Production Note: With Novak definitely out and Jared Mitchell out, we have 15 writers, and have recalibrated medals to 2-3-3. We still only got twelve stories, so I wouldn’t say we’re done sorting this out yet. I can’t be sure who’s in and out, because surely, emailing me to say “Sorry, but I don’t have the time for this right now” is a long, arduous task.

Enough about that – let’s consider those of you that are here. This seemed like a prompt that woke a few of you up. This is the kind of prompt that everyone should be able to relate to – to some degree – so I’m pleased but not totally surprised that this happened. Keep the upward mobility going, gang. There are some great ideas here, and even a few that were expertly realized and will stick in my mind for a long while.

Dean Carlson

Chris tightened the olive and tan striped bow tie around the neck of his blue oxford shirt, put on the matching vest, looked in the mirror and sighed. Thanksgiving at Grandmas. Not only the first Thanksgiving without Grandpa and his corny old jokes and petty gripes about the Vikings; but the first Thanksgiving since Chris told the family that he was trans and eventually wanted top surgery. The first Thanksgiving where he was going as the man he really was — both in appearance and through his actions. If the cousins snickered or Grandma gave him a sour look, so be it. They needed to get over it, not me, Chris thought.

The drive to Grandmas was easy enough with the slushy streets of the City giving way to empty highways as gray as the low November clouds. The last few miles through the old-growth pine forest gave Chris hope. This is the last hurdle, just get through this Holiday and there are no more milestones to note, no more gates to crash. If the family can’t accept who I am, fine. I have plenty of friends, and besides, isn’t it time I created my own Thanksgiving traditions? The flock of wild turkeys pecking away on the side of the county road startled Christ back to the present and reminded him of the day’s main event. Mmmmm turkey, he could smell Grandma’s cooking as soon as he shut the door on his Mazda and walked up to the door.

They were all there of course: Grandma, dad, his sister Kelly and the cousins. Dad and Kelly helping set the table. The kids watching football. Grandma at her roost in the kitchen. Chris greeted her from across the house: “Smells good grandma!” “Oh thanks Krista, er… um Chris… hang up your coat and get something to drink, I may need help with the gravy soon.” Grandma was in her element.

Dinner went well although the void of grandpa’s witty banter and battery of jokes clearly made the time less frivolous. No one commented about Chris or his appearance, which besides a typical male wardrobe, included visible facial hair and a voice like a teenage boy struggling with the first cracklings of puberty. Typical Minnesotans Chris thought, let’s not confront the elephant in the room, much less acknowledge it.

After dinner Grandma said hey “Krist… Chris help me with the dishes would you?” They weren’t even on the third plate when Grandma said “I don’t know if I get this whole trans thing, but I love you regardless. I’m just worried that your life will be that much harder. Are you sure?” “Yes grandma,” Chris sighed, He had this same conversation with his dad. “Well, you should know,” grandma’s voice lowered to a whisper “Grandpa was a cross dresser, it was kinda of fun actually, so there’s some history there.” Grandma smiled and went back to scrubbing the cranberry bowl leaving a bemused Chris holding a dried china plate.

K: Huh. Well, there’s a lot of potential drama here, and instead we get none. The twist on the trans reaction was surprising, to be sure, but it robbed us of any real narrative, even if it made me feel good. There are a few technical issues that needed to be sorted out as well; there’s a semicolon following a sentence fragment, missed apostrophes, and one instance of Christ being called “Christ.” As funny as it was to imagine Christ being startled, this should have been edited out.

TL: Aww, shucks! Man, I love a nice grandma story. Although this didn’t get super in deep with Chris’ personal angst. That was ok with me. The writing overall fit with it being a bit more lighthearted but not so lighthearted, family reunion. Bronze

MG: A very nifty take on the prompt, and not the sort of trite familial blow-up a lesser writer might have pursued, so that’s commendable. There was a narrative distance here that kept everything muted throughout: nothing really built, stakes were established early and things felt pre-smoothed almost. It’s refreshing from a societal perspective, but doesn’t make for a terrifically compelling story. Maybe that’s the best thing about it; that this isn’t quite so remarkable a scene now. BRONZE

Sarah Wreisner

It’s not like she’s still physically here or anything. I’m not one of those people – so stop looking at me like that.

I won’t discuss it – I already told you that – but let’s just say it was as painless as it was gonna get with that kind of cancer. She knew what the odds were: she told me that when I drove across the state to meet with her.

She wanted to live it out. She didn’t want to thrust Drano through her veins and make round trips to the city every 3 days. She just needed someone to steady her arm when she showered and bring her Haagen-Dazs when she was sick, which was all the time.

She didn’t have anyone. She was right what I was looking for: room and board, cash, freedom to poke around in her things for fun. I could skim a bit off the top, running errands and shit, and she’d never ask questions. She was too fucking sick.

She was happy to have me. It’s not like it was all bad.

No one came by unless an invoice was involved. At least I talked to her, made her feel like she might be okay. It was easy.

She got worse and I had to help her sign for meds. They just came in regular intervals, just like the toiletries, food service and cat food. I eventually just started signing for everything in my own hand. No one from the delivery service knew her writing anyway.

It was sad, really. I guess she was a tax attorney or something when she was alive. Beats me.

The thing that fucks me up is how someone can just die in her house and not one person calls or sends flowers – not for months. No one shows up with ginger ale and soup. No one.

I didn’t plan on it going this far – never. It just… evolved.

She was only 10 years older than me. She didn’t really have neighbors – she was too far out in the sticks for that kind of shit. She’d turned her little investment cottage into a death suite; I was just there to help (and tip myself a bit once in a while).

I saw some pictures of her when I was looking for her passport. It was unreal, seeing how much we had looked alike when she wasn’t sick. Weird, right?

I’m not gonna talk about the rest – the days after she was too far gone to recover. It was natural enough. She definitely didn’t suffer: that’s for sure.

The hospice folks didn’t question a thing. On the record, Joanie made a full recovery, amazing the DME aides who came to tear down the bed. Off the record, though, I’m just here in the sticks until I catch another break.

K: This is a pretty great opening to a redemption story, right here, though as a stand-alone story it keeps us at arm’s length because none of it is in the present. The lead character has a lot of potential, as does her relationship with the cancer patient, but we never see a single second of this. In the end, it feels like someone is saying “Trust me, this was a dramatic scene” other than saying “Well, why don’t I just show you?” BRONZE

TL: Stealing a dying persons identity. A harmless crime perhaps? This is well told and sneakily sinister, yet you definitely get the impression that this person is not entirely cold hearted. I could have used a bit more information about the narrator. But overall nicely done. Bronze

MG: Pretty torn about this one. Maybe the protagonist is torn too. Sometimes justified, other times defensive. Never too far in either direction though, and it never becomes clear who she’s discussing this with. But as with the first story, it’s all front-loaded creatively into the interpretation of the prompt. The rest feels unfocused and shaky. Hospices are pretty involved with their charges, so they would definitely not gloss over a miraculous recovery (not to mention some differences in looks that’d have to happen). A person taking over someone’s identity had bloody well learn whether they were/are a tax attorney when they take over. I feel like this idea deserved a better follow-through.

Shawn Ashley

“Get in here, boy! Ain’t nobody want that cold in here,” he growled, his dull, green eyes barely moving from the pot he stirred on the stove.

“Yes sir,” I mumbled, struggling to close the heavy wooden door. I shook the snow from my short, matted brown hair and quickly tried to wipe it from the floor before he could see the mess I made.

“Carl is a big, fat sissy!” My cousin Robert squealed from his seat at the table.

My other cousin Roland laughed and chimed in. “Couldn’t even shut the door!”

I ignored them and raced to our shared room to change my clothes. Mama had said this would be hard, but living with them was the best thing, I could be with family.

I hurried and took my place at the table. The three of them were already eating.

“Where were ya, boy?” The old man growled, shoveling the stew in between his lips, half of it pouring down his chin. He didn’t seem to notice.

“I was at the library, finishin’ up my studies,” I said, picking up a spoon. “Sir,” I added.

I looked down into the bowl of slop and my heart jumped into my throat. Oh, how I missed Mama. She was the best cook in the entire world, even when we had nothing but scraps. The last time she cooked for me, she could barely stand, the sickness in her whole body. But she kept a smile upon her sunken face.

She had told me how much Uncle Gordon hated her, how it would be tough but if I followed the plan, I would be alright.

“Humpf,” he grumbled. “Tomorrow’s a long day. None of that studyin’ and schoolin’. This here farm is what’s important now. Don’t care what your ma wanted.” He said this resentfully. They didn’t learn of me until her death.

I looked down and, without a word, started to eat.

The next day was hard. From sun-up to sun-down we worked the fields. My hands were bloody and raw but I didn’t dare complain.

Midday, a boy about my age came up in his wagon. Michael from the next farm over, my cousin Robert informed me.

Michael. Whose hair was sandy blond. Whose eyes were like bright blue pools of the most beautiful, shimmering water.

He offered his help and we accepted. Uncle Gordon was so proud of Michael. Seemed more proud of him than his own sons. He dismissed my presence, saying my mother let me be a “sissy boy” with all of my “stupid books and learnin’.”

At this, Michael gave me a smile, one of the brightest smiles I’d seen on God’s green Earth. He even came over to help me when I couldn’t lift one of the blocks of wood I had chopped.

That night, hiding in the outhouse, I unwrapped the bandages that held my growing bosom down, thinking of Michael’s beautiful smile.

For the first time since Mama passed, I smiled.

K: Okay…so, certainly, the father is aware of the kid’s gender. I have to say I find the father outside the realm of reality, as he forces her to grow up as a boy and then condemns her for being anything but; I also was put off by his one-dimensional “sissy books and learnin’” stuff that felt more manipulative than anything. This is yet another story I could really like with a stronger foundation.

TL: Wow, i like the secret. It made for a nice twist. Well written and engaging, like many of these submissions, I would like to keep reading. Silver

MG: The sense of place and character in this piece is solid, compelling. The little reveal at the end isn’t treated as a huge rug-pull, but it’s given just enough of a special secrecy to mean something more to the character than to the reader, and that’s a nice change of pace given that so often the stories in past seasons have built to huge reveals in order to make an impression. (Not an issue this season so far, thankfully). Not a sparkling, biting story, but very much a solid entry. BRONZE

Colin Woolston

Incident Report ETDS9941933
Incident Date: 077 10413 “September”
Content classification: ALO, TS, Alpha
Subject Name: Gul’arc 7
Subject Species: Incleridinian Changer Class 7
Subject Planet of Origin: Incleridina
Initial Charge: Assault of a Royal Official.
Arresting Officer: SA Terrence Carrault
AO Class: Humanoid, Earth Descendant

Content:
AO assigned to Incleridinian coronation event as diplomatic security detail.
Subject G7 first observed morphing at 0837, doorknob to rug (a pleasant burgundy runner). At first observation the AO initialized tracking and video feed.
At 0840 the first procession commenced (poor choice by Ambassador Gul’brinn to use the Gul’avran march, in this officer’s opinion, given its significance to the working class).
Subject observed morphing from rug to 2nd (trumpet, the Incleridinian instrument is difficult to classify (and tolerate)) at 0846. AO attempted to alert CO Garrett D. CO was indisposed. AO alerted Incleridinian security officers. Officers stated “No Incleridinian would disrupt the coronation,” and ordered the AO to stand down.
Subject tracked at 0851 from 2nd (trumpet) to a button on the (tasteless) ceremonial kilt of King Gul’aran. AO alerted CO of potential threat. CO responded with “Give me a damn minute.”
0854 Subject tracked morphing from button to (assumed) undergarment of the princess (sight line lost, an interesting side-note given the science to date states that Incleridinian Changer Class Species can only morph into objects in line-of-sight or recent memory). AO observed Princess Gul’rinn reaction to Subject occupying her personal space: The Princess left the procession, removed her undergarment and disposed of them in an (ashtray, ostensibly).
0859 Subject morphed from undergarment to true form, attempted to approach the Princess shouting “For the people, for love.”
0903 Subject apprehended, subject attempted to morph, AO applied anti-morph cuffs (side note, no longer unnecessary, Garrett?!) and administered K-8 sedative.
It is this officers opinion that future assigned security details on this planet be equipped with Anti-morph cuffs, and more frequent diplomatic excursions be employed.
End of report.

K: A report like this could obviously be crushingly boring in the wrong hands, but the amusing personal touches created character and a plot that stood out more than anything else to this point. I felt I got to know this character much more than perhaps any other this season, and I would gladly spend a lot more time in this amusing sci-fi universe. SILVER

TL: Alright, I confess that this was difficult for me to read. I know there was a story lost in there somewhere. But I really don’t like sorting through all the technical mumbo jumbo, especially when it doesn’t further the plot. I will give you credit for creating a very specific environment with this writing style. But ultimately this one is just not my thing.

MG: Gimmicky? Nah, this got to me enough that I’d go with “esoteric” instead. Kept it light, but peppered with nice detail. And for some reason, the one phrase our shapeshifter friend spoke in its true form made me picture him as a dead ringer for Russell Brand. BRONZE

Shelbi Sarver

Monday I walk into my first class, wearing a plain white shirt that says “happy,” in bolded black letters. The few responses I get are well intended, though misguided. Comments like “good to know.” Sarcastic comments you make to friends, because it’s just a shirt, and I’m just being facetious in the most believable of ways. They’re actually missing the point. When I made this shirt, it was to inform the people around me, but not to inform them of my happy life. They see that already. They see it when I laugh at things that aren’t funny and when I attend the events that I can’t bring myself to be interested in. But they don’t ask, and I don’t tell. I wait, anticipating the moment somebody finally asks me “why?”

But that moment doesn’t come, because it’s just a shirt and I’m just a girl.

Next week, I try again.
Next week, I try again.
Next week, I try again.
Until somebody notices.

“Do you mean to wear that same shirt on the same day every week, or is that a coincidence?”

“Yes, I do.”

The girl who asks me looks away. Not much more to say. At least I thought not. She eventually looks back at me and asks why I do it. I realize that I don’t have an answer. At first I thought it was because I’m sad and want everyone to know how sad I am. Now? Now that feels like the wrong answer to this question. Blankly, I look on, mulling it over.

“I guess I just want that to be the first thing people notice. I want them to think I’m happy.”

“Can I give you my honest opinion?”

I nod. Inside I’m apprehensive, because the girl has a reputation for being somewhat brazen when she actually talks.

“Here it is. I think you’re sad and you want people to think you’re happy, yes, but that’s not all of it. You want to fit in. You see the people around you being happy and you don’t know why you’re so sad. So you wear a shirt that says ‘happy,’ because labeling yourself as being happy makes it more believable for everyone, including you, and leaves no room for anyone to think you don’t fit into their happy, perfect little club. Honestly? I think it’s stupid and pathetic. If you’re sad, figure out why. Your shirt isn’t going to make you happy, that’s your job.”

I’m taken aback, because she’s entirely right. Wearing this shirt for any reason beyond, “because I like it,” is just me trying to be something I’m not. I am not happy and I do not fit in. I only need one of those things and I’m not going to achieve it by hosting my pity party in shirt that demands help from anybody but myself. After school, I take the shirt off and I don’t wear it again until I can say that I’m wearing it because it’s me.

K: This is a very strong opening, with a good sense of character and the subtle touch of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” which gets across how much this character feels forced to be her(?)self. It kind of goes off the rails with the unnamed brazen girl (and hey, if she’s going to be a lynchpin for the story, give her a name!). The girl’s words feel less like reality and more like a forced lecture, and our lead character’s response is even worse, as I think she’s beyond justified to have a little fun with the shirt and not give in to this psychoanalyzing bully. Nobody just chooses to be happy, and we’re all just doing what we can to get there.

TL: I can appreciate where this is going, but I want WAY more. Don’t just scratch the surface. Delve in here! I would encourage you to really dig into this, even if it is just one snapshot. Give the reader something to really grasp the depth of the situation and allow them to feel her sadness.

MG: Feels like there’s a tendency this week to go for reflective, anecdotal entries that feel like reassessments of events from long past by wiser future versions of the narrator. Maybe there’s something about trying to pass oneself off as something one’s not which works well that way. This is a fine anecdote in any case, one I have a suspicion might be based on actual events. If it wasn’t, well, that speaks positively to the realistic portrayal of the mind of the teenager: always thinking it’s one clever step ahead of the pack when it’s several feet behind the wider world.

Joshua Longman

Tonight he would prepare honey-basted mutton, boiled potatoes, pear pastries – Father said cooking busied him and dampened his nosiness. The meat was cooking in the clay oven, a few hours from being done. The boy gazed idly from the tower window, his only glimpse at the outside world. He no longer admired the beauty of the rolling waves nor the small islands scattered along the horizon. The cerulean sky. A gull flew by and he was overcome with sudden envy. He sighed and checked on the meat.

Months passed like days and he grew wisps on his chin, more restless than ever. For weeks he was planning the confrontation to demand an explanation from Father. He was so secretive. Why were they trapped here? Why were they treated so well? He was practicing in his head and rolling dough when Father stumbled downstairs.
“It is….complete! Prepare a feast, we are leaving at first sun!”
The boy was dumbfounded. They were leaving? He knew not what Father had labored over, but it would somehow lead to their freedom?
After a sleepless night they entered Father’s workshop and the boy saw the mysterious invention covered by a sheet, waiting to be revealed.
“Beloved son, this is not the life I wanted for us. Today, I will atone for the years stolen from you.” He pulled away the cover and the boy’s face dropped in amazement, but for a touch of confusion.
Before him lay a machination beyond comprehension. Most noticeable were the feathers, but beneath, some golden wax and spindly wood tendons binding them together.
“What is it?”
“Transformation. A way to escape mankind’s pettiness and join the higher beings. We will shine like gods and join them in their airy abode, if you agree.”
The boy didn’t think. “Yes! Let’s go!!”
Father leveled a finger at him. “A word of warning. Travelling there is a labyrinthine task with dangers above and below.” Father fitted him with bracing and slid on the wings. “You are a curious boy, and that is a wonderful thing, but follow closely and do not stray. Do you understand?”
The boy nodded absently, overcome with excitement. He helped with Father’s contraption as they walked to the balcony. The feathers bristled and ruffled when sunlight hit them, as if alive. A normal man with the same materials and designs could not accomplish this same feat, he knew. Father was different, somehow understood the hidden working of things. The boy wondered at this, but the wonders of the sprawling world were stronger.
Father spun him by the shoulder and embraced him, the old man’s peppered beard tickling. He looked at his son for a long moment, words unnecessary. Releasing his hold he put a foot on the ledge.
“Remember, stay near.”
The boy’s hair was blown back as the wings came to life and propelled Father through the sky. As he prepared his jump, the boy took a final look at the sea beyond, soon to bear his name.

K: Use set pieces, gang! A large, oppressive castle, a beautiful golden goose-style contraption and a father and son flying over a sea give me a lot more to “look” at than a person sitting and thinking about stuff. Plus, just beneath the surface, we have the strong hint that this boy is going to be a very big deal, so this emancipation is clearly shown as a life-changing and world-changing event, rather than just an introspective moment among thousands. SILVER

TL: I definitely am interested in reading more, I am not sure we got where we needed to go within the confines of the challenge. It would have been nice to see more of the identity change here. Because what little I saw was so intriguing. Bronze

MG: Vivid and skilled descriptions and details here, to be sure. But let’s face it, it’s a retelling of the myth of Icarus and Daedalus, which feels a little easy to me. There’s no change in any of the details or events, just embellishment. Nothing that reveals a novel or unexpected insight into the character of a young man imprisoned for reasons unexplained. I appreciated the language used, though.

Christina Pepper

“Coming, dearest?” calls Regis.

My phone chirps from atop the polished, mahogany dresser.

“One more minute,” I call back to him as I lean toward the mirror, sweeping a final coat of mascara on my lashes.

I glance over at the phone.

“Almost ready,” I yell, hoping to prevent Regis from making his way back up to fetch me.

I survey the room to locate the best light and position myself with a crimson curtain as a backdrop, the better to highlight my alabaster skin.

I exhale, willing the tension out of my face, and then raise the phone. I move it up until I arrive at the angle that best showcases my cheekbones while disguising any sign of loose skin beneath my chin.

I usually take ten or twenty shots, but tonight I snap a single photo. My fingers move automatically across the screen as I upload it.

“On my way, darling,” I call to Regis.

I walk slowly toward the staircase, anxious for the response, despite the fact that it’s always the same.

My phone chirps, and I glance down.

“FAIR.”

How can this be?

– – – – –

Regis smiles at me as we settle into our booth, candlelight giving the room a warm glow.

“You’re positively radiant,” he declares. My stomach twists.

The waiter knows without asking which wine to bring, and I sip slowly, hoping Regis won’t notice.

After a reasonable amount of time, I excuse myself.

I study myself in the restroom’s gold-framed mirror. It must have been a fluke.

I smooth my hair and touch up my lipstick. No mistakes this time.

The lighting isn’t ideal, but it takes only a minute to apply the proper filters to compensate.

I feel my pulse quicken as I wait.

Chrip.

“FAIR.”

“Who is she?” I type.

Chirp.

“Hair black as night
And skin like snow,
The fairest one
Is one you know.”

Impossible.

– – – – –

As Regis goes on about his newest business venture, I nod my head at appropriate intervals. He’s too caught up in what he’s saying to notice I can scarcely touch my food.

After dessert arrives, I finally ask: “Has Neve written to you lately?”

“No,” he replies, his brow furrowing.

“She must be so busy at her new school,” I assure him. “It has an excellent reputation. And it’s in the middle all those acres of woods. So quaint!”

A trace of concern remains in Regis’s eyes.

“I know!” I say. “We’ll send her something. A care package!”

“Of course,” he replies. “You always have the best ideas.”

“The apples are perfect right now,” I say. “And I’m sure she misses your orchards.”

“Certainly,” says Regis. “I’ll have José pick some first thing tomorrow.”

“Oh no, darling,” I tell him. “I would so love to do it myself. Only the best for your dear girl.”

“Only the best,” he echoes. “Yes.”

“Leave it to me,” I tell him. “I’ll take care of everything.”

He nods and I reach out to take his hand, gazing sweetly into his eyes.

K: I love the idea of an update to this fairy tale, although the names were distracting to the point where I was googling “Regis Philbin Neve Campbell” to see if there was a connection. I’m all for uncommon names, but if they evoke exactly one real-life person, it’s a risk to use them. We cover a lot of ground and a lot of scenes here, which gives the presentation a rushed feel. Still, when it’s good, it’s good. BRONZE

TL: Ooohhh! I like the twist on the evil queen. I wasn’t sure where it was headed or how the hidden identity would come into play. The use of the section breaks worked well to build suspense and keep me engaged. Gold

MG: It’s funny, I was on a small binge of alternate fairy tale reading just a couple of months ago, and this entry would not have been out of place among the big-name, published authors works. In fact, it would’ve been right near the top of my own private internal ranking, because this was one of the cleanest, least belabored and most pleasing update that I read of this particular fable (eat your heart out, Neil Gaiman). The moment it comes together is perfectly placed and perfectly pitched, even if the last bit sags just a smidge under the necessity of getting the care package and its payload worked in. High fives. GOLD

Annette Barron

Akilah sidled into the kitchen, hunching to appear smaller and eyes averted. The kitchen was huge, with brick ovens for bread and huge stoves for cooking. The heat billowed in waves and the women paid her no mind. Ishmar, the Sultan’s ancient mother huddled in a nest by the ovens; brittle bones soaking up the heat.

Fatema thrust a bowl of dates at her and Akilah clutched it reflexively. “Pit these and then chop them very fine.” Akilah nodded. Akilah sat at the wooden table and worked the sticky fruit. A woman nursed an infant across from her and stared rudely but Akilah did not meet her eyes. She felt large and out of place. She was so much bigger and taller than the rest of the dainty harem. Her breasts bobbled and bounced and poked out for all to notice. Maybe if I bound them tight with linen, she mused.

It worked. The binding was uncomfortable in the desert heat, but her breasts became less intrusive and vulgar. Akilah tried to tame her wild curls by braiding them up tight. They would never be smooth and silky, so at least she could make them invisible. The old woman sucked her teeth at her from the corner.

Azim sent for her less now and she struggled harder. She gave up bread and cheese and meat, eating only fruit and olives, while her generous behind lessened. Fatima nodded approvingly when Akilah shook her head at the kunafa dripping with honey. Ishmar scowled.

Azim slapped her rump sharply and pushed her face down into the bedclothes. He was not gentle and caressing and Akilah cried silently while he took her. He pushed her from the bed when he was done, not gathering her up to him to cuddle while they slept. She grabbed her robes and crept away, her face slick with humiliation.

Akilah sobbed when her bleeding came. Without a son to give to Azim, she would slip into obscurity in the harem and become nothing but a slave to women with position. And Azim hadn’t sent for her in many days, actually showing up in the yard to wander among the women before taking Fatima away for the night.

In Fatima’s absence, Akilah took Ishmar her dinner, picking out the tenderest goat pieces and ripest bits of fruit. Ishmar accepted the plate and grabbed Akilah’s wrist with her gnarled fingers.
Akilah jerked but Ishmar tightened her grip, pulling Akilah close to her face.

“Sit,” she ordered. Akilah sank into the pillows. “Why you sad?”

Akilah hunched over and buried her face in her knees, shoulders shrugging as she sobbed.

Ishmar sighed and put her hand on Akilah’s head, stroking her tightly-bound hair. “Stupid girl,” she hissed and Akilah winced.

K: Man, this is devastating. We have such a strong picture of this world that I feel confident that I could guess who wrote it; this is a compliment, to be sure (note after the fact: I was wrong. Thought it was erik sunshine). Akilah’s obsession with not being the pretty girl – borne of good intentions but destined to backfire in unforeseen ways – was a very strong narrative to latch onto. I’m left wanting desperately to see Akilah free herself. GOLD

TL: What the whaaaat? Where is the ending?!?! I hate you. I am seriously pissed that I can’t keep reading. Great character descriptions and story. Gold

MG: Boy, mothers-in-law, am I right folks? No, but seriously, damn. This was a bummer from start to finish, which is only fitting I guess, ‘cos sultanate harems aren’t exactly laugh-riots. But this poor gal just had no chance from the get-go. On the basis of the story the author decided to tell, it’s told well. There’s a good sense of place and time established from the outset (even if the establishing detail is a bit clumsy and repetitive with its wording at first). The author’s voice is strong and engaging. And for an overall downer of a story, there is a good lesson to be culled, #BeautyAtAnySize SILVER

Ashton Stansel

A sixteen-year-old sits in the back of the classroom at the GSA meeting, trying to stifle the terrified voice in his chest which screams THIS IS A BAD IDEA DON’T DO THIS. He rubs his hands together, trying to hide the fear in his eyes and the nervous ticks in his hands. Martha is going to break up with you if you don’t manage to pass because she doesn’t want her parent’s to know you’re trans you have to learn how to pass.

He spends his food money for the week on a binder, getting by on the free school lunches and trying to minimize his activity level, which isn’t truly possible when he is in two gym classes but he has to feel like he is at least trying. He goes home and practices walking like a man.

Martha asks him to meet her parents a few days before her sixteenth birthday. He doesn’t want to, doesn’t want them to hear his still-too-high voice or see the not totally flat chest that he tries to hide under three shirts. She insists he come, gives him the eyes that he can’t resist. He sits awkwardly through dinner, wishing he could pretend to be deaf or mute or stupid to get away from their staring eyes. When he gets up to go to the bathroom, he hears her father ask if he’s a freak.

She doesn’t want to be seen out in public with him. He desperately tries to rationalize it, tries to make it seem like she’s just being protective of herself. Being with someone like me is dangerous if I passed better or if I walked better it would be ok. He cuts his hair himself, short and shaggy, and puts two undershirts on under his flannel shirt and tries not to let the voices in the hall calling him a freak get to him, and wishes he was holding Martha’s hand.

His packer comes. He feels more like a man than he ever has, but she still stares at him when his back is turned and she thinks he doesn’t see. He does. He watches every man around him trying to learn how to act, how to be, how to seem more like the man he is, even though he doesn’t think a man has to be what he is trying to be.

He sees her hanging out with some of the football players, the buff, muscled guys. He goes to the gym every day, working out until his body is exhausted and he has to drag himself the two miles home. He feels his heart warm up when she says he looks good.

He sits on his bed, staring down at his phone, at her text. “Sorry, Matty, but you’re just not enough of a man for me.” He turns, trying to minimize the pain in his eyes when he deletes her number from his phone. If this isn’t enough what would be, he thinks.

K: We at least have the dramatic narrative, which the first story didn’t give us, but unfortunately we were still told everything and shown very little. Matty could be a very sympathetic character, and to some degree he is, but I’m left feeling that we didn’t see enough of the relationship to want it to continue. There’s a lot of introspection this week, and introspection is good in small doses in a large story, but as a full narrative, it just doesn’t land.

TL: I really like the characters, but don’t feel like the reader (me) is allowed to know what is really going on with them. This has such an opportunity to be vulnerable and heartbreaking. I never really get there though. I want more depth.

MG: A horribly painful, and probably very realistic take on those teenage years for a person whose body won’t cooperate. Another story this week that feels rather anecdotal–not nearly as much as some other entries, and this one seems to suffer less for it, somehow. Maybe it’s because the actual narrative isn’t trying to hand-deliver received wisdom, and instead lets the reader’s own empathy do that part of the job instead. I do feel like anyone who’d date a boy like Matty to begin with probably wouldn’t use those specific words to break up with him at the end, so it felt a touch melodramatic to me. But what do I know; I never found myself in either of those positions in high school. SILVER

Jonathon Pope

“Some women are just classically beautiful. It’s a fact.”

Eric had been talking nonstop since the car ran out of gas. Rebecca couldn’t even trace how they had gotten onto this subject. A full half-hour of gibberish, with no sign of slowing had led them to this.

“Like Cleopatra. Every man was in love with her.”

Rebecca scoffed. “Which Cleopatra? The heavily made-up Egyptian queen? Or the heavily made-up Elizabeth Taylor version?”

She didn’t even care what he said next, she just reveled in the brief silence that the confused look on his face brought with it.

“Um, Elizabeth Taylor, I guess?”

Rebecca tried to focus on the good. Eric had picked a nice restaurant. It was pleasant weather. Her shoes were good for walking even though that wasn’t what she was choosing for when she put them on that day. But god, Eric didn’t have a thought in his head that didn’t come immediately out of his mouth, and most of them were not good, and some of them were terrible. Most of them were about women, and while they were not necessarily malignant, they were idiotic. Like how he could tell when his ex-girlfriend was on her period, or what he was looking for when he swiped right, or whatever it was he was talking about now.

“I guess my mom looks a little like Elizabeth Taylor.”

Rebecca stopped and gave him him a bewildered look. “Do you ever just shut up?”

“I-”

“No, shut up! Just try it for a while. Who knows, you might like it! But even if you don’t, I will! Just. Shut. Up.”

Rebecca turned and kept walking quickly, not waiting for his inevitable reply. A moment later he caught up and walked, momentarily quiet.

“You’re really pretty when you’re mad.”

“I hate you.”

K: I kind of like what this one is trying to do, although by the end I don’t really like either of these people. They’re both irritating, and furthermore, they’re irritating in the ways that sex roles are assumed to fall. Even flipping the script and making the woman the oversexed idiot and the man the insecure wiener would have been something. What we have is a decent skeleton, and the conversation is believable (that’s not faint praise, as I normally criticize the shit out of dialogue here); I would have used some more words to ground these two back into a place where it was clear why they fell for each other in the first place. BRONZE

TL: This starts out pretty strong. The writing is solid, interesting story. Then there is a turn. It gives me the ‘I need to submit this, but don’t have an ending’ feels. Maybe I am waaaayyy off base. Don’t know. But I would like to have some story resolution or something to say this is the end.

MG: Given all the heady topics and identity struggles that came before this entry, it’s surprising to come across a bit of light comedy. (Well, I laughed at the end, at least.) At first I thought the Cleopatra references were the only link to the week’s prompt, but I do see how it’s possible that Eric’s babbling could be a change of “appearance” to please his dinner date. Maybe that’s a stretch. Either way, it’s nice to see a bit of dialogue with some spit behind it this week, even if the story as a whole feels like too spare a snippet of a larger event to really hook me.

Melissa David

Jay massaged the injection site on Kendra’s arm. “You’ll start to feel it in 2 minutes.”

He kissed her, and between his warm lips, and the slow realization that she was finally going to do this, she felt goosebumps. Jay licked her erect nipple, and she clutched at the floor. The plastic sheeting crinkled in her fists.

“You should lie down,” he said.

Kendra felt a twinge of fear. “You’ve done this before, right?”

“Every day.”

“Right, but that’s at work, and I’m not–”

“It won’t hurt,” and his tone of voice was so assured, so final. He kissed between her breasts, down her belly. He nuzzled her inner thigh. “I don’t know why you don’t like these parts,” he said, warm breath on her skin there.

“They’re fat.”

“They’re perfect, but if that’s how you feel–”

The drug hit.

She gasped, fell backward. Her body hit the plastic, but she didn’t feel it. No pain, just the sensation of her arms and legs flying off like she was a mannequin. Shattered.

Do it now. Do it now, she thought, but Jay couldn’t hear her. Somewhere through the growing static, she could see him, pushing her legs apart, licking and kissing until he realized she wasn’t responding to him.

The world dimmed, and she left her body. Below, Jay pulled on a pair of gloves, found his storage box. He paused to glance upward, as if he knew she was floating there. He blew a kiss, raised his knife, and sliced into her thigh.

And it didn’t bother her. Blood streamed over his gloved hands. He didn’t seem to notice, and she felt strangely…excited.

Jay had his fingers in her meat, pulling back on the slippery fat, pairing it down. Something yanked her from behind, and a dying wail hit her ears. She was being pulled away, and as she passed through her ceiling, she caught sight of her body. Its mouth was wide, screaming.

So much screaming.

Lights flashed. Colors danced, and she couldn’t remember the words for them. Red? Blue? They made her dizzy, and the muffled voices terrified her. Those voices shouted and and commanded and whispered until the lights steadied. Her arms reattached. She felt pain in her shoulders and straps against her wrists. Pinpricks, too. Needles sank into her veins, into her muscles and her heart.

The lights stopped.

***

The hospital sheets were too stiff. Kendra’s mother clutched her hand. “He’s being held on a million dollars bail,” she said. “He can’t possibly pay that.”

Kendra frowned. “I don’t want him in prison.”

“Kendra! He could have killed you.” Her mother said each word with deliberate intensity. “You barely knew this guy. Why did you let him into our house? He had the date rape drug on him.”

“It was Ketamine. He’s a good guy.”

“He sliced off your inner thighs like chunks of meat!”

“I know.” Kendra’s body relaxed, and she smiled. “I’m going to look really good in jeans now.”

K: Sweet. Merciful. Crap. This is true Twilight Zone fare right here, destroying me mentally and emotionally rather than relying on the physical horrors to reach me (though the physical horrors are present too). I kind of knew where this was headed, but was still rapt in attention as we got there. I could have done without the final jokey line, as I think “I know” tells us all we need to hear while not feeling like a nyuk nyuk-style stinger, but that’s a small thing I found in an otherwise extremely strong entry. GOLD

TL: YIKES! Dear lord, I hope no one I love ever thinks this is a good idea. It is depressing that Kendra thinks a do-it-yourself liposuction is the way to go. Nice work. Silver

MG: Gross. GOLD

erik sunshine

*BEEP* *BEEP* *BEEP*

Jeanne gradually tuned back into reality, unsure how long the oven timer had been barking at her. She pushed herself up from her chair at the kitchen table and shuffled warily to the stove. While staring blankly only at the microwave above the range, she extinguished the flame on the front burner and pushed the pot to the back. The violent bubbling in the pot settled unassumingly, just as Jeanne did back into her seat.

Gazing lazily at the diminishing steam, she was about to slip back into an empty stare when she heard a minor commotion above her head. Her eyes flitted to the ceiling. It sounded like Simon had dropped something upstairs, but the estimated weight and dull thud of something not easily breakable didn’t trip off any of her intervention alarms. Her eyes began to drift back to stove, but shot back to the ceiling after considering the location of the thump.

Simon was in Scottie’s room. He shouldn’t be in there.

“Simon!”

She hustled to and up the staircase, vaguely taken aback at how sharp her opening reprimand had been. “Simon, you know you shouldn’t be in Scottie’s room.” She rounded the top of the staircase and made her way to the second door on the left, one of three bedrooms and a bathroom on the second floor.

Early December and a gray day to boot, the late afternoon offered only a feeble, dreary glow. A closet light through a mostly closed door sliced a lonely, diagonal streak of incandescence across the room. By these, Jeanne could see a number of books and toys spread across the floor of Scottie’s usually immaculate room.

“Simon, how many times have I said to stay out of Scottie’s room?” Hovering in the doorway, she rubbed her eye with a palm and sucked in air through gritted teeth. After a long day and a blossoming migraine, this was certainly not something she wanted to confront.

“Simon?”

No response, but she could feel him in the closet.

“Simon.”

Still nothing; the silence heavy in the air.

“SIMON!!!!” she screamed, jumping at her own voice as it bounced around the small room.

A small boy just north of seven holding up the waist of pants several sizes too big for him sluggishly waddled out of the closet. The shirt he was wearing hung well past his waist and fingertips. He turned and slowly raised his eyes from the floor. Facing her, the light from the closet lit one side of his face, but left the other in darkness.

“I thought maybe if I…” Arms hanging limp at his side, Simon gestured his head downward towards Scottie’s favorite outfit, wide and sad eyes never leaving his mother’s.

“Then maybe you wouldn’t miss him so much.”

The heartbreak played out simultaneous across Jeanne’s face. Her legs gave out and she crumpled to the ground in raw, sobbing tears.

Simon, unsure of what he’d done to his mother, began to cry too.

K: Like the last story, I knew where this one was heading, but it worked all the same. Simon acted like a real child, and hid like a child would in this instance. Thankfully, the story leaves out the details of Scottie’s death, which would slow down the actual narrative. This one doesn’t get high marks for degree of difficulty, as it’s pretty easy to make me feel sad about the idea of a dead kid, but it was done well enough to overcome the potential ease of the attempt. SILVER

TL: As I was reading I was fearful this would go in a really dark and twisted direction. I am really glad the story went the way it did. Touching, sweet innocence. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate a good and clear beginning, middle and end. Silver

MG: Highly effective reveal at the end there, author, and one I’m glad I didn’t see coming. In fact, I’m glad the emotions throughout were hinted at, and never telegraphed. Any number of reasons could be given for the weary disconnect Jeanne operated through at the opening, and not specifying gives us something to chew on once we finish and (inevitably) go back for a second read-through. Maaaaybe having Mom actually verbalize the “wouldn’t miss him so much” line pushed past my realism sensors a smidge, but hey. Forgiveable. SILVER

—————————————————————————————–

Well, there you go. We didn’t get our first triple-gold yet, but we got close a couple of times. These were enjoyable, kiddos.

The next episode we’ll tackle is “It’s a Good Life,” which has been satirized all over your life. You’ve either seen this episode, seen parodies, or both:

Written by Rod Serling
Directed by James Sheldon
Originally broadcast Nov. 3, 1961

Based on the classic short story by Jerome Bixby, “It’s a Good Life” features the most horrifying creature you can imagine: A cute, six-year-old tyke (Billy Mumy) who can read your thoughts – and if you’re not thinking really good thoughts, he can magically wish you off to the cornfield, or worse.

You will write a story where one or more characters can read thoughts; whether the other characters are aware is up to you.

It’s due next Sunday at 8pm Central. Cheers.

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