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sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


In and flash

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sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


The Groomers
1120 words

The consensus, based on the other students’ notes, was that morale was low. “Extinguished nineteen,” the last agent wrote. “15% increase from last shift. Check cleanup’s capacity. NW.”

I held half of a leftover taco in one hand while flipping through the last week of notes with the other. “The singletons take the stairs. Like it’s a secret. Like we can’t flush them out. Twelve tonight. DC.” Carrow was getting poetic again.

I liked this shift. It was stable. We were pressing more buttons as the event went on, but they were always the same buttons.

On the overhead screen, a yellow light lit up on the west elevator, and flickered nine times. The light switched to green – the right password, all clear. I stuffed the rest of the taco in my mouth as I switched the view to camera mode. Sure enough, nine women in Voidmart-brand colors, with anomaly-viewing headgear. They were all from my class. I recognized one of them from some gossip about plagiarism scandal – I guess the honor board stopped meeting once the shields went up.

A door opened behind me. “You’re late,” I said, with my mouth full.

“I knew you had it under control,” Carrow said. Her hair was damp and her eyes were dilated and enormous, like motor oil in a glass of milk. I swallowed hard and something stuck in my throat.

“What were you–” I started to say, but my voice came out choked.

“Anything interesting?” Carrow asked. She looked at the camera feed, arms crossed. A woman on the screen made eye contact with the camera, her expression unreadable under the headgear. I know I’d done the same thing on my Grooming shifts – staring at the camera, just daring the Monitoring team to press that Reject Cargo button.

I took a sip of Diet Voidcola and exhaled. “You weren’t scheduled for Grooming duty.”

“I covered for Woltz.” She put one hand on the dashboard and swayed slightly. On the screen, a red light came up over the staircase. I held my breath.

I think there was another team, operating out of some other control room, that would take care of cases like Carrow, those on the inside who were too prone to influence. I wondered if they had any kind of mechanical rigging inside this room. A sprinkler ready to brim with gas. A turret hiding in a heating vent. A hundred ton anvil in the shape of a ceiling.

“It’s nice,” she said, “not having to think about how connected everything is to everything else. It’s nice to see things discretely. Data point by data point. That’s all. For those thirty minutes of Grooming duty, I don’t even have to think about what would happen if things got unkempt, or–”

The flashing red light in the stairwell swelled, and the klaxons started to blare. I hit the “FLUSH STAIRWELL” button and the noise ceased.

“–or, you know, if I knew whoever that was.”

“I get it,” I said. “But actually – to be honest with you – I don’t.”

Carrow’s eyes were adjusting back to their un-influenced size. She steepled her hands and tilted her head to the side. “You’re one of the ones who can sleep at night, huh?”

I didn’t say anything right away. The screen was silent, but I looked at it, daring someone else to walk into a restricted passageway and trigger the whole procession.

“You remember,” I said, “how everyone was talking about this during Orientation? Everyone was scared of this. Monitoring. I swear I had a dozen conversations where someone asked “do you realize they actually want us to kill people?’” Usually people would look on, all solemn, and trade notes and strategies about how to protect our eternal souls. Sometimes you’d have a commando type – “well, they’ll have it coming, if they ignore the warnings” – who’d break up the circles of confidence with their bullheadness. I always pretended I was just another naïf, trembling under the responsibility of taking life in my hands, but neither the idea or the practice cracked open the guilt cyst, the way it did for the others. I’d looked through the files about the incident. We’d all seen them. This wasn’t just or unjust. It was just necessary.

“It’s a lot of responsibility. You get that, right?”

“If someone’s in the stairwell or the elevator and they don’t have protection, you press the button. It’s not a judgment call. Not really. My point is – everyone was wringing their hands over Monitoring. But no one was asking that about Grooming.”

“You don’t kill anyone while you’re Grooming. You just let yourself be useful.” Carrow ran a hand through her still-damp hair. “I’m happy to keep covering your shifts, you know. But it’s not horrible.”

I eyed Carrow, looking for a hint of irony. “They drug you up beforehand,” I said, trying to keep my voice even.

“To put you in the right mindspace. And that’s not why I do it – I know you’re wondering. I remember everything I see when I’m Grooming. I remember everything I do. I’ve seen the people on the deck at the time of the disturbance, and they’re – they’re OK. I think, or at least they were OK. And I want–”

The whole room lit up in flashing red – ping after ping on both elevator bays, as well as the stairwell.

“Jesus,” I said. The readings looked like thirty – no, forty – people had already streamed into the stairwell, and they were still pouring in. I pivoted the monitors to camera mode.

Hundred of non-protected civs were stuffing themselves into the elevators and the stairs, and even in the grainy CCTV feed I could catch the blackness of their eyes.

“How did we not even hear rumors about this?” I was assessing the feed, looking for some sign that there was an end in sight to the streams of people. “Don’t we have a community relations team?”

“We do. Woltz was transferred to the community relations team. They didn’t think he was a good fit for Grooming.” She sighed. “I don’t know if I am, either.”

Then she picked up my Diet Voidcola and dumped it over the console.

I swore, stood up, and pressed the “Reject Cargo” and “Flush Stairwell” buttons at once. On one screen, the stairs slid away, into a bare, flush chamber, as people tumbled free-fall down the chute, new bodies still pouring into the emptied well. On the other screen, an elevator past capacity continued to rise unabated.

“Which one is worse, do you think?” she asked. “Well – we’ll know soon enough.”

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


In

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


In, :toxx:, and flash me.

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


Pie Rats
1,976 words

Bobbing on the open ocean, two rats were curled up together in a floating tin of biscuits. They shouldn’t have been there, Chiron knew – it was greedy, indulgent, just plain lazy. But those were some of his favorite things to be. The same held true for his brother, Coriander, who was still licking his whiskers to devour the traces of biscuit crumbs. Now, they were lost on the waters, the rest of their family perhaps having scampered off to the pirate vessel that scuttled their ship. At least, that’s what Chiron hoped.

He stuck his nose out of the rim of the tin and gazed out into the distance. An island lurked in the distance, but the tin was drifting in the other direction. He scrambled back down and bit the nape of his brother’s neck. “If you’ve had your fill, it’s time to move,” Chiron said. Coriander pulled himself up to the rim, and the tin shook.

“I can’t swim,” Coriander said.

“I know.” Chrion tried to keep his voice even. “But you can build things, can’t you? How about you build us an oar?”

Coriander didn’t say anything, so Chiron knocked him over and bit his belly. “Okay, I’ll try to think of something,” Coriander said. “Not that I have much to–”

He cut himself up, scrambled up to the lid again, and bit at the sticky wrapping around the tin. Then he bit off a piece of the metal that made the tin, as Chiron worked the wrapping into a rope. They repeated the process to create another grappling hook.

“I think if we throw these in the water in front of us, we’ll be able to pull ourselves forward,” Coriander said. “I know it’s awkward, but it’s the best chance we’ve got.”

“Let’s give it a try,” Chiron said.

“You don’t believe me.” It wasn’t a question – Chiron knew he couldn’t lie to Coriander. Coriander had telepathic abilities, and could tell whenever someone wasn’t being trustworthy.

Chiron was quiet for a moment; he waited for the bite of chastisement, but it didn’t come. “It’s not my kind of thing, but you’re the best hope I’ve got of making it home to our family. I’ll give this a try.” He threw the grappling hook out into the water and pulled the rope taut. Somehow, it worked – they pushed back against the tide, and turned toward the island.

They went on like that, casting the line and pulling it back. It could only pull them a very small distance at a time, so their arms soon tired. Even so, Chiron kept casting the hook, even when Coriander started squirming.

“Come on,” Chiron said, “I need you to help.”

“I know you do. It’s always ‘come on, Coriander.’ It’s always ‘you have to try harder.’ Well, maybe I’m trying as hard as I –”

Chiron tackled Coriander, knocking him over as he struggled. Coriander squeaked, which Chiron thought was just protest sounds. Then a shadow blanketed the biscuit tin, and a flying squirrel landed on a nearby rock.

The flying squirrel stuffed a snail in its mouth and looked at the biscuit tin curiously. The two rats hunkered down, but the flying squirrel said “I can see you, you know.”

Chiron pretended that he hadn’t heard the squirrel, and wrapped his paws tightly around Coriander.

“Yes, you, the two rats in the trash. I can see you. It’s customary to say ‘hello.’”

Chiron poked his head out. “Hi.”

“That’s better. Now, go away, please, this is a trash-free island. We’re also not that fond of rats.”

“Listen, we’ve just been shipwrecked, and we’re trying to find–”

“Sure, sounds fascinating, let me know when you’ve written a novel about it. You can put the novel in a bottle and put it out to sea, and then we won’t read it – no trash policy, remember. Anyway, bye now.”

The flying squirrel glided over and pushed the biscuit tin in the opposite direction. Coriander broke free of Chiron’s grasp and scrambled to the top. “Hey, don’t you have anything you love?”

Chiron peeked up at the flying squirrel, which was no longer smirking and was now staring into the distance. He’d felt it before, too, when he was being more bully than brother – Coriander reaching into his mind and pulling forth buried feelings of shame and tenderness. As the squirrel wilted, Chiron had no doubts that’s exactly what Coriander had done to her.

“Wait,” the flying squirrel said. “You’ve had a rough time, huh?”

“Ah, the roughest,” Chiron said. “So you’ll help out?”

“I’ll have to check with the others,” the flying squirrel said, “but sure, as long as you take your trash with you.” With that, it glided over the water, back to the island. The two rats poked their head out of the tin, looking into the forest of the island.

“I think she’s coming back,” Coriander said.

“I guess you know what I’m thinking.”

“And I think Mom and all three hundred fifty-nine of our siblings are alive too. And probably most of our nieces and nephews.” A gull cawed, and they burrowed back down in the tin again, Chiron’s claws digging into Coriander’s belly out of tension. “Come on. Who do you think taught us to be resourceful?”

A beak plunged into the biscuit tin, grazing Chiron’s back, and both of the rats squeaked. Again it dug into the biscuit tin, the beak scraping against the metal. Suddenly, the image entered Chrion’s mind – the grappling hook! – and he took the hook in one paw, thrusting the metal jag upward. The bird screeched, but Chiron knew it’d come back soon.

And then they were aloft. Chiron could barely dare to look, but Coriander wriggled free. They were atop a net, held by a whole family of flying squirrels, and they were gliding at sea level past the bird, off into the ocean.

“I bet you thought I wasn’t gonna make it, but I’ve got feelings, you know?” the squirrel they’d met earlier said.

In the distance, the Jolly Roger was flying, and next to it another vessel – and not the one the rats had come from. The pirates must have decided that sinking one ship wasn’t enough. They wanted more booty. And as the flying squirrels drew closer, it was clear the pirate vessel wasn’t winning. The hull was already partially splintered, and the cannon fire was still roaring.

“You fellas sure you want this to be your stop? This is a one-way trip, my dudes.”

Chiron didn’t need to say anything. “We know,” Coriander squeaked out.

“Well then, yo ho ho,” the flying squirrel said, as the gang of squirrels flew into the hull breach and dropped the net before gliding off.

Even in the fracas, Chiron immediately smelled something delicious, something savory and unctuous. Every instinct in him was telling him to follow the smell – but wasn’t that what got him in trouble in the first place?

Another blast rocked the ship. If the family was on this ship, they’d be drowned if this went on much longer. He turned to Coriander, only to find him gone. A sharp wave of panic darted through Chiron – not now! But of course. He’d almost definitely given into the call of that sumptuous smell. Relenting to the desire, Chiron too followed the trail into a deserted kitchen and past it into a storeroom.

The place was packed with all manner of delicious treat and confection, from tarts to hand pies to the standard mounds of hardtack and cheese. And among the smorgasbord was the happy sound of content nibbling. When Chiron’s eyes adjusted, he saw dozens and dozens of his siblings, cousins, and nephews, chowing down on a well-deserved meal.

“Chiron!” cried a voice, and from atop a basket of pies lay Cotton, a plump rat he knew well. “Thought we’d lost you. You find another stash? A better stash?”

“It’s a long story, but basically, you should always trust flying squirrels, even the rude ones. Anyway, have you seen Coriander? We arrived together, but I can’t find him now.”

Cotton said something incomprehensible through a mouth of food, then he repeated himself. “Though he was with you, the lazy guy. He make it through OK?”

Chiron’s heart filled with fear, and he scampered off in another direction without even saying goodbye. Where could Coriander have gone? Could he have gone away from the food?

The ship rocked again with artillery fire. The ship was sure to sink if it took much more of a beating. He scampered up to the deck to get a better angle. On the connected ship, pirates were being thrown asunder left and right. If the pirates were losing, that meant soon this ship would be boarded and scuttled – no use on wasting ammunition on something you can board, raid, and cut apart.

He was about to dash down to the storage and declare that everyone needed to leave immediately when he spotted the tiniest speck: a rat on the rope tying the two vessels together. It couldn’t be Coriander – it would be so unlike him to put himself in danger. But, as he scurried across the deck, dodging stray fire, he wondered how true that was, and how much of it just felt true, based on how he’d jump on top of Coriander any time the trouble drew near.

And as Chiron reached the rope, it was indeed Coriander, gnawing on the rope tethering the boats together. He was focused on that rope like it was a bone full of juicy marrow, fraying the ends, his teeth rapidly working away. Chiron was about to say something, but he knew he didn’t need to. Instead, he just focused on the only thing that mattered:

Coriander, I believe in you.

He thought about how he’d come up with the grappling hook when he didn’t have any ideas, how he’d gotten the flying squirrels to help out. If anyone could chew through a rope and save the day, it would be Coriander.

Across from them, the other ship’s captain was holding a long board. There wasn’t much time left before the scuttling began, and Chiron tried to make sense in the frenzy of teeth how much progress Coriander had made. They needed more time.

I don’t know how much longer my jaw can hold up, said a voice in his head.

I’ve got it, Chiron thought back. But things look bad over there. Think you can stop them?

I know I can stop them.

And with that, Coriander leaped back onto the edge of the deck, standing up on his hind legs, his gaze on the captain. Chiron leapt up and began chomping away at the last bit of the rope.

The image that entered his head nearly stopped him completely – it was a bleak, vivid scene of their old nest, completely filled up with water, the air flush with panic while trying to swim with a body not suited for it, so strong and intense that Chiron wondered if it had actually happened. And across the water there was a loud kerplunk as the board plunged into the wave beneath, just as Chiron bit through the last fibers.

The boat, struggling, began to drift away from the other ship. Chiron braced for more incoming fire, but it didn’t come.

“You scared them off,” Chiron said, wrapping his claws around his brother’s belly not out of protectiveness but out of a different feeling. “That was amazing.”

“I probably scared everyone else here, too,” Coriander said. “If they’re here.”

“Everyone’s here,” Chiron said, “and just wait until you see the feast.”

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


In :toxx:

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


A Present
1216 words

When my U-Haul arrived at Miriam’s house, there was a dead cardinal on her step. After I’d been laid off, I’d spent three months burning through my savings and the remnants of the goodwill I had with my friends. All the while, I’d been telling people “Well, if this doesn’t work out, I can always go live with my sister. She was profiled in the New Yorker,” I’d say, never really imagining that I’d actually have to do it. And now I was there, overgrown lawn, dead cardinal and all.

Miriam opened the door and Titus, her bruiser of a cat, barreled out of the shade of a hibiscus bush and rubbed against Miriam’s legs. “You brought me a present,” she murmured, not looking at me. I wasn’t sure if she was talking about me or the bird.

“Hey,” I said. “I can’t thank you enough for–”

She waved a hand, still missing my eyes. “‘S’fine. Don’t get to use my guest room enough. I don’t like the thought of it sitting there, empty, sterile. You need help?”

She helped me unload the truck and bring the things into the guest room, while Titus wove between our legs and we minded the cardinal. We said little, which was usual for us; even when we were kids, Miriam would say as little as possible before slinking away to her bedroom and engross herself in modeling clay. Sometimes the silences were comfortable. More often, I’d wonder what was behind them – if they had sharp edges, like the claws and teeth in her sculptures.

As I returned to the truck, I saw her pick up the cardinal with a pair of vinyl gloves and carry it inside the house.

###

Titus was sitting on the bed when I made it back, cleaning himself. I bent down to pick him up, and he snapped his head back and bit my hand. Cursing, I stumbled into the bathroom and ran my hand under the water, trying to bury the thoughts of tetanus.

Miriam knocked on the bathroom door. “Ouch,” she said.

“Your cat’s a little bit of a shithead.”

“Hm. He likes space.”

“Okay, but he was on my bed. That’s my space.”

She was silent for a moment, looking at the linoleum. “He’ll figure it out. Once you’ve settled in. Once he knows your scent.” She opened up a high cabinet and handed me a package of bandages. “I’m glad you’re here, Kate,” she said, as she turned and walked away.

###

The next weeks were rough. In between lethargic, this-probably-won’t-work-out-so-why-try job searches, I spent my days dodging Titus. Aside from biting me two more times, he ruined my favorite blouse, pouncing from half a room away onto my back to quash a fly.

And I was dodging Miriam, too. I’d started to take more notice of the bone sculptures that decorated the hallway shelves. They were simple things, just a couple of tweedy thin lines crossing each other. I’d thought they were geometric abstractions at first, but I’d started assigning meaning to them. A talon. A fist around what might have been a neck.

And then there was the time I’d walked into her in the backyard, working over a tarp with a scalpel and forceps, extracting bones from one of Titus’s victims. Titus lay in a sunbeam, licking his paws.

“What’s going on here?” I asked.

Miriam didn’t look up. “The bones are for me. The rest is for Titus.” She picked out a wet-looking organ with the forceps and placed it in a casserole dish. “You’re welcome to join us.”

My stomach churned. “Maybe later.”

###

One afternoon I returned to my room to find my bed covered in feathers. The one window was wide-open, screen and all.

I slammed it shut, gathered all of the bedding and took it downstairs to the laundry. Miriam was working in her study with the door closed, but I could still hear the rhythm of her patter. The clip of scissors on sinew, aggravated sawing, a brittle crack. A frustrated grunt.

In the dining room, a half dozen of her sculptures sat on the mantle. I remembered one from the photograph in the New Yorker piece. Some curved bone, half-cracked, jutting out of an avian skull. The journalist called it “bleak but familiar,” to which Miriam had answered “What’s familiar?” That was the end of the section.

To me, it had always reminded me of Phineas Gage, the railroad worker who took a metal rod in the head and lived the rest of his life as a temperamental jerk.

Titus came in through the cat door, and I connected to Phineas, feeling that flash of pure id cross me. I looked right at Titus as I batted the Phineas Gage sculpture onto the floor and watched the skull split in two.

###

The knock on my bedroom door came an hour later. Miriam was holding a cake platter with the splintered remnants of the sculpture in one hand. “Can you explain this?”

I glanced at the lobotomized leftovers. “I’m not an art critic,” I said.

Miriam held the plate out, blinked several times, and looked down, standing stony and immobile.

“It was probably Titus. I can just see it – he thinks it’s a real bird and goes flying after it, but--”

“Right.” Miriam untied her hair, and met my eyes for once. “That doesn’t make sense. Tell me why you waited so long to call me. Why you don’t spend any time with me. Why you write your name on all of your food.”

“The last one’s easy. That’s so you don’t eat my food.” I took a deep breath. “Look, you get that people can find this whole aesthetic a little creepy, right? My bed was covered in feathers today – loving feathers. That’s not sanitary.”

“Oh,” Miriam said, and she almost smiled. “I think that means he thinks you’re part of the family now. I get the bones. Titus gets the flesh. You get the feathers.”

“Look, I’m honored, but I don’t want the feathers. I want a job and my own place and I want to not feel stalked by a feral animal wherever I go. I don’t want to have to figure out which Tupperware container is full of bird hearts and which one has leftover bolognese sauce. And, I’m sorry, but I don’t want to look at these loving morbid tchochkes every time I leave my room.”

Miriam turned around for a second. I could hear her breathing, short and staggered, and I could imagine her swinging around, bone knife in hand, its destination my chest. Instead she just said, with her back still to me: “I’d say you don’t have to stay. But you don’t have anywhere else to go, do you?”

For once, I was the one without anything to say. Then an acrid pungent smell filled the room, as Titus brushed by Miriam, with a skunk carcass in tow. He dropped it at my feet, looked up at me, and meowed.

When no one moved, he meowed again. “Do you use skunk bones for anything?” I asked Miriam.

For the first time since I moved in, she laughed, and the three of us went down to the kitchen for rubber gloves and tomato juice.

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


In, 80s. :toxx:

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


no nuance for abusers

sparksbloom fucked around with this message at 15:37 on Jun 24, 2020

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


I'll judge!

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


Crits! I promised dramatic readings for people who submitted before the deadline but the audio did not turn out especially well so I'll put those on hold; I might loop around and re-record later this week.

crimea - you will wait for the rest of your life

First, the prose here is indeed very impressive. I’m especially fond of “I wish I had seen back then the wild dogs which had marked their territory in your cracking and bubbling head.”

I’m not sure if the protagonist here is insane or if they’re just imitating insanity to get revenge here. It sounds like probably a little of column A, a little of column B. Clearly whatever’s happening with Daddy shows they’re a little unhinged.

I think the story needs more momentum in the beginning. It’s not until we get to the “It was when we had all reached adulthood that you finally spun your trap and did what you did” paragraph that we have any clear clue that the protagonist is conducting revenge for an event that actually has bearing in reality. While I get that the ambiguity is the point here, I know when I read a story about a character that sounds completely insane I start wondering how much I have to pay attention; my laziness aside, more of a reference to the actual events they’re avenging earlier on would be helpful!

Salgal80 - If Thunderdome was a Surrealist Painting of Words

This is an essay, not a story, and the prompt asked for a story. As an essay, it’s not bad, and I like the way the dream wraps around to make a full-circle ending. I don’t want to critique the theses of the essay here, because that’s just arguing on the internet, so I’m going to crit this like it’s actually a story.

I don’t know what this character wants. I think this character doth protest too much. While they state several times that they don’t care about the success of this story, sentences like “The judges took a knife to it and so now it hangs in the museum with shreds of canvas dangling down, this way and that, and some people think that’s part of the painting. But that’s called contemporary art” indicate that this character feels unfairly maligned and misunderstood, despite their protests that they don’t really care. My feeling about this character is that it’s unusual that they’ve entered a fiction contest when they don’t seem interested in receiving feedback. This is an interesting theme and idea for a character, and I wonder if it would be possible for this character to reflect on this a little further.

I also think that the character’s sense of not caring means that there are no stakes for this story, which makes it difficult for a reader to be truly invested.

Mockingquantum - Monument

This is another piece with strong prose, though there’s a couple of typos strewn about. It captures the kind of folktale/parable quality of this story well, with these kind of just-so sentences.

The folktale quality of the story is kind of where it loses me, though, as come on – when has the effort for eternal life ever worked out? So the story is a little predictable, which I don’t think is the worst thing, but it means the story isn’t super memorable to me. I wonder if characterizing the priest with a bit more specificity would help give this story more personality. What if the thing motivating him wasn’t just a fear of pain, but something else?

Tyrannosaurus - other people

I loved everything about this story: the POV of the main character, the pacing of the paragraphs, the way the story seamlessly weaves in that character’s dialogue, the fun, punchy dialogue, the hilarious last line. I loved the cute little cat-isms, though I can see another reader thinking they fall on the wrong side of “too twee.”

I especially loved the shark passage, the way this story veers between the comedy of our protag enjoying being an angry, chompy shark to the real regret that they never got to say any nice things to their wife.

Pththya-lyi

This left me somewhat cold. The prose is solid: sentences like “I sang to the mortal of fruit-laden boughs and flowers that carpet the meadow, of birds sweet-calling, of lover’s whispers, of the sunlight fading in reds and oranges and pinks and yellows into cold, blue night—to draw her ever close” are great. My issue is the character here, who doesn’t seem to have a lot of stakes here. They’re just a predatory, smug fairy who gets preyed on instead.

Basically, it leaves me with a “so what” reaction, unsure of what this story is trying to say. I wonder if it would be possible to make there be more of a do-si-do between the woman and the fairy, so that this is more than a cat-and-mouse, instead of the fairy brooding over their desires and then getting whacked with a horseshoe; basically, I think the story needs more events to make the pacing work.

Obliterati

This has a strong opening, and I love the voice of the mother and the contrasting voice of the daughter. I liked the “I don’t speak chirp” runner, and I thought the whole frame of Frank’s absentee fatherhood helped give the story some nice structure.

The undersea action didn’t do a lot for me, since I don’t know if I’m sure what exactly these two are trying to achieve. I think they’re looking for more things to modify Roisin’s modular body, but I suppose they could also be looking for Frank, and I’m not sure why Mike is attacking the two of them. On the whole, though, this is pretty good, with enough humor, voice, and a distinct sense of setting to elevate this beyond a standard pulpy story.

Nikaer Drekin

The emotion of this one won me over by the end. Rosanna’s protestations and bargaining feel very real, the depression and survivor’s guilt seem on-the-mark.

I’d thought that Susanna had taken the pills at some point in her four day reverie – like, not the whole bottle, but some of them – so the ending had me a little tripped up. I also wish that the ending had involved more agency from Susanna, but I also think her working through her feelings is a kind of agency in this story.

hexwren

This piece is successful at sketching the community and its history with just a few words, leaving room to introduce the conflict, Cara’s blindness preventing her from working. I like the ambiguity of the town allowing the alchemist to remain, despite his, uh, evil nature.

The turn of her having black eyes that leave people to exclude her after the treatment feels unsatisfying to me, though, and I think that’s because she doesn’t really take any action or make any decisions in this story, nor does she change how she thinks about things. This is especially true because the story makes it clear this isn’t the first time she’s gone through this process. The last line is good, but the story doesn’t leave much of an impact due to this lack of a pivot.

Thranguy

This piece is a little scattered, and it mostly succeeds at what it wants to do. The sense of given-up longing the protagonist has that has him melding with the tree works; the ending is very bleak but I love the small glimpses of images that tell us a lot in just a few words. “The house was toxic. Black mold and dysfunction, allergens and abuse.” “[T]he hammer caked with hair and blood and brain.” It’s great dark stuff.

The echoing, though, is confusing, and I’m not sure if it’s confusing in a way that works for this story. On one hand, I do like the sense of anticipation it creates. On the other hand, cutting the story into two – with the protag’s quest to become a tree mostly connected to their tragedy through the echoing – feels like it’s missing the chance to make more efficient parallels.

sebmojo

This ends up doing a lot with a little, and I like how much of this story comes from what’s unsaid or only hinted at. I don’t know the significance of this log, I don’t know exactly what the frogmen are, but the log-sitting woman’s sadness and wish for the ocean to swallow her up is wistful and lands all the same. We’re only checking in on these two on a quiet moment, but the story easily gives us an idea of who these people are to each other.

The sense of aching, of existing on the skin of things, makes this one of my favorite stories this week, substituting a quiet moment and conversation for long exposition. Nice work.

Anomalous Blowout

This is a very skillful story, and although it took until the second section to really grab my interest, the story gets its strength from the nuanced relationship between these two folks and the well-done setting of this trash-strewn beach. The prose here is great. I think this is the best line of the week, across the board: “It shuddered as its gears began to turn, sifting through inch after inch of sandy detritus, crushing and twisting the wreckage of bottle caps and cigarette butts and forgotten Big Gulps, all hoovered up into its gullet.”

I’m not sure these characters really change at all through this story, other than Alain getting the words to articulate his sense of purpose. Without the sense of the story driving toward some sort of pivot and with few events, the story does end up feeling a little like a (very well written!) vignette. I was also confused by Alain “snagging” his wife’s hand toward the end – it initially read to me like a violent gesture and made me re-read the ending.

Sitting Here

This story absolutely succeeds at what it aims to do, which is to capture the overlap between the kaleidoscopic wonder of the universe with the same kaleidoscopic wonder of love. And even in a week of very strong prose, the language here is exceptionally good, precise, emotional and descriptive at the same time: “We are out on the frontier of time-space, where raw creation churns tirelessly, painting itself over the blank canvas of the void. We’re atop a desolate mountain on a superheated planet, watching bismuthinite fall like snow onto the high peak. We are inside a dew drop.”

I did get slowed down a little bit by the jargon here, and I think the story could lose a paragraph or two of exposition and probably not lose its ultimate effect. The psychedelic ending lands just right, though, and I’m impressed that the story earns its universe-scoping grandiosity. This is good work.

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


:toxx: I'm in

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


Hellrule: your outlaw is rebelling against time and space

A Tourist
1154 words

When Alyssa cuts through time to visit Candace before the cancer, she feels like she’s taken a handful of toxic pills. She feels both the euphoria and the lead in her blood vessels, the clue that somehow, Time will have its revenge for stealing this moment that it had tried to tuck away. But for the moment, Alyssa dons her favorite pair of sunglasses, checks her smile in the reflecting pool, and ducks her head into the gift shop where Candace works.

Worked.

Alyssa is beginning to lose sense of which days she’s visited and which ones she hasn’t. She had notes, once, but one day they weren’t there. It’s possible that Time closed a bubble around them and swallowed them up. Seizing the contraband. But it’s equally possible that the notes never really existed. Ever since she’s been standing up to Time, the fuzziness in her head has gotten louder. Sometimes all she can remember is that she lost Candace too early. They probably would have been married by now.

Inside the gift shop, Candace is dusting old stacks of tchotchkes. Lobsters wearing sun hats. They’d met outside this gift shop, though the date has been erased from Alyssa’s head. But she remembers the rush of spotting the confident butch fixing the hurricane damage of a downed awning, the way she’d sat at a picnic table by the beach, absent-mindly speaking with a friend she can’t recall, sneaking glances of Candace lifting stacks of 2 by 4s all by herself. Now, it’s September (is it?) and it’s almost the off-season, so the place isn’t teeming with streams of children. There’s a few elderly couples scattered about. Alyssa walks up to Candace, the grin on her face almost alive, and she says “Hey, stranger.”

Candace doesn’t look up. “Be with you in a minute.”

She’s too young, she realizes; Alyssa only knows this hairstyle from photographs. Alyssa is always doing this, now that the notes are lost – cutting through to the wrong year, before they’d met. She feels the body load now, the water hammer of redirected time exerting its shear pressure on her cells. Candace smiles this hapless, generic customer service smile, and even as Alyssa knows that Candace is generifying her, Time knows something different – that a notion that shouldn’t exist has been planted in the mind of Future Candace, the “haven’t I seen you there before?” idea.

The whole gift shop quakes with the fragile rage of Time. Still Alyssa tries to act normal. “What’s this called?” she said, pointing to the figure she’s dusting. The red-shelled animal. The word was in her head, but now it’s not. Hasn’t she seen one of those before?

“I’m sorry – are you talking about a lobster?”

Alyssa’s vision swims. I knew that word. She blinks, and says “Of course. Senior moment.” She’s thirty-one, but she smiles and tries to recapture what they’d have some day. “Are there any other things you might recommend? For my mother. She’s sixty. Lives in Canada but wishes she didn’t.”

Candace smiles. Alyssa has just described Candace’s mother, a sunbird who couldn’t abandon her house in the Toronto exurbs. “What does she like?”

“Oh,” Alyssa says, and waves her hand. There were words here – what does Candace’s mother like? Her searching mind fills up with junk. Moth candy. Banana toothpaste. Miniature horsemen. And then she feels the slip; Time bucking wildly, pushing Alyssa out of this place she doesn’t belong. “She’s not picky.”

“Can’t go wrong with a jigsaw,” Candace is saying, crossing the floor. Even as Time fights, turning Alyssa nearly blind and the gift shop’s fixtures to silhouettes, Alyssa still admires Candace’s swagger, and it reminds her of the first time Candace cooked her dinner, grilling swordfish on the deck on a muggy summer evening.

And then Time seizes its fist around Alyssa, and in the flashbang of purging light, the afterimage suggests a black tendril crossing Candace’s outline. Cutting. Excising a memory that shouldn’t exist.

When Time deposits her on the library’s bathroom stall, Alyssa’s head erupts in a horrible flood of agony, as if Time has burst a thread of polyps nestled in clever lines across her brain. The images in its wake are the things Alyssa never tries to visit. A hospital bed, Candace with an infected line of sutures encircling her head. The vast emptiness of the beach without her, the empty bodies and screaming children, and splashing that doesn’t serve any purpose. The empty boxes in their shared bedroom, little vessels to swallow up the last of her things. She vomits into the toilet and braces herself.

She will not be humbled. Time thought it was justice to give them two years together before the sickness. Two years? Two years is less time than it took to construct the vacationer’s condos across from Alyssa’s house. Two years is less time than it takes to make a blockbuster superhero movie. Two years is about as long as a white collar offender stays in prison. Not enough time to learn anything.

She splashes water in her face in the bathroom sink. A blood vessel has burst in her left eye. She likes the way it looks. Beaten down by an indefatigable enemy.

But not enough to stop her.

The bathroom door swings open, but Alyssa is already cutting through time again. The pain in her head is so thorough and overwhelming that she retches again, dry-heaving in the folds of space-time. When she cuts through, this time at the crest of a hill above the beach, looking down at a roaring bonfire piercing the blackness of a new-moon night, she is so weak that she can barely stand. But she pulls herself up and looks for Candace.

A woman is playing guitar and singing off-key; every strum sends another wave of nausea through Alyssa. Has she been here before? When she thinks of Candace, she doesn’t think of fire. She was a Pisces.

The shadows of the people around the bonfire are indistinct, dancing figures; Time has caught her scent and is already pulling at her, blurring her vision and twisting knives in her brain. But she stumbles through the noise, gawking at the indistinct faces, searching the profiles for a familiar softness in the nose, an elegant jaw.

And then she spots her – Candace, spinning in a drunken dance with a woman Alyssa knows to be her younger self, though she no longer possesses this memory. Alyssa trods through the sand, her flip-flop coming off in the beach, and she rushes into the pit of the noise, tries to feel some rhythm in the crushing noise and the fire ants in her head. She feels Time snatch at her, but she taps both Younger Her and Candace on the shoulder, and then they are dancing, dancing, dancing, for at least a few moments more.

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


I'm in :toxx:

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


Sound: Australian Magpie

Scourge Them With Roses
586 words

The chatter of the magpies dwelled in all the shadowy places of the field, as Ivan cut through the rattling wind on his bike, and Michaela, who’d only reluctantly accepted Ivan’s invitation, pedaled in his tailwind. In her opinion, it was too early to do anything more strenuous than fill the teapot, but after rehab, she was trying to say “yes” to more things, if only so she could feel proud of conquering her sluglike instincts.

Ivan pulled over beside a patch of wildflowers, the affirmative skid of his bike tires on the dust a relief to Michaela, a respite from the keeping-up. She pulled over next him, catching her breath, as Ivan unzipped his bag and rustled inside for two half-frozen bottles of water. They were friends now, but his sweaty scent reminded her of humid evenings in bed, staying up too late. The happiest bits of sobriety. She took the proffered water bottle, listened to the amorous squabble of the magpies, and squinted up at the orange light of sunrise glimmering through the peppermint trees.

“Got attacked by one of them last week,” Ivan said. “Nasty.”

“Happened to a friend of mine,” Michaela said. Actually, this was the paranoid fixation of a woman from group therapy; she’d seized Michaela’s shoulders before she stepped out for fresh air to warn her that the magpies would digest her eyes. In the hospital yard, she never heard any organic sounds. It was all the roar of the air conditioning and the squeal of car wheels on the overpass.

“That’s why I’ve got to stay in shape. Never know when you might have to go one-on-one with a mama bird,” he said, and Michaela was touched by the puffery in his tone, the sense that for all the nights he’d cleaned her vomit out of the bathroom sink, he still needed her respect.

Michaela took a sip of water; the condensation was already making her hand slick and wet. “So you outran them, did you?”

“She got a few licks in,” Ivan said, and tilted his neck to the side to show an angry red mark that was either a half-healed magpie peck or a fresh hickey.

The squawking peaked in a staccato salvo of noise, and she was grateful for the interruption, especially one so pure and feral. He was squinting up at the trees and through the flowers, like he’d hoped to identify a culprit.

“I’m glad you dragged me out,” Michaela said, and meant it. “I forget the way the morning feels when there aren’t people around.”

“All you need is a bike and a couple of spare hours.” He zipped up the bag with chastening speed. The unspoken words, Michaela surmised, were you don’t need me.

“Everything’s impossible until you do it,” she said. It was what her counselor said almost every session, and it was trite but true: going a day without drinking, going back to work, making her own meals instead of frozen lasagna. Ivan smiled without teeth.

She saddled the bike and adjusted her helmet. The magpies were really making a racket, cawing as if to commend an especially righteous sermon.

She kicked off, pedaling fast on the long, dusty road to feel the thrill of her own velocity. Behind her, something was whooshing through the air. It was probably Ivan, but she hoped it was a magpie; that it would pursue her from the crispness of this morning to a heavier afternoon, buoying her with the satisfaction of a narrow escape and a story of her own.

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


Week 415: Killing Monsters With The Power of Love

I really like the American literary magazine The Sun. (This is not the British tabloid.) The Sun has this kind of hippie aesthetic – they usually have a long-form interview with an activist or someone involved in social change, there’s essays and fiction that are sincere, down-to-earth, and emotionally rich, but my favorite section is Readers Write. The magazine readers will respond to the week’s theme (like “Smoking,” or “Boyfriends & Girlfriends”) with a vignette, just a couple of paragraphs. They vary in tone. Sometimes they’re treacly, sometimes they’re striking, evocative, and human. As an example, here’s the section from the most recent issue.

When you sign up this week, I’ll assign you a Reader’s Write section from one of the magazine’s issues. You’ll read the vignettes from that column and find one that appeals to you, ideally on an emotional level, and you’ll use that as inspiration for a story about slaying monsters.

Monsters can be literal or metaphorical, whatever works for your interests and writing style, but the main thing I’m looking for this week is use of emotion. I want you to take your monster-slaying story right to the edge of “too much emotion” and stop just short of saccharine.

Although the prompt uses vignettes as inspiration, I’m not looking for you to write one of your own – beginnings, middles, and ends are good here.

Word Limit: 1800
Sign-Ups Due: Friday, July 17, 11:59 PM EST
Submissions Due: Monday, July 20, 7:30 AM EST
Additional Rules: No erotica, no essays

Judge: sparksbloom
?
?

Monster hunters:

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


Ironic Twist posted:

in, absolutely

"Lessons," 2004



"Right and Wrong," 2014

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006



Rain


Fixing What's Broken


The Laundromat


Getting Ready


The Middle of the Night



Leaps of Faith


Upstairs


Paying Attention


Blind Spots

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006



Fallen Angels

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


BabyRyoga posted:

let's go, in

Mischief

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


Ceighk posted:

sure, in

Shoes

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006



The Kitchen Table

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006



Rivals.

Entries are closed. Good luck! (I'm also still looking for a third judge, if anyone's interested.)

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


Submissions are closed.

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


FJ GJ

This week was fine. Really, it was fine! I used the phrase “technically competent” several times in our judgechat. Congratulations on writing clear, readable prose.

What this week wasn’t was, uh, especially emotionally evocative. Most stories had an emotional moment or two, but the heart felt missing in the majority of the stories this week.

Thranguy’s Scourge is the sole DM this week. This story feels stuffed full of promising elements that didn’t coalesce into a thematic or emotional whole, and it left the judges puzzling out how it fit together, when we wanted to feel emotionally moved.

Even more confusing, though, was this week’s loss, which is crimea’s Ugly Stars. This piece baffled all three judges, who all struggled to figure out what was happening, and seems to lack even a metaphorical monster being slain.

One exception was Tyrannosaurus’s black knights and dragons, girl, which pushed the “too emotional” line right to the edge but didn’t cross it. The judges were moved by the central relationship in this story, which is why it wins an HM.

But the blood throne this week goes to Saucy_Rodent for You’re It!, which contains several truly transcendent moments in its characterization of its main character. Even though this character is troubled, imperfect, and complicated, we felt for her in her moments of stress, and thought this story evoked the essence of this week in pushing its emotion while zeroing in on the monster-slaying.

Saucy_Rodent, the blood throne is yours.

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


slay monsters, read harrowing vignettes crits part 1

(will have the rest by Friday!)

mockingquantum - Endlessly

”Aboutness”: This story is about Marcus stopping Charlie from conducting a ritual to connect with the Endless One. On a more metaphorical level, it’s about trying to intervene in someone’s life when they’ve embraced nihilism. I’m having trouble identifying the slain monster here – the Endless One, or Charlie’s sadness and loneliness?

Character: Characters here are Marcus and Charlie – there’s a conflict here of Marcus feeling responsible for Charlie, but probably too rough on him. I wanted to understand more about this dynamic. The only clue of the dynamic they have prior to the summoning incident is “But the fist and the lash were the only way of teaching that Marcus had ever known, as evidenced by the scars he bore,” which paints the dynamic as somewhat sentimental but basically abusive; for the ending to work, we need more glimpses of the softness between the two, the sense of actual friendship between these two.

POV: Close third-person past tense, focused on Marcus. I think there’s a tendency in this story for the POV to feel somewhat distant, especially when we’re dealing with emotion: “churning disgust filled him,” we learn, and later “This was his doing, as much as anyone’s. He’d driven Charlie to be more than, when he should have treasured and fostered what he was.” What I wish we had here was more closeness here; Marcus appreciates this tender side of Charlie, but we never really get to see it.

Plot/Structure: The first half of the story balances exposition with Marcus approaching the summoning site. It means very few events are happening in the first thousand words, which is a big turn-off in a story that’s 1800 words long. Other than the flashback to Marcus asking the Master about the Endless One (which doesn’t add much to the story), the one scene is of Marcus at the ritual trying to get Charlie to stay. I think this is adequately tense, but I think this would be a much stronger scene if the story included actual scenes (flashback or not) of the two of them together before this ritual.

Scene and Summary: Basically covered above – the first half of the story contains almost no scene, other than Marcus getting closer to the ritual site. This makes the beginning of the story feel bogged-down and slow.

Style: Prose is clear and has a nice rhythm to it. I think you’ve done a nice job at keeping the blocking clear during the action; this next passage is strong, for example, although I’d be mindful of repeating the word “stone” in two different contexts: “He dug his fingers deep into the soil, soaking up what power he could from the earth around him, and channeled the power through the cold stone of fury within him. With a deafening roar, massive walls of stone rose around him…”

Overall: I didn’t love this due to the exposition-heavy first half and the ending that didn’t feel earned. (I didn’t cover this above, but the final few lines of dialogue just feel like they’re trying to do the work of something that would require more words – Marcus making the choice to sacrifice himself and Charlie suddenly changing his mind when Marcus says he’ll do this both feel like very abrupt decisions!) The prose is competent enough that I don’t think this screams “DM,” but I do think the piece requires some real structural tinkering to be effective.

Saucy Rodent - You’re It

”Aboutness”: Kamesha is a stressed, overworked single mother, whose stress comes to a head when her daughter’s imaginary friend possesses her ex-husband and tries to burn the house down. Metaphorically, capitalism and patriarchy is the monster.

Character: This story does a nice job getting at the different aspects of Kamesha. There’s a nice balance between the harried, stressed side of her and the very real, motherly guilt and protectiveness she has over her daughter, and we learn enough of her backstory in passing that she feels like a well-formed character. The other characters are basically foils to her, and I think that’s fine – Troya to evoke her motherly side, Andre to evoke her protective side, Smokey to evoke her doubts and insecurities, and in a piece like this, that’s all that’s needed.

POV: First person present. It works – the whole story is really about the stress and worry in Kamesha’s head, so we need to be in there. It also makes the sections where the POV is interspersed with Smokey’s manipulation more effective.

Plot/Structure: The second half of the story is one long scene that’s clearly the heart of the story, but the preceding scenes do a great job at building up to that last scene. Each scene raises the stakes until it all comes together in the last scene, and Kamesha gets tenser with each scene until it all comes to a head at the end.

One thing that would be worth thinking about is the possibility of adding more struggle in the last scene. We go from Kamesha dealing with doubt – handing the kid over to Andre/Smokey – but we don’t get to sit with that and weigh the consequences of that decision, because she immediately realizes he’s possessed and changes his mind. Could the story explore this moment a little more? Maybe dive deeper into Kamesha’s thought process?

Scene and Summary: This is a good balance of scene and summary. Most of the exposition and summary is conveyed through a connection to a scene, which makes this story really clip along and remain interesting, right from the beginning.

Style: Sentences are generally clear; this is particularly impressive during the stream-of-consciousness sections with multiple voices, as I never really struggled to determine the context for the different parts of these sentences. One thing that confused me was “You think I don't wanna hit? Unlike you, I never did,” which I thought referred to drugs rather than violence at first.

Overall: This is an impressive story, and I would definitely recommend doing some work on this and submitting to magazines. I love the sense of malaise and dread that threads through this. HM/win candidate.

crimea - Ugly Stars

”Aboutness”: On the Fourth of July, a patient with dementia travels between his hospitalized present, his mischievous youth, and his time as a sailor. On an emotional level, the piece is channeling the sense of loss around dementia from the perspective of the patient.

Character: I’m not sure we have a clear picture of Mr. Overman. I guess you could say that he doesn’t have a clear picture of himself, but lines like “I know he’s only saying it ‘cause he’s sweet on her” seem to be a one-off in terms of voice. I think the ending of this story would land harder if, as Mr. Overman spirals through time, he interacts with one of the people by his bedside, even if he doesn’t recognize them at the end.

POV: First person present. It’s necessary to the story’s whole conceit, so you can see my notes above and below.

Plot/Structure: Frankly, I think this story is more confusing than it’s worth. I do think this kind of exploration of dementia is interesting, but it’s very hard to follow, especially on the first reading. On the re-read, I’m noticing that the transitions between time and eras are blurred and abrupt, and the lack of unity between these phases – other than the sound of explosions – makes the story feel like it’s not really progressing. It makes me wish that the story followed some sort of logic in its transitions from scene to scene, even if it’s not chronological logic.

“I’m watching from the window down at all the pleasing symmetry in the car park below. The grid of it is very nice, and dotted in there are all these shining sunshine cars, all sorts of colours. It’s ringed with little lines of hedges and an orange-painted wall. My dad’s Ford hasn’t shown up yet, which is good, ‘cause he’d be mighty angry if he found me and the guys with our beers like this.” Here I think you could make this flow better with more associative logic, linking the moment together with emotion, rather than the parking lot connecting to dad’s car. As it is now, the reader is asked to do too much work without a satisfying payoff.

Scene and Summary: This story is essentially all scene, which I suppose reflects the character’s cognitive abilities. I would be interested to see the character try to contextualize things into more summary, which I think could help the flow of this piece.

Style: As I’ve mentioned, the story feels very unclear. You have good lines: “each sailor’s face is featureless as an orange,” and “I can see the bones of my wrist through my paper skin, it’s so bright. It’s like they rang all the bells and broke all the clocks and stained all the lines,” but I was just hungry for more clarity – let me get a foothold in the scene before time starts shifting. There’s also some copyediting issues, including the malapropism “packed to the girls.”

Overall: It’s hard for me to get past how confusing this story reads. I think there’s definitely room for ambiguity in a story like this, but we need something to hold onto, whether it’s a recurring character or some kind of emotional attachment. Here, we have no idea what Mr. Overman wants or what the stakes are, and we’re asked to follow him through these unmarked shifts in place and time anyway. It feels like a lot of work without a ton of payoff.

Something Else - How to Survive the Giant Robot That Wants to Crush You

”Aboutness”: Our main character worries about how to deal with a giant robot that crushes people. Thematically, I guess this is about existential dread and capitalism and the ways we avoid thinking about it.

Character: Harris is the only character of significance here, with Crystal playing the roles of the supportive wife and Gabe an expository friend. Harris seems pretty neurotic, and his anxieties about the giant robot are more generalized anxieties, fears of being crushed by the weight of everything. I’ll say that I found him somewhat whiny and unpleasant, which could very well be an artistic choice – but this is mostly because the other characters in the story don’t validate his anxiety. I was hoping for a little more verve and character in the dialogue. I think Crystal in particular could use more personality and more of her own voice.

POV: First person past. The effect of this is that we know Harris does not, in fact, get crushed by the giant robot. But it’s also awfully detached for a first person narrative, like the digression about faucets. This goes to highlight the character’s alienation here, but the net effect of this tone and POV is that the story feels stakes-less.

Plot/Structure: The story follows a series of scenes where the giant robot gets closer and Harris learns more about what’s going on. I think it’s structurally sound and escalates the tension appropriately; unfortunately, it doesn’t pay off, and although I think the image of Harris living under the foot of a giant robot for eternity is a good one, it doesn’t work for a story where the plot is buoyed by the robot getting closer and closer. I want more of a clue on why the robot just stops without Harris actually doing anything.

Scene and Summary: These are balanced well on this story; you breeze through time when needed and zero in on particular moments when you have to.

Style: The language here is clear but plain. Early on, there’s a sense of voice to this character, like with the fireflies, but the energy dissipates later on. I also really wish this story didn’t contain the line “Crystal rocked my world that night.”

Overall: This is a frustrating story, because I like what’s happening tonally here – this idea of everyday life basically going on as normal while this character panics about the impending crush of a giant robot that no one else in his life cares about. It’s thematically strong ("Money," Gabe said. "Just about the only thing that helps is money. The more you have, the less you get crushed. It's that simple.") On the other hand, the ending feels like an anticlimax, and there isn’t a lot of energy to the story after the opening section. I think the story would benefit from making Crystal a more dynamic character, and considering what opportunities there are to change the degree or flavor of Harris’s anxieties throughout the story – are there any obstacles that could make him more worried, or worried about different things? What would the story look like if it began with the giant robot’s foot poised over the house, and it just stayed there for the entire story?

Uranium Phoenix - Dauntless

”Aboutness”: Main character loses sailor dad and grows up to avenge him by slaying the monster that slayed him. Thematically I’m not sure – I want to say the story is attuned to this idea of growing up, becoming more mature, filling big shoes.

Character: A few different characters here, most of which are situational foils for our main character. Our main character strikes me as a bit generic, motivated more by archetype than any longings in his heart. Definitely wanted more clarity as to why the character chooses to become a sailor – looking at the ocean and deciding he had to, after he curses the ocean earlier, didn’t really do it for me. There’s some nice characterizing details for the mother, which I liked -- “I hugged her then took my coffee with cream and sugar, even though I’d told her a million times I liked it black,” and it makes me think that this story might have landed more for me if we understood the character’s relationship to others better.

POV: First person past, which helps establish this sense of wind-worn nostalgia that infuses the piece.

Plot/Structure: Each scene here hits a beat that moves time forward with the character’s relationship to the ocean. It’s pretty competent, but it feels a little uninspired to me – the story hits all the beats it needs to hit for this archetypal story, but nothing surprising. I did like the running element of the key, and the visit to the character’s mother was a highlight, since I think the emotional aspect of the story gets lost in the sea battling.

Scene and Summary: I didn’t notice any pacing issues in this story, so I think these are well-balanced. The story moves through long periods of time skillfully, although “Days passed, or maybe minutes as we battled” strains credulity.

Style: Prose is clear and often pretty. I liked all the descriptions of water.

Overall: This story is clearly skilled craft-wise, but I had a hard time connecting to it. The emotional current isn’t very strong, as the emotional throughline here is the character’s connection to his father, but he doesn’t really reflect on these emotions for most of the story. The scene with the character’s mother is a highlight and attempts to ground the story, but the character finding his dad’s key doesn’t move me because the story doesn’t convince me that this is something critical to our main character’s heart.

Ceighk - Tough Leather

”Aboutness”: War criminal dad. Should kids be shielded from the moral wrongs of their parents?

Character: Family triad here of the son, his mother, and Dad – there’s also uncle Eddie. I liked all of these characters; none of them are especially deep, but you do enough shading on them – their habits, the way they react to other people, their possessions – that they feel real and human.

POV: First person past, which gives the story a feel of looking back on an older memory. Actually, it feels very much like a Reader’s Write story from The Sun in tone and perspective. The language is full of nostalgia and, yes, emotion, and each scene is brimming with insight beyond the age of the character at the time.

Plot/Structure: The three parts/scenes here each move the story forward; we’re introduced to the stakes, they’re complicated (if not heightened), and then there’s resolution. Kind of. Our character is forced to understand that his father did war crimes, and we do get a good amount of him processing it. The very ending, with his mother, isn’t a satisfying ending, though; I think I would have liked to see something more contentious, as I don’t think the beats with his mother adds much to our understanding of either character. What would happen if this character ran into his Uncle Eddie again instead?

Scene and Summary: Most of the first and third sections of this are summary; a good portion of the second section is scene, which makes the second section feel faster-paced. I wonder if more scene in the last section would have made this story feel more “story-shaped.”

Style: Poetic, wistful, very much like the vignettes from The Sun. I’m not sure if this is an intentional riff on their house style, but it’s pretty effective, if so. And that’s not to cheapen the good writing here, which is precise, economical, and still emotional. I love “I wanted it constantly, with a dull ache that intermittently solidified into a hard, unbearable, need.”

Overall: I like a lot of this story, but it ultimately feels like a minor work. That’s mostly because the conflict is soft-pedaled for a lot of this story – it’s there (the tension between the way the character’s mother treats his dad), but it feels more like a distant concern than an immediate one, and the story loses focus because of it. And while the dad is a monster, and I suppose he was slayed by someone, the story doesn’t really fit the “slaying a monster” theme here.

Ironic Twist - Decontamination

”Aboutness”: Character is part of an elite squad of Fibs, which seem to be self-appointed ubermensch over a post-apocalyptic lake. Character is overpowered and left for dead. Story reckons with concepts of power and the right of control.

Character: We’re fixed pretty exclusively in our unnamed main character here, who is fairly hardened and above it all; they pride themselves on their stoicism and ability to make tough choices.

POV: First person present, which gives the story immediacy and a sense of being locked in to the character’s moral certainty.

Plot/Structure: The story here is a pretty straightforward narrative, just one long scene, but the context and stakes here are handled with a lot of subtlety; the complexity here comes from parsing what the photo means, the kind of agency and humanity that the flesh monster has, figuring out what kind of world this is. The effect is that the story rewards a couple of rereads, and it ultimately has a strong thematic core that supports these rereads, but it also means the story is somewhat frustrating and opaque on the first read.

Scene and Summary: The story is nearly all scene, except for when the character reflects on the role of the Fib. I like that this keeps long periods of exposition out of the story and keeps things moving along; given that this character seems to be trying to reflect as little as possible about their actions, it makes sense.

Style: Poetic and forceful. I wanted a little more clarity on what exactly the monster looked like – the photo clues us in that it’s human, or used to be, but “a flash of skin” and “pearlescent fleshy mouths” leaves things unclear on whether these things have bodies, if these are floating heads, or if they’re like, flesh jellyfish.

Overall: This story knows what it wants to be, half puzzle, half environmental disaster story. It reminded me of Jeff VanDerMeer’s Dead Astronauts, which I found similarly frustrating and rewarding. The competence of the story’s construction and the thematic work makes me like this story as a writer, but I don’t know if I love it as a reader.

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


in with near-future sci-fi

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


crits part 2

CaligulaKangaroo - Opening a Door

”Aboutness” Priest becomes demon hunter. There’s kind of a running theme here about feeling “out of place.”

POV: First person past, and the story is very much told in this retrospective style, with exact dates and all. I don’t love this, as it places a lot of distance from the events happening here. Sometimes the filter of distance allows this POV to capture a useful insight, but more often it stops me from being immersed on what’s actually happening.

Character: The only real significant character is Colin Mulvaney, the priest-out-of-water. There’s something here in the way he doesn’t seem quite comfortable anywhere he goes, but I wanted to know more about what he wanted, what was actually driving him, in a way this story doesn’t really touch on.

Scene and Summary: This is the story’s biggest weakness, in my opinion. Everything is summarized. Even in the last scene, where Colin confronts the khopesh, we have sentences like “The parishioners, many of whom had already been drained, made their way for the exit as I cut the air,” which is about the most passive possible way you could describe people escaping from a demon attack as your protagonist makes a move. But this is something of a scene, at least – the issue is earlier on, everything is a retroactive summary of a previous incident, with no hint of the actual scene encompassed by the summary - no sensory details, no events for us to be immersed in.

Plot/Structure: As above, there is a plot in this piece of the priest traveling from place to place, but I struggled to get invested without actual scenes or any real sense of stakes.

Style: I think this is well-written in that it’s clear and the sentences are evocative, but I really wish there had been less of a summarized travelogue and we could dive into actual events more clearly, with more detail. I liked “Seminary taught us that God speaks through gut instincts and flashes. The metaphor they often used was the magnetized puzzle. You still have to assemble it yourself, but all the pieces are pulled together.” a lot.

Overall: This left me pretty cold, although the other judges appreciated the adventure-story aspect of it. I just spent most of this story hoping for actual events to happen, and the emotion here left me wanting too.

Tyrannosaurus - black knights and dragons, girl

”Aboutness”: Racist uncle is dying and full of remorse. It’s about redemption.

POV: First person past, but a close first-person past. There’s a lot of voice here and it makes the story a joy to read – it’s lighter than you’d expect, considering the subject matter, but not flippant.

Character: Story focuses on a core dynamic between the protagonist and her uncle Beau. The co-judges felt that Beau was laid on a little thick; I disagree, and I like the way the story travels through a pretty wide emotional range of both character with just dialogue. There’s enough detail in just their dialogue to understand how they get along, how they both reckon with Beau’s racist past, and their thoughts on redemption.

Scene and Summary: This is kind of a master class in how you can convey a lot of backstory from scene, even if the scene here is mostly dialogue. You have a little bit of summary in the beginning, but we can fill it in just from the way these characters speak to each other.

Plot/Structure: Three scenes – the initial encounter, the follow-up later on while Uncle Beau’s watching NASCAR, and the last scene at the morgue. First scene sets up the characters and the themes, second scene complicates them, third scene ties things together. It’s satisfying and well-written.

Style: The style here is all the voice, and as I’ve mentioned, it’s very good. It’s interesting that the story contains a bunch of “said” synonyms and adverbs modifying dialogue, but I don’t find this distracting here; I think they appropriately establish emotion here. That said, I think there’s a sort of “preciousness” to the voice that rubbed some of the other judges the wrong way; for me, it landed on the right side of the line.

Overall: This is a great piece that fits the prompt well, delivering the kind of surge of emotion while also featuring a slain monster, and it was very close to getting the win this week. Ultimately, while this piece is very solid and genuinely made me feel things, the piece also felt somewhat safe. It’s absolutely a great, touching story about the potential for redemption, though, and I’m impressed at the emotional range it manages to cover.

Antivehicular - A Sword Called Deathwish

”Aboutness”: Woman is transported to alternative world through a magic sword. It’s about a need for love and connection.

POV: Close third person present. I wish it was closer, though – the POV here kind of feels like a motherly POV, the POV of someone who cares more about Erika than she cares about herself, and for a story that needs us to feel Erika’s loneliness and sense of not being loved, this takes away from the impact.

Character: This is mostly about Erika – her strange new friends are sort of characters, but the main thrust of this is the lonely, lost Erika. You do a good job sketching in how she got to this point, and it’s clear from the beginning that she’s really just seeking a place where she can feel appreciated, where she belongs.

Plot/Structure: This is why I’m not sure the structure of this works. The dragon suddenly appearing in the third act doesn’t give much of a reason for Erika to slay it, even with the idea that this is just part of the depression-sword. Actually, I found the third act pretty confusing, as it recasts this sword as actually something that’s trying to kill Erika – but she still manages to use it to slay the dragon, and it did bring her to the mysterious friends she’s found.

Scene and Summary: This is balanced well here. Longer sections of summary tend to include a glint of an actual moment or scene to make them more compelling; that said, I do think this story might be a little too balanced toward summary.

Style: Clear and well-written, but I wish the language was more emotional.

Overall: I think this piece is a little overstuffed to the detriment of its heart. We’re working with an unloving family, Erika bonding with her mysterious benefactors, a dragon hunt, her own mental health issues and self-hatred/shame, and there’s just not enough room in these 1,800 words for any of these individual things to bloom.

Thranguy - Scourge

”Aboutness”: Protagonist has escaped an abusive partner and childhood trauma of her cousin’s death. She takes revenge on the monster that killed her cousin. The story is about overcoming trauma.

POV: First person past, from what seems like a retroactive perspective from some point in the future. The tone is heavy with this sense of malaise, and the story leaps through time.

Character: I had a hard time telling the characters apart here, since two of them – Adam and Dylan – don’t actually appear in the story, so it was hard for me to remember their significance. Our main character doesn’t seem especially distinctive, and the main quality I know about her is that she’s dealt with a lot of loss in her life and that she doggedly pursued the truth about her cousin. Joshua is this character’s son and that’s about all we know about him.

Plot/Structure: This feels needlessly complicated. We have one level of this story with the character meeting with a therapist – who is named, but barely recurs after the first paragraph, and I have no idea how this relates to the end of the story in terms of time. Then we have this track of the character investigating the death of their cousin early in life, and this other track of her escaping from an abusive partner. I assume the monster she runs into at the end is what killed Dylan, but I’m not sure why people tried to cover this up when Dylan was killed, as the story doesn’t really give us clues.

Scene and Summary: Most of this story is summary except for the final confrontation, but with the structural confusion this story has, I don’t know if this makes too much of an impact.

Style: Clear on a sentence-to-sentence level; less clear on a paragraph-to-paragraph level.

Overall: I’m just confused at what’s actually happening in this story. I feel like the monster is kind of a metaphor here – like something that confronts anyone who tries to leave this town where all of this character’s trauma resides. That said, this story is so overstuffed with threads and characters that it’s hard to get a handle on this for sure. I like the risk-taking here, but it’s more confusing than successful here.

Sitting Here - Magical Nega-Girl: Triskelion!

”Aboutness”: Superheroes must save Nega-LA with the power of friendship. It’s about friendship.

POV: First person present, which works for telling a story about friendship and getting over yourself.

Character: We have this trio of Celeste, Olivia, and what I believe is the dread unnamed protagonist. I had trouble telling these characters apart. Olivia’s the responsible one, our protagonist is the apathetic one, and Celeste is… the other one. Well, she’s also the responsible one. But the protagonist is closer to Celeste because they share a childhood history.

Plot/Structure: This works for this sort of story – characters need to come together to fight the evil, and the story has them run into setbacks to get them to that point. It works!

Scene and Summary: All scene for the most part, to the story’s benefit. Like a superhero story should be, the story clips along through events and dialogue.

Style: Evocative and clear even with this goofy concept. The whole “hair corona” thing works well to tie things together.

Overall: This feels a bit like a gifted writer phoning it in (or running up against a challenging prompt), and the story feels a little too tongue-in-cheek for the heart to shine through. Olivia not really serving a purpose in this story other than a buffer is a big factor in this, I think. There’s definitely something there with the relationship between Protag and Celeste, but I think the story needs to press on the wounds a little harder. Which I guess is hard when you have to make room for giant magical monsters, as well.

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


Genre: near-future sci-fi; taboo words: Computer, internet, web, police, tech, online, corporation, war, virus, government

Open Book
1626 words

Annabeth was on hold with Fullheart, hoping to talk to an actual human about taking that nasty “dating profile” down, while her daughter Madeline scurried about her, filling boxes with Jeff’s things. Annabeth scowled at an imitation Faberge egg as Madeline placed it delicately into a cotton-padded box. Jeff had been just fascinated with those things. Those gaudy things. But she’d gotten him the second-most-inexpensive one she found on the TV shopping channel, and still, still!, he’d gone and found himself a new woman on Fullheart.

“Be careful with that,” she said to Madeline, as she sealed the box. Madeline pursed her lips. A warning. This whole don’t forget, we’re on thin ice thing she’d been doing. It was part of her “empowered” schtick, ever since Madeline’s own divorce—now, she would let no petty grievance lie. This afternoon alone, she’d told Annabeth to stop “guilt tripping,” all because she’d asked her when she’d last spoken to her father. “No, never mind. Do whatever you want,” Annabeth appended, which didn’t seem to change Madeline’s expression.

The hold music abruptly cut off. “Thanks for being patient,” the kid on the other end of the line said. “Can you tell me a little more about why you’re unsatisfied with your Fullheart profile?”
This was what the algorithm had generated for Annabeth:

Annabeth here! Even at fifty-seven, I can still have a good time. I love to play piano, make a cocktail (or three!), and I don’t mind a little bit of gossip. I’ve got a bit of a temper, but you could call me a “fun” divorcee. Don’t be shy!

She hadn’t written this—God, she would never. No, the geniuses at Fullheart had found some way to generate dating profiles for each of the world’s six billion adults. They’d even found this hideous picture of her from a friend’s wedding, her face flushed, this dumb clueless smile on her face, Jeff just out-of-frame.

“I’m not interested in dating,” she said, “and if I was, I certainly wouldn’t want to tell everyone I’m drunk and easy.”

“Here at Fullheart, we like to encourage folks to listen to their inner voice. Sometimes people are surprised at their inner voice. It’s like when we listen to a recording of our own voice. It can feel like an unwelcome shock, but it’s still us.”

Annabeth took a deep breath. She worked for a call center once and she felt for the kid, stuck in front of a script to regurgitate the company line for whoever Fullheart had offended today. “Remove me. Please.”

“I’m hearing that you’d like to be removed. So what I can do is escalate this request to the proper team here, and they’ll get back to you with next steps.”

“And then they’ll remove me?”

“Well, I can’t speak to their process, but here at Fullheart, customer satisfaction is a priority.”

“But I’m not a customer. I never asked to be part of this.”

“We find that most people are happiest when they don’t go looking for a connection. When it just finds them instead. But like I said, the proper team should be able to review this and they’ll do everything they can to resolve this situation.”

And after thirty minutes on hold, he cut the line, and her profile was still out there for anyone to look at. You couldn’t even edit a Fullheart profile. Annabeth swore. If her husband hadn’t bothered with this app, hadn’t found that awful woman (“She’s my soul mate,” he’d said, cloyingly sincere in a way that left her curdled and sour), she never would have looked into Fullheart, never would have figured out that they had her number dialed.

She wanted a martini, but she didn’t want to prove them right, so she bustled into the kitchen looking for Madeline. There were so many boxes stacked there, great heaving towers of her husband’s detritus, and Madeline busying herself between them like a carpenter ant.

“They won’t take it down,” she said to Madeline. It came out like a challenge, and when Madeline frowned, Annabeth felt a fresh bloom of indignation—you’re an adult, don’t take it so personally.

“Sorry. You could try living with it. I do.”

“What’s yours say?”

Madeline shrugged. “It doesn’t matter.”

“No, I want to know. Show me. Please.”

“Mom. I’m not going to do this. It’s not healthy. You’re going to say that I got lucky, and you… you’re uniquely disadvantaged. And I don’t think that’d be a productive conversation.”

Madeline was seeing a therapist, Annabeth knew. She never talked about it. Not to her. Oh, she’d mentioned it to Jeff, though; the way the two of them would sit together, murmuring, cozy and close, sticky with that balm of nice words and blaming other people when you felt bad.

“Okay,” Annabeth said, changing tack. “I feel upset when a dating service tells the whole world I love alcohol and that I like ‘fun.’ Those horrible quotation marks. I know what that means.”

Madeline struggled with a packing tape roller. An unflattering grimace crossed her face as she tried to sever the ream of tape. “Let’s say you could have it say whatever you want. What would you put up there?”

“I wouldn’t be up there at all.”

“But if you had to choose. If you had to.”

“Grandma seeks peace, solitude and two cats.”

Madeline picked up a bulging, overstuffed box and carried it out the front door, and Annabeth followed her, hoisting one of Jeff’s ugly paisley rugs over her shoulder. The air was hot and sticky—the eleventh day of a heat wave with no end in sight. “You like playing piano, right?”

“I do.”

“And you like making cocktails. You used to make one every night. Sometimes more than one.”

Annabeth wanted to cut this off at the root. She lay the ugly rug in the backseat of Madeline’s sedan. “It’s not about truth. When I dated your father, I certainly didn’t tell him that I love to get loaded before our first date.”

“And look how that turned out.”

“Watch your tone. Your father’s decision to shack up with some other woman is on him.”

Madeline heaved her box into the trunk. “I don’t need your help, Mom. Why don’t you go fix yourself a day-drink?”

God, if Annabeth had spoken to her mother that way, even as an adult, she’d never escape the shame of it. But she was going to be better, she wasn’t going to be the monster that Madeline and Jeff and loving Fullheart thought she was.

She let Madeline handle the boxes herself, then, but she wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of seeing her drinking. Instead she went to the study and pulled out her tablet. Her email had two hundred eighty-one Fullheart messages. Washed-up men who’d struck out on the younger, less broken-sounding women. She didn’t bother reading them.

But she pulled up the app itself and searched for Madeline. What kind of words had it put in her mouth?

If your landlord’s giving you a hard time, I’d be happy to help you out (don’t call it legal advice, though!) Or if you make a good pecan pie and you don't mind sharing the recipe. Proud single mom!

Annabeth scoffed. So virtuous. She didn’t sound like the washed-out dregs of a book club. She searched for Jeff next:

Not sure what I’m looking for on here, or if I belong here at all. I like books about history, dogs, and Bergman films, but there isn’t a lot that makes me happy. I think I might have found someone who does. Please don’t be offended if I don’t respond.

She threw the tablet at a wall, but the gadget couldn’t hit with the right angle, so the thunk wasn’t even satisfying. It was more of a pathetic woomph.

She would not cry.

Madeline opened the door, carrying a box in each hand. “Are you okay?”

“This app. Who even wanted this app?” She was crying now, God, and once she’d gotten the tightness in her throat, she knew it was going to be one of those hideous sobbing sessions. Like Jeff’s. Nothing she said or did could stop them, and she’d been a rock for him, she’d been there, available, and he’d just kept crying. And she’d kept all of it inside. Until now.

“Dating was worse before,” Madeline said. “Everyone was trying to be the same person.”

Annabeth let out this tiny, pathetic noise, hating that it could escape her.

The boxes fell from Madeline’s hands, and Annabeth heard the faint shattering sound. The second-least expensive egg. Madeline hurriedly bent down the pick up. But then Madeline’s arms were around Annabeth.

It was like drinking a glass of ice water.

Annabeth forced the sobs back into her chest. “I don’t know why people who aren’t dating—who are already in relationships—are on there. It’s obscene. Someone should shut them down.”

Madeline rose and frowned. “Can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. Can’t uncrack the egg. Even if we’d like to.”

“Your father loves that egg.”

“Well, it’s not in his profile.”

Annabeth laughed, despite herself. The heat from outside was creeping into the study.

“Come on,” Madeline said. “If you want to help, you’re welcome to.”

What an honor, Annabeth thought. To carry Jeff’s things out to her daughter’s car!

But she was old enough to not let a second (third? fourth? three thousandth?) chance when it was offered. She nodded, wiped her face, and picked up the boxes from the floor.

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


in

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


Hashbrowns
795 words

Poison in the water! That’s why I plucked my son out of middle school and threw him in the back seat of my car — we were going to wait this out in the town I grew up in.

“Who do you think did it?” I asked Jeremy, as we drove through a dusty desert road.

“Well,” he said, looking at his phone, “there’s three main theories. The first is that it’s Ann Orchis.”

“Anarchists?”

“Yeah, that. The second is that a group of teenagers were kissing by the reservoir, and one of them accidentally kicked a can of stry — starch-a-nine — into the water.”

“Strychnine.”

“Sure. And the last theory is that no one ever poisoned the water. The theory is that we just have a different relationship to water than we used to.” He rolled down the window and stuck his arm out, to flap in the wind. “I don’t get that one.”

“You’ll get it when you’re older,” I told him, even though the words rolled off my brain like water on a windshield. We drove in silence for a while, then I put on some music — Jim Croce, one of my favorites.

We listened to my playlist, which had eight different live recordings of “Leroy Brown,” but on the third one, Jeremy begged me “Please, Dad, can we listen to literally anything else?” So we listened to the radio. There was this talk radio station where a man was talking about the poisoning.

“We’re all poisoned,” the man said. I liked the tone of his voice; it reminded me of my dad, smooth but overcharged. “We’ve all been poisoned with television. Snack food. Self-checkout stations in grocery stores. But now that it’s strychnine, everyone is suddenly upset.”

“He’s so smart,” Jeremy said.

On the side of the road there was a sign:

VIVIAN’S DINER

“Best Hash Brown’s In The State!”


I had to stop. My dad and I had gone to Vivian’s whenever he let me ride with him in his truck. Those visits were some of the fondest memories I had with him — shoveling down the potatoes until my stomach hurt, while my dad kept ordering more servings. I wanted Jeremy to have the same experience. “You hungry, bud?” I asked him.

***

People were sitting in hushed little circles at Vivian’s. Folks fleeing the poisoning, just like Jeremy and myself. I winked at a family huddling over their prize: a tower of bottled water.

“Dad,” Jeremy said, “you think they’ll fix things?”

I wasn’t sure. The whole process of getting poison into water seemed pretty self-explanatory, but getting it out? That seemed more challenging. “Sure, buddy,” I said. “You can fix basically everything these days.”

The waitress looked tired, like she’d been up for three days. I ordered four orders of hashbrowns and two cups of coffee.

“We don’t have water right now, so we’ll have to make your coffee with V-8 or seltzer,” the waitress said.

“One of each.” If Jeremy tried to grab the one with seltzer, I would insist he drink the juice-coffee — it seemed like this was the sort of thing that built character. I needed him to understand that, just because we lived in strange times, it didn’t mean anything had changed. I was the father, and he was the son.

When the coffee arrived, Jeremy declined both mugs, but I still made him sit in front of the one that smelled like tomatoes.

***

Two miles away from my hometown, I slammed on the brakes hard. A blockade of people had formed in the street.

“Stop!” said the blockade’s leader. She was wearing a pair of cat ears, and she looked only a few years older than Jeremy. “We’re checking everyone for bottled water.”

I hadn’t brought any. Personally, I was hoping the water thing was localized — clearly I was wrong. I stepped out of the car with my hands up. “Sorry, folks, we’re fresh out,” I said, “but there’s a diner a few miles up the road with a lot of V-8.”

Cat Ears scoffed at me. “You don’t know anything, do you? About the poisoning of the water.”

“There’s three theories,” Jeremy said. “Theory one—”

“All theories are wrong.”

“So what’s the real story?”

It was dark by now. The stars were out in full — we were far enough away from the city that you could see the Milky Way. I thought about how small and insignificant we were. And oddly enough, I thought about my dad. What would he have thought? I think he would have relished the chance to eat some hashbrowns and spend some quality time with his son.

“Say,” I said, “do you folks like Jim Croce?”

“No,” said Cat Ears.

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


pramp't

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


I'm third judge

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


week 418 crits

Chopstick Dystopia - “Authentic Los Angeles Ramen”

Have I seen the movie? - Blade Runner: I’ve watched the first fifteen minutes twice

Enji Kato serves ramen to a tourist and comes to reconsider the concept of authenticity. I liked this. The prose is a highlight here, intertwined with the POV to capture this kind of weary melancholy, and the imagery is precise and striking. Even in the short form, there’s a sense of plot, in the way Enji reconsiders authenticity here. And I like how there’s a lot going on here; even with the tight wordcount, the story weaves together Enji’s ennui with his wife’s moodlink and this almost mundane day in the life of the ramen place. I also appreciate how this story isn’t tied to the events of the film, but instead just uses its world for context.

MockingQuantum - “Jones the Cat, as played by Werner Herzog”

Have I seen the movie? - Alien: nope!

Cat muses about the approach of a space cat. This is not really a story, but I’m mostly OK with that, since the writing is fun, clever, and lively. “They are right, to see me a necessary symbol to sustain their humanity, and to treat me like a treasured relative and appease me with food and scratches from their impressively dextrous and deliciously fleshy fingers” – that’s good stuff! I think making the cat more involved with events would give this more of a story-shape. Not having seen this movie yet, I figure that this story is mostly tracing the events of the movie, and I feel like this prompt is asking for something more ambitious and divergent (but I’ll let the more culturally literate other judges make that call.) As it stands, this is fun to read, but feels like a pretty minor piece.

Something Else - “Busted!”

Have I seen the movie? - Ghostbustster: Perhaps the most shameful one here – I’ve only seen the remake.

So this is the story about some hapless clown masquerading as a Ghostbuster who gets caught, stands up for himself, and turns into a ghost. I’m wondering if I’m missing important context for the clown / father here. The prose is nice, and the piece is well-paced, although I’m left wondering how/when the clown died (a reread makes it clearer that he gets hit by a bus), and I don’t think there’s a lot of depth here. There’s some interesting character work with the clown, although it all feels a bit “arch,” tongue-in-cheek, which makes it hard to take seriously.

Simply Simon - “Bill’s Secret”

Have I seen the movie? - Groundhog Day. Nope!

Not a huge fan of this. The tone seems to weave all over the place – one moment it seems to be this kind of melancholy longing, another moment it seems to be black humor, and, worst of all, it kind of settles in this over-the-top satirical mood. The choice to tell this story in second person amplifies this tonal issues; the piece often feels like it’s sneering at this character, which I guess makes sense for the internalized homophobia he’s dealing with, but it makes the piece unpleasant to read. I didn’t hate this, as I think there’s useful bits of character work here, but this is definitely in my lower bucket.

Saucy_Rodent - “Clavius”

Have I seen the movie? - 2001: A Space Odyssey. Yep!

The starving residents of the moon base Clavius are starving and make several appeals for their rescue. I think this is handled well, but I found it a little hard to follow. Who’s speaking in the section where they read the statement reminding them of their mission? How’d this group arise in defiance of the leadership council? It was confusing how we went from that to the guy who communicated with the Soviets leading the group. But on the whole, this works: events happen, things change, there are stakes, the ending wraps things up.

a friendly penguin - “Everyone Wants Something”

Have I seen the movie? - The Big Lebowski. Nope.

Marty the landlord is so busy making repairs that he has no time to practice his music, and even his day off is interrupted. This is the first piece this week where I feel like I’m missing something important due to not seeing the movie, as this just doesn’t feel like a story to me. I found myself not caring about Marty the landlord here or whether he’d have an audience at the end – there’s just not enough context in this story to give it to us, and the story ends on this note of “welp, here’s another person that doesn’t care,” and it makes me wonder what the point of this story is. What does it matter that Marty is searching for profundity but doesn’t find it? I think for this story to work for me, I’d need to have a clearer answer to this question than “nothing matters.”

crabrock - “Jurrear endic Park”

Have I seen the movie? - Jurassic Park. Yes, but it doesn’t really matter.

Ray’s son doesn’t hang onto his rear end. This is goofy and fun, but very silly. I guess that’s what the story is attempting to do, but there’s not a whole lot of “there” there. I smiled! This is a sitcom beat turned into a story, though, high camp and mostly vamping on one joke. The blow-up gloves as a substitute butt is a nice touch, though.

Tyrannosaurus - “Salieri Stopped Writing in 1804, or the Three Seasons of an Assassin”

Have I seen the movie? - Amadeus. Half of it!

Vogler poisons Mozart so that his son won’t be castrated, and then he breaks Saleiri’s fingers. This is fun to read and skillful on a technical level, and the specific cultural details sketch in Vogler well; I think this story does a good job at balancing different aspects of Vogler’s interests and sympathies. I guess I feel like the story is a little overstuffed here – we begin with Vogler’s sympathies and desire to protect his son, we’re led to understand that he’s being put in an impossible position here, but then the ending has almost nothing to do with this. I mean, I do like the irony of the son become a priest, but I think the thrust of the story turning to “Vogler appreciates music” makes the story feel a little scattered.

Thranguy - “Nina, Who Clowned on Charles Barkley”

Have I seen the movie? - Space Jam. Technically yes, though I remember almost none of it.

Nina thinks about how her experience clowning on Charles Barkley will set her up for life. Given the constraints of this flash rule, the prose here is good, clear, but this isn’t really a story. And that’s understandable – Nina’s just thinking about the endless potential offered by this unusual moment. And there’s actually a poignancy here, which is awesome in this Space Jam story without the most common words in the language.

AstronautCharlie - “We’re All Staying Late”

Have I seen the movie? - Die Hard. No, but I know it’s actually a Christmas movie.

Maria is asked to work while being taken hostage, so she kills her boss, and her other co-workers don’t care. There are absolutely some great passages in this story capturing how Maria feels ground-down by her office culture, but unfortunately the story really suffers from tone problems. I think this story is attempting to go for satirical, but in making Maria conscious of her impending death – and having her really consider the consequences of this – the tone becomes much more serious. That means that the absurdist satire of this workaholic culture doesn’t really work for me. It feels like it’s operating on a different level, on a story that doesn’t ask us to care intimately for Maria. It’s the kind of satire that works best when all characters are broad and larger than life.

Noah - “Ebb”

Have I seen the movie? - Forrest Gump. Yes!

Carol Williams thinks about how he will get cut from the football team and lose his scholarship, and then it happens. This is one of several stories this week where we kind of just hang around in the character’s head for a while. I think the characterization here is nice. The story does a good job at stacking up all these petty insults, all this motivation behind Carol… and then it just doesn’t go anywhere. As a reader, I wanted to see him do something surprising, something that moved him past his spot of self-hatred, and we just didn’t see that here.

CaligulaKangaroo - “A Few More Guys Like Batman”

Have I seen the movie? - The Dark Knight, yep!

Unemployed worker in Gotham attempts to fight crime and fails. I think what this story is trying to capture is how tough it is to make a living when comic-book crime and crime fighting can interrupt your day at any time. Unfortunately, like most of the stories this week, this piece has tone issues. I don’t think there are enough jokes in this piece for “over the top and silly” to land, but this character ends up losing his assault on crime because – because he thinks about his last job for too long while facing off against criminals? Why does our unnamed protagonist go along with this? There’s some energy in this piece, which I appreciated, but mostly this left me disoriented and confused.

AlmightyDerelict - “A Most Troubling Offer”

Have I seen the movie? - Fellowship of the Ring, I have!

Farmer Maggot scares hobbits off his farm, is asked to betray hobbits but doesn’t. This wasn’t the roughest flash rule this week but I can definitely see it hemming this story in; it wants to get inside Farmer Maggot’s internal life but can’t. The effect is that the story doesn’t have a great deal of impact. We don’t understand if there’s any sort of conflict at Barliman’s – my instinct is that there’s not and this is a clear decision, but that means that this story doesn’t really have a lot of lasting conflict. I wanted higher stakes, and I also wanted a conflict that was more distinct from the movie than this was.

cptn_dr - “A Drop of Roberts’ Blood”

Have I seen the movie? I’ve seen scenes, but never the whole thing.

Dread Captain Roberts’ pirates talk about how they’re hungry and wonder where Dread Captain Roberts is. I like this because it has energy and life to it, but it’s a story about pirates sitting around and chatting. And it’s got that Princess Bride narration to it, which, again, is lively and makes this piece fun to read, but it also means this piece isn’t really settling its own ground, and feels more fan-fictiony. And it’s absolutely doing a good job at that! It’s just not really what this prompt was looking for.

sparksbloom fucked around with this message at 14:42 on Aug 11, 2020

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


in! and I'd like an ingredient

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


ingredient: cinnamon

Real Cinnamon
1994 words

Kasia is pulling a tray of cinnamon buns out of the oven when Joshua, the kitchen manager, walks in, new girl in tow. Kasia feels a little thrill of satisfaction—to greet the girl with the nearly overpowering scent of cinnamon and butter, each pastry golden-brown and glistening with crystallized sugar. Three months ago, she couldn’t make banana bread. A sheet of steaming, alluring, perfectly baked buns always makes her well up with pride. But the girl doesn’t even look at Kasia; she’s staring up at the spice rack, muttering words under her breath.

“Kasia, you meet Greta yet?” Joshua said. “She’ll be picking up your openings. You’ll grab my closings—you’ll get to sleep in now.” He says it like it’s a treat, but Kasia frowns. She’s seen Joshua with this girl before—at one of the gigs for Joshua’s band, where this tall, blue-eyed Nordic girl kissed him deeply. She feels like she’s being replaced. There’s something mundanely sacred about their routine. Joshua rolls in at 6 AM, and they work in efficient, companionable near-silence, brushing muffins with lemon glaze, stuffing hand pies with butternut squash and spinach, layering the brioche buns with sharp cheddar and sun-dried tomatoes.

“Oh—those edges look a little dark,” Greta says, walking past the cinnamon buns. Kasia squints, and goddammit, she’s right.

***

A month later, Kasia wants to stuff Greta in the oven. When Greta opens, every popover is risen, billowing and custardy, and there are no scorch marks on the vanilla-quince tarts. Joshua had told her “it happens” when she’d hosed up her first batch of tarts, and Kasia believed him—but Greta is proof that it doesn’t happen to everyone. Joshua will never put Kasia back on the opening shift now. Even the macarons come out perfectly. Not a single cookie broken.

But everyone notices that there’s something that Greta’s done to the cinnamon rolls. The bakery always sold out of them, but now they’re selling out in fifteen minutes, and what’s worse, Kasia can’t tell what Greta changed. They’re just better. And because Greta never ruins them, there’s never rejects to sample, so Kasia never understand why.

Soon Kasia isn’t doing any baking at all. When she comes in, there’s nothing left to do. She’s just cleaning up crumbs. Mopping up spills. Prepping vegetables. “You’re so diligent,” Greta says, leaning against the counter while Kasia rubs a Brillo pad along a crumb-encrusted muffin tin.

***

One afternoon, after Kasia mops the whole bakery, even the walk-in fridge, Joshua waits for her outside the door.

“Bad time?” he says. Kasia shrugs. “Let’s take a walk,” he says. They follow the bike path that picks up at the edge of the bakery’s parking lot. Joshua is less himself in the light of day; in the kitchen, there’s this benevolent menace to him, this sense that he’ll be equally likely to bequeath praise or criticism. Out of the bakery, he’s more aware that people are afraid of him, with his face tattoos and a hulking six-foot frame. He keeps his head down when cyclists pass.

“What’s going on? You’re not firing me, are you?” She hates herself for being so insecure, but in the face of Joshua’s silence all the static in her rises to the surface. loving Greta—like some Swedish Mary Poppins, she’s brought all of Kasia’s imperfections into harsh relief.

“No, this isn’t actually about you.” It’s not caustic. Just matter-of-fact. A couple of cyclists zip by, and Joshua tugs down his baseball cap. “My kid’s sick. I’m going down to Iowa for a while.”

“Who’s going to be in charge of the kitchen?” She says it too fast and knows it’s the wrong tack. But Joshua’s face doesn’t change.

“You’ve got a lot of potential, kid,” he says. “You’re going to go back to school in a few years, right?”

It’s Greta. Goddammit.

***

To replace Joshua, Greta hires Tuva, another woman that looks exactly like her—same pale angel-food hair, towering height, glinting blue eyes. Greta insists they aren’t related but Kasia can’t tell them apart, even after a week. And Tuva’s just as speedy and perfect as her doppelgänger. They bake everything with unbelievable swiftness while Kasia chops garlic, chives, and rhubarb. And then they leave together and leave the dishes and cleanup for Kasia.

She goes out drinking with the kids from the front-of-house. One of them asks her why she doesn’t quit.

“Because I was getting better,” Kasia says. “But they just didn’t give me time to get better enough.”

The front-of-house kids nod in sympathy and sip their beers. There’s a heaping pile of nachos at the corner of the table, and she takes a chip loaded with cheese, sour cream, and two pickled jalapeños. Everyone laughs when she coughs and chugs water afterward—too many seeds. It’s a good laugh. She’s sentimental. She should find something better, but as long as she’s working mostly with people she likes, isn’t that enough?

***

To pass time while she cleans up messes, Kasia develops a Theory. The Theory is that Greta is a witch. It’s said in jest, but as soon as the idea’s in her head, Kasia sees it everywhere. Alchemical mischief? Check. As Greta leans over Tuva’s shoulder to finish the cinnamon buns, she pulls out an unmarked bottle and sprinkles a powder over them. The kitchen’s aroma changes, from the too-rich buttery scent to something sweeter and enveloping, like walking into Kasia’s favorite grandmother’s kitchen.

Real cinnamon,” Greta says, catching Kasia staring. Kasia doesn’t buy it for a moment.

And then one day Kasia is taking inventory of the bakery while Greta preps the espresso-glazed mocha muffins. Inside the walk-in freezer, Tuva is laying prone on a shelf, just beside a ham hock. Still. Sleeping? Kasia grasps her wrist and there’s a pulse, at least—very slow but purposeful, like funeral bells. She slaps Tuva’s cheeks, but she doesn’t wake.

Kasia’s not the world’s strongest person, but she can at least hoist Tuva onto her feet, and then drag her out of the freezer into the fridge. The heels of Tuva’s boots scrape across the concrete floor.

Kasia stumbles out and nearly knocks Greta over as she shoves the walk-in door open. Greta opens her mouth, but then an oven timer goes off, and Greta vanishes. Kasia kneels down and puts her hand on Tuva’s forehead, which is still icy-cold to the touch. But Tuva’s face has changed; where it once matched Greta’s exactly, her eyes are now a chocolate-brown, her nose is piggish and upturned.

Greta towers over them. “She takes forever to prep,” Greta says. “You shouldn’t have moved her.”

Kasia gapes. Greta crouches, peers into Tuva’s nostrils, shrugs, then pulls Tuva’s body over her shoulder and yanks open the fridge door.

***

That night Kasia calls Joshua. The front-of-house kids would love a scandal, and she could escalate to the bakery’s owner—on the rare day that she was around—but she really just needs to hear Joshua’s voice. She knows it’s selfish, that he’s probably focusing on his sick kid and the last thing he wants is to hear from the incompetent baker from the job he left behind. But ultimately, she just wants to know what he saw in Greta.

The phone rings and rings and rings. Kasia isn’t sure if he’s busy attending to his son or maybe Greta’s gotten to him. He had to have eaten some of her baking. Inhaled the fumes of Greta’s cinnamon. And in all likelihood they’d gotten a lot closer.

On the twelfth ring she hangs up, her hands shaking with a rage she didn’t know she felt. Not at Greta, not at Joshua—but at herself, for sticking around too long for $12 an hour. She decides that she won’t go to work the next day, and that she’ll figure out the consequences.

***

Sleeping in has never been harder. She’s not the type to quit without notice; she tosses and turns in her bed, wondering what Greta will think, wondering how she’ll pay rent. A little past noon, her doorbell rings, and when she opens the door, it’s Greta. Or Tuva. Or—Kasia supposes it could be anyone.

But she guesses that it’s Greta when the woman speaks. “Let’s take fika,” Greta says, and without invitation, she bustles up the stairs to Kasia’s apartment. From her purse she retrieves two little white bags from the bakery, with a cinnamon bun in each. “Will you make coffee?”

Kasia should kick her out. She wants to. There’s so much she can do, now that she’s thrown away her job—nothing obligates her to give the witch any more of her time. And yet she’s curious. She wants to know what happens. So she sets the coffee pot running and turns to Greta. “I’m not coming to work,” she says.

“We need you,” Greta says, in this thin sort of way that makes Kasia feel like she’s the victim of a joke. Greta opens Kasia’s cabinets, inspecting the items in her pantry. Kasia hasn’t gone shopping for a while—for months, she’s been subsisting on the things that didn’t sell at the end of the day. (Which, since Greta arrived, hasn’t been much.) “You don’t bake at home.”

“I keep it professional.” Kasia pours a mug of coffee for both of them. They sit at Kasia’s dinner table, a cinnamon bun in front of each of them. It’s somehow still hot, its warm, inviting fragrance filling the air of Kasia’s spartan apartment.

“I’m sorry you saw Tuva on her day off. She’s more efficient than you, but she needs to rest to keep her shape.” She laughs. “I guess we all do. I think you are upset that you don’t get to bake things anymore, no? But clearly you are not interested in making the pastries.”

Kasia sips her mug, shakes her head. She knows she shouldn’t eat the cinnamon bun, but it’s so fluffy and inviting, and the scent of it is hitting the exact same part of her brain that lights up when someone rakes their fingernails across the back of her neck. “Really, I’m over it. Sorry to leave you short-staffed.”

“Well, this is the issue,” Greta says. “Tuva and I, we cook good, but we do not know how to clean.”

“I’ve noticed.”

“So your leaving will not be acceptable. I have heard of the health inspectors. You’re not eating your kanelbulle.”

Kasia crosses her arms. “Pay me double for two weeks and I’ll teach you everything you need to know.”

Greta shakes her head, just once — that’s not acceptable and you know that. But Kasia’s stomach is rumbling and somehow the kanelbulle is in her hand. She hears Joshua’s voice in her head: you’ve got a lot of potential, kid. She thinks about mopping the floors, scrubbing those infernally crusted brownie pans, her only solace getting drunk with the gossipy baristas while she stinks of mopwater and cinnamon.

She looks at the irresistible cinnamon bun in her hand and she resists. She tosses it on the ground and says “Get out of my house.”

And, to her surprise, Greta does. She folds her hands and curtsies, leaves her uneaten cinnamon bun on the plate and walks down the steps without another word.

The smell of both cinnamon buns is still tickling the animal part of Kasia’s brain, but she picks both buns up and tosses them in the garbage. In the mirror above the kitchen sink, she swears she sees a stranger—a woman that looks just like her, but with blue eyes. And then the woman vanishes, and it’s just Kasia, wondering what she’ll do next and hoping that it’s not eating pastries out of the trash.

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


For this week I will be in.

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


Contributor

QuoProQuid

Genre:

Horror

Protagonist attribute:

A simulacrum of a person

Protagonist obstructor:

Her partner/creator

What the protagonist wants:

Escape

Story setting:

On Earth, and it's the near future

Setting details:

Rural Midwestern America in the near future

World problem:

People can recreate dead loved ones (or a close approximation) via robotics or some poo poo like that

Your protagonist...

Is in denial of what they want

Your protagonist's attribute...

Develops/changes in the course of hindering them from getting what they want

Your protagonist's obstructor...

Doesn't seem so bad, then it gets worse

At the end of the story...

The world problem makes itself worse, The world problem is not solved, and will get worse

A Head Full of Filth
2232 words

Gemma doesn’t want me to watch the tapes anymore. “You don’t need them, Rose,” she says. “I know you don’t believe me, but you can make your own thoughts.”

I’m glad Gemma’s here to help with the garden, because otherwise I’d be lonely when Eugene was off at the pig farm. But I’m tired of Gemma talking about unpleasant things. I can only fit so many thoughts in my head, and I need to keep Eugene happy. Eugene says I’m not a curious woman, and I trust him, because without Eugene’s stories and his tapes, I wouldn’t remember anything. Whenever Gemma says these nasty things, they get into my head and push all the important things out. I wish she’d stick to the garden, to the planting schedules of the annuals; the begonias, the geraniums, the sage. Eugene’s glad I have a hobby and a companion.

“That’s enough,” I tell her. She’s holding a spade in her hand, looking off across our neighbor’s fallow soybean field, landing on the barn with the peeling paint. The skin on her hand is flaking off, and there’s this grey mesh pattern underneath. She’s not blinking. She does this. Eugene says it’ll happen to me, if he’s not there to fill me with pure thoughts and remind me of who I’m supposed to be. Gemma’s husband died, so she doesn’t have anyone to take care of her thoughts.

And then Gemma kneels down again and starts digging a space for the marigolds. It’s a relief to see her move again. “You had a moment,” I tell her.

She shakes her head. “Will you let yourself close your eyes?”

“Eugene only wants me to see good things and have good thoughts.”

Gemma’s quiet, and a sweeping gust of wind rattles the trees. “Maybe that’s what I want for you, too.”

***

When Eugene comes home, I kiss him more deeply than I usually do. I want him to take the rot in my head that Gemma’s put there. The unclean ideas. Not watching the tapes. Closing my eyes. That’s not healthy — I need them to remember who I’m supposed to be. But it would probably be OK because Eugene is so good at telling stories. It’s his night to make dinner, and he boils a pot of rice with a single chicken cube while a rack of ribs roasts in the oven. He hoists himself onto the counter like a boy, although he’s nearly sixty and I know the effort hurts his back.

He tells me about our honeymoon. Thailand. Sairee Beach. The ocean was the bluest blue, and he carried me on his shoulders for a mile, just so I could see all the islands in the distance. I loved it a lot, he tells me. “It’s the happiest I’ve ever seen you, Rosie.” It doesn’t make sense. How could he see me if I was on his shoulders? But Eugene has all the memories and they don’t fit in my head, unless he stuffs them back in there, with his stories, the tapes, and, of course, the roleplay sessions.

But Eugene’s been losing his patience. After I’ve cleaned up the pork fat and scraped the stuck-on rice from the pot, he comes up behind me, kissing my neck, rubbing his hands on my belly. I try to do the things he’s told me to do — making the noises that are high-pitched but not too high-pitched, hiding the ugly birthmark on my right arm from him as I undress, kneeling down to unzip and unbutton his pants. I run my hand down his exposed back. But Eugene tenses up when my hand reaches his behind. “She doesn’t touch me like that,” Eugene says. He hits me across the face. I’m stunned, and then I’m tearing up, and the intense look in his eyes softens for a second. But then he locks up again.

“She likes that. You’re supposed to like that. You need to study the tapes a little more,” he says, “and then you’ll be good.”

He shakes his head when I go to put my clothes back on. He leads me to the TV room. It used to be a walk-in closet, but now it’s got a thirteen-inch CRT TV, a little pink cushion for sitting on, and dozens and dozens of VHS tapes. Eugene points his flashlight at the tapes and selects one he likes. He puts it in the TV and stands behind me.

I don’t think it’s one I’ve seen before, but I forget the tapes so quickly that I’m not sure. TV-Eugene holds the TV-me by the neck and hits her hard across the eyes.

“Do you like that?” the TV-Eugene says.

“I love it,” TV-me says, her voice low and cracked.

Behind me, Eugene rewinds the tape. He plays the same thirty seconds. He rewinds again.

I can hear Eugene’s shallow breathing, and for the first time I remember what Gemma said. I feel filthy, and I close my eyes.

***

Gemma touches the bruise on my cheek the next day. She’s not supposed to touch me. It’s one of the things Eugene makes sure is in my head every day—“only I can touch you.” But there is a traitorous part of me, and it needs her tenderness.

“Did you look away?” Gemma says. We’re planting new perennials today. Black-eyed susans.

I don’t say anything. I like the way that the ground gives when I force the shovel down. I relish the smell of the dirt.

“Rose. Hey, hey, can you listen to me? I want to know if you want to get away. I can help you.”

“I don’t need any help. I’m the happiest woman in the world. I could never be like you.” The soil slides off my shovel.

“What does that mean? ‘Like me?’”

“Full of wicked things. Nasty thoughts.” I know she thinks she’s better than me. That she keeps her head full on her own, that she doesn’t need Eugene to keep her in one piece. “It’s why you’re always freezing up. It’s why your insides are coming out.”

“Oh, Rose,” she says. “I’ve just been here a while. You’re a month old. I’ve been around for three whole years, living in this abomination of a body. We’re not supposed to exist at all. But if we’re going to exist, you shouldn’t have to live with that monster.”

“He’s not. He’s a good man. He has so much to teach me. About myself. About the world.”

Gemma doesn’t say anything. At first, I think she’s frozen, but her jaw is moving, and I think it means she’s trying to figure out what to say. That’s what I do when Eugene and I have finished our meals and I’m trying to make sure I don’t upset him.

Then she drops her spade. “Will you follow me?” she says. And because we’ve finished our planting for the day, I do. She crosses our neighbor’s abandoned soybean field. A hawk circles above us. Eugene says that means that there’s something dead nearby. He says there’s someone at the pig farm who’s paid just to shoot the circling birds.

When we reach the barn, Gemma says “This is where you were born. Do you remember?” I don’t. The barn isn’t on the tapes and Eugene doesn’t talk about it. It must not be a pure thought.

I turn around, but Gemma grabs my arm with one hand and touches the bruise on my face with the other. And then I feel something I’m not supposed to feel: anger.

“Don’t touch me.” I hit her across the face, just like Eugene’s taught me, but it barely connects. Still, Gemma freezes, her gaze down, her mouth agape.

A gust blows the barn door open. Immediately a wet, damp, rancid smell makes me gag. When I pull myself up, I can see inside the barn, and I retch again.

At least a dozen naked, headless bodies are stacked on top of each other, limbs limp and spilling every which way. On each body, there is a grey, fraying mesh on the neck where a head should be. Every corpse has a birthmark on her right arm. I touch my own arm without thinking about it, and then Gemma is beside me again. She squeezes my shoulder.

I’m creeping closer. The pile of flesh fills my head with so many rotten ideas and questions, and they push out all the tapes, everything Eugene has told me about myself. What is my name? Rose. Where do I come from? You were a beautiful woman that went away far too soon. Far too soon. Why do I live with Eugene?

There’s no answer.

I creep into the barn, and across from the piles of me, there’s an eight-foot-tall machine, a giant chrome vat attached to a more narrow chamber with a person-sized door. The chrome vat has a pull-out drawer at the bottom.

“There’s barns like this all over Indiana,” Gemma says. “But most people have more restraint.”

She walks over to the drawer, about to pull it out, but I say “No. Let me.”

I pull open the drawer and here are the heads; piles and piles of women with my face, brown eyes peering out unblinking. Half of them have broken noses. More than a few have split skulls. I touch the bruise on my cheek again, looking from head to head of all the selves that came before.

Who am I?

“How long have you known?”

Gemma doesn’t say anything for a while, and again, I think she’s frozen. I see the mesh lines running under her skin. She looks fragile. “There’s a new you every month. I keep trying to do something, but you—they—never listen.”

Then there’s a screech of pickup-truck brakes, and the door bursts open. Eugene, covered in a pig-blood stained uniform, is brandishing a shovel. “Rosie,” he says, “you’re not supposed to be here. This is an impure place.”

Gemma steps back, but this time she’s actually frozen. Her right foot dangles a few inches above the ground, mid-step, right before Eugene brings the shovel down on the crown of her head. When her skull splits, it oozes grey goo, and little spindles of wire and springs spill out onto the hay-strewn ground. Then Eugene turns to me. He takes a step toward me, and I take a step back, pressing up against the chrome vat. He twirls the shovel in his hand, then leans his weight on the shovel’s blade. He’s close enough that I can feel his breath when he exhales.

“She said she’d be good. Keep you happy,” Eugene says. “Lying bitch. I know she’s why the others started getting mouthy.” He reaches out and puts his palm on my face. “Oh, Rose, I’m so sorry she filled you with all these sinful thoughts. I don’t think hours of videos can get them out anymore.”

From under his apron, he pulls out a bloody knife. The thought is still in my head: he’s told me about the way they kill the pigs. They hang them by their legs and slice their throats and let them bleed out. I didn’t like that thought, even then. But for me to reject something Eugene said meant there was some impurity inside me.

“Please,” I say. “I know I’ve been bad. But please. Will you kiss me before you—”

He leans his head in, and at the same time he swings his weight around the shovel, slashing the knife sideways between my ribs. I gasp into his mouth, but he’s leaving me an opening. I heave all my weight at the shovel, and it topples backward, as Eugene spills forward into the pile of heads in the vat drawer.

I don’t waste any time—I slam the vat drawer. The drawer isn’t deep enough to fit his whole body, so his legs are kicking wildly, his boots windmilling as I shove the door closed again and again. The grey goo is dripping from my chest, and each breath is getting harder, but I can’t think of anything else. The only thought left is slamming this door, as Eugene’s very red blood coats my fingers.

And then I push hard enough that there’s a loud crack and a splintering noise, as one of his legs peels back, limp, like a banana peel. The other one is only twitching, now.

The machine vibrates, and a set of lights flick on, one by one. I’m lying on my back now, looking over at Gemma, whose eyes are still open. Frozen forever. I wonder where I’ll get my thoughts from, now that both Eugene and Gemma are gone. Who will tell me what thoughts are clean and which ones are impure? The machine makes a grinding noise, and both of Eugene’s legs cut clean, flopping down next to me.

Then the door on the tall, cylindrical part of the machine opens up, and a naked figure steps out. It’s mostly me, but there’s a heavy brow, some broader shoulders, and I know there’s something of Eugene in there. The stranger stands, looks around, acclimates to the air of the barn, stands unblinking.

“Hello,” I tell the stranger. “I’m Rose, and you’re my protector. You love me very much. You always have, and you always will.”

sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


In.

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sparksbloom
Apr 30, 2006


a couple of crits

Bird Tyrant - "The WinniSmooth Disaster"

This is a story about Raquel, who's gotten involved in a MLM-like hair-removal business. Her boss blackmails her by telling her the product is causing people to melt if they stop using it, which pushes Raquel into overdrive, buying a ton of product herself and forcing it onto people. As this ruins her life, she gets her ex-husband's uncle to cut off her legs. Only then does her boss reveal that she was just kidding about the effect of the product. On the whole, this is a satire of MLMs and the way they ruin people's lives.

The story has some tone issues. On one hand, the story is this over-the-top satire, but unfortunately there just aren't enough jokes for that to work. The upshot of that is that the characters come off as dumb and caricature-like; the dialogue here is kind of like the characters reading a skit about how MLMs are bad. I think the story is at its best when it really gets into the existential dread of being in too deep to this corporation: passages like "Her whole professional life, social life, even her dreams revolved around WinniPride. Besides, she wasn’t exactly prepared for prison- she couldn’t even handle sharing a tent at the WinniPride glamping retreat earlier that year" really get at the inner wit and potential of this story.

On the plot level, the bitter twist at the end is fun on one level, but my goodness it kind of relies on Raquel to be extraordinarily stupid. She's only going off what her boss says here, and she's consenting to get her legs cut off? I think there's something here about the cult-like mentality here, but I just don't buy it.

A couple of mechanical things: punctuation is always inside quotation marks. There's a couple instances of commas coming after the quotation marks, and there's a couple of comma splices (two sentences that could stand on their own, joined together by a comma): ("But sleep could wait, there were lives to save.")

I like what you're trying to do here, even if it didn't work for me. I think a rewrite on this story with the aim to make things as silly as possible, to really heighten the ridiculous parts of this story and add some extra jokes, would make this story work a lot better!

MockingQuantum - "Moonlighters"

I did a line crit for this. My crits on the first page are over-the-top picky – it's probably worth keeping some of the things marked "cliche" for casual flavor, but it's probably also worth thinking if there's other language that could be used instead of those flagged phrases.

On the whole, I think this story is trying to do a lot, and I don't think it's very successful. I think this is probably a victim of the prompt; the mystery structure doesn't really fit. The story is about Gil, a werewolf outlaw, who's forced to betray his associate, but then rescues her from being shot by throwing money everywhere. The biggest issue with the story is that it hinges on Daphne, and the story barely characterizes her, and only introduces her halfway through the story; the werewolf aspect of the story is also irrelevant to the story's heart. I also have a lot of questions about how Gil feels about things. Is he upset that Daphne has caused people's deaths? Or he upset that she got him caught? He seems upset, but he also seems to forgive her pretty quickly. There's definitely something here, werewolves and this tenuous relationship between outlaws, but it doesn't really gel. I wanted more of the relationship stuff and less of the exposition-detectives and Gil-pondering.

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