Wow, gang. There’s room to improve, as always, but this was an intensely enjoyable week of stories, particularly considering that I knew I was in for a lot of soul-sucking heartache. A lot of my stories were marked as a score of 90 or higher before I got to scoring, which is something that usually happens 2-3 times per challenge.

Enjoy. You’ll have no problem doing so, I promise.

Sama Smith

I remember potato salad.

I remember my aunt’s words cutting into me like a sword. The look on her face when she saw I’d heard everything was like pulling out the sword too fast. Her spoon was thrust forward, dripping with mayo.

I remember people crying. I remember stepping on their tears. I remember my grandma’s caked on features in the coffin. I remember feeling betrayed when I should have been simply sad.

“You don’t understand,” my aunt said. Her blue eyes looking washed out like she’d rinsed them too much.

I understood that the blood still stained the driveway. Grandma fell and hit her head there eight years ago. She was drunk and stubborn. Judi wasn’t there.

Judi didn’t say much after that, not for 10 years until she invaded my Facebook messenger with: “What did I do?” And “I don’t know what I did to hurt you.”

I remember what she did. I remember the moment she did it. I remember when she took us to court to contest the will. She stood in front of a judge and said my mother, her sister, wasn’t entitled to anything, but she should get it all, especially the house.

I remember my grandma’s fall. I remember her asking for me, not my aunt. She pleaded my name, “Anna, Anna, please help me.” I was eleven and alone. Judi was never there to clean up the blood. She was never there to help her own mother struggle through unending pain. She was never there to paint grandma’s nails Hollywood pink or spray a cloud of VO5 hairspray to set every gray strand just right. Judi wasn’t there to warm up grandma’s Bed Buddy in the microwave or get her a fresh cup of coffee so she could complain about the taste.

My aunt wasn’t there waking up every 15 minutes at night with the screaming. She didn’t hear those anguished, heart wrenching cries of someone dying slowly with fluid drowning her lungs and arthritis crippling every bone. Sometimes I imagined I could hear the bones crunching, grinding to a halt when grandma shuffled down the hall with her walker. I still hear the floorboards creak and sigh. It still makes me cry.

I wanted to tell Judi all this. I wanted to scream that she can take every last cent. She can have everything her mother ever breathed on, but not the house. Its our home. To my aunt, it would just be another place for her things.

When the court ruled in our favor I sought relief. I laid in my bed, but kept hearing screams. The ache never eased. Loss saturated our every breath. We had the house, but it just became a cage for our grief. After the courtroom, we never saw Judi. When she later PM’d me, my reply was about what I’d lost: family and the ability to trust. I’d only gained the ability to measure people by what they want to take from me.

K: We have a lot of great finishes around here, but we don’t have a ton of equally great beginnings; “I remember potato salad” suggests a tone, a place and an ambiguous, melancholy feeling that does indeed pervade the rest of the story. The “I remember” and “She was never there to…” tropes make me a tad weary from overuse, but I can’t deny that I felt for our narrator and that she got her point across. SILVER

CW: A lot of remembering and not enough happening for me. This was still good. And certainly moving, but didn’t quite get there for me this time.

Abby Stansel

Broken furniture littered the floor. Plates and cups thrown from shelves, chairs shattered, photos torn from their frames. James hurried into the home after his incredibly long day, as worn and tired as he always was. When he reached the living room, he saw his siblings, Demetrius and Mary. Demetrius huddled in a corner, Mary lay on the couch. Both of them had their clothes torn and eyes wide and scared.
“Demy!” James cried. “What happened?”
Demetrius raised his head, eyes blank and wide with panic. “It’s happening again,” he moaned. “Why won’t it stop. Why won’t it ever stop.”
James grabbed Demetrius’s shoulders and hugged him hard, silently cursing the world for their…situation. Mary lay, huddled against the ragged couch, as her breathing shook her throat. Demetrius climbed up next to her and tucked his thin arm around her shoulders.
James moved to their side, and asked quietly, “Where is Marci?”
“I-in the kitchen” Demetrius stammered.
Silently cursing, James moved swiftly to the kitchen. He gasped.
The floor and walls were broken and garbage littered the floor. Photos lay, torn and cut, on the floor.
“NO” James sobbed as he saw the photo album, pages torn and photos ruined. Grabbing it, he flipped through it frantically searching. Tucked in the back was a single photo, four children standing in front of a house with their suitcases. James shoved it deep into his pocket as he heard a whimper. Turning, he saw Marci. She was curled inside one of the few remaining cabinets, eyes blank with fear. When she saw James, she let out a soft cry.
“Shh.” James murmured. “Are you alright? If they hurt you…”
Marci didn’t answer, just raised her eyes to stare into his. James saw her fear there, saw her pain. Picking her up, he carried her to the living room and set her next to the others.
“None of you move, all right?” James snapped. Moving to the phone, he tapped in the number.
“What is your emergency?”
James spoke fast. “Two people are fighting and endangering the life of four children.”
“What is your address?”
“19 black pond lane.”
“We are sending help. Please stay on the phone…”
James had already thrown the phone down, cursing silently. He knew this. He knew what would happen if he didn’t get up there. Turning to glance back at the three children on the couch, he headed up the stairs. At the top of the stairs, he saw a woman facing a boy. He hurried and put himself between them.
“Jackson, get downstairs.” James said.
The boy, Jackson, ran.
“What the hell!” James yelled. “Why are you hurting them!”
The last thing James saw was a leg swinging towards his head.
Voices talk and yell. James fought to get up.
“Hey, easy man, don’t try and move. Your kids are fine…you did good.” The EMT said.
James slumped back. “Brad,” he coughed. “Take care of my kids for me ok? I’ll be back at work soon.”
K: The pacing here is a little problematic. I don’t care where it is, but at some point you have to give me some color for the kids so I feel something for them. As it is, they really just feel like characters on a page. The “Why won’t it ever stop” line is a decent enough thought, but I can’t imagine it being said aloud.
CW: Big bro has already removed his siblings from his abusive parents and run off, passing them off as his own? Not sure this is the point at which this home becomes broken so much but it’s still well told and moving. – BRONZE

Beau

John had just finished packing the Chevette. The diaper-brown color was an eyesore and the engine produced a tinny sound, but it got thirty-five miles per gallon on the freeway, saving at least ten dollars in gas for their trip to northern Minnesota.

“Johnny!” Virginia’s voice sounded more shrill than usual. “That was Patricia on the phone. Ben is in the hospital.”

“Who’s that?” He checked to make sure the car top carrier was secure.

“Ben, your grandson?”

“Oh. That’s too bad.” He looked at his wife grimly. “You know, we better get going or we won’t hit Pine River before sundown.”

“Okay,” Virginia deferred. Twenty miles out of Waterloo she continued the conversation. “I guess he burned his feet really bad. Patty said he’s going to have skin grafts and probably be in the hospital for a couple of weeks.”

“Oh?” replied John. “Oh, hey, check this out.” They were caught in a mild traffic jam just outside of Charles City. “My new watch tells the barometric pressure and has a flashlight built in. See?”

Virginia smiled at him. “That’s nice.”

The drive to the Twin Cities was uneventful and they made it to Minneapolis by midday. They hit a McDonald’s in Bloomington and enjoyed a crossword puzzle together. This was already proving to be a fine vacation. He had recently retired so they planned to spend two months up at the lake this year.

“Oh, look at the time,” John said, showing off his watch again. “It’s darn near quarter of one. We won’t get there by five at this rate.”

A half hour later they exited the interstate onto Highway 10. Construction was making things slow through Mounds View. “You know, Johnny,” Virginia said cautiously. “We’ll be driving right by Mercy Hospital soon.”

“Yeah?”

“That’s where Ben is staying.”

John rubbed his neck and grunted. “You said he’s going to be okay, right?”

“Uh, yeah. I think so.”

John turned the radio to WCCO. The Twins game was just starting. He didn’t get to hear too many games down in Iowa. He was excited to follow this new kid they had, Kent Hrbek. The guy had hit another home run yesterday. He thought of sharing this news with Virginia, but she was staring out the window. Better leave her to her thoughts, he decided.

K: I suppose this is a true story. The names definitely feel Minnesotan (I can find every single one of them in my in-laws’ family), which lends credence to that idea. Ambiguity about how the breakdown really begins can be good, and I like the subtler emotional distance created by this piece. Though, once again, the dialogue eschews reality. “Oh, look at the time”? Come on, now. BRONZE

CW: John sounds like the quintessential emotionally repressed old man. Eventually that behavior will drive people away. This feels real. And sad for Virginia. – GOLD

Margaret Martin

“I don’t even know why I put up with your black ass.”

She looked over at the clock. The lunch rush was over, and she finally had a minute to just sit.

“God, what is your problem now?”

“Where have you been? I’ve been working this goddamn dining room by myself. And by the way, who is THAT girl? She’s been asking about you.” The customer was sitting tight in the corner of the booth with long legs stretched across the red vinyl seat. A man wearing tweed was sitting across from her, his posture nervous but his face stone cold.

“I have no clue who that is. What has gotten into you today?”

“Maybe I don’t like being ABANDONED out here while you’re off in the kitchen with Dinah, strumming’ on the old banjo!”

“Look. It’s not like I get to control where I go. I have a job, you know! Restocking, working at the counter… anyway, Dinah needed me in the kitchen.”

“Oh, she needed you alright. A little shake shake shake to go with her big black booty?”

“Wow, could you be more racist?”

“I am NOT RACIST! I’m with you, aren’t I? And since I’m white, that makes me definitely not racist.”

“You know what? I don’t understand how you can accuse me of anything, since you’re the one that gets all the attention. You don’t see me complaining when people pick you up all day.”

The man and woman at the table picked at their food and spoke in low voices. The lady’s lips started to tremble, and she sat up straight, sliding her legs back under the table and pulling the skirt of her blue dress down over her knees. She removed a ring from her finger and threw it at him.

The man in the wool coat dropped $20 on the table and stood up to leave.

“See how it is? You ask me why I get jealous but look at this two-timer dumping his woman over eggs and toast.”

The woman jumped up quickly then, arms outstretched to stop him from walking away from her, but he pushed toward the door. In that moment, her elbow caught the salt shaker and knocked it to the floor. The glass shattered into a million shards.

“Aaagh! What just happened to me? Don’t just stand there looking stupid!”

He looked imploringly at the teary girl in blue, begging her silently to knock him off the table too. But she was already stepping out of the booth.

“Get down here! I’m scattered all over the place. I need help! Pepper, please!”
“Don’t worry! Here comes Dinah.”

“Excuse me miss, I’ll clean this up for you.” Dinah patted the lady in the blue dress on the arm, and swung a wet mop under the table.

K: It would seem stilted, unlikely dialogue will be my comment of the day. The line about strummin’ on the old banjo is…I mean…do I have to point out that a person currently in this state is unlikely to make that crack? I appreciate going after humor, actually, but the story just didn’t tickle me enough, I guess.

CW: This story has all sorts of ridiculousness in it, which, given the prompt, is impressive. I thought I’d have nothing but a depressing night of stories but this made me laugh. I’ll reward you for your boldness. – BRONZE

Ian Pratt

The conversation happened swiftly, a storm-fed river rushing past me as I gasped for air. Was it someone she knew; no. Had it happened more than once; no. Why did I do it; I don’t know. What did I think would happen; I don’t know. Was I sorry; yes. Yes I was sorry. Yes I was so sorry. Did I still love her; ; yes of course I still loved her. Whatever hope I had left was swept away in that brief pause. The storm was too big now, the water too deep, the current too strong.

When I sat in my car, hours later, parked on some street, lifting a bottle to take countless long, desperate, menacing gulps, I kept having hot, urgent flashes of… what. What was I missing. There had to be something I hadn’t considered, some trick, some way back. Panic came in tingling waves, interspersed with impossibly mournful feelings of doom. I fucked it up. I fucked it up, and then I paused. I fucked it up, and then I paused, yes, but there was surely a way out of this. Some hidden tunnel that would lead me back to before this storm began. I tried to think of her, of us together, happy together, but it only reminded me of my fuck up, sending more agitated tingles down my nerves.

I drove around for a while. I opened the sunroof to feel the motion. I expected river water to come cascading down. I would crash, surely. I would die.

“I fucked it up,” I said, or maybe just thought it. I pictured the water pouring through the open roof, soaking my clothes, splashing my eyes, pooling at my feet. I sloshed my foot through the waves to slam on the brakes. I wouldn’t die yet. I fished out the bottle from where it floated in the back seat. By the time I forced the door open, I could feel water up to my waist.

I stumbled out of the car and sat down on the sidewalk in front of a deli. I didn’t recognize anything. I took out my phone to check where I was, but switched it off after it started dialing her number. A few patio tables were set up in front of the restaurant, empty at this hour. There it was, in the wall behind one of the tables, the entrance to the tunnel. I shoved the table away and crawled inside. The walls were smooth and straight. It was hot and bright. My clothes steamed as the water evaporated. How far back could I go, I wondered as I crawled. Before today. Before the storm. Before the moisture began to condense into clouds. Before the hydrogen and oxygen atoms fused. Before the quarks and gluons coalesced into tangible elements. I expected something wondrous at the end of the tunnel. A majestic deep field vista of galaxies and stars. But when I came to the end there was only a void.

K: This is a bizarre little ditty. A trick I kind of love, and don’t see often, is used here: the semicolons aren’t used in a classically correct way early on, but after enough repetition, they earn a new usage as the reader accepts what he’s given. It’s kind of an awesome social experiment, with me as the control group. Beyond that, I’d love to get the chance to see the character do more than just think, but the prose is interesting and held my attention. BRONZE

CW: I liked the metaphors here. And I could put myself in this guy’s shoes. If I did something so stupid I’d feel pretty much exactly like this because my wife works be just as forgiving as his. I’m not sure what I’d do but I’m certain large quantities of alcohol would be involved. I was a little thrown off by the ending here though. I wasn’t sure if he climbed into an oven or what, but the rest of this was good.

Matthew Gilman

Too many weird bugs. Jake was fine with ants or spiders, but in Peekskill, you got crickets. Centipedes. Possible cockroaches. Things that crawled onto the bumper pool table right in the middle of a game, interrupting the only fun thing about that house. Cramped and dark, with vines and brush overgrowing along the sides. But Deanna owned it long before she met Dad.

Why force kids to spend a summer weekend in Peekskill anyway? No friends, no TV reception. Nothing to do but read and play bumper pool in the moldy basement. Or take walks up the road to the weedy tennis courts and back. This was the sole activity Dad could offer that’d involve them all. Jake and Mike, two paces behind Dad and Deanna. Each of them mostly silent.

That especially humid day, when Deanna had left for the garden store, Jake asked Dad if they could talk. “Sure, hon. Let’s take a walk” No, Jake thought, but didn’t say. They paced slowly, ignoring the constant birdsong and chittering of all those bugs.

“So the other day,” Jake began, following the script he’d worked out with his therapist, “Aunt Sondra called Mom, and said you’d told her not to talk to Mike and me if we were in Stamford. Only if we were with you.” Jake felt nauseous just daring to say the words aloud.

His father didn’t react.

“And…you’d said that to everyone from your side of the family.”

The sun hit the horizon, which was handy because Jake wanted to blink his eyes anyway.

Dad shook his head. “That’s a terrible thing for a kid to hear.”

“So…did you? Tell them not to–?”

Dad pivoted to stand in front of Jake, blocking the setting sun. “Remember the first time I brought Deanna along for our together-weekend? How you threw a tantrum?”

Jake nodded. This wasn’t going well.

“What’d I say to you then? ‘Divorce changes things. Deanna’s in my life now, like her or not.’ Well, guess what: things changed for ME too. All the Stamford friends your mother and I had? They ALL blame me. They won’t talk to me anymore. They think I’m a bad person.”

Jake squinted. His eyes stung.

“Jake, I know it’s hard to understand what adults go through when you’re only twelve. But you need to try to see how hard this has been on me. I felt abandoned. I needed my family on my side.”

“So…so–” Jake’s voice was cracking.

“I’m sorry Sondra called. Your mother shouldn’t have told you; I’m sure it hurt.” Jake couldn’t identify the look on his father’s face. “But just because I left, that doesn’t mean I’m the villain. I don’t deserve that.”

Jake squinted as hard as he could. His face was flushed, and he felt stupid for even bringing it up.

After a pause, Jake’s father started to walk back toward the bug-filled summer house. With nowhere else to go, head dizzy with shame, Jake soon followed.

K: Dad says a little too much here, and none of it, unfortunately, crosses over from the expected. I left the scene feeling like I was still waiting for the big revelation. I also feel like the potential emotion is left untapped. The conversation where I learned my dad was leaving our house was probably an hour long, with no more than fifty or a hundred words spoken, and it was utterly heartbreaking. Show, don’t tell.

CW: Finding out your father is human and fallible is tough on a boy. Finding that he’s purposely made choices to hurt you has to be devastating. I’ll admit to not fully understanding what it is he did, but I understood that it was supposed to be monumental. A little not clarification on exactly what he told Sondra and/or the impact of that conversation would have made this better but still good enough for a SILVER.

Sarah Wreisner

The dust was disturbed on the landing, well below the chipped red line of paint that kept the children out. Evelyn was the only one who used those stairs, and it was only to do chores on Sundays. Afterwards, she’d descend once again, and bathe in the cellar basin. It was early Saturday morning when it happened.

The bucket needed to be changed, filthy and stowed in a corner by her ratty blue Bible. I suspected that she hadn’t been studying for some time. She was a shame to us all.
“Mama, Evelyn’s gone out. She ain’t here.”

Some of the children opened the swinging gate to the little cave under the stairway. The smell of bleach mingled with the dusky scent of rot, like a compost bin. I always thought of her that way: like rotten fruit, or like the creatures that feed on the garbage others leave behind.

“You know what’s in there. She hasn’t been there in ages.” I swatted at Ruth’s bottom with a dust rag. “Leave it alone, I said, unless you want Papa to find out.” The children scattered in fear, wild-eyed, looking for Evelyn. I knew they secretly thought of her as a sister.

Evelyn was the oldest. She shared none of my blood. Her mother was dead, and in the early days, when I was courageous, I’d ask my husband about the woman who had carried her. He told me it wasn’t my right to know. I insisted once, because I thought a wife should know these things, and he knocked a tooth from my mouth with the back of a dinner plate. Evelyn brought him a new plate of supper while I bled into my napkin.

The children were excited and scared. They knew something was wrong when Papa locked himself in his study for three nights. I left him alone, only bringing him food and coffee, while Evelyn was missing. I knew it would be bad. If Evelyn came at all, it’d be with men who didn’t keep the Lord in their hearts.

A hunter found her in the wetlands along the dusty highway that led into Preston. She had stayed well-hidden for nearly a week. She had taken a paper bag with a knife, a milk jug full of water and some peanut butter sandwiches. I wondered how long she’d planned it, or if any of the other children had d helped her. I suppose it doesn’t matter anymore. The children have been taken from us.

The children are all in special care, the kind that brainwashes them into believing all kinds of things. I don’t know what happened to Evelyn – she was older than I thought, so she is probably on her own. I was never sure about her real age. She was always small, like a child. My court date is in August, but they say she might not have to testify because of what they found in the house.

K: Excellent. An original narrator, interesting characters, a compelling voice and a clear sense of the scenes involved despite no dialogue. Love this. GOLD

CW: Well this sounds like a home that needed to be broken. Glad it has a “happy” ending but the really sad thing here is that this kind of shit exists. Good story here but just shy of a medal.

Matt Novak

She’s caught my father off-guard. That much is plain.

Faced with the prospect of war, he sits mute, dissecting the situation with the dispassion of a general who knows he will survive the battle, but appreciates how many of his men – and how many of the opponent – will not. It is my father’s distance that both serves and fails him. Standing removed, he finds clarity, power, even holiness, in his decisions. He also remains unknown by those who would love him. In this regard, I am more like my mother. We engage. We get dirty. We love. And in this too, there is clarity, power and holiness.

It is how my mother has built the strength she needs for tonight’s battle.

“I… did not know, Mary” he finally answers; a slight quiver in his voice betrays his surprise at this fact. He is a chess master, reassessing his moves, recognizing the manner in which an unexpected capture has tilted of the battlefield. “I did not know you felt this way.”

“You should have.” She is terse. Her eyes are set and piercing as nails.
“I didn’t.”

He will not admit wrongdoing. He cannot. I’m not even sure he should.

There is a pause. Both waiting for the other to say more. I can see my mother arranging her chess pieces, marshalling her troops. Finally, she breaks the silence.

“You gave up your son.”
“I stand by my decision. It worked out. We’re all together now.”
“No father should ever betray his child. There is no excuse.”

I’m not sure how to feel. They’re fighting over me. I see both perspectives. I understand the arguments. I’ve played them out in my own head. I’m torn. I am equally a child of both parents.

“How long have you felt this way?” he asks.
“Since that day.”
“Then corporeal form has served you well. Your closeness has borne you loyalty.”

I can see that my father is looking at the bigger picture. He’s counting those fatalities again. What will the cost be for him to win this battle? For him to lose? What is he willing to sacrifice?

“What I did, I did out of love,” he explains.
“You were supposed to love him.”
“I do love him. I love you, Mary.”
What I hear in his words is deeper than sincerity. It is an offer. We can be a family still. It isn’t too late.

My death.

“Now it is your turn to sacrifice,” she continues, raising her arm in command to her legion.

My father sighs. And closes his eyes. And pays his price for the souls she has claimed as her own.

It feels like a night I recall, long ago. A night when a third of the stars were swept from heaven. But this time, only one star is swept away, so that all the others might remain.

K: You have two choices with the chess metaphor: either slather the entire scene in it so every small movement is part of the theme, or keep it much lighter and pay it off in the end when I’ve all but forgotten it. As it is, we toed the line and I think it became too gimmicky because it just wasn’t clever enough. It’s a good risk, but can be tightened up for sure.

CW: God, Jesus, and Mary? I like it. I’m learning this kind of stuff isn’t as unique here as it is to me but this was a good read to me. – BRONZE

Pete Bruzek

“I don’t love you anymore,” she told him. That was the moment he knew she didn’t love him anymore.

“Don’t you still feel anything for me?” He asked, crestfallen, yet hoping against hope that there was still a spark of something there.

“No.” She replied flatly.

“Okay.” He said sadly, “can i keep the taxidermied owl, at least – to remember our good times together?”

“I always hated the owl. If you don’t take it, I’m throwing it out.”

Owl tucked neatly under his arm, he forlornly left the apartment, never to enter it again.

K: Don’t hate me, guys, but I absolutely adore this. Comedy was unexpected and OH SO NEEDED with a prompt like this. The vagueness of the taxidermied owl is dynamite and the opening line is even funnier. Thanks for this risk. GOLD

CW: I wasn’t sure if this was an attempt to be funny or not. It felt like attempted humor but it did not make me laugh. I don’t really feel like anything happened here.

Brian David

Maddie slipped off her sandals, stepped out of the tent and tiptoed across the desert floor. The sky was filled with stars, shining along the edges of the Superstition Mountains. She found a vacant lawn-seat near the firepit and sat down, staring at the orange lines that cut across the coals.
“You should put some sandals on, Maddie.” A firm hand gripped her shoulder. “There’s a lot of glass out here.”
Maddie turned her head and faced Patrick.
“I’m not afraid, brother,” she said.
Patrick kissed Maddie’s forehead, stared into her eyes for a brief moment, and then stood straight.
“Alright, everyone. Let’s head to up. It’s almost time.”
Ice water was dumped into the pit and the coals hissed, sending plumes of smoke into the air. Patrick walked into the darkness, and the crowd followed.
An hour later they found themselves nestled on the edges of the mountain, facing east away from the city. The desert lay before them, quiet and endless. The moon was so bright it hurt Maddie’s eyes.
“Is it everything you hoped for?” Patrick said, standing close to Maddie.
She didn’t answer. She rubbed the dampness away from her cheeks. A white streak cut across the sky and dissipated near the horizon. Maddie clasped her mouth and giggled ecstatically. Patrick stood and raised his hands.
“It is my privilege,” he said, and then paused, the words catching in his throat. “. . .it is my honor – to be with you today. To be with my family.”
Maddie clasped someone’s hand in the dark and began to sing, soft at first, but louder and more joyous as the meteors cut through the sky:

The ambry candle has burnt out
Give me a light to guide!
Give me a light to guide!

* * *

Maddie woke from the heat. It was early in the day, but already the temperature was stifling. She stepped out of the tent, this time keeping her sandals on. She couldn’t remember how she had gotten down from the mountain, or when she had gone to bed. There were only a few tents left, scattered along the campgrounds.
Maddie recognized a girl, young and frail, sitting next to what remained of the fire. Wisps of smoke snaked upward from the coals.
“Kira?”
The girl frowned and hugged her knees tightly.
“Kira? Where is everyone?”
Maddie felt a strange emptiness in her stomach. A wave of nausea slid over her body. The girl didn’t say anything. Maddie grabbed her by the shoulders, shaking violently.
“Where are they?!”
Tears ran down Kira’s cheeks. Maddie breathed in sharply and collapsed, arms wrapped around Kira’s shoulders.
“Where did they go . . . ?”
The mountains towered in the distance, the purple cliffs etched against the pale blue sky.

K: If this is based on mythology or fact, I’m a bit out of the loop, but as I always appreciate in situations like this, the writer has made it so it doesn’t really matter. The bigger world is suggested here, just strongly enough to give a hint and not vaguely enough to annoy, and I’m glad to be along for the ride. BRONZE

CW: I feel like I’m missing something profound here and if so I’m sorry. Is this something religious? A suicide cult? Alien abduction? It just wasn’t clear enough to me. I don’t understand the passage of time where Maddie wakes up and everyone is suddenly gone. Where did they go indeed.

John Wreisner

I was seven when it happened, and it wasn’t until I was eighteen- right around the time that my adoptive parents decided to let me in on that little secret- that I began remembering. The images came slow at first, like a flip book, bits and pieces of narrative happening so rapidly they gave a semblance of cohesion.

I remember seeing people come in, men dressed in blue uniforms. They had what appeared to me to be robes sewn up the middle, making sleeves for legs. Can you believe I didn’t know what pants were? Inside our house, inside our walls, men and women wore beige robes “For all are equal in the Maker’s eyes” my Father would say. I had never seen civilian clothes. I had never seen a gun, either, and these men all came into the room pointing them at me, at mother, at father, my brothers and sisters. We were all lying down, everyone but me motionless.

I remember blood. I remember being lifted into a big metal box that started to move with no horses, I remember screaming, and something sharp, and then I faded into nothing. When I woke up there were concerned looking doctors and police and men and women in more funny clothes. They explained to me that I would never talk again, that I had a new family who would help me, and that I would begin to learn to sign my words. Some of them cried. I cried, too.

My new parents showed me t.v., and foods like pizza that I had never seen, and books that weren’t anything at all like the One True Screed. I went outside and saw planes and billboards and other children, happy children with no scars on their necks and no knees bloodied from hours of prayer. I grew up. I got curious. I started to remember things. Bits and pieces, like a flip book.

One day I came home from school, and with little ceremony, my new mother and new father pushed a fat yellow envelope across the dinner table at me. “If you want to know’ they said. “If you don’t, we’ll burn all these pages and forget forever. But it’s yours.”

May 1st, 1994, (Hazen Star, North Dakota)
“In what police are calling the largest mass murder in North Dakota history, members of a religious community known as “Megiddo’s People” slaughtered their own members while they slept, most of them women and children. Police investigation suggests that the males and heads of household within the community attacked their wives and children while they slept, most having their throats cut. The men then took their own lives inside an outbuilding, which was then set ablaze by an unknown accomplice. First responders report one survivor, a child of approximately seven years age, whose head had been nearly severed in the savage attack. The religious group has attracted attention in recent years from locals, who report that the children never left the walled compound.”

K: Is the news clipping necessary? We get the gist. Unfortunately, the gist is laid on pretty thick here, and it’s little more than a list of things an exploited person wouldn’t know. That’s interesting if you give me little bits and pieces by showing me the character in action, but a list in place of a story isn’t going to cut it. It’s written well, but I knew everything this story had to tell me within a few sentences.

CW: Bloody, horrible, satanic. My kind of story. This is well written and I didn’t get the feeling that anything was rushed to fit. I got a full story and even some backstory to boot. Well done. – GOLD

Christina Pepper

Marie’s lips feel tentative against mine.

I run my hand down her back, noticing it catch on the thick straps of the nursing bra. I put the image out of my head and try to recall what sort of bras she used to wear. She had that one dress she always complained about where she couldn’t wear one at all.

I begin softly kissing the length of her neck and reach for her ass. At least that hasn’t changed. Much.

Marie exhales sharply. Is it pleasure? Annoyance? She never was one to explain herself, though that never used to matter.

Her hands are on my back, but they seem to be drifting without purpose. Maybe she’s just out of practice? I pull off her oversized T-shirt and slide a hand into the front of her bra.

“No, not there,” she whispers.

Not there? Not my favorite way to turn her on?

I stroke her belly. I still love the feel of her skin under my fingers.

She takes my earlobe in her mouth. I close my eyes. Her chest presses against mine, and I try not to notice the awkwardness of the bra rubbing against me.

I reach between her legs, feeling her warmth through the thin fabric of her underwear.

“Is that—” she pulls away.

“What?”

For a moment, she says nothing. I do not so much as breathe.

“Never mind. For a second I thought I heard Evan.”

“He’s sleeping. Like a baby,” I smile.

“I just—maybe I should just check the monitor to be sure?” She rolls away from me.

I stare up at the ceiling fan. I’ve never noticed until this moment just how ugly it is. Cheap. Maybe this weekend I should replace it with something nicer.

Marie sets the monitor back onto the nightstand with a click. I try to remember where we were. She begins kissing my chest, and I slide my boxers down.

She takes me into her mouth. I position myself so that I can watch her movements. Her head begins bobbing—slowly at first, then faster.

I moan.

“Shhhhh,” she hisses, her hand gripping me a little more firmly than I’d prefer.

I reach down to stroke her hair and wait for her to resume.

Then—a cry. Neither of us moves.

A long wail. Piercing.

“Sorry,” Marie whispers.

She leaves the room, and I stare up at that damn fan again. How difficult is it to install a ceiling fan anyway? Tricia at work is always doing shit like that to her house.

The wailing stops.

I wonder how long before Marie comes back.

– – – –

The moment she returns to bed, I turn toward her and pull her into me.

“I just want to sleep,” she says. “Sorry.”

I say nothing.

“Maybe we can try again tomorrow night?”

I kiss her head, then grab my phone and head to the bathroom. Somewhere on there I have a photo of Tricia.

K: I could do without the final mention of Tricia; you’ve done a good job of telling this story without hitting us over the head, and I LOVED the subtle mention of Tricia and our narrator’s admiration of her before the ending. Despite the too-obvious finish, I loved the distance created in such a potentially sexual scene, and I’ll forgive the last obvious line. SILVER

CW: Ah, the joys of parenthood. So many gifts. Like blue balls. This sounds like a true story. And these people need counseling. – SILVER

Erik S

The cleanest of the dirty pans clanked rhythmically against the sink as Alice tried to scrape off the remains of yesterday’s cooking. She eyed the mound of dishes, wishing she’d had time yesterday (or today) to have taken care of them. Instead, she was drafting and scrubbing dirty plate and silverware as necessary and enlisting them for tonight’s dinner.

Alice looked out the window in front of the sink just as another streak of lightning slashed against the dusk. The playground set in the backyard was abruptly illuminated as though daytime, then cast back to the shadows just as quickly. A negative of the scene lingered in her vision, then faded as the rejoining thunder lumbered over the neighborhood. In that brief illumination, Alice saw that it was coming down even harder than before.

“Is Daddy home yet?” Lindsey asked quietly from the living room. At first, Alice thought it was just a part of the continual dialog Lindsey kept with her dolls. Only the momentary pause in conversation made Alice realize the question was directed at her.

“Not yet, honey. Should be soon,” she replied while casting a nervous eye at the clock, wondering when Stu was going to get back. The cacophony of raindrops crashing against the shingles seemed even heavier.

Alice’s job, Lindsey’s preschool, and their home were all within a few minutes of each other. While it fell upon her to pick up Lindsey and get dinner started, she’d much rather take those responsibilities than Stu’s commute. She loathed traffic and was extremely skittish at normal highway speeds. Ill at ease at any velocity it seemed.

A colossal band of lightning slashed across the sky, its brilliance temporarily dazzling Alice. The thunder responded almost on top of it, as if it happened directly over their heads. With disconcerting force, the air around them erupted with a sound not unlike crumpling metal. The power flickered and automobiles raised alarm up and down the block.

“DADDY’S HERE!” Lindsey squealed.

Still unnerved by the viciousness of the last strike, Alice trembling hands gingerly placed the pan back in the sink and pulled at the skin of her face to calm herself.

“Hi, Daddy! Hi, Daddy!” Lindsey continued from the other room.

Nonplussed, Alice went to the (unopened) front door, and glanced outside. Though it was coming down as hard as she’d ever seen it, she could clearly see the empty spot in driveway; the motion light untripped.

“Okay. Bye, Daddy!” Lindsey said.

Alice turned around and deliberately walked to the living room, suddenly anxious. She found Lindsey holding court over a collection of her dolls, pleasantly keeping up the constant chatter for the group.

Another clap of thunder, more subdued, tumbled overhead, then gently rolled off into the heavens.

Alice stared at Lindsey a moment longer, then turned back to the front door. She eyed the empty spot in the driveway again, then returned to the kitchen.

She picked up the dirty pan, wondering when Stu would come home.

K: Does this one have something more to tell me, or not? I spent most of the story believing it did, but the turn back to the dolls and the looks out the window stopped deeming it necessary. I don’t know why Stu isn’t coming back, exactly (and this story offers a physical reason rather than just an emotional one), but after watching these two interact, I WANT him to, and that’s a good thing. SILVER

CW: I hope Stu is okay. I wasn’t completely convinced that he wasn’t already dead. Or if he was ever coming home. Or if he just kept coming home late. But I felt the pain and longing here even though there wasn’t much happening. – SILVER

Melissa Diamond

Gwyneth stormed out of class and straight at Penny and April. She stabbed a finger in Penny’s chest. “You did this!”
“How could I possibly–”
“All last night, you’re like, ‘Don’t think about school. It’ll be okay’, so I didn’t look for my paper til this morning, and–”
“She didn’t do anything,” April said.
Gwyneth turned on April. “And you lied to me. You said you didn’t get your paper done either!”
April shrugged. “I wanted you to feel better.”
“I need a B average to run for president, and now I’m going to have a fucking C!”
“Sorry, Gwen,” Penny tried.
“Fuck you.”
Gwyneth took off and April rolled her eyes. Then she grinned at Penny. “I can’t believe you deleted her final paper.”
Penny laughed. “She was so drunk she didn’t even notice me do it!”
“Now we gotta figure out how to take Lisa out of the race, too.”
“And Candi.”
“Nah. Candi’s no threat.”
“Yeah, but with her and Lisa gone, we’d be unopposed. Maybe Mr. Bell would just let us be co-presidents.”
“Probably not.” April cast a suspicious look around her then handed Penny a small baggy. “You’ll put that in Lisa’s locker during Mr. Wright’s class, right?”
“Right.”

Penny convinced Mr. Wright to let her out early to “check my locker for something”. Then she headed towards Lisa’s locker instead. It was just around the corner. As she walked, she pulled the baggy out of her pocket.
And ran into Principal Miller–behind whom stood Lisa.
“What’s that, Miss Case?” the Principal asked. She beckoned for the plastic baggy. Penny had to hand it over. She grimaced as the principal studied the two very clear joints in the bag.
“Let’s call your parents,” the woman said. She turned to Lisa. “You return to class.”
As Penny passed, Lisa snapped a picture of her. A moment later, Penny’s phone beeped. She glanced at it to see the picture from Lisa–a blurry image of Penny and the Principal, labeled in all caps. “BUSTED. NO PRESIDENCY FOR YOU”.

How’d Lisa know? Penny texted.
April responded. No clue.
Did you tell anybody our plan?
That would be lame.
Mom and dad want me in rehab now.
Crap. You gonna be able to vote?
I’d have to sneak in. I’m suspended, remember?
Lisa is, too.
What? How!
She put that pic of you online. I ratted her out for being a cyberbully. Ha!
You’re so bad.
Sneak in tomorrow.
After all this trouble, I kinda have to!
Kinda? You better! #Vote4me

In the middle of Penny’s response, a message from Lisa popped up. It was a picture of Candi and April, heads close together, chatting.
Lisa texted. “Candi told me about the pot.”
No way.
“Yep. April told her. They’ve been working together all year. They’re gonna be co-presidents.”
Another picture. Candi and April talking to Mr. Bell.
Penny deleted it. She deleted all the pictures as she got a message from April.
Love you.

Penny turned off the phone.

K: So many characters…so much slang. A hashtag in a one-on-one text convo from these two? I…doubt it. Also, I have gone crazy this season talking about characters telling other characters things they already know, and yet “I can’t believe you deleted her final paper.” might be the new standard for that sin. There are better ways to get out this information.

CW: This was another story that seemed to fit more into it than I thought possible… Yet left out some important bits. It’s definitely a modern story but it just didn’t quite do enough to medal for me.

Jonathon Pope

Rebecca Morgan
Mrs. Halvorson’s class

What I did last night
by Rebecca M.

I came home and made dinner. Mac ‘n Cheese always makes me feel better, especially if I cut up some hot dogs. Mom wasn’t home, so I cleaned up the house a little so dad wouldn’t yell when he came in, and made Nattie, my little sister help me. When we finished that we watched TV. It was past bedtime when dad came home, and he yelled at me for being up. Luckily, I had gotten Nattie to bed first. She was crying about mom not being there to tuck her in, so I made funny faces at her until she laughed, and then tucked her in myself. I’m glad she was asleep so she didn’t hear dad yell. Mom came in late. I should have been asleep, but I was writing this essay under the covers. Mom and dad are fighting so loud I’m afraid they’ll wake Nattie.

THE END

K: The potential here is near endless. You can find some real heartbreak in the essays of children, but this one gives up an unlikely amount of information whereas suggestion would be much more powerful. It’s a good idea that doesn’t quite find its footing.

CW: Surprisingly, I liked this more than I expected to. But I still feel like there wasn’t enough here to beat out the competition. You took a risk though, and I appreciate that.

Annette Barron

I am Fights With Turtle. I stalk the deer with my wife’s brothers and try to find calm in my heart. Once again I offer up prayers to the Mother and to Crow, my spirit guide.

Little Fox is my wife. When her grandmothers accepted my mother’s proposal and took me into their longhouse, I made offerings of thanks to the Mother. Little Fox lives close to my heart.

The first baby we lost before Little Fox’s belly was more than a tiny mound under my hand. The elder women just shrugged, these things happen sometimes, they clucked. First babies often fail to take hold and are washed away on a tide of blood.

Little Fox did not stay sad for long. She rolled to me under our furs after only a couple of moons. I hunted often to make sure we had meat to make us strong. Once again, Little Fox’s teeth gleamed in the light of our fire.

The second child was born dead and many hours of struggle. A tiny little boy no bigger than the palm of my hand. The elder women shook their heads and looked at me from the corner of their eyes.

“A man’s seed fights with the woman. If your seed is not stronger than Little Fox, the child will not take root and grow,” Little Fox’s Aunt explained to me. A ceremony was performed by the Shaman to strengthen my seed. Little Fox’s brothers looked on me with pity. If I cannot give her children, Little Fox must put my belongings outside the longhouse and I will return to my own clan.

Little Fox did not recover quickly this time and it was many months before she once again came to me under the furs. Her face was small and tight and all her fear was in her eyes.

Finally, her belly grew again and I made many offerings to the Mother. I hunted tirelessly to provide her with the hearts and livers of strong animals. Moons passed and I began to feel free of fear. Little Fox laughed and joked with her sisters around the fire; rubbing her belly and singing little songs.

This morning I was dreaming of Little Fox surrounded by fat, happy babies, but I woke alone. Little Fox was gone and there is blood in my blankets.

K: The pacing, world-building and prose are all smart and engaging. Beautiful. GOLD

CW: Yeesh. This is rough. I like the different perspective and the voice here. This would absolutely be the moment this home was broken and I feel so bad for Fights With Turtle. This was the best one of the night. – GOLD

——————————————————————————————————-

Well, there you have it – we agreed just long enough to finally hand out a double gold at the end. Cheers, Annette! Four Gold/Nothings has to be a record, right? Points for everyone! Almost.

You know, since I left this for this morning, you’d think I had an idea of the Monday challenge, but I don’t.

Okay. Well.

How about a Christina Pepper challenge? In 150 words, by Monday at 9pm Central, give us a story about how kids disrupt work, sex, or whatever else you have going on, even if you adore them.

Good challenge here, Prosers.

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