So, this seemed like a fun prompt. We had hits, we had misses…we had me and Novak golding stories that the other gave no points. Well, last week we were almost exactly the same, so we were due.

The prompt was to write about someone who had to keep a part of him or herself secret due to the practices of their culture.

Pete Bruzek

Kathy smiled warmly as her students filtered into the room.

It was always a joy to meet the new school year’s class. She could already see the troublemakers, the cool kids, and the empty worded braggarts. Nothing ever really changed. Each child met her eyes as they walked by…except Erin.

Hello, Erin.

The salutation went unacknowledged. Maybe she wasn’t on the same wavelength.

No matter, Kathy decided, some of the new students were always a little shy. She gave it little thought as she began to write her name on the chalkboard. It was a needless gesture, as the students already knew her name. Still, she liked the personal touch it gave the class. They would be spending a lot of time together, they would share so much, no reason to seem imposing.

She took some time explaining the syllabus, and what she hoped each student would take away from her class. Then the questions poured in.

How do I get your attention? (A simple raised hand will do)

When is it appropriate to give an answer in group think? (A simple raised hand will do)

Can I go to the bathroom? (You should have gone five minutes ago)

Kathy looked around the room, only to notice that Erin had not joined in the discussion yet. Kathy quieted the other children down and walked over to the girl.

Is everything alright?

Erin looked up at her and just stared. She clearly heard her. Why was she being difficult? The student medical forms hadn’t disclosed any…

“What if I want to just…you know…talk?” Erin asked.

Kathy startled, involuntarily taking a step back. That looked bad. She reclaimed her dignity and replied.

Well, Erin, in this class, we will be communicating…

“Speak. Use words.” Erin stared intently at her teacher.

“Erin,” Kathy began, “this isn’t really the place for that.”

“Yeah, but it’s not that hard, is it? Just because we can do all of this,” Erin said, gesturing around to everyone, “doesn’t mean we should be forced to.”

Kathy made a couple of excuses, and the conversation ended. Class let out early that day. It just wasn’t working out. The class couldn’t have disruptions. Later that night, she would began drafting a letter recommending that Erin be moved to a different program.

K: With the italicized conversation, I started to pick up on what was happening fairly quickly, but it was still a fun prompt. It isn’t a very big ending, but I suppose it’s hard to shoehorn in a bigger ending than this. BRONZE

MN – This is a pretty interesting idea. I think I would have liked a more sympathetic character to bring us through – either make us closer to Erin or make Kathy an Erin sympathizer. This prompt, at it’s heart, probably calls for underdog stories, and having us close to someone we can root for is going to help the emotional connection. I very much liked the use of formatting here to get a somewhat challenging idea across with perfect clarity. SILVER

Brendan Bonham

The car hummed to a halt in front of Michael’s building, it chirped the always lively, “Have a good day, Mr. Horton,” as Michael feebly walked through the sliding door.
He took the elevator to the 16th floor, surveying the cityscape outside the huge glass panels. Passing Pete Sheffield in the hallway, Michael nodded a brief acknowledgement, while Pete—with his omnipresent youthful vigor shot back a firm “Hi” before getting back to the screen in his hand.
Even if he was only gone a few hours, Michael never tired of opening his door and entering his apartment. It was the smell. They just made a room smell different, it was the smell of endless years of wisdom that you could touch, feel, read.
Michael perused the wall-wide selection before finally removing one, smiling at it warmly. He returned to his chair and opened it, mouthing quietly to himself, “Call me Ishmael.”
He ran his finger down the margins, feeling the grain of the paper providing resistance against his wrinkled digit. No screen moved, no light emanated from behind the letters.
“Whenever I find myself growing grim around the mouth…”
This was a rare 1975 hard binding he had won at auction shortly before the Environmental Protection Act of 2022 banned the destruction of trees for light industry like book printing or furniture making. There was a row at first, of course, but as more and more of Michael’s generation had died out, he had to confront a simple fact: most of the 22 billion people on his planet had learned to read on some sort of electronic device.
Michael’s phone buzzed in his pocket. He pulled it out; the front desk.
“Hi Mr. Horton,” the man on the other end said,” how are you today?”
“Oh fine,” Michael responded curiously.
“I have a Mrs. Lamonica here to see you.”
“I wasn’t—wasn’t expecting anyone. Lamonica, you say?”
“Yes sir,” the door man affirmed, “a Mrs. Lamonica.”
Michael had few guests, and frankly that’s the way he liked it. He displayed his collection across his wall, and the fewer who knew about it, the better. He hadn’t hosted a dinner party in ages.
“Tell her whatever it is, I’m not interested,” Michael glanced at the door. It was locked. All he heard was quiet mumbling on the other end of the line.
“She—she insists on coming up,” the vocally flustered door man said, “she says she’s with the Environmental Protection Agency.”
Michael’s heart began racing faster than he could remember.
“She’s coming up,” the man on the other side of the phone admitted, “there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Michael coaxed the leather-bound spine and thought of waves crashing.

K: I like this idea, although I wonder if there’s a better way to get across the rules of the new world rather than simply telling us about them. If you suggest the stakes and paint a strong enough picture of the collection, we’ll get it. As it is, the exposition really bogged down the story.

MN – The explanation of this world takes us a bit out of the story – we kind of get it already, so I’m not sure it was needed, though it did add some clarity. Picking a world without books is probably something that’s going to resonate with lots of people, so that was fairly clever. However, why would the EPA require destruction of existing books, or whatever ill-fate awaits our protagonist? The collection of rarities seems like something more to be celebrated, like baseball cards… anyway, that thought unfortunately permeated my read of this.

Annette Barron

Lahoka knelt in front of Mytah two days before battle, presenting corn cake wrapped in leaves with her eyes modestly cast down. Mytah, to his credit, was gentle in his refusal, never once looking my way. I quickly dropped my eyes as Lahoka turned from Mytah, but could not stop my lips from betraying my smug satisfaction. Mytah’s heart belongs to me! We only need to wait one more summer before I can bring him my corn cake and we no longer have to sneak down to the river.

******

The village gathered to see the warriors off. The maidens stood by the weapons hut and readied themselves to receive the Elder’s blessing. Lahoka, kneeling with the others, suddenly stood. “Aaaieee,” she cried and reached beneath her clout. She hurriedly backed away from the others, holding out fingers glistening with blood.

The Elder drew back in horror but Lahoka shook her head. “I have not entered the hut. There is no stain upon the weapons.” She points across the clearing. “Leeta can take my place with the maidens.”

Panic pulls me to my feet. I’m not a maiden! Lahoka’s face tells me she is lying and suspects me but I lower my head and compose my features. To admit my sin is to see me beaten out of the village with sticks, left bloody and broken in the forest for the wild dogs to finish.

Mytah steps forward, mud and paint disguising his kind features. “I will accept Leeta as my weapon maiden in place of Lahoka.” My belly tightens in horror. For a warrior to allow anyone but an untouched female to retrieve his weapons is certain death in battle. His bow will fail, his spear won’t fly true, his knife won’t stay sharp. I want to shake my head “NO!” but fear stills my words in my throat.

Without a word, I join the other maidens kneeling before the Elder, who sprinkles us with river water and prayers. I enter the sacred hut with the other girls, who silently point me toward Mytah’s basket. Crouching before them, I silently pray to the Mother to forgive my trespass and to bring Mytah home to me, despite my sacrilege. But I feel no sense of peace or forgiveness and tears burn like coals in my eyes.

Carefully, I place the battle furs upon Mytah’s broad back and tie the quiver over the top. My fingers linger on his warm skin and he shivers. As I strap his big knife to his thigh, his hand closes over mine for a second and I almost collapse at this feet. “No,” he says firmly.

I stand straight as the warriors leave the village, silently sprinting through the forest. I know Lahoka is watching me and I do not let her see my pain. Mytah’s body will be burned in a pyre far from home because I am a coward.

K: This story did an excellent job of setting up two different and interesting payoffs for this story, and instead it chose to leave us with Mytah’s exit, which was probably a stronger finish than either payoff would have been. The society is drawn strongly, and I’d spend a lot more time with them as they learned whether to embrace or reject their old ways. SILVER

MN – This feels like it could be a completely real world that existed on this planet. Piling on multiple rituals might have been a bit much, and slowly revealing the relationship between Mytah and Leeta in just the second ritual could have been a more effective choice. I love that the world here is one the character really buys into, but that is manipulated by others. That kind of approach is fun, but also hard to write, so kudos for biting off that challenge. BRONZE

erik sunshine

Jermaine opened up the bookmark folder on his browser, and selected the URL at the top. He had done this often enough that he had the keystroke sequence memorized. No need to use the mouse at all.

The online Etsy shop called “Miracle Michelle’s” opened. Photos of a model posing in the various types of vintage and retro fashions popped up as fast as Jermaine’s internet connection allowed. The excitement in his eyes, which was magnified by his thick glasses, swiftly drifted away. No new pictures up yet.

Etsy shop owner Miracle Michelle lived in Fruita, Colorado, according to her profile. She sold sustainable vintage clothes and handmade goods, describes herself as an extroverted introvert, and Jermaine was hopelessly in love with her. He’d never even seen her face.

He assumed the model in the pictures was Miracle Michelle, at least. It seemed like a small operation. She had an impressive selection, which showcased her nimble but tight frame in a number of fashions and poses. However, each photo was cut off at the neck (which he had to admit, was also a very attractive neck).

He’d happened upon her page by accident several months ago while looking for vintage fedoras. The ones she’d had were for ladies in a pink and a deep burgundy (which were modeled by, the irony being lost on him at the time, a blank mannequin head). He went through her whole collection in an hour, adding several Kleenexes to the waste bucket during that time.

She had lean, but sharp curves, shapely hips, and small but firm breasts, of which he fancied he saw the occasional nipple poking through, and all of this splashed out in sassy poses draped in thin avocado green and burnt sienna polyester. Over the next few weeks, 11×17 color printouts of his favorite poses began popping up around his computer after he printed them at work once everyone left.

Still, not one wisp or hint of her face. He’d gone through her whole site top to bottom, and had been obsessively checking for updates ever since. Masturbation proved a bit tricky, as he had no idea what she looked like. He didn’t even know what color her hair was. So, he had to imagine a formless face with generic, swirling feature. It was hard to reconcile.

He mostly focused on the tits and ass.

Once the entire west wall of his studio apartment was covered, he knew couldn’t take it anymore. The mystery had to be solved. A Bing search and $39.99 to a records collector later, Jermaine had the address to which “Miracle Michelle, LLC” in Fruita, Colorado was located. A Bing street map search showed it was a small apartment. It had to be her. And he had to see her face.

The Greyhound dropped off in Grand Junction. A rusty taxi took him over the next 12 miles of uneven pavement. Nervous, Jermaine killed time in a small town diner nearby her apartment, and waited for dark to fall.

It was a quiet, but breezy night. The wind would kick up in long, strong breaths, then bed back down for awhile, the leaves clattering all along.

Jermaine, under cover of darkness, armed with his cell phone camera, slowly crept up to a lit window. There was a small crack in the curtains. Breath held in his chest, he inched his eyes up to the gap.

She sat on the couch, naked and stunning. She had heels on even. Jermaine had an instant erection, but by the angle, he couldn’t quite see her face. His phone slipped from his hand. He leaned to grab it and saw her disappear into the kitchen as he stood up again.

A refrigerator door clanked shut, and she walked back into full view. That stunning body stood in the doorway, beautiful and headless. Miracle Michelle lifted a larger eyedropper and sent a smoothie down her esophagus.

Jermaine’s erection faded, but not as quickly as you might think.

K: Honestly, this is one of the greatest endings I’ve ever read here. You had me absolutely hooked to see this payoff, and I never considered where it ended (even if I should have). The moment had the impact you wanted, and the final stinger is a great stress reliever after the insane climax. I love this so much I could eat it. GOLD

MN – This is an awful lot of build-up for a joke that we kind of see coming. Maybe not so explicit as you make it, but we certainly know there’s something up with that head… The building part of the story could use a buddy who Jermaine trusts for him to plan with, talk to, etc. Not a bad approach, but I think if you’d committed to drama or absurdity more fully this could have hit in either direction.

Melissa Diamond

Betty and Abigail slept now, their faces no longer contorted. They’d screamed and cried, and no matter what their mothers said or did, they wouldn’t rest. Their mothers didn’t understand. That was the problem. Ann did. The moment she laid eyes on the girls in their fits — saw the tears on their faces and the way they hid their bodies under dresses and underskirts and blankets even in the heat of the summer and refused examination — she knew what had happened.

“We need to end this.” Ann’s eyes blazed, her lips set in a hard line.

Elizabeth shook her head. The tears in her eyes welled whenever she glanced at the sleeping girls. Betty and Abigail, neither older than 10. Both the same age that Anne and Elizabeth were when they’d first met the Reverend.

“We tried telling our mothers,” Elizabeth whispered, “and where did that lead us? Right back to the Reverend. Right back to his women, and they were even worse. They were–”

Anne screamed.

Elizabeth put her hands to her ears as the girl screamed and screamed, then fell to the floor. Footsteps pounded down the halls, and Anne’s mother and father ran into the room.

“He’s pricking me!” Anne screamed. “It hurts, Mother, it hurts!”

Elizabeth took a step back, hands over her ears.

***

“At night, I hear them whispering to me. They say to dance with the devil.” Anne’s eyes were hard, black. She stared at the Reverend with a deep hatred, one that was easy to feign for her and Elizabeth.

Elizabeth chimed in. “I saw Goody Olson and I saw Good Osborne. In my dream, they took me into the woods, ’round a fire. They were–” Elizabeth swallowed. “They were naked. There was a man there, and he was so tall, and terrifying, and–”

“He was naked, too,” Anne said. She swallowed back her hatred, her fear, and the detail she went into about the man’s nakedness convinced everyone in the courtroom. They had clearly been in the presence of evil, and it was clear who had guided them there.

***

As the town lead Sarah Olson and Sarah Osborne to the hanging tree, Anne and Elizabeth watched. They hadn’t spoken in days — not to anybody but each other. As far as the townspeople knew, their tongues had been cursed shut and could not be reopened until the witches hanged.

As the women’s necks snapped, and the townspeople gasped, Anne leaned close to Elizabeth. “Do you see the look on his face?” she said, nodding towards the Reverend as he watched his accomplices die. She thought of the look on his face when he’d been on top of her, when he’d forced her to do the things he’d done. When she’d confessed her nightmares and terrors, and he’d done nothing but say it was normal and would end when she was older. Tell no one, he’d whispered, or you’ll never be married to a good man. You are damaged.

“How hard it is for people to listen,” Elizabeth said.

“Only when you tell the truth,” Anne said, and her eyes rested on the dead women. The women had locked the doors, had pretended that everything was just fine for the little girls in the Reverend’s room, and had now become the only thing worse than damaged girls. Witches.

K: The final word is a little extraneous here; this is clearly about witches from early on. As for the meat of the story, it does move rather quickly, and there are a lot of pieces to digest as we spend very little time with each character (there are a lot of them). It’s a pretty good beginning to a longer story about the witches, but I didn’t feel a lot of closure with this one.

MN – I like the Salem approach here. There are probably too many characters though – I think we have the two girls at the beginning, (one of whom has a name that is a shortened form of Elizabeth), Ann (spelt two ways) and Elizabeth, two Sarahs, referred to by last-names both starting with O, and the Reverend, who, despite being the main villain, is spared any evil. A tighter storyline and character list could have helped flesh out the relationships so that there was a deeper impact. I do appreciate how you worked to avoid telling though, and that it all came through plot wise.

Brian David

“Oh, man, it’s been a total nightmare.”

Mark shoved some pasta into his mouth and kept talking.

“They just upgraded the lanes at the Turnpike store, and they completely borked the database.” Flecks of sauce occasionally leapt onto the tabletop. Jackson scrunched his nose and looked sideways at Mark.

“Yeah, um, that’s . . . that’s not surprising, I guess?” Jackson was having a hard time not watching the food roll around in Mark’s mouth. It was like a train wreck.

“Just ask Tim over there,” Mark continued. “Second day on the job, and he got to witness the North Country techs ruin everything.”

Jackson turned towards Tim, who was sitting at the other end of the round lunch table. Tim was staring straight forward, hands on his lap and back straight.

“Um, Tim?”

Tim didn’t blink.

“Hey, Tim!” Mark shouted. “Did you hear anything I said?”

“Oh,” Tim tilted his long, thin face and squinted. “Yes? I think.”

“You look kind of pale there, Tim.” Jackson was thankful to have find something to distract him from Mark’s eating habits. “You gonna’ have anything for lunch?”

Tim blinked once.

“Oh, um, no. I don’t think so.”

Mark, chewing more pasta, pointed his fork at Tim. “Come to think of it, you didn’t eat anything yesterday, either. You on a diet or something?”

“Oh, yes. On a diet.” Tim stood abruptly. “Please excuse, I need to go to the lavatory.”

Tim walked away from the table and quickly slipped into the a nearby men’s room, locking the door from the inside. He looked at himself in the mirror, a few beads of sweat forming across his brow. I loud grumbling sound came from his belly.

Tim stood there silently. Then he cocked his head as if he had heard something and turned his neck sharply. A long forked tongue snapped out of his mouth and flew across the bathroom, latching onto a waterbug that was scurrying across the tile. The tongue slide back into his mouth, and Tim began to chew, crunching loudly.

He turned back to the mirror, a little color returning to his pale face. Tim wiped off the sweat with a paper towel, straightened his tie and tried his best to smile.

K: This is a pretty good introduction to these characters, but having the lizard-man reveal himself by going to the bathroom and eating a bug is a fairly weak payoff in comparison to some other options; if he’s so overcome that he’s eating bugs while the glutton stuffs himself, or if he climbs out onto the balcony and blends in while hunting for prey…I don’t know. It’s a cool idea that just needed a stronger ending. BRONZE

MN – What’s my name? What color is the sky? What of doughnuts? What? For the love of God, tell me!”
“Homer, the sky is blue, doughnuts are plentiful, Friday is TGIF night on ABC. What’s gotten into you?”
“Nothing. Nothing at all. Let’s just eat.”

“Eh, close enough.”
In all seriousness, getting a little closer to Tim instead of the other two would have helped, but what’s there is well-executed. BRONZE.

Brooks Maki

The best super villains are kind of the worst. My most recent discovery was a robbery that he carried out 5 years ago, the disappearance of the jewelry only noticed last night. Believe or not, that’s progress, I’m getting closer and closer to present day crimes.

I stood over the empty safe in the floor, running the scenarios in my head. Where does he go after this? Think like a villain, where can I hide?

It wasn’t exciting police work, it would never make the true crime section, but eventually we tracked him down. When he caught him, he only smirked. “Did you find it?”

He disappeared from his cell that night. Goddamn universe hopping, he got as many worlds as he wanted, no limit. If this one didn’t go his way, he stepped to the next. The only hope was to find the lever that would stick him back in this world.

I searched again and again through the old case files, looking for the gap that would lead to an undiscovered crime. But there was no gap, we had reconstructed his entire career and there was no step unaccounted for.

Somewhere, a small folder slipped a little farther into its hiding place and out of the light. A quiet whisper as it moved pushed a small vibration out that died too quickly to be detected. Still we searched.

K: Is that…really the ending? I felt like something was about to happen, but that something wasn’t the roll of the credits. There are a bevy of commas here, some of which could easily be dashes or semicolons to create a better flow for the story; overused punctuation can be just as tiresome as overused verbiage. I have a feeling this one was going somewhere interesting, but…life intervened? I guess this could be the end of a cliffhanger TV episode, but I hungered for more.

MN – I’m sad this is the truncated story it is because the idea seems first-rate. I like detectives. I like super powers. I like sci-fi world hopping. I would have liked to have seen more here: more plot, dialogue, action and the like.

Zack Sauvageau

When Julia finally sat down on the toilet, it was apparent the awful cramps weren’t from her dinner at that new taquiera. Her body started to shake, and tears poured out of her eyes. She had to fucking pull herself together. This was very, very bad. She needed to get to Sasha, and fast.

As she walked to the mag-lev station, all she could focus on was those spots of blood in her panties. She was thankful she had that emergency menstrual pad in her bag; the rationed ones would know the difference between this blood and menses and she would be immediately convicted of feticide. She still might be if she got stopped by the nightly patrols, so it was important that she draw as little attention as possible. This was difficult given the intensity of the cramps now. She checked the address on the crinkled sheet of paper again, and boarded her train. She just needed to hang on for another 30 minutes.

When she got to Sasha’s building, she rang the buzzer. “I’m Martha’s daughter. She said you would help me if I ever needed gelato.” The security door opened.

Julia knocked lightly on the door, and heard the deadbolts unlocking.

“Were you followed?”

“I… I don’t think so…”

“Are you using one of the government issued pads?”

“No. I had one my mom left me… in case” Julia winced from the pain.

“Oh no… a miscarriage. You poor thing… We’ll need to hurry.”

Sasha took out a thick piece of plastic that looked like a compact but had buttons on it and started talking to people in Spanish. Julia was trying to understand what was going on, but she could barely keep conscious.

When she came to, she heard birds. Or what she thought was birds. She’d never actually heard them before.

“We are somewhere safe now, so we can talk. You said you’re Martha’s daughter?”

“Yes. My name is Julia. Before my mom passed, she said that if I ever had… trouble like this that I could contact you.”

“I haven’t done this in a long time, but I’m not about to let your life be ruined by those pigs in the government.”

“So what happens now?”

“We have a doctor en route. She is going to check you out and make sure this is done safely. And then we will need to dispose of the evidence. All of it.”

“Okay.” Julia sniffled. “This… this isn’t how I pictured this going. I’ve wanted to be a mother my entire life. And now I’m a fugitive.”

Sasha grabbed her hand and squeezed it. “You aren’t going to be a fugitive, dear. We’ll make god damn sure of that.”

K: Well, okay…but why exactly does this group kill her at the end? Given the “All of it” comment as well as the final line, it’s clear they’re going to kill her, but what possible benefit is there to a secret group that pretends to be a safe haven while offing the clientele? Perhaps most importantly, why did Sasha’s mother refer her to this place? This feels a lot like a tacked-on ending that gave no thought to what came before. If the group isn’t actually going to kill Sasha, then the last bit is a little confusing, and there doesn’t seem to be much of an ending at all.

MN – There’s the easy possibility of some politics here, but the story doesn’t get into them, and that’s a smart call. Having to hide a natural process is exactly the kind of thing I thought we might see more of here, and we don’t get belabored (eh? eh?) in the why of the world, just in the plight of the characters. I think you could have dropped the info about Julia’s motherly aspirations earlier, but otherwise this is very strong. GOLD

————————————————

So, Novak and I were in agreement on just about everything besides which story stood out the most. Two people – erik and Zack – scored five points; while Zack’s had a pretty good season, erik has more points overall, and therefore is your sole immunity winner.

Vote for anyone else by tomorrow night at 9pm Central and as often, I’ll try to post from work. Cheers, Survivors.

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