Them Bears… by Luke J. Philips – 1ST PLACE!

TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

The two children were laughing as they tried to catch the red leaves raining down from the sugar maples. A cold wind brought the promise of frost by morning and she shivered as she tried to keep the children on the narrow path. A fall in the river would be dangerous this time of year. When she glanced up, she instinctively reached for the children’s hands. A man, whose untucked shirt was dripping with red, was approaching. As he got closer, he showed a toothless grin, tipped his hat politely, and said…

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

 


 

“Them bears are gonna getcha!”

That’s what Mama always said when I took my little journeys with Papa’s old Winchester into the Kentucky woods. If I ran into a bear, it’d be instant death.

I did run into a bear. It was not instant death, but I kind of wished it was. Mama was wrong for once, but of course I wouldn’t get the chance to tell her.

When it got me, my teeth were knocked out. My untucked shirt was soaked with my own red blood. I was pretty sure I could smell my own torn insides. I was pretty roughed up.

It got me while I was nibbling on some hard tack. She sneaked up behind me when I wasn’t looking.

I figured she must have shared my opinion about Mama’s recipe for a delicious biscuit. Mama taught it to me before she went on to glory a while back. That recipe and all the lessons were about all Mama left me.

I didn’t think a bear would just hurt a man and leave, but this one did that and took my hat.

I wondered through the snowy woods, stumbling and bleeding. It’s a good thing there weren’t wolves sniffing around there at the moment.

Along the river I walked. There was a clean sheet of ice over the quick water underneath. More instant death. If I fell in, it’d be the end of me.

“If you’re swimming, it’s not early spring.” Mama said that. She sure did try to keep me safe.

I stopped and stared at the water. It never made sense to me – the still ice and the rushing water. It’s like see-through skin on top with clear, cold blood running underneath. I felt uneasy at that thought, so I kept walking.

There was a dark, familiar-looking lump on the ground a good way ahead of me. As I got closer, I realized it was my coonskin hat! If I could run at the time, I would have rushed over to it. Mama made it to keep my head warm. There’s plenty that’ll get you in the deep woods, but the cold in early spring is the sneakiest. Sometimes you don’t expect it, but Mama made sure my head was all right.

The sun started to get low. There was orange spreading across the sky. I’d usually try to find a branch or two to chop by now so I could make a fire. You have to be careful about the falling branches. They’re deadly! Mama told me that’s what got Papa.

I couldn’t spend time making a fire. I had a bear to catch.

Time wasn’t really on my side, anyway. Other times, I’d have maybe even gone home for the night, but I was in a bad way and this bear needed killing. So, I kept marching. I had maybe an hour of light and a little less time of strength in my ripped-up body.

When you’re moving around the hill country, you do well to keep an eye out. I’d normally walk on the ridge that gave me the best view all around. Coming around a blind corner was a good way to meet up with a big, hungry creature. But when your insides are dripping out, you got to do what you got to do, so I kept on the riverside trail.

I walked around the bend in the river, right before my good summertime fishing spot. I figured that’s where I’d be if I were a bear.

There she was. The lady herself was right in front of me. I took aim with my repeater rifle.

She stood on her hind legs and looked straight at me. It was nice. You’d have thought that she had some kind of respect.

I had a bead right on her throat. One clean shot and that would have been that. I don’t know what good it would do for me, but it felt right at the time. I put some tension on the trigger.

That’s when two cubs waddled out from behind her. Their fur looked so fuzzy. It had to be softer than anything I ever dreamed of feeling. They were stumbling, but they weren’t afraid. They weren’t upset. They had their mama.

I suppose she was just a mother defending her children. I understood. A mama has a need to take care of her babies.

I lowered my rifle. It really wouldn’t do to leave young ones so small without a mother.

What would have been the point? I didn’t have much left in me, to put it nicely. It’s not like I was going to make it home with a fresh hide.

I tipped my hat and said, “You have a nice dinner, ma’am.”

I sat down in the snow.

I shook my head.

Them bears…

Rose-Colored Glasses by Gabriell Struble – 1ST PLACE!

TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

It was horribly hot but her husband insisted on sitting outside. The sun’s glare on the water left spots in the pigments of her eyes. Blinking, she watched a silhouette approach. The woman’s arms were crossed and her red fingernails contrasted sharply with her white, see-through dress. She stopped short in front of both of them. The man’s wife craned her neck as her husband stood up. She then bowed her head, whispering, “Not again…”

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

 


 

Eva woke to the sun streaming through the windows of the bedroom. She squinted against the light as she rolled over to greet her husband. The covers on his side of the bed were already tossed aside, his place empty.

Her bare feet hit the cool hardwood floor. She padded down the hall toward a large window facing the garden of roses that Hector had planted. She stopped at the door just before the window, and peered through the crack to see Hector sitting in the rocking chair.

“Hector?” she asked softly. “You okay?”

“Ten years later and I still miss her…”

Eva entered, keeping her eyes on Hector, not on the bed in the corner with Princess Belle sheets, or the tiny, overstuffed bookshelf. “I know,” she replied, laying a hand on his shoulder, “I miss her, too.”

When Hector didn’t respond, Eva sighed, overwhelmed. “I’m going back to bed.”

Hector caught her hand. “No,” he said, “The doctors said not to let you stay in bed all day. Let’s go outside and watch the birds for a little while. I know you like the birds.”

Too tired to argue, Eva nodded. Hector stood and gave her hand a squeeze as they made their way out the door to their front porch. They sat on the porch swing overlooking their private pond. The glare off the water made Eva’s head pound and left spots in her vision. One spot in particular seemed to materialize out of the water, leaving a white stain in her sight. She blinked, trying to get it to disappear, but it only moved closer.

She narrowed her eyes to see the figure clearer. It was a young woman, dressed in a sopping wet nightgown. Her nails were blood red against her porcelain skin.

Eva’s face paled. She looked to her husband. He noticed her expression and sighed before rising and walking to the garden. Eva looked back to the woman who was growing even closer.

“No,” she whispered, “Not again…”

“Schizophrenia,” the first doctor had called it.

“PTSD,” claimed the second.

“Grief,” said the last.

The general consensus was that no one knew why Eva saw their daughter who had vanished ten years before.

Eva had watched her grow before her eyes, but Hector only saw the deterioration of his wife; only heard his daughter’s thoughts through Eva’s frantic night terrors.

Now, Rose was there again, walking across the driveway, her eyes locked on Eva’s. Something was off. Her face was thinner, her stride more confident, her eyes cold. Eva had been confronted by her daughter before, but this was different. Eva leapt from her chair and rushed inside, locking the door behind her.

She stood gripping the back of a chair as she watched the figure approach the door. Eva gasped in horror as the door unlocked and opened with ease.

“Rose,” Eva trembled, “It’s good to see you…”

“Don’t lie to me,” the young woman snapped, “We both know what you did.”

Eva stepped back as the woman approached. “No, I didn’t mean that… You know that.”

“Stop lying,” the figure commanded, “You’ve been lying to everyone, but you can’t lie to yourself. You know what you did.”

“No… I didn’t!” Eva cried. She flinched as the figure tried to touch her. Eva made a break for the door, slamming it behind her. “Hector!” she screamed desperately. When the hallucinations had started, Hector would hold her until they went away. That slowly stopped; instead he would abandon her, leaving her to struggle on her own. He said it hurt him too much.

Eva heard the door reopen and shut again behind her. “No,” she begged, “No, no, no!” Eva ran to the garden gate, but it was locked. “Hector!” she screamed, but there was no response.

She turned to see the woman getting closer. Eva dashed across the driveway toward the pond, ignoring the stones cutting into her feet.

“Say it!” The woman shouted after her, “Say it and I’ll leave!”

“No! Please, Rose!” Eva cried. Before long, she was at the edge of the pond. The woman was suddenly upon her, shoving her backward. Eva landed in the pond with a splash. “Rose, please!” Eva begged through tears.

“Say it,” the woman demanded, “Say it.”

“I’m sorry!”

The woman pushed her under. Eva struggled, screaming under the water, the bubbles rising quickly to the surface that was just out of reach. Eva was pulled back up.

“Admit what you did,” the woman growled.

“I did it,” Eva broke, “I killed you…”

“How?”

“I brought you to the pond in the middle of the night…”

“And what did you tell Dad?”

“I told him I didn’t know what happened… Let him think you disappeared,” Eva said weakly. “But I wasn’t… sane. I loved you.”

“If you loved me, you would’ve let them find my body.”

Eva screamed again as her head was forced underwater. She scratched the woman’s arms as Rose had scratched her arms ten years ago. She kicked and fought, but it was no use. Her vision went dark around the edges and her lungs burned.

Her body went limp and the woman let her go. Through the closing tunnel of her vision, she saw Hector approach the woman. She handed him a key, and he handed her a wad of cash.

Eva’s heart stopped just as she heard her husband’s distorted voice through the water, “If only Eva knew what she said in her sleep.”

Ribbons of Grief by Chaleen Duggan – 1ST PLACE!

TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

The air pressure changed suddenly and the wind began to wail. Yawning to pop her ears, she glanced out the cabin window, and saw dark purple storm clouds racing over the hill. It looked like a bad one. Remembering the puppy was still outside, she ran to the door, and called him. He didn’t appear. She quickly walked outside, and found him frantically digging at the dirt near the rickety fence. She called him again and he looked back, whined, and continued digging. A blast of ice cold air slapped her in the face and then…

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


THE HAPPY DOG, splashing muck everywhere, worked furiously, digging at something along the fence, ignoring the beckoning whistle. The prize appeared to be anchored to something unseen. Watching from the stoop, the man sighed, pulled his sweater close, and stepped out into the cold, heartless rain.

It was a purple ribbon–her favourite one. Kneeling in the growing puddle, one hand gripping the dog’s collar, the other hand tightened on the rumpled cloth lifeline. How many times had they searched for this same ribbon? The angry wind howled as his mind followed the twisted silk deep into the earth, the wind screaming and moaning, pelting him with rain.

Motionless, head bowed, his shoulders, so strong one might think the world could be balanced upon them, slowly crumpled as memories flooded his mind.

It was just a ribbon, but it was purple, and that made it specialóso very special.

How did something as cheap and disposable as a dollar store ribbon prove to be more enduring than his bold, unstoppable child? Fate was mocking him.

His mind wandered back to the yard, the swing, the many hours spent in song, so much song! It wasn’t the dog snuffling under his hand, nor was it the hard cold rain smacking his head and face, soaking him clear to the bone, or the arthritic knee he blew out playing soccer as a kid. What reminded him he was still alive came from far away, carried on the wind, gently and sweetly, and if he kept his eyes closed he could hear that sweet voice.

It was a memory, yet in his mind it was clear and strong and beautiful, the song in the chaotic wind moved around him and through him, finding its way into his damaged and weary heart. With his eyes closed, he could see her playing on the swing, giggling in the sprinkler, gently digging worms, naming each one before tucking it gently into the flower bed.

He remembered all of it. Insisting mother cut her hair short, then wearing coloured leotards on her head, claiming it was her magical wig. Not just the one time, but for three years straight. When she finally let her hair grow, it was the richest shade of chestnut, thick and shiny. No leotard could match such a crowning glory!

Younger still, in her high chair, being handed a bowl of pasta. The noodles carefully dumped out on the tray, spoon tossed aside, the bowl placed haphazardly on her head, and then the meal would commence. Grinning with joy as red, sticky sauce dripped down her face, rouging her cheeks. She would gobble the noodles one by one until a nap claimed her.

Nothing kept her spirit down. Every day was full of laughter, song, and dance. There were no boring moments. She LOVED life!

When exactly did the smile begin to fade? It was hard to say, really. Teen years are always hard, a rite of passage. She was fine, cruising along, navigating life so well…and then she was not fine. Maybe if he had been watching a little more closely, not expecting her to simply figure things out like she was so damned good at doing. Maybe he had missed that fleeting window of opportunity, when someone might have noticed there was growing angst, some poison seed of doubt, slowly germinating. Maybe jumping in, acting on that gut feeling, could have stopped what came after. The songs stopped one day, far too soon. No more laughter on the wind. Just silence.

She stood at the screen door, looking out through the rain at her husband, crumpled in the garden, hugging the dog. Approaching, the woman didn’t need to see his face in the dark to understand. She read the lines of his back and shoulders well enough. He’d changed little with the years. On this night, however, his pose held more grief than usual.

“Come on, honey. Let’s go in. There’s hot tea.” She knelt in the mud and encircled him ever so gently in her arms, helping him to his feet. The two of them rose as one, sharing her body heat and her strength as she had so often since that morning. Together, they shuffled back toward the beckoning light and the waiting warmth of the house. He was groggy, chilled to the bone, and soaked like a wet rag mop. She lovingly led him through the kitchen, ignoring the mud and the exuberant dog. She helped peel off the soaked layers, and soon he was dry and warm, huddled under a thick blanket, holding his mug in one hand. The hopeless longing in his eyes drew her attention to the tattered cloth in his other hand.

When she saw what he held, a fresh pain twisted her heart, and the loss was as raw and searing as it had been on that quiet lifeless morning, so very long ago. It had begun like any other day, filled with anticipation and hope, and the sun’s promise. The morning when they found their beautiful, strong, unstoppable child, nestled in her purple princess bed, empty bottles and random pills sprinkled over the covers like so many wild daisies claiming her cold pale body. Her pain was finished.

Thirty years had passed, and yet the agony of having their hearts ripped out, the hollow emptiness of their souls, remained as raw and as fresh as that first quiet morning.

The riddle remained.

There WAS no “tell.” Suicide has a poker face, and it plays for keeps.

The Foresight of Fathers by Courtney Redfern – 1ST PLACE!

TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

He should have found the first one by now! He walked faster. Father had told him to take care of his mother and sister. He had to check the traps! His head turned left, right, and then left again. Identical snow-laden branches stretched far into the darkening forest. Trying not to cry, he sniffed, and then stopped, his nose in the air. Was that smoke? He squinted through the trees, and saw…

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


He should have found the first one by now! He walked faster, his feet almost dragging with dread. Father had told him to take care of his mother and sister. He’d trusted him, taken his hand on his deathbed and told him that he had to be brave, had to protect them.

His head turned in every direction. He looked up at the identical snow-laden branches stretching far into the darkening forest. He didn’t feel brave.

He shook his head, trying to clear it of the impending fear. He had to check the traps!

Trying not to cry, he sniffed, and then stopped, confused. Was that smoke? He squinted through the trees and saw the flickering of a light, far in the distance. He followed it, hoping he had gotten turned around and the fire was coming from his village.

He ducked under branches and tripped over snowbanks until he came to the edge of the woods and a lake. He sighed. At least he knew where he was, but it was nowhere near home. He would have to backtrack quite a long way. He hoped he would at least find the traps before he made it back to the beginning.

In his frustration, he picked up a large rock that lay near his feet and threw it in the direction of the lake. The ice cracked loudly and splintered around the rock before opening beneath it and swallowing the heavy stone in its icy depths.

He turned to leave, and the smell of smoke assaulted his nose again. He looked in the direction the smell was coming from and saw the fire as it flared up in the distance, illuminating its owner. His heart constricted and he stood frozen to the spot.

Across the small lake was something that could only be described as demonic in nature. It was some form of animal, but it was like no animal he had ever seen. Its tall, lean form stood erect like a man as it sniffed the wind. The beast’s ears twitched, and it sniffed the air as the crack of the ice came to it from across the lake, but the boy was downwind from it and it bent to its task once more.

Its tail twitched behind it as it ripped apart the body of a small creature. The clawed, humanoid fingers were black with blood as they burrowed into the dangling body, the sound of bones breaking echoed across the lake.

The beast brought the animal’s heart to its mouth and bit into it with sharp, dog-like teeth. Blood gushed into its mouth and flowed over, dripping and steaming in the cold air. The boy stood frozen, paralyzed in fear, staring at the horrifying sight before him.

Slowly, ever so slowly, the boy came out of his daze and climbed back up the bank. He slipped and grabbed a nearby tree branch to keep from falling. The branch snapped as he grabbed it and he fell face-first into the snow. He tried not to cry out as his leg caught on a downed branch. The splintered wood ripped through his thick clothing and into his leg. He could feel warm blood drip down his leg as he scrambled to get up.

He tried to calm himself as a small sob escaped his lips and tears slipped down his cheeks. His breathing was erratic, and he bit his lip hard in an attempt to steady himself. He closed his eyes and limped back in the direction he had come.

Suddenly, the wind snapped the boy’s hair back sharply as it wrapped around him, changing direction. His heart constricted in his chest and he looked behind him in fear. The demon’s head snapped up as the smell of fresh blood reached it from across the lake. It cast the half-eaten heart to the ground and sniffed the wind. It licked its blood-covered chops, lifted its massive head and issued a deep, guttural howl before it bounded in the direction of the nearby bridge.

The boy’s eyes widened, and he turned, before breaking into a run. His leg burned and throbbed with every stride and he tripped and scurried, all the while leaving a bright red trail behind him. He made it as far as a clearing in the woods before he was forced to slow down. The snow was deeper here, and he struggled to keep his footing. He sank and stumbled, his leg not cooperating as he tried to force his way through the too deep snow.

He panted and sobbed and crawled, until he heard a sharp cry behind him. He chanced a glance and saw the demon had stopped pursuing him. His gaze lit up as realization dawned. The thing had caught itself in one of the traps.

As he watched it claw at the metal vice in vain, it suddenly let out a howl that seemed to give way to a harsh scream. He stared wide-eyed at the sight before him, unable to believe what he was seeing. There was no sign of the beast anywhere. In its stead was a man, utterly exposed and trembling in the snow. Sweat glistened on his naked skin, despite the chill. The man looked up and through the tangle of hair and beard the boy saw something familiar in the depths of the twinkling eyes.

“Dad?” he asked.

One In A Row by Chase Speicher – 1ST PLACE

TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

She lit an old candle in the carved turnip, and placed it by the cracked window, causing shadows to dance across the log walls. She squinted through the glass. A cold wind was pushing dying red leaves across the stone path. It was getting late!

She’d heard whispers of a mandatory town meeting. Dressing in layers, she hoped to ward off the cold, and the gazes of her unfriendly neighbors. She knew what they would be discussing tonight…

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


 
READER DISCRETION ADVISED! This story is gory. If you have a weak stomach, please exit this page

Insane, they called her. Second, never the best. Always second to Charley, the man who worked the turnip field himself. That cheater.

Nasty, mean, unkind, they called her.

Liars and thieves, each one of them. Yet, they were also the voters.

As good as she was, they never chose her first because who would choose a crabby old woman who never left her home except for the yearly turnip carving contest?

Caroline brushed the imperfections off her carving. No scrapes or dents. No, that wouldn’t do. They would notice, and she wanted them to see the masterful artistry in her work. They’d all bow to her and proclaim her champion. For once.

Even Charley, who had stolen her victories the last three years in a row, would marvel at her brilliance and volunteer the award to her.

He’d be sorry for destroying her entry in last year’s competition, which he’d done in front of everyone. And, they’d all laughed.

She removed the top of her carving and placed the candle inside.

This was her year. No one had the skill to compete. Finally, they’d see her for who she really was.

Shrouded by the dancing shadow of the candle, Caroline smiled wide. Outside, she heard the ruckus of townsfolk descending into the center square, each person visible out her window as a single tiny yellow light.

Caroline lifted her carving into her arms, facing inward, so that none of the greedy lookers saw before the reveal.

She crept out of her unlit house and descended the grassy knoll. The dewy grass tickled and cleaned between her toes.

The night was cold and dark with the moon hidden away on the other side of the world. Only on the darkest night did they hold the competition. Only then did their candles shine brightest.

By the time she made it to the center, the entire townsfolk had arrived. The Mayor was nearly through his traditional speech congratulating all the participants and thanking them for their hard work. The collective light of candles in the crowd below turned him into a shadow, with his silhouette flickering on the wall behind him.

“As usual, we save the previous winners for last in the order they won. Jerome McGill, if you will,” the Mayor said, pointing an open hand at the first presenter.

A wiry man with thinned hair and shaggy wool clothes placed a large oval turnip on the stage. It had straw for hair with the candle tucked in the middle, and red and black paint all around it in the shape of a caricatured portrait of himself.

The townsfolk clapped loud, some whistled. A few patted Jerome on the back as he walked away grinning sheepishly.

Caroline scowled at them all while standing under a wicker tree in the far back. They thought that was good? Filthy liars, they were, to consider such a thing as anywhere near good. Wait till they saw hers, she thought.

The Mayor called out more names, each coming forth to present their ‘hard work’ and ‘well-crafted’ turnips for full view on stage.

Vases with flowers and barely visible symmetrical colorful lines claimed half of them. Others included red splattered skulls, a few mugs, and one in the shape of four falling dominoes.

The next name he called was the woman Caroline had beaten last year. Judith Cree pulled a small white sheet off her carving as she set it on stage. It had a wide smiling mouth, like someone accepting a prize, one proud green eye and another closed in a devilish wink. Fine white teeth lightly bit down on a pointed pink tongue.

The townsfolk all hollered and clapped. Some prematurely proclaimed her champion, though not too loud for Charley’s earnest supporters to hear.

“Caroline,” the Mayor sighed. As he did, everyone sucked back their praise and quieted down.

Caroline crept forward, her arms and jacket stretched out to cover her turnip. As she filtered through the crowd, she heard a few voices whisper admonitions.

“Probably rotten.”

“Just wait for Charley.”

“Wait, where is he…”

“Just skip her.”

“Crazy old hag.”

Caroline reached the stage and used her body to block everyone’s view as she lifted and placed it down. She took a few steps back and smiled.

“What is…” someone started.

“I can’t see…” another whispered.

Feet shuffled forward, though none dared to brush up against Caroline.

The first scream came from the young one who had called her crazy. The rest followed shortly after, loud and unrestrained.

Finally! Caroline thought and started laughing. Finally, they cheer for me!

As she had dozens of times already, Caroline stared at her carving, pleased with her skill and for finally being recognized for it.

The candle within her turnip flickered inside Charley’s decaying, eyeless, and hollowed out head. His smile was nearly as bright as hers. It had taken days of retouching before it had frozen like that.

His hands, outstretched from the small amount of his torso she kept attached, presented to her the round black moon award he’d won last year, with the year of victory carved next to a hollowed hole where his name had been written. Bioluminescent yellow paint glowed within, revealing a second etching, the number of years won ‘in a row.’ Except the number ‘three’ was crossed out and the number ‘one’ was carved above.

Café au Fromage by Shannon Lowe – 1ST PLACE





TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

The ice cold lemonade was her only defense against the hot sun overhead. She shielded her eyes, and watched. Across the street, the phenomenon continued, just as it had every summer afternoon for as long as she could remember. The small store, with its candy cane awning and large window display of souvenirs, attracted a steady stream of tourists. Sweaty, sunburned bodies entered through the single door, but nobody ever came out…

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


 

“C’mon Petunia–what if we get there and it’s closed?”

“We don’t even know if it exists,” Petunia said. “What did Gerald call it, again?”

“Café au Fromage. Gerald said it was put in next to the food tower.”

“Mmmm…” She smacked her lips on her long, pointed snout at the thought of the container where humans dropped delicious food and all sorts of junk for the taking. “At least we can get something to eat if the cafe is closed.”

I rolled my eyes, and tapped my paw against the grass while Petunia stuffed her cheeks with stale popcorn crumbs. The sun above scorched everything in its light, and my leathery tail pulsed in its attempt to cool down the rest of my body. The humans had moved from the lawn of their house–or whatever other rats called it–to the nearby lake. The young splashed and floated on vibrant, blown-up plastic–all preoccupied with getting out of this horrendous heat. This was the perfect opportunity to have a taste of the new attraction locals and tourists flocked to from all over the valley.

“Trust me, we want to eat at Café au Fromage.”

After a quick nip on her ear, Petunia bounded toward the human restaurant. Her steps were slow and clumsy; her mind preoccupied with chewing. I nudged her side with my head to keep her in the right direction. The cafe loomed above us. The smell of cedar drifted from its wood exterior, and mingled with the intoxicating aromas of meat, fat drippings, and spices. There were a number of tunnels to get inside but there was only one that would fit Petunia.

Why did I bring that old rat with me? Oh right, she’s my wife.

“Who owns it?” she asked, voice muffled from food. “Someone we know? Or a newcomer?”

“Gerald didn’t say.”

“Typical Gerald. I haven’t seen him around lately.”

“Probably because he and the others are all at the new cafe. We might see him if we get there in time.”

The hole was between a water spicket and the gutter. Less than a foot away, Petunia stopped and gasped. A clear plastic cup was strewn on the ground nearby. Bright yellow liquid dribbled out from where the straw poked through its lid and into a pool below. She made a beeline toward it.

“Oh, look! Lemonade!” Petunia said.

“Petunia, please focus!” I begged, trailing after her.

“You can’t blame me–it’s not often I get to indulge in my favorite treat!”

“Petunia.”

“Please, Augustus, it’s stifling out here!”

“Petunia.”

“Augustus.”

“Petunia!”

“Augustus!”

“Fine!” I said. “Hurry up! If the humans come back before we get inside, I will never forgive you.”

“So dramatic.”

Petunia’s black-and-pink-blotched tongue lolled out of her mouth, lapping at the lemonade. I counted the time in my head. One minute turned to five and I felt a growl rumbling deep in my chest. Between this and the popcorn, her stomach was bulging.

“Blast it, Petunia! We’ll never get there in time if you keep gorging yourself! I don’t want to have to roll you to the cafe!”

“Roll me! What a horrible thing to say!” she scoffed. “With an attitude like that, I don’t think I want to go.” Tail and nose raised into the air, Petunia turned around, and headed back the way we came.

“Please, wait,” I pounced in front of her again, and took a deep breath. “I’m sorry. That was rude for me to say. I’m just excited.”

Petunia sniffed. “This place better have limburger,” she said.

The trek through the tunnel took less than a minute, and dropped us next to an oven. Across from us and a long stretch of white linoleum was the gleaming silver food tower under a gurgling sink. Next to that was a small black box just large enough for four or five rats to fit inside.

Café au Fromage.

“There it is, Augustus!” Petunia squealed. “And, do you smell that?” She lifted her head and licked the cheese-saturated air. “Heavenly!”

“What did I tell–Hey!”

Petunia raced toward the opening, giggling maniacally, and dove through the cafe’s round opening. I shook my head and scampered after her. She stopped halfway inside. Again, I found myself tapping my paw as she squeaked and moaned, no doubt eating everything inside.

“C’mon, Petunia. Move!” I prodded her with my nose.

“Stop pushing, I’m stuck!”

“You’re stuck? What do you mean your stuck?”

There was still room between the entrance frame and Petunia’s rump.

“On the floor, there’s something sticky. I-I can’t move!”

Counting to three, I let out a deep breath. I couldn’t bring Petunia anywhere!

“Hang tight.”

I struggled to push her rump to the side. A space big enough for my head formed and I poked through. Inside, Café au Fromage did not have the candy cane awnings and window of cheese rats could drool over that I had expected. Instead, it was dark. The fumes of cheese were overpowering but they did little to mask the faint stench of death. And as my eyes adjusted, I noticed something in the far corner of the cafe: the furry body of another rat. Still. Sunken in. Decaying.

Petunia screamed.

It was Gerald.

Anticipation by Nancy Townshend-Vess – 1ST PLACE

TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

Cell phones all over the county simultaneously shrilled that morning. Residents quickly scanned the emergency alert, and then raced to gather their family members, and prepare. Meanwhile, in the national forest, there was no cell phone access. The small family camping on the peaceful, meandering river had just put out their breakfast campfire and the children were laughing excitedly as they donned their hiking gear… 

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


 

Mags idly dried the last of the breakfast dishes. Thoughts, like bubbles silently bumping into each other, floated in her mind. “How beautiful it is here,” the bubbles showed their little cabin with handmade charm, children’s laughter, Tabor’s happy eyes. Another bubble produced forest, wild flowers, and fields. “Not a neighbor for miles. So peaceful.” Mags stared at the hummingbird feeder where two ruckus Rufous buzzed each in challenge to the sweet nectar.

The children had gone flower picking in the field. Mags could see their little heads bob up and down in the tall grasses as they bent to collect their treasures. Smells wafted through the window as the sun put together her sun-scorched recipe for the day; a pinch of sage, a pinch of Elderberry, bake for 10 hours and enjoy.

Tall pines stood guardian around the perimeter, mysterious in their dark interiors. The resident mamma moose was down by the pond with her baby, sloshing in her wake, chopping the green water’s edge richness. A blue heron perched upon the footbridge, watching intently to see if the moose stirred up any trout. Overhead, a hawk drifted on the wind seemingly with no purpose but it, too, assessed the meal situation. Chipmunks and red squirrels scuttered along the jack fence looking very busy going where? It was September. The family would have to pack up soon, and leave summer behind. Mags heard the sigh of the Aspen leaves and the dry rattle of the shriveling meadow.

Suddenly, a Sandhill Crane’s head rose above the grasses announcing his presence in a primeval screech. “Ahh, life is good,” Mags awoke, shelved the dish, opened wide the windows to welcome in life, and continued about her daily chores.

Tabor also was in dreamland as he loved the 1 ½ hour drive to town under the ever-changing Montana skies. The clouds were in top performance today and he basically had the road to himself with the summer crowd gone. The golden glow of the valley in autumn was exhilarating. Mountains on either side silently watched from their loges the spectacle of the live show below. Tabor had but a bit part – a walk-on – as is the case with all human beings.

In town, Tabor would get the week’s groceries, gas up the jeep, make a few business calls, and then he’d check the stock markets to reassure his accounts were where they should be. He wanted to get the civilization part over as soon as he could, and return to his piece of heaven, up the dirt mountain road, back to his nest.

Tabor punched on the radio to catch a few tunes, maybe a baseball score. The commentator said with stern voice, “…what would happen in this case is that miles around the super-volcano the earth would be coated with ashes three feet deep. There would be lava perhaps 20 miles out, perhaps a destructive earthquake, and, of course, uncontrolled forest fires devastating Montana and beyond. Roads would be impassable…” Tabor punched the radio off. “Yeah, yeah,” he muttered, “I’ve read all about Yellowstone blowing. Why do they scare people like that? The last eruption was 640,000 years ago! Cheez!” Tabor’s piece of heaven was only 15 miles from Yellowstone’s borders. “They ought to be warning people about a global depression for God’s sake!”

The store was fairly empty. Just a few locals greeting each other with squeaky-wheeled carts: “Hey, Phil, how’s your mom?” “Those boys of yours, Emma, they sure are shootin’ up. Bet you’re in here twice a day.” Har, Har. “Hey, Tabor, how’s the love nest?” Tabor smiled and filled his cart.

At check out the girl surveyed his selections, “You sure look like you’re gonna have some mighty fine fixins. Wanna a guest?” she winked.

The wink turned into a wide-eyed stare. Oranges rolled off the counter, contents of the store flew off shelves. The floor shifted and bucked the humans like young calves on a sheet of ice. Then the cell phones chimed in symphonic cacophony.

“It’s happenin’,” the check-out whispered with her cell phone to her ear.

Tabor gripped the counter, and skidded through the mess on the floor, vaulting himself out the door. There was only one thought exploding in his head, “I’m 1 ½ hours away!” He started the car, and rode the raging bull.

Mags was outside hanging the laundry when she felt a slight turn in serenity. Things got too quiet and then the wind stiffened. The children’s heads popped up at the same time in response to a silent call. Mamma and baby moose jumped the fence and were on their way, rabbits scurried, birds peppered the sky with their screams, and a coyote ran full tilt at the farthest end of the pasture.

The first earth shiver knocked Mags off her feet. “Mommy!” she heard the wind shriek. To the east, she saw sky, once azure, turn steel gray. The real world began to fade.

The show was over, or had it just begun? The bubbles silently popped, one by one.

Harold and Janet Go to Town by Colleen J. Karnas – 1ST PLACE

TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

Even with the heater on high, and wearing her snow pants, parka, mittens and scarf, she was shaking from the cold. Her shoulders tensed as she she peered over the steering wheel, dodging black ice and snow banks. She knew she’d picked the wrong time of year to pull this off but it was too late to change her plans now. Her mind briefly wandered as she fantasized about her destination. And, that’s when she misjudged a curve…

As she quickly rounded a curve, she was instantly pulled out of her reverie. A tiny, shivering boy was sitting alone by the side of the road…

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


 

“Harold.”

“Janet.”

“Harold.”

“Janet.”

“Would you stop saying my name, Harold.”

“Yes. When you stop saying my name, Janet.”

“You are a stubborn old man, Harold. Just answer the question.”

“I am not a child, Janet. Stop treatin’ me like one.” The man folded his arms, stuck out his bottom lip, and stared out his window at the passing cars.

“Give me a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ so I don’t have to keep askin’ you, Harold!” Janet’s teeth clenched as tightly as she gripped the steering wheel.

“Yes, Janet. I took that nasty pink medicine and, yes, my stomach is feeling better, thank-you-very-much.” Harold pulled the brim of his newsboy hat lower. “I swear, woman, you’re gonna start inspecting my toilet wipes.”

“I already do, Harold, every time I wash a load of your underwear.”

“You are mean old bitty, Janet.”

“You are a dirty, flea-infested, butt-scratchin’ dog, Harold.”

Harold looked at the passing cars again and sighed, his breath fogging up the cold window. “What’s for dinner?” he asked.

“Lasagna,” Janet answered, leaning forward. She looked as if she was in a high-speed chase. In reality, every car flew by Harold and Janet’s Chevy Caprice as it puttered down the highway. Janet did not believe in moving to the right. Janet preferred the middle lane. And she preferred going 40-50 MPH, regardless of posted speed limits.

“I like lasagna,” Harold mumbled.

Winking, Janet replied, “That’s why I made it.”

“With sausage?” Harold scratched his stomach.

“Of course, puddin’.” She smiled, her pink lipstick carefully outlining her mouth with a little stuck on her teeth for good measure.

A passing car honked, the driver cursing at Janet.

“Go faster,” scolded Harold.

“Harold, I’m not getting a DWI,” Janet yelled back.

“Woman, you haven’t been drinkin’.”

“Of course not!” Janet dared to take one hand off the steering wheel to clutch at her faux fur collar. “Why, I would never place the devil’s drink upon my lips! How could you imply such a thing?”

“You brought up DWIs.” Harold rubbed his long silver eyebrows. “That’s what it means, darlin’. Driving While Intox—” Before Harold could finish, he pointed at the highway sign. “Here, take this exit.”

“I will not,” Janet flatly replied.

“Why not?”

“Because, I take the next one.”

“The next one is wrong, Janet.”

“Well, I disagree, Harold. I have this same hair appointment every week. I drive myself there every week. And I take the next exit every week,” Janet responded with growing volume.

“Well, then you take the wrong exit every week.” Harold had never been to Tina’s Boutique, but he was certain he was right. The first exit had the least traffic lights and the most right turns. It would probably shave a good two, maybe two-and-a-half, minutes off the trip.

“First, you call me a drunkard and now, you are tellin’ me how to drive to my beauty parlor. I should have left you home.”

As the highway signs counted down the miles to the exit, Harold began pointing more frantically until Janet gave in, turned on her blinker, and, with a sudden jerk of the wheel, crossed two lanes of traffic to her husband’s preferred exit.

Harold smacked his cap on the dashboard. “Sweet Jesus, Janet, you’re gonna get us killed.”

“Now I don’t know where I am!” Janet cried as she wrinkled her forehead.

“Just follow this road,” Harold insisted.

In front of Janet was an unfamiliar, solitary back road towards town littered with black ice and snow banks. Even with the heater on and her best Sunday coat, she began shaking. “Harold!” Janet’s shoulders tensed at all the strange twists and turns in the road. She wanted to be at the beauty parlor already. She wanted to sip Tina’s fancy European tea named after that earl. She wanted to—

As Janet rounded a curve, she caught sight of a poor, shivering young man sticking his thumb out.

“That poor boy!” she shouted.

“Woman, that man’s gonna rob us. I promise you.”

Janet, ignoring her husband’s warning, started braking and pulling the car to the side. “Act like a Christian, Harold. That boy needs help.”

Harold lunged and pushed the wheel towards the road. “He’ll rob us.”

“Harold!” Janet began yelling. “The Lord is calling to me!” She pushed against Harold’s arms, redirecting the car to the side. “And I shall listen to my Lord Almighty.”

“The Lord says old people shouldn’t pick up strangers. I know because on Sunday while you were tsk-tsking about fellow congregants’ hem lengths, I was listening to the preacher.” Harold pushed the wheel back towards the road.

Smacking Harold’s hands, Janet yelled back, “Well, they are entirely too short, Harold, and you know it. The Lord is not pleased with kneecaps. The Lord wants—”

Thwump. Bump.

The car slid to a stop on the snowy shoulder. Janet looked in the rearview mirror. “Harold?”

Harold looked out his window. “Janet?”

The hitchhiker was no longer standing by the road.

“Harold.”

“Janet.”

Janet smoothed down her faux fur collar, put on her blinker, and calmly accelerated to her preferred 40-50 MPH. “Harold, if anyone asks, we took the second exit, mmkay?”

“Janet, you might have to wash another load of underwear.”

Souling by Skip Dyer – 1ST PLACE

TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

She wasn’t too comfortable letting the children go trick or treating by themselves but her son was almost 11 now. Surely he could keep an eye on his little sister, right? She heard them laughing as they stepped into the chilly night, with the crackling of orange and red leaves under their feet. Less than an hour later, she heard someone at the door once again, and expected to see ghosts and goblins from the neighborhood. However, it was her children. Back so soon? The children silently walked past, handing her their candy bags for inspection. She walked to the dining room table, and dumped the contents of her daughter’s bag on the table. And, that’s when she saw…

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


 

I washed down the last morsel of bread with a slug of ale and wiped the crumbs from my beard. “That does it,” I said to the Lord of the Manor. “I’ll take my pay and be off.”

“Just like that? My wife lies here dead and you want your pay?”

“Just like that,” I replied.

“You’re a cold man. I suppose that’s necessary for someone in your line of work.”

Someone in your line of work. As if I had chosen to do this. “My pay, if you please.”

“Very well, then.” He dropped sixpence into my waiting palm, being careful our hands didn’t touch.

I stepped outside where a groaning wind blew a sideways rain. A coldness settled inside me after every job, and this one was no different. A rain-soaked trek across the moor would only make it worse. Someone in your line of work. I flicked up the collar of my greatcoat and set off, unable to dispatch the memory of that night many years ago.

Ten years old I was, and my sister Shaylee two years younger. Mother didn’t want us out souling that All Hallows Eve. She worried about us all the time. But we were poor and hungry, especially after the plague took father. For the promise of a few prayers, my sister and I could gather soul cakes from those living in and around our village. “We’ll have food, and you’ll help people get to heaven,” mother told us with a smile. Those cakes meant meals for two or three days, even if Shaylee and I gobbled down a couple before we got home.

“Don’t go far,” mother admonished, as I grabbed Shaylee’s hand and pulled her through the doorway. She swatted my backside and grinned as I scurried past. “Bring at least some of the cakes home. And don’t eat any food set out for the departed! Do you hear me, Haylen?” Her voice faded as my sister and I raced toward the village.

Dodging the costumed drunks reveling around their bonfires, we went house to house, offering prayers for the departed, and collecting biscuits in return. Everyone had their own recipe for soul cakes. Some were sweet, and fresh from the hearth. Those wouldn’t make it home. Most were dry, as hard and white as the bones of the dead we promised to pray for. Those we collected in a burlap poke to take back with us.

It seemed we scoured the entire town that night. With our sack and bellies bulging, we turned for home, and passed a small house along the way. The door stood open. Inside, the flickering glow of candles illuminated a half-dozen people comforting a grieving widow. Outside by the street, a coffin sat on a trestle. On top, a plate of soul cakes and a mug of ale.

“Come on,” I said.

Shaylee’s brow furrowed and she yanked my sleeve. “Mama said don’t eat the food set out for the departed. That’s how they keep the demons away.”

“We’ll just take one. Nobody will know.” Shaylee backed away, eyes downcast, picking her fingernails. “You’re such a baby,” I mocked as I crossed the street.

“Bring me one,” she whispered.

Crouching, I snuck up to the coffin. The aroma of the fresh bread reached me along with a sickly-sweet waft from the decaying body inside the pall. Peering over the top of that morbid table, I grabbed a biscuit and the cup. The bread felt soft and warm in my hand and my gluttonous impulses overpowered my revulsion at the smell of putrifying body. I chewed, slowly at first, then crammed the remainder into my maw, washing it down with the ale. I looked back at Shaylee, a satisfied smile on my face. She waved for me to come back, her eyes darting, her little feet dancing like she needed to use the privy. I nodded, replaced the mug, and snatched another cake to split with her.

“You there! What are you doing?” The cry came from the doorway of the house.

I tore off, hoping to escape before being caught or recognized. Boots slapped the cobblestones behind me and my pursuer snatched me by my collar.

“Dear God, boy. Do you know what you’ve done?”

#

Shaylee and I sat at the table in our house. By the fireplace, the man and my mother whispered. Tear trails glistened down mother’s cheeks. When the man left, she came over, knelt, and enfolded me in her arms. Her body heaved and through the sobs all she could say was, “You helped him get to heaven.”

That’s how I came to this line of work. I’m a sin-eater. Ale and bread placed on the casket to draw out the dead man’s sins. That night I ate, unknowing, accidentally inviting his unforgiven sins onto myself. Now I eat for a price. Some cakes are sweet, and fresh from the hearth. But most are dry, as hard and white as the bones of the dead. I’ve saved their souls, and forfeited my own.

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.