Guys, don’t work in retail over Thanksgiving. Also, don’t buy a house ever. It’s entirely too much. To be sure, never do these two things while running multiple online competitions.

On the other hand, let’s DO this thing! We had a lot of great ideas that give me hope that the season will be strong. Most everyone’s got some opportunity to grow, but we have to start somewhere, yeah?

Also, who wants to make a scoring spreadsheet? I’ll make it I have to, but SWEET MOTHER OF MYSTERY PLEASE TAKE SOMETHING OFF OF MY PLATE

Also 2, if we can expect this many nonsubs a week, I may rethink scoring. At any rate, I think at the very least we’ll go 2-3-3 on medals next week rather than 3-3-3 because I think another person is out.

Also 3: The Revenge of Also, your next prompt is at the bottom of this post, so even if you skip over everyone else’s hard work like the jerk you are, you should at least scroll down there.

Ashton Stansel

Martha sighs, rubbing her sore hands together. Her fingers are calloused, she notes, and the bruise on her neck is still struggling to fade. Her right hand firmly grasps her backpack, the one with basic things, like food and water, and a blanket. She barely moves her arm to put her thumb out when a car rolls by, not expecting to be noticed.

Thomas releases the wheel of his car for long enough to take a swig of his beer, the one resting between his knees. He returns his hands to the wheel, thinking about how that old pig, his father had reacted tonight, when he had told him what he had been doing with his time. It hadn’t been unexpected, but it had certainly been irritating, and wasted time he didn’t have. He goes to change the radio station, from country to pop, before taking another long swig of beer and scanning the road with his eyes.

It’s raining now. Martha is drenched. She had thought that leaving her home was a good idea, a way to get away from her mother’s words and her father’s hands, but she was cold and wet and seriously regretting her decision. The rain bit into her skin through her thin clothes, and left her trembling violently. She grimaces, remembering the last time she was this scared of something, and reminds herself why she had left. Her fingers unconsciously reach for the bruises on her neck, checking to make sure there wasn’t an arm there.

Thomas finishes his beer, tossing the can out the window of his swerving car. He does it to spite his father, he decides, knowing how the old man always preached saving the environment and that kind of thing. He would be furious if he saw littering. More furious than if his son was out here doing this Tom muses. He would show his father. HE was going to be famous one day.
Martha hears another car coming, sighing and holding out one hand in the classic thumb. She doesn’t expect much, having learned that not many people are willing to give a teenager a ride anywhere, even a girl. She is surprised when the car pulls over, and feels her chest tighten slightly in fear. Bending over to shield her bag from the worst of the rain, and blocking her eyes with one hand, she hurries to the car and opens the door. “Can I have a ride?”

Thomas sighs. Trust this one to want to talk. He nods, and the girl slides into the passenger side seat. She’s a pretty little thing, brown hair and blue eyes, and he feels his heart jump in excitement. Perfect. Same as the last one. Perfect. He imagines the last ones, his mind relaxing as it sinks back into the memories, and he turns onto the road. The news breaks through his music. “About the story we told you about before, the body of 17-year-old Catherine White was found today. “

K: Well, here we go. One story deep into the new season, and we’ve already got our first “He’s a serial killer” twist. This is a fairly obvious twist, given the prompt, so the payoff doesn’t feel like it carries much weight; I’d hazard to guess we all saw this coming. There’s some decent writing here, and I think the writer will probably provide the goods down the road. BRONZE

TL: I really like the buildup here. Sad, dangerous and disturbing. I would have liked a slightly less obvious last line. But overall accomplishes what it sets out to do. Nice! GOLD

MG: Interesting choices are made by the author here. Specificity of the descriptions (“the one with” phrasing echoes in the early paragraphs), or the decision to just barely bring our two characters together at the end, for instance. Veers a bit too much into the “telling not showing” lane, delivering each character’s backstory a bit too lightly. And I think the newsman at the end was a big give-away the reader didn’t need. Still, I appreciated the choice the author made about what span of time to cover in this one, and it made what could’ve been a very common choice into a more interesting one, cleverly told. GOLD

Sarah Wreisner

My teeth hurt from clenching and my eyelids stung from toilet paper and latex gloves. The apartment was strewn in turkey bags and Christmas bulbs; I should have walked out that morning, but I wanted to understand. Instead, everything fell apart. I tried to fix us. I never really could have.

Her name itself was an offense to any reputable woman: the uninspired, shallow fraud who worshiped anyone with a personality and a beautiful wife. I thought we looked down at people like her; I suppose he still did.

When I found out about it, I became every Old Testament parable of a caustic god: I ruined her and then I ruined us. I emerged from my bursts of rage like a sweating prisoner of war.

I left a note on the counter. I packed quickly and left popcorn bowls of food and water for the cats.

The first 70 miles were dull, despite the nail-biting and lines on my face. I left my phone off and drank Styrofoam-seared coffee to a mix tape with her name on it.

I entered Nevada, longing for Art Bell and the drug runs from our year in art school together – so much so that I almost turned around.

I saw the hitchhiker stand up from the sand: his hat was low, his jacket torn a bit, and he whipped a loop of twine overhead as I passed. I couldn’t concentrate after that: the glistening hand, the string and the tattered rain jacket were disturbing. I turned the music down and sipped my cold coffee. I had another state to go but I clearly needed sleep.

In Arizona, a rare winter rain skewed my depth of field. I saw him again – the traveler, the same frayed jacket – but I was slowed by a construction zone and a Con-Way truck. The semi nearly grazed the hitchhiker as we rolled past, but he didn’t notice, swinging the loop of rope and turning his head as I passed. Something else glinted in his hand; I swerved when I saw it: we were 115 miles from the first place he’d been. I’d have to stop in Arizona to make a few calls and get a newspaper.

Over the border, just outside the Lake Mead NRA, I pulled into a dark rest area and saw him one more time. He waved both arms, marching from a dark line of sagebrush, his jacket in shiny ribbons.

The cord dangled from his left hand, a glittering flash of silver on its end.

It had always hurt my feelings – it made me paranoid, like he was keeping it from the parasitic female fans. The blood rushed to my ears like an air raid siren as I fled back toward the freeway. I think he was trying to give it back, or even to threaten me in some way; he wanted me to have it before the apartment door was kicked in and I was out of range.

K: This one is a little frustrating. The prose is strong (I always hate it when I can’t think of a better word than “strong” when I’m saying the prose is strong) and I think there’s probably a very interesting story just about to unfold in the next few paragraphs. Is the hitchhiker the ghost of a rock star? I don’t know gang. I wish I did, because this is lovely. SILVER

TL: The individual pieces of this story are great, intriguing even. But I am not sure what is happening overall. I understand the guy is running from something, but it never becomes clear to me what that something is. Is this a grim reaper type situation? Is he holding a microphone? Just too many unanswered questions for the 500 word limit. BRONZE

MG: There’s an indisputable talent at work here: some of the language is so specific, honeyed and poetic that it becomes hallucinogenic. Which is appropriate for a story as colored by drugs and junk as this seems to be. But the author wants to keep things so intimate and so interior-focused that the reader is never let in on most of the secrets, and that leaves us with very little to grab onto. The mystery is too much here, the dream too far beyond our grasp, and makes the cardinal sin of leaving me asking “huh?” SILVER

Colin Woolston

The crunch of the fine gravel added to the brittle quality of everything, its normally satisfying sound made thin by the frigid air. He stopped again, maybe the fiftieth time today. Maybe the hundredth.

He stared at the edge of the embankment, and then down the eight hundred foot drop over the mountainside, a uniform gray under the November sky. There should be snow by now, he thought.

A car passed. This road carried few people, mostly families looking for great adventures into the wild unknown. He looked up at the road ahead trying to shut down his brain before the distant memories managed to get closer. Was this the place? No. It’s further up, around the bend. He could rest a moment. He watched the car, listened to it’s engine struggling at the climb, imagined the warmth inside.

His feet were moving again. He shifted his bag’s straps and picked up his pace. He would get there soon and it would be done, and he could take a ride over the pass and maybe spend a few days at a hotel in the park. He could drink and feel superiority over the tourists. He and Paul could – He stopped again. Looked up at the road ahead.

He imagined a flash of purple above on the mountainside and then realized that the next switchback was the one. There was the turn-off with the inappropriately small “Scenic Overlook” sign Paul had thought was so-

He started walking again, and picked up his pace. He looked out at the range of mountain peaks to the south. He should feel their majesty. He should sing, or something. He stared for a while, his feet feeling out the narrow shoulder.

He stopped again. At the turn-off, the little red Honda that had passed him before was pulled over. A young couple waxed romantic over the view. Their laughter was presumably as warm as the inside of their car. He waited for them to leave. They looked resolute in their roadside smelling of the roses. He started walking again.

It looked the same. All of it. Every time. He stopped and looked out, trying to ignore the couple. He pulled the plastic container out of his bag, stared at it a moment, reveling in the ridiculousness of carrying everything that mattered in a used yogurt container. The way Paul wanted it. He measured some into his hand, said the silly words and poured his heart onto the scree. He put the lid back on the container and returned it to his pack where it would wait until next year.

He looked out. He noticed the splash of purple again and was amazed to see an Aster still blooming. He said so to the couple. They turned, shocked at the intrusion into their world, stammered some niceties and asked about the ritual. He told them. They were nice, and offered him a ride to Cooke City. It was done, and the year could begin again.

K: I must admit I was terrified of this story crossing over into sappy melodrama, but the ending felt clean and honest instead. There were some imperfections mechanically, particularly early on, and I came away thinking the writer probably spent the bulk of his or her work on the back half. Luckily, the work paid off. GOLD

TL: I wasn’t sure where this was all going, but I was satisfied that it was a memorial. The story seemed a bit choppy. I think some editing would help readers with the concept and its bittersweet qualities. SILVER

MG: The ending of this story felt honest and true to me, and the most comfortably written. Might have been because this author showed restraint, where the instinct to go sappy or maudlin might’ve occurred to others. Instead, we got elegance and acceptance of what had become ritual to him, but was probably heartbreak the first years or so. Leading up to that last third of the story, though, the effort of writing showed through, especially the telegraphed moments of shifting focus when Paul was mentioned. Overall, however, a skillful and gently touching piece. GOLD

Shawn Ashley

Maybelle Corning giggled. She didn’t laugh. She giggled.
When she was happy, sad, nervous… It was endearing. Especially to the boys at West Fairview High.
“So what do you think?” She asked as we walked to my car after class. “Do you think I should go to prom with him or Jake Cannon?” She giggled and lowered her voice. “Jake’s locker is next to mine…the other day he was taking books out and said, ‘Hey Mary, want to study this?’ And when I looked over he had his dick out on his history book.” A giggle. “I guess if you want to put your sweaty balls on anyone, it would have to be Adolf Hitler.”
She flipped one blond lock away from her face and looked at me innocently. “It was very ugly. And veiny. That poor guy is going to have many difficulties in life.”
“Maybelle!” I laughed as we approached my car. “Sure you don’t want a ride?”
“No, I have to wait for Billy to get done with practice.” She smiled. “Come to Lynn’s party later. I’ll be there.”
“Not sure my parents are going to be ok with me going to a party on a school night.”
Maybelle laughed. “You don’t say it’s a party, silly!” She threw her arm around my shoulders. “Hasn’t anyone taught you how to lie?”
Yeah. Everyone. Especially my boyfriend who was sneaking around with Carla Martin while I was with my French tutor on Tuesday evenings. “I’ll try.”
“Great!” She turned to go. “See you there!”
“Hey, Maybelle?” I called after her. “Go to prom with the guy who hasn’t shown you his penis.”
She pondered that. “Then WHO is left to go with?” She winked and skipped away.

I thought about that moment often… the last time that I ever saw Maybelle. The wink. The flip of the hair as she skipped away. I didn’t make it to the party.
Neither did she.
I thought about that now as I sat in Billy’s living room eleven years later.
When he called the day before I really didn’t expect him to say that they had found her body.
“They found her body tied to a tree.”
I knew Billy was haunted because they had gotten into a fight that day after practice and he didn’t bring her home. Some friends heard her say that she was going to hitchhike home, “to hell with Billy!”
“Hope you like black coffee, I don’t have that flavored crap,” Billy said.
“No, black is fine,” I assured, as I took the cup.
He sat, quiet a moment. “They found her body tied to a tree.” He repeated what he had told me the day before. “They found her tied there, three miles from school, and it took them eleven years to find her.” His eyes filled with tears. “There was no evidence of any physical struggle, nothing… someone tied her and left her there. Alive. To die.”
I almost giggled out of shock.

K: There’s a large story attempted here in too small a space. We have two separate narratives, which is fine, I guess, but with a large gap between; the bigger issue to me, though, is that the ending plays out simply as narration without character, since Billy is little more than a device to get the story finished. I also find it dubious that Maybelle would fail to be found for eleven years when she was three miles from her last known location, but I guess that was the conceit that drove Billy’s frustration, so I’ll live with it. GOLD

TL There are parts of this I really like and parts that just don’t work for me. The writer does a nice job with high school banter. I like the surprise -shock- ending. The penis conversation seemed awkward. Maybe would have worked better if she were a prude. Or it served to describe something truly disgusting. I mean really…when you see a penis for the first time…not that hot. But after awhile they grow on you. SILVER

MG: This is more the skeleton of a story than anything, really: certain facts and snapshots that have great potential to be filled in and turn into something really compelling. But as it is now, there’s really not much more than a half-understood character and an unusual couple of events. Maybelle, sexually forward for her years, experiencing foul play at the hands of hikers, discovered eleven years later. Billy and the narrator are left unexplored as characters, with the eleven year gap the only thing tying them together by the end. Maybe this is a victim of word-count-itis. BRONZE

Dean Carlson

The last notes of Hello Again are still echoing through the half full Lancaster County Fairgrounds Auditorium when Eddie hears the chant: HITCHIN’ A RIDE… HITCHIN’ A RIDE!!! He knew it was coming, it always comes. It’s why the crowd is here. Why else would someone skip the turtle races and the Tilt-a-Whirl to go see Vanity Fare, a band that had one hit nearly 50 years ago? It’s because they want to hear Hitchin’ a Ride. That’s why.

The problem is Eddie hates Hitchin’ a Ride. Sure, that’s what all pretentious rock stars say right? Hate the song that made you famous, “it’s about the art, not the commerce” and all that dross. And while that is partly true (it’s hard getting enthused over a song you’ve sang 12,631 times) the fact is, Eddie thought, the song and its middling popularity was dangerous. Something to be feared and forgotten, not celebrated.

Eddie couldn’t get over the notion that his song sent kids out into the highway looking for freedom but perversely finding themselves in danger. How many women were assaulted because of his song? How many young kids were exposed to drugs or found themselves in risky positions because of this silly stupid little song? Sometimes the thought that he may have harmed those kids was too much to bear.

But his loathing went deeper than that. The people in the crowd were happy; they weren’t mad at Eddie for sending them down a road of damnation. In fact, they were celebrating. They were remembering days long gone, more innocent days at that. As band members sipped water and shuffled upon the stage, Eddie thought what is the purpose of nostalgia? What is it that causes people to use a song to forget their dreary lives, even for three short minutes?

Eddie was seething. Isn’t that society’s problem today? We are constantly trying to create an idyllic past that no longer exists. Can never exist. Probably didn’t exist in the first place. Why can’t we live in the present, tackle the new and see that what right in front of us is what’s real? Not only is it real, it’s glorious. Don’t these people realize that however delectable the memory of Hitchin’ a Ride is, the very taste of it is tainted by the unpleasant scent of longing – that indefinable sadness of life’s finite essence slowly slipping away. Hitching a Ride subconsciously reminds us that there is that isn’t much to look forward to, that the silica in our hourglass is draining ever lower. Our lives that much more used up.

Eddie wants to yell out “We are all going to die, embrace the present!” but just then Howard knocks his drum sticks together and Trevor starts the first notes of Hitchin’ a Ride. Eddie walks up to the mic and dutifully starts singing:
A thumb goes up, a car goes by, it’s nearly one a.m. and here am I… hitchin’ a ride, hitchin’ a ride…

K: It’s almost comical how long this inner monologue goes on, but as crushing as it was, this isn’t far from something pretty fun – actually have Eddie say all of this aloud – on the mic in front of everyone – and this goes from pointless daydream into interesting character study.

TL: This is interesting point of view on the challenge, I definitely appreciate the original take. Of course, this needs to be a story, with a beginning, middle and end. What is happening here? It seems like it could be an interesting story but it is missing it’s meat. Why should we be interested in Eddie’s egotistical editorial?

MG: Okay, this is a really clever idea and a very impressive way to approach the topic this week…but it has one fatal flaw that i really think the author overlooked to its detriment. Keeping all these thoughts inside Eddie’s head really blunted them. Made this read just like an essay, an op-ed. What if this had become a screed? A manifesto? What if Eddie actually HAD yelled out his fury at the end, and gotten the audience to respond…somehow? What if he’d externalized these thoughts to his audience, his bandmates, his fan club, or anyone at all in any way? THEN we’d’ve had a crackerjack of a story, instead of a clever opinion. BRONZE

Melissa David

The car was perfect. He’d switched on the seat warmer so she’d be more comfortable. It wasn’t clear if she noticed, and he didn’t dwell on it long. Not when seeing her there, hair tucked under her hat. He hadn’t seen a vision like this in weeks. She peeled away her scarf, and he said, “Where to?”

“Take me home, stranger,” she said with a smile. She leaned over, kissed him.

A foot kicked the back of seat. A scream and something flew through the air. A sippy cup. Milk splattered. She laughed. He hadn’t heard it in months, and it melted everything else away.

“I missed you guys,” she shouted at the kids, clapping her hands.

He turned up the radio. She buckled her seatbelt, and he took his long lost hitchhiker home.

K: I love a story that doesn’t overstay its welcome. If this is your idea, then honestly, there’s no reason to drag it out to 500 words in the hopes that we think story length equals story quality. The final line is a little sappy for my tastes, though I don’t really have any suggestion for how to fix it. GOLD

TL: Short and sweet. A nice twist from the murder kidnappings everyone is so fond of writing about. I could have used more. GOLD

MG: More a quick sketch than anything, but a pleasant little scene that promises talent. Give yourself permission to really delve into your ideas as the season goes on. As you can see from the rest of the entries this week, folks really like to push their abilities here, and you’ll be able to as well.

Shelbi Sarver

I ran away from home when I was sixteen. At that point in my life, I felt like I needed a name to call myself as I rode my way around the country with strangers.

No, I’m much too clean to be a hobo.

I am a wanderer but it feels too fake.

Plain and simple. It also feels dangerous. Running away from home at sixteen is dangerous.

The first person who stopped for me, I asked for some change for gas, as he was refusing to give me a ride. Stranger danger and whatnot. He was odd. All he said was, “yep. What a concept. I could use a little fuel myself and we could all use a little change.”

I felt like the all star of hitchhikers.

K: I kind of want to punch you in the face for putting this story in my head, whoever you are. I mean…I’m not saying that a story that’s merely a reference to a terrible ought-years (or was it nineties?) pop hit can’t be something worthwhile, but at least tell me a decent story on the way. As it is, this is a punchline to a joke with no real setup.

TL: Did you recently watch Shrek? I am missing the story in this. Not much here to comment on or keep me engaged.

MG: Hey now. Somebody once told me that in-jokes are a tricky business here at Casa de Leche. I get it, though: so much to do in a serious vein that, it helps to break the mold. So what’s wrong with taking a surprise route? You’ll never know if you don’t give it a try, right? Well, after several seasons of judging, I’ve seen them land on all ends of the spectrum: from shooting stars to kinda dumb. So be cautious when you go play. No matter what the joke is, it’s rarely enough to carry the story alone. Always bring the sharpest tool in the writer’s arsenal. BRONZE

Christina Pepper

“But, Daddy,” I said throwing the car keys down on the table, “I don’t know how to make you un-mad at me.”

He exhaled and met my eyes for what felt like the first time all night.

“Neither to I, Berry,” he said, “Neither do I.”

I felt the hardness of the kitchen chair beneath me as I waited for the lecture to resume.

Daddy looked out the kitchen window to the backyard and to the field that lay beyond, though dark fell so early now I didn’t know how he could see anything out there.

“You want to go look at the stars, Bear-Bear?” he asked, using the nickname no one called me anymore.

It was the kind of question that isn’t a question at all, so I said okay. I grabbed my jacket from where I’d thrown it in the front hall when I’d gotten home and followed him out back.

The November air was cold but still, and the neighborhood was quiet. I could just barely make out the distant whine of the cars on the highway.

“You see that?” he pointed up.

“Orion,” I replied automatically.

“And he’s the . . .”

“Hunter,” I said.

“A hunter is also a protector.”

I nodded, though he wasn’t looking at me.

“And the moon?”

I was silent for a moment, studying its silver form.

“Waxing gibbous,” I finally said, my voice broadcasting my doubt.

“Close . . .” he replied.

“Waning, dammit, waning gibbous,” I said too fast. “I mean darn it. Sorry, Dad.”

He reached over and wrapped an arm around me.

“Sorry,” I said again.

Neither one of us spoke.

“I know you’re not so little anymore,” he finally said.

I leaned into him, grateful he wasn’t going to tell me again what I’d done wrong.

“But you gotta know you’ll always be my little girl.”

“I know, Daddy. I know,” I said, my eyes unexpectedly filling with tears.

“I can’t help wanting to keep you safe,” he said. “I promised your mother I’d take care of you.”

“And you have,” I said, putting my arm around him.

“I know you’re a smart girl and I know everything turned out okay tonight,” he said. “But promise me, Berry Ann Thompson, that you won’t go picking up another hitchhiker ever again.”

I held back from saying what I wanted to—those college kids aren’t nearly as bad as everyone in town says. That guy was out there with a guitar, said he was going to walk those five miles if he couldn’t get a ride.

“Berry,” he said, making my name a question.

“I promise,” I replied, and we stood, arms around each other, and looked up at the star-filled sky a while longer.

K: I really like the opening to this one, even if I find the use of “daddy” to be confusing, as it makes the character read a lot younger. Once we hit the conversation I felt it fell off the rails a little bit; once again, the conversation came off as a lecture to a much younger person. I get that dad is having a hard time letting go of his role in his daughter’s life, but some more give and take would have been much more dynamic. All this said, I was enjoying the fact that we have a real relationship to latch onto. BRONZE

TL: My parents told me dozens of times never to pick up someone off the street. My first thought was, does this girl get caught or does she tell her dad? I wish we knew, because it may help us to know how much danger she was or wasn’t in. I want there to be some sort of emotional buy in here. I like the originality of writing about the consequences, just somehow put more at stake. BRONZE

MG: Man, did I want to see this story go on longer. I really liked the things unspoken here; the relationship between Berry and Dad. There were moments that felt like they tipped a smidgen too far into the told-and-not-shown area, but honestly they were just on the right side of the line. The stargazing, the tender physical closeness…all of it really made something I would not have expected to work succeed quite well. It’s hard to write a genuinely touching and tender father/adolescent daughter relationship like this that doesn’t become too maudlin, too fraudulent, or back its way into something shocking just to undermine the moment. But this felt simply genuine throughout, and it didn’t take away Berry’s point of view or her own maturity either. All around, a very lovely moment and really enjoyable. GOLD

Joshua Longman

I met my best friend back in December 1984, driving the cold dusty highways of Iowa, bound nowhere. He started as a speck on white, revealing a shaggy man with a rucksack in my approach. A holiday surprise! Brakes whined and snow crunched undertire as I slowed. When I lowered the window he popped his head in, beard and all.
“Where you headed?” I asked.
“Roundabouts Davenport.” A rich, warm voice for a man who looked like a hobo.
“Same. Hop in, friend.”
“God bless ye.”

Two hours until Davenport – enough to get to know him, as I like to do. His name was Graham and Graham had been hitching east for weeks.
“You couldn’t take the bus?” I asked, but he’d fallen on hard times and was homeless in California. Toured Vietnam and replaced images he couldn’t shake with addiction.
“Been nine years, but I’m cleaned up now and wanna make amends,” Graham said of his daughter. I could sense the heartbreak.
He was perfect.
I skipped his exit and waited for a reaction that never came, so I tugged a cord from the steering column instead. A malfunction light blinked on.
“Should probably check it out…” I said apologetically parking at a rest stop, empty but for truckers asleep in their cabs.
“I’ll help,” Graham offered. I parked the car, popped the hood, and felt my pocket for reassurance. Outside, I looked at the ticking engine.
“Afraid I’m not a car guy, Graham. Mind fetching the manual?”
“Me neither. I’ll git it.”
Graham walked and I followed – the time was upon us. I was about to make my move when he leapt up from the car, pointing a pistol at me.
“Better idea. How ‘bout some festivities?” he growled.
I stared blankly before bursting into laughter. I couldn’t help myself! Wiping away tears I showed him the knife in my pocket. Graham guffawed and slapped his knee.
“Hot dog! You was gonna murder me? I was gonna murder you!”
I nodded my head through the chuckles. “Life’s funny, isn’t it? Small world!”
“Sure is!” He smiled his yellow hobo grin as his shoulders sagged.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Well…now what? I got m’self all excited, but it ain’t the same if yarn’t scared.”
“Mmm, see what you mean. I was eager too.”

In the end we slept in my car and got breakfast in the morning. As we left the diner I asked Graham where I should leave him.
“Any-old-city is fine. Always opportunity outside the cities.”
“Sure,” I said solemnly, putting the car in drive.
That could’ve been it. We could have parted there and never spoken again, but serendipity struck. Another Christmas miracle! Not five miles out we saw a pretty young thing bundled up – blonde hair peeking from her hood as she shivered with a sign reading “Florida or Bust.” Graham and I gazed at one another, a kindred twinkle in our eyes.
And thus began the first of our many adventures.

K: Well, at least it’s a TWIST on the serial killer trope. I do think this should have gone much further than it did. If it’s going to be absurd, just embrace the absurdity and give me these two laughing idiots, soaked in blood as they dance. As it is, it doesn’t have enough punch to stand out after years of reading stories with the same payoff. BRONZE

TL: Well this is a sufficiently disturbing concept. Two psychopaths meet up and befriend each other only to become a serial killing duo. Sweet. A little too sweet maybe? It is hard to imagine these guys chuckling and knee slapping over their mutual plans to murder the other. SILVER

MG: Another story I wish I could read more of, but obviously for very different reasons. I wasn’t nearly as touched by this as the previous one, but there’s quite a lot here to enjoy. Unfortunately, I feel it sets up the potential for some really juicy and exciting stuff after the events covered, and this little prologue is kind of badly served for it. Snappy descriptions, and very nicely timed crossup when the two characters’ intent is revealed to one another in the middle, so that was fun. I bet it’d make for an interesting HBO series. SILVER

Annette Barron

The struggle of leaving her safe cocoon left her weak. She crept through the thick brush, her ovaries screaming for blood. She sensed males in the vicinity and her vitals quickened.

Large blades slashed through the thicket and she let her powerful legs go, springing high in the air and out of the way. She landed lightly and sniffed her surroundings. She smelled gravid females nearby and quivered with urgency.

She assembled her laciniae and epipharynx, saliva pooling in her mouth. The ground shook beneath her and she crouched low, hooking the hairs of her legs into the brush and hanging on through the tremors. The violent shaking went on and on but she held fast. She could sense others who were not so lucky and huddled tighter in determination.

Once again, the blades slashed through the brush; there was no time to jump. She froze in place as the blades crashed through thicket, scraping against the ground and narrowly missing her. Over and over, they sliced around her; one blade scraped along her back, but she dug in tighter and it did not dislodge her.

When it was over, she once more assembled her mouth pieces. Time was running out. Without a meal, she would expire; but worse, she would not become sexually active. Her resolve stiffened and she slid her epipharynx into the ground. With her last reserves of energy, she used the powerful pump in her abdomen. Blood, salty and sweet, flooded her mouth.

Later, with her thirst slaked and her newly matured ovaries thrumming, she went in search of the party. The first male to jump at her found her to be wildly enthusiastic. He’d only just coiled in his penis when she was off to another.

There was an orgy of mature others and she jubilantly joined in. Two males jostled to get on top of her and she took a third while they grappled. The ground rumbled again, but went unnoticed.

Hours later, she left the gathering, sated and swollen. She crept through the brush, her bulging abdomen aching. When she was alone, she crouched in exhaustion, waiting as the pressure inside her built.

The first egg dropped to the ground, smooth and white and the exhilaration was intense, overshadowing the pain of the exit. She shuddered as another one dropped, followed by another and another. Twenty-two times, but she did not count . . . could not, as she was in a stupor of euphoria and pain.

After a while (she could not say how long), she turned her back on her eggs and wandered away. They were on their own as she had been. Depleted, she would feed again and then she would mate.

Beneath her, the ground trembled and twitched.

K: Aw, hell, I love this. Put this in a textbook without a character-centric view and I might want to kill myself, but I loved the opportunity to read of the animal lust and fear from the perspective of the insect. However…however. How much do I ding this for having a very slight relation to the prompt? If I squint, I can see how you got there, but at what point do I assume that you started writing before the prompt went up, and got lucky that we might be able to see hitchhiking in there somewhere? SILVER

TL: Damn, Gina. Way to make a blood and sex hungry bug into something readable and engaging. Love this take on hitchhiking. GOLD

MG: Yeah. Hitchhiking. I mean, good job with this story for what it is. Technically explicit and detailed, very visceral and immediate. Not exactly my cup of tea, because we don’t really get presented with a character per se, just a biological agent responding to instincts and impulses which are lavishly described. There’s little attempt to humanize or personalize the behaviors described, so the reader doesn’t have much to grab ahold of. And of course, no detectable connection to the prompt of hitchhiking. The issue with that, folks, is it means you could simply be recycling a previously written piece, which gives you an unfair advantage over the other writers who are forcing themselves to come up with something brand new on the fly. Sorry, author. You got chops. But you have to get buzzed for this effort.

Tyler Coulter

I left the black heart of Vegas when I was 17 and never looked back. “There’s a diner outside of Omaha, with a waitress that looks a lot like you, boy.” That was the only time I’d ever heard Dad speak of her, so I thumbed my way to Nebraska. I found the diner, and I found the woman. She was a particularly worn shade of thirty-something, with heavy, sad eyes and scabs caked over with Wal-Mart brand cover-up.

Dad must have sent her pictures occasionally, because she knew me as soon as I sat down. After a hasty altercation with a fat man through a slit in the wall, she was allotted a fifteen minute break. She offered me a smoke behind the dingy restaurant, and did her best to explain her absence in my life. In the end, I left there with a $20 bill and a napkin with her number. I pissed the $20 away on a Big Mac and half-handle of Jack for the road.

In Utah, I met a young couple. I learned two things from them. First of which is, people’s sexuality is not always black and white, and secondly, if it sounds too good to be true, it is. They found me at a park-and-ride, and invited me onto the retired school bus they called home. They were both in their 20s and very attractive, so I traveled with them even though they were heading for Seattle, not Vegas.

We were somewhere in Idaho when that old familiar saying came up. “Gas, grass, or ass.” I thought I was out of luck. I had about $3.00 on me and had long since smoked my last joint. To my utter astonishment, the girl stripped down to just her bra and her long blonde dreads as the man pulled over. Before I knew it, we were all wrecked on coke and fucking in a wild, ecstatic blur. That was my first sexual encounter with a man. If I hesitated, it was only for a moment. I’ve been sexually open to anyone since.

I don’t know if it was him or her, or the needles we shared. All I know is I woke up alone on a bench in Spokane half-naked and freezing. Months later, I tested positive for HIV. I was underage, so the state was good about getting my medical bills straightened out, but I was forever infected from that point forward. That was 12 years ago.

Last month I was picked up by a middle-aged, mustached pastor on my way to Memphis. We talked about Jesus and the Bible the entire time, except when we stopped to fuck. It really is a strange world. I imagine he’ll go back to his cushy life in the suburbs, completely unaware he probably has HIV now.

I know I’m fucked up, but I don’t care. Honestly, I enjoy imagining what it’s like to be him when the doctor breaks that awful news to his family.
K: I thought we were heading somewhere pretty interesting with this, but in the end it’s a series of anecdotes. It’s all long in the past, so we get very little sense of how our protagonist felt in the moment. It’s right up there at the top as far as the prose is concerned, but I do wish it was more cohesive. SILVER

TL: This is very sad. I definitely want to read more. Mostly to find out how it ends. Just another sentence or two to give some sort of ending would have been great. BRONZE

MG: There’s a bit of interesting stuff going on here, but it also feels like the author’s kind of working to avoid engaging with his/her own protagonist. Everything’s told in distant past-tense, semi-apologetically (and tied up with an “I don’t care” at the end). The only thing we learn about him is that he’s not too engaged with the events of his own life, or the repercussions that’s caused others. Which I suppose is somewhat understandable, given the life he came into. Still, it makes it hard for me to connect with his story or his character, and there should be lots of opportunity to achieve either. Like some other submissions this week, it feels like a timeline of events more than an actual story, in the end. SILVER


Your next prompt is named after the episode Eye of the Beholder.

The Rundown of the episode (but not necessarily your prompt): A woman, seen with her face bandaged, has undergone the final surgery to try to make her hideous appearance more acceptable to the world. The medical staff assures her that, if the operation is a failure, she will be sent away to a village of outcasts with similar deformities. But once the bandages are unwrapped and the result of the surgery is seen, we realize that, yes, beauty IS in the eye of the beholder.

The wonderfully gruesome makeup effects were by William Tuttle, who created the Morlocks for the sci-fi film, “The Time Machine.”

Your story must center on a character who is changing his or her appearance in some way to impress someone or fit in. It’s due Sunday night at 8pm Central.