Final week Interrobang, and you guys came out swinging, lots of great stuff here and a double gold story that might be my favorite of the season.  Who got in?  Besides Sarah, you wiseass.  Who missed out in agonizingly close fashion?  We wouldn’t have a non-sub play a critical role in both conferences would we?

No, we wouldn’t.

SAMA

I never understood the need to burn things. I hate the way smoke coils through the air, thick and proud, pouncing on you like a snake leaving you all stinging eyes and searing nostrils. My throat feels constricted just thinking about it.

I prefer a proper burial. Human or not, we all should return to the ground. Ashes to ashes is bullshit. Give me dirt, stuck under my fingernails for weeks, moist and clingy. Pat it dry and dig, dig, dig. It stains the soul and patches up all the gray. It won’t be gone in a wisp of wind and flicker of flame. It saturates and cakes and remains.

“Earth is good wet as mud, dry as bone, milky or silky,” Ma would say. “I like to knead it like dough or crunch it up with leaves and sticks. That’s how it should be. We all perish and we all can burn, but being down in the dirt with the bugs that make the world go round– now that’s right.”

“It comforts the mind to know wherever we take a step, someone or something has been there before. They’ve decomposed and rotted and tumbled in the wind. They are still here, even if it’s a molecule that’s left. Even after they are dead, they cling to earth somewhere.”.

Seven dogs, four cats, three gerbils, 22 goldfish and a ferret. They all lived a pretty good life. They were buried between the house and the garden, never to be alone. That’s how Ma and I liked it.

One day I knew it was coming. She’d summon me for willow bark, but her staring lingered. And I knew what she would say.

“You use those hands and you set me up right, boy,” she said. The wheezing climaxed and hushed. Her eyes were a milky blue. “I love the smell of dirt on you.”

I knew exactly where she’d go:  right next to Kenny and Rogers, the two gerbils that had gotten into the laundry detergent two Saturdays ago. There was room by the fence, between the garden and where the meadow began. When I was done I could smell snow coming. Ma always did have good timing.

The next spring, I saw a green and white little something popping through her soil.

If there is a God, then it better bloom into a lily. Ma woulda liked that. She’d have smiled and whistled a good tune.

DG: I like this. The plot isn’t important here, but every word is consistent and thematic.  The picture this story paints is memorable and fully drawn.  Well done. SILVER

CP: This is evocative and interesting, but there’s not a lot of tension. The first four paragraphs are all basically express the same idea. I like the premise quite well, but I wish this had been a little less same-y throughout. BRONZE

BRIAN

A lily petal drifted down, landing gently on top of the ivory keys. Chiro stopped playing, his hands shaking slightly. He reached up and touched the stem growing from his forehead, trying to control his breath. He had been expecting this for a long time.

Standing, Chiro walked to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. The lily appeared the same as it had always been; dark orange petals folding out like a trumpet, covered in white specks. It didn’t seem to be withered or diseased, to have lost any of its vitality.

Another petal snapped away from the stem and floated into the bathroom sink.

Chiro rubbed his hands across his wrinkled cheeks and grabbed a pair of scissors from inside the medicine cabinet. Without blinking, he cut through the base of the lily and pulled it away from his head. He was a little surprised to find that it didn’t hurt.

Walking into the kitchen, Chiro rummaged through the cabinets until he found a small glass vase. He filled it up with lukewarm tapwater and gently fitted the stem inside.  Holding the flower delicately, Chiro walked back to the living room and set the lily on top of the piano, next to a bright blue orchid that was growing in a clay pot. Chiro patted the side of the orchid.

“You’ll have some company now.”

He straightened his back and lifted his hands. Closing his eyes, he ran his fingers over the keys, and the room filled with the sound of Bach’s Aria from the Goldberg Variations.  Chiro was swept away, remembering the first time he saw that orchid; the blue flower hanging between two large green eyes, petals dangling near the tip of the young woman’s nose, her cheeks pink from laughter.  So much of that time seemed vague and distant, but the image of that flower burned brightly in his memory.

Chiro’s fingers slipped. He looked down and saw that the keys were smeared with something thick and red. A drop of blood fell from his nose, followed by another. His lungs started to burn and his breaths came in short gasps.  Chiro clenched his teeth, hunched over and started playing again, his body swaying in three-four time.

Soon the melody slowed and came to a stop, and Chiro sat motionless on the bench, head dangling forward. Sunlight streamed through the window, casting the shadows of the flowers silently across the top of the piano.

DG: Wow, I love this.  We get to see so much of this character in this story, the conclusion is perfectly sweet and gorgeous and sad.  And enough is left up to the reader to decide how the orchid ended up on the piano, and once that question is answered what that means for Chiro’s actions.    GOLD

CP: This opens with a very strong first paragraph, but I wish I knew a little more about why Chiro had been expecting this for a long time. (Does it happen to other people too? Or does he just assume all flowers must die?) There’s a nice story here and the image of the flowers atop the piano at the end is lovely. GOLD

GILMAN.

It’s my fingers poking at the top of my head at first. Normally I can’t feel anything inside. It’s just a solid skull, or I can feel my scalp itch sometimes. But this time it feels like there’s something wrong in there, rattling around like a rock in your shoe. My mom’s voice usually causes me to notice, she’s saying something to me. She has that tone in her voice. And then my fingers just feel my scalp get all gummy. Like Jell-o, and I can squish my fingers into it. I think for a second it’s like some superpower. But my mom tells me that’s just how some skulls are, so I guess it’s not that big a deal?

I decide to start pushing down in. And there’s lots of blood, like when the Mexican guy pulls tumors out of people’s bellies using psychic powers. Blood and skull bits, like warm shampoo, get in my eyes. My fingertips go past the bone and inside, and I can feel how the stuff there is even slimier. Mom’s voice gets louder, and I realize this is just like a protective barrier of gunk surrounding my brain. That my brain is actually really small, hanging from a tendon attached to the inside of my head. So I dig in further, but there’s no pain. Mom’s voice gets louder. I can tell what I’m going for; sense the little package of actual brain in there. Soon my fingers are clawing past the other stuff, and I feel the world go shaky when I grab. It’s oozing between my fingers because it’s so small and delicate. My legs twitch when I squeeze it. Mom’s voice becomes a ringing tone; I need it to stop. I pull out the tiny pocket of…stuff. The brain. It’s out of my head, I’m utterly stupid now. Not human, just a big flatworm with those eyes.

And just as I’m about to close my hand around it and crush it for good, my mom’s voice yells at me, but it’s in the real world because I guess I’m screaming again. And she wakes me up and holds me while I cry, but her voice has that tone. And she thinks these dreams are because I’m scared of getting sick from the treatment, but that’s not it at all.

DG:  The action in the middle paragraph is really nicely surreal and just icky enough.  I was a little disappointed that it was a dream, I wanted to see whether that world could be paid off within itself.  The anxiety that this story does address though is nicely human and done well. BRONZE

CP: As a general rule, I hate “it was all a dream” endings. They avoid actually resolving the conflict, which is frustrating to me as a reader. However, the reference to the mysterious treatment makes the ending a bit more interesting, though still not wholly satisfying. Up until that final paragraph, it was gross, weird, and gripping. BRONZE

DEAN

Rob was in a funk.  It was over with Jenna and he was in a deep fog.  He didn’t regret breaking up with Jenna, it was inevitable, but he had to admit to himself that Jenna was tons of fun and showed him things about the City, and himself, that he didn’t even have a clue existed.  But Jenna was also a lot of work… “high maintenance” his friends called her.  A little too volatile for my liking, Rob thought “but I really miss being with someone; being challenged and intellectually engaged with someone… with a woman” Rob muttered out loud but to no one in particular.

Rob continued to parse his thoughts about Jenna and his future when he was rousted by a commotion at the front of the room.  An all staff meeting was about to begin.  This one was suppose to be important as Rob’s Agency was recently purchased by a much larger company and the purpose of the meeting was to discuss new HR policies.  Rob vaguely listened as it was the same tired presentation about “benefits staying essentially the same” and “updated sign-up procedures.”  From what he could glean not a whole lot was changing.  He’d have to log into a new website but the Agency’s relatively generous health and retirement benefits were still intact.

What got Rob’s attention however was one of the women from HR.  Rob didn’t recognize her and thought she must have been with the new corporate overlords.  She was mid-forties, professionally dressed (much more so than the rest of agency) and definitely knew her way around FSA and VEBA accounts.  What Rob noticed right away was her dimpled smile.  It was a smile that could brighten the dingiest dive bar and the sight of that smile immediately cast the last remaining wisps of Jenna from Rob’s mind.

Rob was immediately smitten but what to do?  He stewed in his folding chair until the end of the meeting and then, as if on auto-pilot, headed up to the front of the room and addressed the woman.  “I have a question about my VEBA account?” Rob felt more confident.  “I was hoping you could help me.”  “Sure, it’s… Rob right?, you’re in Creative.”  Her voice was angelic.  Up close she was actually quite fetching and Rob’s mind was whirling.  “I’m late for a lunch meeting right now but my new office is just down the hall, why don’t you stop by later on?  I can tell you all about VEBA.”   She smiled.  Rob could barely speak and nodded as he fumbled with his folder.  “My name’s Lily by the way”extending a hand, “I look forward to getting to know you Rob.”

DG: This feels like it needs one more character.  Jenna isn’t quite real and she’s gone.  We don’t get enough about Lily to really latch onto anything.  Rob is moving on from one to the other, but I’m not sure that I’m compelled by that transition.

CP: This is way, way too much telling. I snickered at the fact that Lily is a person rather than a flower here, but otherwise the story didn’t do too much for me.

SARAH

When he leaves, I wipe my hands on a dishtowel and stand in the kitchen window. I watch the taillights bounce and lift until they disappear. I want to be sure he’s gone far enough so that if he turns back to grab something he forgot – maybe his can of snuff – I’ll hear him in time. I don’t want him to know about them yet.

I used to sing to them, touching them carefully, getting a tiny sparking thrill. Maybe they’ll just come back, I’d think.

I planted them last month, like lily bulbs, after a weekend tending the flowers. I’d had a dream about it: all I needed to do was bury them in the dirt. I watered them too, letting water run through my fingers after I kissed them for luck.

I used to keep them packed in pine chips and orange peels. I’d heard that cats didn’t like citrus and I wanted to keep them safe. I’d look at them when I could, sometimes moving them somewhere new. I’d watch Jim drive off, going to fill the propane tanks in town, and I’d move them somewhere else.

They were in the attic once but it got too hot and they started to change. I dragged them into the hay loft, where the wide-gapped slats let cool air slink through, and re-wrapped them in scraps of silk from my old dress slips. Before I planted them with the lilies, I tucked them in pencil boxes with clean washcloths and hid them under the back porch.

They never seemed to take, you see. They’d slip out in the bathroom, malformed strings of tissue and swirly red matter. I never told Jim – not once. The first time, I didn’t even know what was happening; after that, I kept it to myself. I must not have been strong enough to keep it, I figured, wrapping another one in a torn silk slip. Jim’s wanted kids for as long as we’ve been together. It’d break his heart to know what had slipped away.

Jim’s taillights fade so I walk out to the flower patch behind the house. I pat the sun-heated dirt and drink peppermint tea from a chipped mug. I watch the ground carefully, hoping for dirt-stained fingers to wiggle through, until Jim’s truck crunches back up the gravel.

DG:  That second paragraph works really well the second time you read this.  This is really sad, and it’s set up to deliver that punch well.  A small complaint is that the author’s hand became a little obvious with the repeated use of “them” without defining the antecedent.  Still I enjoyed this, and the last image of the fingers growing up from the dirt is exactly right for this story. SILVER

CP:  Poor, poor little embryos. This is well done and it unfolds nicely, but in some ways it feels more like a situation to me than a full story. SILVER

ZACK

The small group of flowers growing together in the clearing was certainly beautiful, but he knew they needed to die. He’d rushed to the hardware store to get a trowel and a gallon of bleach.

It was a cold, dark night. The clear sky allowed him to be guided through the woods with moonlight. And there he was, on his hands and knees, digging out those beautiful flowers.

He had to be the one to do it. If people found that the root system was running through the caved in skull of his brother, the jig would be up.

DG: There’s a story here, but it’s barebones and doesn’t really set up much of a conflict to draw us in.  

CP: So he killed his brother and then had to kill the flowers growing over the place where he was buried? Huh. Despite its brevity, this feels like a pretty complete story. I just wish the writing were a little stronger; “allowed him to be guided” is awkward and “the jig would be up” is a big ol’cliche.

MELISSA

It started as a small shoot pushing out of Malcolm’s scalp.  He never knew where he’d find it.  It wasn’t as reliable as the hairs on his face.  Sometimes, it hid at the back of his head.  He wouldn’t notice until he’d look in the mirror one morning to a full bloom.

He hadn’t allowed that in years.

He headed towards the bathroom to pluck the new one only to have Heddie leap into his arms.  She kissed him hard.

“I’m pregnant!” she exclaimed, and within that same moment, she tapped the side of his head.  “You’ve got a lily bud.”

“Fuck.”  He scrambled to the bathroom, yanked it from his head.  Blood spurted on the tiles, on his fingers, all over the pregnancy test on the sink.

Heddie laughed.  He glanced over his shoulder.  She didn’t care about the vines or the blood.  His heartbeat slowed.  “I love you,” he said.

“I love you, too.”  She smiled.  “Freak.”

 

“Let me help,” Heddie said.  Baby Rose rested against her chest in a rare moment of sleep.  Malcolm imagined blood spattering her tiny head.

“I got it,” he said.  Heddie wandered off, and he took a deep breath, stared at his face in the bathroom mirror.  He had his mother’s eyes.  He thought that every time he had to do this.  And, every time, he wondered what she’d thought when she’d plucked that first lily from his head.  Had she found it beautiful?  Had she wished he’d never been born?

He’d never know.

He yanked out the vine.

 

“Daddy, there’s something green on your head.”

Rose’s voice in his dreams, and then he awoke in a puddle of blood.  Rose stood only a few feet from his bed, a lily in hand.

He scrambled across the room, grabbed her arms, shook her.  “What did you do?”

“Nothing, Daddy!”

“Did you pluck that flower?”

She shook her head.  “No.  I wanted to!  But Mama–”

He put her down, panic a lump in his throat.  Her face was so pale.  She looked so much like his mother.

Oh god, oh god, oh god.

He backed away from her.

And tripped over Heddie.

He hit the ground, and Heddie’s eyes stared over at him.  Her jaw lax, sprinkled with blood.  Her cheek against the wooden floor.  Her neck bent at an awkward angle.

Rose padded over to him, fell into his arms.  He hugged her tight.

Together, they cried.

DG: I’m going to need to read that again.  Heddie died because … only Malcolm can pluck the lily? That doesn’t make sense – his mother plucked the first lily. Wait.  Did his mother die when she plucked the lily? That’s why “he’d never know”, right?  And why Rose looks so much like his mother.  I find myself wishing for something that pulls the three sections together.  If it is Malcolm trying to protect Heddie and Rose from the danger of his lily, I wish the danger was made a little more clear.  BRONZE

CP: So Rose inherited the lily-from-head condition too? But what killed Heddie? This is an interesting story and I like that it shows rather than tells, but I don’t understand the “rules” of how the lily-from-head thing works. There were also some other confusing bits, such as why he has to scramble across the room, when the preceding sentence indicates Rose is only a few feet from his bed.

ANNETTE

I hold myself carefully erect.  The bloom is very fragile; one moment of carelessness can spell disaster.  I’m so tired.

“Marley?  Twenty minutes until lights out.”

I scoot to the corner of my bed where I can prop myself up.  I’ve tried staying awake, but it’s impossible.

*****

Stephen waited quietly in the visiting room after speaking to Dr. Oliver.  He’d made the drive to see Marley eleven times.  Maybe this time . . . .

*****

Dr. Oliver led Marley back to her room, her screams setting off some of her neighbors like car alarms.  Nurses rushed back and forth, soothing and medicating.

“Here we are, Marley, back in your room.  Stephen is driving home.  Let’s calm down.”  Dr. Oliver’s smooth tones relaxed her and she allowed him to help her to bed.

Marley hiccupped over her sobs and scooted her bony backside back into the corner where she slumped, exhausted.

“No skipping meals, Marley.”  He warned.  “You’ve lost too much weight.”  He shook his head as she started to protest.  “No.  No trays in your room.  Too much solitude isn’t good for you.”  He smiled and patted her foot.  “You can sit wherever you want though.”

*****

Stephen leaned his forehead against the steering wheel.  Dry eyes burned with the weight of delayed tears.

“I’m sorry Stephen,” Dr. Oliver had warned.  “I doubt this visit will be any different.  I haven’t noticed any change.”

“I need to believe that she’s going to get better.”

Dr. Oliver nodded.  “I believe that too.  Grieving takes many forms.  There’s no timeline to follow here.”

Scrubbing brutally at his eyes, Stephen straightened and started the car.

*****

Despite my efforts, I drift off to sleep, my head gingerly propped on the wall behind me.  I’m so weary, I almost immediately start to dream.   Stephen’s big hands rub lazy circles on my basketball belly and we kiss.  I can’t remember why he scares me.  Now I’m painting a wall the palest of yellows, long sure strokes with the roller brush.  Stephen is there, taping off the window and telling horrible jokes, making me laugh so hard my overtaxed bladder threatens a revolt.  We are happy and my lips curl up, fertility shots and calendars forgotten.

I jerk into consciousness, a sick feeling snaking in my belly.  Frantically, I reach up and stroke the soft, dewy petal of the tiny lily growing out of my head.  As the dream fades, so does my panic.

“Mama’s here, baby.”

DG: So much of the story is told in that last section that it feels like the first few are a little superfluous.  It’s a good enough story, but doesn’t have the impact that the other medalling stories put together this week.

CP: More dead babies! On first read, I didn’t understand this one, but I got it on second read. It’s a bit tricky to keep jumping to different points of view in a story this short, but I do really love the sweetness of the final line. SILVER

————————————

Holy shit, Brian.

Mr. January delivers a double gold with his season on the line and snags a playoff spot.  Gilman. secures the other playoff spot, while Sama, Annette, and Melissa couldn’t quite muster up the necessary medals to sneak in.

This conference was always going to send some really strong writers home after the regular season, and it delivered on that promise.  Two of the three former champs are out.

Good stuff this week, Interrobang.  Thanks for a fun season if you’re taking your leave after this challenge.  Good luck in the playoffs if you’re moving on.

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