Playoffs, gang! Big Brother! Werewolf! The Royal Rumble next week! Ryan’s New Year thing! Do you have enough to do?

This challenge produced some awesome ideas with some spotty execution. And with the extra day, too!!! But honestly, it was an enjoyable quarterfinal, if imperfect. Let’s see who joins Beau and Sarah for the next one (which DG will post before long).

Brian David

Dirt fell into the grave and landed on the burlap cloth. Alistair stuck the shovel into the ground and leaned on the handle.
“God help us all,” he said, looking up at the noon sun. He wiped the sweat from his brow, and then continued to fill the grave.
A young boy, pale and blue-eyed, stood behind Allister. The child watched the priest’s rhythmic movements, saying nothing. Allister would occasionally glance over at the boy.
A little over an hour later the body was completely covered.
“This was your father?” Allister said, breathing heavily and wiping his hands with a cloth. A group of crows perched in a nearby tree, watching the proceedings. One of them cried out loudly.
The boy nodded.
“And this was the only family you had?”
Again, the boy nodded.
“I’m sorry for your loss. You can stay at the church for now, until we find better accommodations.”
Alistair picked up a handbag that was sitting near the churchyard fence.
“This is the third death this week from the same affliction; severe nosebleeds, gums swelling, teeth falling out, and. . .” Alistair closed his eyes. “. . .and the flies.”
He walked up to the boy and patted him on the dead.
“I’ve faced this demon before; it will be somewhere close by. I must move quickly.”
Alistair walked briskly down the dirt lane.
* * *

The moon was in the middle of the night sky, white and swollen. The crows shuffled in the trees as Alistair walked slowly along the lane. He limped heavily and the left side of his face was caked with drying blood. Alistair found the boy standing by the grave, staring quietly at the dirt.
“It is done,” Alistair said hoarsely, kneeling next to the makeshift gravemarker. “The demon had taken hold of Magister Thorn’s eldest daughter, who had taken to practicing dark magic.”
Alistair grabbed tightly at the crucifix that hung from his neck.
“She didn’t survive.”
The boy knelt down beside Alistair, still staring at the grave.
“I have seen what evil looks like, child,” Alistair whispered, voice shaking. “I pray that neither of us ever see it again.”
The boy reached out and grabbed a handful of dirt from the grave. He leaned his head over and bit down on the wet earth. Alistair breathed sharply, his eyes widening. The back of his throat began to itch.
“You are wrong, Father,” the boy said, eyes dilating as dirt fell from his mouth. “Evil doesn’t look like anything.”
Alistair grabbed his throat and coughed. A fly crawled out of his mouth and climbed up along his cheek.

K: These twists often fail to surprise in a story this short. I mean, we know you’re going to pay it off, and there’s only one other character, so there you go. We have some nice prose, but no reason for the boy’s actions and not much more than two one-dimensional cutout characters. It’s a decent opening scene to a horror movie, but I need more than this to pay off a whole story.

DK: I like the atmosphere and the world-building here. It could’ve probably used a look-over (patted his “dead”?”) and the characters themselves aren’t especially engaging, but the plot work and tension in there even without standout characters. The structure works well too with the cutaway before the big reveal. BRONZE

CP: This is a lot of telling. I wish we’d been in on more of the action, rather than just being told about it by Alastair. The story seems like it wants to explore the nature of evil, and the boy’s statement near the end is provocative and interesting, but I feel like I don’t really know what he’s talking about. I guess I’m trying to say that the concept seems solid, but it’s not as well developed as it could have been.

DG: I like the plot here, but I feel like this is limited by what we get to see. The boy only has the one line and Alistair only serves to lay out the plot, we don’t get much filling out of either character.

Bret Highum

Father Tomas shivered. The rough linen of his cassock was a poor shield against the damp fog and swirling breezes in the pauper’s field, but he had to be here. Guidelines for burying monsters were strange- sometimes they had to be cremated, sometimes buried in sacred ground, or sometimes, like this one, interred in unhallowed earth but with a blessed sacrament strewn over the grave. Father Tomas had recited a Rituale Romanum while pacing counterclockwise around the burial place with a censer and sprinkling soil from the Jordan Valley onto the freshly-turned loam. Foolishness, for the most part, thought the father, but looking at the widow and her too-thin son with his splinted arm standing watching him- well, what could it hurt?

Andre was sick again. Maria bustled back and forth, damp cloths to cool his forehead and blankets to heat his legs. He’d never been healthy, but since his father had died he’d been prone to dreadful illnesses every fall. Sallow and thin at the best of times, towards the end of October he fell victim to a terrible fever and wracking tremors that left him weakened until the summer days grew longer and he’d recover as the days warmed. But for now- she dabbed the perspiration off his forehead and muttered prayers under her breath as he shivered and shook.

Andre stood in the graveyard, his thin limbs matching the bare tree branches waving in the crisp fall air. His father’s grave was capped with the packed bare earth that had been shoveled on top of the pine casket almost two decades ago- nothing would grow there. Kneeling down, he brushed his hand gently across the hard-packed soil, scraping together the yellow grains of sand that stood out against the native red clay. Taking a pinch between his calloused fingers, he tilted his head back and let it trickle into his open mouth, swallowing hard to force the grit down his too-dry throat. Standing up, he waited for the familiar shock of the consecrated soil attacking whatever it was within him that it had always struggled against- but the stomach-wracking pain barely registered and Andre’s eyes widened. Frenziedly he swept his hands over the entire surface, collecting more loose material and shoveling it into his mouth, jaws working frantically to force it down. He didn’t stop until he felt the first quiver of movement rising up through the earth under him, a single beat. Sitting back, he felt his stomach clench as if in reply and tears streamed down his dirt-smeared face.

The thrum beat through the earth again.

K: Aaaahhhh. The prose is lovely, the characters have character despite the story having no dialogue, and the payoff is strong and I can buy it, but not overwhelmingly telegraphed. It’s a testament to this one that I knew the lead character would eat some of the earth, but I was still in rapt attention once we got to that point. GOLD

DK: Here, too, there’s some great scene-setting and evocative atmosphere. I think every one of these maintains the problem of relying on explaining the past instead of moving the story forward a little bit, but this one probably does the most, up until the very end. I like the build there in the last section but it leaves me feeling like there wasn’t enough up to that point to impact upon it.

CP: This is creepy, to be sure, but also a bit vague for me. A priest buried some sort of monster (who was also a boy’s father), the boy has some sort of ailment. I am guessing that the Jordan Valley soil keeps the monster within Andre at bay, but when too much is removed from the gravesite, the father comes back to life. Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about the monster or care enough about Andre to get all that scared by the ending. But I do appreciate that this story has more showing than telling. (On a technical note, it wasn’t immediately apparent that there’s a jump in time from one paragraph to the next, so that took a while to figure out.) SILVER

DG: I like the escalating conflict within the son (Andre). The detail that his arm is in a splint and his consistently having to fight the influence of his father down gives this a really dark undercurrent. The last bit is a little bit unclear, but I think that’s intentional. GOLD

Pete Bruzek

“Gonna be a storm soon, boy.”

Torsten peered up from his meal. The old man was staring.

“And…?” Torsten asked, betraying a bit more irritation than intended.

The old man merely scoffed. “Yer name don’t mean everything,” he jeered.

It had gone like this for years. He thought he’d get used to it, but every year around the anniversary of his father’s death, everyone liked driving the point home more sharply. He felt it in every double-take from every passerby.

“Your father was a great man, and you are nothing like him.”

As Torsten left the diner to head to work, he couldn’t help but notice the roiling, angry looking clouds overhead – the old man had a point. He pulled his jacket tighter and quickened his pace.

He got to the shop ten minutes late, as usual. Mr. Carlsen scowled, but said nothing. Torsten ran the till, losing himself in thought. Fifteen years since the accident, and no one let him forget who they held responsible.

“Do you think it’ll blot us from the map this time?” asked the woman, jolting him back. It seemed an absurd question, but her face betrayed her fear.

“Oh, I’m sure it’ll pass” Torsten assured her. The woman smiled politely, but left quickly.

“Don’t know how you do it, Tor” a friendly voice announced from behind him, “I’d sock ’em.”

Torsten laughed and turned to his friend, “They can’t help it, Astrid. I just hate the way it makes Mom feel.”

“Storms are such scaaaary things” Astrid laughed, before soberly adding “Do you want me to come over tonight? You shouldn’t go through it alone.”

“I’d like that.”

The rest of the day brought little in the way of incident. They took the bus home. Their fellow riders exchanged worried glances, first to Torsten, then up to the deteriorating sky. He didn’t speak a word. She let him be.

They got home, and he brought the urn down from the fireplace. Opening it, he scraped together a heaping spoonful of the urn’s contents. With a slight hesitation, he ate them, the sickly taste flooding his palate. Fighting the urge to vomit, he choked the ash down.

Light flooded the room as Torsten’s body convulsed, columns of light emanating from his eyes. Astrid peered outside. The clouds in the sky disappeared, the storm fading into nothingness. Torsten collapsed.

When he awoke, Astrid had already made tea. Thanking her, he took a sip.

“No more ashes.”

“Nope.”

“What happens next year?”

Torsten paused. “I don’t know.”

They stared out the window at the beautiful spring day.

K: This is an extremely cool idea that unfortunately comes off as a lot of “filler” writing meant to set up the extremely cool idea. We have potential in spades here and I feel like this could be a Neil Gaiman-esque tale, but the energy of the ending just isn’t present in the setup. Still and all, the writing isn’t too bad. SILVER

DK: There’s a lot of tantalizing hints here and I enjoyed the way they’re parsed out. Torsten and this world feel pretty realized without an overabundance of explanation. Plus the action rises in an interesting way through the storm and finishes with a subtly haunting ending. SILVER

CP: This story won me over. I didn’t feel like the opening bit was all that special, but when Astrid turned up, it started getting more interesting. The writing throughout could have been more polished (using “light” twice in the sentence that begins “light flooded” is redundant), but the concept here is very cool and I love the uncertainty of the ending. GOLD

DG: This hangs together, but just barely. It doesn’t ever give us the answers that we really want from the plot, but still finds a way to a conclusion. This is part of a larger world in a way that the other stories aren’t, but I wish the rules of the world were brought into the story just a little bit more instead of one more scene where everyone blame Torsten for his father’s death. BRONZE

Matthew Gilman.

I tumble over the chain-link fence. The walk is familiar, but I use my flashlight. I like the way the stones throw long shadows when the beam hits.

Swig. Four back, three past the wooden bench. That smell of rotting that all cemeteries have no matter how many rosebushes they force into the landscape.

Once I find him, I turn the flashlight off. Slip it into my belt. Swig again. “Motherfucker,” I mutter like always, waiting for my eyes to adjust.

“Wake up old man. It’s Sunday. Gotta pay my respects, you worthless piece of shit.” Ten years teaches you just the right volume and tone. Just in case. But this is the cheap cemetery; nobody gives a shit about security here. You get what you pay for in your will, I guess.

“Motherfucker.” I always wing this part, just to let out whatever’s bubbling up. “Fucking worthless old asshole.” I guess this week, it’s the checklist: “Whore-fucking, abusive, negligent, racist, wife-beating old cancerous shitpile.” It’s good; it’s good to do this. I end it with a phlegmatic spit right into the middle of the grave plot. The dirt there seems looser tonight. The spittle disappears underneath like it had hit sand in a desert. Yeah yeah…you’d never say that to my face, would you, punk-ass? Had to wait until I was dead.

His voice coming from somewhere. Everywhere. I’m drunk enough not to be surprised. “Fuck you, Dad. Goddamn redneck. Making me watch; telling me it’s a lesson in being tough.”

Worked though, eh? Taught you how to shut up that cold cunt you’re with now. Mission a-fuckin-complished.

I fall to my knees over the grave and hiss. “Sonofabitch, fuck you. I make…mistakes. But I’m NOT a wife-beater.”

You’re even drinking my brand, piss-drunk on a Sunday. Fuckin’ couldn’t be prouder. Feels like a homecoming to me.

“GODDAMMIT.”

You’re not like me? YOU don’t even believe it. Either say it to my face, or kiss my dead ass.

So I’m clawing at the sod. Tearing into the ground. Down, down, far below the sweet-smelling earth. Scraping my fingernails off on the wood of the coffin, until the splinters clear away into a gap. The grave’s become a vault. Stale, empty air. Open space with slight red lighting. My father’s standing there, his face unmistakeable. I crawl up to him, unable to say anything.

And he’s just watching. Nodding.

“Thought so. Thought so. C’mon,” I catch a shovel he tosses my way. “We’ve got a lot further to dig.”

K: The story here is an easy one to latch on to for a reader, though the execution erred a little too much on the side of plain good vs. plain evil for my tastes. There’s just not a lot of nuance in this story, which is a shame as it could be a pretty strong father-son story. The ending is very strong, but I’m not sure it entirely makes up for the broad and somewhat predictable way we get there. In general, this week I guess my #1 lesson is that a great ending is paramount, but not at the expense of the rest of the story. If you ever find yourself writing a passage simply to get to the next passage, rethink your structure. BRONZE

DK: This gets over for me based on the emotional depth. The atmosphere is here, too, but the back-and-forth within the main character’s mind as he loses his ground to the projection of his father is the most resonant of these. GOLD

CP: I like the opening of this one a lot–it’s not obvious exactly where the story is going to go, and the narrator is distinctive and interesting. Unfortunately, it got less interesting to me as it went on. The exchange about wife beating seems more designed to inform the reader than how these two characters would actually talk to each other. Assuming the narrator’s father doesn’t talk back to him every week, I also feel like the narrator should have a more dramatic reaction to his appearance. (Unless the father is meant to be just a figment of his drunken imagination?) The ending just didn’t feel particularly satisfying to me. BRONZE

DG: This takes a little bit to get there. I think some of the middle part gets a little repetitive, but I really like the ending. The confrontation works from what we’ve learned of both characters, and the father’s line sums up the story really nicely. SILVER

————————————————————————————————————————-

Whew. Who needs a cigarette? That was close.

Pete Bruzek advances, after being given a reprieve by nonsub Ian last week. Lucky guy, this one, but he brought it here.

Bret Highum also steps closer after a season where he led the vast majority of the way, only to see Beau cheat his way to the top with a story that was just…really, really good.

However, we lose two people, too.

Brian David is on my shortlist, if anyone asks. I doubt he’s ever quite been my #1 scorer in a season, but he always takes wild risks and always tries new things, which is more than some of the “consistent” folks around here do. I always look forward to weeks when I judge his stories.

Matthew Gilman. also falls after a season where he got a period added to the end of his name. Gilman also errs on the side of bizarre, and consistently brings concepts that seemingly come out of nowhere. Like Brian, there’s a steep divide between his best stories and…the ones that aren’t. But this motherf*&ker can make a judge laugh, and that’s a rare gift.

So, final four, take your seats:

Sarah Wreisner
Beau
Pete Bruzek
Bret Highum

Really? Three Ampersands after all of that? (If one of you is an Interrobanger, don’t remind me; my dreamworld is more interesting). There are no real surprises here at the end, given CdL history, but I’m psyched nonetheless. Get dirty in there, Prosers.

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