Gold Rush by Freya King – 1ST PLACE!


It was noon and every booth was full. Nobody was in a hurry to leave the air-conditioned diner. The rise and fall of buzzing cicadas outside signaled it was the high season. Residents in the small town earned enough money during the summer months to support their families all year.

Every conversation suddenly silenced when a thundering “Thud…BOOM!” sounded in the distance. Every eye turned toward the chalk painted windows. “Thud…BOOM!” It came again. There was no smoke in the distance and there were no highways or railroads for at least fifty miles. Several men started walking quickly towards the door. “Thud…BOOM!!”

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

The menfolk ran outside, hungry for their own tale of glory. They lined up, at least ten of them, each eager to play the role of the victorious, rugged, lone ranger of the wild frontier. After all, they had come here to be heroes.

Another thud.

A sleek, feathered arrow stuck in the saloon’s wooden porch pillar. The men crouched for cover and drew their pistols. A high-pitched war cry rang out and a war horse kicked up a swirl of dust as it galloped down the main street. The native warrior riding it looked no older than a schoolboy, but even so, he cut a savage figure.

The pioneers opened fire and the native slumped off his horse, rolling to a dead stop in the street. The thundering hoofbeats faded into the distance, and a nervous silence fell as the townsfolk eyeballed the body in the street.

“Injun’s dead!” Someone declared, and the street erupted in cheers and celebrations.


Before all of this, this land was sacred. From the mighty rivers, past the ridges and canyons, over the plains and to the Sacred Mountains, this was our home. Our elders taught us children to respect it. They showed us how the land provided us with everything we needed. Grandma showed us different grasses; the best for weaving, the best for rope. She showed us where and when the land offered black oak acorns, seeds, herbs and berries.

We learned from her to read the wind and the river banks, and move with the changing seasons. We listened and when the land yearned for respite, we moved on. When we returned next, it had regenerated and nourished us again.

At night we gathered around the flickering fire and watched the flames dance as Grandma told us stories of the bear and the wolf and the buffalo. We came to understand that every living thing has a place on this land, we are all connected. We walked these plains with harmony and gratitude in our steps, and in return it provided for us in abundance.

Then they came.

With their fences, diseases and bullets. First, they took the men as slaves and worked them to death. That’s how I lost my father and uncles. They went out to cross the land, and never returned. Next, they took the babies. Ripped them from their screaming mothers’ arms.

Then they claimed the land as their own, setting out make-believe boundary lines. We could no longer move freely to follow the flow of the earth. Caught in their invisible net, we began to starve.

In a few short summers, they had harvested more than their community could use in a lifetime. They took and took until they stripped the plains bare, and then they danced on her mutilated body, celebrating their wealth and fortune. She begged for respite but they could not hear her.

Were they so disconnected that they could not feel the drought and famine that was to come?

Grandma grew too weak to walk. My sister, Aiyani, would creep to the river in the cover of darkness, trying for an eel or a handful of acorns, always promising to return before the breaking dawn. But one morning, she didn’t return. By sun up, I knew she was gone. Grandma knew too. It was just me and her left. In her last breaths she reminded me not to mourn. Mourning would tie her here, and stop her spirit from being granted entry to the gates of Estom Yanim, the Sacred Mountains. I promised her I wouldn’t cry one tear and she would soar straight in.

Then it was just me. Lalook, the last of the Nisenan Maidu. I would not allow myself to cry for my beloved grandmother.

Ceremoniously, I set her spirit free and wiped ash across my face, arms and chest. I whispered my sorrow to the burnt earth, sharing my hope that it will find a way to heal and rejuvenate.

Across the dry, barren plains, the sound carried from their town. Music, laughter, the boom of the machines as they continued to decimate the crops. Rage boiled inside me. I whispered my last wish, that Grandma will meet me at the gates to Estom Yanim, and bring me to my family once again.

I put on my father’s grand, feathered headdress, took my hunting bow and our four remaining arrows, mounted my cherished spotted buckskin appaloosa, and rode out of our camp. Together, we galloped across the plains as one. The noon sun burned my bare back, the wind whipped our long plaited hair, and the smell of the dry summer air reminded me of a home that was no more.

I let out all of my pain in a cry of freedom and we soared right through the center of their dusty town and straight on to the Sacred Mountains.

A Relief of Spring by WB Summers – 1ST PLACE!


The farmer had never told anyone his secret. For decades, people came from miles around to admire his farm, and purchase his harvests from the shack by the road…the ones they could carry anyway. His blueberries were the size of apples, his apples the size of pumpkins, and his pumpkins the size of automobiles. The 150-foot tree in the meadow struggled to hold onto pecans the size of watermelons.

As he lay in bed, a spring breeze gently blew the curtains near his head. His only son was kneeling by his side, praying. The old man slowly lifted his hand, crooked his gnarled index finger, and started to whisper…

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

My grandfather died in spring, after the corn was planted. My father told me how he crooked his finger, knuckle bending so the wrinkles stretched flat, temporarily reversing time and age. I was not yet born, but I know what he said. It’s the same thing my father said to me as he clutched his chest in the sugaring shack and curled his own finger like a fiddlehead.

A seedling’s life starts beneath the surface. The pod splits and the roots broach the dark earth. Every farmer knows this. Every farmer has brushed the topsoil to see the coil of two early leaves, twisting around the split seed, reaching skyward.

That, my grandfather said, was when you had to do it. That was when the magic had to happen. When you did it right, the seedling popped upright like a catapult through the earth and never stopped growing. My father performed the motion for me one of his last. His finger shot up to the ceiling where the boiling sap left a veneer of smog and sugar on the beams.

That’s when you do it, he whispered, and then his heart gave that final tick.

I was eight at the time.

That first summer my uncle stayed with me and the crops were bad. The tourists who usually crawled our fields come harvest season rolled up their van windows and carried on. I began to make sense of my father’s spring walks those mornings when he woke before the cows needed milking, when he broke the misty dusk between rows of tilled soil in the predawn light, speaking softly to the coiled spouts beneath the surface.

I did the same, come May, and that year our pumpkins won a gold ribbon at the Barton Fair. My uncle said it was in my blood. I filled my bladder with two-buck lemonade and said nothing.

These are memories I look back on fondly, though I’ve lost the romance for the work. I shovel shit into troths in the winter. I dig pitchforks into hay bails in the summer. When the sap lines start to run I cut kindling for the boiler. My hands have weathered into those of an old man, which I recognize, but not as my own.

The tourists still come, but I like them less and less. Their suburbanism encroaches more each year. When their electric SUVs pull ruts in my drive, their oddly shaped trunks weighed down with the apples and squash they’ve blogged so much about, their imprints last longer. Their voices echo out open windows, wondering at the price of land around these parts, and asking God, or whoever was listening, whether they’d look good in a straw-brimmed hat.

I spoke to one the other day as I sipped cider on my porch. His car ideled as he leaned on my steps in his polyester athleisure wear.

Must be hard work, keeping up with all this at your age, he commented, looking out at the spring fields of unblemished dirt.

He thought the blueberries were in season. They were stocked in the corner market where he lived. Shipped in from Columbia, no doubt.

He had heard about the magic, like all of them. Adults clinging hopefully to the fairy tales of their youth. A zucchini the size of a hammock. Radishes you could play softball with. He asked about it, as they all do, scraping the marshmallow heel of his running shoes on my steps. He asked about the magic.

“It feels more urgent these days,” I said, rubbing my old knees.

“What’s the secret, then?” He wanted to know, and I disliked him so much I was tempted to tell him.

“You’ve got to share yourself with the land,” I said and sipped my cider quietly.

“That’s it?” he asked, and five minutes later he let himself be carried away in a self-driving car, waving, disappointed, and blueberry-less.

I walked alone then, out into the fields. It was still light, but there was no one to see. As I rounded a marker in the soil, I brushed the earth to see the seedlings coiled perfectly at the crust.

The sun folded into hues of raspberry gold, and my bladder groaned.

Urgent, I’d told the man. Each day a little more so. Did my father feel the same, towards the end? I suppose every man does at my age, in his own way. The magic bursting from him, sometimes trickling, a little less, a little more.

Cars passed on the main road, called back by the city lights. They’ll return in a few months, fists full of dollars, mouths agape at the produce stacked like giant boulders along these very fields.

Unphased, I unzipped my fly and did as my father told me. A stream of yellow and the patter of magic hitting airated earth. Like my father in the pre-dawn light. And my grandfather before him.

The seedlings tightened, buckling inward as they said goodbye to all below, and then, like a finger unfurled, burst freely from the earth.

MUTTON and BRIMSTONE by J. David Thayer – 1ST PLACE!


She’d moved to the mountain to escape humanity so she was surprised one day to see large, bare footprints in the snow by the frozen pond. Curious, she took a plate of food, and left it there, complete with a fork. When she returned the next day, the plate and fork, completely clean, were where she’d left them. She kept leaving food, and retrieving the dishes, every day…until she’s spiked that high fever and her stomach revolted against her. On her third day in bed, she startled when she heard heavy footsteps on the front stoop… .

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

Sit beside me, young Randolph. Bring your parchment and quill. Those who sent us will want a record of what has transpired here. I have yet strength enough to tell this tale, but make haste! Death holds my ankle even now.

During winter climes most captains take their vessels southward in search of spermaceti along the known migration routes, but I much prefer solitude. I know those waters and those captains and I’ve long had my fill of both. It is for this reason that we are journeyed as far away from that rabble as earth can provide. And indeed, there are pods of whales here that have enjoyed generations of peace. Breeching as they do amongst the frozen mountains of ice. There is protection for them here, but not from me. Courage and skill and that is enough. Eighty barrels in the hold already. But I will not again see Nantucket. Now I come to that.

We have a stowaway on board, Master Randolph! Can you believe it? This life is hard and we are headed towards neither sand nor sun. Yet the fact remains! His presence was not discovered until we were many weeks underway. I believe it was a fortnight or thereabouts when I first made his acquaintance. While making my rounds and tallying our barrels I noticed peculiar footprints in the spermaceti oil pooling on the deck below. That of child by the looks of it, and the left foot was minus its great toe. Missing limbs are hardly exotic in this profession, but children certainly are. And they are most unwelcome! But where was the child hiding? Why was he here? I was incensed! To my mind this creature was no different from the bilge rats infesting our food stuffs! And I would deal with this new vermin accordingly.

You might think, Randolph, that finding a stowaway in such close quarters would be a thing solved in several minutes. Not so! There are many places to hide if one is small and also clever. This is was the case, of course. Else he would have been discovered weeks before. But one thing common to all mankind is hunger. Whatever scraps a stowaway might collect would be meager and putrid at best. I would serve him from the bounty of my own private mess! And I would see to it that such delicacies were garnished with something special prepared from the bottles of my own surgeon! The matter would be closed soon enough.

I called for our Dr. Gregory Hampstead to come to my quarters. Bah! He is no better at poisoning food than he is at arresting gangrene! Oh, he concocted a preparation, true enough. And he showed me its potency by injecting one of his captured rats with it. Dead in minutes, it was. However, said he, a person, even a child, would take longer to succumb to the poison’s effects. I would need to be patient, said he. I am not good at that: patience. Not when my anger is at full froth.

My cook prepared a rack of mutton. Who could resist? Word spread among the crew that to touch this meal meant flogging, and so even the leanest of deckhands left it undisturbed. But before I plated the mutton I massaged in all of Dr. Hampstead’s preparation. There would be no waiting. The entire meal was dusted white with his toxic powder. Enough coating to have laced a dozen such racks. But it appears the Good Doctor neglected to school me on protocols for handling his toxin. Cuts on both hands from the work we do became the conduit to my impending doom. I am down to hours now, curse him! And if that weren’t enough, I am still no closer to capturing and killing our stowaway! The mutton lays there still!

The door, Randolph! Speak of the devil! Here stands my physician upon my threshold! Let him in; I have more curses in store for him!

“Good evening, Captain. How is your level of comfort?”

“My comfort! You know well enough! The inept doctor visits while the Reaper waits! Your fault! I would see you hanged!”

“Yes, I am daresay you would! That’s the sort of captain you are. I know your mortal state as well as I know the condition of your immortal soul. And I know the real reason why you were not keen on meeting up with the rest of the fleet at the southern pole. Your past is what haunts you, Sir. In the offing comes a reckoning. That is why I brought those mannequin’s legs on board with me. The proprietor of the dress shoppe would not part with anything but a broken set of child’s limbs. I knew they would do. The sort of man that would poison a child is poisoned already. Today your master welcomes you home, Captain. Master Randolph?”

“Yes, Doctor.”

“Did you rouse a confession?”

“No, Sir. He’ll never face who he is.”

“Oh, I believe he will. And shortly. No matter. You are Captain now, Randolph. A grateful crew awaits your orders.”

“Treachery abounds! I’ll see you both in Hell!”

“Do keep my seat warm, Captain. I hear they serve mutton today.”

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.