Judging in the car was a good idea from a killing time standpoint, but man, I can’t wait to put this phone down.

Sarah Wreisner

I remember spiders hanging in the willow trees, swinging below the sky as we whispered and tiptoed about the yard at night. I remember the way my mother’s whole body sagged when I told her I’d joined the Navy. I remember Lucy Hillock kissing me with gin-soaked breath the night before I left, and how my arms went numb when I found out what had happened to her while I was overseas.

I remember these things like they happened yesterday. I always had a near-perfect memory, one that got me far in school and in the service.

I began training as a battlefield surgeon: not the cheeriest job, but one that saved lives and made a real difference. I saw every horror a person can imagine. I used unsterilized blades to remove limbs and I used my fingers to dig bullets from smoking flesh. Once, I decided to end a life with my own gun, rather than put the man through a futile surgery that would have tortured him.

More often than not I saved people. Once, I saved my own life, but it was long after the war had ended.

I will be 90 next August. My war medals and ribbons are framed in a box over the electric fireplace that my son installed last year. I am a proud, nostalgic man, like so many of my generation. I still have some of my old surgical tools and the memories that came with them – for good and bad – but something strange started to happen to me just last summer, right after I buried my sweet wife.

I had driven to meet some of the regulars for an early morning coffee. When I got to the place, I realized I didn’t know what I was doing there. I was tired and foggy – not something I typically experience, even at my old age. Hell, I still have all my hair. I always believed I was going to stay as sharp as ever until it was my time to go.

When I came around, I was dumbfounded – how had I gotten there? Where were my keys? I didn’t even know exactly how to drive my car, or where I had to get to. I sat that way until a police officer came, and called my son to come and help me. It was mortifying, but I was dragged to my doctor’s office against my will.

Alzheimer’s: I never thought it’d happen to me. I always kept my mind active with puzzles and books, and was always challenging myself to learn something new. I was always taking classes at the community center – painting, piano, sculpture – anything to keep myself from going soft. I knew this was how so many people avoided the “big A”. But I was slapped with the diagnosis anyway.

I wouldn’t become a burden to people around me, and I would not live in a group home. I needed to find a solution. I am a well-read man, but I dug even deeper into the unorthodox materials on the mind and the development of Alzheimer’s. One theory is that an excess of beta-amyloid in the brain causes the disease, and that a release of the cerebral fluid can reduce this buildup.

I read up on some theories that were rooted in the Mesoamerican and Egyptian cultures and the medicinal techniques used in the Neolithic period. I found what I was looking for, but I knew that I would get no support from the medical community or my family. If I even discussed my ideas, I would be locked up.

Modern medicine calls it a craniotomy, but most of the literature refers to it as a trepanation.

My surgical stage was my kitchen table, covered in plastic and sterilized with bleach water and Lysol. I hadn’t had an episode in several weeks and was feeling particularly sharp and alert that morning. I chose a day that was just after my son and grandchildren had visited, just to be safe. I didn’t want anyone stopping by to find a madman drilling a hole into his head.

I left a note on the door for the sweet neighbor lady (“be back tomorrow if you need me!”) and zipped up the blinds. I decided to perform my self-trepanation in the daytime: I didn’t want the neighbors to see a well-lit kitchen window if I was supposed to be out of town.

I used a freshly charged electric drill – you don’t want your battery running out halfway through something like this – and a squat, sterile, 0.75” diamond burr bit. I wrapped my head with surgical tape and – to be safe – covered the walls with plastic. I didn’t know what to expect, to be honest with you.

I didn’t use anesthetic, but I cleaned the area twice – my upper forehead, as it would give me the best vantage point to self-trepan upon – with iodine.

The blood was more than I expected but not terribly gruesome. I’m not a queasy man but it had been a long while since I’d performed any type of surgery at all. The procedure itself wasn’t terribly painful: after the initial sting of the flesh wound, the drilling just caused a deep, intense vibrating pressure that resonated in my teeth and bones. It was intense, only slightly uncomfortable, and deeply fascinating. Afterwards, I wrapped the area with clean gauze and tape, ate a spinach salad, and watched TV. I felt fine.

It’s been 9 months. My grandchildren and sons are baffled; there’s one doctor I’ve seen since, and it’s only because she’s young, slightly timid and less likely to bully me into a full exam.

I wear a lot of hats these days.

K: I thoroughly love this protagonist. The word limit was used wisely to get me first to like him before the attempt. I was truly engaged in the finale and grinned ear to ear when I learned the surgery was successful. Good stuff. GOLD

CW: The first half of this story had me enthralled. Hell, maybe even the first 75%. I guess I was expecting something else in the end. We so rarely get happy endings. Your detail throughout was fantastic and I can tell you did some research here. Very well done. – SILVER

Christina Pepper

I don’t even remember whose idea it was. All of ours, really. We’d somehow reached the point in the night when everyone simultaneously realizes the cemetery is only two blocks away and what we need to do is obvious.

Duke leads the way, and the three of us follow him single-file, not so much as whispering.

The fence is intimidatingly high, its posts gleaming black in the streetlights, but we have no need to scale it. Instead Duke guides us to a gap between a dense hedge and the wrought iron barrier.

Kurt follows Duke, and I’m next. As Anna slips through, Kurt looks back at me. In the dark, I can’t tell whether he’s surprised or disappointed. Who says a girl with a 4.0 GPA can’t trespass once in a while?

I look up, hoping for a clear view of the stars, but there are too many trees. I stumble along as Duke begins winding his way through the headstones. I don’t want to get too far ahead of Anna; she somehow feels like my responsibility, two grades behind the rest of us and not even from the same school. She goes to the Arts High School, which is another way of saying she has her head in the clouds.

After what feels like a long time but is probably only five minutes, Duke pauses. I rest my hand on the surface of the marker nearest me. Although the summer air still feels warm, the stone is cool under my palm. I want to wander among the gravestones, studying the names and composing elegies for the dead.

I see Duke reach for Anna’s hand and realize he has other plans. Just as I’m trying to decide what to do, lights appear. A car crests a hill on a road within the cemetery I’d not noticed until now.

“Duck,” hisses Kurt, and I obey. The nearest stone reads Clara Ueland (1860-1927).

“Dearest Clara, whoever you are,” I think, “please keep us safe.”

The car continues on its route and once the taillights disappear around a curve, I stand again. Kurt begins to laugh.

“Hush,” I hiss.

“Scaredy cat,” he calls back, not even bothering to keep his voice down.

I’m not entirely sure how to get back, but I turn around and grab Anna’s hand.

“I can’t believe I went in here with these idiots. Let’s get the hell out.”

She makes no comment but follows along as I drag her with me.

K: This seems like a lot of setup without payoff; they go, and a couple of them leave. We’ve got a cemetery, trespassing and a named headstone. All the pieces were in place for a decent climax but I feel like we only reached the commercial break. BRONZE

CW: Again, I started out more into it than I finished. I felt like the ending was flat here. I felt like there was a good level of detail but it was spent on things that didn’t progress the story so much. – BRONZE

Beau

Tom downshifted and settled into the right lane on I-64. Forty miles from Dumbarton, he hit a level stretch of highway and allowed his mind to relax. It was a brutal month on the road, starting with walking pneumonia and ending with missing his daughter’s birthday due to a high-priority shipment. The worst part was that he was almost home and still didn’t have anything for Kasey. Twelve years old and she had learned to cope with being alone most of the time. Heck, she wasn’t even expecting a gift. She was just happy when they made rent. Tom sighed and took a sip of lukewarm coffee. He hoped a stop at Wal-Mart tonight would inspire him. She deserved better.

***

He slammed the joystick down. Tom knew he had timed the jump to the lilypad, but the stupid game killed him again. Normally he’d be scolded by now but Mom was sleeping.

Excited chatter was coming from the basement. His dad’s friends were over again and they were louder than usual. Tom was strictly forbidden from going downstairs when Dad’s friends were over. He looked at Mom and then turned the volume up on the TV to make it seem like he was still playing. He then carefully stepped over her and crept to the basement door.

***

Tom pulled his rig onto Forest Avenue. A mile from the store he hit a red light. He noticed a group of teenagers in an abandoned parking lot on the north side of the street. He figured they were passing a joint around. A pang of jealousy bubbled to the surface; sometimes he longed for days where he could be carefree and forget everything. He then wondered if he ever had such a time.

The light turned green. He looked again at the group of kids and what he saw horrified him. He quickly pulled over and jumped out of the cab. As he walked towards them his suspicions were confirmed. They were passing a kitten back and forth, swinging it by the tail. One kid held up a lighter flame in the middle of the circle. Tom broke into a run. As he approached, he realized each one of these kids was huge. He couldn’t take down the smallest one in a fight, let alone all four.

“Leave it the fuck alone!” he shouted, charging the group.

***

He placed a foot on the first step. As soft as he could, Tom went down the stairs one by one. The normally creaky steps were being kind to him tonight, though he wondered if he could even be heard over the noise. Dad’s stereo turned on, further drowning out any noise he could make. He kneeled down as far he could and snuck a peek. Nobody was in the main room. The door to the family room was closed. He saw his hand touch the doorknob. Taking a deep breath, he cracked open the door.

Tom took a sharp breath. Six guys were standing in a circle, shouting at two bull terriers. The dogs were clawing and biting at each other. Streaks of blood were on the cement floor. A scrap of fur floated towards him. He saw his dad shouting at the dogs. And then he was smiling. Why?

His throat was closed up. His hand hurt from its grip on the doorknob. He wasn’t sure what exactly his dad was doing with these dogs, but he was scared. And angry. He thought about walking in when another man locked eyes with him. He thought the man would look surprised, but he wasn’t. The man just glared at him coldly.

Tom bolted back up the stairs.

***

“Hi, Dad,” Kasey called from the living room. She stopped running to the door about a year ago. Tom could hear some Mario game in the background. He threw the mail on the table, which included a late birthday card from grandma.

“Hey pumpkin. Happy birthday.” He sat down on the couch behind her.

She didn’t look up. “That was last week Dad. You already called me.”

“I know,” said Tom. “But I got you something this year.”

Kasey hit pause, then turned around. “Oh, you didn’t…oh my god Dad!” She stood up fast. “What happened to you!”

Tom touched the bruise that was forming around his right eye. “It’s nothing. Just a little accident on the road. Here, your gift.” He handed her a ratty cardboard box with the top open.

Kasey peered inside and jumped. She looked up at her dad and smiled the biggest smile he had ever seen. Then her face dropped. “But you said…” She reached in and pulled out her present. The kitten recoiled a bit, then cuddled into the crook of her arm.

“I know what I said. But you deserve one. You’re the greatest kid in the world.”

K: I know it’s just a story, but I want to beat Tom’s dad senseless for running the dogfight. I like the concept of Tom redeeming the sins of his father, rather than his own, and being better than his dad would have made him. Well done, Tom. GOLD

CW: Now this is a story about redemption all right. I wasn’t digging the time jumping at first but then I saw the reason for it and loved it. This was a great piece and I can picture Tom as a real genuine person, if flawed. – GOLD

John Wreisner

My grandfather Hayes was one hundred and nineteen years old when he died. A veteran of the Second World War, he sailed to Guadalcanal aboard the U.S.S. Hayes, which afforded him no small measure of harassment from the other enlisted men. “Benson sails this goddamn ship” he’d say in response. When we were children, disobeying and unruly, he’d snarl “Benson ain’t sailing today” and we knew to snap to.

Serving in the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines, the specter of Tarawa and the horrors he had seen there permeated everything he did. From a refusal to board a boat (even so much as a canoe, on a fishing trip) and a hatred of the Japanese so intense that he refused to eat Rice Krispie bars, Grandpa Hayes was uneasy and enigmatic. He had a deep, pathological fear of confinement, refusing to even sleep with a heavy comforter atop him. He never talked about the war. We were told never to ask.

My brother and I walked down the antiseptic, acoustically hollow hallway to his hospital room. Nurses clogs thumped dumbly somewhere down the labyrinthine corridors, and in rooms along the way the dying groaned and coughed. Grandpa Hayes was sitting up in bed, writing something in his cramped shorthand.

“Hey, Gramps” I said. My brother tipped him a salute. “You know” said Grandpa, “These doctors are about twenty. They don’t know a goddamn thing. I dropped to the floor during an exam and gave them ten pushups right there, and they still don’t know what’s wrong.” He motioned to the mass of monitors attached to his chest. The machine adjacent to him gave off arrhythmic bleeps. “Give this to your grandmother” he said, finishing his letter and folding in in thirds. After.”

My Grandfather was buried with full military honors and no small amount of head scratching from the medical examiner and his attending physicians. His heart had simply worn out, they said, like an otherwise sound engine could falter for want of a gasket. Had he been a candidate for a transplant, he could have made it to one hundred and fifty, they opined. Considering his longevity, they asked permission for tissue samples. We consented.

After the funeral, our Grandmother asked my brother and I to stop by the house. There was the obligatory coffee, and after the crowd had thinned, she asked us to help her downstairs. There was something Grandpa had wanted us to have- something he had asked her in writing to give us. Later we’d realize it was the letter he was writing the last we’d seen him in the hospital room.

It was a footlocker, olive green, leather straps softly rotting, the faded white stencil “HAYES” barely visible. After we brought it home we opened it for a cursory look. The top tray was the usual veteran ephemera and bric-a-brac- a Zippo, playing cards with pin-up girls, a muddied Japanese Imperial flag. It was too painful to go through its entirety, so we closed it, until the pandemic came and we were forced inside.

Patient zero was located in Saga Prefecture, Japan. Hemorrhagic, airborne, lethally contagious, and with an incubation period lengthy enough to guarantee that plenty of infected people hopped airplanes and ships, world Governments scrambled to reign it in. Looting was rampant, and martial law came with it. The death toll in the United States alone was in the tens of thousands daily. Worldwide, where curfews were less stringent and mass panic more difficult to restrain, it was worse. After weeks we were terrified. After months we were bored, and we opened the trunk.

A POW medal, awarded by President Reagan after the citation was signed into law in 1985. A Purple Heart. BDU’s, ragged, torn at the knees. And documents. Thousands. We read them out of context, out of syntax, and out of our minds.

“THE SECRETARY OF WAR REGRETS TO INFORM YOU YOUR SON ROBERT C. HAYES MISSING IN ACTION STOP ALL EFFORTS BEING EXPENDED TO GUARANTEE A SAFE RETURN STOP…”

A newspaper clipping from the “Hazen Star,” a local paper where my Grandfather had farmed before the war:

“The battle for Tarawa has proven to be one of the most exhausting campaigns the USMC has yet mounted, and proves again the fanatical madness that the yellow menace poses to freedom loving people everywhere.”

Pages torn from journals:
“Bodies everywhere, lying in tide pools with crabs tearing their lips and eyelids off. Night flares and Banzai charges, half dead Japs lying in the trenches with you, bayonets stabbing as fast as you can pull the blade out of the last one before plunging into the next. Over the wire and over the wire, thousands of them.”

And then, a neatly bound leather volume.

“Kantōgun Bōeki Kyūsuibu Honbu; Unit 731 and implications for Bio-Research as Applied to Allied Forces, Considerations for Sensitive Intelligence and Tribunal Immunity for Researchers, Lt. C Murray Sanders.”

“Dr. Shiro Ishii and his colleagues in Unit One have performed valuable research using previously unavailable methods including live human subjects in the combat transmission of Bubonic Plague, Cholera, Typhus and Anthrax, as well as research into…

…frostbite, gas gangrene, and botulism, as well as…

…applying fatal levels of centrifugal force to test subjects, utilizing saline as a possible intravenous substitute for blood plasma…

…acceptable levels of X-Ray radiation up to mortality, and the development of heretofore unknown bacterial, biological, and chemical agents useful in theaters of combat operation.”

Grandpa Hayes had been captured. Grandpa Hayes had been tortured. And Grandpa Hayes had been experimented on. And after half the human population on earth had perished as a result of this sudden, terrifying plague, we came to know that Dr. Shiro Ishii had also done something else- he had provided my Grandfather and his offspring with immunity.
We simply refer to it in shorthand now, my brother and I. We call it “Shiro.” The world is rebuilding now, and we’re here to help it along, thanks to Shiro Ishii.
K: Huh. I didn’t expect Dr. Ishii to be the central figure here. It’s an interesting ending, though some of the journey is very clinical. You told me a lot, but I would have liked to have been shown some of it. Intersperse documents and flashbacks, maybe? GOLD

CW: I understood what was happening here, and even loved it… But this was difficult to read. I like your idea, and I loved some of your phrases, such as the reference to not even wanting Rice Krispies. That was a clever piece. But I feel like there was little editing done. You talk about Grandma Hayes who must be a zillion years old too and I’m confused at why she’s still alive if he’s so unnaturally old. Then you say she gives them a letter followed by saying it was a footlocker. Did the letter direct them to his old footlocker? – BRONZE

Margaret Martin

Her uterus hung low, heavy and wet, and her pelvic muscles contracted involuntary, trying to push it back, trying to relieve the pressure.
Fucking periods.

She shifted positions, shifting the thick ache to her lower back.

“Can we stop somewhere? I’m hungry.”

“Sure. It’s true what they say about eating for two, I guess.” Matt patted her thigh. “My parents are looking forward to meeting you.”

Brandi laughed. “Yeah, our wedding is going to be fun.”

He felt a now-familiar wave of anxiety in his bowels, and shifted into the right lane so that he could see the signs better.

Scott wedged the phone between his shoulder and ear and took another long, hot drag from a fat blunt.

“I think it’s time to make a play for the Walker Farm.”

“Yeah, I’m driving by it right now. The house looks like shit, and the barn’s roof is collapsing. This drought is killing them. No way this family holds out another year.”

“Ha! It sure would be a shame.”

He pulled into the right lane, lowering the passenger window, and tossed the remains of his smoldering joint onto the dry grass.

“SHUT THE FUCK UP OR I WILL GIVE YOU SOMETHING TO CRY ABOUT!”

Rich pointed his gun at Cyndi’s face. She froze. The kids sucked in their tears, slinking lower in their seats, desperate not to accidentally meet his eyes in the rear view mirror.

He started drifting over the line, and jerked angrily back into the lane.

They were packed in like dirty sardines in the back, still covered in stink from the river.

Just a few more miles, and he’d get some fresh air in there. Carlos scanned the shoulders ahead for cops, minding the speed limit and unconsciously kicking the bag of desperation, wedding bands and damp cash further under the seat.

The extended cab pickup next to him started crossing over into his lane then swerved back into the left lane. He locked eyes briefly with the alarmed woman in the passenger seat.

Fucking traffic! He slowed down a bit more.

Brandi rubbed her aching menstrual breasts. “A Subway! That’s a healthy choice, right?”

Matt nodded, signaling and stepping off the cruise control.

Scott scanned the rear view mirror, looking to see if anything had caught fire. It would be a damn shame.

He brought his eyes back to front just in time to see a car slowing in front of him. He slammed on the brakes and moved into the left lane.

Something in Cyndi snapped. She reached up and grabbed his hand, trying to wrest the gun from his grip. The pickup started to swerve violently as he wrenched his arm upward and cocked the hammer.

At that moment, a car merging over from the right lane nearly hit the back end of his truck. He steered hard to the left, and the gun flew into the back seat.
Bryce reached down and grabbed it.

Cyndi turned back, her face ashen, but at that moment, a shot rang out, and Rich slumped at an awkward angle across the steering wheel.

The pickup veered violently across the right lane and straight into a car moving toward the exit ramp.

Matt never saw it coming. It hit his rear panel, and his front end whipped to the left and he spun into the left lane. The car in the left lane slammed into Brandi’s side of the car and plowed them through the guard rail and into the grassy ditch.

Scott saw that the airbag had deployed. Relieved, he reached for the door handle. That’s when he noticed the guardrail had pierced his door. And his torso. He tried to scream, viscous blood spilling from his mouth instead.

The pickup rolled onto its roof and spun back into the right lane, grinding metal against concrete in a teeth-shattering scream.

Carlos slammed on his brakes, feeling the weight of bodies shifting in the cargo hold behind him. The truck rocketed toward him, blood and bodies laid across the windows. The impact caused his truck to flip, fear crystallized in a moment of weightlessness.

The cargo trailer flipped end over end, finally coming to rest after dropping onto the cars in the ditch, crushing metal and bone.

They stood there waiting. Matt and Brandi, Scott, Rich, Cyndi, Bryce and Tucker, Carlos and 34 illegals.

“All of them?” The voice seemed skeptical.

“All of them.” Jesus spread his arms wide in welcome.
K: This was an oppressively big idea at the beginning, but drew me in as we jumped around, leading to the climax, which could have gone any number of ways. But…Jesus? Really? This is the literal definition of a deus ex machina. It’s nice that everyone was included, but I feel robbed of a proper resolution. BRONZE
CW: Holy crap. I feel like this would have made a very interesting short film, but for a story on paper… Way too many characters. Perhaps the fact that everyone dies makes it easier to resolve in my head, but while reading the story I had no idea who was who. – BRONZE

Matt Novak

When I drive up she’s sitting – waiting – on the front steps. It’s only been a few days since I saw her at the funeral, but it’s like I forgot how she looked. More like her mother than I remember. Not that I really remember her mother all that well.

Before I even turn off the car she’s dragging her two dark blue bags down the slope of the front lawn. I feel like I need to catch my breath.

Here we go.

I stretch across the passenger seat to open the car door for her. I should have cleaned the car. Yellow cheeseburger wrappers and empty coke bottles litter the floor. She taps on the window to the back door, and I scramble to locate the automatic lock button. I should have gotten out, taken her bags. Maybe given her a hug? But it all happened so suddenly. All of this has.

Her bags slide into the back, the door slams shut, and she steps delicately into to the passenger seat. I hear the hollow echo of a plastic cascade as her foot brushes aside the bottles on the floor.
“Is that all you have?” I ask, forgetting my rehearsed opener.
“Let’s just go.”
“I have a big dresser for you at my house, and a desk, so if there’s more?”
“We can get it later. I need to not be here.”
I start the car, and wonder how big a ‘here’ she means.

————————————-

Dave whistles a long, low tone. Manny doesn’t say anything at all, but he lifts his eyes to look at me.
“You sure?” asks Dave.
“I guess.”
I keep my eyes glued on the spinning cream-colored foam tumbling beneath the dam. Every so often a swallow swoops low and I follow its path until I can no longer distinguish it from the river that runs nearly black with silt. It hadn’t occurred to me to ask follow up questions. The whole thing had taken me by surprise, and it wasn’t like we’d had long to talk about it.
“She could be making it up,” he speculated.
“I don’t think so, man.”
“No,” Dave insisted, “My cousin had a friend, and his girlfriend did. Made the whole thing up.”
“Why would anyone do that?”
“Well, she wasn’t really his girlfriend, and she wanted to be, or something like that.”
“But we really were together.”
“Still. Could be, man.”
“Maybe.”

Manny interrupts.
“Hand me another beer?”
I reach over to the cooler, as he tosses his empty can over the railing. It falls slowly to the water, buoyed by invisible currents, and we all watch as it floats away, a miniature aluminum raft destined to join hundreds like it, somewhere downstream.
“She gonna keep it?” asks Dave.
“I think so.”
“Then you gotta get out now. Kid’ll ruin your life. No freedom. No time. No money. You gotta finish school at least.”
“I know,” I answer. Of course I know. All I can think of today is how my tomorrows are over.
“This sucks, man,” says Dave.

The three of us drink our beer, and the words hang in the evening air. Finally, Manny breaks the silence.
“Shit,” he says, “Just because she’s keeping the kid don’t mean you got to keep it.”
I take a swig of my beer and smile. I like that.

————————————-

The heavy wooden doors close after the last couple moves out.
“How do I look?” I ask, as we step forward.
“No one is going to be looking at you.”
“Good.”

The doors open again, and there’s a shuffle as the guests stand. I realize that the organ must have started some time ago. The faces I don’t recognize outnumber those I do, but they all seem happy. Later, some of them will come up to me. Tell me how proud I should be. Tell me what I’ve accomplished. I’ll thank them, and smile back. And then, in that moment of awkwardness, when they realize there isn’t a deeper conversation waiting, maybe they’ll see that it wasn’t effortless. That it still isn’t. That us getting to this point was a whole damn lot of work.

Suddenly we’re at the front of the church, and I’m shaking Justin’s hand, and giving him a half-hug.
“Thank you,” he says.
“I’m always still here if you two need help,” I tell him, and turn to enter the pew, like we practiced last night.

I feel a tap on my shoulder, and I turn. It’s Jane, standing, hands on her hips.
“Forgetting something?” she asks.
Of course. I blush, and hold my arms out to her. She jumps into them, and, as the congregation laughs, we. We hug, and I think back to the days after her mom died, to the day I picked her up.
K: I was definitely hoping our narrator would learn to be a dad, even if he’s not fit to be a husband. There’s nothing to dislike here, though it wasn’t particularly unpredictable, either. SILVER
CW: Alright. Here’s another good redemption story. And another one that jumped all over the place in time. But again I saw the purpose when it was over. I guess this prompt kinda lends to time hopping. I’m glad this guy was able to redeem himself for his daughter. – SILVER

Annette Barron

Rinka eased her way out of the plush pallet, careful not to disturb the Master and earn another cuff on the ear. She pulled on her shift and padded barefoot out of the chamber, quietly latching the door behind her before pounding down the stairs. Her inner alarm clock told her she was late. Serving in the Master’s bed didn’t earn you a free pass from your duties.

Her stomach growled in response to the smells of freshly brewed sneckta and porridge. She would not be breaking her fast until the guests were served and seen off on their tour. Rinka slid into the food prep area, praying for invisibility.

“Rinka! You lazy slut!” Bronka spied her from her spot by the porridge; if it wasn’t stirred constantly, it turned into clay. Rinka lowered her head. “Many pardons, Mistress.” She hurried to take over but Bronka waved her away. “Go immediately with that tray to the guest tower. I’m informed that Joonans do not like to eat in public.”

Rinka blanched. The pale lavender newcomers made her very nervous. The Master was trying to sell them her home and she couldn’t begin to imagine what would happen to her if he succeeded. She did know what would happen if she offended the guests, though. She grabbed the loaded tray and hurried to the eastern tower.

Pa’elle sat quietly at the window. The sun here wasn’t as harsh as on her planet and she enjoyed the play of it across her upturned face. It was a lovely planet and although the current residents were treating it very poorly, Pa’elle thought it could easily be repaired, provided the price wasn’t too steep. There was a tentative knock.

“Enter.” A small girl entered the bedchamber and settled a tray laden with native fruits and nuts (as requested) on the table next to her. “I am grateful,” Pa’elle murmured. The girl looked up, startled, and then bobbed her head and turned to leave.

Pa’elle put her palm up and the door closed before the girl reached it. Rinka shrieked and fell to her knees, wrapping her arms around her head protectively. Pa’elle sighed.

“My apologies, little one, I will not hurt you. I only wish for you to stay a moment and converse with me. Is that alright?” Pa’elle focused soothing waves into her words and Rinka responded by standing and shuffling back towards her.

“Mistress?”

“My name is Pa’elle. Your name?”

“Rinka, Mistress.”

“Rinka, may I ask you a few questions about your people?”

Rinka considered for a moment. It didn’t seem like it was likely to get her into any trouble. “Yes, Mistress.”

“Pa’elle. Can you tell me about the caste system of your planet?”

“Mistress?” Rinka looked confused.

“You serve the larger people, yes? How did it come to be that your planet has such diverse forms of humanoids?”

“All my people are small, Mistress.” Rinka found herself wanting very much to please this purple lady. “Masters are different people.”

Pa’elle studied her for a moment. “Rinka, where is your home planet?”

Rinka blinked. “This is my home, Mistress.” She felt distressed. Something she had said was making the lady unhappy, she could feel it.

“And the Masters? Where is their home?”

“I don’t know, Mistress.” Rinka very much wanted to go.

Pa’elle nodded. “Thank you for talking to me, Rinka.” She turned her gaze out the window once again while Rinka scuttled out.

The shuttle hovered over a crystal clear lake. Barston had planned the tour route to avoid the huge mines and polluted rivers.

“You didn’t mention there are natives,” Pa’elle stated.

Barston’s gaze slid away. “Natives? Oh, there’s not many of them left; they’ll be coming with us. They were nearly extinct when we arrived. A terrible plague almost wiped them out but we were able to save some. In their gratitude they have become quite devoted to us, as I’m sure you’ve noticed.”

Pa’elle didn’t respond and the shuttle moved on.

They gathered in the main hall, sitting around the huge oblong dining table.

Barston leaned forward, “Can we now negotiate terms?”

Pa’elle nodded. “We will need to speak with a representative of the native people. Do they have a spokesperson?”

Barston’s smile disappeared. “They are a very simple species who look to us for guidance. I speak for them.”

“Nevertheless.”

Barston spread his fingers on the table. “Alright. Bronka! Fetch Rinka. The Joonans wish to question her.” She nodded.

Rinka was scrubbing pots when she was yanked up by her hair. “The Master wants you in the meeting,” Bronka hissed. “You will smile and agree with anything he says or I will yank out your teeth. Hear me?” Rinka nodded frantically. “Yes, Mistress!”

Rinka hurried to the hall. Barston waved her to him. “Rinka, the Joonans want to make sure you’re happy with us.”

“Yes, please. Very happy.” Rinka grinned woodenly.

“Rinka,” Pa’elle’s interjected. “They plan to take you away from your home. Do you wish to go with them?”

Rinka froze. Barston squeezed her waist warningly. Pa’elle raised her hand and a web of purple light encompassed Barston’s head. “Rinka, step away.”

Rinka backed away, terrified. Pa’elle asked again. “He says you’re devoted to him. Is this true?”

Rinka looked wildly from Barston’s frozen face to Pa’elle. After several moments, she grabbed the bottom of her shift and pulled it up over her head. Naked, the bite marks on her small breasts and the livid bruises on her thighs spoke for her.

Pa’elle nodded. With a flick of her hand, the purple web tightened until it disappeared, taking Barston’s head with it. His smoking corpse collapsed to the floor.

The counsel sat frozen, held in place by purple webbing. Pa’elle stood. “Thanks Rinka. Joona would like to negotiate protection and mining rights with your people.”

Rinka pulled her shift back on. “The Masters leave?”

“The pirates will be eradicated.” Pa’elle nodded to the other Joonans. One by one, headless corpses hit the floor.

K: One thing that’s tough about writing freedom stories is making the enslaved a major part of their own freedom and giving the reader someone to root for. This is an interesting world and concept, but Rinka comes off as an accessory to her own freedom, and I would have liked to see her take the reins a little bit. SILVER
CW: I’m impressed at the level of world building involved here. It felt foreign enough to be science fiction but was described in such a way that it was commonplace. Pa’elle certainly put the smack down on the Joonans. I didn’t feel quite as emotionally vested as I would want to but this was still very well done. – GOLD

Sama Smith
The house was a cage. Devoid of meaning now. You were no longer there rattling around in an oversized nightgown and sipping on chamomile tea that tasted like shit with a hint of mint. You made me drink that shit every night. I have an ulcer that keeps me awake now. Thanks.

The place was an eyesore for decades, but surrounded by no one who cared enough to call it in. Seeing it tore down should have been a rush of relief. It only made the emptiness remain.

I thought I’d pick up where I left off with you. Mainly because I needed to lie low for a couple days. No one knew about you. I made sure of that. I found the spare key under the newest stupid plastic frog that littered the front steps. I shoved the door hard knocking over something. You didn’t make a peep. It was dark and I couldn’t find the light switch. I pushed over something else that crashed to the floor and still you were silent. I used my phone’s light to find you facedown on a pile of papers. Your slippers were half off and your robe caught on a stuffed owl. Nudging you did nothing. I sighed and dialed 911. It was the best excuse to talk to someone.

Last I saw you before this, you were still all freckly limbs and sparkling eyes. Snorting with that stupid laugh through meaningless conversation. You wore your hair in coils stuck to your head looking like like a white trash cliche. I left after an hour and didn’t think about you til I needed a place to stay.

You’d kept that stuffed animal giraffe from fourth grade I’d made. I said it looked like you. When you were mad you always stretched out your neck and raised your eyebrows real high. It made me laugh every time.

They said you’d been rotting in the hallway for days. I argued you’d been rotting in that house for decades. What happened then? “Natural causes.” A blank phrase that makes me picture you with weeds twisted around your ankles and dandelions sprouting from your face. Your death makes you more alive than your life ever did.

And no, I don’t feel sorry for you. Others marvel how well I’m doing or how “with it” I seem to be. You had become a distant memory. This house became just a place to live. It wasn’t a place full of memories. Memories belong inside our brains. They get trapped there and reformatted, sometimes erased and maybe even forgotten, if we’re lucky.

But now something feels cold. The emptiness is like an avalanche of all the shit you kept. You kept everything—everything that was ever anything you thought should be something. In the three years since I left, you filled every empty space with whatever you could afford. It is a bit impressive if it wasn’t so damn disgusting.

You seemed to want to fill the house with lace and pretty things that were a waste. Now I get to toss them into the big dumpster a neighbor lent me. Someone says sell them. I could use the money, but I don’t want to burden others with this shit. We should all take a moment and have huge bonfires filled with doilies and Precious Moment figurines. It would be glorious. It would be the best use of fire since the first flames danced in a cave with purpose.

The wrecking crew left yesterday. Today I kick at some stones in the dirt and the sun fades away. I don’t give a fuck you weren’t here to see this. It’d have been nice to see the tears drench your face. It’d have been nice to see you suffer over it. It’d have been nice to see you feel anything instead of trying to fill an empty space. I suppose the emptiness never really goes away. I suppose you left it for me just as I left you with your things.

Why do we have to want more? Eventually, we always seek it out. It only makes the emptiness grow stronger.

I pick up the giraffe and walk away.

K: The prose did a good job of driving home this character’s mindset, even if it was too coy to provide a reason for the division. I’m left wondering who was redeemed, unless Mom was redeemed by dying. And if so, what did she do that warranted redemption? The son comes off as the one who needs redeeming, since we aren’t told what was so bad about the mother. SILVER
CW: This was a dark, hate-filled rant. But in a good way. I’m not sure if I’m the biggest fan of the format but it seemed to work well enough. – SILVER

Ian Pratt

That Monday I was called into the director’s office to discuss the events of the previous week. His office was located on the 15th floor. In his office the director explained that, overall, he was happy with my work, but that during last week’s assignment I could have been more careful, more considerate in fulfilling my duties. He told me that Kirkpatrick’s death had not been unavoidable, and that perhaps I should take additional time to consider how my actions had contributed to the tragic circumstances. He said that Kirkpatrick was well-liked around the office, but he was unsure of my popularity. I asked him if I was going to be reassigned to a different department, but he assured me that I would be allowed to continue in my current role. He ended our meeting my informing me that I would be under additional scrutiny going forward and I should endeavor to stick to best practices.

I rode the elevator down in silence while thinking of Kirkpatrick. He had been a boisterous presence in the office, a large personality prone to raunchy stories and perfectly-executed high-fives. When I arrived at the 2nd floor, Acquisitions, I sat down at my desk and reviewed the files that had accumulated during my meeting with the director. I focused on completing the paperwork and did my best to ignore the stares of nearby coworkers.

Near the end of the day, a friendly coworker named Tejas stopped by my desk to ask how my meeting with the director had gone. Tejas was from a small town in Texas near the Mexico border and refused to let anyone know his real name. He responded only to his nickname, “tay-haas” as he languidly pronounced. He was similar to Kirkpatrick in many ways, charismatic and charming in an effortless way that created instant personal connections with almost everyone he met. Unlike Kirkpatrick, with his loud jokes and physical confidence, Tejas had a reputation as a smooth talker. He enjoyed telling women that his Texas drawl was as thick and sweet as molasses.

“Did he break your balls at all?” asked Tejas. He was sitting on the corner of my desk in a manner that straddled the line between chummy and invasive.

“A little bit,” I answered

“I remember my first meeting with the boss,” he said and whistled. His hands were jammed in his pockets and he shook his head as he chuckled at the memory. “You getting reassigned?”

I shook my head no. I was glad for that, and told Tejas so. Despite the incident with Kirkpatrick, I believed that I was a good fit in the Acquisitions department. Tejas told me that he also thought I was a good fit. He slid off of my desk and walked around to the window behind me, which overlooked the patio of the coffee shop on the ground floor.

“Kirkpatrick, man,” he muttered, then chuckled again. “I never worked with the guy, I mean I loved him around the office, but I always thought he seemed like he’d be a real turd out there.”

“We all do our best,” I said quietly. I was unsure of whether Kirkpatrick and Tejas had been friends or rivals. I decided that Tejas’ presence at my desk meant that they had not been friends. As the director had informed me, my own popularity was not entirely secure. I was unaware of how many of my associates blamed me for Kirkpatrick’s departure, but I feared that it was a common attitude.

“Well, I’m glad you’ll still be around,” Tejas said. He was still looking out the window at the patio below. “Second chances, et cetera.”

He leaned forward as something on the patio caught his attention.

“Oh, shit, check it out.”

I moved next to him and looked out the window. On the patio, two petite brunette women were engaged in a heated confrontation. The window was soundproof but they appeared to be screaming at each other.

“Is that Aida?” Tejas exclaimed, recognizing one of the women as a fellow Acquisitions agent.

“Yes,” I said. “And the other woman is Chloe H., she works on the 4th floor in the Reclamations department.”

“Oh, shit,” Tejas said. He chuckled once more. “Bet I know what it’s about. Kirkpatrick tagged both of them. I bet they’re fighting about him.”

The two women argued for a few moments longer before Aida reached down to unsheathe a short blade concealed at her ankle. She stood up quickly enough to catch Chloe off-guard and buried the knife in the other woman’s chest.

“Ohhhhh, shit!” Tejas shouted, elbowing me. “Damn, man! Did you see that? That’s why you don’t fuck around with Acquisitions!”

Tejas sprinted away from the window and out among the other desks, most of which were now empty.

“Ohhh shit! Ohhhh shit!” he shouted as he ran. After a few exuberant laps around the office, he stopped to lean on a desk and collapsed into laughter.

I turned my gaze back to the patio. Aida stood over Chloe’s body, still brandishing the knife, breathing heavily. She leaned over to wipe the blade on Chloe’s torso, then slid it back into its hidden sheathe. She stood up, spit on her foe, and turned to walk back inside.

Before she reached the door she stopped, and turned to look up at my window as if sensing my gaze upon her. The window was heavily tinted, but she managed to find my eye nonetheless. There was nothing but grim determination on her face; the steely look of a practiced Acquisitions agent combined with the righteous fury of an avenging lover. Despite my best efforts I found myself sheepishly looking away, unable to meet her gaze. I felt a hand on my shoulder as Tejas sidled up next to me. He was still chuckling.

“Ah don’t worry about her,” he said, giving my shoulder a pat. “But, y’know, keep an eye out.”
K: This story is irritatingly vague most of the way, giving us jobs and titles but no insight. That would be fine if it came together at some point, but in the end I’m left a little cold, with no explanation as to what these characters really do. Furthermore, the climactic moment is played out by two minor characters while the scene focuses on passive onlookers. Why don’t we just watch the girls the whole time? BRONZE
CW: Well I didn’t see that one coming. I’m not sure what the hell is going on with this “company” but it’s obvious that they’re in a different world altogether. I’m pretty sure I don’t want anything to do with Aida either. That bitch scary. I enjoyed this story though. Immensely. – GOLD

——————–

Well, there’s another regular season in the books. The 8th through fifth place finishers will battle now with two moving on; you are highlighted on the spreadsheet if you’re needed. I can’t move cells through the mobile site, which bugs me.

For you four, it will be Sarah Wreisner week. Sea ghosts are too obvious, so the prompt is, as Novak suggested it, to “anthropomorphize some inanimate shit.” You have until next Thursday at 9pm Central and no word limit.

Thanks, those of you who are now done, for playing with us. As always, I hope you were creatively inspired regardless of how you did.

Advertisements