Howdy, fair Prosers. You know, I never say “Howdy” in life but I say it a lot to open these. Well, whatever. Maybe next time I’ll speak like a southern cracker to justify the Howdy. Anyway, for as close as the judging was last week, this time it’s all over the place as all the stories had some pretty glaring gaps, and it was up to us what to overlook. Brooks thinks the overly specific prompt was the culprit, and I can see that.

As always, even with the issues here and there, we’ve still got some lovely passages in every story. Let’s see which two of you moved on, shall we?

Beau

“Dad, please stay.” It was a week before Christmas, the beginning of summer in Argentina. Dad, the noted paleontologist Dr. Ted Drumlin, was at his desk.

“I’m sorry, Ellie. Our team…” He turned his chair to face her. “We are so close. We’ve found more bones than ever.”

“But you said finding a skull is almost impossible. They’re fragile. They rarely fossilize.”

“I know, but…”

“Can’t someone else find it?”

He kissed her on the forehead. “Is there anyone better than your Dad?” He winked.

■■■■■

Sheep were grazing comfortably. Antarctic air had left Southern Patagonia. Yet Dr. Drumlin felt a shiver course through his body. He wasn’t used to negotiations, at least outside the museum.

“¿Dónde está el dinosaurio?”

Fabricio Lopez grinned. Ted wondered if it was his terrible accent. Perhaps it was the blonde puta Fabricio had hanging on his arm.

“No sé.”

■■■■■

The government refuses to help. Property rights. The digs continue, but I’m running out of confidence. The rancher must be convinced.

“Eleanor Marie!” She jumped out of her father’s chair. “I told you never to touch my stuff!”

“I know Dad, I just…”

“I respect your privacy, don’t I?”

Ellie’s chest tightened. She opened her mouth, then stopped. She turned away from her father and slammed her door.

■■■■■

“Un millón de dólares.” Ted opened his briefcase as proof.

“Te dije que…” Fabricio sighed. “No sé.”

Ted closed the case. “Let me know if you change your mind.” He turned towards the Jeep.

“Señor.” Fabricio pulled a revolver. “I have.”

■■■■■

A stunning blonde in a cocktail dress entered his home.

“Señorita Ellie. Usted es un sabroso manjar.” Fabricio poured some fernet over ice. She raised an eyebrow. “¿No español?” She shook her head. He gave her the tumbler and poured himself another. “You tasty treat.”

She smiled at him.

The glass shook as Fabricio raised his drink. He downed it quickly. She approached, one hip at a time. She leaned forward to give him ample view of her cleavage, then poured another glass. His eyes diverted, she switched the glasses.

She pointed at her bust. “Treat?”

Fabricio laughed.

■■■■■

The skull was carefully set into place.

“Just spectacular. A testament to life.” The curator turned to her. “Ms. Drumlin. On behalf of the Bernardino Rivadavia Natural Sciences Museum, I thank you. You’ve done us…all of humanity a great service. Your father would be proud.”

“Yeah,” Ellie replied. She looked down.

Dreadnoughtus.
Earth’s Largest Dinosaur.
First Full Skeleton.

She caught her reflection in the plaque. The letters blurred.

K: This story really had to work overtime on me, because the opening segment suggested, to me, that Ellie was only about ten years old (she goes by “Ellie,” she says “Dad, please stay,” the kiss on the forehead). So when Ellie shows her cleavage, yikes, I had to do a re-read. I also found it tough to buy that Ellie had the smarts and resources to do this without any prior knowledge of what she was capable of. Still, rushed though it is, it’s a decent story. SILVER

DK: This does a lot of work in a short amount of space, because of all its cuts back and forth, to set up its characters enough so the ending means something. I think it generally succeeds. It’s almost at the point of going too light on any part to get everything necessary, but if it’s not at that point, then it’s got everything you need (says Captain Obvious) and I think the context is there to make it work. SILVER

CP: This ends on a touching note–her father has been vindicated!–but unfortunately the characters are too much like caricatures for me to feel any real connection with them. I also thought there were more section breaks than necessary, which, along with the inconsistent point of view, made the story feel disjointed.

DG: There’s some depth here which I really appreciate. The short sections each move each character forward, which is no easy feat. SILVER

Bret Highum

Hassan ran his fingers down the smooth skin of the woman’s leg again. She shivered and tried to pull away, but the ties were secure. She had been quite the opponent, but his magic had been stronger. He wiped the tear from the corner of her eye and smiled, knowing that she would make a fantastic tribute. Pulling the framework into place, he bent to work with thread and spells.

“My sheikh!” Hassan cried, bending deep at the waist. “I bring you my latest masterpiece!” With a flourish of his hand, he directed his assistants to place the gift in front of the Bedouin lord, and unrolled the rug to display the pattern concealed within. The sheikh’s eyes rounded in amazement at the beautiful depiction of a veritable goddess, clothed only in her hair and the woven threads caged about her.

“Hassan, you have outdone yourself!” cried the sheikh. “What wizardry is this? So lifelike!”

“That’s not all, my lord,” purred Hassan. Stroking his hand down the woven leg of the woman, he whispered, “Fly,” in the lightest of breaths. A ripple stirred through the carpet, and it lifted from the floor, a breeze from nowhere stirring the dust from underneath it.

The sheikh fell back in shock, and then fell to his knees in amazement, looking for tricks. Mouth open, he turned to Hassan, speechless.

Hassan chuckled, with no mirth. “Magic, of course, my lord. The louder you tell her to fly, the higher she goes! She will travel faster than a horse during the night, but cannot fly during the day. Please, sit- I will give you a demonstration.”

Both Hassan and the sheikh sat on the carpet, the sheikh with trepidation and Hassan in total calmness. “Fly,” he commanded, and they rose high above the rocky courtyard, above the towering palm trees. “Forward,” Hassan said- and nothing happened. “Forward!” he spoke sternly- and the threads of the carpet fell apart, dropping both men screaming until they hit the ground with crushing impact. The threads and the woman they had wrapped around drifted down slowly, landing in the open space, surrounded by the gaping Arabs.

K: The plot here is pretty fantastic, even if I think the prose lacks the power that the early horror is capable of carrying. Still, I got the intended claustrophobic feeling from the trap, and I was satisfied with the (witch?) one-upping her captor in front of the awestruck horde. Judging this one against the first, it displays what’s so tough about this; the first has some real nice prose, but this plot sticks a lot more. GOLD

DK: I love the setting here and the descriptions used to establish it. It feels exotic and vivid. I didn’t love the unbalanced distribution of the plot; the way the ending comes on feels about as abrupt as these guys deaths’ were. That’s okay if that’s meant to create that effect, but when the first majority is almost all immersion and little movement it makes the ending a jarring experience.

CP: I like the idea of setting the story in another time and place, but this one relies on stereotype to an extent that I’m a bit uncomfortable with it. The ending is satisfying–the jerks get what’s coming to them–but I wish we’d spent a little time with the female character, who is literally one-dimensional for most of the story. I would have liked to know a little more about how she outsmarted the jerks. Still, I have to give this writer credit for coming up with an unusual and unexpected take on the prompt. BRONZE

DG: It took me far too long into this story to realize this was a magic carpet. Once there’s that, I kind of wish this story had something surprising for us. But once we know how the carpet is made and what Hassan and the sheikh are doing with the demonstration, there’s really only one place to go from there. BRONZE

Sarah Wreisner

Her eyes sparkled blue as she welcomed us inside. Her hair was pinned into soft brown curls and she smelled like lilies. She arranged a plate of biscotti and asked if we’d like coffee. We didn’t want anything; we wanted to get it over with.

“Maybe she liked company,” Mikey whispered. “Maybe she wanted….” I shut him up. He reached for a biscotti and I stopped his shaking hand.

Mikey stayed with her while the rest of us fanned out. She emptied the dishwasher as we unlatched the cellar door.

The stench hit my face like a pane of rotten glass. I radioed everybody else and fumbled with the Vicks bottle, gagging.

Later, as we led her past the neighbors, we asked if her children were involved. Crimson leaves were fluttering over the driveway, and she picked one from her pale blue sweater. “Jimmy’s a therapist in Atlanta. I’m just so proud. And my youngest – well, he’s gotten past the sump, you know.” My arms went numb. I called an ambulance.

We still don’t know how she did it. Some of them, judging from the remains, were powerful and young. We found things – animal tissue, board games, preserved fetuses – that we’re still not sure about. We think she’s been doing it for decades. She was becoming an expert.

They looked like mannequin forms: armless, without heads, slumped against the mineral walls of the basement. Flaps of plastic sheeting waved in the breeze of an industrial air purifier. A marmalade cat stepped out of the viscera, purring happily, filthy and well-fed. Further back, a crawlspace opened to a network of hideaways: bones, food wrappers and towels littered the floor. Pools of dark liquid had collected in every corner. Blankets, urine-soaked and infested with lice, concealed bulging shapes in every room. No one knows how – or why – she did it. Does it matter?

They found him hiding and grotesquely withered, his heart barely beating. He wouldn’t speak; his legs had been severed and he had no lower jaw. He suffered a seizure as we carried him to the ambulance; one EMT vomited when she saw him.

We never found her husband, or the daughter who was born in ’84. We never found the girl who vanished selling cookies one street over. The ceiling collapsed during the excavation and a judge shut us down. If my appeal goes through, we’ll be back in next week. I want to see how far down those tunnels go – and where they end up.

K: “No one knows how – or why – she did it. Does it matter?” Yes, it matters. It matters perhaps more than anything, if there’s going to be a story about it. This prose is lovely, but the depraved collection of a serial killer? It’s nothing new here, and without a real story attached to this, it’s just a well-written bit of exposition that doesn’t go anywhere. If I’m going to feel this sick, I want there to be a reason, but I ended up feeling like I read torture porn. BRONZE

DK: Eeesh. This sells itself on its willingness to go deeper, literally and otherwise, into the nature of depravity on display here, and it dole out the reveals bit by bit in a well-paced manner. There’s some just great individual pieces of writing in the imagery within it as well. GOLD

CP: This is creepy and grotesque, but I wish it were something more than that. To me, what would be even more horrifying than this woman’s actions is her rationale–why did she do these things? how did she rationalize them to herself? Because the rationale is missing, I felt like the story was going for shock value without any real character development to back it up. The details, however, were certainly . . . uh . . . vivid. SILVER

DG: I actually like a bit of grotesque in my reading, and this scratches that itch. The description here is nicely off-putting and carries itself far enough to get some impact. The discovery of the son is another surprise that twists the knife just a little bit more to take her monstrosity just a bit farther. GOLD

Pete Bruzek

“Who’s the new girl?” Rivers asked with a flippant nod in the recruit’s direction.

“Morris’ replacement,” Mack said gruffly. “Command seems to think what a dumpster fire needs is gasoline. And make no mistake,” he said, turning to the object of their derision, “Station 119 is a dumpster fire. What’s your name?”

“Adams” she said simply.

Mack’s glance lingered a second. When he was satisfied that there would be no further elaboration, he continued.

“Do you know why you’re here?”

“No, sir.”

“You are here because ‘mysterious causes’ is the leading cause of death around here lately, and this shithole is too remote for Command to care. You are here to hopefully survive the winter. I have to be honest,” he said, pausing to examine the newbie, “I have my doubts that you’ll succeed.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Okay, Rivers, show her the obelisk.”

Rivers responded with a irritated sigh and motioned for Adams to follow him. They made their way through the icy corridors of the station. Eventually, they arrived at their destination. Rivers pulled out his badge and scanned it at the door, then placed his thumbprint on the biometrics pad.

The door opened to a surprisingly small room, with a three foot high pillar in the center. Ten smaller pillars surrounded it, all covered in a strange text.

“We found it about two months back. We haven’t figured out what it’s here for, but we’re pretty sure it’s what we were sent to find.”

“Rivers!” the radio on his hip sprang to life. “Do not take the recruit to the artifact! Adams is a…”

Before Rivers’ hand could flinch, he was gunned down by Adams.

“Goods news and bad news,” she said as she crouched beside him, “you’re all going to die, but your deaths won’t be particularly mysterious, so that’s good, right?”

She retrieved her gas mask from her duffel before stealing Rivers’ radio. Switching it the designated channel, she opened a line.

“They found it. Send your team in, and leave my payment at the usual spot.”

K: This is a lot to take in, without a lot of words to tell it. Again, I find the twist fairly hard to believe, as Adams has gunned down a cop when it’s clear that the cop on the other side of the radio knew how she fit in and can therefore tie her to the non-mysterious murder. That might come off as a small quibble, but it’s a major oversight in plotting and one of this site’s many instances of an author falling back on a death when there are much more interesting dramatic choices. Above all, I think the story attempted to cover too much ground.

DK: Character-wise this one doesn’t have a lot that jumps out at me, but it’s also well-paced and has some interesting hints at world-building without getting itself bogged down in exposition. The twist also isn’t one that’s too hard to see coming, but it’s effective and gives the story a good burst of action. BRONZE

CP: Of the four stories, I was cheering the most for the woman in this one. The tropes of this story didn’t feel particularly fresh, but they were handled pretty well. I did wish there weren’t so many cliched phrases, e.g. “irritated sigh,” “icy corridors,” but on a night when none of the stories had everything I was hoping for, this one came closest to being a compelling interpretation of the prompt. GOLD

DG: This feels straightforward to me. We don’t get enough of Adams to be truly surprised by her turn and we don’t get enough of the obelisk to get a sense of its value or effect. So this ends up reading as a pretty vanilla double-cross.

—————————————————————————————–

There it is, Prosers. I’ll keep it short so as not to make you wait later into the night for results.

Your finalists are Sarah Wreisner and Beau. Well, that justifies their division wins, right?

Brooks will be along with the final challenge posthaste, I’m sure.

Bret, thanks for the season. It seems like you’re always getting eliminated when I’ve just given you a gold, so I guess I’ll stop. Will that help? Anyway, your atmosphere is as always strong, while your story structure is getting stronger.

Pete, I appreciate your entries because you’re unafraid to use bizarre humor when a lot of judges throughout the site’s history have shown themselves to be unwilling to reward it. I was glad to see you go this deep (even if Ian deserves an assist) and to see what you’d do near the end of a season again. Now you’re 2-for-3 in not writing stories about Rickroll jokes!

Cheers, all. See you in a few.

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