That’s 68 notches if my math is correct.

Christina Pepper

One, two, three, three . . .

Shit, I need to focus.

One, two, three, six . . .

Shit, I can’t focus.

I pull my million-sizes-too-big robe around me, trying to feel grateful that at least it’s fabric rather than paper. The skirt (though it hardly deserves the dignity of that term) wrapped around my ass and thighs is paper, and I’ve already ripped it in one place along my upper thigh. Classy.

Why do doctors always take so damn long? I glance over at the closed door of the examination room. One, two, three, four . . .

No, that’s not fair. If I were some other girl here for this reason, I wouldn’t want to feel rushed. Not that I have any questions, but if I did, I’d want them answered carefully and thoroughly. But really, there’s nothing to ask at this point. “Why me?” isn’t the sort of thing you ask your doctor.

My stomach growls. Ugh, did I eat this morning? Probably not. When do I ever eat before 10?

Would Jake have made me eat something this morning if he’d known? Hard to say. Anyway, he’s my boyfriend, not my mother. And really, this has nothing to do with him. Or, at least, it probably doesn’t.

My eyes drift back to the door. As if staring at it will make it open faster.

One, two, three, four, five . . .

I can hear muffled voices in the room next to mine, but they’re too indistinct for me to make out any words. Why didn’t I at least bring along something to read? I check the magazine rack, but it’s all as unappealing as it was the last time I looked. I mean, I’m nowhere near desperate enough to read Good Housekeeping or Car and Driver.

Funny how not having a car was the whole reason that thing with Sam happened anyway. He said he’d give me a ride home from that party, and then on the way he decided to show me his new apartment. So new that he had the keys but wasn’t moving in until the weekend. We tromped together up to the fourth floor where the early June heat felt oppressive even late at night.

The apartment was all white walls and gleaming hardwood floors, and I tried to pay attention as Sam flipped on each light switch in turn and described what furniture would go where.

The place was weirdly loud with nothing to absorb the sound of our voices or footsteps. And with no stereo, the only soundtrack was the noise of the late-night cars driving along Lyndale Avenue.

Although I wasn’t exactly expecting it, neither was I surprised when Sam put an arm around me and led me to the room that would be his bedroom.

“Too bright,” I protested, flipping off the light switch.

“Liz,” he breathed into my ear as he pulled my body to his.

Was I supposed to be turned on by fact that the guy I’d been friends with since senior year of high school knew my name? Should I whisper his name back to him?

I started kissing him, and no one said anything for awhile.

But then, as I undid his pants, there it was again, “Liz,” he whispered, more urgently this time.

“Shhhhhh,” I whispered back, tracing his lips with my index finger.

I wasn’t sure how we were going to manage the logistics of fucking on a bare wood floor, but by the time we got to that part, I barely noticed the lack of a soft surface.

I lay on my back and stared up at the ceiling, watching the random patterns of lights made by the headlights of the passing cars. Sam reached a hand between my legs and slipped a finger in; tentative at first.

“Yeah,” I whispered, wondering if I should be saying his name.

It was weird, doing this, finally, with someone I had known for years. While I’d thought him cute in high school, I somehow never expected anything would ever happen between us.

Sam lowered his face to me, and I spread my legs farther apart. His movements were unfamiliar, but I certainly couldn’t classify them as bad. I closed my eyes, and I finally stopped thinking about whether anything was weird.

The sound of my breathing became louder than the traffic noise.

After I came, I maneuvered him to the floor and straddled him, hoping for the sake of my knees that he wouldn’t take too long.

“Liz,” he moaned, and I wondered if there was some way I could get him to stop saying my name.

“I know,” I told him–one of those things that makes sense in the moment yet somehow makes no actual sense at all.

He reached up for my breasts, but I pushed his hands away and began rocking my hips faster. We were both sweating, and I was trying to decide what I thought of the smell of his b.o. when he came. I didn’t dislike his smell, I finally decided.

After everything was done and we awkwardly realized there was nowhere to throw away the condom, we returned to his car by way of the dumpster out in back of the building. Neither of us had much to say as he drove me home.

“You’re amazing,” Sam said when he pulled up in front of my apartment.

“You’re not drunk enough to be saying that,” I responded, kissing him and then exiting the car. Given how many friends we had in common, it was probably best that this didn’t happen again unless I wanted people to start talking. Not that I had any regrets.

Sam called a couple of days later, but I said I was busy, and he didn’t call after that.

My stomach growls again. God, did the doctor forget about me or something?

One, two, three, four, six, five, seven, eight . . .

It must have only been a couple of weeks after the thing with Sam that Jake and I messed around for the first time. He was two years older than me, bookish, and he worked at a coffee shop not far from my apartment. Little by little, he began meeting friends of mine, but for some reason I never mentioned to him what had happened with Sam. It didn’t seem relevant, somehow.

Sort of like how what I was doing right now didn’t seem relevant. The letter I got in the mail indicating I had an abnormal Pap smear was decidedly low-key, so I figured it wasn’t even worth mentioning. Adults take care of this stuff by themselves all the time, don’t they?

Even after the follow-up appointment and the phone call telling me I would need to schedule this really super-minor outpatient procedure, I figured I didn’t really need to say anything. It’s not like I’d said anything to make Jake think I hadn’t been with other guys, but names, dates, specifics . . . those were none of his business.

I resume my focus on the door of the exam room. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine . . .

What are those little notches around the frame of the door, anyway? There aren’t all that many, but there are just enough for me to notice those places where the metal surface seems slightly indented. Probably other people who come here bring a friend or a book or something, and they don’t have to pass the time wondering what the deal is with the door.

Eight, seven, sixteen, fourteen . . .

There’s a knock at the door, and I jump. “Come in,” I call. As if there’s really any other option for what to say at that moment.

“Elizabeth?” asks the doctor.

I nod.

The doctor is a woman, younger than I expected, but she seems to know what she’s doing. A nurse–older, almost grandmotherly, though the type of grandmother who doesn’t take shit from anyone–joins her, and they work quickly, positioning me on the table, getting the light just so, inserting the speculum.

“I’m going to give you a local anesthetic now,” says the doctor from the other side of the paper wrapped awkwardly around my lower half. “You might feel a little prick, but it won’t hurt much.”

I stare up at the ceiling tiles and look for something to count, something to calm me.

I think I’m doing fine, but the shot comes, and my heart starts pounding.

“I’m nervous,” I say, immediately regretting saying anything.

“You’re doing fine,” says the nurse, giving my hand a squeeze. “It’ll all be over soon.”

I imagine they see people with far more serious problems than mine, and I realize that to them I must just be some overly worked up little white girl making a big deal out of nothing. I squeeze my eyes shut.

“Okay, I’m ready,” says the doctor. “I’m just going to slice a few layers of cells off your cervix, and then I’ll put something in to soak up the blood. Just try to stay as still as you can.”

I tense my body, keeping my eyes closed and trying to picture something, anything other than where I am right now.

Even though I don’t feel anything, I can’t stop the tears from coming as the doctor does her work. It probably takes only a few minutes, but my face is wet by the time she tells me she’s done and I can get dressed.

The doctor hands me a huge pad. “Here,” she says. “You’ll want this. For the blood.”

Once the doctor and nurse had both leave, I quickly put my clothes back on, my entire body feeling somehow foreign to me as I do so.

The nurse comes back with a printout of some instructions, and she asks me if I have a ride home.

“The bus,” I reply. “It’s not far.”

“Okay, hun, but take it easy,” she says. “Too much activity could start up the bleeding again.”

“Uh-uh,” I reply, wondering what kind of idiot goes to an appointment like this all alone. “Got it.”

“Take your time,” she tells me as she leaves.

I splash some water on my face and look in the mirror, hoping it’s not obvious I’ve been crying.

On my way out, I take one last look at the door frame, but as I get closer to it, the notches seem to shrink until they’re barely noticeable at all. They must have just been some trick of the light from the spot where I was sitting. Weird.

I make my way slowly to the waiting room and then out to the street. I don’t hurt exactly, but I’m moving at the pace of an old person. As I walk along the sidewalk, I hope no one’s looking at me. Keeping my head down, I start counting how many steps it’s going to take to get to the bus stop.

One, two, three, four, five, five, six, seven, eight, nine . . .

It may take me a while, but I think I can get there.

B: Eeeg. Yeah. The most powerful part of this story I think is how Liz minimizes her doctor’s visit so much that I go from at first thinking she’s pregnant to that she’s got some minor thing like a cyst. The sex scene is written well, perhaps a little longer than needed but Liz’s drifting thoughts make for good insight (and a parallel to the rest of the story). I feel like there’s something missing from the story, but I can’t quite my finger on it. Either way, good read. GOLD

BD: This is my favorite prose of the season so far; everything is written with complete confidence. I also love the subtlety. It’s clear this character is suffering major emotional issues, but we only realize this as the situation comes into focus. The only serious issue with this story is that it does almost nothing with the prompt; the door thing feels thrown in just to meet the basic requirements. GOLD

Gilman: First things first, the writing in this piece is excellent. Very confidently honest, coming from a perspective that makes sense for the character involved. It shows a lot about how she operates through the day, and in turn that tells us a lot about how she feels about herself. When you manage to maintain a certain level of aloof detachment, you wind up believing that your feelings are unimportant. This character is a fantastic representation of that attitude. Because of this, a story that feels like it doesn’t quite fulfill its narrative potential still manages to enthrall, engage, and hold the reader riveted to whatever may happen next. That nothing really does is both a little disappointing, but completely understandable for this character. Really well done. GOLD

Pete: This is some compelling slice of life that tackles this prompt in an impressively natural way. I dig the description of the wait for the doctor quite a bit. The stage is set perfectly, and the author gets us into the headspace of the main character very well.  GOLD

Brendan Bonham

A gray 04’ Impala turns down an alley just south of 31st Street. A nondescript car in a nondescript alley in a nondescript part of town, just like they like it.

Two men exit the vehicle, open the trunk. A black mass hauled out of it rough-and-tumble. It’s fighting for every inch.

The two men drag it into a door, then past another door. A dark room until the switch is flipped, a naked bulb hanging from the ceiling lights the room. They throw the third man in the corner. He crumples, sobbing.

“Why’dja give us up, huh?” the doughy one says.

The man, still sobbing, looks up. “I—I didn’t!” he cries, “You gotta believe me, I didn’t!”

“Yeah right,” he spits back, one man evaluating the other, “Angelo over there, I brought him up. It was just you me and him on that job, and if it ain’t him, and it ain’t me, then it’s you.”

“No, c’mon Geno,” the man in the corner says through spit and drool, “c’mon, I don’t wanna—I didn’t wanna get busted neither.”

Geno moves closer, kneels down and inhales deeply. A look of disgust washes over him. “You piss yourself, Ricky?”

Ricky blubbers—a half laugh, half cry of insanity—the noise one make when there’s nothing else to do.

“Angelo,” Geno looks back, “this little motherfucker pissed himself.”

“I—I was scared.” Ricky stammers, “You just stuffed me back there. I didn’t—what are you going to do to me?”

Geno stands and paces the room—a grand gesture of authority. He pauses, surveying the exposed brick, the chipped paint, the splintered doorframe. He turns back around.

“You see those, Ricky?” Geno points to a series of notches in the door frame. “Can you count, little man?”

“Y-yeah, I see ‘em.”

“Then how ‘bout you count ‘em for me, huh?”

A long pause, the 2 men stare at each other.

“You start countin’?” Geno goads him, “You need me to do it for ya’?”

Ricky breaks eye contact. Silent, his eyes slowly run over the doorframe.

“Seventeen,” he says, barely an audible whisper, “Seventeen of ‘em?”

Geno takes a step closer, “You ever heard,” Geno points behind him, “why they call him ‘The Angler’?”

Ricky’s face sours, his eyes shut tight. Finally, a squeak, “I—I ain’t ever heard him called ‘The Angler’.”

“Yeah, that’s right, Ricky.” Geno boasts, “That’s ‘cause a low-ranking prick like you doesn’t get invited to those kinds of meetings. You don’t know what goes on behind closed doors.” He spreads his arms theatrically, “You wanna know why they call Angelo over there ‘The Angler’?”

A long silence. Finally, a resigned, “Yes.”

“That’aboy,” Geno lightly kicks Ricky’s thigh, “it’s ‘cause he’s an expert at pullin’ out snitches like you, hook, line and sinker. Seventeen of ‘em by now. Guess you make eighteen.”

Angelo, in the corner, raises an eyebrow.

Ricky starts sobbing again, “Guys! Guys! It wasn’t me, I swear!”

“Snitches like you, Ricky,” Geno taunts, pulling a pistol from his waistband, “you know what they get, right?”

“I—I swear it! Guys! Please! I have a wife!” Ricky pleads, “Please, I’ll do anything.”

“That’s what got ya here,” Geno pulls back the slide of the weapon, “rats like you never learn.”

Angelo taps Geno on the shoulder, cocking his head towards the door.

“You’re a lucky man,” Geno looks at Ricky, “for a few minutes, at least.”

The two exit the room.

“Whadda ya doing in there?”  Angelo shoves Geno against the opposing wall, “You know I never killed nobody.”

“Yeah,” Geno shoves Angelo back, “but he don’t know that. Imagine we get him to crack. Imagine tellin’ Sal. Imagine what that’ll do for us.”

“Yeah, but you never killed nobody either,” Angelo notes.

“You dunno what I done.”

“Bullshit.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I dunno, man,” Angelo looks away, “I ain’t barely fired a gun. A rifle at my uncle’s a few times. A pistol once, just to see what it felt like.”

“He’ll crack—we’ll get back in there, he’ll crack,” Geno hands Angelo the gun, “Here, take this.”

“I don’t—man!” Angelo slides the semi-auto into his coat pocket, “I don’t need another piece—mine’s out in the car.”

“How we gonna scare the shit outta him, then?” Geno says, incredulous, “Huh? Spooky faces?”

“We ain’t gotta scare the shi—“ Angelo pauses, “wait, you hear that?”

They both fall silent, quietly, barely a whisper, a noise from the other side of the door. They both rush for it, shoving it open with authority.

“…the pound. The dog is in the pound.” Ricky keeps talking into his shirt, maintaining eye contact with the duo.”

“He’s—ah shit!” Angelo rushes across the room, tearing open Ricky’s shirt. A thin strand of metal and plastic taped to Ricky’s torso.  “He’s wearing a wire, Geno, how’d you not catch this?”

“C’mon man,” Geno stammers, “I—“

“Guys,” Ricky chimes in, “I’m—yeah, I’m a cop.” Still scared, but bolstered by the reveal, he continues, “You do not  want to kill me. You do that, every cop in Chicago’ll be lookin’ for ya.”

“I dunno, man.” Geno eyes Angelo, “I think we should do him.”

“Kill a cop, Geno?” Angelo pleads, “You serious?”

“You got the piece, man.” Geno says, “Do him.”

“C’mon Angelo,” Ricky interjects, “you’re smarter than that. Cops are on their way. This is over. You do that to me you’re—“

A swift left from Geno ends the sentence.

“I said do it, man!” Geno yells, “He knows what we look like! We got to. Burn him!”

The room falls silent as the trio eyes one another. Geno closes in on Angelo, placing a hand on his shoulder.

“You gotta do it, man.”

“I—“ Angelo looks down, “I don’t think I can.”

In a swift second Geno is in and out of Angelo’s pocket. A thunderous pop, loud reverb. The acrid smell of gunpowder and iron fills the air.

Ears ringing, the two look at each other, then at the mess on the wall, then back to each other. A moment passes, their eyes meet again.

“Geno…”

“It had to be done.”

Another pause.

“No, it didn’t.”

“C’mon Angelo,” Geno says, “we gotta get outta here.”

“Yeah, alright.” Angelo stares at the spattered red mess, “There’s a tarp in the trunk, I think.”

“We’re leaving the body here.”

“What?” Angelo pipes up, “You crazy, Geno?”

“You heard the guy,” Geno points the gun in the general direction of the pink matter and pooling blood, “cops are on the way. They know what happened here. We gotta get out.”

Angelo sighs, “Ok, fine. But what are we gonna tell Sal when we get back there?”

Geno looks at him, incredulous, “Sal? We ain’t going back to Sal, man. We killed a cop. You kn—“

“No,” Angelo interjects, “you killed a cop.”

Geno firms him grip on the pistol, “You listen to me, Angelo. We did this, no two ways about it. We killed a cop and ain’t no telling Sal different. We’ll be dead right alongside this jamoke, we go back to Sal.”

“So what, then?”

“So we get out of town,” Geno pushes past Angelo, “and we do it now. You heard the puddle, help’ll be here any minute.”

Angelo begrudgingly follows Geno to the car, the ‘04 Impala, discreet. They pull out the alley slowly, heading north for the Loomis Street Bridge. They drive slow, windows down on a cool early spring day. Neither says much until they hit the 290 expressway heading west, anywhere.

“So where do we go from here?” Angelo glances at the receding skyline in the side mirror.

“I know a place,” Geno assures him, “a guy, you now, all that.” He pauses for a moment, thinking, “but we’re gonna have to go our separate ways—split up. Forever, too. I mean, we can’t speak about this to nobody, you understand?”

“Yeah,” Angelo sighs, “I get it.”

“Once we get there,” Geno pushes, “you don’t tell me where you goin’, I ain’t telling you where you going’.”

“Jesus  Christ, Geno,” Angelo looks at him, “I get it.”

The duo falls silent as they head for the western suburbs. Planes descend towards O’Hare, cars pass, outlet malls bleed in and out of focus as they swirl by.

“Geno, where’d you get that seventeen notches shit from?”

“Nowhere,” Geno chuckles, “already pissed himself, I guess, but needed something to scare the shit outta him.”

Angelo smiles briefly before returning his gaze to the window.

“Where you gonna go, Geno?”

“I told you, man,” Geno agitates, “no talk like that.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Angelo sighs, “I’m—I dunno. Somewhere quiet, peaceful.”

“Enough.” Geno reiterates.

Exit signs, one after another.

“Just about there, man.”

“Cool…” Angelo says, distracted.

The Impala hits an off-ramp just outside Roselle, hanging a quick left into a tree-lined suburban street. Block after block saunters past and the road goes on.

“Where we goin’, Geno?”

“My mother’s brother’s place. Couple’a more blocks.”

Finally, a gravel driveway, a ranch house set back. The Impala turns in, creaks on the gravel.

“He’s the guy who got me in this game.” Geno smiles, “Said he’d have my back, I’m ever in a pinch.”

Geno turns the car off, pulls the key, Angelo exits right behind.

“Dom! Uncle Dom!” The two peer their heads into windows, hoping.

“He smokes,” Geno assures him, “old guy, hard of hearing, maybe out back.”

“You trust him?”

“Yeah. But, you know, you got your piece?”

“Nah,” Angelo looks to the ground, “in the car.”

“No worries,” Geno pulls his pistol, “got mine.”

Geno leads out back. The two, cautious, step by step, turn the corner. Nothing. No one. The fire pit looks like it hasn’t been used in years.

Geno levels his weapon at Angelo. “You always gotta bring your piece.”

“Wha– Geno?”

“C’mon man, what did you think was gonna happen? You killed a cop.”

“Geno!” Angelo pleads, “Man, nah man, you killed a cop. Man, you gonna—you gonna tell Sal I did this?”

“Sal?” Geno smirks, “I ain’t goin’ back to Sal. I’d be a dead man.”

“So why? Why this?”

“No one can know, man. Not even you.”

“But—“

“We’re buds, bud, always will be,” Geno reasons, “but you got no heart. You couldn’t pull the trigger. You chat. You left your heat in the car, man, c’mon.” Geno taps his temple with the pistol, “You gotta think.”

“Geno, come on,” Angelo pleads softly, “you’re gonna do this to me?”

“Killed a guy today, Angelo,” Geno deadpans, “Wasn’t so bad.”

Another loud pop, more ringing, this time an echo across the outdoors. Geno moves quickly back to the Impala. He exits the driveway, heading back the way he came.

Just at the edge of town he sees it: Active Auto Sales. He pulls in, exiting his car. He spots the dealer inside. He walks over to a ’07 Ford Fusion, gray. Nondescript, just how he was taught. Just how they like it.

B: I don’t know what to think about this. The guys talk like the most stereotypical mobsters ever; at least, I assume that’s what you’re going for with words like “jamoke.” That said, I was hoping it would be more pulpy. But it’s fairly straightforward with a ton of point A to point B dialogue and not much atmosphere. I guessed every turn. In short, this reminds me of something I’d write if I wasn’t on top of my game.

BD: First off, I think it’s funny that the ‘nondescript’ line comes right after the description of the car in question.  But, anyway, the story itself has some high notes; the moments leading to the murder, and just after, a wonderfully tense. The problem I’m having is that, in spite of all the fantastically written details, not enough of the plot is explained. How exactly did the cop ‘give up’ Geno and Angelo. And,in the end, who is Geno? Was the whole situation something that went according to some larger plan? Leaving these plot-points vague makes much of the rest of the story feel a little cliche. BRONZE

Gilman: This story has a lot of character, a lot of flavor to it. Plenty of meaty and robust lanugage, epithets, accents. It starts up at full rev, like a Tarantino piece, and then allows itself to sprawl a bit after the first shooting. But while all that contributes to the fun of the piece, the more the details are allowed to take front and center, the more flimsy the whole thing starts to feel. The quietude of the drive into the suburbs is a nice change of pace, but it stands in stark opposition to the whiz-bang opening, and makes that opening feel a bit hollow. The fact that Geno cops to making up most of the gangster lore he uses to intimidate at the opening adds to the let-down, where it could have been a nifty reveal at some point. But that’s not the story this author is writing, as it turns out, and we’re left with a double-cross without much narrative heft, and Geno leaves us without much of an impression. A nice, solid editor could really brighten up the flaws in this gem. SILVER

Pete: Aww, poor Angelo. I was hooked by the tension of this, even as it became increasingly obvious how it would all end. SILVER

Sama Smith

I liked her freckles. They scattered down her arms and tip-toed across her cheeks and nose. They mingled through her eyebrows and even touched the tops of her toes.

She had a beauty mark on her right big toe. I liked to rub it for good luck. At the time, she thought that was sweet, but later she said she’d really been thinking it was creepy.

Whatever.

I can show her creepy. I can show her freak-show, slink-in-the-shadows creepy.

The first time I got real creep I was on the other side of the door. I was the one taken by surprise. I was setting down rat traps when I heard her voice.

“No one comes down here,” she said and pushed the door in front of me closed, surrounding me in darkness.

Pressing my ear against the crack between the door and the floor, I could almost hear them clearly.

“I want to taste all of you,” his voice gushed. “I wanna–”

Crack.

Something heavy was suddenly pushed against the door. I heard her groan with another creak of the wooden door. Then came shuffling and shaking against the weak wood followed by a rhythmic thumping.

I stayed for the climax. I didn’t have to wait long that first time. I decided to commemorate the occasion by carving a notch on the door frame.

I returned again the next evening. It was always at the end of her shift. It was never the same voice yearning to take her, taste her, fuck her, suck her. And by the time each groaning session stopped, I had left my mark on the door frame.

Sometimes I’d wipe off my own jizz on the wood, marking my territory, making it feel like I was leaving something more behind. Also I needed to put it somewhere.

About two and a half weeks later, I backed myself down into the cellar. I liked the damp, musty smell of it. The smell triggered me into a euphoric state as I waited for her to bring back the latest mammal.

“Don’t worry about it. No one comes down here,” she soothed. “Push me up against this door and fuck my brains out.”

The door creaked as her weight leaned into it. I stroked myself in anticipation, feeling ready.

“No, turn around and bend over, bitch,” a low voice grunted. I heard her body twist and get slammed into the door with a sharp bang.

She giggled. I got wet.

I rubbed myself against the door. I imagined giving it to her, having her face me, looking into her dull, brown eyes as the low voice grunted from behind.

The rhythm on the other side of the door was picking up now. I could feel myself swell and I started to get giddy. The thumping got rougher and faster then stopped abruptly.

I heard a sharp thud, a high-pitched intake of breath, and then the  only light I had was gone from the crack between the floor and the door. I was surrounded by darkness and silence. I waited to hear them leave, but no footsteps slapped against the dirty concrete or shuffled up the dusty stairs. More minutes went by. Then I heard some skittering noises and the stairs going upstairs creaked.

I fucking hate waiting.

Finally, I turned my back to the door and shadowed my phone’s screen so the light wouldn’t be seen and checked the time. It had been 10 minutes since I heard anything. I turned back to the door, then got to my knees and laid on my stomach. I inched up as close to the crack as I could to see if something big had been knocked over and blocked the door and light. A strange, coppery smell greeted me and as I reached a finger between the floor and door I touched something sticky and slick.

My mind stopped. Everything stopped. I moved in slow motion.

I felt like I was gonna throw up my heart or puke in my brain.

I hesitated to open the door, but realized when I gave it a push I couldn’t open it more than a half inch.

I stopped and listened, waiting to hear anything other than the corner faucet dripping. I leaned into the door and pushed more, nudging whatever was blocking it. Having been able to slip through by pushing it open a few more inches, I let the door rub my chest and frame scratch up my back.

My mind saw everything before my body had fully turned around. In the dim light that hummed and pinged with age, I could see her slight figure slumped sideways, face down.

I stepped in her blood to get a closer look. He had slashed her throat.

“Damn it,” I said to the spiders dangling by my head.

I went back into the cellar and grabbed my gym bag. Setting it on top of a couple of boxes, my searching hand closed around the leather bound knife. I had been using it to carve marks in the old door, but tonight I was going to use it on her.

“I can’t believe someone beat me to it,” I said aloud, my voice lost in the symphony of muffled footsteps above me. “Who the fuck was that guy?”

I don’t bother looking back before I head upstairs again. I slip easily back behind the bar and shove my bag between a couple of cardboard boxes. The place is hopping as usual. I grab a grubby apron and make my way to the sink to wash my hands. Then I realize I didn’t even have to wash cum or blood off them. So disappointing.

The rest of the night is a blur of drunks, dumbasses and several broken bottles by the new guy.

Fucking idiot.

I was still bubbling with anger. I felt like someone had pissed all over my life. All I could smell was piss in this place anymore.

I had forgotten about Margie’s annual trip downstairs. So her screams shook me out of my rage and stupor after closing time.

Fuck.

Luckily, she and I were the only ones left. I tried to get her to calm down and stay in one place. She had blood on her shoes and was tracking it all over.

I should make her clean it up.

The police kept the two of us there for hours. Asking questions. Watching me shrug. Calming Margie.

“No, I didn’t notice anyone go down there,” Margie whimpered. “We got all sorts of crazies coming through here.”

They never said anything about the marks on the door until the trial. I said it was how I practiced stabbing her. I imagined the knife plunging into her chest over and over again.

They couldn’t prove that I killed her. Because I didn’t.

“It wasn’t me,” I told the court. “It was Mr. 17.”

B: CdL, where erotica must be followed by blood. This starts out strong, then whimpers a bit at the end as our creep stops being subtle and makes it clear to the camera just how creepy he is. I like the turn at the end where he testifies to his awfulness just for shits and giggles, though I don’t think the final line lands that well. Unless there’s something I’m missing. BRONZE

BD: This may go down in history as the most CdL of all CdL stories; I’m not sure gets much darker and shocking than this. The majority of this story is horrifying, disgusting and. . . well, strangely compelling to be honest. I felt very dirty by the end, by also impressed by the bravado. It’s a very difficult kind of tone to pull off. The beginning and ending both feel like they were just tossed in there, which mars an otherwise gripping entry. SILVER

Gilman: This story feels like it leans much too heavily on atmosphere and grisly detail to really make an impact on me beyond the daring of the author. Which, c’mon, if you want something perverted and bloody, you gotta hand it to the writer here. They provided quite well. But there was no real stakes to be felt considering the only understanding we had of the protagonist was his response to being cheated on…we knew nothing of him and the victim really. Other than freckles I suppose. Maybe it’s being picky in a story that has a lot of crazy stuffed into it, and some quite decent lines as well. But the overall sense I got from this was more of a writing exercise than a story. And that final line…hrm. Didn’t work for me.

Pete: I’ll be honest, this one kind of ooks me out. It’d be one thing if I was taking in all of this depravity for some sort of great payoff, but this one doesn’t really have it. Just a sick bastard who I end up having to spend more time with than I’d prefer.

Margaret Martin

Vince turned the handle, breathing deeply before finally pushing the door open. He felt resistance as it dragged across the new, still plush carpet. I should plane the bottom, he thought, mentally adding it to his to-do list.

Belinda had chosen a totally different color for this new carpet, and it made the whole room seem pastel and foreign.  Still, he knew right where the stain had been, Sarah on her hand and knees for hours, days, weeks, just scrubbing, scrubbing, scrubbing. Scrubbing it and soaking it with fat, quiet, angry tears.

He finally breathed again, the memory of vomit and whatever that sweet smell had been still clinging to the hairs in his nostrils. But now the air just smelled like lemons. It reminded him of Nana’s parlor, where no one was allowed except on Christmas. And after Grandpa’s funeral. Funny how smells make you remember things.

He smiled a bit, thinking of Nana and her conspiratorial whispers. Vinny, Pa’s asleep. Shhh! Get us some cookies, but do it real quiet. He had loved climbing on her lap, wickedly eating cookies while Grandpa snored in front of the TV. Grandpa never made it through a whole baseball game. Too many long quiet pauses.

The bed was new too, and the bedding was super girly. He wondered what had happened to the quilt that had been there. Sarah and Connor had made it from old blue jeans, carefully lining up the blocks so that the corners matched and the lines were straight. It didn’t let even the tiniest draft through, and it seemed like it weighed two hundred pounds. The blocks with pockets were Connor’s favorite – he hid all kinds of things in those pockets. It all came out in the wash, though. Sarah would gather it from the bottom of the washing machine drum and come to him with a collection of toys and nature items in her cupped hands.

Connor’s clothes were gone. Where? He remembered Sarah boxing them up, holding each piece up in front of her for a minute, saying goodbye. His books were still there, but the top shelf was decorated with some artsy glass things that Belinda had picked out. He tried to remember if they took all that stuff to Good Will. Or was it still in the attic?

Vince sat down on the violet eyelet ruffles of the new quilt and let gravity have him for a bit, his shoulders slumped, his head hanging low.

There was always so much to think about and never any time.

Eventually he stood up and turned back toward the door. Belinda wanted it painted white to match the new stuff, and he intended to do it today. Out with the old, in with the new.

Dropping to his knees, he found the first mark, rubbing his finger over the groove he had made. 11/18/1999! It was Sarah’s handwriting and punctuation, round and young and exuberant. Like Connor had been. He remembered that he had thought it was a little trashy to let Connor eat birthday cake in just his diaper, especially with his parents and Nana there, but Sarah was a bit wiser about messy babies. Right into the bathtub, kiddo!  Connor had still had wet hair when they immortalized his height on the door frame.

Not too much higher up, 2 yrs. This was his handwriting.  Sarah was holding Connor to keep his little hands safely away from the blade, so he had etched the line and written it himself. It always bugged her that he hadn’t written the date. She preferred things to match. She probably liked this froofy room, he thought, glancing at Belinda’s valances. Honestly though, he had never even heard the word valance until Belinda.

11/18/2001. 11/18/2002. Vince paused as he touched more notches in the door frame, thinking about Connor’s early years. Pudgy cheeks! Little round legs! It was a miracle that Sarah could still lift and carry him. He looked like a giant’s kid in her arms.  Connor didn’t talk much, but he knew the name of every dinosaur and every engine from Thomas and Friends.  Vince found himself thinking of them all, Thomas, Percy, Edward, Annie and Clarabel… funny what you can remember after so many years.

11/18/2003. 11/18/2004. 11/18/2005. Vince drew his hand up the door frame, feeling the marks rub along his skin. The Thomas birthday cakes. He tried to remember where they had put the train table. At one time it had taken up most of the room. But then soccer had taken hold of the preschool, and Connor had jumped on board. Those tiny little cleats! They cost like 50 bucks. Were they in the attic too? But that was a decade ago. Sarah would have made sure they had gone on to the next little kid in line.

11/18/2006, 2007, 2008. Vince had to straighten up a bit to reach the 10-year line. Soccer had fallen away, and piano had taken over. That was more a part of Sarah’s toolkit than his. He remembered the little pieces – Ode to Joy, O Christmas Tree, Lavender’s Blue, something about a duck? He had hummed along as they sang solfege – mi mi fa sol sol fa mi re.  He had learned how to play happy birthday.

2009, 2010, 2011, 2012. His son had grown taller, and Vince stood up, drawing his fingertips across the score marks in the wood.  He struggled to remember those awkward years. The braces cost a fortune!  There were always dishes in his room. School trips to fun and educational destinations, Star Wars and Star Trek and comic book heroes. Connor had tried out for the soccer team again, and there had been bigger and smellier cleats to contend with. Vince remembered a drawer filled to the brim with action figures, a tangled mass of legs and capes and swords and armored animals. Sarah had shared those with the neighbor lady. They would have been worth money, probably, but she figured they were worth more as play things. She was right, of course.

2013, 2014. The back injury. There were other things too. Awards, cell phones, recitals. But Vince mainly remembered the back surgery. Connor had been in and out of PT and sports training for months. The surgery had left him sore and lonely.  Athletes get hurt. No big deal. You’ll play next year, kiddo.  Standing tall, Vince’s fingers lingered on the marks that were over his head.  You’re built like an athlete, Connor. You’ll get back out there.

2015. Connor had gotten tall. But he had also gotten skinny, Vince recalled. He had lost a lot of muscle tone and looked tired and sad. It’s just a phase. He’s down and out with this injury, Sarah. He’ll get through it.  

He realized the signs had been there. The pain pills that no one had monitored. Then the late night confessions, the rehab, the angry tears. Funny how you don’t remember some really important things until it’s too late.

Sarah had come home first that day. The smell greeted her at the door, the vomit and sweet stuff. His denim quilt with the pockets was soaked with sweat. EMTs came and did what they could, paddles and Narcan.

There was the long hospital stay, the specialists, the realization and the decision. It was all a blur, and then that was it for Connor.

At the time, Vince thought he and Sarah would get through it together. But while her hands were busy scrubbing vomit and folding shirts and moving on, his hands hadn’t done anything at all.

Until now.

He picked up the sander.

He bent low to start sanding down 11/18/1999! But his chest ached at the thought of it. He set the sander down and pressed his forehead into his hands, willing himself to move on.

After a few moments there, he stood up and straightened his shirt.

Belinda wanted white. He stared for a long time, thinking, and then headed out to get supplies.

When Belinda got home, Vince met her at the door.

“I think I got the door just right.”

She looked at him and then followed him into the room. Her face lit up at the sight of the painted door frame.

“Hey!” She dropped to her knees to take a closer look at the preserved notches and tiny dates painted over so precisely with lavender paint. “This must have taken forever! How did you do it?”

Grinning widely, Vince held up two extra fine paint brushes.  “The hard part was getting the white paint into the holes of all those eights.”

He stopped talking, and scanned her face.  “We can still paint it over if you want. Out with the old, right? I got some pictures, anyway.”

She smiled. “No, it’s good.”

He bent down and grabbed a small paint can from the box on the floor. “I kept the ‘Eternal Lilac’ out,” he said, squinting at the label. “Happy birthday, kiddo.”

Belinda’s face softened, and she stood quickly to position herself in the doorframe. “Mom! Come here a sec!”

Sarah appeared from the kitchen where she had been frosting cake.

Vince took out his knife and made another notch. “That’s another half inch, Belinda!”

He looked at Sarah. “You want to write it or should I?”

She smiled at him. Funny how easilly you recognize something you’ve been missing for a while.

“You do it, Vince.”

His hand trembled as he clutched the tiny paintbrush and reached up toward the new mark in the frame. “I’m not painting any more eights,” he said to himself, chuckling a bit.

17 yrs.

B: Until the very end I thought Belinda was the new lover, not his daughter. So I reread it again. I enjoyed it more on the second reading. It starts out well with some solid, crushing imagery, and then the laundry list of birthday notches with associated memories slows the story down a bit; I’m glad we already know that Connor is gone so it doesn’t feel too manipulative. Still, it didn’t feel all that new or fresh. But it picks up at the end. I really enjoyed the image of him painting in each number.  SILVER

BD: I’m glad this ended the way it did, especially after that last story. There is a lot of heart here, but the twist-ending goes a little bit too far, I think. In a few sentences we go from thinking that Belinda is a potentially over-bearing second wife, to a beloved child. I mean, that’s an almost creepy transformation. This, combined with the way we were let on concerning the state of the marriage, is all just a tad bit manipulative. I think the story would have had more of an impact without the double-entendre.

Gilman: Thorough and detailed, this one goes right after the heartstrings and keeps plucking at them until the blisters rise. With no real secrets to hide here, no huge twist awaiting the reader toward the end, the author can linger on the moments of a life passing by, the loss of two parents suffering. It’s touching, and it’s very richly written, constructed expertly…but it’s also a tad overly maudlin, and it never really risks going beyond the emotions one expects in a piece like this. I will say that it did help me feel as though Connor had been a living, breathing kid, a teen with troubles and aspirations. The onset of suicidal feelings is either a tad rushed or understated, but there’s so much else to get out of this remembrance. No mistake: it’s a two-dimensional story with lots of three-dimensional details, lovingly rendered. But there could have been more in there, and again that final line seems very clumsily spackled on. BRONZE

Pete: I like where this one travels. I was initially worried that it would simply be content to go where it was playing at, but the ending was an earned sort of sweet. Maybe it got a little too cute at playing at the true nature of Belinda’s identity? Whatever, I like it better this way, anyway. BRONZE

Christina: 20

Brendan: 7
Margaret: 5
Sama: 4
Melissa: Non-sub
Kelly: Non-sub

Christina crushes the competition this week with a quad-gold. The rest were left to pick up the medal scraps. Sama heartbreakingly loses out by one medal point, while Brendan and Margaret squeak into the semifinals with Joshua.

 

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