It’s Interrobang.  The conference where everybody shows up and writes pretty good stories.  I wish I had a couple more medals this time around.  Fortunately there’s another judge out there with his own set of medals to distribute, so between the two of us, we might just cover everyone.

Annette

“Can I get you anything before I go, Dad?”  Sheila fussed in the kitchen, wiping down the counters and straightening pot holders.

I don’t want her to go, but I have no real reason to keep her.  Not to mention, I’m pretty sure I can’t find the words to ask.  The tumor in my head is a heartless bitch.

I shake my head and smile at her.  What I do manage to say is “Good,” my standard response to pretty much everything.

Sheila hugs me and brushed her lips across my cheek.  “There’s soup and spaghetti in the fridge, Dad.  Don’t forget to eat.”  Smelling of cleaning solvent and something pure and particularly Sheila, she clutches me an extra minute.  I can feel her struggling not to cry.  I pat her shoulder ineffectually.

*****

“Dad?  I don’t think you touched any of the food I left.  Are you eating?”  Sheila tried to cover concern with humor, but neither of us are fooled.

“Holy smokes!”  I say helplessly and shrug.  I can’t tell her that a whole day can go by without a single hunger pang.  I’m so weak; sometimes I just have a couple of swallows of milk and call it good.

“I think we’re going to have to talk about home hospice.”  Sheila takes her phone to another room to call my doctor.

“Holy smokes!”  I protest.  I don’t want a stranger in my house.  Dying is taking too long.

*****

“Nnnnnnggggh!”  The pain in my head is breathtaking and astonishing.  I can’t believe I am conscious.  I struggle weakly; hands are holding me down.  I feel something cool and wet on my ass.  Someone is cleaning me and I can smell that I have shit myself.  The home hospice nurse (Mary?  Maria?) is efficiently wiping me clean.  Someone is holding my hands so that I can’t get shit all over everything.  “I’ll give him another shot as soon as I’m done here.”

“I don’t want him to see me.”  Sheila whispers behind my head; she thinks I am out of it.  How long have I been?  “He’d be mortified.”

Strangely, I am not.  I clutch her hand as another wave of pain crashes into me.  Our fingers cling together as I let go.

DK: This is moving and self-contained effectively.  The hurt and helplessness on both sides really comes through, and the progressive condition through the scenes helps broaden the arc.  SILVER

DG: I liked the use of the increasingly limited vocabulary through each section.  The decline is well told, but maybe a bit overexplained. BRONZE

Novak

Old fingers spring nimbly to life, divining their way around the gilded edges.  A small hinge pops.  A screwdriver seeks its narrow target and twists a delicate turn.  The fingers move rapidly around again, hinge swings shut.

Tick.Tick.Tick.Tick.

“There you are, Miss!”

The old man, crooked at his waist, gently pulls a jewelry box from beneath the counter, smiling more with his eyes.  She’s anything but a “miss” but at his age “ma’am” has vanished from his lexicon.

“I’m so glad you were able to fix it.  I’ve had it since I was a teenager.  No need for the box.”  She reaches into her patent leather clutch for a card and holds it towards the man who is laying a fresh cotton lining in the bottom of the box.

Tick.Tick.Tick.Tick.

“Sorry, miss, no credit cards.  Credit machine’s been down for a while now,” he says as he finishes lining the box.

Her foot begins to tap as she searches nervously through her clutch.

Tick.Tick.Tick.Tick.

“I’m afraid I don’t have enough cash.”

The man smiles, placing the watch in the box.

Tick.Tick.Tick.Tick.

“Check is good.”

She sighs, and pulls out her checkbook.

“Pen?”

“Oh, I’ve got one around her somewhere.”  He sets the lid on the box, and starts to tie a small ribbon around it.

“I really am in a hurry, please.”

Tick.Tick.Tick.Tick.

“Sure thing, miss.”

He sets the ribbon down and begins to rummage beneath the desk, eventually producing a scuffed plastic ballpoint.

“You know, miss, I think I made a bit of a mistake.”

She looks up from her checkbook and gives a look of exasperation.

Tick.Tick.Tick.Tick.

“I got that watch wound wrong for you.  Hear that?”

“No.”

“Let me fix that for you,” he says, opening the box.

Old fingers spring nimbly to life, a small hinge pops, a screwdriver seeks its narrow target and twists a delicate turn.

Tick.      Tick.      Tick.      Tick.

DK: I like the recurring tick element since it gives the story an underpinning structure and also, by the end, shows a reflective contrasts on the two characters here.  The plot isn’t super-exciting or anything, winding through various possible methods of payment, but the main theme shows through anyway.

DG: Ah, it took me some time, but then I slowed down and thought through the story and it works nicely.  I like the way the clocksmith communicates and I hope his adjustment has the desired effect. GOLD

Brian

Albert opened the grating on the front of a brick crucible that took up most of the northern wall of the laboratory. Using a pair of heavy tongs, he removed a metal cylinder from inside and dipped it into a nearby sink. Coughing as steam rose from the water, Albert set the cylinder on a countertop.  He donned a pair of gloves and unscrewed the top.

Inside was a dark blue sphere.

Albert took off his gloves and picked up a surgical knife. He made a small incision on the tip of his index finger and held it over the sphere. A drop of blood fell onto the blue surface, and Albert smiled. The sphere lifted out of the cylinder, floating in front of Albert’s face and spinning quickly. It lit on fire, and as the orange flames expanded, the vague outline of a human face appeared. The features began to distort, the mouth stretching into an exaggerated scream until the flames vanished in a cloud of smoke. The sphere, blackened and dull, fell to the counter and rolled onto the floor.

“Goddamnit,” Albert muttered, his shoulders dropping. He rubbed his eyes and walked out of the laboratory. A banner over the door read:

Department of Modern Spagyrics, University of Texas in Austin

    Albert paced back and forth around a dimly lit hallway, lost in his thoughts, until he noticed someone was standing in front of a window down the hall.

“Brother Junius, I did not know you were still here.”

The man said nothing.

“I ran another test on the Murmur, Junius. The results were not encouraging.”

Junius turned around, and Albert could see that his eyes were swollen and red.

“They bombed Damascus tonight, Brother Albert. They used my Saffron and Uric salts distillate.”

Albert’s jaw tightened.

“Thirty thousand people suffocated to death.”

Tears began to run down Junius’s face. Albert clasped the man’s shoulder.

“I’m sorry Junius. Look, we . . .” He wasn’t quite sure what to say.

“. . .we should both get home. It’s late.”

Junius grabbed Albert’s hand tightly.

“It’s always the same, isn’t? We all say that we’re tired of war, but. . .”

Junius’s words caught in his throat.

“But we’re never tired enough.”

He brushed Albert’s arm away and walked down the hall.

DK: Oooh, week after week I see ideas that I wish got used on a longer-form season so I could see where they go.  Here this almost doesn’t get the space it needs at the end for the weight of what’s described, but the setting and concept are so intriguing it wins me over.  BRONZE

DG: I learned a new word.  Which is cool.   I have to say I’m not sure what the purpose of the Murmur is in this story, but I do get a sense that it’s probably a good thing that Albert’s experiment didn’t work out.  

Sarah

I’m frozen. I can’t even move my lungs to breathe. I’m wide awake though I can barely keep my eyes open at school. I’ve been warned about it. I need to get some sleep, mom says.

My bed is shaking again. The whirring noise is back. It feels like I’m being squashed into my mattress, like when Joel won’t let me get off the floor until I cry. But I can’t even cry while my bed shakes. I feel exactly like I’m glued to my bed, and the jet plane engine sound is in my skull, bouncing around like a metal ball.

I tried to tell my brother. He said I was imagining it because I really liked that motel we stayed at last summer – the one with the bed that took quarters and buzzed. Mom let us buy two quarters’ worth and we jumped on it until dad made some dirty wisecracks. Mom told us to not play on it anymore.

I told mom about the shaking once, right after the first time. I had a headache behind my eyes and my ear was bleeding when I was brushing my teeth. It was pretty bad that time. She was making lunches, and said I had to stop reading dad’s books at bedtime. Mom said I was  giving her the creeps and that I had to get my backpack ready. She was looking out the window and said, “Jimmy, you have to stop the crazy talk.” I didn’t even get to show her my ear.

I haven’t been sleeping. I’m awake all the time, waiting for it to come. Everyone else in the house sleeps through it. The noise is like a motor, and it throbs and beats, sort of like a muffled drum made of rubber bands. I don’t really know how to describe it.

Now I’m frozen and there are lights this time. This is the worst it’s been. I can’t blink to get the light out of my eyes. I don’t try to yell because it never works. I watch the lights as they crawl up my posters and my terrarium, and I pee in my bed. I’m more scared than I’ve ever been, watching as the lights blind me.

DK: The build and intensity of the tension and the fear here is pretty powerful, and overall this is quite effective as a picture of that ongoing condition.  BRONZE

DG: This was an effective cliffhanger.  I felt the narrator’s terror as the situation escalated.  And then leaving the cause unstated is effective too.  The reader can come up with theories, but still the unknown is always the best monster.  BRONZE

Dean

Hanginnnnn’ around… nothing to do but frown… Rainy Days and Mondays always get me down…

“Jeez, it’s bad enough that it’s well past midnight and I’m wide awake (yet perversely exhausted) but the I-pod has to spit out that turgid song?”  Rob muttered as he shifted the heavy quilt over his suddenly chilly torso and sat up on the shabby green sofa he stupidly took from Jenna and rubbed his eyes.  “It’s not depression, I’m just overworked.  Who cares what Jenna said, maybe a melatonin would”…Funny but it seems I always wind up here with you… “STOP IT!!!”  Rob grabbed the I-pod and hit the >> button.

Oh, that I could bend my tongue outwards… Leave your lungs hurting… tuckin’ my shirt in

“Pavement?  Unbelievable.  Why don’t I just put on something fun like Def Leppard?  Because it’s 1:30 A fucking M, that’s why you idiot, who wants to listen to a goofy hair band when you just. want. to. get. some. sleep?”  Waves of exhaustion hit Rob like a sack of warm mashed potatoes but instead of coaxing him into a much needed slumber, they seemed to be invigorating as if riding the waves like a surfer, hurtling along the shoreline, just under the watery crest as it hung over his head but never crashing down upon him.  But I’m rattled by the rush Rattled by the rush Rattled by the rush Rattled by the rush Rattled by the rush Rattled by the rush…..  “Oh for christ sakes.” Rob reached for the offending I-pod, stumbled, hit his head on the table and slid to the ground.

And true… it may seem like a stretch… But it’s thoughts like this that catch my troubled head when you’re away when I am missing you to death…

Although prone and barely conscious, the plaintive lyrics filled Rob’s soul and soothed him into a hazy fog, even while remaining acutely aware of the fact that he was laying on the floor looking at mounds of gray dust collected under the couch.  They will see us waving from such great heights… Come down now, they’ll say… But everything looks perfect from far away… Come down now but we’ll stay… “Goodbye Jenna” Rob thought and slipped into a deep dreamless sleep.

DK: I’m glad I’m not judging with Kelly this time so he doesn’t chew me out for this, but putting in my favorite Pavement song is going to get you a bronze, and although the character threads are a little opaque, the framing of the music and the situation conveys the exasperation and desperation here well enough to get another bronze.  So I guess two bronzes equals a… SILVER

DG: The waves of exhaustion metaphor/simile is stretched a little past its breaking point in the middle paragraph.  Rob feels exhausted (not just physically) which is the most effective part of the story.

Sama

Maybe if I just lay here he won’t proceed.

I’ve already used the headache excuse twice this week and the PMS excuse three times. Neither will fly tonight.

Here comes the half-assed back rub in an effort to turn me. Followed by the tug on my shoulders and the caress of my ass while shuttling a few fingers between my thighs.

He hasn’t pinned me on my back yet. I got to remember not to squeeze my eyes shut too tight. The same can go for my legs. If I put up too much of a fight it just spurns him on more. He likes a challenge.

I swallow hard and try to make my breathing shallow. Shit, now he thinks he’s turned me on. His hot, heavy breath singes the hairs on the back of my neck. He moves my hair by my ear and kisses the lobe. I try not to cringe.

His arms wrap around me and his clawing hands go in for my breasts, treating them like squeeze toys.

I feel him firm against me. I know the inevitable is coming. And I know as soon as he slips inside me what will happen. I both welcome and fear it, but it will happen all the same.

He hitches up my nightgown and wrestles off my underwear with the other hand. He slides on top and I can feel the dread building inside me. Then I feel him inside me. He pants and groans as he moves in and out. Then I feel the all-too-familiar sensation. I’m spiralling out of control.

The tightening and throbbing begin to climax and I start to fall into a dark abyss. My body is frozen and my mind has stopped time. I sink into the black hole and feel nothing.

I wake up to see it is now 4 a.m. At least I got a few hours of sleep. The numbness wears off and I get up to pee. I decide to shower to get the lingering sex off me.

“I was able to climax this time, even when you went unconscious,” my husband whispers to me as I crawl back into bed.

“That’s great, honey,” I reply. “It’ll get easier with time.”

DK: Uh, I kind of want to take two or three showers after this, and obviously not for any good reason.  I don’t know if I’d say it made me hate myself, but it definitely made me hate…something, and for inspiring that strong a reaction, you get a GOLD

DG: I’ll be direct here, I didn’t like this one.  I think it was going for black comedy, but ended up being just black.  

Zack

You’d think that after four straight nights of no sleep that it would be really easy to fall asleep.

Take it from me. It’s not.

I spent every waking hour for the last three days thinking about sleep. No matter what I did, sleep was always just outside of my grasp. I couldn’t even be mad about it, it was just the way of things.

The days flew by as I approached my battle of attrition with sleep. I don’t even remember what I did every day. All I recall is those eight hours a day laying awake in my bed, resigned to another night with my thoughts.

DK: As often happens this is another intriguing image that would have the potential for a good basis for something more developed.  As an impression it’s interesting, but doesn’t go far enough as a story to feel complete.

DG: The idea of only being clear-headed when you want to be asleep is something that could go somewhere.  In this case it doesn’t really get there in such a small space.

Melissa

She didn’t die that day, your honor.  In fact, I saw her the next Sunday.  She had some man on her arm.  She must’ve come back to the garage later.

Thelma slammed the garage door shut, fumbled with the doorknob in an attempt to lock it.  No lock.  Shit.

Footsteps paused on the other side of the door.  She listened, waited, but Jewel Carmen did nothing.  Thelma could hear the woman breathing, but nothing else.  No more fight left in her, thankfully.

There was blood on her lip, Ms. Carmen.  Where’d that come from?
Hell if I know.  She did comedy.  Maybe she fell over a couch with Buster Keaton.

Thelma climbed into her car.  Her hands shook, but she got the keys in the ignition, started the engine.  With the windows up and the car rumbling beneath her, she almost felt safe.  In the rearview mirror she got a glimpse of her tousled hair.  She’d spent so much money on it, and now it was a mess.  Should’ve worn lipstick for this occasion.  It wouldn’t do to make the news like this.

What’d she say to you before she left, Ms. Carmen?

She said she’d see me in hell.

When Ron got home, he found Jewel sitting at the kitchen table reading the newspaper.

“What’d you do today?” he asked.

“That harlot of yours came over, that’s what.  She won’t bother us now, though.”

Ron paused.  Jewel saw every woman as a harlot, but he knew who she meant.  “What happened?”

“She got hysterical and left.”

“Where to?”
She smiled at him with her cupid bow lips.  “Out to her car.  Haven’t seen her since.”

Frowning, he headed for the garage.  He had to make sure Thelma had gone and wasn’t stalking him again.  He loved her, but she was as mad as all actresses these days.

He opened the garage door and found her car there, engine thrumming.  Her head lolled against the closed window.  He raced to her door, pulled it open.  Her body looked so limp.  He shook her.  Her eyes opened.  “Thelma, you alright?”

“I’m tired,” she said.

“But everyone’s tired, doll.”

“No one’s tired enough.  Not like me.”

She closed her eyes.  Her breathing stopped, and the engine hummed.

DK: I did like this one a lot (there’s a lot I liked this week) and I think it does a pretty good job of pulling together its timeline and perspective threads into a coherent whole, which is sometimes a hard degree of difficulty for the amount of space you’re given.

DG: The tone stays consistent through this whole piece which is a nice touch.  The lines fit that noir-ish sensibility, this entry does a nice job of picking that up and running with it. SILVER

Gilman.

Fingers nearly too big, he hunted and pecked like a child at an old typewriter. The notes were still loud, and forced the toddler to giggle even louder.

And still it leads me back…to the long…winding road.” Clara gave him a look, hoping she wouldn’t have to actually speak. Get the hint, she pleaded psychically. But he kept on nightclub-crooning and to the delight of the little girl’s cranky chirp of a giggle. He ended the song, as always, with a flourish, a seated bow, and then tiny pokes into the sides and belly of their child.

“Okay. Thank Daddy for the songs now,” Clara said to their daughter, voice shaky. The little girl moaned her equivalent of “no” and grabbed onto the toy piano, as though it had the weight of a full-sized one. “Time for your nap, c’mon.”

“Can’t be, nope,” Paul retorted, “you know we haven’t played the ‘party’s over’ song yet.” Clara sniffed at the suggestion, wiping a tear away. Remembering the rules their clique of delinquent partiers had back in high school.

With a plunk and a plenk, Francis managed to pound out the organ chords on the toy piano, much to the delight of their girl. Her head was having trouble staying upright, and she fought it. Daddy came by so rarely.

Clara watched the two of them, eyes stinging. Lounge singer function fully engaged, little girl fighting sleepiness with everything she had. He was so good with her, somehow, contrasting every other piece of his adult life. “It’s been such a long time…I think I should be gooo-iiiinggg…” Clara waited patiently, eyes shut tight, as the song rolled on in his syrupy voice. Their little girl finally lilting to the side, sleep overtaking her.

Soon, when the song ends, she’ll let him lift her and carry her to her crib. Then, together, they’ll smoke a cigarette and wait for Rudy’s dusty beater to pull up to the trailer. Maybe they’ll make love, if the mood is in them. Seven years is a long time, after all. But Paul may prefer to just watch his child sleep, giving her soft cheek a final kiss before that ride with Rudy.

DK: Here the emotional weight of the situation certainly pays off.  I was a little unclear on the relationships here due to the number of names included (I think there might be one character with two different names) but this doesn’t shy away from pulling off the sadness it wants to reach for.

DG: The little kid worked on me exactly as it was meant to.  (I know what you’re thinking but Kelly and I are different people, I swear it).  This is sad in a very sentimental way, but endearing at the same time.  The situation feels like each of these characters has a lot more story behind them and we just stepped in for a quick glance. SILVER

——————–

So there you have it.  DK and I are on the same wavelength as always.  Usually when we’re this opposite in opinions it means that one of us will be eliminated soon (that’s a Survivor joke – from before most of you played Survivor – I’m starting to think that the joke won’t land.  Maybe if I keep explaining it will be funny?)

Stick around for the next challenge post and see what happens.

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