Are there really eight stories here? I’m not sure when I last got to read eight stories, but I think it’s been a while.

Anyway, medals were shared among nearly everyone, and we saw the rarest bird of all: a Double-Gold in a Brooks adjudication. We had a lot of dark ideas this time around, which probably isn’t a big surprise, but is always a source of fun for me given my love of that whole black comedy thing. The gore and attempted shock violence here can get tiresome, but honest stories with morbid undertones will typically reach me. Alright, kids, time to figure out who these belong to, since you’ve all been waiting for quite a while (and this one’s on me…sorry).

Annette Barron

“Daddy! Daddy!” Raina yelled through the house. “Look at my Santa!”

“In here, Raina.”

Raina slammed into my office, smelling of snow and Elmer’s glue. “See? Ms. Williams says my Santa is very life-like!” She slapped a large piece of construction paper down on my desk, glitter flying like shrapnel.

“Raina!” I yelled, “you’re getting crap all over my desk.” Shit. I lowered my voice. “Sorry, honey, I’ve got to get this done. Your picture is awesome. Take it to Mommy so she can hang it up.”

“You didn’t really look at it, Daddy! It’s okay, you can look at it later, after we get a tree.” She hopped from one foot to the other; nothing really kept her down for long, even her asshole father.

“You and Mommy can pick a great tree. I have to work.”

Before Raina could object, Brenna spoke from the doorway. “Raina, I need to talk to Daddy. Go wash up and we’ll have a snack before we go.”

“K, Mommy.” Raina sang her way down the hall; an odd mash-up of Jingle Bells and Here Comes Santa Claus.

Brenna stepped in and closed the door behind her. I wasn’t excited about the look on her face. “What’s up?”

Brenna eased herself into the chair across from me, pregnant belly making her less graceful but more beautiful. “You’re coming to pick out a Christmas tree, Daniel.”

I shook my head at her. “Come on, Brenna, you know how I feel about this holiday.”

Brenna held up her hand. “Yes. You’ve made it very clear. I get it. Your father died on Christmas when you were eight and now the holiday depresses you. You told me before we even got engaged.” I nodded smugly; I was covered.

“Fuck that.” Brenna didn’t smile. “You have a child.”

“I can’t . . . .”

“You can. You are a parent and it is time for you to GET OVER IT! Sorry, dear, I don’t know how else to say it.” She heaved herself up. “Fifteen minutes and we’re leaving to go get a tree. You’re going.”

And that was that.

K: This one starts off strong, with characters taking shape nicely, but when Brenna clumsily gets out the exposition – and there HAS to be a better way for this to happen than for her to awkwardly tell her husband what happened to him when he was eight – it falters and never really becomes as interesting as it might. It’s a fair take on the prompt, but I would have certainly preferred, given the space limitations, to leave Brenna out of the story, give us a hint of Christmas past in the narration, and have Raina solve the problem. A daughter’s love is a much, much more interesting narrative choice than a wife’s nagging.

DG: A straightforward story. Not every story has to have a trick to it, but I find that the ones that lay out the plot this clearly lack something that I miss. This is well told and everything, but it holds itself back from the very top of the heap. BRONZE

Zack Sauvageau

Dateline April 23rd, 2035.

They’ve won the War on Christmas.

President Jenna Bush is about to address the nation, Mission Accomplished banner and all, to give everyone the good news. At least that’s what the guards have told me.

I honestly don’t know where I am. Some black ops group raided our compound last December. There were only four of us left then. They didn’t intend to take anyone alive, and honestly I wish I hadn’t been taken alive. I’ve spent the last four plus months locked in a 16 square foot cell listening to Christmas in the Aire at 110 db, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

I wasn’t part of the resistance because I hated Christmas or anything, honestly. Three thousand consecutive hours of Chip Davis’s new age Christmas bullshit will change anyone’s opinion of the holiday.

I just wanted to be inclusive at the holiday season. That’s all I wanted. It’s frightening to see battle lines drawn over something so… inclusive. I think I’ll end up on the right side of history, but obviously we didn’t win the war now. War. It wasn’t even a war at first. But that narrative stuck! And it allowed people to come to peace with battles in our streets over fucking Christmas.

Who knows how long they’ll keep me alive. Probably a lot shorter now that I am broadcasting exactly what they do to traitors. I hope some of you revolt. Don’t let them win.

—–

“Commander Davis, what should we do with the traitor’s video?”

“Delete it, obviously, you imbecile.”

Chip Davis was the face of the pro-Christmas movement. He didn’t really have a thirst for war, but having his brain moved into a robotic body and living forever was enticing so he went with it.

They told him if the war was won, they’d let him rewrite “The Star Spangled Banner.” If everything went according to plan, “O Canada” was next. He was ready to usher in the Fresh Airevolution.

K: I’ve never been so unsure whether I love or loathe a story. I’m leaning toward the former, perhaps against my will, because the story doesn’t bitch out and front-load itself with absurdity before losing its voice in the second half; this one keeps its voice alive throughout. When this one opened up with a reference to President Jenna Bush I thought it was going to be woeful and tiresome, but the tone brings it all back by the end. The final line made me chuckle in spite of myself as well. SILVER

DG: This one seems like a lot of work to get to the last bit that didn’t quite pay off the way I had hoped. I don’t know what I would have done differently here, but it just seemed to lack something.

Brian David

“This one’s on the house, Chuck.”

Jackson set the pint on the table with a thump. Beer spilled over the side of the glass and onto the wood, pooling near a stack of brochures. Chuck shifted nervously and moved the paper out of the way.

“Hey, careful,” the old man said.

Jackson raised an eyebrow and glanced at a sign Chuck had placed on the table:

Annual meeting of the Society for the Abolition of Christmas

Jackson leaned over and tapped the acrylic sign-cover.

“Has anyone ever come to one of these?”

Chuck took a long draw from the pint and smiled, foam covering his mustache.

“Nope.”

Jackson grabbed a cloth that had been hanging from his back pocket and wiped down the table.

“So, why do you keep doing it?

Chuck smiled, his beard puffing out slightly and his cheeks flushing red.

“Oh, you never know. Sometimes miracles happen.”

Chuckling to himself, Jackson picked up one of the brochures. A chime rang out gently as someone stepped through the front door.

“It’s Christmas Eve,” Jackson called out as he turned around, “We’re closing in. . .well, I’ll be damned.”

A young man stood by the entrance, stamping the snow off his feet. He looked up and said nothing.

“Hello, kid,” the bartender said, breaking the silence. He shook his head and took a few tentative steps forward. “Here, um. . .take a seat. You want something to drink?”

The young man dropped his winter hat on the table and sat on the bench.

“Yeah. How about a Coors?”

A few moments later, Jackson returned with a pint in each hand.

“You always did have awful taste in beer,” he said, handing over one of the glasses.

“Chuck, this is my son Jackson, Jr. I. . . I doubt you would have met him before.”

Chuck raised his glass, eyes twinkling. “Good timing! Would you care to attend my meeting?”

The young man looked at the sign and the brochures, the corner of his mouth curling slightly. He raised his beer.

“Why not?”

The three men tilted their glasses together and drank.

K: If there’s a hidden meaning here, I’m unfortunately losing it. Like the first story, this one opened with a clear dual characterization, only to lead into a rushed reunion that probably has too much potential impact to be squeezed into this space. The quiet casual prose works, so I wish we had just a little more meat on these bones.

DG: I think this story is much bigger than the space here, I’m not sure that we get the full impact of the returning son here. The connection between the society and the happenings is also not entirely clear to me.

Sarah Wreisner

I twisted the tiny glass bulbs until they burst or fell into the snow. I snagged strings of lights with a rake until they hung low enough to clip with garden shears. I hoarded ropes of silvery tinsel in a garbage can that smelled like bird seed. I filled the tire well of my ex-wife’s car with reindeer and styrofoam snowballs.

I drove to the clay pit at the brick foundry and pitched everything into the black water. It’s deep – as deep as a football field is long, they say. They say there’s a train car down there.

I went home and sat in the dark bedroom, hostility growing like an egg in my throat, while happy green lights winked from my neighbor’s balcony. They flashed across my tobacco-stained quilt and I closed my eyes, imagining the plastic Santas and the mirrored ornaments drowning in water. I am comforted by this: evidence of Christmas tumbling into the pit, drifting past beer bottles lodged in mud, coming to rest on a haunted, water-logged train car. Sometimes I imagine my ex-wife on that train, bubbles streaming from her mouth.

Last night, I was staggering at the edge of the clay pit with an armload of golden bells, plush penguins and a frozen carrot. The water shimmered with a glaze of fragile ice. I couldn’t escape the image of the night’s events: a small child in a window, its sills stripped of festive baubles. He was crying, pressing his face against the glass while I struck his snowman with a shovel.

I flung the last of the bells into the water, thinking about that snot-faced boy, when I slipped. My boots crunched through the sheet of ice and I plunged through, wrapped in heavy wool, sinking into the gloomy, ghostly pit. As my lungs filled with freezing water and my eyes bulged in panic, I landed on the rusting train car, happily adorned with piles of plastic garland and tinsel.

K: This one has it all: vivid prose, a loathsome lead character who nonetheless has a reason and purpose for his behavior, and a delicious payoff – much deserved – that the reader savors. Plus, the train car! This is great black comedy, partially because it just tells the damn truth rather than reach for questionable punchlines. Merry Christmas! GOLD

DG: I like the image of the kid crying while a crazy man attacks the stuff on his lawn with a shovel. I also like the pit as the means of destruction of all the christmas stuff. GOLD

Dean Carlson

Jackob adjusted his night vision goggles to account for the white out conditions, took aim on the green-clad figure 150 yards away and fired. The elf, a moment from firing his RPG toward Jackob, exploded in a mist of red – splattering the fresh snow with gore and viscera. “Got ‘em!” Jackob yelled and his patrol arose from the snow, regrouped and awaited orders. They were less than two miles from the North Pole and all that stood between them and that terrorist Nick were a bunch of growing snow drifts and a stray elf or two.

Jackob was a veteran of the Christmas Wars for going on two years. He was part of the Delta Team that stormed Bethlehem and took out the Christian fortress known as the Manger. Most thought that the Wars would end there but “Saint” Nick and his rabid supporters retreated to the North Pole, launching attacks every December from that far location. Few of the Secularists had seen the North Pole and legend grew around its inaccessibility and defensive features. However Jackob and his assault team were surprised at the low level of resistance it had met thus far. The cold and snow were bigger obstacles than anything Nick had thrown at them, including that slow footed abominable snow monster.

Although they were waiting for orders, Jackob knew they had to move fast. By his reckoning, it was December 24 and Nick would be out soon to deliver presents. The Secularists were adamant that Nick be stopped and Christmas finally defeated before that happened again…

Just then the radio crackled something about Nick gearing up with his Reindeer patrol. The radio hissed and crackled but Jackob distinctly heard something about an immediate retreat back to the base. It was at that moment when the Patrol saw Nick and his crazed Reindeer come over the horizon. They were lead by some freakish red-nosed creature. “Shit” thought Jackob, “that can’t be good.” Someone shouted “they got nukes!!” and the lead reindeer’s nose glowed bright red. Jackob’s last vision was the snow and sky turning bright yellow.

K: Jesus. Okay, this one has it all too. You had me by the balls by the time you threw the Bethlehem war at me. This is smart satire wrapped up in a bizarre, farcical world, and I just wish it could have kept its energy throughout the whole thing, or that we would have finished a couple of paragraphs earlier to act as a quick gut-punch rather than trying to milk it a little too hard like an SNL sketch. Still, the highs are extremely high. SILVER

DG: Good description of the conflict. I’ll admit the concept of the story didn’t really grab me. Although the thought of Santa just nuking whoever comes close is kind of amusing.

Sama Smith

“Ana, it’s your turn, why are you here with us this evening?” Counselor Cho asked.

Ana stood up, scraping her folding chair.

“I was 10 when I found out Santa wasn’t real. My uncle Trey tried to dress up like him and prove it to me, but when I saw his fake beard slip, I knew.

That was strike one.

I was in a dance troupe from ages 6-16. Each year we traveled around the area dancing to classic Christmas songs for the old and infirmed. I always got stuck dancing a stilted ballet to “Silver Bells.”

One place had a distinct smell of burnt tapioca pudding and sour breath. I could smell his sour breath on me now. Closing my eyes, I can picture his loose-change expression as I stood on the edge of the “stage” (a cleared out spot of carpet in the lounge). Each time I was near that right side he would reach out with his hands and feel the edge of my tutu and flick one of the little bells. No one did anything so I pretended that his hand didn’t graze my thigh either and forced a smile on my face.

Strike two.

I was 14 when I volunteered with school to help with Toys for Tots. The ratty red Santa bags were heavy and awkward. Most of the time the string cinching them broke. I dragged the last bag to the curb outside ready for pick up. A woman in a black van screeched to a halt in front of me. Her lips were orange. She said she was there for pick up so I helped her load the van.

So fuck you, Christmas. Strike three.

I was 17 when the holiday spirit was finally exorcised from me. Grandma died in the ICU on Christmas Eve. When I went to see her, the poinsettia I bought her was already wilting brownish red and green. I still have the scent crushed up under my fingernails. I hate the smell of hospital and dead leaves.”

Ana sat back down.

Counselor Cho looked around.

“Who’s next?”

K: You missed a semicolon in the very first sentence. Plus, a parenthetical within a spoken part? I’m not sure I’ve ever seen that. I don’t dislike the girl’s narrative here, and much of it is written well, but putting it in the confines of a support group makes it seem like a comedy desperate to grab some laughs rather than a real situation; it’s just one of those backdrops that comes up time and time again, and never quite feels honest enough.

DG: I actually really like this ending. The dismissiveness of the counselor gives me just a little jolt at the end of the story to reignite my interest in the setting which got a little bit lost in the reminiscences. SILVER

Matthew Gilman.

“What’s a spinet?”

“A what?”

“I’ve got that song stuck in my head. ‘We need a little Christmas right this very minute…’.”

“Oh right. Well, this isn’t a Bed, Breakfast, and Spinet, unfortunately.”

“So they wouldn’t have one here, you’re saying?”

“Let me check, though…hmm…”

“Oh. OH, oh…that’s….not a spinet.”

“You sure? Feels like it might be.”

“Nooo, nossir. I’ve had that for a while, so I know it’s not a spinet. Mm. But don’t stop looking.”

“Wasn’t planning on stopping.”

“Okay, okay, wait. We–have to get up. We have to get to mom’s place.”

“Do we?”

“Yes. She lives for the family Christmas, and she’s dying to finally meet you. Big traditional last-shopping-day breakfast.”

“I’m getting plenty to eat right here.”

“Pervert. She almost demanded we stay with her. Save money.”

“That would’ve been torture.”

“Can you imagine how those sleeping arrangements would’ve gone?”

“Boycott.”

“No, a fold-out sofa, at least.”

“Boycott Christmas. All of it. Let’s just stay here looking for spinets…”

“Ooh…”

“…and other antiquated items from Christmas songs.”

“That wouldn’t be a BOY– BOY– BOYcott…of Christmas though.”

“Mm…that’s true. Christmas songs are certainly a part of Christmas.”

“Where your hand is right now is DEFINITELY not part of Christmas.”

“And yet, there my hand will remain. Besides, I suggest we go all in. Stay in bed like this, and join up with that whole War on Christmas fight. Give folks the alternative to all that crass commercialism. Our society deserves this! Don’t wriggle, I’m being sanctimonious here!”

“You feel DEADLY serious to me.”

“Yes well. I can be tough.”

“Parts of you, anyway.”

“I’m saying though. We stay here. Don’t go to your mom’s. Don’t hit up the outlet mall. Don’t wait for mistletoe to inspire the best kissing.”

“So…you and me against Fox News, you’re saying?”

“Yes I am. Fuck Christmas. Let’s just…Christmas fuck.”

“Just you and me, the two of us, versus the whole of the Christian world?”

“You and me. An army of lovers cannot be beaten.”

“I like our odds.”

K: Give me characters before you launch into the all-talk thing, that’s all I ask. It’s a bit wieldy to follow a conversation this long while having to go back to see who’s talking. This wouldn’t bother me if the characters came off as fuller and separate, but both characters read damn near the same, and it feels more like a whimsical meet-cute in a romantic comedy than anything throughout most of it. Despite all that, I’m amused by the idea of “beating” Christmas by fucking it away, and I don’t think it would take a lot of work to really make this a standout piece. “An army of lovers cannot be beaten” is a rare and special line; it has character, and it works both as a bit of whimsy and a more meaningful way of life. BRONZE

DG: All dialogue is always an interesting choice. Still we get a sense of the characters and I like the way things are laid out here. SILVER

Melissa Diamond

The woman reporter was so earnest. Some ‘podcast’ she was creating was getting super big, and she needed more stories like Henry’s. Mysteries.

“My fondest Christmas memory, you ask?”

She nodded, eyes alight, waiting for the answer they both knew. He pretended to think back awhile, though. Back to Christmas 1964. His first with Gladys. “Come See About Me” played on the radio. The Supremes; pretty ladies chirping the saddest lyrics.

I’ve been crying (ooh, ooh)
’Cause I’m lonely (for you)
Smiles all turned (to tears)
But tears won’t wash away the fears.

Even today, when he heard those lyrics, his heart skipped. Sure, it was a small skip these days, but it was there. It gave him the only rush of excitement he felt these days.
The Supremes. Those ladies were a lot like his Gladys. Fresh young girls on the outside. Something tougher on the inside. Grit and dirt and pain. Her life had been filled with it right up to the end.

But, boy, she’d loved Christmas.

“Just a bunch of shiny baubles,” he’d said to her. Maybe the last thing she heard from him. Glittery ornaments decorated their first Christmas tree. They clinked when you flicked ‘em. Lead-based icicles dripped over the spiny limbs. He chuckled at the memory of those. They would’ve poisoned their kids. That’s the type of thing you learned with time; made you thankful for the choices you made.

He thought back to the ornaments lowest on the tree limbs, to the splatters of gunk on them. He thought of Gladys, on the floor, the twinkling lights of that tree more alive than she was.

“Fifty years ago, I invented a society for the abolition of Christmas,” he said then, smiling at the woman reporter. “So far, I am the only member.”

“Because you killed her, Mr. Worth?”

This one was like The Supremes, too. He gave her his best old geezer grin. “That is all I have to say on the subject.”

K: I feel like we’ve only just begun this story when it ends. I tried to scroll further…denied! This character is perhaps the most engaging of the week, and his remembrance and revelation certainly sets up a good story, but I never got that story. Why would you dry-hump me like this, writer?! There’s some good writing here, even if it’s an entirely unfinished symphony. BRONZE

DG: After two reads I’m undecided on how much I like this. It makes good use of the framework that it sets up early, but maybe takes a little bit more of the “telling not showing” tack. BRONZE

——————————————————————————————

Once again, Novak brings the fail, further staining his once-spotless record which now holds no meaning at all. A shame, because I feel like this particular prompt is built for him. Sigh. At any rate, we had a pretty enjoyable slate this time around, and this was my final voyage with Interrobang until the playoffs, when…I don’t know what is happening, frankly. Are all four of us doing both sides? That could be messy.

I haven’t updated the spreadsheet yet (spoiler alert: I will possibly have done so by the time you read this) but I’m fairly certain that Sarah is safely in the playoffs. For the rest of you, I look forward to the dogfight. Ampersand results will probably wait until tomorrow, as will the prompt. Thanks for 2014, Prosers.

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