Well, tonight you get the “long-awaited” return of surly Spookymilk. It’s alright – I’m just sober tonight and a trifle perturbed about it. Anyway, we were represented by several religions this week. And now to determine: which one is the best? Read on and find out!

Abby Stansel

Shadows hovered. A man held up a bronze knife, showing its cruel blade to the sun. Behind him, men walked his path, faces darkened with ash, wearing long grey robes. The sharp sun that Egypt was known for shown down. Finally, the leader raised his head.
“We are here, brothers.” He murmured. “It is time.”
“Abukar,” he snapped. “Come. Bring the boy.”
A man stepped forwards carrying the limp body of a teen. Together, the men approached the base of the towering pyramid that lay before them. The boy twisted, weakly fighting them.
“Chain him!” The leader snapped. “The time is now.”
Golden chains were fastened around the child, locking him to the base of the pyramid. Behind him, the men chanted, “Rise, Ra, and claim this child. Rise!”
As they chanted, the leader raised the knife above the boy’s throat. His eyes blank, the boy knew his fate.
K: I get the sense of what this is going for, but it’s one of those stories that tells you what it’s going to do, and then does it. From the opening line, we already know the story, other than the fact that the boy is being sacrificed to the sun god Ra. Fun Fact: the mom of a good college friend of mine worshipped Ra. Interesting bunch, that family.

CW: Human sacrifice is less (more) fun than animal sacrifice, but I felt like I wanted more here. Perhaps that’s more to do with word count than storytelling, but I wanted more.

John Wreisner

From “the Gospel According to John Wreisner,” an apocryphal late 20th century proto-Gnostic text:
“And thus you will pierce the veil: Spend a substantial amount of time in a town that used to be a brick works and later became less. Get kicked out of school, twice. Gobble every hallucinogen on earth with fanatic zeal. Drink to appalling excess. Vomit on girlfriends. Vandalize, constantly, especially houses of worship. Pass out in cemeteries at every available opportunity. Fall prey to astonishing amounts of soul crushing hopelessness and ennui, rousing yourself by drinking and stealing your mother’s diet pills and fucking anyone who won’t run away. Pick fights with men twice your size with the specific intention of losing. Drive, with no objective, to the other end of the country. Read pornography at work, if you have a job at the time. Reject decency. Squander talents. And so in this manner, pray.”
K: I feel like the nice prose is squandered on this. It’s an okay joke, but it’s told pretty quickly and doesn’t necessarily pick up steam as it leads on to its inevitable conclusion.

CW: I know this song! But this version… I like it better. This is a religion I’d consider joining. – BRONZE

Matt Novak

A flash grenade shattered the window and skidded across the wooden floor.
How had it come to this? He’d been a peace studies professor, for chrissakes. He had no weapons. All he ever had was his words. Was it his fault that he fit Sartre’s messianic descriptions? That he’d been obligated to point that out to his impressionable students?

On the news they’d called this a compound. It was another opportunity for a lecture.

“The transformation from home to compound bespeaks the danger in a daddy’s blind protection of a daughter’s innocence.”

They all had a good laugh, then fucked some more.

Struck blind by the grenade’s concussive blast, he had an almost Pauline epiphany: This was Sartre’s Sixth Prophecy.

Screaming wildly, and pretending he had a gun, he ran from the house. Martyrdom was coming, he thought. Might as well lean into it.

K: There’s…kind of a story here. It’s more of a stream of consciousness, and all the action is in the past, and I’m not sure there was enough room to intercut between past and present. Nice idea, but there’s no strong moment to make this martyrdom mean anything, positive or negative, to me.

CW: This one wasn’t as clear to me as some of the others. Was this a sex cult? Sorry bastards got blown up for wanting an orgy. I’ll admit this might be better than I’m giving credit for.

Matthew Gilman

The Company aren’t cultists. We’re sleight-of-hand specialists.

Hubbard never knew us. We borrowed his work from him, hiding our real purpose in plain sight. E-meters truly do measure “thetans”–psychological scarring. That delicious woe and malaise that humans generate like batteries. E-meters read it, gather it…and from that, The Company feeds.

It’s by design that it takes arduous, ego-annihilating effort to progress through the Church. Members gratefully wear themselves down to “go clear.” As long as they believe there’s something to be achieved, they’ll keep pumping out misery, sweet and fresh, from the loam of the willing mind.

We used to hunt down humans, pack-like, drawing terror out of them. But when it’s given freely, it’s so much more succulent. This method is civilized. Humane. And we’ll never run out of resources, because misery loves company. And the Company loves misery right back.

K: I feel like the Company’s CEO just sat me on his lap and told me a story. I don’t expect a ton of pathos in a short story like this, but this was practically a handbook and the story never seemed to get off of the ground. I would have liked to see a face on this to drive home the terror. Show me an innocent old woman being preyed upon or something; I kind of like this, but I can love it easily.

CW: Scientology was another one I was hoping I’d get. This sounds like a Scientology offshoot of people even crazier than scientologists! Awesome! So this particular cult draws on the thetan energy produced by fear? Nice. And almost got my gold. – SILVER

Margaret Martin

The steeple blocks out the sun. Sarah hesitates, trying to decide if she should run. She snorts at the idea; she can barely walk. Grimacing, she draws her bruised leg to the second step.

I danced on a Friday when the world turned black

She can’t remember much: boys buying shots, girls passing around lipstick and joints, music thumping.

It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back

There was a siren. Or was it crying?

They buried my body; they thought I was gone

She came to in an unfamiliar place. The boys had bolted.

But he was there, holding her hand.

And he is with her now, helping her up the steps, holding the heavy door. The group has already assembled.

But I am the dance, and the dance goes on

“Hi, I’m Sarah. It’s been…” she glances at him “…15 hours? since my last drink.”

K: Ahhhh, sweet narrative, there you are. We have interesting prose, an engaging character and a payoff. The last line can be punched up; there’s no reason to resort to a common saying when you have a damn-near-infinite number of words at your disposal. Still, that’s my only real quibble here. BRONZE

CW: You so narrowly missed a medal here. I liked this story. And I liked how you turned the Lord of Dance into a religious experience mixed with alcoholism.

Annette Barron

There were 15 of us; tweens in identical, ill-fitting white jumpsuits, nervously shifting in line. The trip underground to the Temple made us feel like secret agents. Everyone whispered.

When my turn came, I climbed the steps over the burnished oxen and into the luke warm water. Two men waited in the middle. The water came up to my budding breasts, making me self-conscious as the water soaked my suit and outlined my training bra.

I held onto his hairy arm with one hand and covered my mouth and nose with the other. The spotter was there to feed him the names of the dead and to make sure every part of me was submerged every time.

50 times I went under, offering dead heathen the possibility of redemption in the afterlife. Hopefully, rejection now of my own salvation doesn’t leave a bunch of souls stranded.

K: This is gritty and grimy and effective, but the ending just doesn’t pack the punch I’d like. I love the way this one set the mood and I dig the underlying idea that the men leading this may not have the best intentions (or is this just my mistrust of religion kicking in?), but it just doesn’t have a button. BRONZE

CW: Mormons! But not funny Mormons. That’s sad. I appreciated how this story was written and the cynicism of the girl but wished there would have been a little more. – BRONZE

Sama Smith

Sniff.

Sniff, sniff.

“I smell you. I want to taste you.”

Satia tickles her fingertips along the seeping wall. Outside the rain pounds against the stone. Each night the basement floods. Each morning it retreats like a creeping tide and hides.

“Oh so sweet,” Satia whispers. A tendril of smoke escapes her mouth. “Let me adore you some more.”

For so long her love felt so good. But even such goodness can quickly rot. It leaves a bitter taste. Oh wait, that’s blood in my mouth.

“Back to your altar,” Satia says. “I won’t be too rough this time. I just need to know you bleed red too.”

I carefully climb back onto the bed–body sore, mind numb, blood still dripping.

She kneels before the bed licking her lips. “I want to worship some more.”

I feel one stiffen, then the other. She always wants more and I have more.

K: Hmm. This can be creepy, but it feels a little like it’s doing an impression of a religion more than a proper display. Satia seems like a cardboard cutout, and I’d like to see some reality drip into this story to humanize her a little. We’re halfway there, because what’s here sets an effective mood.

CW: Sick. Depraved. Usually a recipe for CdL success. But this one just didn’t hold together as well for me. I liked where you were going but I didn’t feel like you got there.

Melissa Diamond

Edgar left a note on her door: Saw you left late for work. Something wrong? I love you.

They rarely spoke, in case her boyfriend saw, but Edgar kept vigil over her. He enjoyed the secrecy. When they crossed paths, they were like strangers; recreating love at first sight.

Like this afternoon. They’d met briefly at the diner. He was smoking her favorite brand of cigarette. “Have a light?” she’d asked.

He lit her cigarette, hands trembling. She’d smiled. An angel.

Now, through his blinds, he watched her return home and read his note. She ripped it up; shot a nervous glance over her shoulder. Didn’t want boyfriend to see.

Edgar closed his blinds. She smiled at him from pictures on his walls; from the newspaper article taped to his crucifix. On his table sat the key she’d coyly dropped last week.

He picked it up and prayed for guidance.

K: Wow. Sure, Edgar might just be Guaranteed CdL Sociopath of the Week, but given this prompt, I think he becomes loads more interesting, and the hints that Edgar truly believes they have something special – while her name is strategically not even mentioned (great choice) – is delightfully sick. SILVER

CW: Stalking is a religion, right? It’s obvious Edgar worships this girl and she doesn’t even know he exists. This one was tied for me for silver but ultimately I went another way. Until writing this. I just convinced myself not to bronze you. – SILVER

Jonathon Pope

The twins had been fighting all night. The house had the feeling of a war zone. Dad had just taken refuge in the kitchen when Billy stomped in.

“Dad, I HATE him! I’m not speaking to him again!”

Dad folded his book and sighed. “Perhaps you shouldn’t talk to him again tonight. Hate, though, that’s a strong word. You know, someone asked Jesus if seven was enough times to forgive someone before cutting them off. Jesus replied that one should forgive seven times seventy. He wasn’t actually saying 490 times was the magic number. Most of the assembled crowd wouldn’t have had a reason to count that high. He was actually saying that it should be difficult to reach an end to your forgiveness.”

Billy looked confused. “Aren’t you an atheist?”

“Well,” dad said thoughtfully, “Whenever you boys start acting like assholes, I remember that it wasn’t all worthless bullshit.”

K: I giggled good and long at this wonderful payoff. Sure, I relate and everything, but more than that I think it’s a nice story of a dad using whatever’s available to him to get a point across. It’s very funny, yes, but I appreciate that I found the situation believable as well. SILVER

CW: I was expecting some humor. And some atheism. No surprise that they were combined. Religion is a fantastic tool for child rearing isn’t it? Dad’s already an atheist so why not be a hypocrite too? – GOLD

Pete Bruzek

The army colonel and the construction worker had been at it for days. Townsfolk gathered around; a fight was bound to break out, and so it did.
Roberto gazed down from his throne. They had his blessing, that was that.
Colonel struck first, arms flailing woodenly, but effectively. He landed several blows before the construction worker escaped to the edges to tag in the astronaut.
“Two against one! You’re in trouble now, soldier!” the worker yelled triumphantly.
The Colonel had no backup, but he had a baseball bat. Within seconds, the astronaut was bruised – out of the fight. The construction worker scurried backwards, looking to Roberto for charity.
Roberto leaned forward, eager to see the result.
“Robbie!? Bedtime was an hour ago! Get to bed, you’ve got school tomorrow!”
The Colonel and the construction worker were dropped as Roberto scampered to bed. The fight would be decided another day.

K: It took me way, way too long to realize that this boy is a dangerously playful god. I always wonder whether I should be forgiving when I feel like the story didn’t tell itself effectively for me to catch it right away. On the other hand, I probably should have caught this, and it’s amusing now that I have. BRONZE

CW: This was a great idea, but I wasn’t sure if Robbie was just a kid playing with his toys or what. The worker actually speaking was odd to me. I’m guessing this was more Robbie’s imagination doing this but it wasn’t totally clear. Maybe with more volume I would have appreciated this a little more.

Ian Pratt

I hear whispers in the rustling of the trees. I see the Devil in the tropical sun. The fever saturates my brain, eating away the barriers between dreams and… and…

Father Garcia pours water between my lips as I lay soaked with sweat on a bed in our ramshackle church. Behind him, my sister Alejandra, as radiant as the Mother, weeps gently into her rosary. I call out to her, my voice weak and dry. Father Garcia grips my arm. “Be strong, Claudio,” he bellows, his words unburdened by sympathy.

Comfort me Alejandra!

Villagers gather in the doorway, curious to see what a European looks like when he dies. “Claudio is fighting for his soul,” Father Garcia warns them.

Comfort me Mother Mary!

“I will send word to Sevilla,” Father Garcia mutters. Frustrated sweat gathers on his brow, mirroring my pallid sheen. Soon he will be alone in this jungle.

K: The “comfort me” lines, with no hint that they’re being spoken or even thought, serve to do little besides slow down the story and make me wonder where they’re coming from; this convention could be accepted in time, but we don’t have much time in 150 words. This backdrop is very rich for the subject matter and the words are nice, but the scattered narrative killed the impact of the end for me.

CW: This was another close one. Almost gave this a medal. Ultimately I felt like other stories were more medal-worthy but not by much. If I have to criticize I guess I’ll say I just wanted there to be something more to the story but that’s just nit picking.

Beau

Ra’s heat was especially comfortable today. The Apis bull was being led through the middle of town, for what he didn’t know. He didn’t know much as it were. But he knew he liked the bread dough he was being fed. Kids were smelling him. He snorted.

A palace was before him. He wondered how much grass, if any, was in there. He quite enjoyed grass. His ears perked slightly. Was that the soft, sultry warble of a cow or two?

As they reached the palace steps he felt a slight tug on the rope. The dough was removed from sight. People were crowding him. Many were on their knees. Some were chanting. Most were looking at him, expectantly.

Craning his neck, he surveyed the throng. People gasped. He sensed he should do something.

“Moo!”

That proved to be an excellent decision.
K: I love this. The cow is “present,” but still fairly stupid; I think the voice is consistent and captured in a charming way. It’s also interesting that Ra showed up twice. Dude’s gonna challenge Christianity up in here! GOLD

CW: Maybe I’m a sucker for the abnormal, but capturing the religious experience from the eyes of the ritual sacrifice is great. This was a fun read. – GOLD

(K: This is so not a sacrifice, dude).

K: Wait. Maybe it is. Where were the cows sacred? Either way, it rules.

Erik S.

Paul plunged through the fogs of his memory. Certainly he could remember this from the school days in his old village, before Father had moved them to be with their own kind.

Surely he’d taken too long. Panic began to creep in just as he unearthed the answer.

“The Prophet’s mother was named… Aminah bint Wahb!” he cried.

Paul felt the eyes of the scarred and grim faced man closely scrutinize his face. The man squinted in examination, then slowly removed the barrel of the gun from Paul’s head and waved him pass.

A small, tortured gasp of relief caught in Paul’s throat as the thunder of a gunshot went off to his side.

He turned to see David, baptized the same day as he, crumple to the bloody ground. A minor geyser of crimson issued from his temple, then slowly subsided, adding to the puddle on the saturated ground.

K: Wow. This one hits the reader square in the face with grim reality and pathos. I feel for Paul and the reveals were well paced. Smart, dark writing. GOLD

CW: And here’s our Muslim story. Seems like a pretty insecure password to just have to name Muhammad’s mother, but I dig it. Poor stupid David. I’m gonna guess this is a rather radical sect of Muslims. – SILVER

Christina Pepper

Inhale.

OhGodOhGodOhGodOhGod.

Exhale.

OhGodOhGodOhGodOhGod.

Mark is saying something.

Inhale.

“Do you think you can make it to the car?”

Exhale.

Pants around my knees; I don’t even care what he sees right now.

Inhale.

“Uhhhhhhhh . . . ”

Exhale.

Another stream of blood squirts into the toilet. I feel it. He hears it. His contorted face blurs before my eyes.

Inhale.

“We have to get you to the ER, honey.”

Exhale.

“I need a new pad,” I say. “They’re under the sink.”

– – – –

I stare at the IV embedded in my arm. I breathe without thinking about it.

I breathe without thinking about anything.

“I’m so sorry,” says the nurse.
“I’m so sorry,” says the obstetrician.
“I’m so sorry,” says Mark.

OhGodOhGodOhGodOhGod.

Why me? Why again?

God says nothing.

K: We see mixed results with stories that have a large amount of time pass between them, and this one is…well, the blood gives it the proper thematic through-line, but the scenes aren’t disparate enough for me to feel that two different ones were better than one. Also, the long “OhGod”s at the beginning looked whimsical to the point that I was primed for a comedy.

CW: I really like the pacing here and I know exactly how this situation feels. It’s pretty much just like this. This would perhaps not work as well in a longer format but this is perfect. – GOLD

Sarah Wreisner

Rebecca felt her way along the tunnel wall. She lit a candle when she heard Joshua’s jerky breathing.

He was bruised and scarred, crouched in the corner. His neck was badly burned. Joshua was nearly transformed, the Reverend explained at morning prayers. It won’t be long, he’d said, while some people flinched and avoided his black stare.

The stolen key turned easily. Joshua stood slowly, hunched from the purging rites, and limped to the door. She held his face and made him swear it again. His skin smelled like copper and burnt straw. His handsome face was gaunt and distorted.

He lifted the heavy bag she’d brought him. “Stay where I said, and don’t move ’til I come for you… no matter what you hear. No matter what you see.”

He kissed her on the mouth, ran from the tunnel and slipped behind the Reverend’s quarters.

K: I think a little more dialogue would punch this up, but it’s hard not to get in on Joshua’s plight and root for him. The story seems a little on the nose, I suppose, but it’s told nicely. SILVER

CW: I just read an exorcism story the other day, didn’t I? This one was successful it seems. Another one that doesn’t give me much to complain about but the competition was really strong this time. Narrow miss for me. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Kelly medal this.

Brian David

The man lay in the road, head twisted at an impossible angle. He gasped, and with a wet, sticky sound, peeled his face from the asphalt, bones cracking loudly as he stood. He stumbled towards the setting sun.

* * *

“Jesus, what happened to you?” the bartender said, pouring whiskey into a shot glass.

The man shook his head. The scabs had already fallen off, leaving only a series of scars. One in particular – an oddly shaped red mark – stood out.

“Nothing. Doing the same thing, expecting different results.”

He lifted the glass and pointed at the ceiling.

“Nothing’s good enough for that fucker,” he mumbled. “Never will be.”

The bartender leaned forward. “Here’s some advice, buddy: stop trying to please other people. Life’s too short.”

The man burst out laughing. He drained the shot glass and slammed it on the counter.

“You got it. How about another?”

K: There’s something so damned beautiful about pain and cracking bones when we hear about it in such an artful way. This story is made human by the casual tone of everybody’s hero. Hint for the future: I love stories that humanize deities. Andy Rustleund wrote one years ago that still makes me chuckle. GOLD

CW: I’m not 100% sure of who or what this guy is, but I read him as a fallen angel. I liked the interaction with the bartender especially and his ironic advice. – BRONZE

17. Seventeen (non-sub)

Note: Peter Steinke is going through radiation treatment for cancer. He may or may not be back this season, so I’ll leave a light on for him if he returns. He has been getting cautiously good news. Pete hasn’t spent a lot of time here, but all the same, he’s part of the family and I hope to see him play with us again.

———————————————————————————–

There you are. Beau, a week after nailing down the season’s first “the judges didn’t catch it,” is the first to nail down a double-gold. Popester and Erik S were next in the hit parade with eight each. This proves that these are the three most religious men in the room. It’s just science, and you need to deal with it.

For the next one, you get aaaaaaallllll the way until next Thursday at 7pm Central. Why so early? ‘Cause word limits are big. You have 500 words with which to do the Beau challenge, which is absurdly specific but should still let you play a little: your central character is a person who travels through time specifically to perform duties as a social worker. I might be sorry I asked for all of that, but I’m betting it’s going to be awesome.

I am currently updating the spreadsheet.

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