It seems like I was feeling a little critical this time out. I don’t know if that comes across, but I had some questions or “what would it be like if it was written this way instead?” thoughts about all of these. But as always, we’re all winners…especially the player who is the winner.

JAMESON HANDYTROUSERS

A man whose lady love moved away
Was sitting at his computer display.
He received a notification
And to his elation
It was his love and ’twas quite risqué.

DK: Maybe this will reopen the question of “Is Matt Novak playing?” for the rest of you guys.
CP: And here I was worried about the high word count! As a limerick, this is not bad. The meter is imperfect and the “display” in “computer display” is there only to provide a rhyme, but it fulfils the prompt and I find it pretty darn cute. Plus, I appreciate the risk taken here. BRONZE

CHRISTY BUBBLEPUMPKIN

As I walked down the long, dirt driveway leading to my family’s old farmhouse I couldn’t help but think about the last time I was on this same road 32 years ago. I thought I had it all figured out back then. Take my share of the family business and invest in what I thought was a dream lifestyle in the city. Instead of being sentenced to stay in this hick town my whole life, then I would be truly happy!

My brother always resented my decision, he didn’t think it was right to shirk my family responsibilities like that and he told me I better never show my face around here again. Just thinking about that confrontation made my strides a little bit slower, but I have come so far I can’t let this trepidation defeat me now. Even if he throws me out right away, I need to try to speak with him. I need to try to set things right between us.

Dad never said a bad word to me about my decision. In fact, he was very generous and always tried to keep in touch even if I never had enough time to take his calls. That family money was great at first: fancy dinners, plenty of drinks and of course no lack of women either. But at the rate I was spending, my nest egg shriveled up real quick. Even in those times Dad would bail me out and give me whatever I needed and I took him for granted.

Until the day of his accident of course, dad’s basically has been a vegetable and I haven’t been able to see him or speak to him ever since. All because I couldn’t face my brother, every time I thought about coming back I just pictured that disapproving look in his eyes on the day I left and it would drive me further and further away. So I tried to cope the only way a low life like me could: drugs and alcohol, even ended up serving time for a few years because of my vices.

Now, as I close in on the old farm house I can’t help but pause and take in the scenery. Everything around here seems so similar, yet different. Things seemed to have decayed a bit, whether it’s the frost heaves in the driveway, the shingles on the house that are about to fall off, the uncut lawn on either side, even the trees look a little worse for wear. But then again, if they had eyes and could remember me I doubt they could recognize me nowadays. I left here with everything: family, friends, a future and now here I am coming back with absolutely nothing, not even my dignity or pride.

Before knocking on the door I quickly peered into the window to muster up my courage one last time and there I could see my brother. Just the sight of him gave me an even bigger pit in my stomach. There was Dad too, sitting there motionless and my brother was feeding him by hand! I don’t think I will ever forget that moment for the rest of my life no matter how brief it is. Here I am the selfish loser returning home because I have nothing left to a brother who has given up everything to stick to his family obligations. However, it didn’t matter, I came this far I needed to go that one last step.

I backed away from the window, and sheepishly knocked on the door. Waiting for him to come open the door felt like an eternity but finally I heard the faint footsteps of my brother getting louder and louder as they approached the doorway. Then the knob slowly turned.

“How can I help y…” he said as he opened the door, stopping when he caught sight of me. He just stopped, not saying a word and stared me in the eyes. If waiting for the door to open felt like an eternity, his stare down felt like it lasted twice as long until he started weeping uncontrollably.

“Brian, what’s wrong,” I started to reply but he simply jumped out of the doorway and embraced me with the most heartfelt bear hug I have ever been on the receiving end of which caused me to break down.

“But you said never to come back here, what changed? Don’t you even care why I’m here?”

“Listen, Luke I was young and an idiot back then just like you. Just promise me one thing: if I let you in here to see Dad you can’t take off for years again. He can’t handle that, that would kill him more than the accident.”

“Nothing would make me happier.”.

DK: I like the emotion here; the way this ends isn’t terribly surprising, but the feeling it conveys in their reunion is strong nonetheless. It’s hard not to ding this one at least some for overtelling/undershowing. It’s reasonable to see the protagonist going over the events of those years in his head before returning, but in story form that amount of exposition presented that way makes for a somewhat unbalanced read.
CP: Wow, that’s a lot of background information before the story actually gets going. While readers do need to know much of this info, I think the story would have been stronger if bits and pieces could have been worked in along the way as the story unfolded. For all the narrator’s fear of the brother’s reaction, the tension dissipates extremely quickly. I also found the ending a bit too sentimental for my taste.

PRINCESS SPATULA

“Congresswoman!” The D.C. correspondents were clamoring to get her attention. She picked her favorite out of the crowd.

“John?”

“Thank you, Congresswoman. Can you tell us when you will announce whether you are running in 2028?”

“Whatever do you mean?” Congresswoman Diane Crowley managed to make coy look dignified. Her smooth cap of salt and pepper hair gleamed in the blinding lights. She relented. “If and when I have an announcement regarding the highest office in this fair land, you’ll be the first to know, John; or among the first. Or among the first reporters.” The room chuckled. “Anyone else have a pertinent question regarding my bill on military spending?” She scanned the upraised hands. “Yes?” She pointed at a woman in the back.

“Congresswoman Crowley, I have breaking news out of Afghanistan. A U.N. contingent of soldiers has uncovered an Al-Qaeda cell holding prisoners. My sources say we have recovered several people missing for over 20 years.”

“Why, that is truly miraculous!”

“The initial report is that one of the survivors is your commanding officer, Captain William Fenton.”

“Oh my god.” Her fingers on the podium whitened as she absorbed the news. Lights flashed on her ashen face and the room erupted into exclamations and shouted questions. She stood frozen as the room faded away.

*******

The convoy was headed from Teleqan to Kunduz when they hit the mines and the world exploded in fire and blood. Private Diane Crowley was at the end of the line, driving a personnel truck. Captain Fenton sat next to her, studying a map. Shrapnel shattered the windshield. A large hunk of metal nearly amputated Captain Fenton’s arm at the shoulder, pinning him to his seat. Diane was peppered in tiny, bloody wounds; none of them serious.

Ahead of them was a nightmare of smoke and screaming. Several vehicles had been blown completely off the road into the sand. Soldiers were struggling to remove themselves from vehicles that were ablaze. Bodies and body parts littered the road.

“SOLDIER!” Diane finally heard Captain Felton’s roar. She realized she was hoarsely screaming. “Get a grip! This is an ambush. We have to gather up our men and get the fuck out of here.” He gritted his teeth. “I need something to apply pressure to my arm. Give me your jacket.” Diane looked at him blankly. “CROWLEY! GIVE ME YOUR JACKET!” She flinched, but removed her jacket and held it out to him. He took it with this left hand and jammed it against his grievous wound, blanching and sucking in through his teeth. “How’s this truck? Will it roll?”

Diane fumbled with the ignition. Based on the condition of the front of the truck, she was not surprised when it did not respond. Several soldiers exited the rear, running to help the fallen.

“Private, you’ve got to go forward and see if there are any vehicles that will still drive. Find me something and drive it back here. We’ll load the wounded and get the hell out of here.” He grimaced. “Masterson, come help me get a tourniquet on this! Private, GO!!!”

Diane fumbled with her door and spilled out onto the road. Nothing felt real; not the brutal desert sun nor the sounds of dying men and women lying around her. She started toward the front of the convoy, picking up speed as she got her legs under her.

The truck at the beginning of the convoy looked like it might run. The back end was actually still on fire but was easily extinguished with a few handfuls of sand. There were groans from beneath the smoking covering but she didn’t look inside.

Diane sprinted to the driver’s seat. Praying, she tried the ignition, almost crying with relief when the truck roared to life. Later, she would tell herself there wasn’t enough time or room to maneuver to go back for the others, but the truth was she never even considered it.

She was considered a hero when she arrived in Kunduz with her load of seven survivors. Their story of the young private running out of the smoke to put out the fire and drive them to safety earned her a promotion and a Silver Star.

*******
“Congresswoman Crowley! Can you give us a quote on your reaction to Captain Felton’s recovery?”

“You’ll have to excuse me. I’m sure you can appreciate that I am stunned by this wonderful news.” Her face felt wooden and she could see from their faces that they could smell the blood in the water. “I have no further comment.”

DK:The action descriptions in the flashback are great and full of tension, and the real twist when it presents itself is both logical and yet one I didn’t really see coming until it does. I wonder if this is one that might have a little more impact in its ending if some kind of actual reconnection between the two characters was written in, too; but there’s not much room for that kind of thing with the flashback and the character establishment in the first place, and I don’t know what I’d say should be cut from any of that. SILVER
CP: The subject matter is powerful and this is an interesting take on the prompt. I can’t decide if I think the recollections of someone held by Al-Qaeda for 20 years would really cast doubt on how heroic Crowley was, but the fact that I keep turning it over in my head shows that at the very least you’ve engaged me. I do wish some of the language here had been less clichéd, e.g. “blood in the water,” “ashen face.”

HYBRID CARLOS

John loathed the anti-septic smell of hospitals. He meandered down the halls looking for Room 3327. It didn’t take him long to figure out the pattern of the rooms, so he didn’t bother going to the nurses’ desk. He found the room at the end of an isolated hallway. He peeked in and saw Emily on the bed. He hesitated, deciphering if she was awake or not. As he shrunk back to the hallway he heard her quiet voice, “You can come in.”

“Hi,” said John shyly.

“Hi.”

“Do you know who I am?”

She took a minute to process his question. Finally, she said, “Dad?”

John smiled. After 14 years, she still remembered what he looked like. “Yeah, it’s me. Your mom called… and…,” What do you say after so long a time.

Emily smiled, “I’m glad you’re here.” John came in the rest of the way, took a seat next to her.

He took turns looking at her face and her hand, deciding whether or not to take the latter. Emily sensed his apprehension, opened her hand in invitation. He accepted.

John spun through the rolodex of thoughts flipping in his mind. He started simple, “How are you feeling?”

“Like shit.” Both of them laughed. Last time he saw her, she was far too young to curse. “The doctors are hopeful that they can find a donor soon.”

John fought back the tears. Debra had warned him that if he was ever going to see Emily again that he had best come now. It wasn’t until he sat here next to Emily, with all the tubing and wires attached to her body that the reality of it all hit him. For fourteen years, he tried to forget about Debra and Emily and all the chains that came with a family. He wanted freedom. Now he realized all that he had given up for that freedom: watching his little girl grow up and missing the chance to have a better relationship with her.

“I talked to your mother. and I know this doesn’t make up for the last 14 years, but…,” his mouth wouldn’t say the words.

Emily prodded, “What? What is it Daddy?”

John sighed heavily, “I feel like I owe you… so much…” There was no fighting the tears anymore. Emily started to weep with him. He swallowed, “I’ve talked to your mother, and …. I want … to give you…. one of mine.”

“Daddy.. no? You don’t have to do that.”

“Yes. I need to.”

“Dad, that’s too much. Do you know what this involves?”

“Look, sweetheart, I’ve done a lot of thinking over the last 14 years. If I would’ve stayed, perhaps I could’ve helped your mother more, helped out more with treatments, dialysis, the whole works, and maybe you wouldn’t be where you are right now. Believe me, this is the least I can do.”

John and Emily locked eyes, full of tears, unable to speak from the storm of emotions hitting them. Emily lunged and hugged her father. “Thank you, Daddy. God, thank you.”

“You’re welcome, sweetheart.”

John left to let her get some rest. He walked casually past the nurses’ station again. At the end of the hallway he saw the waiting room. He could see Debra and her parents and brother and sisters all praying. He just stood there and watched them. Part of him sincerely wanted to join them, despite his feeling about religion, but the stubborn, prideful skeptic inside of him kept his legs still.

When his muscles finally allowed movement, he headed past the waiting room and out of the hospital. He knew he shouldn’t have said what he said to Emily, but in the moment, he just wanted to give his little girl one more shot of hope before she passed on. When Debra had called him earlier that day, she said Emily probably had less than 24 hours to live. He reasoned that even if he would’ve given her one of his kidneys, she probably would’ve died before the surgery took.

Debra called him later, cursing him for what he did. Emily held on for six days until a good, but imperfect match did come. Ultimately her body rejected that kidney and died just 72 hours later. John decided not to go to the funeral. He didn’t even send a card.

DK: This is a pretty wrenching situation, and this main character turns out to be pretty despicable (I think I hate him even more than the guy in the next story). I think it deserves recognition just for provoking a strong reaction like that, even though in this case I definitely think the revelations in the last couple paragraphs need a little more room to develop and breathe than they’re allowed. BRONZE
CP: In contrast with story two, this one does a better job of working in the background info while keeping the focus on what’s happening in the present moment. At first I was disappointed in how easy the reunion with Emily seemed to be, but fortunately the story took another turn at the end. While it’s fairly devastating, it also makes for a fitting and perversely satisfying conclusion. GOLD

THE SACRED PILLOW

Edgar Polson went to prison for murdering thirteen women. He saw me right before he got locked away; laid eyes on the baby neither he nor the woman who bore me had conceived. Those eyes watched me now, and the image of him there in front of me was one of the more disturbing things I’d ever seen. Erase thirty years, and there’d be no telling us apart. Even the prison guards noticed, though I wasn’t sure if they eyed me with suspicion because I’d claimed to be a serial killer’s long-lost son, or because I looked like the illegal clone I was.

“So you’re Adam,” Polson said, giving a stiff, amused laugh. “I guess that DNA evidence was good for more than a conviction.”

No need for small talk and niceties, then. I was glad for that.

“You knew what they were doing with it?” I said.

He nodded.

“And it didn’t bother you?”

“Does it bother you?”

Anger simmered in my gut, made my fingers clench. Did it bother me? I’m a copy; unoriginal; an underground research project. “I guess I would’ve liked to be a unique snowflake, like everyone else.”

Polson chuckled. He had a nervous habit with his right hand, rubbing his fingers together like he really needed something to hold. A smoker, maybe. I wasn’t a smoker. That was different. That was hope.

“Were you everything they dreamed?” Polson said to me. “Did you answer all their deep, philosophical questions?”

“I don’t know. They never asked me those questions.”

“Really? The doctors on my case were here every day for weeks before you were conceived, discussing all sorts of hypotheticals; wanting to know everything from whether I believed in God, to what porn turned me on, to what made me want to kill women.”

“What made you want to kill women?”

“I’m sure you know the answer to that.”

We studied each other in silence, that right hand of his twitching. The other was handcuffed to the table.

“You get therapy for the sex addiction?” he asked.

“I don’t have one.”

“Right. And how many people you kill?”

That goddamned question. Everyone had asked me that from adolescence onward–the doctors, my therapist, my “parents”. It was never a question as to whether I’d done it, just how many, and they never believed me when I said none. They’d survey my hands like I had blood on them. They’d scan the news for stories of missing people. Back then, I didn’t understand why they asked, but it made me feel…inherently wrong.

“Do you regret any of it?” I asked.

“Nope.”

“You’re in prison. They pump you full of meds. One day, they’ll bury you out back under a plaque with no name on it.”

“An unfortunate turn of events, sure, but look at you. You’re out there in the free world, and you are me. If I have unfinished business, you’ll finish it for me.”

“I’m not you.”

His right leg shook now, knee bumping the bottom of the table between us. Side effects from medications, maybe. I knew he wasn’t psychotic, but the doctors, the legislators — they’d all want to treat something. Everyone’s deepest fear is that there’s no cure for evil.

I straightened up and asked Polson my last question. “What would have happened if you’d stopped yourself that first time? What if you let your victim go; maybe never even kidnapped her?”

“I would have found somebody else.” He hadn’t even paused to consider. “It doesn’t matter anyway. We’ll never know what could’ve happened or should have. All I know is that I did it, and that you’ll do it, too. Don’t fight it, son. Or should I call you that?”

“You shouldn’t.”

He laughed. “Whatever the case, give in to the urges, kid. Enjoy them while nobody’s looking to stop you. Don’t keep it bottled up. That’s a worse hell than prison.” He grimaced and turned to the guards. “Unlock me! I need a cigarette, goddamnit.” He gave me a nod. “Nice meeting you.”

I didn’t respond.

***

Brenda waited for me out in the car. She waved out the window when she saw me exit the prison. “How’d it go?” she shouted.

“As expected.”

“Wanna talk about it?”

“No.”

“Maybe when we get to the cabin.”

“Probably not.”

She rolled her eyes. “Can you grab me a Coke before we go, grump?”

I circled around the car, popped open the trunk. The blonde rested in there, duct tape over her mouth, around the wrists and ankles behind her back. Mascara streamed down her face. She’d cried herself to sleep.

I closed my eyes, saw that image of Edgar Polson and his trembling right hand.

I grabbed a Coke from near her feet, and I closed the trunk.

DK: This is my favorite basic idea of this set, and also probably my favorite story structure/pacing. The concept of a serial killer clone for this topic is just so rich and unexpected, and the execution of their meeting and the weight of their conservation are really strong and deep. The only thing I wondered about is if this would be even stronger leaving the question of the narrator’s affect more open by the end; that is, I’m not sure the very final shot here is necessary, but I think this is still my favorite this time out. GOLD
CP: Uhhhhh, wow. This certainly is unsettling. I am having a little trouble with it, though. I thought the human clone element to the story was really cool, but the scientific concepts feel really out of date. Our DNA isn’t our destiny–particularly when it comes to behavior. The idea that a person would have an inescapable fate of becoming a murderer due to his genetic makeup just doesn’t work for me.

POPPIN’ FRESH GILGAMESH

Celeste, only 22 but already a queen-in-waiting thanks to tragic circumstance, paced. Her father’s illness had ended as illnesses do and her brother was long gone. Her formal acceptance of the throne was forthcoming.
In Celeste’s chamber, dinner was prepared and glasses of wine waited at the meeting table, where one regal chair and one chair meant for a commoner stood. She’d had many secret late-night meetings here for either political or strategic purposes, but this would be the first one in some time with her brother Sylvain; it was common knowledge that he had been killed in battle three years ago.
Germaine, a quiet, highborn warrior who guarded Celeste, opened the door. Sylvain stood with him, and he looked upon his twin sister with reciprocated disbelief.
Sylvain eyed the table and grinned. He stepped near the regal chair, and wryly smiled back at Celeste, who gave him a pleasant shake of the head. Sylvain dropped into the other chair and exhaled. “I’m more comfortable in a commoner’s chair anyway,” he said.
Celeste rushed Sylvain for an embrace. They fought back the tears as good royals do, and she sat across from him. He reached for the wine and she shook her head. “Let us dine first.”

——————————————————————————————————–

“I was dead. I really was,” Sylvain said, mouth full of duck, as Celeste chuckled at his lost manners. “A dead soldier who resembled me was misidentified. At first I went along with it for self-preservation. Eventually I heard the stories of how my death had whipped our worthless army into shape and had turned the tide for us against the southerners, so I stayed dead. I would do anything for us.”
Celeste was unable to hide emotion now, and shed a few tears before recovering. “It wasn’t easy in the wake of your loss. For a year they kept saying you would return. They knew you weren’t dead. They didn’t want to serve me. Father had conditioned them to reject the whims and advances of women in wartime.”
“Enough about them,” Sylvain said, regarding Germaine the guard with some wariness. “Tell me of your life.” He smiled warmly at Celeste, running his finger around the rim of his wineglass.
“I lost my virginity,” Celeste said finally, giggling, as she could no longer act regally across from her kin. She buried her face in her hands. She was somewhat surprised that Sylvain smiled at her. Germaine, facing them silently from the wall, gasped involuntarily and the siblings laughed.
“You’re a woman. It’s your right. Who was it? Not Lieutenant Graves or some scabby bastard?”
“No,” Celeste said, growing quieter. “Germaine,” she said, tilting her head in the guard’s direction. Germaine closed his eyes.
Sylvain ignored Germaine as he asked the next question. “How did you keep Lieutenant Graves off of you? He’s a lecher.” Silence gave Sylvain his answer. He continued to finger the rim of his glass. “Did you poison him too?”
Celeste said nothing.
“We need to win this war. We need a royal in place,” Sylvain said. “I know which of us that is. I’m not a fool.”
Celeste looked up at her brother, still silent.
“You’re a better strategist than I am. The men know, but won’t say it yet,” Sylvain said to her. “You have more poise than I do. You’re queenly. You were smart enough to use my death to change the tide of war. If you had died, I would have plunged into mourning and ceased to function. I can’t be a king.”
“What are you saying?” Celeste asked him at last.
“I didn’t come here to reclaim my throne. I came here to wish you well and say goodbye. Remove this poisoned glass of wine from my presence and bring an unopened bottle so I might drink and laugh freely with my sister.”
Celeste did this. As she did, Sylvain turned his attention to Germaine. “Do you love her?”
“Yes,” the guard spoke with no hesitation.
“Your manner drips with warmth and sincerity. You’re very loyal, or an excellent liar; either will make you a good king. Germaine, tonight I will take my own life by dagger in the room where I grew up to ensure that the men continue to search for their revenge, and Celeste will win this war in time. If I have not performed this act by morning, take my life from me. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Germaine said, his voice breaking.
Celeste opened a bottle of wine, sobbing freely until Sylvain calmed her and they laughed about the past. Hours later, good and drunk, Sylvain retreated to his quarters. In the late morning, Germaine found that Sylvain was as good as his word.
House Henry survived.

DK: Some of the writing here is awkward (like that opening sentence) and the language used, although it fits with the setting of what the author is trying to get across, is stilted enough to be off-putting without a plotline that really grabs. So in this case I found myself waiting for one more twist or turn of events that never really came; Sylvain says what he’s going to do, and then he does it. But, I do like a lot of his interaction with Celeste and I like the implications of her character’s will that aren’t just outright stated.
CP: The opening paragraph here is all backstory and a bit of a turn-off, but the story gains momentum as it continues. I was slowly drawn into this world and found the siblings to be reasonably well developed characters. The ending is quite tidy–everything goes exactly as planned, but the story was satisfying, all the same. SILVER

———

Pepper and I found ourselves disagreeing perhaps more than we ever have on this one, and so only one player got medals from both of us. That player is the winner of the Power of Veto, and his name is Hybrid Carlos. Carlos can use the Veto to remove himself (or Spatula, but I assume he would use it on himself) from the nomination block. UPDATE: Carlos has indeed used the Veto on himself. Christy will have some time to make a replacement nomination. If those all come in fairly short order we should be on track to hold the eviction vote for Sunday night at 8 PM Central.

Good job, Houseguests. I can tell you’re fighting hard for this.

UPDATE PART 2: Here’s Christy:

“I’m nominating Lester. Hopefully one of her 8 alliances can protect her.”

As HOH, Christy will only vote in the event of a tie. Lester and Spatula as nominees are not required to vote. The other six Houseguests, please submit a vote to evict either Lester or Spatula to me by Sunday night at 8 PM Central.

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