Clarity by Renee Holland Davidson – 1ST PLACE!


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!


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!


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!


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!


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!


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…

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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.

Hold Your Breath by A. J. Randall – 1ST PLACE!


The sweat vanished from her skin as she sank down into the cool, blue swimming hole. The radio spread a festive mood to the commune members, who were picnicking, sunbathing, and laughing while dropping from the rope swing into the water a few feet away. Everybody got silent, however, when the music was replaced by an automated emergency broadcast network message. Thinking it was just a test, the festivities resumed until the annoying tone switched to a panicked broadcaster’s voice…

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The sweat vanished from her skin as she sank down into the cool, blue swimming hole. The radio spread a festive mood to the commune members, who were picnicking, sunbathing, and laughing while dropping from the rope swing into the water a few feet away. Everybody got silent, however, when the music was replaced by an automated emergency broadcast network message. Thinking it was just a test, the festivities resumed until the annoying tone switched to a panicked broadcaster’s voice…

“This is not a test. Take cover immediately!”  At the urgency of the broadcaster’s voice, everyone sprang into action.  Picnic baskets were roughly packed and their bearers began running off with them.  Sunbathers and swimmers followed suit, grabbing what belongings they could.  They all sprinted towards the entrance of the compound, a small earthen dwelling, mostly underground.  As they ran, things were dropped, but no one bothered to pick them up.  There was no time.

It was Nook’s turn on the emergency shift and he was at the door hurrying people inside.  He mentally took note of the members who entered the dwelling.  Carver was last to arrive.  He went in, then looked back, “Hurry up, Nook!  Close the door!”

Nook shook his head, “No, someone is missing…erm…” he tried to think who was missing, the numbers hadn’t added up right.

“Oh no!” cried a female voice inside.  Breezy suddenly appeared, “Sandy isn’t here!”

Nook straightened, “Where did you last see her?”

“She was in the swimming hole–”

That’s all Nook needed to hear.  He took off running for the pool.

Sandy could hold her breath for a very long time. Her head broke the surface and she gasped, taking in long, deep breaths.  “It must have been about six minutes,” she thought, pleased with herself.  Then she noticed the silence.  “Where is everybody?” she wondered, looking around and noticing that all the folks were gone.  Then she heard it, the low whirring noise.  The blood drained from her face.  She swam to the edge of the pool and pulled herself up.

“Sandy!” she heard her name called.  It was Nook.  She began running towards him as fast as she could.  She was winded from holding her breath and she was unable to run as fast as she would have liked.  The whirring noise grew louder.  She didn’t have much time.  Nook was also risking his life.  If they didn’t make it to safety in time they would both be lost.

She reached Nook and took his outstretched hand.  Together they began running towards the compound.  The noise was louder now. There was no use speaking as the noise would drown out their voices.  Sandy looked back briefly.  The machine was huge and she could see the blades slicing underneath it.  She screamed, though her scream was soundless against the machine.

Suddenly, it was dark.  The contraption was overhead, but they were safe.  When it had passed and the noise lessened, Sandy opened her eyes and looked around, “Where –?”  Nook clamped a hand over her mouth.  He got up and poked his head from the hole and surveyed the area.  The machine was further away. It would come back but they had enough time to make it to the compound, he hoped.

He turned to pull Sandy up.  “Ahh!” she screamed.  He looked down into the hole.  Two luminous eyes could be seen not too far away in the dark tunnel. “Quickly!” Nook commanded, and pulled her up.  They began to run, but the creature didn’t follow.

“What was that?” Sandy asked.

“Probably a snake,” Nook replied through gritted teeth, “We took refuge in his home without permission. We’re lucky he didn’t attack us.”

They reached the commune.  Nook rapped at the door.  Carver opened it and they both quickly went inside, finally safe and sound.

For the next hour, the members all huddled together in the common room.  The whirring noise continued outside.  Sometimes directly above them, and other times further away.  The earth vibrated.  Though fear enveloped them, the people sang and tried to keep each other’s spirits up.  Finally, the vibrations stopped and the whirring noise was gone.  After a few more minutes, Nook got up and went to the door.  He looked out and gazed upon the shorn lawn around him.

“The lawnmower is gone!” he announced.  The gnomes all cheered.