was soon confirmed as he laid down on it. It wasn’t such a bad place to spend the next thirty years, all things considered. At the very least, it was private.

The doctors bustled around him, prodding at screens and checking synaptic readings, whispering excitedly amongst themselves. With the extra processing power his brain provided, operating efficiency could be increased by up to thirteen percent. They assured Franklin that his sacrifice would be extremely important; it could even end saving the colony. It was noble as all hell.

Franklin could feel the warmth of the anesthesia pumping in through the IV. He looked around the room, thought of her one last time, then closed his eyes.

K: That ending seems completely tacked on, given the lack of Her being part of the story to this point. If that was going to be the dramatic crux of the story, we have to be more engaged with Franklin’s backstory. The piece keeps us at arm’s length, though, by throwing plot-plot-plot at us instead of character. A shift in priority would really bring this one forward. BRONZE

CP: Oooooh. This does a great job of setting up an intriguing situation and trusting the reader to put the pieces together. Part of me would have loved to get just a tiny bit more about the colony–is it on earth? outer space?–and a little more about Franklin’s particular circumstances that led him to decide to take part in this unusual “donation.” But in any case, I still found lot to like. GOLD

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Why, yes, the gatherer deigned to include the three nonsubs at the end there. “Deigned” doesn’t strictly work there, but I’ll never pass up a good callback – even a good callback that’s a bad callback. But speaking of sentence fragments. Also, is it clear I’m in a pretty good mood? Your guess is as good as mine. I didn’t even get laid today or anything.

Congratulations to sixers Bret and Pete, and also to Beau, who proved once and for all that he’s one-third-again a better person than Bret and Pete. So who’s in the lead?! I’m sure you can tell me, but I’m balls deep in the end of Survivor XVI and really have to write the rest of this challenge, so go ahead and figure it out, or let Pepper figure it out for you.

As always thought but rarely spoken, thanks to all of you who deign to come here and entertain me and others. I genuinely like and respect all of you for your fearlessness, brains and sense of fun. No, I’m not dying, and no, you may not bring this up in the future to prove that I have real emotions.

Interrobangers, your end will go up late. Fun Fact: Google Docs recognizes “Interrobangers.” I swear to God I’m not kidding.

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