I locked all four judges in a room until they read these stories and assigned medals.

Margaret Martin

Marnie walked toward the door and pushed the wide metal handle.

Nothing.

It didn’t budge. She rattled the handle vigorously, but it was locked. She pounded on the door a couple of times. “Hey, this door is locked! Hey!”

But no one responded.

Then she heard a breathy laugh behind her, barely audible, little more than air through a mean girl’s nostril.

She turned to see Roxy standing in front of the mottled mirror, pretending to tame an already perfect wave of hair. Eyes glittering, teeth clenched. “Problem with the door, little bitch?”

A mid-century stall door, its chipped green paint revealing a layer of gray paint over a layer of rusty metal, flew open. Brandy Strebb filled the door frame.  

Marnie swallowed a bubble of panic. She turned back to the door and pounded again, but she already knew that it wasn’t going to open.

The room echoed with the metallic smack of another stall door being kicked open. Marnie’s shoulders dropped. Brenda was here too, of course, her red jacket opened to reveal a studded bustier.

Brenda stepped out in front of Marnie and sneered, “Someone’s stuck in the bathroom, girls! What a shame.” She ripped Marnie’s purse from her arm and ran over to the sink with it. “Let’s see what Miss Thing keeps in her knock-off bag.”

Brandy gripped Marnie from behind with muscled arms while Brenda dumped the contents out into one of the marble basins and turned the water on.

“Here’s a picture of her with Dylan, Roxy. Aw, him and his side chick — so cute together.” She made a gagging sound and sneered as she tore the soggy picture down the middle.

Dropping the picture back into the sink, she fished for something else.

“Oooh lipstick. Hold her, Brandy, while I get her face ready for her date with Roxy’s boyfriend.” She pulled a dripping lipstick case out of the sink.

Brandy held Marnie’s hands behind her back at a painful, awkward angle. Marnie twisted her head away from the lipstick, but Brenda smeared her face with it.

Roxy watched, giggling, and pulled a dripping wet iPhone from the pooling water. “Oh oops! This is probably trashed now.” Marnie protested, struggling in Brandy’s grip, but she could not get free. Roxy dropped the phone and slammed her heel down on it, grinding the broken screen and other components into the mosaic floor.

Marnie gasped. “You are going to pay for that!” She strained with all her might and eventually broke out of Brandy’s hold. She took Roxy by the throat, digging fingernails into her soft flesh. Soon strong arms encircled her from behind and ripped her away, but she kept her fingernails dug in until the last second and came away with some of Roxy’s skin.

The water had started spilling over the edge of the basin. Brandy slipped in the growing puddle, and both girls pitched forward. With the weight of Brandy on her and no way to break the fall, Marnie’s mouth and cheek cracked on the speckled blue tiles.

“Fucking Marnie!” Brenda rushed over to the sink where Roxy was screaming and inspecting her bloodied neck. She pulled several paper towels from the dispenser, one after another after another, then spun around to soak them and apply them to Roxy’s scratches. Pink spots spread drown Roxy’s white t-shirt as the tinged water rolled into her cleavage.

Brenda turned toward Marnie, wild fury burning behind her eyes. “Jesus Christ, Marnie! We were just trying to have a little fun!”

Marnie had rolled out from under Brandy and was crawling toward a stall, covering her mouth with one hand, but Brandy caught up with her and yanked her up to her feet.

Brenda was helping Roxy to the door. She leveled her gaze at Marnie’s disfigured face. “There’d better not be any scars, bitch.” Roxy began wailing anew. Brenda walked up to the door and knocked five times, paused, and then knocked three times.

Nothing happened.

Roxy quieted down to a snivel.

“Chad, you fucking idiot, that’s the signal.”

Still nothing.

“Chad! Let us out of here or I swear you’ll be next.” Brenda rattled the door handle with all her might, but the door did not open.

Brenda turned toward Marnie in angry accusation.

Marnie shook her head. She could feel her eye swelling shut. Brenda turned her attention to Brandy,

“Brandy, get this door open.”

Brandy let go of Marnie’s dress and turned to the door. She pounded it with thick fists, five times, then three times. The sound bounced around the tiled room. The girls held their breath, waiting to hear Chad on the other side.

Still nothing.

The girls’ demeanor shifted from aggressive to quiet, as each pondered this new problem. Brenda, who was used to being in charge of everything, scowled fiercely.

Suddenly there was the tinny crash of a foot kicking open a metal stall door. All of the girls turned to see the school’s RO, Lionel, emerge from a stall.

“Well well well, little ladies. Looks like you’ve got some trouble. Fighting, safety violations, destruction of property… and I’ve got the whole thing recorded.”

He turned to Brenda. “Chad’s not that reliable, it turns out. That door opens when I say it opens. And it looks like we’ll be here a while.”

All the girls started talking at once, protesting and blaming one another. Roxy started crying again, lifting her hair to prove herself innocent by damaged neck. Marnie, face throbbing with pain, slid down the wall until she was seated on the tile floor.

Lionel started pacing. “Day after day with you shitty kids. Girls parading the halls dressed up like streetwalkers, guys getting some ass in the parking lot. Drugs, drinking. Non-stop fucking stupidity.”

He walked over to the sink and fished out the torn picture. “And you in here fighting over a boy.”

He licked his teeth, eyeing himself and the girls in the mirror. “Now, I sure love a hot little cat fight.”

The girls felt discomfort prickle in their bellies. Brenda and Brandy exchanged a look. Roxy instinctively closed her sweater over her chest.

“Yep, you’ve got a whole heap of trouble. But I’m sure we can figure out a way to make this all… disappear.”

He stepped in front of Marnie where she sat on the floor, “So you’re the man stealer.” He squatted down and cupped his hand under her chin. She whimpered. “Too bad that pretty mouth is already banged up.”

He shot up quickly to a standing position, grabbing Brandy by the arm and twisting her. He pressed her face hard up against the wall. “I’ve got you on assault, tough guy.” He pulled out his zip-tie cuffs and cuffed her. When he swung her back around, Marnie could see a checkerboard imprint of the wall tiles on her cheek.

Lionel moved on to Brenda in her red leather. “Brenda, Brenda. My favorite little biker-chick. I see you’re taking after your whore of a mom.” He leaned in close to her face. “That just might come in handy.”

“Fuck off!” Brenda snapped back. Lionel swung his fist at her mouth, hard, but stopped just short of hitting her. Marnie felt Brandy tense up, desperate to defend her sister. Brenda cringed, trying to shrink further back into the wall. For a heavy moment, the room went quiet except for the running water.

Then Lionel dropped his fist. “Watch your mouth, ring-leader, or I’ll stuff it full.” He reached down and slowly unzipped his pants, staring at her. She scowled back in defiance.

He broke eye contact first, then moved on to Roxy.

“And you’re the pretty one who needs a new man.” Roxy’s head dropped and she stared at the floor. He pushed open her sweater to get a look through her wet t-shirt. She shrieked and pulled away from him, crouching into a ball.

“Hey now, hey now. I just want to get a real good look at your… injuries.” He offered his hand to help her up, but she recoiled from it. Instantly enraged, he pulled her up by one arm and swung her onto the marble vanity. She started screaming.

Marnie shot up quickly, signaled to Brenda and mouthed “Call 911!” Brenda lifted her empty hands. The two turned their eyes with sinking hope toward Marnie’s busted up iPhone lying in the stream of water from the sink.

Right in the middle of the puddle, Lionel was futzing with Roxy’s sweater with one hand and deflecting her flailing swings at his face with the other.

Right in the middle of the puddle.

Brenda saw it first. She pointed to his feet on the slippery tile and then to herself. Marnie’s bashed-in face twinged anew as she saw what Brenda was proposing. She nodded.

Brandy, also realizing what they were planning, tipped her chin toward his chest.

Over the din of the struggle at the sink, Brenda shouted “Now!” Lionel spun himself toward them at the sound of it, already starting to slip as they rushed him and knocked him to the floor.

At that moment, the door crashed open. “Freeze!”  Two cops charged in. The girls on the floor scuttled to the far wall and huddled there. Roxy, still screaming, shoved herself backward, pressing her body up against the mirror and drawing her knees to her chin.

The officers subdued and cuffed Lionel where he lay, fly open, on the cold wet tile.

He began protesting. “These girls were caught in the act of fighting! I was trying to break it up and they jumped me!” he blustered as they dragged him to his feet.

“Can it. 911 was on the phone the whole time.”

The girls looked at each other in wonder, then at the beat-up iPhone on the floor.

After what seemed like hours of photographs and statements and a tear-stained, fledgling friendship between the girls, damp silence hung over the lavatory.

In the corner stall, the toilet flushed. Penny emerged, her legs still trembling, her phone still in her hand. She threaded her way carefully between the remaining puddles. When she reached the door, she pressed the wide metal handle.

Nothing.

B: I was sort of digging this when it was just the four girls. Had a Heathers vibe. Then Lionel comes to give it a CdL vibe. And then came Penny, the deus ex machina. Who is she? Why do I care that she saved the day?

BD: It took me a few paragraphs to peg the tone of this story, but I found myself drawn in once I realized this was intended to be dark humor. The violence worked very well combined with the comedy; it gave this story a Heathers-like atmosphere (and I do love Heathers). Things start getting a bit too dark once Lionel enters the scene, which may have still worked accept that the whole thing abruptly ends, letting everyone off waaaaaaay too easy. A story this humorously acidic really needs to have someone die. BRONZE

Gilman: A pretty uninspired story, to be honest. The narration and action was very point-by-point, as though the author wanted to make sure the story visited all the planned beats efficiently. Nothing the girls said here rang true to the cadences and particulars of how teens talk to each other these days, as far as I can tell, and it didn’t have a distinct enough voice to make it sound authentically its own. This story felt like one of those pulpy girls’ prison movies, with the inmate heirarchies and the rapey guards. From the rushed set-up to the de-facto bullying to the True Villain’s appearance to the deus ex cop, this story just didn’t feel remarkable. And the epilogue was an unnecessary head-scratcher, leaving me unsure if “nothing” meant she was trapped or the door swung open or…anything.

Pete: This one has so many twists. Almost too many? It’s all very well described and the room itself begins to feel like a character, but there’s there’s just so much happening. The sexual assault storyline is believable enough, but after a certain point, it just feels like it’s piling on. I do love that there was another girl hiding in the stall. BRONZE

Brendan Bonham

ENTRY: 3/22/35

And we’re off! After a successful launch on a cool spring morning we’ve successfully engaged the proper trajectory for Hoeman Transfer Orbit. Three days to the moon, then we’re off to Mars!

Captain Gerbelt said a few words to the rest of the crew after we discarded our initial boosters, it’ll stick with me for a while:

“Mankind’s journey began long ago with a single step. Now, we take a grand leap, hoping to land on those very same feet.”

After, we all said a few words, too. Lt. Parker read “O Captain! My Captain!” aloud. Lt. Davies mentioned it was about the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, and Cap couldn’t help but have a laugh.

Anyway, I’d like to say hello and I love you to Beth and Alex—Daddy will be home, well…before you can drive!

Check that one off the calendar: 259 days until we’re orbiting the red planet!

ENTRY: 3/26/35

It’d be unfair to say the hardest part of heading to Mars is nailing the Hoeman Transfer Orbit, but it’s certainly the most nerve-wracking. Margin of error is 2.5%, and 2.5% when you’re traveling 14.4km/s towards a huge celestial rock you’re about to fling yourself around is like threading a needle with an anchor chain.

But…we did it! That’s why we practice. That whip-around has us cruising at a steady 21.7km/s, which means we’ve shaved a few days off our arrival time as well.

Before we left, we all agreed that we’d take turns picking lunch and dinner for the day and, well, it’s been a lot of hamburgers. Just remember: A freeze-dried hamburger is better than no hamburger at all. Powdered pickles, not so much.

Beth and Alex, write back soon! Another 2 weeks and it’ll be more than a day before I can get your messages. Love you!

ENTRY: 4/2/35

MUTINY! No, just kidding, but today was the first time we’ve had to employ a lot of the critical conflict skills we spent months studying leading up to Asteria II launch.

Part of the curriculum is learning from your peers. Lt. Davies has a Masters in Psychology as well as his Doctorate in Astrophysics. Conflict resolution isn’t always easy; but back on Earth we learned a lot from him about finding a mixture of compromise and respect for authority.

The argument arose because of a simple scheduling conflict. I’d fallen behind on my deep space body tension stretches when the treadmill opened up. It was my turn on the schedule, but I wanted to finish my stretches. Capt. Gerbelt disagreed, citing Davies following me on the treadmill. Deep space takes a toll on both muscles and tendons, so working both is equally important. But hey, Cap is right, we all agreed to this, so onto the treadmill for me!

“O Captain! My Captain!” right guys? Thanks for writing back, too. Beth, you keep acing these bio tests and you’ll be in a lab just like your mom!

T-minus 248 days!

ENTRY: 4/22/35

I’m beginning to think that NASA’s interview policies weren’t as in-depth as they should have been.

Now that we’re in deep space it’s daily ship maintenance, then sit and wait, sit and wait. We all survived the walk-through out in Arizona, and Gerbelt’s lived on the moon colony for a few months,

but…

I don’t know. There’s something about looking out and seeing nothing—literally nothing—that seems to have cracked him.

A few weeks ago, after the incident he led a punitive movement that Davies and Parker backed. They said if I couldn’t manage my time properly, they’d remove my journaling privileges, which, kids, is why you haven’t heard from me for so long.

I know NASA scrubs these messages too, so just letting those of you in Houston, we might have a problem.

ENTRY: 5/1/35

It’s been a good week, comparatively. I think we’ve settled into a begrudging respect for one another.

They avoid speaking to me for the most part, and I avoid speaking to them. We all know there’s no turning back—not enough juice in the thrusters to turn us around, and there’s no other celestial body to toss us back the other direction.

I’ve asked to be removed from the food decision rotation, but thus far Gerbelt’s refused the request. I love the green bean casserole and everyone else hates it, so I’ve decided to choose it for my rotation each time until the ration is exhausted. We’ll see if that’ll get him to crack.

Gerbelt checks in on my work to make sure I’m staying in shape and doing my job, but otherwise there’s silence between us. It’s nice, in way. There’s nowhere to go in the Asteria pod, so a lot of time looking out the window considering the void. I’ll come back a philosopher, guys!

ENTRY: 5/10/35

You wouldn’t believe it, kids, but I’m almost certain they’re conspiring against your dad. Alex, “conspiring” means they’re talking about daddy behind his back.

I was trying to nap the other day when Parker said something to Gerbelt about “putting [me] into long-term sedation with the emergency Pernorol injection.”

We packed Pernorol onboard in case of a medical emergency. Beth, it’s a mixture of Temerol and Dialodol that medically induces a long-term coma in trauma patients. I told you they were losing it.

We ran out of green bean casserole a few days ago, so I’ve moved to sweet potato fritters. They’re not as good as mom makes ‘em, but don’t tell that to the other guys.

ENTRY: 5/19/35

I’ve switched to doing my best to minimize sleep so I can make sure Gerbelt, Davies and Parker aren’t plotting against me. Nothing yet, but I’m beginning to question whether they know what I’m doing, thus have moved to a different means of communication to do it.

Remember, Beth. Remember, Alex. You can only really trust yourself. You’ll know in your heart whether what you’re doing is right. 209 days before we can turn this damn thing around.

ENTRY: 5/25/35

I spent months learning to pilot this pod and Gerbelt thinks just ‘cause he helped design the Asteri, he’s always in charge. I can do Parker’s job, he can do mine. Gerbelt can, too. We all can do everything on here, you don’t set out for Mars—MARS!—without learning a thing or 2. Kept us away for days to test our mettle and bested that now, too.

Gerbelt and the lackeys threaten ration restriction to get me to sleep. They won’t. Too rational. NASA, I’m convinced Beth and Alex are no longer receiving my messages. They have not responded in weeks. We are 17 million miles out now—communication across this distance, by my count, is 2 days.

We have a contract I would like enforced.

ENTRY: 6/7/35

NASA, no word from the kids means no word from Gerbelt, either. I waited him out and hit him with a Pernorol pen as soon as he dozed off. Lt. Davies and Parker are next up. We all know 3 weeks before increased potential for brain damage sets in. We’re 3 days for messages either way now, so you have 2 weeks to make your decision.

That’s the deal. I’ll bind the trio, raise them from rest, and handle the rest of the mission myself if Beth and Alex communicate with me. I need to know what Beth and Alex each received for their birthday last year. Tell them to be descriptive.

Finally, I can get some sleep with these guys.

190 days matter to me. 15 matter for you. I just want to hear from my kids.

ENTRY: 6/11/35

TICK-TOCK TICK-TOCK TICK-TOCK TICK-TOCK TICK-TOCK.

ENTRY: 6/13/35

Do you not find it odd there have been no entries from any of them?

9 days.

ENTRY: 6/20/35

2 days. The stars are beautiful out here. The Earth dances across them and I watch joyful. They aren’t watching.

ENTRY: 6/21/35

You are fools. Beth and Alex are young adults but yet it is you who act like children with your lies.

Your falsities mean nothing and now 3 men are no more.

ENTRY: 7/2/35

You lost your gambit. The journey continues towards Mars with or without Captain Gerbelt and his merry band. They will live as shades on liquid rations as I drift across nothing. I observe all. I see you, marked on the aft window as I pioneer the emptiness. You cannot see me. You will not bear witness to my triumph. I will land Asteri II upon Mars and go down as Mankind’s greatest civilian. I have solid rations to last 4 men 1.5 years each , but will choose instead to feast upon their red flesh upon this red planet I shall claim for my own and none can stop me. You can chase me. You may be chasing me already. You will not catch me.

In 137 days I will be Emperor of Worlds.

ENTRY: 7/29/35

The cattle have been stripped naked. Bathed. Clothes sanitized. The reek of flesh gone fallow, more fat than muscle or bone as the body atrophies into sacs of sludge.

110 days. Much to be done before they make worth sacrifice to the God-Emperor.

ENTRY: 8/11/35

They mock me in their slumber, still unconvinced of my place in the pantheon of greatness. Their flesh will bear witness, crucial in the ceremony of my ascension.

ENTRY: 9/18/35

Will you broadcast my triumph to the world? Will you celebrate my achievement, or will you lies and deceit continue? I am here, the apex of accomplishment and merit, but do you shy away from the reality of my success and instead turn to falsities about death and insanity? Do those from which I ascended not deserve to know what enlightenment awaits them? I travel the stars to sights unfathomable to those who have not seen, but yet I am mad?

61 days until man becomes something more. Do you dare tell the tale?

ENTRY: 12/4/35

The God-Emperor has safely landed the Asteri II on Mars, becoming Mankind’s first representation on the Red Planet. Gerbelt and Parker and Davies mocked me. Find me incapable. Laughed in my face.

But soon they will be offered to me in my coronation.

I welcome all those that believe to join me on the Red Planet. We shall prosper and there will be plenty.

B: I adore this take on the prompt, though I’ve always been a sucker for mad scientist trapped in a facility stories and diary stories. The tension is palpable and it grows at regular intervals. There’s several typos, but thankfully they didn’t detract too much. I wish there was some information as to why NASA never responded, though it’s probably best we don’t know, and it’s irrelevant to the story.  GOLD

BD: This is another one that took me a while to get a grasp of the tone. There’s a lot of fantasitcally wry humor at the beginning, and in general the first half is very strong. However, it’s a little too obvious early on that the protagonist is cracking, and the descent into madness moves at a somewhat awkward pace before spending a bit too much time on the “completely bonkers” phase. Still, it’s an ingenious idea for the prompt with a lot of nice details and snappy prose. SILVER

Gilman: Wow, Matt Damon has CHANGED.

I honestly got excited when I figured out what kind of a travelogue we were in for, because I have always grooved on stories of isolation that grinds the mind to madness. The contours of this story, though, seemed a little too rushed at points, and a bit overblown. It’s hard to see space paranoia play itself out without an outside perspective to rub against, as that gives the reader something to compare to. It allows there to be that smidgen of doubt that maybe the crazyperson isn’t so crazyperson after all. Here, we just had a blueprint of descent, and while it was well written in most places, it also didn’t hold a lot of dramatic currency as it developed. Even one or two replies from NASA alone would’ve served well as a counterpoint. SILVER

Pete: Should’ve brought a Game Boy or something, I guess. I feel like this story might work a little better as a longer form short story or a novella, just to give it some breathing room. That’s obviously not possible here, though, and the author’s done a pretty good job of bringing the God-king-emperor’s paranoia to life. SILVER

Christina Pepper

“Is it getting hot in here?” Jessica asks. “It’s totally getting hot, I’m sure of it.”

“Stop being such a drama queen,” Carson replies.

“Who you calling ‘queen’?” Jessica snaps back.

“Guys! Stop it already,” I say, putting my phone in my back pocket. “God, if we could just get a signal we’d be out of here in, like, two seconds.”

I turn toward the Famous Writer, who has retreated to a back corner. He looks a bit pale, and a thin sheen of sweat covers his face.

“I’m so sorry, sir,” I tell him. “I sincerely apologize for the hysterics of my companions.”

He grunts in response. Or, at least I think he grunts. It might just be some random elevator noise.

“Are there more buttons we can try pressing?” I ask.

“I’ve pressed the ever-loving crap out of every single one of these,” says Carson. “You can do it yourself if you don’t believe me.”

“How about trying that alarm button one more time?” asks Jessica.

Carson depresses the button next to the silver silhouette of a bell. A loud buzzing sound fills the elevator. He releases the button, and we’re greeted with silence.

“What’s the point of an alarm button that rings an alarm inside the damn elevator?” I ask.

The Famous Writer sinks to the floor.

“Someone will come looking when we don’t show up,” I say. “At the end of class, Professor Peterson told me to take him straight to the Fitzgerald Room at the dining hall. Everyone will be waiting.”

I look around the small, ancient elevator. As best I can tell, we’re midway between the fourth and third floors of Main Hall, which is the oldest building on campus, dating back to 1853. Now of course, the elevator isn’t original to the building.

“My kingdom for a signal,” says Carson, holding his phone above his head. “Maybe somewhere in here, there’s a spot that’ll work?”

“You have a kingdom?” asks Jessica.

“Ever heard of an idiom?” growls the Writer.

Carson, Jessica, and I make brief eye contact. This is the first he has spoken since the elevator lurched to a stop just moments after it had commenced its descent.

“Sir?” says Jessica in the direction of our Esteemed Guest. “Can I offer you some water?” She pulls her massive stainless steel water bottle from her backpack.

He shakes his head and resumes his study of the tan industrial-style carpet covering the floor.

“We need to stay hydrated,” Jessica declares to no one in particular, tipping the bottle back.

“Uh-uh,” I say. “I’m not touching that stuff until I have access to a bathroom.”

“Oh,” she replies. “Good point.”

Carson continues holding his phone at different heights while moving around the elevator.

“I might have found a spot,” he says, the phone at knee level. He crouches and begins typing furiously.

“You calling campus security?” Jessica asks.

“Just a second,” he says.

I peer over his shoulder. “Carson G. Wilkinson, what the hell do you think you’re doing?”

He looks up at me, all wide eyes. “Oh come on, you’re just jealous it didn’t occur to you to live-Tweet this before I thought of it. Anyway, my middle name definitely does not begin with the letter G.”

I grab the phone. The signal disappears.

“Elevator emergency! Situation severe!” I read aloud. “Seriously, ‘hashtag OhFuckStuck? That’s the best you could come up with?”

“Sir,” Carson says pulling the phone from my hands and turning to the Writer, “You got a Twitter handle?”

“Alliteration Anonymous,” he responds.

“Really?” asks Jessica.

“Ever heard of irony?,” he asks.

Jessica’s face suddenly flushes, and I see tears start to well up in her eyes. She turns to face the doors and slams her hand against them.

“Honey,” I say, reaching for her shoulder. “Come here. I’m sure this will all be over soon.”

I hug her and no one speaks. She finally sniffles loudly and pulls away from me, turning back toward the doors.

The Writer removes a flask from his messenger bag.

“Sweet!” exclaims Carson.

The writer takes a pull and then returns the flask to his bag, not making eye contact with any of us.

I bend down and open the small panel with the phone symbol on it. I pick up the phone, which has no keypad, and hold it to my ear. Still nothing.

“Shouldn’t this really connect to something?” I ask.

“We’ve been over this once already,” Carson replies. “Now where was that spot with the signal?” He resumes his search.

“You got more to Tweet about?” I ask.

“Oh yeah,” he says, “‘Emotions escalate. Star students reassure reclusive writer.’ I’m going to get a book deal out of this for sure.”

“Ever heard of hyperbole?” asks the Writer.

“If you’re so clever,” retorts Carson, “What are you doing visiting some second-string liberal arts college in the middle of Wisconsin, huh?”

“If you must know,” says the Writer, “I’m gathering material for my next book.”

“What’s it about?” asks Jessica, finally turning to face the group again.

“Oh no,” says the Writer, reaching for his flask again. “It’s going to take a lot more than a hostage situation to get me to reveal the plot of my magnum opus.”

“Hostage situation?” screeches Carson. “What?”

“Who put you up to this?” asks the Writer. “Eggers? Franzen?”

“This makes no sense,” I say.

“Exactly!” the Writer exclaims. “What are the chances that by complete accident I would be trapped in an elevator with three informants disguised as students?”

We stare, speechless, as the Writer reaches for the grab bar along the back of the elevator and gracelessly hoists himself to his feet.

“Someone’s been trailing me for weeks,” he continues. “All across the godforsaken Midwest as I go from school to school. But they only way they’re getting my notebooks is over my dead body!”

“Ever heard of cliché?” mutters Carson.

“Sir,” I say. “It’s going to be all right. We’re going to get out of here and we’ll get some food in you and it’ll be like none of this ever happened.”

He drinks deeply from the flask.

“You know,” says Carson, “I think you should maybe lay off of whatever you’ve got in there. At least until we get out of here.” He takes a step closer to the Writer.

“No,” roars the Writer. “You trap me here, you try to get me to reveal the secrets of my novel, and now you want my whiskey?”

Carson reaches for the flask, but the Writer holds tight to it. As they struggle, the flask begins to tip. I jump up to grab it.

“It’s mine,” yells the writer. Liquid begins to pour over all of us. The flask becomes slippery, and in a moment, it falls to the floor.

“Nooooooo!” cries the Writer.

We all stare down at the flask. The Writer picks it up, puts the cap back on, and returns it to his bag.

He inhales deeply. “Well, my friends. What are you going to tell the administration of this fine institution when they learn how you treat your guests?”

“No one is going to believe a paranoid, alcoholic old man,” says Carson.

“On the contrary,” he says. “Is the world going to believe me, or is it going to believe a few booze-soaked kids?”

We settle into an uneasy silence.

“I think I need to pee,” Jessica whispers to me.

“Just try to hold it,” I whisper back. “It can’t be that much longer now. I hope”

The writer leans over and begins to retch.

Jessica, Carson, and I all turn to the doors and begin pounding on them.

“Get us out of here,” I call. “Get us ooooooooout!”

B: I love The Writer, especially in the beginning when he just gives sarcastic one-liners. His ever-increased paranoia ramps up maybe a bit too fast. Carson is fun, though the other two characters are pretty thin. And the ending seems to come too fast, as if there’s more plot to pull from this situation. BRONZE

BD: I found myself really liking these characters, and the atmosphere as a whole is intriguing. In particular, the use of nouns like the Famous Writer give the story a dreamy quality. I was kind of hoping this was going to turn into a sort of magical-realism murder mystery, but in the end it doesn’t really go anywhere.

Gilman: This piece had some really satisfying characterization to it, as well as a confident style and tempo that kept up the energy throughout. Any locked-room situation can easily veer off into all the characters at each others’ throats, but it was nice that the author refrained from that a bit here, and kept the focus on the light panic of the newly-trapped rubbing off of Famous Author who oh my gosh happens to be utterly batty. My main quibble here is that the relationships between students aren’t given much of a chance to flesh themselves out, despite the fact that there’s obviously some history there. Of course, mostly that’s due to the fact that the story’s forced to end well before it runs out of narrative steam, and if that’s the biggest problem with your story, then that’s a good problem to have. GOLD

Pete: The way the last couple of stories went, I half-expected the writer to be right about the kids (or possibly, for the kids to brutally murder the author and eat him). The stakes here are comparably low, but the smarmy author is fun.

Joshua Longman

The boy’s opponent reached and picked up his piece, a warrior queen with brandished sword, grooved and carved from some ebon stone.  He swung her across the board.  

“Check,” he said.  

The boy stared in silence.

The man slapped a hairy hand gently on the table, rings clunking on wood.  “You know.  All new land I take, always I research things like these games.  I like chess.  You should appreciate more these things.”

The boy stayed quiet.

So?” The man said in his strange accent, irritation sprouting.

“I used to play chess with my father.”

“Ah, that is it?  I am not sorry for killing him.”

“I know you aren’t.”

“He would not submit.  If he submit, he would have lived.”

“What of my brother and sister?  Me?  Doesn’t it matter to you that our parents are gone?  We want to leave.  I want to see my friends.  I don’t like you.”

The man laughed through his nose, the sound wheezing in his mustache.  “You are little lost princes and princesses.  Little lost princes and princesses go and see their friends and rebellion happen.  You go when I feel you ready to go.”  With that, he pushed his chair back screeching upon the stones.  

“It is fine.  I win anyway,” he waved as he walked to the door.  The guard stepped aside. “Before you released, you watch how you speak to me.”  

He left and the lock snapped.

 

That night, Anastasia shook him awake.  “Master Reece, get up,” she hushed.  The boy blinked at her.

What?” he said, annoyed to be pulled from his only freedom.  

“The steward woke me about your uncle…”

“Really?” Reece sat up.  Anastasia looked away from his bared chest.

“He’s coming- ”

The boy threw aside the sheets and ran to his trunk, pulled a shirt around his shoulders.  Slipped his shoes on.

“Wake Azra and Jem but don’t scare them.  I’m tired of hearing them cry.”

The girl stared at the floor even as she rose and slowly crept off.  Reece was tired of her too.  She was always shy or scared. Her limp made her service slow, but was the only such they had.  

As he climbed he heard men talking above.  He curved the stairs along the wall into the twitching rays of firelight shimmering overhead.  His Uncle Micah tilted his head as he saw his nephew and stopped talking.

“Reece,” his voice cracked.  

“Uncle Micah!” Azra shouted from behind as she ran out of the darkness.  Jem was at her heels.  Their uncle’s eyes creased and he laughed and bent to hug them.

“You’re all well?” Micah said, looking at Reece.

“Yes.”

“Good.”  Micah approached the brazier with Azra on his shoulder and set her on the table. Sat himself down.  Anastasia served them tea and the twins got warm cider.

“You haven’t been talking with the king.”  His uncle sounded angry.

“Of course not,” the boy sneered.

“Well start!” Micah pounded the table and rattled the cups.  Reece drew back.  “Do you have any idea what’s happening out there?”

“Yes,” the boy spat.  “Vasheer told me.  Said I should know.”

“King. King Vachir, and you will learn to pronounce his name.”

“You call him king?  He killed your brother!”

“Those who don’t, die.  You’re fifteen – old enough to realize there’s no other option.  Anastasia, take the children to bed.”  Micah got up in anger, walked to the ledge and looked out.  By the light of the stars and moon, the trees breathed in the wind and crickets could still be heard buzzing though the tower was high.

“If you don’t start humoring him, he will kill you.”

“I don’t care.  We’ve no life here.”

“You live in a castle, you have beds and pillows, food and shelter and your siblings.  Your people have nothing, forced to work their own lands for the man that killed your father.”  Micah rested upon the smooth stone.

“I won’t bow to someone like that,” said the boy.

“You will and you will live.  It is what conquerors expect.  If I have to beat you so you remember that, I will.”

“…what is there to do?” Tears began to well inside Reece.

“Understand there are better ways to use your anger.  It disgusted me, but I bent the knee with a smile.  Vachir took my brother, but will not take his son.”  Micah’s eyes burned blue in his head.  

“Leave retribution to me,” his uncle whispered.

 

A scowl growing, the boy watched at dusk as he did every day.  He shouldn’t have turned Vachir away when he came again, wanting another game, but Reece couldn’t do it.  He wouldn’t spend any time with a monster like that.

His uncle didn’t know what he was capable of.   He didn’t trust him enough and Reece was growing frustrated.  Anastasia was 5 years younger with the personality of a mouse and the twins were merely children.  He was alone.  Yet, he was admittedly comfortable at this moment, to his annoyance, as he had always loved this season.  The wind flew through the pines and the red yellow leaves, and carried with it chills and a mineral smell.  It was a delightful sensation when coupled with the brazier burning away behind him like the iris of the room.  

The twins were down below sleeping, Anastasia finished sweeping and seemed to be settling in for the night in her alcove. Vachir’s rules.  No doors besides the exit and a steward guarding it at all times.  The only spot with a semblance of privacy was the chamber room, of which Vachir had torn down the door and replaced with a curtain. Same with the alcove.

He was getting sleepy, the signal probably wasn’t coming tonight…….but he could wait a bit longer.

His mind wandered.  Would Vachir really kill him?  He had his doubts, but his uncle was not known to be a liar.

I give some time.  Think, make right choices, or I lose my patience,” Vachir had said in his broken words.  

Reece would never give in.

He almost turned when he saw it on the banks of a winding inlet and felt a lift to his heart not experienced since the invasion.  On the wet sandbank below shimmered a small bonfire.  The boy thought he could see a silhouette there waving to him.  

It worked!  A promise with a friend before he was taken, a note crammed into a shoe and dropped into the mud.  And a signal.

He would prove to Micah that revenge could be his.  He could kill a conqueror.

——————————————————–

Vachir said he would give the boy time and it was true.  More than five months passed, and Reece and his siblings and Anastasia lived the same monotony every day.  The only change the change in their view.  He didn’t care.  The work he’d asked for would take time.

Reece drummed his fingers on the table.  The warmth of Spring improved his mood and Micah was visiting soon.  It had been too long.  A rap at the door and their guard opened it – the boy got up, but his uncle entered and motioned to him.

“Relax, nephew.  I’ve walked long today and could do with a seat.”

The boy sat back down.  “Uncle, how have you been?”

“Well…” Micah paused, eyeing the guard.  The steward glared but left and shut the door behind him after a time.  “ …as I’m sure you’ve heard, King Vachir has made me a general in his army.”

The boy flexed his jaw.  “You mean you’re a traitor.”

“Oh please!” Micah said in disgust, shaking his head.  “Enough of your attitude.  Listen to me for once.”  Micah’s hair was long and slicked back and had begun to recede, despite being only nine years Reece’s senior.  He was clearly lacking sleep.  “Do you know how King Vachir has conquered half the world?  It is not because he is strong, it is because he is smart.  His guards don’t share his brown skin nor almond eyes, but their loyalty runs deeper than ours ever did.  The man speaks eight languages.  True, our people had their possessions and titles stripped, but they are not starving.  King Vachir’s will has been one of violent benevolence and strange justice, but it has worked.  He knows that peace is easier than war, which is why he wants you.  But he won’t wait forever.”

“So everyone has given up hope?”

“Near all resistance has ceased. Near.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means be ready.  Tonight.  Make sure the twins are ready.”  Micah had a serious look.  Maybe Reece wouldn’t need the desk after all.

“……We will be.” The boy meant it.

“Good.  We’re done here.”  Micah rose with both hands and walked to the door.  Turning, he nodded to Reece and pulled it open.  As if it materialized there, an axe split his face in a blink.  He fell backward with a thud, spasming and gurgling and red.

“Uncle!” the boy screamed.  He rushed forward but all he saw was the the steward laugh and slam shut the door.

——————————————————–

A week after his uncle’s death, his father’s desk arrived, dark and polished.  He had immediately inspected it and instructed Anastasia to stand lookout as their guard dozed in the alcove.

It had taken longer than he liked, but he found it.  A thick, smooth leg embedded among delicate engravings had turned in his grip and popped out by some spring.  A latch on top unclasped the cylinder and it split down the center – a small sword with a narrow handle lay there as if wood had been molded around it.  The boy took it and wondered at it only as long as he dared.  He stored it under his mattress and practiced that night in the darkness, silent and sweating.

In the morning he rose quickly, hearing activity through the walls.  His clothes were already on and he lifted the bedding.

“Master Reece, please don’t do this…” Anastasia appeared, gripping his wrist.  Reece tore her hand away and bounded up the stairs as she shuffled behind.  He rushed to the ledge and noticed it was raining and leaned upon it and the dangled the sword over it.

Anastasia caught up panting, looking as if she would cry.

“Don’t do this!” she breathed.

“No?  Why not!” he said, anger trumping caution.  The steward cocked his head.

“Because of you!  Azra, Zem.  Your father.  He rescued me and gave me a place –  you’re the only family I have,” she began sobbing.  

Reece looked at her as if it were the first time when a knock sounded.  

“Bring tea,” he said and turned around again.  She lingered a moment and did as bade.  The door creaked open as footsteps dropped.

“My little lost prince, how are we?” Vachir said as he trod in the room.  Reece didn’t move.  “Mad still?  Such thin skin in this country.”

Anastasia brought the tea and left in a hurry.  “She’s been crying?” Vachir asked.

“Maybe because she had to clean up my uncle’s blood.” The boy turned his head.

The man chuckled, bemused. “I let you see him once more, did I not?  That was a mercy.  Ah! And your father’s desk, my kindness was not necessary, but nostalgia is a gift I can grant.”  Vachir walked toward it and sat in the chair, his back to Reece.  “Comfortable.”

The boy’s heart strummed as he looked at the conqueror in his peripheral.  It was now or not at all.  The rain streaked hard and thunder growled above.  He closed his eyes tight and breathed slowly.  

Then…he let go.  The steel plummeted, a driving spike amongst the drops.  He couldn’t see it fall to the bloated tide, but somehow knew when it hit the water.  He turned, walked around the desk, and looked at the man.  

“Did you notice my speech has improved?” Vachir asked playfully, but for a hint of menace in his gaze.

The boy smiled.  “A game of chess, King Vachir?”

B: I had to read this a second time once I figured out who everyone was. It’s heartbreaking storytelling and drama is built well. The pace is off a bit for me; we fast forward through time too quickly for me to catch up, though this is a small concern. I love the death scene. Brutal. SILVER

BD: There was some debate among the judges as to whether this fit the prompt. While I think it does, the writer definitely employed a lot of sly techniques keep it within the letter of the law. Anyway, this is a harsh slice of fantasy, wonderfully written with a very engaging environment. The plot doesn’t go in any surprising directions, but in a way that’s the point; this is simply a slow, brutal slog towards the inevitable. GOLD

Gilman: Grumble grumble. You can’t deny the confidence this author has in their talent to bring to life some new realm with believable, fully fleshed out characters. The prose has styles for miles and miles, no doubt, and it nicely hits many classic fantasy checkpoints. But I can’t lie; the story as a whole doesn’t sit well with me. For one thing, the surprise death of Micah seems way more outta-left-field than Vachir’s character would suggest, even if he IS a barbaric conqueror. The whole story is spent making Vachir seem like he’s canny in his ways, and is genuinely trying to turn the heart of Reece. So this bit of cruelty feels wrong somehow. Another thing is how sketchy and overly complex the machinations of Reece’s revenge plan seem to be. A note stuffed in a shoe to a friend on a shore with a fire-light and a desk with a hidden sword he drops out a window? That’s almost Rube Goldbergian in its complexity, and it shifts what could be the most compelling part of the narrative off-stage and up to utter chance. I don’t even know how to connect those dots to show what Reece expects to happen next. But lastly and most disappointing, I feel like the author really REALLY bent the concept of this story prompt to suit their needs. Taking out some doors and putting up some curtains doesn’t make this space into a single room. If there are alcoves for four different people to sleep in AND a stairway AND a main area with a fireplace, we’re not talking about a single room anymore. It may turn out that we hand a DQ down for this. In any case, it counts as a huge demerit in my eyes, despite all the skilled writing that this story had going for it. BRONZE

Pete: This one certainly approaches the prompt in a much different way from the other stories, in that there is a lot happening outside the room that the camera (by the rules of the prompt) never lets us see. As a result, there’s a lot of tell without show, but I don’t think the story really suffers for it.Reece’s decision to forgo vengeance in order to keep his remaining family (both by blood and by circumstance) together is given some real weight. There’s palpable character growth, which is impressive for such a potentially constrictive prompt. Good work. GOLD


 

Margaret: 2 points
Brendan: 14 points
Christina: 6 points
Joshua: 14 points

For the second time in a row and for just the third time overall, the winner of Play With The Prose will be a dude. Congratulations Joshua and Brendan. One of you will get your name on the sidebar for the first time. Expect your prompt tomorrow.

Christina and Margaret, it is sad to see you go. I would be sadder, but your absence means fewer words to judge next week.

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