Lost Soul by Jim Driesen – 1ST PLACE!

THE TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

It was supposed to be the summer job of a lifetime, working as a chef at an upscale “summer camp” for adults. But, the air conditioner was broken again. After closing, the stale outdoor air brought little relief. The path to the cabins housing seasonal employees was dark but short. She stopped in her tracks when she came across one of the windows. With her pupils dilating, she couldn’t look away… 

(Stories need only touch on this topic in some way to qualify.)


When you have a dream so vivid you wake up in a cold sweat, your heart thumping, your eyes wild and large with terror, you should take it seriously. You could shake it off, take a shot of the Bushmills you left on the nightstand the night before, make believe that everyone has bad dreams. “It don’t mean nothing” they use to say in the platoon. This one was the latest installment in an alternate life, one only lived in the darkness of the night and the depths of the subconscious. You know what I mean, whether you admit it or not. It eventually gets impossible to tell which is the real world, the dark terror of the night, or the so-called normal life of day. Night versus day. Day versus night. Which is real, which is imaginary, or are they both real? Or imaginary?

Mine started the night we razed a village in the mountains of Afghanistan. It could have been anywhere: southeast Asia, Europe, a thousand years ago in a desert or jungle. It is a turning point from ‘normal’ into the unreal and then the terror of the new reality. The new world I had entered that night was where I traded my humanity for what I rationalized at the time was basic survival. I didn’t need to empty the clip and reload, I just turned my soul over because it was easier. Yes, ‘easier’ is the word. Simple as that. Who was the bad guy, the target? We didn’t know. We took them all down. When the dust settled they were just bloodied bodies strewn through the houses and streets. Kids, women, old men. They never had a chance, but that’s the funny thing about war.

If given a chance, we might have been the bodies. That’s what we told ourselves. Didn’t matter that most of them, if not all, were just innocent bystanders. They were there. We took them down. Then we moved on, not realizing that from now on, our world was different from the rest. We’d crossed a path, opened a door, and stepped through into a life that we would never return from. Not with drugs, not with booze. Not with support groups, counselors, not with yellow ribbons and people saying, “Thanks for your service.” We were on a one-way trip into Hell and there was no coming back. No glossing over by the politicians, sending guys into a cauldron of evil they themselves never had to face. Easy for them. The saddest part, that differentiates the truly lost souls from the rest, is that, looking back, I’d do the same thing. Like I said, the loss of our basic humanity. We just go on living, walking among the normal, as though we’re just like everyone else. But we aren’t.

It was a scorching summer in the daytime world I lived in. I worked as a cook at a military camp in the southwest. Not a real military camp, but a make-believe one for people that wanted to live a week or two of vacation playing at a make-believe war. It’s what the world had come to. Alternate reality for entertainment. There was a president who claimed his exclusive private high school academy qualified him as a veteran. It didn’t. He also accepted a Purple Heart from a real veteran as though he’d earned it. He didn’t. I didn’t care. I wasn’t a real cook either. We had a chef that dreamed up the gourmet meals and I followed orders in the preparation.

Following orders was something I had experience in. Good food in the military, not so much. If we offered real army cooking, no one would be there. Might as well let them have real bullets, too. Of course, we didn’t. I loaded the blanks myself each day before breakfast. By day I worked a twelve-hour shift feeding the ‘troops’ fancy food on fine china in an air-conditioned restaurant. It could hit well over 100 degrees out there. Probably the first times those guys had to sweat. For me, the longer the shift the better, as it meant a shorter night. Less time in the other reality. They also used guys like me to help make the experience more authentic. Real vets. They didn’t realize how close to the edge I was. Maybe they should have.

Late in August I had a particularly bad stretch of nights, waking wide-eyed and sweating. I’d been given orders. The dark side wanted to seep its evil into the normal side. Like I said, I knew how to take orders. It would no longer be just my personal agony. I would bring the shadows into the light of day. The bullets I loaded that morning were the real deal. So were the bloody bodies.

I sleep better now. I live in only one world, the dark one. My windowless cell in solitary is ten by seven. Should have been here all along, but I was just taking orders.

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Woman’s Work by Annette Rey – 1ST PLACE!

THE TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

The wind suddenly picked up as she looked out from the porch. A wall of dark clouds was pushing across the horizon and a light chop had developed on the lake, gently rocking the tiny rowboat tied to the dock. The changing seasons always brought unpredictable weather. Just as she was about to turn toward the door, movement in the water caught her attention. She squinted and then her eyes opened wide. Rushing down the stairs, she kicked off her shoes, and raced to untie the boat…

(Stories need only touch on this topic in some way to qualify.)


The exhausting night was almost over. Her past sank out of sight, swallowed in the darkness. Challenged and battle-weary, she looked forward to rest as she walked the cliff’s edge, soothed by the rhythmic song of the waves caressing the tawny shoreline. The red glow of sunrise peeked above the never-sleeping ocean, how many miles in the distance? Nature enthralled her, was always medicinal, and she needed that connection this morning.

Here was the peace that always should have been, the haven that shields. She took comfort from this place of beauty, unmarred by hateful human hearts. This realm stilled thoughts and calmed breathing and brought promises of a hope-filled future. Here the Earth ruled.

Her eyes passed one more time over the idyllic scene before turning her tired back on the water far below. Wait. Something caught the eye, something glinting red, reflecting the gauzy, morning sun. The object tumbled in with each wave as it tried to beach itself. Its rhythm mesmerized as she watched it rolling in, rolling out, rolling in.

Casting thoughts into the past, memories surfaced of childhood word puzzles in schoolbooks. Sometimes the puzzles listed a series of drawings. The questions posed: what word does not belong in the group, what image does not fit with the other pictures? The puzzles were meaningless at the time because her conclusion was always the same: herself. Different from other children, she did not fit and was relegated to the outside, and forced to play superficial roles. And now this glowing, damned thing did not fit in the picture. It did not belong. The meaning finally rose to the top. In utter defeat, she watched as the orb changed colors with the hue of the sun’s rays, now golden reflections, as if it radiated SOS signals and demanded: notice me!

With the tourist season passed, who was left to pay attention now? Who ever cared to notice before? But now, as if in a final, dominating roar, attention was being pleaded in place of stealthily keeping secrets, instead of hiding outrageous acts. Prolonged cries of shocked outrage, revenge, hatred, and bitter complaint joined the now sinister breezes. Each pulsating ocean wave pressed, thrust, throbbed, callous cruelty into the sand and high upward to her.

She collapsed on a jagged rock, a sharp spike of it jabbed into her tailbone, but she did not readjust herself. The spike jarred vivid nightmares to life, of other times, of horrendous times, of times over and past…but not quite yet.

She spent a long while contemplating what this new threat could mean – the rising of this detested phoenix. She had to take action, but the night’s work left her physically and emotionally satiated.

Reluctantly, she dragged herself down from the cliffs, along the lonely, tree-lined path, back to the cove, and retrieved the empty boat. The engine vibrated and drowned the painful, pulsing heartbeat in her temples. Robot-like, she manned the vessel and powered its way to the beach below the towering cliffs. Mental subtext reverberated from one side of her skull to the other, repeating: never profanely fractured again, never transferred to the ceiling again. Never.

Insensitive now to the warming sun, deep cold filled her being; icy, rigid fingers gripped the boat wheel like bloody talons. Feeling more animal than human, she pursued passionless prey.

The target loomed closer.

The golden orb bobbed furiously at the beach edge as she approached. Familiar hate filled her heart. She coveted the cast iron meat tenderizer so many times wielded in the performance of subservient tasks and, then again, in one more personally crucial act. But, she had hurled that away, deep out at sea, for shelled sea animals to cover and disguise in its grave.

With powerful, clenching claws, she barehanded the putrefying piece of filth that did not fit. Empowered again, unafraid now, with resolve, she glowered at it with insane eyes and spoke aloud.

“This time you will sink!”

Unseeing eyes of the severed head of her abuser stared back at her.

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From Scratch by Christine DeRenzis – 1ST PLACE!

THE TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

Holding tightly to her valise, she glanced over her shoulder before stepping onto the platform. Dark blue clouds stretched from the prairie to the heavens. The blizzard was coming fast and the conductor was urgently pleading for everyone to get on board so they could depart before the storm arrived. As she placed her foot on the first step, anxiety prickled the back of her neck. She couldn’t shake the feeling that she’d forgotten something… 

(Stories need only touch on this topic in some way to qualify.)


I gripped my bag tightly as I stepped onto the platform, chewing on a piece of homemade jerky. The salty taste calmed my nerves, much like cigarettes did for others. Dark blue clouds stretched from the tops of the skyscrapers to the sun, which was quickly disappearing. The blizzard was coming fast.

“On board now!” the conductor yelled.

As I placed my foot on the first step, anxiety prickled the back of my neck. I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was forgetting something.

“Crap!” I shouted, spinning around. I grabbed the conductor’s arm as he hurried by. “How much time do I have?”

“An hour,” he replied. “Maybe less.”

“Crap!”

“I wouldn’t leave–” the conductor’s words were cut off as the cold wind whipped against my face. I ran from the station to my car. How could I be so stupid? There was no way I could survive a weekend at my parents’ house without—

A car jumped out in front of me and I slammed on my breaks. My wheels started sliding and my heart thumped wildly in my chest before I finally caught my breath and regained control of the car.

“Pay attention,” I muttered.

Jon’s car was still sitting in the driveway when I pulled up, half buried in snow. He’d been asleep when I’d left. I wished he was coming. It wasn’t safe staying here alone this weekend.

My mom’s ringtone blasted from my purse as I slid my key into the lock.

“Hi, Mom,” I said, stepping into the house. My face began defrosting as I headed for the kitchen.

“Mary, are you on the train?”

“Yes,” I lied. “I just got on.”

“Oh, thank God. They say this is going to be the worst storm in a century.”

I peered out the kitchen window as I filled a glass with water and took a sip. My throat was dry. This cold weather had a way of drying out everything it touched. The dark blue clouds were turning to black. I didn’t have much time.

“MARY!” my mom shouted, interrupting my thoughts. “Did you hear me? I asked if Jon was with you.”

“Oh. No,” I said, pausing as I headed for the stairs. I turned back to the kitchen and grabbed some more of my homemade jerky for the train ride.

“Call him. Make him come. It’s not too late.”

That’s when I heard him. Jon’s voice rang out loudly from the basement. He was scared. “Mary? Is that you? Oh, thank God you came back!” A loud sob echoed through the house.

“Mom, I have to go. I’ll see you soon.”

She began to protest but I hung up.

“Jon?” I called out, opening the basement door. “Jon? Are you okay?”

“Mary! Hurry!”

I walked slowly down the stairs. At the bottom landing, it took me a full minute to comprehend what I was seeing.

Jon sat chained to the basement wall. His wrists were in cuffs and a small ocean of water swirled around his feet. Near him lay an overturned water jug. An open box of Pop Tarts and a bag of my jerky sat close by.

“What the hell is this?” I cried. I ran to him, my feet kicking the empty jug. I reached behind his head and stroked his hair as the collar around his neck choked him.

“I thought you’d gone,” Jon said, his voice thick. He’d been crying.

I pulled hard on his hair, yanking his head back. “Did you spill ALL the water I left for you?

His silence only made me mad.

“It was supposed to last you the whole weekend. Do you want to die from thirst?”

Jon started sobbing again. “Please,” he begged. “Let me go.”

I shook my head as I walked to the sink and refilled the jug. “This time, don’t spill it.”

“Mary, please, I’m sorry. I swear, I’ll never cheat on you again.”

I rolled my eyes, saying nothing.

“Mary,” Jon gulped, licking his dried-out lips. “Wh-where’s Lydia? You haven’t–”

I laughed. “Lydia fine. I have to go. The train’s leaving in a half hour. I’ll be lucky if I make it back in time.”

“Mary! Don’t leave me here!”

I was halfway up the stairs when I snapped my fingers, spinning back around. “I almost forgot.” I went to the bin I’d left for Jon. It was filled with extra jerky and Pop Tarts. On top sat my copy of Pride and Prejudice. I grasped it firmly. “I almost forgot this,” I told Jon, laughing. “I’m halfway through and can’t put it down.”

I kissed his head before leaving. “I’ll see you Monday.”

Back on board the train, I was snacking on my jerky when the conductor passed by.

“You made it,” he said smiling. “I thought for sure you’d get stuck in town.”

I returned his smile. “I don’t live far. The streets were empty.”

“That smells delicious,” he said, eying my bag.

“Homemade jerky. Would you like to try some?”

“Oh, I couldn’t—”

“Oh go on. It’s good. Here.” I pushed the bag towards him and he took a strip. His face lit up when he tasted it.

“That’s delicious,” he said. “What do you call it?”

“Lydia.”

“Excuse me?” he asked.

“I mean, Lydia’s Special Blend.”

He shrugged. “Well, whatever it is, it’s great.”

“Thanks,” I replied, settling back with my book. I pulled another hunk of meat from my bag and began to chomp it as the train pulled away.

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The Package by Samantha G. – 1ST PLACE!

TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

The dark water racing under the bridge contrasted sharply with the yellow and orange leaves riding atop the ripples. Balding maple trees shadowed the riverbank while the remains of a cornfield rustled violently in the cold wind. Standing on the cobblestones by his trusty wooden cart, he shivered. It was going to be a bad winter but they were well prepared. Suddenly, a strong gust brought the sound of maniacal laughter. He stepped quickly to the back of the cart, and threw back the burlap cover…

(Entries must touch on the topic in some way to qualify.)


Their black suburban sped through traffic, weaving between cars as they drove toward the bridge. Going over the speed limit, the wheels of the car screeched against the road every time Payne braked.

In the passenger seat, Joy’s right leg hadn’t stopped bouncing after learning the last package they were after was ten miles away.

It was the evening before Halloween and night had fallen at the tender hour of 6 p.m.

Payne glanced over at his wife with knitted brows and asked, “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” she lied, her eyes peering through the window at the dark water racing under the bridge they crossed. The moving body resembled a bed of snakes, contrasting sharply with the yellow and orange leaves riding atop the ripples.

“I’m just concerned about Hope,” Joy added.

“Don’t worry about her, she’s fine.”

“But it’s getting late. And your mother…”

“She doesn’t mind,” he interjected. “You just focus on us getting this done. We don’t want a repeat of last year.”

“I already promised you I wouldn’t mess up this time.”

#
The woman’s voice on Joy’s phone instructed them to exit the bridge and continue going until they reached the highway alongside a riverbank. As their suburban rolled on the road, Joy’s eyes bulged, her pulse raced, and she tried to steady her hands on her lap. It was darker now. So dark, balding maple trees cast shadows along the riverbank to their right. On their left, the remains of what looked to be a cornfield shivered like a pack of zombies in the cold wind.

Joy looked down at the directions, then back at the road ahead of them.

“Are you sure we’re going the right way?” Payne queried.

Joy glanced at the directions again, and nodded.

Moments later, Payne released a sigh of relief when he saw lights glowing from their destination.

“There it is,” he pointed.

#
Joy and Payne parked in the lot closest to the building’s entrance. As Joy tried to release her seatbelt, Payne grabbed her wrist.

“Are you sure you want to go in there? I can go alone.”

“Wow, Payne. You really don’t trust me with this, huh?” She shook her head, pulled her wrist free from his gentle grip, then exited the car.

As they walked toward the building’s entrance, Joy noticed an old man standing on cobblestones beside a wooden cart. His shoulders were hunched, his clothes tapered and two shades darker than their normal color, and he shivered under the brisk fall air. When the old man realized he had her attention, he motioned for her to come.

“I’ve got what you want,” he yelled with confidence.

Payne looked over at Joy, and shook his head.

“But, it’s probably in there.”

“Joy, no. Let’s just stick with the plan.”

The old man threw back the burlap cover on his wooden cart. Joy, curious, moved in his direction.

“Joy!” Payne whispered through clenched teeth. He glared at her and this made her turn to the old man and smile politely, declining his offer with the shake of her head.

#
A strong gust from the sliding doors opening brought the sound of automated maniacal laughter. People were moving quick along the glossy floors. Foreheads wrinkled and adults grasped little hands tight, pulling them along. It resembled a lawless town.

With her eyes still on the chaos, Joy leaned in, and asked, ” Should we split up?”

“Can you handle this alone, Joy?”

She shrugged.

But when she spotted a child throwing themselves on the floor, tears streaming down their face, with total signs of defeat in their eyes, this was all Joy needed to run in the first direction she saw.

Payne shouted for her. She was deaf to his voice. Joy ran between tall steel boxes. The flat length of iron serving as dividers were barren with just pieces of paper to prove something was once there.

Joy faced frozen faces with bared teeth, eyes that would never blink, and shed hairs scattered on the floor like dead leaves.

She turned the corner, and saw the package…and another woman standing feet away from it.

Joy gasped and became motionless. This was what made her fail the last time, hesitation. Exactly why Payne was cautious about bringing her along tonight.

Joy surveyed the woman’s size. She was taller, her hair already pulled back for battle. The woman narrowed her eyes and Joy swallowed hard.

Suddenly, a familiar cry distracted the woman long enough for Joy to slip in, grab, then disappear with the package around a corner.

#
Joy held the package tight, only releasing to confirm it was the right one. There was no time to celebrate, she needed to find Payne. She thought about screaming his name, but decided against it. Everyone was searching for this one package, and would pick it up the moment she wasn’t looking.

She took a step toward the entrance when a hand grabbed her shoulder. She turned fast, balling her free hand into a fist.

“Joy, it’s me,” Payne surrendered.

Joy sighed, “I’m sorry, baby. I thought you were someone else.”

“Did you get it?” Payne quizzed.

Joy smiled. “Yeah.”

“Really?!” he confirmed.

She held the package up, and bragged, “The last Dory costume!”

Payne gave her a high-five, relieved they wouldn’t have to see their baby girl Hope sob about not being her favorite character for Halloween again.

“Thank God. Now we can pick Hope up from my mother’s house.”

As they walked to the register, Payne said, “Use Siri again to map us out of this town. It’s crazy in this Party City.”

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Seeking Redemption by Faye E. Arcand – 1ST PLACE!

TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

Her shoes clip-clopped along the concrete like a sticky metronome. Approaching a hot dog vendor, she said, “What types of mustard do you have today?”

He responded, “I had a pure-bred Schnauzer but now he only has three legs.” He then handed her a sweating bottle of water before turning away.

A few feet away, a metal newspaper dispenser reflected the harsh sunlight. She stepped closer, blinking at the headline…

(Entries must touch on the topic in some way to qualify.)


 

New York City, 1945.

Gabriela slipped into her too-big clogs and closed the door behind her.

The outside halls always smelled like vomit and pee but at this moment it seemed very fresh and ripe as it clung to the stagnant air.

She wrinkled her nose and quickened her step.

Clipityclop… Clipityclop… Clipityclop…

The flapping laundry, already out for the day, hung between the buildings. Every square inch was filled to capacity.  Soot had already begun to settle on some of the clothes.

Mama usually had hers out by now, too. But not today.

Gabriela had noticed her mama’s belly was getting big again. That meant a baby. It made mama miss work at the sewing factory and stopped her from doing the laundry. Tonight, the watery cabbage soup would have to stretch even further.

Clipity Clop… Clipity Clop.

She slowed.

Sunlight was forbidden entry by way of the towering buildings surrounding the tenement.  Gabriela loved the way her wooden shoes echoed between the brick walls. They made music in the dark, ugly place.

She’d knicked the shoes off a stoop on the Westside. Gabriela kept them close lest they be used as firewood. Neither did she want to go back to wearing the worn pair of shoes passed down from her older brother. The cardboard inside always slipped sideways allowing tiny pebbles to embed themselves into her feet.  These were the best shoes she’d ever had.

Clipity Clop… Clipity Clop.

Gabriella didn’t like the shadows that lurked around the barrels and crates that littered the alley.   She had to stay alert.

She could see a cat nursing her latest litter of kittens. That will be mama soon, though little Roberto was still at the breast. And, lately, second from bottom, Maria, was snuggling in for a nip, too.

Gabriela had considered it. Last night as she took her place on the mat in front of the stove, she thought about wedging herself into the already full bed to get close enough to mama to suckle until she was full.  The idea was soon nixed though as her mother had discovered lice in her thick, matted mop of hair. Within minutes, it was shorn completely off and she was banned from the bed.

Clipity Clop… Clipity Clop.

She stayed her course when out of the shadows came a three-legged mongrel dog.  In its mouth it held an enormous rat.  Gabriela stopped and watched as he hop-walked to the corner to tear away at his prize.  Rumor had it that the neighbors from two floors down had chopped off the dog’s leg, boiled it with potatoes and served it with sour bread. The dog survived and didn’t seem to hold a grudge, but Gabriel had to wonder about those neighbors now.

Clipity Clop… Clipity Clop.

She felt the waft of fresh air funnel into the dank alley. It amazed her how the alley would suck in  all that fresh air from the street only to stop it before it got far enough to do anything.

Gabriela emerged from the darkness and smiled.  She blinked several times but still had to squint against the brightness as she continued on her journey.

Clipity Clop… Clipity Clop.

She stopped and stared at him in all his glory.  He was so big and fat that his greasy, stained apron couldn’t cover up his hairy belly. She could see it jiggle every time he moved.

She shivered.

Clipity Clop… Clipity Clop.

Gabriela stood at her journey’s end. The end of her rainbow. It smelled like heaven and reminded her that life would soon return to normal.

“I’ll take two. With mustard.  Extra on the second.” she said.

“Get lost you little sewer rat,” he said. “I don’t want your kind around here.

Clipity…clop.

She moved a few steps away.

Customers came and went.

She watched as he blew his nose into his fingers and wiped it on the side of his apron. The stringy pieces of snot clung there with the relish he served. His hair was wispy over his billiard ball head. Sweat gathered at his yellowed collar and puddled into the folds of his neck.

Clipity…clop.

She again stood in front of him.

“I said get lost. You’re bad for business.”

“But Uncle,” she said, “I need a sausage for the soup. There’s many mouths to feed and mama said you’d help.”

“Me? I’ll not help. I’ve got my own brood. Now away with you.”

Clipity…clop.

She moved closer.

“This came in the post,” Gabriela held up a letter. “Papa’s coming home.

Clipity…clop.

She watched his face melt into his chest. He looked like one big piece of quivering blubber now.

“He’s alive?”

“Oh, yes,” Gabriela said. “We received word about three weeks ago. Do you know how mama got with the last two babies?”

His upper lip quivered and she heard him fart. She craned her neck to see if he’d wet himself.

“You were supposed to take care of mama.  I’m not sure he’ll approve of your methods but perhaps with some sausage you may find redemption. I heard the priest say that at mass last week. I don’t know if he was speaking of sausage, though.”

Clipity…clop.

She stood on her tippy toes looking into his food cart.

Slowly he wrapped two sausages in dark waxed paper and handed them to her.

Clipity…clop. Clipity…clop.

She sat on the sidewalk and slowly bit into one of the sausages. Boiled fat and mustard ran down her chin.  Gabriela wiped at all the drippings with her filthy hand in fear of wasting any.

In the distance she could hear the newsie shout, “Allies Secure Peace. They’re coming  home.”

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Married To The Sea by Leif Gregersen – 1ST PLACE!

THE TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

A brisk breeze pushed through the hatchway, cooling her sunburned cheeks. Saltwater lapped at the hull. A mariner’s lullaby. She smiled, pondering her perfect life. No people. No stress. Just the occasional storm, and sojourns to the mainland for provisions. Just as her tired eyes closed, violent knocking and shouting erupted on her starboard side…

(Stories need only touch on this topic in some way to qualify.)


The 60-year-old Dellarae had been to nearly every port in the world, and she loved her sailors, perhaps even a little more than she should have. Dellarae had a fondness for those that had bedded down with her, experiencing her warmth and comforts in her cabins while storms and rough seas raged outside. Of all the men that had tasted of her comforts, there was one above them: Warren. Captain Warren Milley. He was so incredibly handsome, always looking the professional in his uniform, his commander’s hat and dark blue turtleneck sweater. She loved the smell of his pipe, how his dark hair was tinged just slightly with grey. She loved how he put his hands on her, guided her through dark times. Yes, there was no denying it, there had been many hard times too.

Once in the South China Sea, when pirates had decided they deserved what she had to offer without paying for it, she had to teach them some respect. Another time, violent storms off the coast of South America nearly had put an abrupt end to her useful life of service, along with the 43 souls that were on board. This time, the old girl, adorned in her best, her once brilliant white and red, seemed to be just drifting through life. She had served long and hard and her end was at hand. She knew this to be true and had prepared herself for it. But inside of Dellarae’s heart was a strong desire to keep going, to make it home one last time, to lay everything to rest.

Dellarae was alone this time, perhaps for the first time since her creator had launched her into the world in another century, another place. At that time it seemed so many were celebrating the great victory over the impossible that her creation was, using only the finest of champagne. Those early years were so wonderful, so full of glory and adventure. Now, as she travelled, a brisk breeze pushed through her hatchway, cooling her red flaky skin. She could almost feel the water lapping at the hull, a perfect mariner’s lullaby.

Despite that there were no sailors to man her, no Captain to steer her, Dellarae felt drawn Westward. Halifax harbour, that place where she had been made, was not more than a day’s sail from where she was, and she knew she could make it. She longed for Warren’s touch, but it was most important that someone, anyone took her back. It didn’t seem the same without the teeming life on her deck, without the loud throb of her twin diesel engines, but she was moving. She may not have control of what moved her, she may not even be moving under her own power, but Halifax was close, and she was going to be home soon, going to rest after so many exhausting adventures.

It was just a small flash of light off in the distance. At first, it didn’t seem as though it actually happened. Before she heard the sound of the gun firing, a huge explosion and 100-foot splash of water appeared 50 yards in front of her bow. “I need to get home; I want to get home.” Dellarae thought to herself, almost in a state of panic, and fought with all she had to change direction. There had been a time like this in the South Pacific once when a young sailor returned from liberty with a local woman and they brought out half of their ancient navy to bring her back. Dellarae had outwitted them; she would outwit these marauders, whoever they may be.

Another shot flashed out from far away. “What did I do? Why are they trying to keep me from my home?” Now she felt the explosion go off right beside her, and it felt like it tore out a part of her, like it disemboweled her. The smell of her own body torn open reminded her of a fire that had claimed the life of her beloved Captain Milley. No one saw the tears that ran down the side of her hull after they buried him at sea.

Now she was taking on water and the ships from far away were moving closer. She realized now what this assault meant. These were Canadian waters; she had become too old and too useless to anyone to be used for anything but as a towed target for Navy ships. Realizing this, the “Old Red Lady” as her men used to call her, stopped trying to struggle.

More flashes came, more explosions, Dellarae started to sink and, in a final act of defiance, she stopped still, making herself an easy target for a naval gun that tore her superstructure apart. Deep down through hundreds of feet she went, but still her soul lived, still her spirit went on.

“I’ll never let them raise me up again.” Dellarae thought to herself. “I’ll never for a thousand years let anyone learn the secret.” The secret was why she stopped struggling, it was why she wanted to be blown to bits to conceal her last hope at being wanted, being needed. Deep in her hull, many years ago, Captain Milley had carefully moulded and welded over $14 million dollars in gold to an inner wall of her hull, and now it was Dellarae who would choose when it could be retrieved and who she would bless with the luck to find it.

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Death Wish by LeAnne Burgess – 1ST PLACE!

THE TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

A heavy blanket of snow illuminated the night while cold flakes pecked at her chapped cheeks. As she took another deep breath, her ears winced at the broken silence. Shivering continuously now, she trudged through the drifts, avoiding obscure stumps and black, low-hanging branches. The item she dragged behind her left a noticeable trail but she knew it would be deeply buried by the storm come morning…

(Stories need only touch on this topic in some way to qualify.)


It was getting harder to walk. The wind was a bully, shoving her backwards. The snow, a white whirlwind of a magician, tried to trick her. The mesh bag grew heavier as she dragged it across the hummocks. Her goal was just ahead. Alyssa didn’t have to see it to know that the dying tree was there. She glanced behind her and saw the trail of red; sparkling, in the moon light. She knew it would be covered over by morning. A part of her wanted a few sprinkles to remain, but that wasn’t part of “The Plan.” She had to stick to the rules. She had given her word. She had to keep it. A memory tugged at her, but she tucked it away.

She closed her eyes…step…pull…step…pull…step—

So cold. So tired. So sleepy.

“It’s okay. Let go. Just for a minute.” Fatigue whispered.

She obeyed. The heavy bag dropped. She followed, pillowing her head on it.

She felt herself drifting in that half-awake, half-asleep state.

A scream pierced the air.

“Mommy!”

She bolted upright. Within seconds her mother’s instinct kicked in, leaving her wide awake and terrified.

She ripped the heavy ski mask off, cupped her hands to her mouth, and screamed back.

“Scotty!” She listened.

The wind wailed.

Her son’s voice was silent.

She waited, hands cupping her ears, straining to hear. If only the wind would calm down.

And then, it did. Suddenly, the world around her was eerily silent. The kind of silence that only comes in winter, when the blanket of snow muffles earthly sounds.

She pursed her lips, released what her son called her “mile high” whistle. It was their security signal. A pre-arranged trilogy of notes.  She whistled, he responded with his own trilogy. No matter what. She had taught him the same way parents on the mainland might teach their children a password to protect them from stranger danger.

Silence.

What next?

She turned in a circle, paused, and then turned again.

“Reality check.” She whispered. “It wasn’t Scotty.”

She slipped the ski mask over her face, tucked her fingers into her mittens, and then bent down to pick up the rope. The burden was heavier than ever. She stared ahead. Her goal was in sight. She forced herself to quick-step the rest of the way.

Her destination was their used Christmas tree, “planted” in the ice that covered Lake Michigan between Mackinac Island and St. Ignace. It was one of many trees that functioned as markers along the ice bridge.

Upon hearing about it, the first question most people asked was, “Do you have a death wish?”

It was a valid concern. People had died out here. The ice bridge, like life, held surprises but no guarantees.

Today, the ice was solid underfoot. There were no cracks, no slushy areas, and no holes. The Christmas tree stump was dark, the limbs turning brown. Like all living things, it was dying. Memories flooded her mind.

“Mommy, what is Make-a-Wish?”

“Where did you hear that?”

“At the hospital. Some of the other kids were talking about it.”

Her little boy—one of the kids—a terminally ill eight year old, who would never see his ninth birthday.

“Make-a-Wish is a special group that helps give terminally ill children a last wish.”

“Children like me, right?” His chocolate brown eyes were wide and serious. She brushed her hand over the stubble of blond hair that remained.

“Yes. Is there something you want?”

“There is.”

He told her his wish and together they set up “The Plan.”

Kneeling by the tree she began to fulfill her son’s last wish. The mesh bag had been filled with three items: the first, a mixture of white sand, mixed with red Christmas sugar. It was this combination that had left a trail behind in the snow.

“Not too much sugar, Mommy. We don’t want fat fish.” His eyes sparkled with the idea of fat fish and she could only laugh with him.

“Right. No fat fish.”

Next, a heavy Ziploc bag. She opened it, and scattered the contents under the tree, as instructed.

“I want to be a like a present, under the tree, not a memory buried in the ground.”

She reached into the bag for the final item—a bottle of bubbles.

“No balloons, Mommy. We don’t want to hurt the birds or other animals that might find them.”

She blew bubbles into the cold air. They froze and hovered, then settled on the snow.

It was time for the last rule; the hardest.

Tears built up; a huge iceberg lodged in her throat. She stood up, tucked the empty mesh bag in her pocket.

One last thing to do.

She blew a kiss into the air. “Good-bye baby boy. Mommy loves you.”

A whisper of wind caressed her cheek—a butterfly kiss?

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A Guest for Dinner by Gail A. Laursen – 1ST PLACE!

TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

The barren, tan corn stalks behind her snapped in the cold evening breeze, the only sound louder than the dry, fiery red leaves swirling around her tiny, shivering bare feet. She’d lost her bearings again and she hoped the dinner bell would ring soon. A gray tree with endless arms and fingers, devoid of any remaining foliage, loomed before her. She gazed at the odd markings on the trunk, which appeared to outline a hand-cut door of sorts. And, as she stared, it opened…

(Stories need only touch on this topic in some way to qualify.)


Desiccated corn stalks snapped in the chilly evening breeze and brittle leaves rustled underfoot as Priscilla ran down one row, then another. She’d lost her bearings again and hoped her mother would soon ring the dinner bell.

Suddenly, an unfamiliar gray tree with clawing bare branches loomed before her. She gazed up it at its broad trunk and noticed odd markings outlining what appeared to be a door. As she stared, the door opened, throwing a pale light from the mysterious portal.

It was terribly impolite to snoop but Priscilla could not help peering inside the tiny opening. A kinked stairway, fashioned from the bows and bends of the massive tree’s roots, wound away, down into the depths. Jerking her head from the door, Priscilla took another look at the dun landscape. No road, no hut, no fence, no guiding markers of any kind; only lines of wind-thrashed corn stalks stretching away in all directions.

An enticing aroma drew Priscilla’s attention back to the door, where warm air rose from the depths. As if she needed more prompting, a tempest wind shrieked, rattling the tree limbs, and whipping the corn stalks into a frenzy.

Priscilla stepped over the threshold, but had descended only to the second stair when the door behind her swished closed. She turned back but its outline had vanished. She felt for the door’s edge, scratching at crevices, alternately pushing and pulling until she finally frustrated herself in vain effort. It was then she realized that darkness was not absolute. Turning, she saw a dim blue glow coming from the foot of the stairs. Then, the taunting smell of roasting nuts assailed her senses and a griping belly urged her forward.

At the base of the stairs, tunnels ran away in several directions. The light, which had drawn her, came from no candle, but luminous mushrooms. They grew in the tunnels, illuminating with a faint watery glimmer that made Priscilla shiver, despite the warmth.

Scurrying, scuffling noises and the murmur of voices drifted out from tunnels, which all looked identical. One tunnel, however, appeared somewhat larger and well-trodden. Priscilla crawled inside it, moving stealthily forward, peering behind her every so often to ensure she was alone. Ahead of her, sounds of merry-making grew but it was the fragrance of stewing food that drew her on.

She rounded a bend and a large hall opened up before her. Drawing quickly back into shadow, Priscilla peered into the vast room lit by the combined glow of an immense cooking hearth and the same luminescent mushrooms that lit the tunnels. Strange creatures were gathered, looking very much like her mother’s garden gnomes, except for their squinty little eyes and long, bulbous noses, which twitched as they spoke, with great enthusiasm, among themselves. Their cupped ears were enormous, too, and waggled ridiculously when they gestured with stubby arms.

Priscilla was reminded of moles, the bane of her father who claimed they ruined his crops. She had believed him, too, until she learned that moles didn’t eat corn. Then, his rigorous efforts to eradicate them seemed pointless, even cruel.

She sniffed the aromas emanating from the hearth and her stomach growled. Immediately, the room fell silent. All heads turned, squinty eyes peering in her direction. A chill of fear raised goose-flesh across Priscilla’s forearms. Then, one of the Mole-Gnomes hobbled forward, his grey beard dragging on the hard-packed earth. His eyes, a mere glimmer of black, peered vaguely up into the tunnel. His nose trembled and his ears flicked nervously.

“Come, Child, we have been expecting you.” He spoke slowly, mouthing the tricky human words with great care.

Perhaps it was curiosity, or perhaps rising hunger compelled her to behave so rashly, but Priscilla climbed down from the tunnel to stand amid the Mole-Gnomes. Some drew close, peering up at her, sniffing, ears vibrating. Others seemed ill at ease, mothers drawing children protectively to their sides as she rose to stand, towering over them.

Though she could not sit at their tables, nor upon their teensy chairs, they made room for her near the hearth, considering her comfort by laying out sacks of nuts covered with mats made with tightly woven stands of dried corn stalk.

Priscilla smirked, wondering what her father would make of these Mole-Gnomes.

To Priscilla’s dismay, the creatures remained timid — even fearful — as evidenced by their tweaking ears and quivering proboscises, so Priscilla did her very best to put them at ease. She moved slowly, fearing to trample or otherwise molest them, and she spoke softly, aware that even her hushed voice echoed loudly around the high-domed chamber.

Three women brought her drink; some dandelion juice in their largest kettle. She accepted it graciously, her pinky finger raised decorously as she tipped the small gourd and tasted the unfortunately bittersweet liquid. Once she had drunk the juice, though, the Mole-Gnomes cheered, and from that point on, their previous enthusiasm returned.

One of the Mole-Gnomes produced a reed flute and played a lilting Gnomish tune. Dancing broke out and laughter punctuated their chittering conversations.

Then, quite unexpectedly, their faces began to spin. Priscilla blinked, trying to stop the room’s disquieting motion. One of the young males, his ears and arms quaking, offered Priscilla a platter. She accepted the tiny disk, astonished to see bright-yellow kernels of corn amidst the mash. “But, I thought you didn’t eat corn?” Priscilla slurred her words and frowned, perplexed as much by her slurring as the corn.

“We don’t, Child.” The elder Mole-Gnome, dark eyes glittering and nose trembling eagerly, cooed to Priscilla as she succumbed to the tainted juice.

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Nora’s Perfect Day by Meredith Morckel – 1ST PLACE!

TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

Strong waves pounded the dark sand just a few yards away. Hidden by beach grass, they embraced, relieved to finally escape their wedding guests. His poetic whispers suddenly ceased as he leaned back, and said, “There’s something I need to tell you…”

(Entries must touch on the topic in some way to qualify.)


When their wedding guests weren’t looking, John stole a crumpled red tablecloth out of a laundry cart, grabbed Nora, and pulled her outside. The smiling full moon angled its shine at them like a spotlight, guiding them down the pier to the beach. They said nothing, just smiled every time they made eye contact. The tide was high, reaching out for their bare toes. They found the softest sand in the dunes and spread the tablecloth among the bouquets of beach grass.

Nora started to kneel on the cloth but John hoisted her back up. He mimed turning an invisible doorknob and opening an invisible door. He lifted Nora into his arms and carried her across an imaginary threshold. John gently set her down and leaned over to kiss her. His red tie swung out and tickled her nose. She giggled and batted at it like a kitten swiping at yarn.

“Did you have a good day?” John asked. His light brown eyes and equally light brown hair matched the color of the sand around them.

The moonlight reflected off of Nora’s pearl teeth when she smiled. “It was perfect,” she said. “Perfect.”

“Was it?” John drew his long fingers through Nora’s red hair. “One hundred percent?”

Nora outlined his lips with the palm of her thumb. “We’re at my favorite place in the world. We ate my favorite food and danced to my favorite music.” She tapped her chin with a forefinger, pretending to be deep in thought. “Oh, yes, and I married my favorite man.”

He grinned at her and brushed their noses together. “The perfect day.”

“Yes. The perfect day.”

“Well, thank God. It’s about damn time.” John rolled his eyes back so far that they disappeared into his skull before they snapped back into place. “Do you know how many of your days I had to go through before I found the perfect one? I’ve been at this for a lifetime!”

Nora kept a smile on her face but scrunched her eyebrows together in a frown. “You found a perfect day? What do you mean?”

John stood up, rested his hands on his lower back and arched it until his spine cracked. “Do you realize how busy my schedule is? I have a dozen Souls waiting for me in my office. My boss will probably cut my pay in half!”

Nora rose to her feet. “John? What are you talking about?”

“I had the record! For three thousand years I’ve been the only one to find my Soul’s perfect day on the very first try. But then you came along. Never satisfied. Lady, you were exhausting.”

John started circling the tablecloth, glaring at Nora. The footprints in his wake were five times bigger than any man’s. “I thought I found it when I took you on your first date with John. You were almost there when I kissed you on the top of that Ferris wheel.”

When he passed by, Nora stepped backwards towards the ocean. “Honey, you’re not making any sense. Let’s just go back inside, ok?” She wrapped her fists around the skirt of her dress to keep them from trembling.

John clasped his hands together and swung them over his shoulder. “This is my favorite part!” he laughed. “I’ve been looking forward to this forever!” He cleared his throat and his face became serious. “There’s something I need to tell you.”

The salt-heavy breeze tugged Nora’s hair out of its braid. Boiling ocean water wrapped around her ankles and burned her skin. Nora saw blisters bloom across her feet. At that same moment the straps of her dress broke. The left one snapped and wilted, and then the right. The gown became so heavy that Nora couldn’t keep it from sliding off her body.

“What, John?” she gasped. The sand gradually became blood-red. Every inch of Nora’s body began to sweat. “What do you need to tell me?”

His sneer reminded Nora of a hyena. “I am not John,” he said. “This is not your wedding day. It is your memory of it. Before we lock the Souls up, we have them relive a perfect day.”

Nora opened her mouth but suddenly her throat felt like it was full of shards of glass.

“It’s like when you give a child a toy and then immediately take it away. She cries and begs for it. She would have been happier if she never had the toy in the first place.” John’s hyena grin widened until the corners of his lips touched his earlobes. “The pain that the loss causes isn’t worth the joy of having it. That’s how we make Hell more…hellish. We give you a perfect day and then take it away.”

Nora couldn’t feel herself anymore.

“That’s what Hell really is,” John whispered. “The permanent loss of a perfect day.”

The shards of glass spread to the rest of her body and cut her until she became like the sand. The wails of her fellow cellmates joined hers.

John, whistling happily, strolled down the beach to his next appointment.

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The Harvest by Linda Walker – 1ST PLACE

TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

The fruit vendor smiled at her through sightless eyes, enjoying the warm breeze and salty air. During casual banter with his customers, he seemed to remember the smallest details, even ones they couldn’t remember sharing with him in the past. The girl had been coming to his stand daily for as long as she could remember. As she turned to leave, she patted his hand and said, “I’ll see you tomorrow morning, friend.”

Still smiling, he replied, “No, you won’t…”

(Entries must touch on the topic in some way to qualify.)


Spring was finally winning. The chill of winter grudgingly gave way to a warm breeze that raced me from the lower docks to the open-air market at village center. I ran toward Mr. Everbent’s fruit-stand, my daily trade weighing heavy in the satchel slung across my body. I’d been coming here for as long as I could remember. Each morning, after I helped my mother lay out her sewing handy work in the tiny stall she rented on the other side of the market, he would give me a small list of things to gather. In turn, he would fill my satchel with produce at the end of the day. Today was no different. I waited patiently as he smiled through sightless eyes, long grayed over by too many years spent in the salty sea air. His customers adored listening to his tales of a life at sea as much as I did.

Mr. Everbent could recount the smallest of details and make you believe that you had been there. When he spoke of hunger my belly would grumble. If he told a tale about a break in the weather after a particularly bad storm, the sun felt a bit brighter.

I slipped under his counter and, after his last two customers wandered off, he leaned toward me and asked, “Did you get everything on the list, Jewels?”

“Yes, Sir.” I riffled the pages in the small ledger book he insisted I keep. It contained everything I had ever gathered for him.

He held his hands together, palms up. I stowed my ledger then placed the items in his hands one at a time, letting him identify each piece. It was our special game and he wouldn’t set anything in his wooden box until I had described each item again and again.

“Those will do nicely,” he said afterward, and patted my face. “I would like to ask one last thing from you before I send you on your way tonight, Moppet.”

“Anything,” I replied, eager to stay longer.

“An eyelash from each eye so that I may carry them in this locket and think of you fondly.”

“That’s easy! I thought you would send me back to the shore,” I said with relief, plucking out the lashes and slipping them into the tiny silver locket he had pulled from his pocket.

Mr. Everbent slipped the chain over his head and tucked it under his shirt. “I shall treasure it always, Jewels. Now, help me load your satchel with all the fruit you can carry tonight.”

“It’s too much,” I cried.

“Nonsense.” He clasped me to his chest tightly and said in a choked voice, “It will never be enough, I’m afraid. But you have listened well and you are smart. You will understand.”

I hefted my satchel over my head and told Mr. Everbent that I’d see him on the morrow.

“No, you won’t,” he said. His milky eyes darted around restlessly.

“Don’t be silly,” I called out as I hurried to meet my mother. “I’ve gathered everything on the list. We’ll need to start a new one tomorrow!”

My mother was overjoyed at the fruit seller’s generosity and said something about blessings for old fools and children before I fell asleep that night.

With the crow of the cock I heard my mother moving about our one bedroom cottage preparing for a new day. I sat up and rubbed the sleep from my eyes. I could hear the crackling of the freshly stoked fire but I could not see its orange tongues flicking about in the hearth.

“Mother?” I called out, rubbing my eyes again.

“Yes?” I heard my mother from across the room.

“Mother, I cannot see you!” I said, growing frantic.

Instantly my mother’s weight was next to mine on my small cot.

“Jewels?” she spoke softly as her hands turned my face.

“Mother?” I asked, trying to keep the panic from my voice.

“God in heaven, child!” she shrieked. “Your bright blue eyes have gone cloudy over night! Can you not see me?” She tugged roughly at my eyelids, forcing my head back on my neck.

“Ouch!”I reared away from her work-roughened fingers. “I can’t see anything!” I wailed.

Mother was up in an instant saying she must call for the physician.

I felt about my surrounding area, hoping if I touched something familiar it would bring back a familiar sight in return. My satchel hung over the bed post and I recalled all the items I’d carried in it yesterday; the beautiful robin’s egg still wrapped in a nest, the bit of black coral, as black as a raven’s eyes, the tuft of wool from a newly born lamb. Slowly, I reached up and felt my eyes. Did my lashes feel differently? My heart began to race.

I recalled my conversation with Mr. Everbent from the day before. Instantly, I was filled with dread as I pulled the tiny ledger from my satchel.

“Mother, the doctor cannot help.” I sobbed. “Only someone who can gather, preferably with keen eyesight and time to spare, can help me.”

***

A tiny boat bobbed along the shoreline, heading west from the island. The old man gazed out of bright blue eyes at the beauty of the sea. He sent up a silent prayer that his young friend could harvest the things she needed faster than he had.

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