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

TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

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

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Dear A.:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sands shift, lives shift.

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

I empathize with your loneliness. I really do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home. Alone again. And not the least lonely.

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

I can only hunker down and hope.

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

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

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

Trapped by Roelien Reinders – 1ST PLACE!

TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Draugar don’t exist,” Ragnar said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My teacher will be angry!”

“No, she won’t. She’ll understand.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rescue Troops. Please open!”

I hurried to open the door.

The officers were pale.

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

I followed their glance down.

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

Beast by Deb Read – 1ST PLACE!

TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One.

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

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

Two.

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

Three.

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

Four.

“Wait! I’m going to drop it again!”

Davion snorted. “C’mon!”

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

Five.

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

Six.

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

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

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

Seven.

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

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

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

Eight.

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

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

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

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

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

“Momma, I lost one of your apples.”

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

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

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

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

TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

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

“Ma! Come quickly!!”

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

——

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

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

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

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

“Mom, I want to show you something!”

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

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

Charlotte stiffened.

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

Charlotte nodded.

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

Charlotte stared at it in horror.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Delilah said nothing, but she turned and went outside.

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

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

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

“Where’s your… toy?” Charlotte asked.

“It broke.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Clarity by Renee Holland Davidson – 1ST PLACE!

TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

He walked among the market stalls, pretending to ignore the whispering and giggling women. His relaxed demeanor, handsome features, and ready smile meant no female in the town missed his weekly sermons and the church’s coffers were overflowing of late.

Feeling a touch on his sleeve, he turned and his smile disappeared. Looking first left and right, he angrily spat, “I told you to never speak to me again!”

She blinked, her long lashes brushing her cheeks, and said, “But, I need to talk to you.” Leaning closer, she paused, and lowered her voice. “You see, I’m…”

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On their deathbeds, some people bargain with God, some people make deals with the devil. Others–too bereft, too broken, too desperate–snatch at whatever small piece of immortality they can get.

The moment Zeke was born, Alicia vowed she’d keep him safe. Three years later, as she lay bleeding beneath a giant sequoia, five feet from the hiking trail from which she’d been dragged, she didn’t think of herself, she didn’t think about Zeke’s father, she didn’t think about God, all she thought of was her son. “Zeke, I love you. I’ll never leave you,” she whispered, as her life force departed her bruised and beaten body.

Alicia watched over Zeke whenever she was able. Watched–and cried–when his adoptive parents held him in their arms, soothed him when he cried, tucked him into bed. Watched him chase ducks in the park, play soccer on the grade school field, kneel next to his bed, head bent over clasped hands. Her attempts to capture his thoughts proved futile, not even his spoken words could travel the distance between them.

Zeke must’ve been told his mother was in heaven, because sometimes–unknowingly, perhaps–Zeke called for her from his soul. Only when Alicia was summoned thus, could she come close–though never actually touch. But she could inhale his sweet/sour boy scent, feel his breath on her cheek, hear his whispered words. “Mommy,” he’d say. “Mommy, are you there?” Each visit brought both happiness and heartbreak.

Zeke grew into a handsome, smart, and charming young man, adored by his parents, respected by his teachers, and liked by his classmates–especially the army of simpering girls who battled for his attention. Then soon after he turned sixteen, Alicia watched, horrified, while he and his pals brought girls and booze into the very woods where her life had ended. She consoled herself with the explanation that this behavior was simply a teenager’s rite of passage.

But Alicia knew his dark side. Those times when he felt stressed or overwhelmed or depressed for no apparent reason, she’d often find herself close. Sometimes he’d exude warmth she took for love, sometimes he wouldn’t react at all. Other times, he’d scream to be left alone.

As the years passed, her visions became less frequent. When he’d reached his mid-twenties, she was allowed only a glimpse every week or so. His depression increased. To Alicia, his life deteriorated into flickers of alcoholic rages and drugged despair. She saw him passed out in alley ways, confined to jail cells, then finally, mercifully, safe in his parents’ home. She rejoiced when she saw him sitting thoughtfully in therapy groups, studying in the college library, enjoying quiet nights with his parents.

Uneasiness plagued her when she found him hiking through the woods, almost always stopping at the place where she’d taken her last breath. Surely, he couldn’t have known the significance of that particular sequoia, but Alicia had long ago abandoned thoughts of unraveling the mysteries of the universe.

Zeke found his calling: ministering to those who’d traveled the same darkened roads he had, and motivating others who’d never found their way. Alicia’s brightest joy was seeing Zeke behind a podium, arms outstretched like an angel’s, holding the rapt attention of his adoring audience.

Years passed. Alicia’s visions clouded as if seen through a veil of cataracts. Strange images flashed before her: violent, beautiful, incomprehensible. Sounds assaulted her: screams, laughter, stuttering gibberish. Scents overwhelmed her: vile, sweet, cloying. Was it possible for a soul to go mad?

Frightened, Alicia used all her energy to find Zeke, but saw only the meanderings of strangers–mostly women–Zeke’s friends or girlfriends, she assumed. But why? Had something happened to Zeke?

Then one day, the veil abruptly disappeared. Alicia found Zeke strolling through a farmers’ market on a sunny autumn morning. Young ladies waved and giggled as he walked by, but Zeke ignored their flirtations. From all except one. Blonde, buxom, and beautiful, dressed in a tight white t-shirt and denim shorts. She stood behind a table covered with boxes of scones and cookies, one hand on her hip, the other waving a pair of long handled tongs as if it were a wand.

A roaring sense of danger struck Alicia. There was something about that woman. Instinctively, she called out to Zeke. Did she see a slight tilt to his head? Had he registered her warning? Hope engulfed her–then suddenly, Alicia saw black. Minutes passed, maybe hours, Alicia wasn’t sure. She focused on Zeke. Zeke. Only Zeke. Her intense concentration dizzied her, weakened her, until she felt herself fade away.

She awoke to laughter–a complete contradiction to the foreboding Alicia still felt. A feeling so overpowering that when she opened her eyes, she found herself standing next to her son outside the farmers’ market. Amazed and terrified, she reached out to touch him.

He turned, eyes widening at the sight of her. “Leave me alone!”

“Zeke, you don’t understand. I’m your mother.”

“I know who you are. Go away!”

“But you’re in danger! That woman–”

Zeke laughed, a high maniacal laugh, a laugh identical to his father’s. That laugh, the last sound she’d heard on her final day on earth.

 

Heavy Breathing by Courtney Messenbaugh – 1ST PLACE!

TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

The sailboat was anchored just a few yards away and the sun had set. With the campfire slowing dying, and their bellies full of fresh fish, the lovers decided to go skinny dipping. As they descended, hand in hand, into the warm water, he felt something slip around his ankle and pull…hard.

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The sun was beginning to set, casting a low, golden glow across the water. The fish hadn’t bitten today and Elijah feared going home empty-handed again. The past months had been hard and his father, increasingly intoxicated and belligerent, was not adjusting to the tough times lightly. The thought of arriving home to another night of ridicule was daunting. So he decided to stay out for another hour or so in hopes of catching something.

He lowered his nets, and let the boat slowly trawl along. Ten minutes. Twenty minutes. Nothing. With the setting sun and the lullaby of the waves, Elijah fell into a sonambulatory state, going through all of the necessary motions, but taking no conscious part in them. In this ebb of livelihood, he failed to notice the wind’s acceleration or the sky’s swift darkening. He was too ensnared in his own exhaustion to notice the huge wave before it overtook the boat. The sound of the water hitting the wooden boat snapped him out of his reverie.

Everywhere, water was everywhere. Instinctually, he headed toward the tiny wheel house, frantically sliding on the now-treacherous deck as he went. As he got to the door, the second crash sounded and he saw the stern tip toward him in a completely unnatural position. No one knows how many hits the boat took after that but everyone knows that it went down, down, down.

Darkness overtook the sea and sky for the night.

As the sun once again began to tickle the water’s surface the next morning, the waters were calm. But down below, if anyone were listening, they’d have heard Elijah’s haunting howl of realization that he was miraculously alive, but fatally trapped. One of his legs was painfully caught on something. The net? The anchor? The motor? He couldn’t figure out how exactly he was confined, but no matter which way he tried to move, his leg wouldn’t budge and searing pain permeated his entire body. The key to his survival thus far, however, was the air bubble that had somehow been trapped in the boat with him. He could not move well or much, but he could breathe and that alone could keep faith alive.

He’d no idea how long he’d been down there. Of course, the beginning hours of his imprisonment were spent in the deep black of unconsciousness. Then came the screams. However, those, along with their compatriots, panic and despair, did not last as long as he would’ve thought, though who’s really counting the hours underwater? As soon as his rational mind caught on to the significance of the air bubble and the fact that he was still alive – ALIVE! – a sliver of hope appeared.

He wondered if his father even realized he hadn’t come home. Was he worried? Had he sent out a search party? The truth was that his father had imbibed into the wee hours of the night, passed out in his chair, and wouldn’t wake up for several more hours. He certainly hadn’t noticed his son hadn’t returned, nor had their boat. There definitely was not a search party.

Elijah, nascent in the stage of hope, began to think. Somehow, the exhaustion that had weighed so heavily on him the night before had lifted and he was renewed. He noticed the sunshine filter through the water. This had to mean that he couldn’t have sunk that deep. He also began to move his arms around in the water to get a feel for what lay around him. Not much. Finally, he ducked his head underneath the water, stretched his body as far out into the open water as he could, and tried to find the source of his confinement. He found nothing. He rose back up to his bubble.

Even though no one counts the hours underwater, when one’s alone down there, they pass slowly. With no viable escape plan, Elijah kept his head up, and tried to keep the faith. Faith can be fickle so Elijah tried to maintain it by singing to himself a lullaby that his mother used to sing him, one of the few memories he had of her. Over and over and over the words came softly out of his mouth. “All day, all night, angels watching over me.” He couldn’t remember all of the words, and barely captured the tune, but the repetition and warm memories brought solace.

His alertness was fading and delirium was setting in. Even though he could breathe, he’d had no food or water and a gentle slide into slumber was beckoning. Just as his head started to go under in sleep, his eyes momentarily popped open and he thought he saw movement in the distance. Immediately back into the realm of consciousness, Elijah pushed down, and stretch his body into the water again. There was movement. Those were people swimming toward him. There were holding hands and getting closer. Closer.

He caught one more large breath of air in his bubble, then sprung out, circling his hands around the man’s ankle and pulling as hard as he could. Elijah will never forget the man’s horrified face. He will also never forget how fresh the air felt in his lungs on dry land again.

 

The Futility of Hope by Lucy Williams – 1ST PLACE!

TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

She rolled her eyes as another one of her cabin mates tried to stifle sobs. She couldn’t believe she had to stay at this horrible camp all summer! Her stomach growled. As she stepped toward her trunk for a forbidden snack, she tripped on a loose board. Curious, she leaned over to peek between the cracks, and saw…

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Every year it’s the same.

The girls come. Some of them with excitement and joy in every step, others holding their nerves so tightly their steps hesitate then falter. They will all fall into a similar rhythm soon. I prefer that cadence, when everyone is calm and relaxed with only the occasional bouts of excited pitter-patters. I always wonder if any of them might be familiar to me, but the likelihood seems further and further away as more come.

The first day is always the worst. There are those that cry and sob into their pillows. I can’t see their faces, but I always imagine them wide-eyed and just barely blinking, their breaths coming in shallow gasps. I don’t understand their tears. They are here. They are now. They exist. What I wouldn’t give to be them for just a moment. But that will never be.

I ignore most of the day. The cabins are typically empty then, leaving me with only the occasional interruption of familiar silence. My favorite part is at night, when the pine floorboards seem to come alive, cracking and creaking as everyone sleeps. There are ears to hear and it always gives me hope. Shame on me for that. Time has already taught me the futility of hope. But I always find myself thinking that the next squeal of expanding and contracting wood just might be loud enough. It just might be enough to awaken someone and send them scurrying for answers. My rescue is fueled by their curiosity, you see. But it never happens.

On the last day of camp the girls always sit around to reminisce about their experiences and say their good-byes. I often wonder what I would say if I were invited to participate. How I would begin my tale. How my words would reverberate across the room, and what the pitch and timbre of my voice would reveal. I’ve been here awhile now, but I still remember my first day. I hesitated into this world too, my nerves wound tight from the unknown, hoping for the same safety and security that I had experienced over my first nine months.

I knew it would be different, but I had hope that I would still be held in warmth. That I would be loved, cherished, and cared for – what we all desire. Then it was there. Something sweet. A mild breath. A more severe intake of oxygen as I grabbed on for a taste of life. A wail of enthusiasm about what I had found. So much space and air and time and freedom and…hope.

Then nothing.

There is a part of me that thinks I experienced everything there is to experience in that brief moment of life. Fear, joy, pain, sadness, disappointment, happiness…isn’t that all there really is to it? Fear, joy, pain, sadness, disappointment, happiness wrapped up in different decisions and experiences but still the same underneath. When that thought comes I barely feel slighted.

I hear impatient footsteps above me and if I could speak I would yell for them to be careful. But it would be too late anyway. The sudden break in cadence and the thud of knees hitting against the slats tell me just that. The wood barely shifts and the floorboards groan in protest. I don’t pay it much attention. But then I hear the sound of fingers exploring and the crack of the shifted board becomes a crevice. If there was breath left in my lungs, I would hold it. I give it a moment and though I know the futility, I can’t help but feel the rising and swelling of that thing called hope. There are those that say it springs eternal and they are so right. Still, I try to dampen it with logic and reminders of past disappointments. But, it remains there, persistent. I listen. I hear nothing. As time passes I feel hope crash and singe my soul. I return to my reality, my always. They peek, they peer, but see very little and I forgive them because I know that the curiosity of kids is just not sufficient when put up against the tricks and treats that camp has to offer. Certainly, not enough to free me from my eternal resting ó

But, wait…

There is something there.

Something sweet.

A brilliant flash of light.

I hear a mild breath…A more severe intake of oxygen. I hear more feet pounding against the wood, the brilliant tip tip tapping of shoes running, and voices marked with italics and exclamation points right before I am grabbed into life. I hear their wails of fear and pain and disappointment over what they have found. But I feel joy as I am given over to space and air and time and freedom…and I admonish myself for believing in the futility of hope. Someone is finally holding me in warmth and for a moment I am loved and cherished and cared for and I feel as if I have finally been born.

Protection by Laura Lovic-Lindsay – 1ST PLACE!

TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

The cold wind battered the fortune teller’s wagon, threatening an early frost. The girls climbed down, simultaneously giggling and shivering about the message the old witch had delivered. As their feet pushed through the red and orange leaves, a shadow emerged from the gnarled maple trees. A bent man in tattered layers stepped in front of the girls, leaned over, and put his crooked finger to his lips…

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Every year it’s the same.

“Damn and blast that Jonah Smithson. This is his doing. Damn him to hell!”

Father, swearing in the barn again. The words delighted me. I repeated them quietly to myself, practicing for someday. He’d never have gotten away with that if Mother had been near. She’d have stopped him before the second word came out.

I spoke Father’s words again, throwing glossy-skinned acorns at Baby Levi’s window. It had been <i>my</i> window, once.

Lucky for me, Mother was still in town imploring the Most Reverend Charles Taylor to go speak with them in the gypsy camp. The ones that cursed our town. Ask their forgiveness and see if they wouldn’t just move quietly on. But Reverend Taylor was a coward, cut of the yellowest cloth, and would ask no pardon. He would not apologize for Jonah Smithson’s insult. No one would, he declared in loudest tones at the church steps.

Jonah was a God-fearing man, said the Reverend. The filthy rag-wrapped woman stuck her begging hand in his face – and what’s more, right after Sunday services. She earned that slap and more, old Reverend declared. He was presently on his knees in the church praying down hellfire and brimstone on the gypsies for cursing us.

Mother arrived home in the afternoon. She didn’t take Baby Levi down from the carriage. She wouldn’t even unhitch Mercy, who protested this with repeated whinnies.

Mother and Father argued some time behind a locked door. I could see through the window – Father waving his arms, Mother seated – trying to reason, trying to calm him. It rarely worked.

I reached into the buggy and pinched sleeping Levi. His scream ended their argument.

I heard a door-slam and Father stalked to the barn. Mother remained at the table a moment, then left the room. I heard her call me.

“‘Cilla!” That was strange. Mother wasn’t a shouter.

“Priscilla!” she called again.

I ran around to where she stood by the carriage, nursing Levi back to sleep.

“Get your wraps on. It’s cold out.”

“Are we going somewhere, Mother?”

“We are, indeed. We are buying protection.” Her face was tight and very red. I recognized that look. Mother had gotten her way.

***

The wind raged as we neared their camp. Dust blew up, carrying with it the orange and red leaves Mother loved to admire. She ignored them today.

The camp was surrounded by dried brown thistles, protected by thick brambles. Mother made me stay in the carriage while she called to those inside, begging to be heard out. I saw long, strong sticks emerge, holding back the bushes and Mother entered what seemed to be an enclosed village.

Before an hour had passed, the sticks returned and mother stepped forth. I strained to look inside. The rounded door of a red gypsy wagon was closing, a piped, wrinkled woman on the stoop watching Mother leave. I am not sure why, but I was not surprised when the gypsy woman nodded at me as I stared.

Mother, on the other hand, would not even look my way. She jumped into the wagon, tucking up her long skirts away from the wheels, checked the sleeping Levi in the back and cracked her whip. We dashed homewardly.

Or we would have done so, had not a very drunken Jonas Smithson stumbled into the road ahead of us.

“Blast and damn him!” I cried out, Father’s words escaping me, betraying me. No sooner was Mercy stopped than Mother struck me, hard.
I had no time to react. Neither did she. For Jonas Smithson raised a finger to his mouth as though to shush us, but began gnawing on it. His own blood stained the front of his clothes, but he continued to chew his own flesh.

The curse had begun to take effect, and it started with that very one who brought it down upon us. This is what it would look like throughout our town. I shuddered.

Mother ignored me again, whip cracking the air faster and harder above Mercy’s head. Mercy frothed, but kept pace.

We did not, as I expected, make for the safety of home. Instead, Mother directed Mercy toward the Smithson house. Mother stopped at the back gate, turning toward me.

“I am going around front to speak to Mrs. Smithson. As I do, you are to go through the back of the house and put Nathaniel Smithson in here.” She thrust a burlap sack my way.

“Put her baby in a sack?” I couldn’t believe she had said it. What had happened in the gypsy camp?

“I have bargained for our protection. You need to do as I say and we will never mention this day again. And keep him quiet!” She fairly leaped down from the seat in her haste to console Mrs. Smithson for all that had come upon us in recent days.

It was easy enough to make my way in through the house back, as half the town was out front. There was Nathaniel, as I expected him to be.
I did what I came to do, and as Mother saw me take my seat with the sack, she gestured toward me, telling neighbors she must get me home. They nodded, understanding.

I kept my hand faithfully over that little mouth all the way back to the gypsies. Carried that sack in myself. The gypsy woman took it without a word. She almost smiled at me.

Mother cried all the way home for Nathaniel Smithson. I patted her on her knee.

There was no point in telling her what I’d done. She’d realize it herself soon enough.

The Dissolution by Steve Carroll – 1ST PLACE!

TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

A blizzard raged outside, battering the cozy ski lodge. Merry skiers drank hot chocolate and hot toddies, excited about the fresh white powder they’d be conquering tomorrow. Smiling, she took another sip, her eyes briefly wandering from the man sitting before her, to a different gentleman across the room. He was sitting alone, and staring at…

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“We should have done this years ago,” Mary lifted her mug of steaming hot chocolate and breathed in the aroma deeply.

“I can’t imagine why we never thought of this before,” agreed Charles.

She smiled, reveling in the sounds of merriment that filled the ski lodge. Glasses clinked, voices laughed, and the roaring fireplaces crackled in the background. The blizzard hurled its essence at the dark window next to their table. Mary felt the touch of a draft seeping in through the sill, but she didn’t mind.

Her gaze swept past her husband, taking the first sip of his hot toddy. Revelers of all shapes and sizes had come in from the cold, dressed in the finest they had. A young woman with a disproportionately large bust was fingering her beads and flirting with a handsome fellow twice her age. Three hearty bachelors laughed uproariously at a table in the corner, a bold-nosed woman storming away from them.

Before a fireplace sat a man with a comb moustache opposite what must have been the thinnest woman Mary had ever seen. The man held her dainty arm in his hands and spoke to her softly, concern clearly present in his expression. Without warning, the woman toppled out of her chair. Her arm pulled free from her body with a slurp.

The man stared down at the disembodied arm he still held, shock freezing him in place.

Mary’s terror rose from deep within her and burst forth as a shrill scream. Her mug fell from her limp grasp and shattered at her feet. She stood, unsure if she was moving to aid the couple or flee the scene.

All heads turned to see the grisly display.

Mary’s husband mumbled something, but she was too mortified to answer. His hand grasped hers, tugging urgently. He mumbled again, slurring his speech. She looked down at him. The lower half of his face was missing. Her jawless husband clawed at her, clutching, pleading.

The sight was too much for Mary. She wretched and spun, jerking free her arm and stumbling into the table behind her.

A sickness, she thought, a deadly assailant working its destruction at a molecular level. It worked quickly, whatever it was that had attacked both her husband and the woman by the fire.

Mary turned in desperation to the two closest women. She cried out in horror when she saw their faces dripping off, their features distorted like reflections in a rippling pond.

The dissolution spread more quickly than an avalanche. Cries and pleadings sounded from all around as every man and woman appeared to melt before Mary’s eyes. She had to escape, had to get free, before the sickness reached her as well. She lurched towards the door, but suddenly there flowed a throng of mindless mutants. The groaning masses rushed into her, also straining for escape. Impulses prevailed over reason; bodies slammed into bodies. Pushing, shoving, trampling, rolling—Mary found herself on the floor amidst the chaos. A man tripped on another prostrate body—pieces of it anyway—and fell on top of Mary. She put up her hands to defend herself, but her fingers sank through his face.

Mary shrieked and tried to shake him off without success. His right eye popped free from his head and bounced off her face. She sobbed and pushed him back, but he disintegrated before her eyes, coming to pieces on top of her.

She brushed frantically to remove the gentleman’s remains, but her indelicate fingers left deep gashes in her own body. Mary yelped and scrambled to right herself, but the floor was slick with bodily fluids and chunks of the unfortunate victims. She propped up her left hand and her arm fell free from its socket, dropping her to the floor with a sickening splat.

Something was wrong with her eyes, but in time she viewed the open door. She reached out with her remaining arm and clawed at the ground. The floor was slick with discharge, but she eventually found a grip and pulled herself in the direction of the open doorway and the blizzard. Inch by inch she made her way, dragging her body and face through filth she dared not consider.

The doorway. Freedom. Her thoughts were sluggish, but she kept that goal firmly in mind. Occasionally she felt small chunks of her own body crumble and fall, but she left them behind, concerned only with the open door.

Mary had heard that a bright light acted as greeter in death, but she saw only darkness. She felt no pain even though there was so little of her left that she could hardly be alive. The darkness was calming, cooling, soothing. Fleeting white speckles danced to and fro and broke up the darkness. Snow. She smiled, or attempted to with what was left of her face. If there was snow, then she was outside. She had made it! She was not dead!

Two men appeared from the darkness and bent over her. Although both were in disarray, they were whole. One had such a thick head that his scarf barely reached around him, and the other had the most handsome nose she had ever seen. Perhaps they had not caught the sickness. Perhaps she could escape it?

“You’re safe now,” the scarfed man said, “There’s nothing more to worry about.”

Mary said nothing. She was too grateful to speak.

“Nasty business in there,” said the other man. “I wish they had listened to us in the first place.”

“Yes,” the first nodded solemnly, “if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: the indoors is no place for us snowmen.”

Pinnacle by Jessica J. Brau – 1ST PLACE!

TOPIC OF THIS CONTEST WAS:

Sitting on the porch steps, she stared, ignoring the scent of lilacs from the overgrown bush. Her heart lurched when she saw the mail truck approaching, dust in its wake. Would it arrive today? The ancient mail carrier took his time handing her some envelopes and, finally, a large package in brown paper. As he drove away, she dropped the envelopes on the porch, and walked quickly around the side of the house, praying nobody inside saw…

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


 

He saw her silently slip around the side of the house, out of eyesight from those celebrating in the warm old farmhouse.

He himself ghosted out of the large front living room to the small green powder room that had a narrow window looking out to the setting sun. There were enough people chattering as brightly-wrapped presents were opened that no one would notice his absence.

There she sat, in the old white rocking chair on the side of the wraparound porch.

His heart beat like a bird’s. Had he made a mistake?

She ran her hands along the thick brown paper, outlining the big black Sharpie letters he so painstakingly wrote in big block letters, with her own perfect tiny fingers. He watched her chipped blue nails hover over the tape, hesitating, wanting to draw out the moment herself, he hoped.

This was not their first such exchange.

She picked the parcel up off of her lap, hefting, testing. Put it back down and tilted it slightly, to better get at the tape. She sliced through with the side of a nail. Slowly, painstakingly, she unwrapped the paper in one big piece.

He greatly appreciated her care. She was not a messy shredder, did not tear at the paper hastily. She seemed to be savoring this just as he did.

His heart swelled, pushing at his chest, and he could not have loved her more at that moment. He did not smile yet, though. He would not, could not find that relief until he saw her reaction to the offering inside.

Perhaps soon it would be time to reveal himself as the giver. For now, though, he forced his jittery leg to be still. It would not do now to give himself away with a movement that would draw her attention.

He was so close, he felt he could touch her if he reached out. Stroke her windblown blonde hair. Ask her how she felt.

Paper neatly folded on the deck beside her, she neatly severed the single piece of tape holding the box closed, and reached in to pull out the pretty cedar box he had spent the last two weeks carving to perfection. A simple thing, but handmade and full of heart.

Those tiny fingers again caressed, feeling the grain of the wood, the smooth surface, the sides he left rougher on purpose.

She looked nervous. Was she afraid he would disappoint her this time? He worked so hard not to.
His pulse, incredibly, ramped up even further. He could feel the throb throb throb at his wrists, his neck, even behind his knees. The box isn’t the present, he silently urged. Open it. Open it and see what I found for you.

She obeyed, lifting the lid with just her thumb, all other fingers occupied with keeping the box steady and straight, so that nothing could fall out.

An amazingly careful, steady girl. Raised on a farm, he knew she saw the wonders the world provided every day, but still he hoped these little gifts prepared just for her would stand out in the splendor of the world around. He wanted them to be memorable, personal.

She peered inside. As he saw her face blank, stoic, his throat sank through his heavy stomach and he unwittingly lifted a hand and pressed it flat to the window.

No. He couldn’t have disappointed her. Not now. Not after all this time.

His breaths came faster.

She sat motionless for over a minute. An eternity. Then, movement.

His hand pressed harder to the glass.

She balanced the box on her lap and slowly lifted her right hand, extended it halfway into the box, then yanked it back, as though she thought the item inside too delicate to touch.

Then he saw it. Her eyes widened.

She knew.

She understood.

Her mouth pulled back.

She was perfect.

She recognized not only what it was, but who it had once been part of.

With the rest of her body still, controlled, the sturdy farm girl opened her mouth and let out an exquisite single-noted scream.

Finally, he released his smile.