Hi, Interrobang! I was excited to get over here and hang out with you guys after a three-challenge absence, but I think we can be honest with each other…writing about lost love is apparently not your strong suit. This site has no problem with serial killers and dark sci-fi, but matters of the heart are but a mystery to us. Though it’s not the best week, there are a couple of hidden gems here. For the rest of you, we’ll give ‘em hell next time. And for Melissa and Novak: what the hell, kids? Where are you?

Sama Smith

“But, why didn’t you want me?” I asked in my small, 12-year-old voice.

Silence. If I hadn’t heard the clinking of glass on the other line I would have been scared he hung up.

“I don’t know what to say,” he finally said.

Then another long pause followed in an endless array of long pauses that had floated through the phone conversation. It was a moment that defined everything and nothing. He couldn’t explain why he never wanted to be there for me, why he never tried to find me, why he was who he was. His abandonment defined me and somehow did not define him. The unevenness left my heart feeling starved.

So I hung up. Realizing now I had been forced and twisted into a harsher, dimmer world. One where people lie to themselves and ignore their worst mistakes. I was swatted to a place where owning up to anything awful settled into silence. It was cruel to know all this now as adolescence circled around me.
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He stumbled around outside knocking over my aunt’s dirty potted plant crawling with ants. It was as if the night drew back its curtain to reveal his evil hide. He slinked up to the cherry oak door and fondled the crooked brass knocker.

Pam answered the door in her devil-red platforms and knotted up fishnets. She was getting ready for work. She had recently promised to teach me her best dance moves.

Her identifiable high-pitched giggle woke me. Eventually I found them in a pseudo-grind against the far kitchen wall drunk, awkward, with empty eyes.

I filled my glass and some dribbled on the floor. The puddle was still shining on the linoleum in the morning.

K: I like where this one is headed early on, but slashing a narrative in half with this small a word count left me thinking we lost some color and understanding as words were slashed. The story works well enough, and I wonder if that’s because it all seems so obvious and step-by-step. I’ve probably read too many stories here over the years, but this one, while written well most of the way through (though there has to be a less clunky way to get out the narrator’s age), just doesn’t give me the feeling I’ll remember it. BRONZE

K: One recurring issue I had this week – so I’m probably not going to bring it up over and over again – is that many of these stories reach for situations that they don’t have the space to grasp. As such, there’s a lot of them I have trouble distinguishing my responses toward. This one is definitely in that category as well, but since it goes for a different perspective and relational setting, I at least found it unique for the group. SILVER

Dean Carlson

Because the screen was cracked Jenna gingerly put down her phone and sat there stunned. Incredulous. She looked at the offending text one last time and felt slightly nauseous. Both anger and sadness were rising in her chest but it was being tempered by the slow realization that Rob breaking up with generated these feelings. Rob was just a fling wasn’t he? Why did she care so much? Did she really like him or was it really about the fact that he took the initiative, not her? Jenna felt the urge to pick up the phone and actually call Rob, but she didn’t. What would she say? And she really didn’t want to respond to a text like that, not now at least.

As the bus bumped along Nicollet Jenna reflected back on their relationship. They were an interesting couple. Fun and urbane Rob called it. Rob playing the slightly older, stable yet funky creative type to her off-kilter, but vulnerable urban girl personality. He let her do what she wanted but also took her to gallery openings and taught her about architecture and design. Topics that surprisingly interested her. She introduced him to an underground music scene he had no idea existed but took to enthusiastically. Maybe she shouldn’t have cheated on him… or at least had been more discreet. Jenna sighed, shook her head and got up for her stop. She looked back a few seats where Rob usually sat and saw the Blonde with her tasteful skirt and pumps. “Really?” Jenna muttered, “she has to be in her 40s. Probably works for a bank.” Jenna hopped off the bus, walked through the departing bus fumes and vowed to face the day with renewed determinism.

K: Wow, that is a really passive opening sentence. This one is all tell and no show. It’s not a bad thing to spend some time in a character’s head for a few paragraphs, but not ALL the paragraphs in a story. You’ve got to show me the incident, because I come away from this one cold and indifferent to the plight of the leading characters.

DK: This struck me as a weird stream of thoughts. I don’t know if I like how late, relatively, that “maybe I shouldn’t have cheated on him” came up. But, seems like she got over it pretty quick, at least.

Matthew Gilman.

“Just don’t hang up yet, okay?”

“Sure…”

“Thank you. Look. You have a way about you, is all I’m saying. It’s been four phone calls now and each time …the way you put things has been utterly charming.”

“I don’t get what you’re sa–”

“The conversations. They’ve been melodic, like you’re composing songs as you speak. Fully-written songs. Your words lilt and rise, at key moments. They just keep building on themselves. With humor, with observation. You’re not just self-depreciating, you’re self aware.”

“But how does that even–”

“No, please, I’m going to have to plow through this. I just had to get to know you better. Your ad on Tinder implied that you wanted someone to get to know you. So I did, and you know what I found? I found a smart, strong woman with a very canny sense of humor. Someone who was waiting to be discovered. So you could be with someone who really saw who you were.”

Silence.

“I’d like to be that person. Despite how we met–”

“–We haven’t met yet–”

“–Despite how I found you. I am getting myself in so many kinds of trouble for talking to you directly. And, of course, I know so much more about you than I’m saying. It’s part of the job. Now, that’s not a threat. It’s an assurance. My feelings aren’t just based on hearing three conversations with your mother and one with your landlord. This is about WHO YOU ARE, Abby. And I’m in a position to really know that.”

Silence.

“Abby, I’m sure it goes without saying here that changing your number isn’t going to make a difference.”

Silence.

K: This is a really great idea with okay execution; the humor can be punched up (and I think partially the word count hurt; certainly Tinder Guy would be creepier and funnier if he went on and on). It’s imperfect, but I’m glad we’ve got a real interaction here. On the other hand, an over-the-phone interaction isn’t half as interesting – especially in this context – as a face-to-face meeting would have been. SILVER

DK: Okay, this one at least threw me a curveball out of all the heartbreak takes, and it does a nice job of upping the cringe factor consistently as more and more gets revealed. For that it stands out. GOLD

Brian David

It’s easy to remember only the good things.

Your clothes litter the floor around the bed, and I think of the time we spent beneath the covers. I pick up your stray socks and underwear, and bury the thoughts of when I slept alone, wondering if you would ever come home.

I pull all your makeup from the medicine cabinet, and I suppose I should remember why you spent so much time in the bathroom. Instead, I think of the intensity of your green eyes, covered in thick eyeliner, pupils so dilated I felt I could fall into them.

My eyes sting and I clench my hand around a tube of lipstick. How could I have ignored the obvious?

I leave the bag of makeup in the bathroom sink and walk into the bedroom. On a night stand, beneath a lamp, there is a book of Neruda poems laying at an angle on top of a collection of Rumi. Countless nights of tequila and dancing flash through my mind; of long conversations about beauty, love and truth.

Instead I should remember how everything you told me was a lie.

Drops land on the bookcover, soaking slowly into the paper. I hadn’t felt the tears slide down my cheek. Kneeling down, I set my elbows on the bed cover and clasp my hands. I haven’t done this for years. I had sworn to myself I’d never do this again.

I don’t know what to say at first, but soon the words pour out: a confession, a call for help, a remembrance of all the things that had passed, good and bad.

I hope, more than anything in the world, that there is an answer this time.

K: This story opens with second person narration – something I can’t stand – and I’m not sure it really goes anywhere. Though it certainly clears the prompt, this is only a story in that we have sentences and paragraphs. There are too few specifics and we get no sense of the relationship. Without any of that, this is closer to high school poetry than to an adult short story in tone, though certainly, the writing is better. What we need is to have the breakup scene interspersed with remembrance.

DK: This is real close (based on the context of everything else, you can decide if that’s good or bad). It’s a nice image of that emotional state at the moment, but just compared to a couple of the others that take the same approach, it feels like it has a little less sense of progression towards a story than just that image itself.

Annette Barron

Maggie only had to drive to two different clubs to find his car; not for the first time.

“Hi, babe. We’re going on maneuvers, so I’ll be out of touch for a few days.”

She responds cheerfully; it doesn’t do any good to bitch at him, god knows she’s tried that approach. His greatest weapon against her is to act like she can stay or go; it makes no nevermind to him.

Michael leaves the club, holding the door for a blonde teetering tipsily in four inch heels. Maggie’s fingers tighten on the steering wheel. Three years ago it had been her following him home in her clubbing heels.

The night they met, Michael bought Maggie a drink and then invited her, and her very pregnant best friend, back to his place. He wanted her to feel safe. He cooked breakfast for both of them and put on a movie. Sitting next to her, he removed her shoes and placed her feet in his lap, absentmindedly rubbing away the aches of a night of dancing. He didn’t put any moves on her that night, sensing her wariness. When he called the next day and invited her back to his apartment, this time alone, Maggie went running.

Three years later, she was so in love with Michael it was a physical pain in her chest. There were no more foot rubs or meals though. Actually, she hadn’t been to his apartment in months; he always came to hers.

Maggie could barely see through her tears as she followed him to his apartment, then drove home. She didn’t call her best friend. She never thought she would be this girl.

“I can make him love me. I have to.”

K: This last spoken line makes me cringe. Who would say that aloud? I’m all for a little dialogue, but that would be thought, not spoken. There’s some weird punctuation in this one, but mostly my indifference to it is due to the fact that it’s all in the past. We’re closer to getting a story shown to us, but for the most part, I’m starting to think that broken hearts are tough for the CdL set. BRONZE

DK: Another one that dives into the emotional response of the moment, but it has at least a sense of character action and reaction that seems like it’s moving somewhere. BRONZE

Zack Sauvageau

That little flame sat on her home screen, taunting her. She was lonely. She had only set it up on a lark one night when she was really horny. Nothing happened, of course. But she never uninstalled it.

Tonight she opened it. She didn’t know what she wanted, really. But she felt like it was the right thing to do. Her profile made it clear she didn’t want any one night stands. This is probably why she didn’t have any matches that last time. Maybe tonight would be different?

She turned on the TV and started flipping through matches.

Swipe left.
Swipe left.
Swipe right.
Right.
Right.
Left.
Right.
Left.
Left.
Left.

She was in a rhythm, mindlessly swiping away face after face.

“Shit!”

She swiped right, but she meant to swipe left. She got a match. It was her first. She didn’t think he was all that attractive, but why not look at his profile?

About me: JUST A NICE GUY LOOKING FOR A WOMAN WHO ISN’T A SLUT. HELLO M’LADY!
Likes: WOMEN, BITCOIN, FEDORAS, REDDIT
Dislikes: SJWs, FEMINISM

She closed the app.
She held down the icon.
She clicked the x on the icon.

K: This has a nice payoff, and I wish the setup was better to take full advantage of it. The Likes are perfectly amusing and I always appreciate stories where douchebags really do think they’re the good guys. Too often, we paint a broad picture of them rather than suggesting they’re actual people – heroes of their own stories – who have no idea how they’re failing. Anyway, I’ll just drop some advice that helped me a lot early on when I was working on a TV script: if it’s a comedy, you’ve got to be funny leading up to the punchline, not just when the punchline is delivered. SILVER

DK: Heh. Okay, that set of likes and dislikes was a little…on the nose (sorry, Colin (haven’t used that one in a while)) but this thing tells a story and it doesn’t reach too far or too deep for it. Those first couple graphs set up this character well enough to be interesting without needing to exposit a lot of backstory. SILVER

Sarah Wreisner

He moved to Nebraska. We had a bloodless relationship, sleeping separately and hugging limply. I wanted him to cheat. We ate instant potatoes and discussed bills, smiling blandly, forgetting how much fun we used to have. He drank Yahoo and watched cartoons while I scrubbed floors with a toothbrush. He was lazy; I was easily disappointed. He said he’d never have kids.

I met a complicated, moody artist. We got married and had a flaxen-haired baby. I discarded my ex’s overweight dog on a lonely friend with a night job.

We both have kids now, opposite in appearance – his son has black hair and green eyes, like he does. I wonder if our kids are alike: of course they aren’t, I think, lifting my stained “World’s Greatest Wife” mug. I feel a pang of loss as I peruse his Facebook page – the one I’m deleted from.

In my dreams we are at the beginning, making inside jokes and watching atrocious Kevin James movies at the drive-through. We terrorize Walmart, trying on housedresses, laughing until we choke.

A clump of grief stays lodged in my throat after these dreams, like I’ve lost a brother to war. I’m not supposed to miss him. I’m happy, with a witty, magnetic husband and an exceptional child. I realize with horror that he was my best friend. We could have kept it like that, but it’s far too gone now.

I wonder if our sons will recognize one other if they meet. They could have been brothers, I suppose, or cousins, in a world without chocolate milk and reruns.

I sent him an email last June, wishing him a happy birthday. He hasn’t responded.

K: This feels true story-y. Whatever it is, it has all the palpable character and emotion that each of the other stories were partially or completely lacking, and though this is a remembrance like some of the others, the story gets away with it because of the large amount of color, and of course the complicated relationship presented. It’s strong writing, true to both the prompt and the short form. GOLD

DK: I like the specificity of the historical details in this one (what they did in the past, I mean). I think the complicated response (the brother/best friend/or something else) at least leans towards something that feels realer than some others. BRONZE

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So there you are. I like a couple of these more as I consider them later (Zack’s and Gilman.’s, specifically, as the absurdity grows on me as I contemplate). I’m glad we stepped out of our comfort zone.

So, how ‘bout them playoff implications? Sarah’s going to have a spot knotted up before long, but Melissa made this open season by not showing up, while Matthew and Sama reaped all the benefits. We’ve got three challenges left, and your next two are with me, so polish up those stories of redemption and missing persons. Or polish my knob. I can be bought.

Apparently Brooks beat me to the posting punch, so the new challenge should go up post-haste.

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