A Minor Sacrifice? by Carrie Ott – 1ST PLACE!

TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

The feet of her pajamas offered no protection as she trudged through the deep drifts. She had been crying throughout her ordeal and, when she lowered her head for protection from the wind, she almost missed a light piercing through the trees. As she instinctively turned in that direction, she heard a train whistle…

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So windy…

The trip from Leningrad had been lengthy – the cold front sure took its time in getting her into the skies above Germany. She had been crying throughout her entire ordeal; no one had asked her if she wanted to leave home! Nice, cold Leningrad…but it was so far away now.

She lowered her head for protection from the whipping winds, hoping that she wouldn’t be swept even further away. Her crystalline body twirled and danced as she struggled. It was useless ñ other snowflakes bigger and stronger than her could do nothing to defy the chilly current driving them relentlessly through the dense pine branches. Amid the countless evergreen needles, she almost missed a light piercing through the trees. Turning quickly toward the flash, she heard a train whistle echo faintly in the distance.

For a moment, the wicked wind plastered her solidly against a cluster of branches and she was able to listen. What a long whistle! It seemed never-ending, and it grew louder by the second. Finally, the shrieking grew so loud it became unbearable and it seemed the pretty snowflake would be ripped to pieces by the sound.

The air vibrated angrily. Suddenly a streak of gleaming steel roared through the grove and shattered the earth in a huge explosion of fire and heat. The fierce current ripped her from her branch and sucked her toward the flame. She could feel her delicate lacey pattern melting, dripping away.

For a moment, all existence seemed to pause. Only the fading echo of the bomb’s explosion proved that time still continued. Suddenly, the ground near the missile’s crater sprang to life and filled the air with claps of thunder from the barrels of frozen guns. The sentiment was returned from the stand of trees on the eastern horizon.

The little snowflake stumbled over the cold corpses of countless victims as the bullets screamed around her. Bodies riddled with bullets slumped helplessly into the heavy drifts of snow while comrades, powerless to help, simply soldiered on. Then, as suddenly as it had begun, the commotion ended.

She floated lazily over the horrific scene, which had painted her glistening brothers the color of blood. A soldier clad in muddy green and brown coughed quietly. His chest heaved and his blood sent waves of heat wafting into the air. She dared not approach him for fear of melting her gorgeous frozen dress.

The wind caught her up suddenly and brushed her across his hand, chapped and discolored with the cold. His fingers clenched a crumpled piece of paper tenaciously, as if he were grasping hold of his own life. She hovered hesitantly. His blood was leaving him; his fingers weakened and slowly relaxed. She saw in his hand a picture, crumpled and torn and covered in mud. A happy woman held the reins of a chestnut horse as a small girl gripped the saddle happily.

The snowflake glanced quickly at the soldier, the picture of his family, then back at the soldier. Would they sell the chestnut horse to pay for his funeral? Would someone find him at all, in this wasteland? She knew what to do, yet she faltered.

Is it greed, to want to live? Selfishness? It was decided then, in the blink of an eye. She lifted herself into the cold night air and drifted silently toward his ragged breathing. She quietly fell and alighted on his lips, chapped with thirst and cold. Immediately, flaming heat consumed her body, melting her lace and her shining crown. She knew she could not mend his wounds, but at least she could satisfy his thirst. The water from her veins poured into his mouth. One, single drop was all she could manage. As his final breath of life steamed from him, one single drop from the corner of his eye was all he could manage, too. But dying with the relief of pure mountain water on his parched lips – that was more bearable.

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Smarter Than You by Elysia Walton – 1ST PLACE!

TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

Growing up on a fishing boat docked in this small northwest coastal town brought stares from townspeople and jeers from classmates. She desperately wanted to escape but, with competitors driving down charter prices, she knew her dad would never be able to afford a replacement. As she sliced open the belly of yet another Salmon, her eyes widened and she dropped her knife…

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Brooke never liked her job, working for her father. If there was the possibility of it, she would leave him and his business to find a life somewhere else. But she knew she couldn’t leave him. The job was dangerous and her father would never find someone to replace her. They weren’t exactly assassins. More like arrangers. If somebody needed help getting rid of an unsavory person, Brooke and her father were the ones to call.

Most of their customers knew exactly where we would go. Actually, Brooke and her father demanded that they knew where we were going. If we ended up in the wrong place, the wrong person would end up dead. But Brooke and her father didn’t know what it was like to be the fish. To be the one hacked into while still alive, injected with a foreign object, sewn back up and released. Then, when you least expect it, bang! You’re dead and you have killed someone.

So many of my family have died like this. Just last weekend my little sister was swimming around the creek, minding her own business. Brooke leaked her stinky hand into the water and snatched little Sunny out. I never saw my sister again.

We live in fear that Brooke – stubby, chewed fingernails and greasy hair – will capture us. None of us want to die. But what do Brooke and her father care? Except for the fact that Brooke would rather not do it – probably just because she doesn’t get paid enough – they don’t. Her father doesn’t even do any of the fishing.

Friday is the one day of the week that we are careless for a bit. My babies and I venture a little farther out than normally comfortable. I wouldn’t go if it weren’t for the kids. They like to twirl around the rapids at The Rock. I just float off to the side until they are tired out. I know I should have been paying more attention, you don’t need to tell me that twice. But the sun was beating down just right – not too hot, not too cold. I dozed off. When I came back to it, my babies were gone. No bubbles of laughter and fun, no sand-note to let me know where they had gone. Nothing. Just gone. The sun was setting and I would soon have to return home. They weren’t in the rapids, not in the feeding hole – not even in the Crevice, which was a guilty “Dad-says-no” pleasure if I wasn’t paying attention.
“Willow! Paka! Rain!” No answers. If I could cry, the water would be spoiled with my tears. Brooke had stolen my babies and there was nothing that I could do about it.

As I tried to think of anywhere else they may have gone, a sound alerted me. Not a fish sound. Not a bear sound. I turned vertical to see what was above me and my eyes met those of a monster. A killer. Her black eyes, though young, had little wrinkles at their corners. Her lips tilted down in a heinous way. There was no escaping her and I knew it. Brooke’s hand reached down into the water to grab me. I couldn’t get away from her speedy movements, and was soon held to her chest. The pain of drowning was nothing like I had imagined. There was no water to alleviate the pain in my gills, no liquid to ease my dry eyes.

I was jostled as Brooke pinned my fins to the ground and searched for her knife in her black bag. I wasn’t dead but I was close. Brooke pulled the knife from her bag. The blood of my babies and family members set on the blade – stinking of death. As she lowered the knife towards me, I knew she wouldn’t expect what she would find. As she made that first cut, she stumbled back, dropping the knife. As briskly as I could, I heaved my middle section at her – hurtling at her the bomb she had implanted in me years before. The bomb that I had been so careful not to detonate. The little device drifted through the air towards Brooke. With a small tick, it smacked into her right shoulder and exploded.

I wriggled for a while before I could escape the pins, and flopped back into the river. My wounds, in time, would heal. Brooke could no longer wreak havoc on my little community. Brooke’s father’s business would fail without her help. If Brooke was smarter, she would have recognized the long, almost invisible cut that she had sewn in me years prior. When I had escaped, she had cussed so loud I was afraid my family’s innocence would be stolen by such foul language. Though I could never rest at what she had taken from me, at least it wouldn’t happen again. People like Brooke and her father were far and few. My little fish family would be okay.

A word of wisdom from an old, wise fish? Don’t mess with us, because we are smarter than you think.

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SURVIVOR by Janelle McHugh – 1ST PLACE!

TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

With blistered, salty skin and matted hair, they were down to their last sips of fresh water. A recreational day at sea had turned into a fight for continued existence. Slumped on the bow, searching for any hint of a breeze to soothe her burning face, her eyes widened when she noticed something fast approaching in the distance…

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I rarely get playmates. It’s no wonder either. I’m not the safest playground.

Today I was rowdy, fractious. Today I beached a whale and drove a group of small fishing boats into my harbor’s jagged rocks. It gave me a moment of pleasure. But only a moment. Humans break so easily.

Most days I just slosh around in my confines; see how high I can hurl myself up the rock faced cliffs, like a child playing ëtidal wave’ in its bathtub. It’s lonely, being Water. There is only so much I can do with myself. Wind won’t play with me anymore. She says my games are mean. I told her she was dull and that there are plenty more of the little creatures. She told me I was stupid. I tried to launch a nearby surfer at her with one of my waves. I missed.

When I’m not sculling around on my sandy floor then I’m watching the humans. They never cease to amuse me, these little grubs. Beautifully stupid creatures. Why don’t they stay away from me? I’ve drenched enough of their harbor towns and capsized enough boats to give them good reason. Maybe they think the only dangers are my sharks’ wide grins or my whiplash currents.

But I shouldn’t complain. If they left I would be horridly bored.

The best days are the survivor days. When my ship toys tip over and everyone drowns but one. I had a survivor once. I remember the exact moment she hit my waves. Her eyes blinked shut from my salty water; she had hair that fanned out like a seaweed garden. It took her two minutes to reach the surface. In those two minutes she danced, fingers stretching, legs kicking, water logged clothing held her motionless beneath their weight.

I moved beneath her and nudged her toward the top. No sense in playing with a corpse. She thrashed and somehow made it look graceful; her coat fell off her shoulders like a caterpillar’s skin. As she moved her arms her iridescent purple top fluttered out like newly formed wings. She swam with purpose now. Free from her heavy burden, she reached air and sucked it in. She tread water, sometimes dropping beneath my waves when her legs gave out. I danced and pranced beneath her, gleefully planning the next few days.

She grabbed a chunk of ship bow that floated past, a pitifully weak thing. Water logged, like she was. I’d sunk enough ships to know that it would float just about as long as she would.

Her lips started cracking a few hours later. They were crusted with salt. I tried to splash my wave onto her face to cool her but she dodged my attempts. Then something annoying happened. A bottle floated by. Not one of those silly ones with messages in them but one with water, drinkable water. I’ve never seen a human move so fast. She drank almost all of it and I rumbled with amusement when most of it came right back up. Then she started to swim. I followed right alongside of her. She made it about thirty feet before I scooped her up with a wave and carried her back to her starting point. She started again, and again, and again. And each time I sent her right back to where she had started from. The only reason she didn’t cry is because it would’ve wasted water.

The second day her skin became textural, like the surface of coral. She cried. If I had lips I would’ve smirked.

Then I sank down to my floor and started to thrash about. Waves foamed and slammed into each other. I rushed upward, about sixty feet away from my survivor. I’m very good at making tidal waves. Her eyes went wide; cracked lips fell open in terror. She threw away her water bottle and kicked towards the shore. I spun around and around, I could feel my wave gaining power. Then a thought occurred to me. If the wave was sixty feet, didn’t that mean she would be carried sixty feet closer to the shore? I didn’t have time to stop it. It grabbed her and her bow chunk and threw them towards shore. I raced towards her, hoping to catch at her feet with a small current. But she hit the sand line and no matter how I jumped at her she was now firmly land bound.

She rolled to her knees, her limbs shook and she spat out sand like a viper spits venom. She was angry. I had the curious feeling of being noticed, like she was looking right at me. I didn’t like it and I tried to throw another wave at her.

With a surprising amount of enthusiasm she picked up a nearby rock and hurled it into me. I felt it when it hit my floor. She stood, limbs still shaking, her fist raised and she pointed at me.

I sank lower into myself, as if she would lose sight of something she couldn’t see in the first place. She staggered away and I decided not to play with humans for a bit.

Wind called me stupid again.

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Lindsey’s Arctic Spring by Abe Ott – 1ST PLACE!

TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

Blue ice stretched to the horizon, fading into the blinding rays of another waning winter sun. She shivered violently as the shifting mass groaned under her feet. She instinctively glanced down, looking for cracks under the transparent sheen. Suddenly, she tensed and dropped to her knees. Desperately clawing at the ice, she screamed…

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Lindsey snuggled her muffler a bit higher on her face. The cold was biting, life stealing if you didn’t have the right equipment. But Lindsey did. To her, the arctic night air was refreshing; clean and crisp, cooling and cleansing. She took a deep, languid breath, and even with the muffler, the sharp air flowed through her chest and filled her limbs with energy.

It was a welcome change from polluted city air. To Lindsey, her yearly vacation to the frozen north was a pilgrimage to purify herself of all of life’s built up detritus and toxins. If she could, she would live up here year in and out, but, well, a girl’s got to eat.

The land unfolded around her. Aurora borealis was quiet tonight, so the night sky was blue-black from snow drift to starlight. The full moon, hanging heavy and close, glimmered the frost and snow with its pale silver light.  Lindsey fancied she could even see the edge of the ice, where the glacier’s pantomime march down the mountain ended abruptly, a sheer cliff of blue-remembered white.

But she wasn’t there quite yet.

Lindsey hoisted her tripod back on her shoulder, and settled her pack, set off again. One foot after another. Her snow shoes crunched beneath her, breaking a thin crust, and settling an inch or so into the powder below. A sure sign, she knew, of the temperature dropping.

But mere cold would not deter her. She was equipped for that. She welcomed it. This year she would catch the glacier calving, and preserve the sight on film. Each year before, if she arrived later in the spring, she’d find great slabs of ancient ice, lying scattered on the valley floor. But if she arrived earlier, nothing but smooth valley snow and unspeaking glacial wall would welcome her view.

This year, she thought she’d timed it just right. The wan warmth of day and leeching chill of night would lever the children from the sheet, and she would be there, to catch it all on camera.

Day broke distant, an arctic aureole haloing the horizon. It found Lindsey on the glacier, tripod in place, tent erected. She wished she could film it from below, but the danger was too great. In her dream’s aperture she’d watched the slabs go tumbling, and there was no sure safety in that valley. But up here, she’d measured just right. Tripod set where the edge would be, close enough, she hoped, to watch the calves fall gracefully away. The tent planted up a bit higher, just in case.

Preparations complete, Lindsey walked to the present edge, her eyes out sharp for cracks. None showed themselves, and Lindsey stifled the thought: that perhaps she was again too early, or was this feted spring too cold? Instead, she took in the valley view, a spread of long, frosted arcs and diamond white. Blessedly, no sidewalks, no dirty tower buildings, and off in the distance, was that caribou? Maybe, maybe not. Either way, it was better than the herd that could be seen from her city apartment’s line of sight.

The sun rolled along the distant horizon, and Lindsey stood taking it all in, smiling. This made the long hours worth it. This gave her hectic life meaning. This annual pilgrimage was what, each year, reclaimed her soul.

A rumbling interrupted her; it was her empty stomach, and dinner beckoned from her tent. She turned and trudged and made it almost there, when up above she spied them – cracks under transparent sheen, and beyond her tent, up the glacier, higher! Cracks that under icy sun grew wider! Shots rang out or so it seemed, as new cracks snapped into being. A moaning rumble from deep below shivered through Lindsey violently. A scream of fear fled her lips and Lindsey leaped behind it into a dead run.

To cross the gaping cracks was Lindsey’s goal but she did not make it. The ice shifted, tilted, angled against her desperate run. She fell to her knees and clawed the sun-slick surface. Against the odds she found a hold, and desperately hung on. Her camera gone, her tent tumbling by, Lindsey dangled over the valley floor. The ice slab shifted, sat itself, end down, and leaned over some more. Lindsey lost grip and went sliding, rocketing past the glacier’s edge and out thru open air. Her flight soon interrupted by a dune of snow, rushing up to meet her. It did its best and passed its test, and caught her oh so gently.

She lay there for a while, embedded in the snow. She spent her time productively, counting her fingers and her toes.

The great slab of ice hung there, and seemed to think it over till at last the rays of sun warmed its side and it resumed its fall.

And Lindsey got her wish and found her view – not bad at all! – from below, of the glacier calving.

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Provisions by Susannah Carlson – 1ST PLACE!

TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

She was standing on the porch of a sagging cabin with bright yellow leaves collecting around her feet. As the cold wind billowed her skirt, she shivered and wondered if the owner of the purse really lived here. She knocked timidly and the door quickly opened, revealing a tiny girl holding a hideous, bald doll…

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Life for Emmy’s family had always been hard, but recent years had been the hardest, since the bank had taken their land. Emmy didn’t understand why a bank would take a family’s land like that, but it was a fact and facts ain’t fixable. Now they lived here in a two-room cabin in the old granite quarry in the middle of town. Papa made a deal so they could build there free and call themselves caretakers, but now they only had Mama’s little kitchen garden to rely on, a couple of chickens, and what Emmy and Papa could trap in the woods that ringed the quarry. In the summer they ate a lot of squirrel. As autumn came on like a nightmare’s cold sweat, Mama always managed to bring something home, too. There was no place for hogs or cattle. No place to keep animals big enough to be salted and smoked and jerked and cured, like they used to do, when the leaves turned yellow and skittered like mice across the rooftop.

Emmy didn’t go to school. Mama said everything she might ever need to know was right there with the family and in the Good Book, which they read together every day. Emmy liked the stories, the magic and adventure, but all the begetting made her mind wander, which always led to a swift rap on her knuckles from Mama’s wooden spoon. She learned from Papa how to set snares for cottontails and how to kill a squirrel with a sling shot (guns weren’t allowed in the middle of town), how to bait a trap and how to kill what was caught. He taught her how to gut and dress what she killed, too. She knew these things but she didn’t enjoy them. Few things died clean. Most of the time there was thrashing and screaming and blood, and sometimes you’d have to chase the poor thing down and kill it again. She didn’t like that part at all. It hurt her heart to watch life fade from frightened eyes.

She didn’t have a lot of toys. Her playthings were mostly sticks and branches, rocks and dirt. Her only playmate was the forest. She did have Lulu, though. Lulu had been her mother’s doll, and now Lulu was hers. Lulu’s hair had long since fallen out, leaving a series of holes across her porcelain pate, and her clothes had long since gone, but Emmy loved her anyhow. She dressed her in scraps from the rag pile Mama kept in a corner. She sewed them together herself.

Emmy was carefully sewing a stained scrap of silk into a bodice for her doll when her Papa called her out back where he had a lean-to shed up against the wall. “Mama’s going to town,” he said. Emmy knew the annual trip would fill the lean-to with meat for smoking. It was her job to gather up green wood, and she headed off into the forest to do so, a naked Lulu dangling from her hand.

High above the little shack, on the lip of the wooded quarry, she looked down and watched her mother return from town, bare-shouldered and empty-handed, and she knew the real work would soon begin. She worked hard and fast so she could be done in time. And she was. She and Papa were stacking the last of the new wood they’d gathered when her mother opened the back door and slipped out to join them, her bare feet insensitive to the rocks and burrs. “Get inside child.”

Emmy pulled Lulu from the spot where her pants gripped her belly and, cradling her doll against her chest, she went inside to answer soft knocking at their door. Her mother ran around the side of the lean-to and her father picked up his axe.

“I think your mama left her purse at the general store,” a woman’s voice said at the open front door.

“Oh,” Emmy’s voice was sweet and innocent. “That’s my Mama’s purse alright. She’s ’round back. You can bring it to her yourself.”

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Blessing Day by Aileen Fish – 1ST PLACE!

TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

Holding the sleeping infant on her shoulder, she gazed peacefully at her surroundings. Tourists wandered in and out of stores, an old man was setting up his easel by the lakeshore, and a child’s balloon escaped into the breeze. A moment later, she looked up as shouts startled her and the baby. Everybody was running in her direction…

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Radella sat on a sun-warmed boulder at the edge of the lake, alert to the village square behind her. Aubrey, the infant in her arms, sighed the deep breaths of sleep, burrowing deeper into Radella’s cloak. Outsiders, recognizable by the weave of their cloaks, gathered at peddlers’ carts, buying food and drinks. Every family in the shire would pass through the square today to celebrate Blessing Day.

On the north shore, an old man set up his easel, oblivious to the activity nearby. A boy cried out, his kite soaring off on the breeze. Aubrey stirred. Radella whispered her spell into his ear. He must not cry.

She sang and rocked him when the Royal Guard marched by, keeping her voice high and sweet to suit the youthful visage she’d bespelled for herself. The guards paid her no notice. Radella sighed.

Shouts rang out. The Outsiders grabbed their children and ran toward Radella. She clutched the infant tighter, singing again to calm him. The excitement of the crowd vibrated in the air.

Radella rose, following the others toward the square where the Great Priestess stood on an oak scaffold above the sea of people. Outsiders and villagers pressed forward as if nearness to the priestess would increase the power of her blessings. A blessed child was a healthy child, legend said, but since all children were blessed in their first year, there was no way of proving otherwise. All Radella cared about was the Royal Mark Aubrey would receive. Without it, he couldn’t reach his destiny.

The crowd stirred again when the regent, himself, climbed the steps to the scaffold. He knew.

Of course he knew. No matter that the rumors said the queen’s son was stillborn moments after the queen died. The regent knew his reign hung from a tenuous thread for the next sixteen years. If the son lived, he’d be crowned on his sixteenth birthday as the rightful ruler of Lago Encantado. But the child must bear the Royal Mark, proving the shire of his birth, before he could claim the throne.

The regent’s presence at the Blessing proved he believed the prince lived, thus the need for Aubrey’s enchantment. Not only must he appear as a girl, but he couldn’t cry, or the effect his voice had on the people around him would identify him as the Crown Prince.

The Royal Guard’s duty was to defend the regent and kill any threat to his reign. Radella and her sisters had only their magic to protect the Crown Prince. But magic, in the right hands, was an extraordinary power.

The regent raised his arms and the crowd hushed. “I am pleased to see you all here today. Your children look healthy, a tribute to the good harvests in recent years. May they continue to grow and become happy citizens of Lago Encantado.”

The crowd cheered, and Aubrey stirred. Radella stroked his head, rocking him as she sang softly. “Not now, little one,” she whispered. No one paid them any attention, surging forward, wanting their children blessed so they could go to the pasture where the entertainers gathered.

After an hour of slowly shuffling toward the Grand Priestess, children began to whine and complain. A gray-haired woman beside Radella commented, “Your baby sleeps so well.”

“Yes, she is a good sleeper,” Radella replied, humming her spell so the words couldn’t affect anyone nearby.

It seemed another hour passed before they drew close to the priestess. Radella grew tired of the constant chanting and humming, and the effort needed to keep her appearance young. Finally, she reached the scaffold and prayed she wasn’t recognized.

A Royal Guard in front of the scaffold reached for Aubrey. “What is the child’s name?”

Radella narrowed her eyes and pierced the guard’s gaze, willing him to accept her without question. “She is Luella, daughter of Zurin and Dana.”

He lifted the baby to the priestess on the scaffold, repeating, “Luella, daughter of Zurin and Dana.”

Radella reached out to Aubrey with her thoughts, begging him to sleep while the priestess intoned the Blessing. Bespelling him not to cry out when the hot iron pressed the image of a crown into his arm.

As soon as the iron marked his skin, Aubrey was handed back to Radella. The guard smiled at her. “Such a strong babe. She does not cry.”

Radella nodded, tucking Aubrey beneath her cloak.”A very strong babe. And now, very blessed.” She turned away, pushing through the crowd until she reached the lake shore.

It was done. Aubrey could return to the security of Lago Dabajo, the hidden village beneath the lake, where he could grow and learn in the safety of the crones charged with keeping him safe. One day Radella would return to the square with Aubrey, when he was old enough to claim the throne. Until that time, no one could know he existed.

Once she passed through the enchanted gateway to Lago Dabajo, she stopped singing and pulled Aubrey from beneath her cloak. He blinked awake and let loose the strong cry of a royal.

Radella spoke, her voice cracking from the abuse of singing for most of the day. “Hush, my prince, we are home now. The crones will have warm milk waiting for you.”

Radella’s hands grew wrinkled and spotted as her spell wore off. Aubrey’s porcelain complexion darkened, and the family birthmark on his cheek reappeared. Once Radella handed off the infant to her sister crones, she would sleep for days to regain her strength.

But it was worth every ounce of what it took from her to assure Aubrey, son of King Drake and Queen Elvyna, would live to turn sixteen.

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Current Events by Eric E. Wallace – 1ST PLACE!

TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

She sat in her favorite spot on the porch of the weathered beach house, the salty air sticking to her skin, the oncoming storm blowing sand across her bare feet. The crisp envelope bent beneath her fingers as she laid it on her lap, and reached for the pen in her dress pocket…

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Dear A.:

I may die on this beach. That’s quite possible. The odds are not highly in my favor.

The forecasters are jittery. A little while ago, the news upgraded the storm to a Category 3. Winds well over a hundred miles an hour. If this baby landfalls anywhere near me, it could take my breath away. Literally.

At the moment, the ocean’s fairly calm. Dancing sunglints. Merry whitecaps. Distant clouds not yet angry.

But just you wait, ‘enry ‘iggins. Just you wait.

Earlier, I watched a large brown pelican arise from the shore, clearly planning on flying inland. Smart fellow. He fixed on me with astonished dark eyes. I could hear his thinking. Idiot woman.

He appeared to offer me a ride to safety in his ridiculous, fishy pouch. I turned him down. Why should I leave? I love it here.

For years I dreamed of having a house on the beach. And suddenly, thanks to the death of my aunt–I managed to get one.

This place is perfect. Isolated. Stilted high enough to see over the dunes. A unique brick chimney worthy of an English cottage. A lovely big porch for sitting to welcome the sun, savor the morning, devour the fresh air.

I have a a pretty good boat, a sturdy dock on the inland waterway side, convenient access to the ocean and to civilization. The generator is tucked far away and never competes with the surf’s hypnotic swoosh.

I just got back from a stroll. Crabs are still out and about, scuttling from hole to hole beyond the seafoam line, continually remodeling their digs. Maybe their underground habits will pay off. Storm above, snug safety below.

As always, the graceful sea oats are bending to the will of the breeze. They have no idea what’s coming. Either that or they’re extremely stoical.

Perhaps all creatures living here need a large measure of stoicism. The assault of brine, wind, and water is constant, the wearing down of everything is perpetual. Just like the ceaseless erosion in relationships.

Sands shift, lives shift.

I got your note yesterday. A handwritten note! Thank you. It’s so much more civilized than today’s electronic nonsense. It’s a blessing that email’s impossible out here. So I get to relish your thoughts on real pages. Tangible, ink-smudged lines, the cursive tremble in certain words and phrases. I love touching the paper. I love the scent of the old foolscap and the hint of perfume – lavender? – amid the tang of the ocean. Or do I just imagine the fragile fragrance? Anyway, thank you!

I empathize with your loneliness. I really do.

But, for me, being alone and being lonely are two entirely different things. When I first moved to this place, I was completely alone but never lonely. Never.

Then, when I was on a supply trip, Evan bounded into my life, Erroll Flynn, good-looking charm radiating from every beautifully-tanned muscle. He caught me unawares. Like a dogfly nails you on a windless day. Before I knew it, he’d moved in here, lock, stock and rum supply.

Nights, Evan romanced me – alas, how seductive is seduction! – and days we put to sea so he could scuba dive, looking for treasure. I’m not a diver, but I drove the boat, assured his safety. When he came up, he often looked like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. We laughed.

But as you may know, when two people are together in a remote spot, you quickly learn things about each other. Not always to the good. Evan revealed a yen for the bottle and a hurricane of a temper. Lucky me had met him during the eye of one of his storms.

I discovered that loneliness is most terrible when you’re no longer alone.

As I write, I’m watching twinkling grains of sand scud across my deck. A race to the edge. I’m betting on the fat silvery granule. The wind is up a bit. The air feels good. I sigh at the smell of kelp, salt, ozone, imagined distant shores.

So. My life out here had gone from idyllic and peaceful to fearful and frustrated. Captain Bligh announced he was here for the duration. I wondered what to do. Reasoning, pleading and even some pushing back weren’t working. Full-scale mutiny was in order.

I found the answer in Evan’s obsession with diving for treasure. No toxins in his air supply. No futzing with regulators. No pinholes in a hose. No rigging spearguns to backfire. Elegant and simple.

It was another gorgeous day. We’d gone out some thirty plus miles. Evan gave me an endearing finger and rolled over the side, doubtless salivating over Spanish galleons and doubloons.

I waited. Dreamed. Counted. Twelve fathoms ought to do it. Started the engine. Motored away.

Home. Alone again. And not the least lonely.

But what did I say about constant change? A few weeks of contentment, and now it’s another damn hurricane, this one not so easily dealt with.

I can only hunker down and hope.

While I’ve still time, I’d better slip my letter into your bottle and take it out to sea. (Yesterday I loved seeing the antique glass bobbing about!) I’ll try to drop it far enough out that the storm won’t return it to this shore. Perhaps the hurricane will provide express delivery to a current passing your tropical island.

I wish you luck, my dear Amelia. May neither of us die on a beach.

But if that happens, at least it’s where I want to be.

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Trapped by Roelien Reinders – 1ST PLACE!

TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

Hearing a light thump outside, she walked to the front door and opened it slowly. Wind and snow swirled and the cold lashed her cheeks. By her feet she discovered a small pot with tiny white flowers. She recognized it as a Galanthus nivalis. Footprints in the snow led to and from the porch and a note tied to the slender stalk fluttered in the icy air…

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Iceland can be very dangerous. That’s because the weather is so treacherous. One moment it’s perfectly sunny, and the next moment you’re captured in a snowstorm so violent that it takes your breath away, and you cannot see one hand in front of you.

Luckily Icelandic women are very tough. They’re used to coping with the elements in their most extreme forms. They can handle them! Yes, they can!!

That was what I was telling myself over and over again, driving on that slippery, icy road with steep edges down into the abyss. Our daily route home to our secluded village up north. Three kids in the back of the car. Gunnar clasped a pot of snowdrops in his little hands. The teacher had granted him the privilege of taking care of them for the weekend. Maybe I should have offered her a lift. She was going our direction. Well, she has her own car.

The snow was beating incessantly against the front window, and the flakes were whirling down in such a thick tapestry that you couldn’t distinguish anymore if it was day or night. It was supposed to be dark, but everywhere around it was white, white and white.

Still 20 miles to go. How? I couldn’t see the road anymore. I should stop. No, I couldn’t. No use to call 112, because no one could come to our rescue. We’d have to stay in the car until the storm blew over. Would there be enough fuel to keep the motor running so we could stay warm? We could freeze to death in less than an hour!

But wait, there was a rescue cabin nearby. Not exactly a cabin, but a shelter carved in the rocks, right after the tunnel we were about to pass. You have a lot of those in secluded areas, where you can find yourself blankets, food, and a heater.

Our speed was about 10 miles/hour. The adrenaline rushed through my blood. Where’s that tunnel? Please come quick!

“Mommy, I’m scared,” Alfdis said with a tiny voice. “I can’t see anything.”

“We’re going to die,” Ragnar said decisively. Alfdis started to cry. Ragnar hit her, full of contempt.

With all my might I concentrated on the road ahead. No time for quarrels now. Finally I drove into the dark tunnel and stopped the car right at the end.

“Children, get out of the car and wait until I come. We’ll stay in the shelter tonight.”

“Mommy, I don’t want to stay here. The draugar will come and get us!”

“Draugar don’t exist,” Ragnar said.

“Yes, they do,” Alfdis cried out. “They’re in the storm, chasing us. I can hear them clearly!”

I shivered. There were indeed a lot of strange noises in the storm. Whistling, shrieking, sighing. If the draugar get you, you’re condemned to an afterlife of eternal haunt over the glaciers. Not that I believe in them. Just folk tales. The frost makes those sounds, and so does the wind.

“We have no choice. We cannot go further. And there are no draugar here.” I tried to convince myself.

I pulled the kids along to the bright orange door, and pushed them inside. I locked the door, searched for matches in my handbag and lit the candles that were standing everywhere. In just minutes I managed to make the cave cosy and almost warm.

Then Gunnar started to cry. “I left my snowdrops in the tunnel. They’re still standing next to the car.”

“We’re not going back outside, Gunnar!”

“My teacher will be angry!”

“No, she won’t. She’ll understand.”

Gunnar sobbed. I was proud of him; such a responsible little man.

Though it was dry and warm inside, you could still hear the storm clearly. The wind beat aggressively against the rocks and the door. There was a high whistle in the air, and a crackling of ice all around.

After some effort I managed to inform the rescue forces of our whereabouts. They’d come as soon as possible.

Apart from Gunnar, the children were too agitated to sleep.

We listened to the sounds. It was indeed just like a hunt – a wild hunt. One could easily imagine spirits and demons riding through the air this night. I started to distinguish quite a clear voice now. It mingled with the wind in a disruptive, eerie way. The wind banged on the door with vehement fists.

Alfdis grabbed my hand. “The draugar are trying to get in, mommy!”

I could barely speak, my mouth was dry. “Ssst, let’s pray. Let’s ask that nothing bad will come to us.”

Ragnar frowned, but he too kneeled with us on the sheepskins on the floor. After what seemed over an hour, the beating diminished and the voice died away. I fell asleep with the kids in my arms.

I awoke in peaceful silence. The storm had subsided. Then there were shouts.

“Rescue Troops. Please open!”

I hurried to open the door.

The officers were pale.

“What in heaven’s name has happened here?”

I followed their glance down.

The stiff and frozen body of a young woman was lying in front of the big, orange door. Next to her was the pot of snowdrops, as if it had just fallen out off her hands.

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Beast by Deb Read – 1ST PLACE!

TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

Their small sacks heavy with apples, they huddled on the cobblestone path, not sure if they could make it back in time. Bright orange and yellow leaves rushed across their shoes and they shivered, their cloaks no match for the approaching dusk. Their eyes widened as the town’s striking clock began to issue its warning…

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Jennet heard the beast growl in the distance, a sound she’d only ever heard once before. She glanced over her shoulder to see the darkness crawling across the hill behind them. “Davion, we have to go now!” Tugging her twin brother’s tattered cloak, she insisted, “It’s getting closer.”

“Give me a minute. I just need to get a couple more.” He strained his arm toward the two remaining red globes that were dangling just out of his reach.

Pulling her cloak around her against the chill of the breeze, she whispered, “We’ve got enough. Please let’s go!” Jennet whirled around at a rustle in the graying undergrowth. A sigh of relief escaped her when a small ground squirrel scampered past her feet and into a nearby tree.

Davion crept further on the narrow branch and wrapped his small fingers around the fruit, twisting his wrist to dislodge it. “Got it! Here, Jennet, catch.”

She caught it and tucked it safely in the burlap sack with the others while her eyes scanned the lengthening shadows.

“You’re just a scaredy cat, Jennet.” He recited the familiar rhyme in a sing-song voice. “Safe until eight, you’re dinner if late.”

“That’s just it, Davion. I don’t want to be dinner!” She couldn’t keep the waver from her voice.

“Then catch this and get out of the way so I can jump.” He swung both his legs over to one side of the branch and then dropped to the ground.

As they both reached down to take their side of the sack, heavy with apples, a distant chime froze them. Their eyes locked in fear. They’d miscalculated how late it was.

One.

“Hurry, we can make it if we run together!” Davion yelled.

The two lifted the bag between them and started home. They’d only managed a few paces before the rough material burned Jennet’s fingers, and five or six apples spilled onto the ground.

Two.

The children dropped to their knees, scrambling to corral the runaway fruit that sought to hide under the yellow and orange carpet of leaves. Jennet wished they could leave the bag and run.

Three.

An eerie growl reverberated from behind them, still at a distance, but closer than before. Safe until eight, you’re dinner if late. What if the stories were true? Jennet could hear it now, crashing through the faraway forest as blackness overtook the trees.

Four.

“Wait! I’m going to drop it again!”

Davion snorted. “C’mon!”

Tears blurred Jennet’s sight as she entwined her fingers in the coarse sack once more, and her brother pulled her to start running again.

Five.

The chill from the dewy grass gave way to the uneven cobblestones as they passed the scattered dwellings on the outskirts of town. One house, then two, shutters tightly closed, blocking out the minutest sign of life. Even the familiar smells were closed inside, no freshly made bread, no soups at full boil. It was as if the townspeople had departed with the rays of the sun.

Six.

Davion screamed in pain and tumbled to the street. “My foot!”

His sudden stop pulled the bag out of Jennet’s hands and apples rolled in every direction. Another growl sounded very close now, and Jennet imagined she could feel the beast’s hot breath on her as she scurried to gather the apples. Her knees scraped against the cobblestones, leaving a trail of blood. Safe until eight, you’re dinner if late.

No more running, limping. Jennet urged Davion forward, wincing with him as he hobbled to keep up.

Seven.

Only three more streets to cross. They were nearly home. Jennet heard the beast howl from the edge of town, its talons scratching against the stones.

“Hurry, Davion! Hurry, it’s almost here!”

Her brother tried to move faster, but she could tell he’d wrenched his ankle severely. Safe until eight, you’re dinner if late.

Eight.

Jennet’s blood froze when a blast of hot breath surrounded them. Death. It reeked of death, the blood of its previous prey, the foul stench of decomposing corpses. Their house was just ahead, only a few paces away, but the beast was too close.

“Go, Davion, go!” she said, seizing an apple and throwing it with all her might at the beast behind.

The black line of dwellings split in two when the door to their own house opened. Two silhouetted figures stood, haloed in the glow of a welcoming fire and the promise of protection.

Jennet pushed Davion into their mother’s arms, but before she could step through the doorway to safety, razor claws sunk deep into her leg. A cry of both fear and pain shattered the silence in the streets.

A flash of steel, a roar of a wounded beast, a final ripping of flesh as the claws dislodged from her leg, a strong arm around her waist before all went black.
Three anxious faces were staring at her when her eyes fluttered open again. Her leg throbbed. The pungent odor of her mother’s special wound ointment helped to clear her head.

“Momma, I lost one of your apples.”

Her mother leaned in and kissed her on the forehead, brushing the little girl’s sweat dampened hair to the side. “I have you two, honey. You didn’t lose anything. As long as you are safe, that’s all I could ever want.”

Crowds swarmed Jennet’s house the next day to hear about the encounter with the beast. As sunset approached, even more care was taken to secure their houses.

At a little before eight, Jennet felt an odd tingling in her foot, a sensation that rose to the pit of her belly. Dinner. Time to go out and feed.

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The Devil’s Plaything by Carie Juettner – 1ST PLACE!

TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

She wiped her hands on her apron, peering out the window. Red and orange leaves hurried by as the cold autumn wind battered the small cabin. The girl should have been back from the errand by now. At that moment, she saw the flying, fiery red braids. The devil’s mark on her right cheek, a constant reminder, was clearly visible, even at dusk. The girl, breathless, burst through the wooden door.

“Ma! Come quickly!!”

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READER DISCRETION ADVISED! Some readers may find this story offensive. If you are sensitive, or easily offended, click back now…before it’s too late!

——

Charlotte peered through the gash in the wall of the shed. Sparks leapt from the ditch outside where lava glowed red and orange in the always-dusk. She squinted her eyes through the gray smoke, wondering where Delilah was.

At that moment, Charlotte saw the fiery red ponytail, bouncing like a flame of lava that had broken free of the creek bed. Watching the girl emerge from the semi-darkness, Charlotte wiped a scaly arm across her brow. Then, tentatively, she rubbed her palm over her entire head, wincing at the sparse strands and flaking scalp. Most of her hair was gone, singed off from the heat of this place, the searing winds and suffocating dryness. But Delilah’s flame-colored ponytail seemed immune to the environment. Delilah herself seemed immune to it. From the movement of her hair, Charlotte could tell her daughter was skipping again. What kind of person skips through Hell? she thought, and stepped away from the wall.

She was poking at the fire in the stove when Delilah burst through the doorway. Charlotte looked up, determined to meet her daughter’s eye, but her glance landed, as usual, on her right cheek instead. On the Devil’s mark.

“Where’ve you been, Deli?” she asked, tearing her gaze from the crescent-moon scar to her daughter’s hazel eyes.

“Mom, I want to show you something!”

“Delilah, I asked you a question.” Charlotte placed her hands in the spot on her emaciated frame where her hips used to be and tried to put on a serious face. It was difficult without eyebrows. “Where’ve you been?”

The little girl twisted her finger through her ponytail and looked around the dilapidated shack before fixing her eyes on her mother’s mangy scalp. Then a tiny smile grew out of the left side of her mouth. “He said I didn’t have to tell you.”

Charlotte stiffened.

“But I will.” The smile expanded, and Delilah looked down at her hands. That’s when Charlotte noticed they weren’t empty. “We walked down by the cliff,” she said, turning the thing over and over, letting it slip between her fingers and curl up in her palm. “You know, where the chained ones are? By the pit?”

Charlotte nodded.

“We walked along there and He showed me how He does it, how He rakes them across the coals until…” She paused, inspecting her new toy. “Until it just pops out!” She held her cupped palms aloft. The thing in her hands was part solid, part smoke. It writhed and squirmed and seemed to reach for something.

Charlotte stared at it in horror.

“He said I could keep it.” Delilah grinned devilishly. “He said I need to learn.”

Charlotte sewed a smile onto her face, stitch by painful stitch. “That’s great, Deli. I’m really proud of you.”

Delilah kept her eyes on the grasping, groping figure. “He said you wouldn’t like it.”

“No, I do, I do!” Charlotte swallowed. “Can I… can I hold it?” She reached out her raw, cracked, shaking hands.

The little girl seemed to consider the gesture, consider her mother. Then she pulled her prize close to her chest. “No. I don’t trust you.”

Charlotte dropped her hands and breathed a long sigh. “Well, why don’t you go… play with it while I make dinner. I’ll call you when it’s ready. Don’t go far,” her voice cracked. “Please.”

Delilah said nothing, but she turned and went outside.

Charlotte stared into the coals. I don’t belong here, she thought. I don’t belong in Hell. She remembered the “accident”, remembered the pain and then the absence of pain. She remembered the verdict placed upon them both, though only one of them deserved it. It’s her fault I’m here. Charlotte remembered the way the Devil had looked at Delilah, the way He had run His thorn-like fingers through her fiery red ponytail, smiling.

She peeked through the space in the wall. Her daughter kneeled in the always-dusk, holding the writhing soul against a large rock and pounding away at it with a smaller, sharper stone. Smash, smash, again and again, her ponytail bouncing with each thrust, her lips curled into a smirk.

Later, when Delilah returned, she was alone. No sign of the soul. “I’m hungry,” she whined.

“Where’s your… toy?” Charlotte asked.

“It broke.”

“The food’s ready. Be a good girl and get it out of the oven?”

Delilah sighed dramatically, then opened the metal door with her bare hand and peered inside. “There’s nothing in here! Where’s–”

Charlotte pushed against the little girl’s body with all her weight, shoving her inside the empty oven, raking her across the burning coals. She slammed the door and held it. Blood-curdling shrieks erupted from within, drowning out the lava’s hiss, muffling the sizzle of the earthly flesh of Charlotte’s hands cooking against the scorching metal. The girl twisted and writhed, cursed and kicked. Still her mother did not budge.

Finally, stillness. Silence. Charlotte stayed where she was, pushing her charred, skeletal fingers against the door, waiting. What happens now? she thought. When does it ‘pop out’?

And then, laughter. From inside the oven, atop the white-hot coals, a little girl’s giggles. “He said you’d try something stupid like this,” came Delilah’s voice from behind the oven door. “He’s on his way, you know.” Her giggles grew louder. Charlotte’s body shook.

“Thanks, Mom. Now I’ll have a new toy to play with.”

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