Well, I’ll cut out the drama. With Novak dropping out and Shawn non-subbing again, Kelly has clinched a playoff spot. With one week left, the playoff field of nine is set. The only question now is who gets the byes?

Oh, and we had a quad-gold again.

Joshua Longman

Calvin Redbones sat in his cell, waiting for the dawn.  

He’d dreamt of his mother and the first sin he remembered committing.  When he was 5-years-old back in Sabine he’d killed their dog and she’d sobbed and screamed at him.  That was the only time he recalled her crying.  She’d worked for Mr. Fontenot down at the cathouse and would come home with black eyes, but the only thing that ever made her shed a tear was Calvin’s actions.

Calvin wasn’t sure what was wrong with him.  He’d never cared.  Not when she’d died of syphilis or when his stepfather was killed at her wake.  He’d been yelling at a man in a top hat and curly mustache, even though all the man did was smile.  Some others shot his stepfather down after he drew a gun and fired at him.

Who was he?” Calvin had asked his neighbor.

Mr. Fontenot, child.  Never you mind him, that man is the devil.

One leg dangling from his cot, he looked out the window.  Sun was coming up.  A rooster crowed to herald his death when a door slammed open.  He heard heavy breathing as a deputy trudged into view and rang his club along the bars.

“Rise and shine, Redbones.  Ready for your big day?”

Calvin spat at the ground.  “Fuck, Duvall.  You eat your horse for breakfast?”

The fat man put his keys in the lock and slid open the cell.  “That’s a bad attitude, boy.  Got just the cure for that outside.”  He walked toward Calvin and reached for his cuffs, but they snagged on his belt and fell.  He bent down for them but was halted by a sneeze that damn near made Calvin’s ears ring.  Duvall looked to make sure Calvin hadn’t moved.

“I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

“Good,” Duvall said, hand resting on his revolver.  “Your audience is waiting.”

Outside, several people waited near the gallows as promised.  One threw a rock at him but most of them couldn’t look Calvin in the eye.  As he climbed the stairs and was fit with a noose, the Natchitoches sheriff read off his crimes.  Banditry, rape, murder.  When the sheriff asked if he had any final words, Calvin cracked his neck through the rope.

“Been fun,” he said.

Duvall pulled the lever and the door swung down.  Calvin dropped a few feet and everything snapped black.

——————————————–

The Milky Way was clear and crisp overhead.  Calvin found himself by a raging bonfire in a forest clearing; twigs cracked and popped in the flames and crickets chirped in the grasses.  In front of him a bald man sat with his back to Calvin, facing the heat.  Calvin walked around to look at the man’s face, but no matter the angle all he could see was the back of his head.  So, he sunk down next to him.

“How does death feel?” the man asked.

“No different’n before,” Calvin answered.

“Not yet.  This is a place of ponderment.  Some move on after mere moments while others remain for several lifetimes.  It is different for all.”

“Who are you?”

“You know who I am,” the man replied.  

The crickets took over for a time.  

“I’m supposed to just sit n’ think?”  Calvin said.

“No.  Those not allowed here are resigned to a more tortuous fate.  But first, a chance to repent.”

“Repent?”

“You shall repeat your final day.  Do some good – an apology, a kind word- and escape damnation.”

Calvin made to respond, but the fire went out.

——————————————–

One leg dangling from his cot, Calvin looked out the window.  Sun was coming up.  A rooster crowed to herald his death when a door slammed open.  He heard heavy breathing as a deputy trudged into view and rang his club along the bars.

“Rise and shine, Redbones.  Ready for your big day?”

Calvin paused a moment.   “You got bigger tits than the last woman I got my hands on, Duvall,” he said.  

Duvall’s face went red and he stepped toward Calvin, but dropped his cuffs as he reached for them.  When he made to sneeze Calvin was on him, thumbs in the fat man’s eyes. Duvall’s screams drew the sheriff, but Calvin shot him as he ran through the door.

He glowered at the townspeople and rode out of town, swatting Duvall’s horse all the way to Sabine.  The steed was frothing at the mouth and covered in sweat when it collapsed, so he walked the last bit to Maison Fontenot and pushed through the swinging doors.

He sat down at the bar and a man in a top hat and curly mustache watched him while polishing a glass.  Hadn’t aged a day in 15 years.

“Whiskey,” he said to Fontenot.

“Certainly,” Fontenot replied.  “How will you pay?”

Calvin grinned.   “How ’bout a soul?”

B: So a literal deal with the devil. Nice. The ending was foreshadowed almost too well, but I dug the characters and the atmosphere. GOLD

BD: Is it wrong of me to be frustrated that this isn’t perfect? It gets so close! First of all, that is easily the best opening line of the season.Then the rhythm is immediately thrown off by too much exposition and too many ambiguous pronouns (half the time when the writer used ‘he’ or ‘she’, I had no idea which character was being referenced). The rest of the story moves forward in a similar fashion; brilliant, atmospheric moments interspersed with occasionally awkward dialogue or unnecessary explanations (the mysterious man’s entire last line could go, for instance). Regardless, the story is great and I was thoroughly entertained. GOLD

Gilman: The most impressive thing about this story is the repeat-a-day mechanism. I guess “mechanism” is a bit dismissive; it’s actually a very clever, and very well handled idea. That section of the story is what I enjoyed the most, frankly; the rest of it seemed fashioned to match the sociopathic demeanor of the protagonist. Which can be interesting for a time, but it didn’t sell me on Calvin’s deciding to actually do some good in his repeated day. BRONZE

Pete: Man, does Calvin even have one to hand over at this point? I love the atmosphere of the first day, the second half feels a bit rushed, but it’s definitely still a net positive. GOLD

Brendan Bonham

Father O’Malley slipped in his clerical collar and he ducked into the confessional. Should he see the doctor? Two days of waking up late wasn’t very much like him.

“Forgive me Father, for I have sinned,” the voice opposite the screen was immediate as he sat.

“And how long since your last confession?”

“About this time last year.”

Father O’Malley listened, ticking off the boxes. Venal, venal, venal—all small potatoes in the eyes of The Lord. But, he listened; a good shepherd must tend to his flock.

“I’ve—I’ve,” the woman’s voice on the other side dropped to a whisper, “been cheating on my husband.” O’Malley snapped back to attention.

“Yes?”

“With my friend’s…” she paused, “Oh, hell. Sorry. With my husband’s sister’s husband.”

It wasn’t the immorality of the sin that stole Father O’Malley’s breath from his lips. The acrobatic evil of that particular affront just didn’t happen, but it happened yesterday. He glanced at his watch. It read the 14 th . Yesterday was today.

He felt faint. Father O’Malley pinched himself on the thigh hard enough that he couldn’t help but let out a squeak.

“Father?”

“Yes, excuse me.” He went on, barely there. The rote back-and- forth of penance and absolution continued as he suffocated under the weight of a reeling mind. She exited lightened, less worried. His burden heavier than he’d ever felt.

Was his Lord testing him? Merely a sign? Surely there was a deeper meaning to this—that he was chosen by God to fulfill a duty that only he could accomplish. Think—what happens later today? Father O’Malley wracked his brain as he absentmindedly foisted forgiveness on his congregation—he’d already forgiven them once, after all. Then the numbers hit him: 14-22- 31-26.14-22- 31-26: The evening news tonight. The lotto. He’d never played, doesn’t watch, doesn’t care. But last night—the numbers shone bright in his mind.

He finished his final penance, flicked off the queue light and exited the confessional to the Beatrix sisters. He’d absolved them yestertoday, too.

“Father?” Pamela looked concerned.

“Sorry ladies, I’m not feeling well.” He stumbled past, not making eye contact.

O’Malley donned his coat as he stepped outside. St. Mark’s Church was up on 18 th , and Father Reynolds hosted a lunchtime confession at 11:30.

As he walked north, Father O’Malley pondered the implications of his revelation. Did Proverbs 12:11 not say “Wealth gotten by vanity shall be diminished”? Certainly gambling, especially with the alms given by his parish, was wrong. But then again, if the outcome is given, then is it truly gambling?

And what of the use of the winnings? He would keep none for himself, of course. Only a new blazer, perhaps. His parish could use the funds—a new roof, a helping hand for the Thompson widow and her two sons. But tonight’s winner? He hadn’t caught the name—would he be taking from the poor to feed the hungry? Who was he to decide the fate of others, or was the revelation God’s will acting through him? Was—was he delusional?

Oh, Lord, what if he was delusional? For ever Joan of Arc there is a Daniel Paul Schreber. And if God was speaking to him, who would believe him, anyway? How would he get the funds into the account? A lump sum and an anonymous donation, he supposed. He’d feel like such an idiot standing there on the stage, accepting a check he’d anonymously donated. But, should it be God’s will…

He ducked into St. Mark’s and bee-lined to the confessional.

“Forgive me Father,” he kneeled, “for I have sinned.”

“And how long since your last confession?”

“3 days.”

“Wow!” Father Reynolds chirped, “That’s a good Catholic.”

“Oh, I hope so.”

O’Malley began by rattling off some easy ones—the various improprieties of everyday life.

“Father,” O’Malley finally dragged each syllable from his mouth inch by inch, “I’ve found myself becoming covetous.”

“Of what, my son?”

“Of wealth—money.”

“And have you acted on these impulses?”

“I’ve—that’s why I’m here. It’s—is gambling, well, not really. I don’t know.”

“I’m not sure what you’re saying,” Father Reynolds sounded even more confused than that.

“Is gambling a sin?”

“Well, yes.”

“And if it is with other peoples’ money?”

“More so.”

“And the outcome. I know the outcome.”

“Then yes, this is immoral.”

“But what if I’m pretty sure that this is a sign from—from God?”

There was a long silence.

“I can forgive you for your thoughts,” Reynolds reasoned, “But not for actions you didn’t commit. This is between you and our Lord.”

The two sat in silence another moment before concluding the sacrament.

Father O’Malley turned left up the block, still uncertain. There was a gas station 2 blocks ahead. A lonely $5 bill blew up the street.

B: I like the theme here quite a bit. Definitely unexpected. But we spend so much time in O’Malley’s thoughts, with question after question popping into his mind, that I feel like I’m being force fed the story rather than letting me experience it. BRONZE

BD: The build up here is good. I mean, really good. The protagonist’s steady realization, followed by the ‘heavier than he ever felt’ line, is perfect dramatic tension. Then, much like Father O’Malley, this story loses its way. The lottery plot is too inconsequential, to be honest. And while O’Malley’s internal struggle is well written (in fact, all the prose here is beautiful), it goes on too long. The entire section with Reynolds feels extraneous, but then we get a superb ending. Even more so than the last story, this entry is hurt because it was so close to being sublime. SILVER

Gilman: A very readable, somewhat compelling series of moral quandaries set forth here, and I enjoyed pondering them along with the main character. It’s refreshing to see a moral time-travel dilemma that doesn’t hinge on the possibility of really screwing up the timeline. But the restrictions of ending the story where the author did was unhelpful. I don’t know if it rises to the level of being an actual story instead of just a moral hypothetical. BRONZE

Pete: “The acrobatic evil of that particular affront”. I’d cry “purple!” if I didn’t love that bit of wordsmithing so. I like the internal struggles of this priest. I like even more the slightly ambiguous ending. GOLD

Margaret Martin

Mathias dreamed he was back home in bed, the sound of little pigs squealing happily as Ma rattled the spoon in the slop bucket.

He opened his eyes to see hardwood beams overhead.

He sat straight up with a jolt. He was home! He heard Ma calling, “Ztloustnout! Come and get fat!”

Was it a dream? He remembered with growing dread his trip eastward, the flames roaring behind him, the cloying smoke of burning sugar bush blinding him as he pressed hard, so hard, for Lake Michigan.

He jumped up and pulled on his boots, running for the yard. “Maminka! Maminka!”

She turned, his beautiful mother, her headscarf blowing in the dry wind, and his heart cracked inside his chest.

He had seen her lifeless body draped over the fence, her escape cut short by smoke and angry flame. Those two piglets had died in a sack on her back. He had seen it! It was no dream. Whose depraved mind could imagine that?

He fell to his knees, weeping, and Anna set her chin on his curly head. “Mathias! Every son leaves his mother. I cried like this when I left Babicka to come all the way to this country. But you aren’t going so far.”

“Ma, no!  I… I… dreamed that I left for Kewaunee today. We fed the animals, had some lunch, you gave me cheese and kolache for the journey.”

She chirped merrily. “Yes, Mathias! I will give you kolache!”

“No Maminka, listen! After I left, ash fell from the sky like snow. Then the wind blew and a fire chased me. I ran! I ran all the way to the lake! I stood up to my neck in the water to stay alive. There were so many people there. And animals. The animals went there too.”

He shivered, remembering the cold water around him, the poisoned air in his face, the coughing and crying, the terrified raccoons and deer. He remembered the stink, the cold night air.

“It must have been a dream, but Maminka, it was real.”

“Ano, Mathias. This year the land is dry and the trees are burning. The air smells of smoke. This was in your mind as you slept.”

Mathias nodded slowly. “In the dream, I came back in the dark of night to find you. But you were all dead! There.” He pointed at the fence where they had been hanging.

“You are afraid, my son. Afraid of your work in the lumber camps. Afraid you will be lost to us forever as your Otec and I were to our families. A mind of fear gives fearful dreams.” She leaned down and kissed his head.

He inhaled deeply. “You are right, Maminka. How could it have been real if we are still here now?”

He allowed himself to search for hope where last night, in terror and grief, he had found none.

He looked west through the hazy, yellow sky. The dry air always smelled of smoke and pine. There were always fires in the forest. He turned to his mother and smiled.

She patted his hand. “This Maminka will remember your tears of love, Mathias. But now get to the shed and do some work, or you won’t have kolache for your long walk.”

He spent the rest of the morning working, and after lunch, he picked up his pack and began his trip south.

Several hours later, white ash began to snow down upon him, thinly at first, but soon thickly.

It was no dream!

Mathias turned and raced northward, choking on the dry, ashy air.

But soon he had to give up. The wind had picked up, and in time, the fire would beat him and burn him too. Sobbing for his dead family, loudly cursing his devil’s dream, he stumbled toward Lake Michigan.

Back in Brussels, Anna M’leziva looked up as the gray sky rained ashes.

It was no dream!

She ran into the house, Mathias’s story ringing in her ears.

She called for her husband and children, shouting half in English half in Czech as she raced around the house gathering food and water and carefully wrapping Babicka’s precious glassware in scarves.

They barely understood her, but they knew fire. They quickly gathered their things and followed her outside. She grabbed the piglets and shoved them into a sack.

She paused at the gate.

“Which way, Maminka?”

Anna looked east. They usually went toward the Lake. But that was the direction Mathias’s long finger had pointed out their deaths. She grabbed Marie’s hand and turned west.

“To the bay. We’ll stand in the water up to our necks and live.”

Turning her head back to the east, she whispered into the dry wind, “Dekuji, Mathias, for your angel’s dream.”

B: Another cool twist, leaving the protagonist helpless and then switching back to their loved one. I love going back in time in stories. I’m thinking early to mid 19th century Wisconsin here? Either way, a beautiful world. GOLD

BD: So this is how it’s going to be this week, eh? Jesus, these stories are good. The first half is fine, though I would say there are no real fireworks. But it’s followed by the best payoff of the week so far. Having the mother be the one to realize what was going on was a great twist to the prompt, and it brought me to the edge of my seat. Great stuff. By the way, I love Ztloustnout! Where did you get that name? GOLD

Gilman: It was tough to find a way into this story at first, with the uncertain setting and language increasing the oddness of a character repeating a day-slash-dream. Eventually I got pulled in, though, when the purpose of the device was made clear. Even if I don’t quite grasp how every future echo fits in with its past equivalent, it wound up being a really inspired reason for the prompt to have purpose. And it was never sledgehammered against the reader, which is always a good thing. GOLD

Pete: The dichotomy is good. The Czechness of it is good. “It was no dream!” is not great (twice!). Sad that Matthias won’t know about it for a long time, if ever. GOLD

Christina Pepper

“Carter, I’m gonna lose it.”

He looks up at me with a wide grin.

“I know I say this every day, but today I really mean it. I’m putting you back in your crib and you’re going to stay there and you’re going to have a nap.”

I snatch him up in my arms and haul him to his room, stepping over scattered toys along the way. Didn’t I clean those up at some point last night? God, I’m so tired I don’t even know anymore.

I plunk Carter down in his crib. “It’s naptime, honey. Lay down and go to sleep.”

He stands up, gripping the crib rail with both hands. I walk out. He wails.

Not this again. Yesterday was awful, and I can hardly believe it’s just as bad today. He threw his cereal across the room at breakfast, he whined all morning, and it was too rainy to get out to the playground.

I collapse onto the couch. Same damn scene as yesterday. Nasty yellow walls, stained carpet, toys and Cheerios everywhere. I know I should do something about it–Michael is going to give me that disappointed look when he gets home–but all I want to do is curl up under a blanket. If only my kid would fall asleep.

My phone buzzes.

Looks like I’ll be working late tonight. Go ahead and have dinner without me.

Before I can stop myself, I text back: Again???

His answer: What are you talking about?

What does he mean, “what are you talking about?” Jerk.

Never mind, I type. Not worth fighting over. I thought his big presentation was today, but maybe something changed.

Carter is still screaming. At least he hasn’t climbed out again–yet. I cover my ears with my hands to try to block out the sound, at least momentarily.

Yesterday he climbed and he climbed and he climbed and after I locked him in his room, he finally fell asleep on his floor for an hour. I don’t want to be that. I don’t want to do that. But why can’t he just sleep when he’s tired?

At least since it’s rainy again, the windows are closed so none of the neighbors can hear the crying. God. We already get enough weird looks as it is. Don’t need them thinking I’m a child abuser too.

Grandmother always used to talk to me about Martin. Things he said in different speeches and sermons. She used to drag Momma around to all that kind of stuff when she was a girl.

“Lovin’ your neighbor is a lot easier than lovin’ those in your own house,” Grandmother would tell me. If only I could remember what she said to do about it. Or maybe she didn’t say?

How the hell did Grandmother raise six kids and live through so much crap and still stay as sweet as anything? Fat lot of good it did her, though. She’s is in a nursing home clear on the other side of town; she hardly recognizes anyone anymore. Momma’s breaking her back working to pay those bills.

Thump.

There goes Carter. He strides out of his room, looking pleased as all get out.

“Here I am!” he declares.

“Oh Carter, baby,” I take him into my arms.

“No sleep, mama,” he tells me.

“I know,” I say, holding him closer. “Hey baby, you want to go on a ride?”

“We go car ride?”

“Yeah,” I say. “Let me just pack your diaper bag. We’re gonna take a drive and go see your great-grandmother.”

“Okay,” he claps his hands. “Go, go, go!”

“Yeah baby,” I sigh. “Let’s take a break from everything and just go, go, go.”

B: A nice little slice of life. It hits the expected beats. I wish I knew a bit more about great-grandma to give this more emotional impact, but the sentiment is solid. SILVER

BD: It’s stories like these that make me realize that parenthood has turned me into a softie. This is beautiful, and I’m starting to think that every story is going to be gold-level this week. The slow, steady dirge of parenthood can indeed feel like you’re repeating the same day over and over. It’s lovely to see this character shake herself out of that mindset and find the beauty in those moments. GOLD

Gilman: I could line up a few knocks against this piece for overlooking the prompt a bit, but it’s actually a pretty smart idea to push it to the background and not make it the hinge upon which the story swings. Instead of The Twilight Zone, we get this charming little slice of life, and how to temporarily escape from it, especially when every day feels the same. I appreciated that the author went where they did. SILVER

Pete: I feel like this lags in the middle a little. The beginning and ending feel right, the middle feels expository. SILVER

Kelly Wells

It occurred to Grady, who’d been sitting alone in Scene Studies 201 for twelve minutes, that nobody else might be coming. It certainly had been quiet on the roads for a Monday morning, and although Scene Studies was a dreaded eight o’clock class and there weren’t a lot of those on campus, it had felt pretty dead on his walk to the Performing Arts Center.

So he’d forgotten that there was no class this morning, apparently. It was probably a patriotic holiday. Grady always forgot about those.

It was just as well. Last night’s party had been…something.

———————————————————-

It occurred to Grady, who’d been sitting alone in Stage Makeup for nine minutes (his patience had lessened considerably in the last couple of hours) that nobody else might be coming. He walked out to the common area, enjoyed a couple more minutes of solitude and was jerked out of his daydream – something about winning an Oscar but refusing it on some moral ground about not being in competition – when his phone received a text.

He didn’t want to look. Last night’s action had been embarrassing.

Luckily, it wasn’t Brandi. It was Ted.

Dude where are you? Not like you to rise early, we should go bowling since your up

First, because Grady was a dick:

*You’re

Then:

Haha bowling again?

A series of texts revealed to Grady that Ted had no recollection of bowling yesterday. Grady headed out to the alley, and was granted the special Sunday noon hour rate, which convinced Grady that yesterday hadn’t happened to the degree that he thought it had. This was…comforting.

————————————————————-

“So is this Brandi thing happening?”

“Ted, I’m working on a Turkey here,” Grady said as he stepped to the arrow to the right of center and lifted his ball. The Turkey happened, as it had the first time they’d had this conversation.

“I mean, you know what I mean.”

“I know what you mean. But she has an ugly past and she’s tentative and she has a problem with it sometimes and yes I know she’s hot and there are way more things to consider.”

“Dude. Every guy -”

“Would die for it. I know. I’m not trying to be every guy.”

————————————————————–

The party happened, as it had the first time. Grady and Brandi had been “kinda talking” for a while, and a game of Fact, Fiction, Fantasy, Flip had forced them into a quiet side room where they were officially expected to “make use of the time” and more likely were being pressured to finally close the deal.

Brandi sat back on the edge of the bed, and tried to look alluring. Though she was beautiful, she really didn’t know what she was doing. In that moment the first time, Grady had become consumed by animal lust; this time, he realized that he loved her.

“I want to do something for you,” she said. “I’m not going to be weird.”

Grady hopped on the bed, more playfully than last time, and rested his head on his hand at the pillow. “Yeah you are,” he said, “and that’s fine. I can’t change what happened to you when you were young but I can keep from making it worse.”

Brandi didn’t know whether to cry or laugh, so she chose the latter. “Oh my God. Holy SHIT, thank you,” she said. She flipped over and rested her chin on his chest and looked up at him. The next hour’s conversation was the same bull session that every young couple experiences, but all the same, it was new and exciting to both of them.

Grady didn’t lose his virginity this time, but they did kiss for a while. Tomorrow, Brandi would know Grady was still a virgin and everyone else would believe he wasn’t. Grady himself wouldn’t be sure, as he wasn’t sure if the first time even counted.

They sat up as their hour alone in the room expired. The first time, Grady had told Brandi he loved her and she knew he was lying; this time, he didn’t say it but she knew that he did.

B: Cute story. While I buy the change of plan…shifting from a base sexual response to a more affectionate lets-get-to-know-each-other plan, I just don’t buy that Grady suddenly loves for realsies after just one day. While I get that kids fall in love at the drop of a hat (I was one of them) this is even faster than I can swallow. BRONZE

BD: I continue to be impressed with the prose this week; it is all very refined. This story has a ton heart, but it suffers from a couple things: first, that it was preceded by some of the best stories of the season; and second, there a few things here that are simply too implausible. Most notably, the whole idea that Grady was okay with taking advantage of Brandi the day before, but today he actually loves her.  Umm, sure. Still, this has an entertaining American Pie feel to it, which I mean in a good way. BRONZE

Gilman: Oh, come on…that last paragraph? It’s utterly saccharine, trite, moony-eyed, swooningly cliched….and masterfully effective. Great instincts about where to let this prompt drive you, and how to handle it. A few nice chuckles at the beginning before things really sink in for our protag, and then an opportunity to really get some good done in the world, and for two people in the world. Lovely. GOLD

Pete: The destination is good, and the path isn’t so bad, but something about the dialog takes me out of it. It’s realistic enough, it’s just awkward in a way that I don’t totally enjoy. I do like Grady’s change of heart – it feels natural and unforced. SILVER

Annette Baron

Cassandra reluctantly opened her eyes, wishing she could remain asleep just a while longer.  Gingerly, she uncurled from the fetal ball she had fallen asleep (finally) in.  No pain.

Furrowing her brow, Cassandra sat up and pushed back the covers.  Her legs should have been covered in bruises (dark purple fingerprints).  They were smooth and unblemished instead. Cautiously, she reached between her legs.

“Cassandra!  Hurry up, you’re running late!”

***

Her mother insisted she go to school.  “I’m sorry you had such an awful, vivid dream,” she’d murmured soothingly, stroking Cassandra’s hair back. “But you have that calculus test and it’s 25% of your grade. It’ll pass.”  

With no evidence to the contrary, Cassandra began to doubt.

***

Cassandra moved her backpack so Julia could flop down on the bus seat beside her.  “Mom tried to give me toast again today.  I keep telling her I’m not eating carbs in months with an R in them!”  Julia flipped her bangs out of her eyes.  “What? What’s wrong?”

“You said that to me yesterday.”

“What? No, I didn’t.”

Cassandra explained and Julia, to her credit, didn’t laugh. “But why would I leave you alone with Mr. Stokes?  Everyone knows he’s a perv.”

“Danny asks you to go to Five Guys with him, so you were already out the door by the time Mr. Stokes asked me to stay.”

“SHUT UP!”  Julia grinned. “Now I know you were dreaming!”  She nudged Cassandra with her elbow to take the sting out of her doubt.  “Seriously, Cassandra, you know you’re just having that french thing, right?”

“Deja vu?  Maybe.  Just promise you won’t leave me!  No matter what.”

“I got you.”

***

Cassandra zipped through her calculus exam.  It was, after all, extremely familiar. Dread built in the pit of her stomach and she didn’t eat her pasta at lunch (she’d thrown it up last night).

Before drama class, Danny awkwardly asked Julia out and startled, Julia agreed but added that she’d meet him at his car after she did some stuff. Both girls were shaken as they took their seats, but Julia rubbed her arm.

Mr. Stokes was red-eyed and sullen. He smelled of listerine and body odor, as usual. The rumor was that Mr. Stokes sat in his car at lunch and drank from mini bottles.  Mrs. Stokes was a flight attendant for American Airlines and wasn’t home much.

The class broke into three groups to resume work on their dramatic shorts.  The AV guys were coming to film them and this was the last day for script tweaking.  Cassandra and Julia were distracted; sneaking glances at Mr. Stokes as he sat at his desk, cleaning his fingernails with scissors and ignoring the students.

The bell rang and Cassandra hurried to collect her backpack.

“Cassandra, I need to speak with you for a moment.” He strolled toward her.

“Sorry, Mr. Stokes, I’m in a hurry.”

“It’ll just take a moment.” His voice was firm.

“I’ll just wait for you in the hall Cassandra.”  Julia’s voice was strained and unnaturally loud and Mr. Stokes frowned.  Julia’s sister, Liza, appeared abruptly in the doorway.

“Julia!  MOM! Come now!” Julia took in Liza’s tearstreaked face and bolted for the door.  Liza took off running, babbling to her sister as they thundered down the hall.  Cassandra’s shoulders slumped as she realized she was (once again) alone with her teacher.

“I should go with them.”

Mr. Stokes closed the door.  “Sounds like a family problem to me.”

Cassandra dropped her backpack.  “What did you need to see me about?”

“You’re missing several assignments.”

“I’ve turned everything in,” she said hopelessly and moved to his desk, ostensibly looking for her assignments in his piles of paper. Just like the last time, she just barely beat him there and he grabbed her long hair, wrenching her head back and whirling her around.

She inhaled to scream and his heavy hand slammed down across her mouth as he pushed her down onto the desk.  Today she was wearing tight jeans (not a skirt) and he fumbled with the fastener as she clawed at his face. Grimacing, he slapped her, very hard.  “Quiet!” he hissed, slapping her again, “Or I’ll stuff your underwear down your throat.”

His hands ripped at her jeans, digging painfully between her legs and wrenching her legs apart as she kicked and pulled at his hands.  When she felt his fingers tear at her underwear, she relaxed in defeat and flung her arms out wide. He leaned over her, fumbling at his fly.

She punched the scissors into his left kidney and he stiffened, then slumped, face tucked into her neck like a sleepy toddler.

“I really tried not to kill you again,” she whispered to his relaxing body.

B: I think this one needs about 400 more words and a bunch of editing. Run-on sentences and inappropriate punctuation gets in the way. And we’re told about things in parentheticals that would come off better by showing rather than telling. I do like that despite the fact that she had been raped already, her goal was not to kill him the second time around; her humanity shines through a bit. BRONZE

BD: This is an oppressive read. For the majority of the story, you get the sense that Cassandra simply cannot escape her fate. Of course, it turns out this is exactly the point, and I love how this story is both everything you expect it to be and yet not. Another fantastic entry. SILVER

Gilman: The author makes no attempt to hide what’s being built up here, but we’re not spoon-fed anything either. The inevitable conflict is unflinching and raw, and it feels like we’re built up to expect what happens just as Cassandra does, having lived through it before. The final reveal at the end is a small surprise, but a good choice overall I think. I felt a little like I was being led down a path of predestiny, and that pulled some of the tension out of the piece for me. SILVER

Pete: I figured pretty early on that Cassandra’s name was no accident. Mr. Stokes is evil as all get out, obviously. I don’t know that it all translates to a gripping story, but the scissors to the kidney is cathartic. BRONZE

Abby Stansel

My alarm clock rings. Ding. Ding. The sound jolts me from the soundness of my sleep to the room I lay in. The same dream? Two nights in a row? Odd.

Then I raise my phone and panic fills me. What? How can it be the same day as yesterday?

Maybe my phone has broken?

I don’t check the calendar. Audrey is crying in the next room, her screams filling the air. I go to her, rocking her as she whimpers.

Breakfast is toast and eggs. I sit June down to dinner as Marina rocks Audrey to sleep. I am terrified. What is happening to me. Wind blows the curtains away from the sink, and I flip the eggs.

The bus ride goes as usual. It shakes me and bounces me as we struggle down the road.

Suddenly, hands strike the side of my head as they slam me into the window. I cry out as the hands pin me against the window and seat. I writhe, panic striking my body from every corner of my existence as I strike out at him. The hands release me and I crawl away, terrified, into a ball in the corner of the seat.

I hear their words. What is happening? This is yesterday how can it be tomorrow. I am confused. What did I do? I try to block them out but the words flood back over me, cascading into a wave of fear. The backdrag is as strong as the tide.

“R*tard.” They call me. “Freak. Such a stupid brat.”

I dig my nails into my arm. They are bitten mostly down, but I dig them in so deep that they still draw blood. This happened yesterday. How. How. I don’t understand. What is happening to me.

When the bus pulls up, I run. An elbow slams into my spine, knocking me to the floor. I scrabble to get away, hands lashing out for any handhold and finally I am at the door.

I duck around two corners, my body knowing where I am going before my head does. I finally slip into the bathroom, slump against a wall gasping for air that doesn’t want to come.

My head feels like I am in a lightning storm. Every ounce of my body is on edge, my thin shoulders trembling from every emotion that is weighing my soul down.

They find me. Somehow, they find me. Two of them grab my shoulders, pressing me slowly harder and harder against the wall until my body feels like it is going to break as I writhe within their grip. A few punches to my stomach later, and it’s over.

I know I can’t go into classes today. I pray that nobody misses me. Not like I have friends to notice my lack of being here. Wait. I do. I have one. But she…she…

All I can think about is yesterday, today, tomorrow, whatever this is. Stepping out of the building to find her body when I Was cutting class to get away from them. Her limbs, twisted at every angle. My screams fill my body until I realize that that isn’t a memory, my lungs are empty of air from my cries.

I can’t stop thinking about it. My mind doesn’t want to but my body decides we have to. I take the latter to the roof. The one that says, no unauthorized personnel.

When I reach the roof, I crouch, back against the side of the building. I am terrified. What am I supposed to do? What if she doesn’t come? The fear in me is what overwhelms me. I scramble away, crouching out of sight from where I saw her.

Suddenly, the door opens. Taking a deep breath, I step forward and grab her shoulder. I don’t think she saw me. But now, I know she does because I am face to face with her.

Her eyes show nothing but fear.

“Please.” I whisper. “Please, please.” She shakes her head.

“I can’t do it Ash.” She whimpers. “I can’t let them beat me.”

I shake my head. “Then don’t. They want you to die. THIS would be letting them win.” She hesitates, shakes her head, and runs towards the side of the roof. I push off with every ounce of my body. I strike her half a stride away from her reaching the side. My jaw digs into the ground.

I hear them coming. She strikes against me, but I don’t let her go. I can’t.

The teachers grab us both, separating us. Finally, I release her and watch them restrain her as I slump against the wall.

“I did it.”

B: Yay, happy ending! This one could also use a lot of editing. Also, the awful experience our narrator goes through feels rushed so I don’t have time to really take in how awful it is. BRONZE

BD: This reminds me, in a way, of story 4; it illustrates how certain experiences can feel like they are repeating over and over again. In this case the experience is bullying, which makes this an extremely dark read. There are many well written, gut wrenching moments here, but everything is so narrowly confined to one character’s perspective that it makes it hard to grasp the full scope of the tragedy. For instance, lines like ‘They find me’ lack a certain power when ‘they’ are never defined in any way whatsoever. The people who commit these awful acts are not faceless phantoms, they’re humans with some sort of motivation no matter how incomprehensible. Stories like these become truly powerful when they embrace that. On a side note, there is no need to censor the word ‘retard’ in this context; a brutal story needs brutal words. BRONZE

Gilman: I’m sorry but this story is just terribly confusing. Probably terribly confused too. The first five paragraphs seem like refugees from a completely different story, one where one is set down to dinner when breakfast is being made. Then there’s a lot of violence, and not much to anchor yourself to as the assailants pass by, nameless and faceless enough that they could be phantasms or they could be real. And then there’s a suicide? A suicide that needs to be prevented? A previously unmentioned friend? I don’t know. But whatever is going on, it’s better than a non-sub, so: BRONZE

Pete: It took me a couple reads to figure out what exactly happens in the last couple of paragraphs. Once I sorted through all of that, it’s pretty decent . A little direct in the narration, maybe. BRONZE

Melissa David

She woke up.  Her heart thudded in her chest, but the fear didn’t stop her.  The confusion of waking up at all didn’t stop her.  She rolled to the left.

The axe hit the bed, and she hit the floor.  Like yesterday, but…what the fuck?  

He was screaming now.

She pulled herself up from the floor, thoughts tumbling in her mind and then pushed away by the burn in her abs, the bend of muscles in her thighs, as she stood up without the use of her arms.  The rope fibers burned and tore at her wrists behind her back. She didn’t know what the fuck was happening, but she couldn’t let the pain slow her down.  Not this time.

Head down, she ran.  The axe flew overhead, hit the wall with a thunk.  She spun around, grabbed the doorknob behind her with her hands, twisted it open, then turned and kicked it open with her foot.  She could’ve looked then, could’ve tried to figure out who she was, but that had never worked before.  The darkness hit instead, and she woke up again, as cold and scared as ever.

Full speed, she barreled down the dark hallway, tripped, hit the wall with her shoulder . It hurt, but not as much as it should have.  Her weight knocked a picture off the wall.

“You’re not getting out of here, Elisa,” the man shouted behind her.

He’d said that yesterday, too, and she hadn’t gotten out of here.  She’d run through the kitchen.  The backdoor had been open.  She’d headed out that door, and another man had appeared.  He’d…he’d…

She switched direction, ran into the living room instead of the kitchen.

An axe flew towards her.  Pain seared through her head.

And then the pain was gone.

B: A nice little action scene and I was hoping one of you would have our protagonist fail on the second day. I think you had enough words left over where you could have shown us both scenes. That would have allowed you to do more showing and less protagonist thought bubbling. SILVER

BD: This is a swift, harsh tale. The writing is good and I like the hyper idealized horror-movie-hell atmosphere. My main issue is that the only reason I understand what is going on at all is because I know the prompt, which keeps this from feeling like a complete story all its own. BRONZE

Gilman: This is essentially just a little bit of a thrill-ride, but it nags at me that the story suggests this isn’t the first/won’t be the last time that Elisa experiences this day of torture-porn. And that’s kinda sorta against the rules of the prompt. Still, it’s got bite to it, and the author certainly knows how to keep the adrenaline ratcheted up while not skimping on details and vivid descriptions. BRONZE

Pete: I was wondering if someone would go the “you can’t change fate” route. This one is fairly hellish, but it drops us SO in medias res that we don’t really have any time to figure out who Elisa is and why we should care about her predicament (other than the obvious). BRONZE

Bret Highum

Elein jerked awake, throwing his blanket to the side.  His mouth was foul and dry, and his stomach curdled. Panting and sweaty, he leaned over and vomited onto the worn stones of the ruin where they’d camped.  He didn’t notice the snoring soldiers next to him or the familiar sounds of the army bivouac until his gut finally unclenched and he could roll over onto his back, spent and groaning.

It was… it was yesterday.  The morning of the battle.  The day he died.  And everything was exactly as he recalled it, from the cursing groomsman checking the cavalry mounts to the distant sounds of the woodcutters gathering logs for the siege engines.

The attack would be coming, the cruel dark riders in their silver armor, the bloodwood war wagon with the wizard inside, a slight figure in sable robes and long staff that issued blasts of energy and fire.  He knew that, just as he knew that he had last closed his eyes as a spell had rolled across the bloodied meadow and hit him in a flurry of purple sparks.  His consciousness had spiraled into darkness.  Elein knew he had died.  And now he knew he wasn’t dead.  How he had ended up back in his bedroll in last night’s encampment maybe didn’t matter.

Elein woke his squad leader, a taciturn twenty-year vet with a wrist-thick braid of gray-brown hair.  She came awake without a noticeable transition.

“Sarge?” Elein wasn’t sure how to broach the subject without sounding crazy, and his voice broke.  “Sergeant Parrsson?  I’ve got something- I’ve got a bad feeling.”

Sarge had seen a lot in her twenty years in the army.  Elein was dependable, but he wouldn’t be the first solid veteran she’d had break down on her.

“What are you blabbering about?” Sarge demanded.  “You’re up early, you can either start breakfast or go relieve Tows on watch.  I don’t want to hear any superstitious bullshit.”

Elein wavered, the flame-lit hell of his dying memories fading like a nightmare when faced with his ingrained discipline.  He turned and collected his gear, arguments building in his mind and toppling over like a castle made of children’s blocks.  Moving from rote, he strapped on his harness and picked up the shield, eyes staring without seeing- until a flash of purple sparking deep within a spiral carving caught his eye.  Elein shouted in terror and flung his shield up, between him and the oncoming death he’d seen before.

“Loony bastard,” grumbled Mench from under his blanket.  “Whyn’t you shut it and let us sleep while we can?”

Elein glared at Mench, remembering how the older man had twitched and and flailed out in the grass as the purple sparks had lashed around his body.  Mench couldn’t hold Elein’s eye, seeing something there that seemed cold and dead as the ashes of last night’s fire.

  Without a word, Elein turned and headed towards the watch station, where Tows stared blearily out towards the north.  The war horn that blared out an alert, a quick three blasts to signal riders, shocked him, first with its suddenness and then a cold wash of fear ran down his spine from the familiarity.  Elein turned, short of the watch station, and dashed into the forest.  He knew what was going to happen if he didn’t stop it.

The war horn continued to blast out signals, but Elein already knew what was coming.  Lines of pikemen, waves of skirmishers, crossbowmen enough to outnumber Elein’s entire force.  Still, they had done themselves proud, holding the ruins and throwing back wave after wave of attacks, until they felt they might actually stand a chance. But then, there was that damned wizard.

Elein ran as fast as he could through the woods, bent over to hide his profile, racing towards the lone track that led through the woods to the ruins.  If he could keep the wizard from reaching the clearing, maybe the others would have a chance.

The remote sound of axes cutting into logs was replaced with the closer noises of swords hitting shields as cries rang out.  Elein slid into a shallow ditch a bowshot from the road and tried to control his breathing as he watched the enemy march past.

The wizard’s wagon was last in the line, pulled by shaggy black horses with censors hanging from each corner emitting a foul-smelling smoke.  Even the enemy soldiers gave it a wide berth.  Elein crept closer on his belly, sheltering behind a gooseberry bush on the very edge of the road as the wagon drew abreast.  Drawing a deep breath, he dashed across the short grass margin of the road and yanked the door open, diving inside with his shortsword drawn.

Purple sparks enveloped him, and Elein died again.

B: I like the world you’ve created here and the recurring image of the purple sparks is effective. It feels kind of rushed at the end, with less atmosphere and more point A to point B action. I think if you leave out “and Elein died again,” the ending would be more effective. GOLD

BD: This is evocative writing, but I feel the author is almost using the prose as a crutch. The world is so well-drawn that I can’t help but love it, even if the underlying story is a bit too predictable. SILVER

Gilman: Man, I was enjoying this a lot. Really a lot, but that ending…what’s it trying to say? What’s it trying to do other than end the story? SILVER

Pete: Hmm… I was really feeling this one until the very end. I don’t dislike the idea of the second chance being useless as a rule, but in this case it sort of turns what had been a nice bit of world building into a shoot the shaggy dog story. BRONZE

Sama Smith

He hated dirt under his nails.

But there it was.

He’d pick it out fleck by fleck, trying to remember how it got there.

Closing his eyes. Squeezing them shut. It never helped. But he did it anyway.

“The memories are there Baron,” she whispered. “Be patient. They will come.”

The men in white coats had grim faces. They paraded through his tiny room and scribbled down notes on the same white paper. He heard one say to his sister that Baron may never remember.

He slept in fits and starts. Waking up sweating. A trace of heat on his neck. The trace of blood in his mouth.

He was taken to the plaza, out with friends. But those familiar places and faces were nothing.

One night he awoke with a hand over his mouth and lips on his right ear emitting a hushing “shhhhh.”

He looked to see her dressed in ocean blue. Her eyes dancing.

“Don’t say anything, Baron, but I’m going to help you,” she whispered.

He nodded and she lifted her hand from his mouth. He had no time to scream as the needle plunged into his forehead and a bubbling yellow serum sank into his brain.

The last thing he heard before he felt a pull into oblivion was: “Think of a time you want to remember most. Think of it clear. Concentrate hard, Baron.”

———————————————

He opened his eyes to sunlight streaming through a gauzy pale pink curtain. A breeze fluttered through bringing the smell of summer.

Baron remained on the bed, taking in the room plastered with posters and pictures.

Then he felt sensation he had not been able to remember until that very moment.

His legs moved, toes wiggled, and waist turned. His arms lifted the fuzzy blanket off him. He pulled himself up to sitting and turned his legs to dangle in the air. The floor was a jump below him with another bed underneath. He saw blonde hair barely peeking out from under an orange blanket.

“You better shut the fuck up,” a familiar voice growled.

Baron realized he recognized the muffled voice of his sister.

“Dayna, I can move my legs, my arms, my hands. They are moving,” he said and swiftly jumped down to the floor. “How is this possible?”

Her snoring answered him. This sudden development didn’t seem to have affected her.

He then caught his reflection in the dresser mirror across from him.

No beard. No long, useless limbs. No bald head with a jagged, angry scar. He was at least a head shorter. He had a scarless face with smooth, tan skin slightly smattered with freckles.

He turned back to his sister now burrowed deeper into her bed. He pulled on a shirt from the floor not caring if it was his or hers. He had the ability to move, to walk, to run down a hallway outside their room, to smell something that made his insides yearn and rumble.

“You must be hungry,” the older woman greeted him with a laden plate. “Come. Eat.”

Eating food, what the older woman told him was “bacon and eggs,” was like nothing he’d ever experienced before. He gagged on it at first, trying to figure out how to chew everything properly since the hospital feed him all liquids. But his mouth worked. His teeth chomped and seemed to all be there and his tongue savored every flavor.

“Sorry, I didn’t catch your name,” he said to her, making her laugh.

“Very funny, Brandon,” she said. “It’s mom, smart ass. You’re gonna be late, get going..”

She slid him a set of keys down the table. He promptly caught them and felt a swooping in his stomach.

“Where?” he asked.

She rolled her eyes.

“Really? You begged me for weeks. Go before I say no.”

He hurried out the door and without thinking about it, got into the car there.

This must be that muscle memory thing, he thought.

He drove aimlessly for a while until he felt a pull to go left by so he let his intuition guide him. A few minutes later he entered a large fenced area through an open gate. A sign read: “Test site. No unauthorized personnel allowed.”

It looked empty, deserted,  so he drove around until he got to the back area where he found a few people milling around.

He parked and got out to applause. A red-haired boy stepped forward.

“The Baron is finally here folks!” The boy yelled. “Let’s do it!”

“You do the honors, Baron,” he said handing over a large remote control. “I can’t wait to feel the heat.”

The remote had one red button. Brandon grinned as the crowd burst into a countdown. His finger itching for the push.

B: I guess I wasn’t expecting someone to repeat a day that wasn’t yesterday, but hey, sure. I appreciate this take on things and this Baron character intrigues the hell out of me. I just wish I had even the slightest inkling as to what this remote control is doing. SILVER

BD: You have no idea how much I want to like this. The writing is beautiful and this is such a compelling, fever-dream of a story. But there’s just not enough clues as to what is happening. I read through this a couple of times, trying to at least piece together a few hints that maybe I could Google, but nope, nothing. As intriguing as this all is, it’s too obtuse to truly enjoy. BRONZE

Gilman: Oh man, this feels intriguing throughout almost the entire story. The decrepit old-timer and the mysterious syringe-bearer. The choice involved in which day to relive, but the loss of understanding and appreciation for just where/when he’s reverted to. But that ending…I really can’t tell what’s supposed to be happening. Obviously the cause of his physical deterioration, but how? I feel like I’m missing something big, but it could be that the author just forgot to put something big in the story. Still, it’s quite gripping throughout, and it stands out in a weaker field this week. GOLD

Pete: This one is sort of confounding. I’ll probably be rereading it a few times in the coming days. It’s a little overexplaining in parts, but it certainly leaves me wanting for more. SILVER


Mad props to Margaret, who wrote my favorite story of the week and it looks like the favorite of the other judges as well. If she continues to write like that, watch out in the playoffs!

Joshua nailed down three golds of his own and just squeaks by Sama for 1st place! However, he’s going to have to pull down one more good week to keep it.

Final challenge post (along with some playoff scenarios) coming shortly!

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