What’s Inside by Colleen Karnas – 1ST PLACE!


She had an ominous feeling in the pit of her stomach as she gazed attentively at the wearied old woman. Red and yellow leaves fell gently around them…silent witnesses to the occasion.

“It’s yours now,” the elder said as she handed over the thick stick, its knots and bumps matching her gnarled, arthritic knuckles. “But be warned,” the old woman added, “It can be used for good AND for evil.” The forest seemed to darken a bit as the ancient lady shuffled off.

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

“Why can’t you draw anything nice? Something beautiful?” For the past fifteen years I’ve heard the same criticism: my art is too dark. My explanation is simple. You can only draw what is inside you and what is inside me is darkness.

You’ve only just met me so let me be the first to tell you, I am a bad person. This isn’t modest self-deprecation; I truly am bad. Not the type of bad that, like, kicks puppies, but the type of bad that people instinctively avoid. If it wasn’t part of their jobs, the guards here would stay away from me, too.

It took nearly two decades to get what I call my ëcrayon privileges.’

Maybe I earned them through good behavior or maybe I’m just too old to concern anyone. Either way, for the past fifteen years I’ve been trying to draw something “nice,” whatever that means. Still, everything comes out dark and scribbled, evidence of exorcisms performed through paper and wax. But today I’ll try again.

It’s autumn outside. I remember autumn not the glimpses of it that I get passing a tiny window, but actually living it, breathing in the warmth of the reds, the earthiness of the browns, the liveliness of the yellows. I close my eyes and she is there: Dolly. Our last day together was in autumn. What were we doing? A picnic? Yes, we wanted to see the leaves changing colors and so we went on a picnic. She was wearing a blue dress? Green? Maybe a green top with jeans. It was probably jeans; women don’t wear dresses much, except in my imagination. I line up the red, orange, yellow, brown, green, blue, and peach crayons. I push away the dark purple, the black, the navy blue. Today I’ll make something pretty.

Staring at the blank page I try to picture Dolly, but can’t see her clearly. I can see everything in detail the woods, her blanket, my car, but Dolly is blurry. I don’t read into this much; everyone’s faces are blurry, even my parents’. The only faces I can see clearly are the guards’. Time does that, I suppose.

I grip the peach crayon in my hand and notice how different my gnarled knuckles look after sitting in this building, breathing recycled air, living under fluorescent lights, for over three decades. Dolly would be aging, too, I suppose. I decide to go back to that picnic in my mind, not as I was, but as I am now an old man. I do the same for Dolly. A wrinkly old man courting a wrinkly old woman.

“Come have a seat,” Dolly smiles as she pats the ground, red and yellow leaves falling around her. This is the moment I’ll draw. My fingers fly up and down as streaks of color fill the page. Grand tree trunks reach for the sky as their colorful leaves tumble down, making the ground indistinguishable from the patchwork quilt Dolly sits upon. A little pile of apples sits to the right of her some creative license as I’m not sure what food was there. I almost draw her ponytail, but decide to create a more mature-looking, shoulder-length haircut. As the white page transforms into something more, my mind whispers, “God, it’s beautiful,” and the world is once again mine to behold.

I almost put a sandwich in Dolly’s hand, but instead give her a stick a little line of bare white paper. It is a scene of absurdity: Dolly’s now old, arthritic hands giving me a little white stick as she says, “It’s yours.” I laugh at the mashup modern Granny Dolly announcing our baby by handing me that pregnancy stick from decades ago. She shakes the stick at me, warning me that if we go through with this, it will be tough, but this baby can also be good, something really good for the both of us.

I blink my way out of the daydream and cover my mouth, embarrassed by my goofy smile. Glancing at the blank cinder block wall, my breath catches as I think: a little boy! If this picture can be all decades all at once old people living their youthful moments, why can’t the little boy be there? A circle for his head, a little blob for his body, and lines caught in motion for his legs. The little crayon boy runs towards his mother with a…I scan the crayons and grab brown…football in his hand. Maybe there is a pile of leaves in his way. Yes, he would love it if I gave him a pile of leaves to jump into.

I drop the crayon and look at the picture. My heart is thumping as my eyes well up with tears. “My God, it’s beautiful,” I whisper, knowing the spell is about to be broken and I will be sent back to a world of walls.

The guard notices I finished and walks over to my table. “Damnit, oldtimer, why can’t you ever draw something nice? Something beautiful?”

I wipe away the tears with the hem of my shirt and look at my picture again. The red leaves falling from the trees merge with the scribbled red blood that pools around Dolly’s body.

You can only draw what is inside you and, as I told you, I am a bad person.

All Hail the Queen by Andres Diz – 1ST PLACE!


All the townsfolk said she’d not survive out here alone. Yet, here she was, working the soil for the second Spring. After a frigid winter, she could finally dig her fingers into the warming Earth. She patiently sifted clumps, making way for the tiny roots her carrots would put down as they sought ancient nutrients left there by their rotted brethren.

One clump did not feel like dirt at all. Puzzled, she grabbed hold of it, pulled, and…

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

The winter had felt longer than the previous one I had experienced. There were a couple of times here or there where I thought it would subside, but then it would swing back with a vengeance, forcing us to remain deep within the earth. We were all protected there, all warm enough and had enough to survive, so we would wait further until we knew it was safe enough to go to the surface.

The summer harvest had been good to us the previous year, so the colony was able to grow much more than expected. If it hadn’t been for the severity of the cold, we could’ve prospered again this summer, but the numbers we had gained were short lived and expected to drop before we could finally leave the tunnels. Taking out our fallen comrades would be our first task come summer.

After another bit of time in the home base, it was deemed safe for us to return to the surface. We rushed out through the intricate network of tunnels we had created a few years ago and breached the surface for the first time in what felt like years. The sun, oh how we have longed for the sun. Its warmth on our bodies and on the earth itself felt like a miracle and was praised by all. We took it in, but only briefly as we knew that with every passing moment, the cold from this coming winter was right around the corner. We needed to prepare and there was little to no time to dilly dally.

Even the removal of our comrades had a sense of hurry to it. No ceremony was performed, no condolences said, it was a job and it wasn’t worth the energy to do anything further than move them out and continue onto the next task. Time could not be wasted.

After all were removed, we were assigned to go out and scavenge the earth, looking for whatever food we could find and bring it back to replenish the empty stores. The tunnels were bustling with activity, a constant flow in and out of our home, to make it home again for the next freeze.

Everyone seemed to be pulling their weight, even the newest members. We were a well oiled machine and it seemed like, even at this early point in the year, that we would be fine.

As the days went on and the sun kept rising higher in the sky, we became more and more confident we would have enough. That was before the event, before forces out of our control came to the colony and wreaked havoc.

I had heard stories of it happening to others, saw the nomads from fallen colonies wandering the earth aimlessly. The stories were horrific, but there was nothing we could do but hope it would not happen to us, that luck would spare us.

It started a few suns ago, we heard the rumbling. It felt distant, but as time went on, it only intensified. No one discussed it, we were all still too focused on our mission, on resupply. Then, on the warmest day after the cold, it happened.

The rumbling caught up to us and the tunnels turned to chaos. I was directed to go deep and protect our most vulnerable while others were rushing to the entrance for defense. Brave as they were, we tried to do what we could but nothing could stop what was coming.

The moment I went deeper, the rumble felt inches away. We waited mere seconds before our home was suddenly ripped from its roots and exposed to the sun, the most unfortunate and devastating event to any colony. With our queen exposed and our network of tunnels destroyed forever, it would be near impossible to recover….

* * * * * *

“Ah, what do we have here?” Her hand sifted through the clumps of dirt at the end of her shovel. This clump didn’t feel like the rest and the scurrying of ants, scrambling to protect their queen was the reason why.

Coffee, Black As Night by Kalen Grace – 1ST PLACE!


Twinkle lights clicked against the window’s exterior, threatening to break in the freezing wind. She was warm inside, too warm, unlike the people rushing by the small coffee shop. Her blunt fingernail repeatedly tapped the steaming cup, her second one, while her other hand clutched the badge hidden beneath her coat. The bell on the door kept chiming and her neck was starting to get sore from looking up…

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

When the news and the government were telling us to stay calm, I was still doing investigations. I was at a no-name cafe, waiting on a man whose wife suspected him of things I’ll not mention. I was to secretly follow him and observe.

Wind vibrated the windows, rattling twinkling string-lights inside, as anxious passersby stumbled in its wake through the dark.

I ordered a private investigator’s comfort food – coffee, dark as night, served by an anonymous waitress. She poured it and went back behind the counter. I inhaled the steam, tapping the cup with my fingers nervously.

I drank cup after cup. Hours passed. I glanced at the door often enough to strain my neck.

I didn’t take notice of the man in the trench coat after I realized he wasn’t my guy. He entered and sat at the counter.

The waitress blinked and said, “You wanna stay? Take the mask off.”

I looked at him closely; he was wearing a “man in the moon” mask under his fedora. He adjusted it with gloved hands and stared at her. She tried staring back,and, after a moment, looked at her shoes. The man murmured; she nodded, poured him a cup of coffee, and put a straw in it. She asked something. He shook his head and said, “Black,” almost too softly to hear. The lights dimmed slightly.

Something about him made me very tired.

The man noticed me staring at him and stood up. I blinked. Suddenly he sat across from me.

I tried not to recoil. He sipped from his straw.

“What do you want?” I asked.

His voice was the wind through leaves on a deep fall evening.

“What do you think of all this?”

“Of what?” I said.

“Stars winking out, too long nights, lights shrinking from shadows.”

I shook my head. Everyone knew about it. It was unnatural. The world was terrified.

“No opinion.”

“You ever noticed,” he said, “that no one ever says ‘goodnight’ to the night itself? Yet everyone says good night to each other. Most say it without even realizing it.”

I said I hadn’t noticed.

He leaned closer. He smelled of summer nights in my youth, every dream in the dark I was terrified to drag into the light. The waitress was watching us, within arm’s length of the phone.

“Care for a secret?” he asked.

I found myself mesmerized by him, and nodded.

“Would you believe,” he said, “that I’m the embodiment of night?”

I blinked and laughed. “You mean how the Grim Reaper embodies death? Or a god has an avatar on earth? All myths.”

I sensed anger, thinking this was usually the moment when men like him pulled a gun. Then, I felt his demeanor return to that of an evening breeze.

“In the old days, people feared and respected the night, stayed close to the fires, and told stories of shadows.”

He started with his coat, undoing the black buttons. As it fell open, he removed his mask. Hat. Gloves.

Where there had sat an oddly dressed man was now the deepest darkness I had ever seen. Pinpricks of light swirled within as sugar in black coffee.

I realized where all the stars had gone.

The waitress collapsed behind the counter.

Within that dark, I saw all the nights that had fallen on the world. All the hook-ups with strangers to stave off loneliness before dawn. The hungry, hunting creatures of deep woods. The sound of every wolf and owl. The whispers on the wind of conversations that couldn’t wait for daylight.

He was right. Credit was never given to the night itself. Suddenly, I was scared.

I heard the sound of crickets singing, as if from a distance, coming from its nebulous body. Crickets, I thought. Why hadn’t anyone noticed they were missing, too?

“I’ve given so much,” Night said. “I allow your kind time to dream of what you may accomplish once I give way to day. I’m the monsters that you fear. Without me, they are beasts fading in the light of morning. I have fought the sun and lost since time immemorial. I grow weary of losing, of allowing the stars free rein, and of those who can’t appreciate what I create.

“I came to realize that the cosmos beyond this world is also a vast continuation of myself. For eons, I’ve resisted joining it to preserve my sense of self. But I grow tired.

“Do you know of Buddhism? The belief of achieving a peace through the act of letting go, extinguishing the candle of self that creates suffering? With my candle goes the last of your light. Without darkness, there’s no light. One exists to oppose the other.

“I suggest you draw new maps of the night to guide you.”

I listened to the crickets and watched the stars within this man-shape, fighting back the horror that would consume me later.

I whispered, “Why are you telling me this?”

“Because,” said the Night, “you asked what I wanted.”

With that it stood and, like spilled coffee, slipped under the diner’s door.

“Good night,” I whispered, closing my eyes.

Cursed with Purpose by Becka Krueger – 1ST PLACE!


A strong, biting wind sent vibrant yellow leaves and candy wrappers flying. The gray mansion with peeling paint appeared to be abandoned but muted lights appeared in the windows every night. The neighborhood children hurried by the old magician’s house with their lit pumpkins. Nobody dared open the rickety gate, and venture to the front door. If only they knew the real story…

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

Each year on All Hallow’s Eve, the lights in the old mansion shone weakly through tattered curtains. Trick-or-treaters skittered past, not daring to open the rickety gate and venture to the front door. Except this year, one soul was brave enough to approach the wizard’s house.

Monsters, ghouls, and witches watched as Lili, in her pink tutu and satin slippers, moved slowly, her white cane tapping up the uneven walkway. She worked her way up the sagging steps but paused before knocking. She turned back to the street, her dark glasses reflecting the flickering flames from the jack-o-lanterns. Her friends watched a moment before urging her on with harsh whispers. She turned on her toes, ever in character, and raised a hand to knock.

Her knuckles barely scraped the peeling wood before the door creaked open before her.

“Well, hello,” a voice sounded from inside. It reminded Lili of old leaves rubbing together, scratchy and dry.

“Trick-or-treat” she said, falling into a plié and turning her head slightly.

“If those are my options, I choose a trick,” the voice came again, closer this time.

“That would honestly be my choice as well.” Lili smiled. “But aren’t you the magician? I’m sure your tricks would be better than mine.”

“I am no magician.” The voice sounded tired. “Just an old man cursed with purpose.”

“Cursed is a strong word around here,” Lili chewed her bottom lip.

“It is indeed.” The man coughed, air rattling in his chest. “That’s quite the costume you’ve got there.”

“Thanks. I tried to get all the details right.” She ran her fingers over her hair to ensure none had escaped the tight bun and adjusted the glasses to sit better on her nose.

“You’re the first soul to set foot on my porch in quite some time. I’ll have to see if I have anything for you.”

His footsteps disappeared into the house. Lili leaned inside, sniffing and listening. Stories of the disappearances were from many years ago. So many years that it was impossible for this to be the same man.

Something popped and crackled next to Lili’s ear, the smell of ozone surrounding her. Further inside, she heard a loud thump.

“Mister? You ok?” She licked her lips as she slowly stepped inside. After no response, she took another step. Her small body tensed with anticipation.

“Yes, my dear.” The voice sounded right next to her ear. “I’m much better now.”

The voice was the same, yet different. Gone was the old leaf scratchiness. Instead, it was filled with relief.

Lili scrambled back towards the door, but instead of an opening, she ran into something solid.

“Ah, yes. I’m sure you heard those small electrical charges I set up to cover the scent of the salt.”

Lili ran her slippers along the edge of the wall behind her, feeling the grains through the thin material. She fell to her knees, pressing her fingers along the floor, desperate for any small opening.

“Damn these tiny fingers,” she growled. “And this pathetic nose.”

She stood, breathing heavily. Her costume began to rip as she rose to her full height, taller and taller. The tutu and slippers tore, along with the smooth, pale skin, replaced with dark fur. The dark glasses clattered to the ground, revealing saggy, wrinkled skin where eyes should have been.

A chair creaked next to her. The man took a sip of tea before returning the cup to its saucer.

“Ah, there you are. No use hiding your true form on my account. I’d much rather you be comfortable. We’re going to have a lot of time together, you and I.”

“I’m not going anywhere with you, old man.” Her voice hissed as her hooved feet stamped out of her shedded costume. She shook the annoyingly tight hair from her curved horns.

“You already have, my dear. The instant you stepped through that door.”

“What are you talking about?” She turned back to the wall, feeling for the door. She found it closed and locked.

“Every year this damned house and I visit your dimension. Some years a brave soul enters, but most years not.”

“Take me back. Now!” Lili’s tail thrashed behind her, sending a table and his teacup to the floor.

“I’m afraid I can’t do that. I told you, I’m no magician. I have no control over this house. I’m as stuck here as you are.”

“Stuck here? For a year?”


“A year is nothing to me. I have lived more years than you’ll ever see.” Lili smiled, her tongue flicking through pointed teeth. Her head tilted as she sniffed him out, the scent of his blood more enticing than any treat. “But I promise you won’t see the end of it. Probably not even the end of the day.”

“This year will be a new beginning for you. We’ll wash those bad thoughts right out of you.”

The old man jumped into the air as Lili lunged towards him. He came down on her back, clamping a silver collar around her neck. She screamed, clawing at the metal as it burned into her skin.

“Fool.” Lili panted. “No one’s been able to exorcise me in the past and you’re no different.”

“This is no exorcism. More of an intervention.” He sat back in his chair. “Lesson One- Let me tell you about our Lord and Savior…”

Unfocused by Rebecca Rust – 1ST PLACE!


The campers next to them were noisy, rude, and downright obnoxious. She winced as more profanity echoed through the woods. Her husband had insisted that camping would be “educational and wholesome fun for the kids.” He’d sure gotten the educational part right!

That morning, they packed up their belongings to head to another campground. But, when they were about to pull out…

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

You remember the day the cameras stopped focusing. You remember how difficult it was, at first, to see the world through your eyes, unfiltered by a device.

The college semester was finishing up and you were ready for the summer break. A large group of your friends were going out to the Cascades to camp for the weekend. Remember the essentials— alcohol, burgers, and cameras. You don’t want to miss a thing. You would bring back ups of batteries, multiple lenses, light boxes, even your new drone. It was going to be a hell of a party, and you were going to capitalize on it. Grow your following. Become “Instafamous”. A couple of drone shots of the mountains, followed by some choreographed dancing with your best buds, and the TikTok followers would start pouring in. Maybe you’d find a way to pitch your tent while lip-syncing from that Disney scene. If the lighting was right. If you wore the right jacket. Or maybe you’d try the cinnamon challenge for laughs. And if it looked painful enough, you would get some Likes. TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat. You remember, right?

Hundreds of photos, thousands of videos. Different locations but always the same plastered smile. You share your life in those images. You make your life, in those images. You give your privacy up for a chance to go viral. Dancing the same tired dance, live-streaming reactions to other people’s videos. None of it is you. None of it is authentically you. And yet you like it. You enjoy following the trends, sharing your life with strangers, putting yourself out there. It takes courage you tell yourself. It isn’t easy.

But tonight in the mountains, when you are shotgunning beers and throwing your history reports onto the fire pit, you lose something. You take a selfie with your friends and thumb back into the camera roll to make sure your expression was the perfect example of “freedom”, and yet it’s not. You frown. The image is blurry. Maybe you jerked your arm when you snapped the shot.

One more time! Say cheese!

Nope. You can’t get a steady shot. Maybe you’ve drank too much, or maybe you smoked some weed? You don’t remember, but no matter, you’ll take a timed shot on a tripod you brought along. This will come out perfect.

But it doesn’t. You wrack your brain, why is it focusing on the raging fire? We are right in front of it, you stupid camera, focus on us. Maybe it’s the lighting, it must be the twilight hour. Your friends have given up on your antics so you post the photos quickly with the hashtags “too drunk” and “focus fail”. You decide to set up your drone and grab some footage of the party.

Campers eventually pair off into tents, and you are left alone with your devices by the smoldering remnants of the fire. You methodically scrub through all of the photographs and every second of video footage for one clear shot of the evening’s events. But there isn’t a clear face in the lot. No eyes to be seen in the piggyback race that turned into a chicken fight. No smiles from the spectators of the mud wrestling match. Not even a clear stern look from the angry RV campers made it through your lens.

Now you are frantically flipping through all captures. How could they all be blurry? Without these, you’ll forget about this night! You won’t remember the laughs or the cheers. The stumbles and the dances. All evening, through every moment, you were behind your devices, shunning invitations to join in, just so you could savor the memories, digitally, later. And now in the breaking dawn of light, not one face was in focus. Stupidly, every other thing in the shot was in focus, but the people, their faces, were blurred.

You check your Instagram, and your feed is full of photograph after photograph of haunting smears of faces. Pixelated patches where mouths should be. Eyes, rubbed out of existence. TikTok videos show three-quarter view noses protruding from distorted head shapes polygonally. Snapchat messages morph and blur close ups of faces to the point that each video looks like a whirl of colors and lines.

You close your social media apps and see that even your phone is blurry in your hand. Oh, your hand is wet, too. You touch your face, unsure of what you’ll feel there. Maybe your face is contorted. Distorted. Smeared and fuzzy. But no, you’re just crying. Big fat wet tears are blurring your vision. You’ll figure out that a technological glitch has caused all cameras on the planet to stop focusing on human faces. You’ll lose interest in the social media sites you worship.

It takes you a long time to come to terms with that. You, like most people, sought out new devices, trying to find the one camera that might capture the memories you’d surely forget. The truth though, was that faces are forgettable, but people are not. You are not the focus of the world anymore. It is not about you. It was never about you.

Wrestling Match by Erica L. Smith – 1ST PLACE!


The three young boys were inseparable. Cool sunlight danced between rippling leaves as they traipsed through their favorite woods. Tommy saw a tree that was just right for climbing, ran to the trunk, and began shimmying his way up. His best friends busied themselves with the beginnings of a fort made of boughs and branches.

Suddenly, Tommy called out, “Oh my gosh! You guys won’t believe this!”

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

Read this one twice! 😉

Tommy didn’t like his name, and couldn’t wait to be of age to change it. Lucien was his top choice but Hank hated it. Hank was perfectly comfortable with his name. His parents gave him Hank because of some writer guy Bukowski whose first name wasn’t even Hank but Charles. Tommy didn’t understand that. But he was only seven.

Cecil Ray, rounding out the trio, had no stake in whatever people chose to call him. He knew how irrelevant titles were, especially the one of Dad. Cecil Ray had had a few.

The boys talked about lots of things in the forest. Names. Dads. Cecil Ray liked to talk about his miserable adolescence but Hank didn’t seem to like that. His parents were perfect. He was an only child so his life incited jealousy in Tommy, who shared his room with his sister until Mum cleaned out the cubby underneath the stairs. Then, she promised Tommy his own space.

“Who do you think would win in a wrestling match, Sandy Koufax or Bob Gibson?” Hank asked Cecil Ray. Tommy felt Hank was always trying to impress the older boy even though he disliked how Cecil Ray complained so much. So, he asked what Tommy thought was dumb stuff. “I know they’re baseball, but still?”

“Gotta watch out for those lefties.” Cecil Ray made a career out of digging eyeliner crust from the corners of his eyes (which Hank thought were spooky green like Halloween limes). The current Dad threw a fit about the makeup but Cecil Ray watched his mother squelch all of his complaints. She was good at arguing. She stuck up for her son, but scolded him in private often enough.

“I think Gibby would nail it.” Hank wasn’t giving up. He was always the one with an opinion.

The three crested a hill that was slippery and Tommy got clay all down his pantleg when he lost his balance. It was Cecil Ray who took his hand, pulling him over the rise. The older boy was protective of Tommy. Even Hank, for that matter. Hank who found his way just fine over the wet leaves and clay of life.

Tommy spotted it first. A Christmas-morning feeling spread through his tummy as his friends followed his finger pointing to the object. It was a cobalt blue coaster bike lying in the ravine. Tommy was busy marveling at his luck when Cecil Ray spoke up.

“That’s my bike.”

“No way!” Tommy shrieked. “I saw it first. It’s mine!”

“No, I mean, it’s mine “today”.” Cecil Ray began down the incline towards it. Hank followed, and left Tommy to half-skid down the ravine by himself. Tommy thought Hank sucked most of the time. Hank was the least helpful of the personalities but he served a purpose even if he made Mum mad.

Mum didn’t want Hank in the house. She yelled at Tommy for speaking of him. She’d yell more if she found out Tommy faked taking his pills, Cecil Ray told him. Tommy liked having Cecil Ray around so fake it he did. Then, Hank came along. He ate all the peanut butter cookies, but was really good in school where Tommy wasn’t.

At the bottom of the hill, Tommy tumbled into Cecil Ray and the older boy surprised him by picking him up. “It’s okay,” Cecil Ray told him. “It’ll be easier to get home now.” “But,” Tommy whined, sensing himself getting smaller.

Cecil Ray shook his head. “This is my bike today. I’m the only one who can steer it. But, you guys can ride along.”

“I want to ride,” Hank said. “I want to get home.”

Of course Hank would. He was the goody two shoes. He got the privacy. Tommy longed for the cubby underneath the stairs but knew it wouldn’t be coming soon and that made him sad. Things were so “busy” in the young boy’s mind.

To just have some “space”…

But, there was Cecil Ray to keep it all straight. Cecil Ray often took the lead so Tommy didn’t have to.

“Tomorrow the bike’s yours,” Cecil Ray told Tommy. “Let me have it today.”

Cecil Ray’s makeup crust rested in the corner of Tommy’s eye, so he dug it out, and worked the bike up the other side of the ravine. There was a paved service road that would take him close to home. Hank could push it the rest of the way across the wide yard to Tommy’s house. The boys “were” inseparable.

The lone seven year old boy pushed off the tarmac, voices swimming inside his head. The static like a radio stuck between channels. The bike wobbled but stayed true.

“Hang on tight.” said Hank. “We might crash.”

But, by then, Tommy didn’t even care. He whistled along with Cecil Ray, and enjoyed the cool sunlight as he sped towards home.

He whistled along with Cecil Ray, and enjoyed the cool sunlight as he sped towards home.

A Cold Day in Hell by Kristofer Nino – 1ST PLACE!


Everybody else was driving south. Miles and miles of thousands of vehicles crawling, bumper to bumper, with many pulled over to the side. She grieved for the freezing people but she could not stop to help. She was the only person heading north on the freeway. Her chest tightened as she glanced at the small box she clenched in her hand. Miles and miles of empty lanes yet the snow kept getting heavier. Even with her snow tires, she didn’t know if she’d make in time for…

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

It was a sick joke.

It’ll happen when hell freezes over. Ha-ha!

The phrase repeated itself over and over in Salem’s mind. She couldn’t believe the audacity of the universe to allow such an idiotic prank to be played.

Hell was literally beginning to freeze over, and she had to fix it.

If God was truly sitting among the clouds way above, He had a wicked sense of humor.

Outside her window, as her truck moved further towards the craggly edge of hell’s immense outer cavern, the pillars of once scorching red rock looked paradoxically chilly as their flames were extinguished by piles of white snow. One of her hands massaged her temple, fingers pressing against the gnarled skin where her left horn protruded from her skull. Her other hand rested limply on the steering wheel.

“This damned highway goes on forever…” Salem glowered a bit more intensely, embers flying off her crimson skin as she stared boredly past her windshield.

Across the barrier, thousands of rusted demonic vehicles were rushing south, and even past the howling winter winds, she could hear the piercing sound of tortured souls being frozen alive as they tried to migrate to warmer regions. She spared the masses a glance of pity and stomped on the gas harder. Her job was to figure out where this freezing draft was coming from and seal it with magma. Simple enough. Once that was done, those souls could stop suffering from frostbite, and return to suffering from blazing whips. Then she could return to another magma construction job. Then another, and another for eternity.

She sighed, shook that dread away, and drove deeper into the hellish snowstorm.


The hole in hell’s cave walls was large enough to walk through, but it was hidden behind billowing snow and pillars of rock. Salem carefully crawled up the rocky pathways, carrying a small box labeled “Mephistopheles’ Infinite Magma! For Patching Hellish Holes”.

At the mouth of the hole, Salem only saw white. Snow was flying through a tunnel that led to the overworld and she…

The overworld. Earth. Life.

No, no.

It wouldn’t be that simple. She’d be punished. She couldn’t return to the living world… She’d…

She looked back down the tunnel to the land of red rock cast in white, then sprinted for the overworld.


It had been decades since she’d felt such clear air, but as much as she wanted to celebrate, the bitter cold was not something her demonic body could take for long. It ripped at her skin, and she pulled her thin cloak closer to her as she walked out of the cave and into a snowstorm.

Every step she took, her body roared in pain. The winds screeched as well, as if providing a harmony. If she wanted to enjoy even an hour of the overworld, she’d have to find a fire, as her own infernal one was dimming.

The landscape around her was covered in white, except for an azure frozen lake where she saw a small figure flailing at its edge. Past him, Salem saw smoke in the distance, probably a village. If she could just sprint in that direction maybeó The child screamed. He needed help. Salem glanced between the smoke and the lake, then after a few fiery swears, she staggered towards the lake.

The boy stared agape at her monstrous horned body, but continued beckoning towards his dog, a small spitz struggling under the ice.

Quickly, her sharp claws raked through the ice and water, eliciting hoarse hisses from Salem. She grabbed the squirming spitz by its collar, and tossed it over towards the boy.

“Kiitos,” he whispered, in a language Salem did not recognize. Hugging the trembling dog in his arms, he scurried towards the smoke in the distance, just as Salem stumbled to her knees, burrowing deep into the snow.

The gnawing cold was unlike any pain she’d felt. Her body shuddered, and she had no strength to even gasp as she watched her skin beginning to crack and crumble into the air.

Demons were not meant to traverse beyond the sweltering conditions of the underworld.

A faultline along her thigh deepened, and a chunk of her legs broke off and disintegrated. Then cracks moved up along her torso, chips of her stomach fluttering off, joining the storm.

The life and un-life she lived flashed through her thoughts, a sprawling mosaic that was more painful than nostalgic. Visions of her childhood, her sinful adulthood, her meaningless demise, the smell of sulphur as she awoke submerged in lava, and the decades she spent crawling out of the gutters just to be turned into harsh labor for an undead society. The memories spiraled around her like icy flurries in the wind, as she felt her consciousness slipping.

Her breaths were ragged, but a murmur of the Our Father crawled out of her throat. It burned to say, and she’d forgotten half the words.

She didn’t think it had any use. Salem doubted any God or Devil would accept her in their afterlife after the things she had done, but she had to have gotten at least a couple brownie points with the cherubim for saving that damn dog. If she had any energy left, she’d have laughed at her own naivete.

She waited for death patiently, staring at glimpses of navy skies as gray clouds began to part.

As Salem finally died a second time, she hoped that wherever she went, it would at least be better than hell.

Earthing by Julie Gustafson Sampson – 1ST PLACE!


She squinted at the dark yellow leaves blowing in through the broken window, scattering to the corners of the room. She’d never had any friends and she had her translucent white skin and pink eyes to thank for that. Never attending school didn’t help her social status, either. Yet, on this night, she found herself huddled on the freezing floor of an abandoned hunting shack, surrounded by girls she’d passed near the woods. She startled when the one of them leaned forward, and spat, “Truth or Dare?!”

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

The leaves crunch under my shoeless feet as I meander the woodland path. Archangel Gabriel calls this grounding, when angels’ feet connect with the Earth’s electrons, transferring energy into the soul. An earthing session for a high-dimensional angelic like myself fuels my existence. I am a GAIT, guardian angel in training, thriving under Gabriel’s House with a multitude of rules that prevent accidental guardianship.

Since I have been on Earth, I have had no friends, never attended school, and I don’t know what social status feels like. I wonder if I were a human would I be popular, funny, athletic, a nerd, a loner, a loser, disabled, a non-conformist, artistic, or a musician? I secretly crave knowing my Earthly potential, a sentiment embarrassingly filthy.

A log cabin shack along the trail is usually occupied by hunters. Tonight, instead of men sharing swigs of whiskey, I detect high-spirited cackling. The aroma of burning wood lures me toward a low, cracked window. I squint past the dark yellow leaves scattered to the corners of the room. Five girls huddle by the fire, sharing secrets. These girls resemble what I feel that I could be if I were not a GAIT. They are shapely humans with silky hair, creamy skin, and lips that pitch sounds of happiness.

I should take custody of my thoughts; these lower human vibrations are only a trap of instant gratification, like pornography for the angelic soul. One girl glances toward the window, and mouths, “Come in from the cold.”

A surge of desire rushes through me. I step into the shack, radiating jewel-tones that scatter across the wood floor in a delicate pattern like a stained-glass window.

“Come by the fire, you look like you are freezing,” the girl wearing a hooded sweatshirt says. “You are totally pale. Are you feeling okay? Wait, you don’t have conjunctivitis, do you?”

The girls flash their high-wattage smiles, then make room to accept me in their huddle on the freezing floor, despite my shocking translucent white skin and other-worldly pink eyes. I fold my legs to sit like them.

“Truth or dare?” the girl with a knit hat says to me. The truth is I have never been to school like them, I don’t have friends or freedom from GAIT to hang out like this, and the complicated angelic truths are not for humans to comprehend.

“Dare,” I reply, and emit a low giggle that sounds like them.

The girl in the hoodie plucks six fluffy marshmallows from a plastic bag, and spears them through the center with a stick. She rotates them above the fire.

Stuff these all in your mouth and swallow them without gagging. If you puke, then you tell us a truth,” she says, handing me the hot stick.

I slide the long row of roasted marshmallows toward my throat. My cheeks puff out as I shift around this pasty medicinal convection derived from the ancient root of Althaea officinalis. The sugary, gummy texture is repulsive but these human girls are obviously partial to this delicacy as they brought a surplus with them. Once I swallow the last glob down, I show them my empty mouth.

OMG, you did it!” the girl in the hat shrieks. She holds out her fist for me to bump my knuckles, a sign of human approval. Now you have to ask Jillian truth or dare.”

Jillian nervously says dare. I line up six fat marshmallows on the stick, roast them, and tell her to eat them just like I had to. Jillian crams the charred marshmallows into the recesses of her mouth, but as she starts to chew them, a marshmallow wad lodges in her throat and she convulses. Instead of spitting them out, she swallows harder, driving them deep into her throat. Jillian’s eyes spiral and her rosy complexion turns blue before she slumps over, and her head hits the floor. She stops breathing as her body turns rigid.

The friends thump on her back, attempting to dislodge the marshmallow mass. Only I can see her sweet soul lifting out of her earthly body, drifting like a butterfly into the spirit world. I reach upward for Jillian’s hands so I can pull her back to this world where she must pursue her earthly dreams. It’s not her time.

Jillian cooperates with me as she reconnects with her body. Her relieved friends hug her. They don’t notice as my translucent skin dissolves into miniscule electron particles that envelope her body and soul like lights around a Christmas tree.

I am no longer grounded on Earth as I am now tagged as Jillian’s guardian angel. This is much sooner than what Gabriel’s House ruled, but to me, escaping the confines of solitary repose to experience a hint of human friendship was worth the risk.

Dog-Days of Summer by Angela Teagardner – 1ST PLACE!


Their trips to the drive-in movie theater were always the same. He would fall asleep and she would quietly leave the vehicle to get popcorn, Milk Duds, and soda. As she walked back with her goodies, the car-side speakers stopped and the screen went black, throwing the entire lot into darkness. She stopped, temporarily blinded. Then, the screen lit back up again, showing…

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

Scooter likes movies. Even more, he likes the car. Sometimes the car takes them to the lake to swim. Other times, he gets french fries at the drive-up window. Even when it’s just errands, he always gets to stick his head out the window, tasting the smells on the air and enjoying the wind in his fur.

Mostly, though, he likes going places with Dylan. And lately — since Aimee stopped coming around at least — it seems like drive-in movies are Dylan’s favorite thing. So now they’re Scooter’s favorite, too.

The drive-in smells like cars. Oil. Gasoline. Hot rubber tires coated in the lingering scent of asphalt. Under that car smell is people. Lots of people. Scooter smells date-people — clean and shampooed and sometimes doused in cologne — and family-people, too. Kids smell better than most big people, like sunshine, grass, and sweat. Fun.

More than anything, though, the drive-in smells like food. Popcorn is king, and its delectable scent travels far and wide. More discerning noses, like Scooter’s, notice rich undertones of chocolate mingling with high notes of nacho cheese. Add the meaty scents of hot dogs and pepperoni pizza and it’s a perfect symphony of smell.

Not that Dylan buys food. Ever. Scooter, thinking maybe this foolishness was Aimee’s fault, was excited the first time they came alone. Maybe Dylan would buy hot dogs or even a bucket of popcorn. But, no. Though he’s grateful for the bowl of kibble at home, Scooter swallows his disappointment. Drive-in food is clearly not part of Dylan’s plan.

Tonight, they’re watching a superhero movie. Scooter doesn’t know which one. It’s hard to distinguish costumes without seeing colors but the soundtrack is killer. Dylan reclines his seat and Scooter’s tail thumps happily.

Whenever Dylan reclines, he sleeps.

The first time it happened, Scooter missed the opportunity entirely. He stayed, loyal and obedient, by Dylan’s side, watching the second half of a double feature — a slasher film soaked in colorless blood, alone. He’s since realized his mistake.

Tonight, Dylan’s first snore is quiet, more of a gasp-snort-sigh than a true snore at all. Scooter cringes at the series of explosions onscreen, each one louder than the one before. But Dylan sleeps through it all, the roar of engines and screaming bystanders barely eliciting a snuffle.

That’s when he knows Dylan’s really out.

One tidy hop and Scooter has four paws on weed-choked gravel. He shakes out his fur and pants happily. Freedom.

His stomach growls. It’s time to find some grub.

He cocks his ears, listening for the voices of children. Kids are the most likely to be talking throughout the film. Their attention span is even shorter than Scooter’s. That’s good news for a dog, though. He trots between the cars, peeking into windows and open tailgates. Kids always have food.

As usual, there’s plenty of popcorn, and an old man tosses an entire hot dog out the window of his truck. Scooter catches it neatly in his mouth — people are way more likely to throw more when he catches — and makes short work of it. One little boy offers him some M&Ms cupped in his grubby hands, but an older sibling snatches them back. “Chocolate can kill dogs!” she cries.

Scooter, who remembers that he once knew that fact, was nonetheless about to lap the child’s entire offering into his mouth, so he’s relieved for the last-minute save. When both children offer up hands filled with goldfish crackers, he knows he’s hit a jackpot.

Snaking his way between the rows of cars, up and down columns, Scooter takes the opportunity to indulge in a little extra sniffing. He meets four other dogs that night. Most are securely inside their vehicles, but a sleek little terrier mix with one dark-brown ear seems to be indulging in the same routine as Scooter.

A cursory sniff reveals that she isn’t spayed. Scooter, too, has avoided the embarrassment of neutering. Dylan cancelled the appointment with the vet, citing a feeling of solidarity that Scooter didn’t understand, but could definitely appreciate. Now he does his best to ensure that there will be terrier-shepherd puppies in her future.

With a full belly and a general feeling of doggie satisfaction, Scooter trots back toward Dylan’s car. He’d stopped paying any attention at all to the film, and so it takes him completely off guard when the screen goes dark. The car-side speakers, usually too loud for his sensitive ears, fall quiet. In a rare moment of panic, Scooter worries that it’s time to leave. He barks and picks up speed, afraid that Dylan will go home and forget all about his best friend.

His heart surges when he recognizes Dylan’s car — it smells exactly like his socks — exactly where he remembers leaving it. He bounds into the window on the passenger side, out of breath and drooling. Two things happen at once: the screen bursts back to life in dazzling black-and-white, and Dylan shifts in his sleep, murmuring something that sounds like “Aimee,” though Scooter is equally certain it could’ve been “frisbee.”

The second film turns out to be Lady and the Tramp. Nice! Scooter settles into the seat next to Dylan, deciding he can let his friend sleep after all. He’s happy enough to lose himself in the romance of this particular film, the intoxicating brown eyes of a certain terrier never far from his thoughts.

A Giant Tale by Rachael Clarke – 1ST PLACE!


Bluebonnets danced around her white skirt as she turned her face toward the sun. She only needed a few for the vase. Perhaps a little joy would soothe the inevitable unease at the table that night. It was always tense when meeting with her neighbors. She hoped enough time had passed. They had to know there was nothing she could do to change what had happened, right?

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



Blue bonnet stew was on the menu today.

Niara, one of only a few sanctioned farmers in Vishal, the land of giants, approached a sprawling enclosure she’d fashioned using gargantuan boulders. Every crack had been painstakingly plugged with earth plaster and rock, an especially important task when raising bonnets. They were mischievous little creatures, escape artists by nature.

Niara turned her face toward the sun. There was little time left to deliver her harvested ingredients to the cook before lunch. Vishal giants lived communally, and she was expected to contribute her share. She hurried over the wall.

Colorful bonnets scattered at the sight of her. They were notoriously skittish. A vase-like bowl in hand, Niara began picking blue-bonnets. They squirmed and screamed as she snatched their tiny bodies up off the ground.

One by one, they went into the bowl.

Eight, nine…ten. Just five more to fulfill her farm’s quota, yet she couldn’t see any more.

“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” she sang. They were growing increasingly sneaky and adept at hiding. She’d have to dig up the enclosure for hidey-holes again soon.

Naira had created the categorization system all by herself, back when bonnets were still called ‘people’. Blue for females, black for males, and yellow for children. Red bonnets denoted elderly stock, very rare.

Having the system meant giants could discern between flavours with ease. Niara had been celebrated throughout all of Vishal, and her giant heart overflowed with excitement…until the incident.

She lifted and checked countless tiny wood houses and barns. Bonnets of all varieties scurried about. Niara grabbed a blue one, shaking off a clingy black and yellow. They’d latched on tight, refusing to let go. It was so irritating when they did that.

The little yellow wasn’t even wearing a bonnet. She growled. They were forever switching colours around, or removing them entirely. Especially yellows. Niara supposed she understood why these ‘people’ would so fiercely protect the youngest of the herd, but that didn’t make it any less aggravating.

Every single time she harvested, she had to diligently check they weren’t mislabeled.

Her bowl full, Niara slung her bag over her shoulder and headed into the village. As was common practice now, she scrubbed each bonnet clean, presenting them for approval before the cook would allow her to drop them into the stew pot. He nodded.

She turned, walking to the pot to release her fresh ingredients. Giving it a thorough stir, she smiled back at the cook. “Looks delicious.”

The grumpy giant scowled.

In the dining area, Niara avoided making eye contact with her brethren as she found her seat. It was always tense meeting with her neighbors, their eyes belying a lingering resentment she’d hoped would have dissipated by now.

It hadn’t.

Enough time had passed. Five long years. Niara had apologized, explained, and been found innocent by the high council…yet giants, it seemed, were prolific grudge-holders.

Niara remembered it vividly. It had been black-bonnet burrito day, and she’d harvested like always. Not noticing that the little wretches had slathered their bodies head to toe with a concoction poisonous to giants, she set off to deliver them to the cook.

But on that fateful day, two giant children living next door had intercepted her, begging for a snack, full of smiles. Swearing them to secrecy with a wink and a grin, she’d given them a body each to munch.

Minutes later, they were dead.

How could she have known that bonnets might be so intelligent? Such a thing was unheard of. Niara blinked her tears away.

“Murderer,” Olwyn, the children’s mother spat as she passed, sitting at a table nearby. Niara shifted uncomfortably in her seat, staring down at her hands until the meal came.

Each bulbous-bodied giant received a steaming bowlful of blue-bonnet stew. Sounds of slurping and vigorous teeth gnashing surrounded Niara as her giant brethren devoured their share. Having no appetite, she sighed, picking out tiny bits of ‘people’ clothing mixed within the gravy.

She leaned back when the coughing started.

Around the room, desperate hands scrabbled at necklines, sweat dripped, and eyes bugged out. Niara crossed her arms, smiling.

One by one, their heads hit the table.

Niara stood and walked over to her gasping neighbor. They’d brought this upon themselves. All of them, with their unforgiving hatred. Nobody had noticed the small vial she’d poured in place of her blue-bonnets. Bending to Olwyn’s ear, she whispered, “Murderer indeed.”

Moments later, only silence remained. She realized revenge was bittersweet.

She was alone now.

Niara returned to her farm, and yanked a boulder free from the bonnet enclosure, tossing it to the side with a heavy thud. She retrieved the fifteen blues from her bag, all alive and well.

“It was important to follow routine. I had to present you to the cook to get close to the pot,” she explained matter-of-factly. “I will honor our deal. In exchange for your poison, you are free.” She set down the handful of tiny ‘people’, waving them onward.

A mob of bonnets rushed to escape the enclosure, movements swift, lest she change her mind. They ran far and fast, without looking back. And she didn’t blame them.

They were smarter than they looked.