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Feb 13, 2006

Grimey Drawer

Flesnolk posted:

Can I request an inspiration AND a hellrule?

Your character once won a prize for best crawfish boil in Houma, Louisiana. Hellrule: Another character must speak a non-english language, but there must be comprehensible dialogue.


Uranium Phoenix
Jun 20, 2007


In. No rules no masters.

Feb 13, 2006

Grimey Drawer

Uranium Phoenix posted:

In. No rules no masters.


Aug 18, 2014



Feb 13, 2006

Grimey Drawer


Mar 21, 2013

In, two characters please.

Sitting Here
Dec 31, 2007




kurona_bright posted:

In, two characters please.

aw poo poo KB's first 2021 appearance, hell yeah

Feb 13, 2006

Grimey Drawer

kurona_bright posted:

In, two characters please.

A forest ranger and a person who really loves banana pudding.

Feb 13, 2006

Grimey Drawer

Signups closed.

Uranium Phoenix
Jun 20, 2007


Weltlich posted:

Thunderdome #474: Save Room for a Slice
-Be a real pal and crit someone else’s story, you’ll get the same number of words credited to yours.

Plenty of weeks out there full of judges the kind of shameful viscous discharge a dog might poo poo out after eating its own turds, some bubble wrap, and worst of all, printouts of some of these gods-cursed stories, which is to say, people fleshy secretions who signed up to judge but didn’t bother to post crits, or weeks where no one bothered to sign up to judge at all (contemptible). You malevolent posting automatons deserve nothing but scorn, but I have gifted those of you suffering from a deficit of Vitamin C (c stands for ‘crits’) with crits nevertheless.

Week 464 Bonus Crits, Appropriately, For A Week About Time Capsules (Get It? It’s Like I Dug Up These Old Stories From A Time Capsule)
As a pattern note, I saw several stories take their prompt and interpret the picture as literally as possible. Got a picture of a rat being held in a hand? That happens, exactly, in story. Picture of a lady with a balloon hat? Story is about analyzing that exact picture. Dude has a Baltimore flag in a photo? Gonna have that be my opening line and just copy the characters from that picture directly into the story. Got a dolphin picture? Gonna write, literally, about dolphins. Genius…. (Borat pause) NOT!! Maybe try to move away from literal interpretations if you did that during the week.

CitizenKeen - Denric and the Knife:
This story is about a laborer (poor) and merchant (not as poor) trying to get a very special knife that will sell for a lot of money in some ruins (old). They encounter a cat and person; one presumably dies, the other escapes.

There’s some good use of visual details to briefly outline the setting (caste system, pillared ruins). There’s also some incongruities: Velra darting from rock to rock implies hastened stealth, but if they’re talking normally, feloids are still going to hear them (cats, I retroactively assume). Gonna say that I was visualizing the cast as humans dealing with giants right up until “white hot lightning originating in his tail.” The fact that these characters are mice-people (assuming that based on the tail, squeak, and prompt picture) needs to come way sooner than 75% of the way through the story. That’s not a twist or anything, so don’t hide it from the reader.

Your plot is serviceable, though I’d spend more time on dealing with the horror of giant creatures stalking you and less exploring the ruins boringly; too much time is spent re-describing them. There’s a nice moment where Denric hears the ominous thuds of the person-giant approaching. The story should focus more on moments like that.

The characters need work; there’s just not much to say about either of them. Their dialogue focuses on the plot and explaining the world, and too little focuses on who they are as people mice, their hopes and dreams, personalities, etc. Do more to develop Denric, the kind of mouse who, after watching the brutal abduction and death of his friend, being stalked by monsters, just still goes after the knife for money. What desperate situation led to his callousness? How does he feel about it? What was his connection to Velra? Not a bad first TD story, though.

Ironic Twist - Statuesque:
Good first line; does a lot of character work quickly. The first scene also shines, giving us an idea of when this takes place and what kind of people these are (carriages, 10 cent beer, the snake-oil scheme), though that gets thoroughly disrupted by the detail “the sun glinting off their smartphones” which makes my eyebrows furrow mightily.

The story, I realize after the first section, is not about a snake-oil scheme, but a character who can’t let go of the past and another who’s willing to indulge his delusions for profit. In that sense, the story succeeds; there’s a futility to preserving the past, and though Valdo can’t admit it, the reader sees it with his failure to lift the statue. I suppose the unchanging town actually does exist in the modern era, and some other magic, related to the sacred well, preserves it.

The dialogue is too concise in some places for me to fully understand the conversation between Valdo and Galette. I don’t quite understand their deal, who Galette is, or what they’re doing ‘selling’ snake-oil to a town that already has memorialized them. I suppose Valdo is just performing because he likes it, and Galette is indulging him so he can drag him off to the coasts where the real profit is, or something, and I guess Galette told the feds about their secret well? While the conversation seems real, in that they don’t do any “as you know,” poo poo, it also makes it hard to parse since we as the reader don’t know the context or implications.

Overall a solid piece though, with characters and emotions—that good poo poo, you know? Five bucks a bottle.

Chili - Hole Out:
The opening is weird; it’s hardened prisoners, but acting like kids (snug as a bug in a rug, the dum-dums). Either there’s time shenanigans (not really explained), or kids are sent to jail for… crimes they committed? Their future selves committed? Something with memory wipes? “I hear my brother promise me that he took really good care of my Yu-Gi-Oh cards which I tell him are all now.” —editing pass needed. Or is this all just an overly-dramatic time-out? But based on the letter to himself, he really did miss out on his siblings big moments. No clue what he did, though, except Generic Bad Crimes. The ending implies he’s reformed, but there was never any real doubt of that in the story. We already know Treimar didn’t remember being an angry young man, his apparent rough history was memory wiped, and he only ever acts reformed—so there’s a real lack of conflict. Why did the narrator or his friend think he wouldn’t write? We’re told that, but given no reason to think of it.

This story mostly suffers from a lack of clarity. I think it assumes the reader picks up far more than they actually can.

Yoruichi - My Grandmother:
Some nice descriptions to start us out, of a rather surreal world. The main character is looking for resolution about their grandmother, who they didn’t know. The story goes back and forth between these recollections of moments, trying to make sense of who the grandmother was, and the strong descriptive language. Some nice sensory bits, like “Its abdomen sucked in…” and “breath pressing like hands upon my back.” The physical action (nearly being sucked into a giant angel-trumpet is cool, but again doesn’t feel real given the character’s response.

I guess it’s a story about the regret of not knowing someone you feel you should have known. And it does that. And again, it has some nice descriptions, but the entirety of the story is basically separate from them except for whatever vague symbolism the trumpet and angels might represent, and there’s no much that actually happens. The character doesn’t change, only stays in incertitude. It feels like this isn’t quite complete, but that could be the intention here.

Drone - Nothing of Value was Gained:
Reading the title—is this a story about your posting? ZING!

JK (that means “just kidding” in internet lingo)! Anyways, this is a story about humankind’s posting history, which is found lacking. However, a lone robot finds value in it, an maybe a bit of sapience, before all is erased.

I don’t really buy that Unit would only think, at the end, after a ‘lifetime’ of devotion to the task, that “she had rarely ever given consideration to the fact that she was reading the tombstone of an entire civilization.” Statements like “Her whole life had been devoted to…” (first paragraph) contradict statements like “For the first time since her activation…” and questions like “Am I… alive?” later on, which is sloppy editing, and feels more like the author figuring out the character more than the character’s own reflections. If this is about a robot gaining consciousness, it might be a growing gradual awareness, but the story starts with this robot seemingly already aware of having thoughts and not wondering at that.

As a story, it’s not very interesting. As sci-fi, it’s not particularly original—I’ve seen these ideas plenty of times before, which would be fine, but there isn’t any character work done to make Unit memorable or different than Generic Robot Protagonist That Becomes Aware, nor the setting particularly interesting—the story is utterly devoid of setting and says nothing about the civilization that Unit is a part of. There could be an opportunity to highlight or guess at some aspect of humanity that most people don’t consider valuable, but an alien species might, but instead the story just wants to be misanthropic, which is not particularly interesting or original either.

Chairchucker - Pete:
This is a light piece going for humor (bit of a shock, I realize), that owns its pyramidal conceit with no apology. It reads like middle-grade fiction (though I think some of the dry humor might go over their heads), what with the whole oblivious parents thing and kids acting more like characters than kids (if that makes sense; think the Magic Treehouse protagonists), and ‘the moral of the story is’ at the end, which is fine. The story seems to do what it intends, then departs. I think places it could be improved are, perhaps, descriptions (which could be more humorous and, frankly, existent), a pass for places to add jokes. Dunno. It’s hard to say, because the story is functional, but not shining, but while a polish might be nice, the story is made of matte material. Remember to like and subscribe to my post history for more tortured metaphors that may not make sense.

Chernobyl Princess - Snake:
Right, you did what I’m now noticing was a pattern this week, which was interpret your picture as literally as possible, probably to the story’s detriment. Making a story about making fun of the Tea Party is tough, because that was already done to death for literal years, and I was bored of it then, too. You decide to tell us “Ultimately both protest and counter-protest were dull,” which is a sign that maybe most of the first part of the story should have been cut. If these are dull events that don’t matter, why tell us about them? The amount of work you do with the characters, which seems far more important to focus on, is sparse: “In a way the friendly argument was comforting. Facebook groups and their Warcraft guild had kept them in contact when they’d left for different colleges. Candace was satisfied to know their friendship was unchanged in person.” We should see more development of who these people are, since that’s the apparent focus of the story (certainly, it’s not the protest). I like the Jurassic Park/Clever girl banter, which is exactly how nerds sound when they talk (I can say that, I, uh, know several nerds), but—man, this story is just full of nothing at all happening.

It turns out, I discovered about 648 words into the story, that this story is about friends dealing with a supernatural event. By then, it’s too late: I’m bored. You should probably cut the approximately 500 words that aren’t about that or doing solid character work earlier in the story. Anyways, a bunch of characters I don’t care about (because they and they’re friendships weren’t really developed, and neither were the deep-church CIA priests) kill each other with guns/locusts. There’s an interesting story involving a traumatized girl who discovered miracles are real and has a Biblical artifact running away from a clandestine, powerful priesthood, and I wish you’d told that story instead. The biggest sin you had here was that you didn’t revise this—you needed to go back after this draft (this feels like a first draft) and find the juicy bits, instead of leaving the exploratory parts in that needed to be cut.

Simply Simon - Shackled Soul:
Two scavengers, one with Void powers(?) hunt for stuff to lead to food-getting. We hear about Souls and a fascist regime. It turns out the pod they found had a dude, and there’s lots of pods keeping people’s souls trapped, which has to do with a Tyrant doing his Evil Plot(tm). He’s a clone-hopping guy, so Cythnia kills friend and sacrifices herself to stop him again—but for how long!?

There’s a lot of infodumping, and not a lot of character development. A lot of the first section feels very disconnected from the rest of it. I don’t really need to hear about the Academy, when this story is about the weird creature that is the Tyrant and keeping him imprisoned. I would trim the story so that it covers its main thread, and then use the rest of your words to strengthen the characters—the decision for Cynthia to stab her good friend occurs lightning fast, and feels inhuman with how confident she is of her conclusion and how rapid she turns on him (use of the given name is already established as a thing that can happen given Synth did it to him earlier for emphasis). After all, Synth was wrong about her initial hypothesis. The setting could also be better developed with visuals, and finally, perhaps foreshadow the Tyrant, who is only ever mentioned at the story’s halfway point as an off-handed comment that ends up being suspiciously relevant (and the first thing Synth thinks of when she sees the second clone—but why?—we aren’t given enough background on the Tyrant, how these characters know about him, how temporally proximate he is to them, and so much more).

flerp - The Pull of the Moon:
Good hook. There’s also good character work in the story surrounding this main thread of the dadgrandad’s alien-ness. The story sets out its conceit without apology (as is often the case with your stories, to their benefit), and focuses on the relationship between the kid and his pops. It’s also (like a lot of your stories) about being gay (I still think of that dog avatar with the sign you used to have), and the alien-ness is connected to that and the feeling of being an outsider, and needing comfort (the rock symbolizes this). The story does this effectively, and despite the ending mentioning a tragic future, it emphasizes the moment of two people who feel alienate being unconditionally understood, which is a comfort to the reader as well.

What can I say to a successful story like this? Perhaps it could be expanded, and we could get Papa’s experiences that relate to our narrator’s, or perhaps we see part of the trials the boy goes through with his mom and getting kicked out and then reflect back on this moment (unmarred, where future moments are). There’s other places the story might explore, if it wants, with the same conceit, but it’s also fine as it is.

I also want to direct a portion of this critique to anyone else from this week reading it: Note how flerp’s story is clearly inspired by the prompt picture, but it goes in a direction that leads to a strong story, and is not even close to a literal interpretation, and note how focused the story is on its core (especially the characters and theme).

My Shark Waifuu - A Gift for Grandpa:
This is a story about what it will be like to buy a SA account in the future. Well, not really; it’s just reflecting on the current internet zeitgeist with a light tone, referencing bitcoin, emojis, and Elon Muskrat and—are vbucks fortnite or roblox? All I know is my students crave them. Anyways, it has a very good punchline, and is a fast enough read to get there the rest of the story can be forgiven.

Serious crit, though, I think it might be worth a pass to see if the humor (or setup of gramps as a character) can be punched up.

ZearothK - Like the Lion Eats the Antilope:
The story starts with one side of a conversation, a monologue without context, and that’s a risky maneuver to pull off. The premise of the story is basically a post by one of the militant internet atheists from the early 00s, but bumped up to the cyberfuture so that it’s a cyberathiest talking to his cyberfriend, which doesn’t really make it better (see the previous story, Gift for Grandpa, for tips on how to pull off the on-the-nose cyberspace stuff). He’s killed by his friend, who cleans up. Then, and this seems completely unrelated to the rest of the story, some satanists active an antipope.

So, one, the tone-shifts in the story are violent and don’t benefit the story. The third part seems unrelated to the first two, and I don’t see how it connects. The monologue is weak, and the story is not an interesting one. The characters are not really developed. Since there’s no dialogue, the story misses a key opportunity to have Mark and his heritic bud play off each other and develop.

Again, this is a story that took its prompt picture in the most literal way possible, to, I think, the detriment of the story.

Azza Bamboo - The Mother of Potatoes:
This is a story about launching potatoes really fast.

I don’t really understand the punchline(s). The humor in this story is the kind of “monkey random cheese bannana!” humor, relying on, perhaps, the humor inherent to tuberosum, which is not a lot. The characters are light and undeveloped—Darrell is perhaps the most developed, perhaps a former CIA goon, but even he’s an outline rather than anyone filled in. The plot nonsensical. There’s descriptions that are fine, but they don’t quite service the intent of the story, which I think is to be funny (I’d look into Terry Pratchett for how to make descriptions funny). Not much else to say about this.

t a s t e - To Hodson:
This is an nested epistolary about, presumably, a mysterious disappearance. The cause is one of those Lovecraftian-style unfathomable things, in this case, some sort of fractal art.

The nested format here really sucks to read on the site, and in another form, I’d use either fonts or something to help distinguish the nested letters. (SA does okay with nested quotes I guess, but it’s annoying I had to go read it there). If you’re looking for an example of another story that did this effectively, I’d check out Before the Lion, he laid Bare. It’s a nice little horror story, and I appreciate the challenge you took on in making it a nested epistolary. I don’t know, however, that it’s the most effective delivery vehicle for the growing horror feeling you might be looking for.

rohan - Voted Most Likely to Survive the Apocalypse:
This is a story about high school cliques warring in the generic apocalypse. The story references tropes related to these groups for humor. They (sort of) resolve their differences upon learning most time capsules contain mundane yearbooks, and kids can learn to get a long (except music kids).

I dunno what to say to this one, because it’s hard to give advice on how specifically to bump up humor. There is something important to a joke though, and I think that unexpected is important—or if it is expected/inevitable, it better be a good punchline (read A Gift For Gramdpa from this week, I suppose). All of these jokes are… expected? It’s just references piled on top of each other, which I guess some people like. Obviously, since this story is so focused on humor, it eschews a sensible plot, characters with any depth or humanity (they’re all stereotypes, and there’s a lot of them) so there’s not much there, and sticks with an incredibly generic desert setting. That’s rather to its detriment if the humor doesn’t land.

tuyop - The Cats Keep Blowing Up:
So we’re really going to go with “ah, there’s a cat in my picture, so it’s a story about cats?” Alright.

This is a story about cats getting big. The humor seems to rely on cats as inherently funny, sort of how an earlier story relies on potatoes behind inherently funny or a SMBC comic might take a given silly law or event to a ridiculous conclusion. It’s also about the trauma of a mother’s Alzheimer’s, which leads to something of a violent tonal clash. This is then mixed with the sudden sapience and language granted to the cat, and the even weirder conceit-bullet fired at the reader with nary a Chekov’s gun to prepare them for it. Whereas a story like flerp’s this week had its conceit but a clear theme, I don’t know what the theme, message, or purpose of this story was, or what it was trying to do. Would it be weird if cats all got bigger and some of them ate parents to preserve their memories? Sure thing buddy. But I don’t see what this monkey-cheese-random poo poo has to do with anything else, like characters, plot, or theme.

Thranguy - Perilous:
It feels like there’s too much dumped into this world. We have a post-apoc world, presumably a far future, though it’s not clear if its Earth, high EMP markets, giant owls, moongates, emperor’s vaults, a high school where it’s not supposed to be (with stuff in it), green doppelgangers, and I’m not sure what’s going on. I guess it’s about two girls who didn’t get along having a reunion and figuring out how to do that. Or moongates. The characters have some details, but not as much depth as they could, and it feels like the story needs more of a tight focus for me even to know what it’s trying to do. This is another story that feels like an overly-literal interpretation of its picture. I think a story about an old demolished high school reappearing and a girl exploring it (and reflecting on her past) could be fine, but as it is, it’s too busy, and this story doesn’t feel like it even has an ending; definitely feels rushed.

Antivehicular - Scavenging a Dream:
Aww. A heartwarming story about how hardboiled scavengers get a soft spot for cute animals and maybe turn that into money. It’s a quick read, and there’s at least two characters I get a sense of. It also starts with them deciding to let the pets die, so the fact that something within the story changes is satisfying. There’s also sort of a fun meta-aspect to it, where you’re playing with the reader’s emotions by using an easy method (cute pets), and also having that be the plot of the story.
Not too much to say here: It’s a solid story, and nothing stood out particularly as lacking. Maybe bump up some of the descriptions of the setting? I don’t get much of a visual of these ships or people.

Weltlich - The Fog:
Good hook. This is a story of a guy dealing with nightmares and lost time. It’s a story I think designed to instill a sense of the surreal, since our protagonist skips from liquor-store employee to aquarium security guard in an instant and isn’t sure what’s real, and he’s doing weird poo poo like scavenging aquatic medical equipment. We learn it’s probably PTSD (or related), related to some traumatic moment where he didn’t have enough medical equipment to save people, explaining his present obsessive behavior, which leaves us with a haunting image. Sort of surprised this one didn’t HM, as it’s quite solid. The character is distant, but that feels intentional. His companions are brief, and could be bumped up a notch. I liked Des leaping the counter, but maybe spend more time conversing with them.

Taletel - Red in tooth and claw:
Well, there’s a hell of a story conceit (apparently ‘conceit’ is my word of the week): psychic powers for everyone. Let’s see how it plays out.

Alright, first, a line like “Wars of untold magnitude were waged by mankind’s newest weapon” is boring. Skip the exposition next time. Just throw us right into the story where psychic dolphins are in charge swimming along human ruins. I don’t need a purely expository intro for a 940 word story.

Second, proofread. Semicolons don’t work like you think they do; they’re not a period. Avoid clunky lines like “A scream was let out. A human was lifted…” that are passive (passive voice is fine sometimes, but not here) and vague. We should know who is doing the action.

Third, don’t assume your reader is a total moron. Anyone literate certainly knows dolphins are intelligent, and they have already decided if they think they’re cute or not, so you can cut those words.

Fourth… drat, what the hell is this plot? Alright, same advice I gave several people this week: Just because you got a picture of a dolphin does not mean you need to literally write a story about dolphins. Then the dolphins are going around murdering humans. In fact, it’s their number one rule. Great. Why? Does that make an interesting story? (Spoiler: No). Is Sea World bad? Yes. That’s not worth a story to expound on, you could just go post “seaworld bad” on facebook or something. Is it interesting to listen to a dolphin recite a bunch of backstory? Nope. These characters, dolphin or not, have about as much depth and complexity as a dry puddle. The main conflict is an ethical one (is murdering an entire species bad???? Gosh, glad we’re contemplating that one), but not one that is very interesting. Honestly, I think the best advice I can give is to look at some of the HMs and the Win this week (or other weeks) and look at how those stories are spending their words and how they use dialogue or advance the plot.

Uranium Phoenix fucked around with this message at 05:09 on Sep 5, 2021

Uranium Phoenix
Jun 20, 2007


Living With What Happened: A Day in the Lives Of Those Affected By the Arc-Seven Station Attack by Senior Columnist Peter O. Sellenger
3598 words of (1500 words + ~4400 bonus words)

Longtime readers will know it’s not often that I get to ride the space elevator on the Time’s dime, and so as I rode up to the shuttle that would take me to the Arc-Seven Station, I felt nervous elation. It was far away from my penthouse in New Chicago and the heart of the republic. This wasn’t me visiting flyover country, this was flies over country. We’ve all gotten used to seeing those eight Arc stations glimmer in geostationary orbit above, and so used to the bounty of materials they send down, but it’s one thing to know they’re your fellow countrymen, and another to meet them on such a haunting day.

The attack on Arc-Seven a year ago, after all, wasn’t just an assault on the station. It was an assault on freedom, a barrage targeting democracy, and an incursion into our minds. I remember that day clearly. I remember watching in horror at the feeds, watching on repeat how the shuttle smashed into Arc-Seven’s core, and the expanding debris that glittered in the harsh, unfiltered light of the Sun. “We’re all living with trauma now,” the shuttle pilot told me on the way over, and that reminds me how much wisdom common folk can have.

When I ran my idea to interview random people on the Arc-Seven station past my editor, she instantly agreed. “We have to get their story out there,” she said. “Their lived experience. There’s enough focus on the Venusian Separatists,” she said, those last two words leaving her mouth like a bitter taste. It’s Times like these, if you’ll excuse the pun, that I feel that swell of pride, working for one of the last traditional newspapers in the world.

Still, I couldn’t help but feel anxious about it all. Would it seem crass to pry into their lives? Or would they welcome someone finally telling their story? I hoped, as I approached the behemoth space colony, with its splayed out wings of solar panels and thick chrome cylinder dotted by glimmering domes of artificial ecosystems, that it would be the latter.

The Janitor
I decided to interview anyone I came across. I came across Omar Al Quinn-Escobar mopping floors in the hall next to the docking bay. He was spry—most of the colonists were, since they spent only some time at the edge of the cylinder where they got a full 1G—and balding, but had a friendly demeanor. His warm brown eyes seemed like they were laughing at a joke only he’d heard. When I asked if I could interview him, he said, “Sure, but only if you don’t mind that I keep mopping. I’ve got a quota, after all!”

You really have to admire the work ethic. No other country in the world matches it, whether on land or in space. (Editor’s note: Conversations have been edited only for readability)

Sellenger: So how are you?

Omar: Is that… are we starting the interview? I’m fine. Busy, of course.

Sellenger: That’s good to hear. What brought you to Arc-Seven?

Omar: I was born here.

Sellenger: So that puts the kibosh on my next question—I was going ask how it’s different here than on continental Earth.

Omar: That’s right, I don’t know. Never visited.

Sellenger: Do you hope to?

Omar pauses mopping. He looks out the window, and I know he’s looking for that blue-green jewel out there, half-shrouded in shadow. “Yeah,” he says.

Sellenger: So what’s a day in your life look like?

Omar: Well, I wake up, get a quick nutrition packet, and head center to the docks. I’m in charge of the east docks, and despite the title, it’s critical work. Humans are constantly shedding skin, and not all of it makes it to the dust-collectors in the vents. Any sort of carbon build-up—or any number of chemicals—can pose fire risks. I have a degree in static-electricity and a minor in chemistry, you know. Had to, even for a low-rung job. Anyways, I get a ten minute lunch break, which I usually watch the shuttles on, mostly miners coming in from Atek-40, that’s that platinum rich asteroid they’ve been after, then finish the east wing. I go on a walk in the tropical biome pod, then watch the feeds during dinner.

Sellenger: And on weekends?

Omar: Ah. Hm. You… well that’s a bit awkward. Not a lot of colonists since the… well. You know. We’ve been short-staffed, just keeping the station functional. There’s a lot. I don’t really—well, I’m accumulating weekend time, but that’s being paid out in recreation-hour equivalent credits.

Sellenger: Oh! I’m so sorry. You know, here we are, on the anniversary of—well, the attack. Do you mind me asking? What was it like?

Omar stops mopping again and looks at me. All that laugher that was in his eyes, it leaves. He stands there awhile, then swallows. I notice his left hand starts rubbing his ring finger. He looks out the window again, then finally says, “I’d rather not talk about it, if that’s alright with you.”

“Of course,” I say, and thank him for his time.

The Hydroponicist
I’d seen hydroponics before in the vertical farms of New Chicago, of course, but it was nothing like the density here on Arc-Seven. Automated harvesters moved on rail tracks, making the sunlamps flicker periodically as they passed overhead. Among the foliage were networks of pipes, color-coded shiny plastic like an intertwined rainbow. I met Evelin Brunichev when she squirmed out from under a metal grate holding up crowded lettuce plants, muttering about root-rot, nearly stepping on her. Her dirty-blond hair was shaved to the aptly-named crew cut, and her sleek work-suit covered in a mix of grime and plant debris. She swore, admonishing me to be careful, but after a brief bout of apologies, she agreed to talk to me.

Sellenger: Good to meet you. How long have you worked on Arc-Seven?

Evelin: Nearly a year.

Sellenger: So you came over after?

Evelin: Yeah. It was a nightmare. All the shuttles from the space elevator were secured-to-dock under a fire order, but Seven needed us. They had two biomes failing and were going to run low on food within the week. So I came. Been busting my—does the paper let you swear?—well. You get the idea.

Sellenger: Where were you before?

Evelin: Arc-Four.

It takes me a moment to understand, but when I do, my eyes go wide, and she nods. I marvel at how small the world feels some days.

Sellenger: So you were on that rogue rescue mission, the one that only got pardoned later.

Evelin: That’s right. We’d been forbidden by Stellar Control to assist—they were so terrified of another attack, but if we hadn’t come here, I think a lot more people would have died. So I don’t regret it. We did the right thing.

Sellenger: What was it like, flying over? After the attack, there was that shuttle—

Evelin: Jasper-9A.

Sellenger: —that’s the one. It got shot down by a government Seeker. There was that communications mix-up and—well, it was tragic. You weren’t scared that might happen?

Evelin: We didn’t leave it to chance. We had orbital guy calculate the intercept times. The only danger was Arc-Seven shooting at us, and we knew… well, they knew we were coming to help.

Sellenger: They knew?

Evelin: Yeah. There were some programmers on Seven, they figured out how to override the remote emergency protocol.

Sellenger: And station security didn’t stop them?

Evelin stops there. She’d been trimming a root system by scalpel, tying off the tiny nubs so they couldn’t reach at some of the pipes below, but here she gave me a quizzical look. “Which paper did you say you worked for, again?” she asks.

The New Chicago Times,” I tell her proudly.

Evelin: Oh. Well, there… you know there was that training exercise that day, right? I know you didn’t report on it, but… they were off-station. So no, there weren’t any security officers to stop them.

(Editor’s Note: Please see our article “Quashing the Unfounded Rumors Over the Arc-Seven Attacks” for more details about this.)

Sellenger: Well thank you for talking to me. Is there anything you’d like to say to your continent-bound friends out there?

Evelin: We’re still recovering up here. We’d like—we give a lot, you know. We know a lot of people on Earth are depending on us. But it’s been hard. We’re all overworked up here, and we’re still waiting on some critical replacement parts that were promised by—well, I don’t want to get political or anything, but it’s… it’s a lot. We could use all the help we can get.

I thanked her, and let her know her words would indeed reach the masses below.

The Conspiracy Theorist
I nearly ran into my next interviewee. We were in the zero-G of the station’s central column, and I was trying not to toss my lunch out at the spinning cylinder below, or accidentally slam into any of the workers zipping around me. It turned out, it took a bit of a knack for moving about while weightless, and while the folks here made it look easy—it wasn’t.

“Watch it!” the man said as I nearly careened into him. At first, I didn’t see him or the tether. I was too busy watching the station rotating, the mix of greenery and chrome buildings like a hypnotic spiral.

“Sorry,” I said, and then introduced myself.

Thessa, who did not give his last name, was even thinner than Omar, nearly looking malnourished with how pale and skinny he was. He had soft features, and brilliant violet dyed hair—and, as I would find out shortly—a snippy attitude.

Thessa: I know who you are.

Sellenger: You’ve only read my best columns, I hope!

Thessa: Calling what you write ‘columns’ is a bit like calling a child’s scribbles ‘art,’ wouldn’t you say?

That took me aback, and I had a quick decision to make. I could end the interview now—I could tell already he would be hostile—or I could keep going. Didn’t I owe it to these people to listen to anyone who would talk? After all, how often did newspaper reporters actually ask for their stories? I decided to proceed, even though the views he would spout I strongly suspect were not the usual ones on the station, and certainly not anything an informed member of the general public would believe.

Sellenger: I’m interviewing people on the anniversary of the attack, trying to get your stories.

Thessa: Are you going around kicking people in the balls, too? They might like that more.

Sellenger: So you don’t want to—

Thessa: No, I’ll talk to you. I don’t give a poo poo. I’m sure you’ll slander my name anyways. Certainly, your paper won’t dare print the truth.

Sellenger: On the contrary, it’s what we dedicate ourselves to.

Thessa: Well, go on. Ask that burning question.

Sellenger: What’s your daily life like on the station?

Thessa: No, not that one. Overworked, underpaid. Just reprint those words for any worker you talk to, you’ll save yourself on the word-count. The other question.

Sellenger: So, what’s it been like? The attack on Arc-Seven was so—

Thessa: You really think it was Venusian Separatists?

Sellenger: Well, the Day of Sorrow Commission Report found—

Thessa: Delrin Castor was on the loving commission, of course he didn’t find that his agency was culpable—

(Editor’s Note: Please see our series of articles on the DoS Commission Report, as well as refutations for the misleading information forthcoming here)

Sellenger: —found it was the Separatists, and Stellar Intelligence found their manifestos, and there’s the security camera footage of them boarding that shuttle—

Thessa: —right, like CGI can’t fake grainy cam footage of a few people boarding a shuttle—

Sellenger: —and the footage was verified.

Thessa: —look at it this way: None of those alleged people were trained pilots, or hackers. They would have had to override the autopilot and then—did you see the footage? Professor Olinmeyer did frame-by-frame analysis and found they would have had to be pulling 13-Gs in a tight spiral while evading the automated defense systems from Arc-Seven—which, I might add, were suspiciously off-line, until enabled just prior to impact, and I know the excuse is the training exercise, but that’s horseshit, as are all the missing security officers who should have been in that section that day. No, that shuttle was running an autopilot program. And who benefited? Stellar Control and Intelligence, of course, and their corporate lackeys. They got everything they wanted. Now they have their excuse to tighten their grip on all the Arc stations, and we bust our asses, stuck up here. For what? Not the profits of all that ore coming in from the space mining operations. They did what power has always done: Frighten people so they can be controlled and exploited.

Sellenger: The report explains all of that. These conspiracy theories—

Thessa: And what should we call an actual conspiracy? What evidence would you accept?

Sellenger: Well, the report, for one, and the parliamentary investigation results.

Thessa: Again, controlled by the people who should be under investigation. You know, all you media types are just as culpable. None of you bothered to investigate. You just took the press releases from the Stellar Premiere’s office and pasted them into your articles. Funny, how the Premiere got all those laws passed right afterward. Funny those key members of the opposition died of super-bacteria right after. It didn’t work, you know. No one actually believes the ‘official’ narrative.

Sellenger: It was a lot of people, actually, and it’s been known for some time that bacteria mutate into more lethal forms in space on their own. Cosmic radiation increases the mutation rate by—

Thessa: Never mind. I don’t know why I’m wasting my breath. Keep printing whatever you want on that trash-rag you call a paper. I already knew there’d be no justice for my friends.

And then Thessa was off, a bit redder in the face, spouting profanities as he went. I watched him go, and thought of the deep breathing techniques my therapist had been teaching me. Wow! Of course, I couldn’t believe a word he said, but at least I could appreciate his passion. It’s hard to deal with such a tragedy, knowing the perpetrators are already dead, and therefore will never get justice. Enraging enough, I suppose, that it leads people down all sorts of wild paths. It was tragic, though, to hear an otherwise well spoken man fall prey to misinformation.

I gathered my wits together and proceeded along the column, still a bit woozy.

The Officer
Officer Richard White met me with all smiles. He had a firm handshake, and was well muscled, filling out his sharp uniform. He had an air of confidence that felt infectious. He met me at the break-room of the security post, and set the auto-espresso machine to work. We talked over the thick aroma of fresh-roasted beans.

Sellenger: First of all, officer, thank you for your service.

Officer White: Of course.

Sellenger: So how’s life up here?

Officer White: The pay’s good. The coffee’s fresh. Bit of a luxury up here, this espresso, but of course, it makes sense for it to be a benefit. We’ve always got to be on alert.

Sellenger: Preventing the next attack.

Officer White: That’s right. We can’t know where it might come from. Vigilance is the price we pay for democracy.

Sellenger: It sure is. Speaking of which, are there plans to restart elections on Arc-Seven, now that it’s been a year?

Officer White doesn’t stop showing that polished smile, but his eyes change, and his voice lowers an octave. “We’re still in a state of emergency, you understand. Stellar Intelligence took out the most prominent cell, but those Venusian Separatists are still out there. Probably some on each station, under deep cover. More than just the lives of the people on the stations are at stake. People on Earth are depending on us.”

Sellenger: Of course! No, I totally understand. And yes, a lot depends on you all. We’re grateful for it every day. Have you made any other arrests that you can talk about? Of those Venusian cells?

Officer White: I can’t confirm or deny anything like that, unfortunately. A lot of what we’re doing is classified.

Sellenger: Absolutely. Well, again, we’re all so thankful for all you do.

Officer White: It’s an honor to serve.

It feels good shaking his hand again, and I leave the meeting—brief as it was—feeling refreshed.

The Grandmother
It had been a hell of a day. In the station mall, the feeds were playing footage from that tragic day, and I found myself stopping to watch. It was horrible to watch, but I felt I had to. It was, after all, a specter still haunting this station.

My last interviewee was on her way to her shift, but she agreed to talk to me. It was strange to me that the day and night cycles were different depending on where you lived on the station. For me, it was the end of the day—for her, the start. Daiyu Meers had rings around her eyes, and wrinkles creasing her face. It seemed like her solid black bangs ought to have some gray, but there was no hint of it. Despite how tired she looked, she managed a pleasant smile, the kind that puts people at ease.

Sellenger: It’s good to meet you. How long have you been on Arc-Seven?

Daiyu: I helped build it.

Sellenger: Oh, wow. Really?

Daiyu: That’s right.

Sellenger: Well that’s amazing. So what do you do on the station?

Daiyu: I work in the nuclear synthetics division.

Sellenger: Oh? What does that involve?

Daiyu: Well, it’s a bit hard to explain.

Sellenger: Try me.

Daiyu: We use, well, this is a bit of a simplification, but we use targeted radioactive bombardment of polymer and crystalline structures to change the structure of molecules. This lets of fabricate substances we either don’t have the chemicals for—and there’s a lot we’re missing on the station—or can’t be made through chemical processes at all. That’s where ultra-high tensile materials that structures like these stations and the space elevator use come from.

Sellenger: Wow, that does sound complicated. What do you like to do to relax?

Daiyu: I don’t get much time to do that. Mostly, I’m helping my granddaughter. The classes up here are overcrowded. Not many teachers want to come to Arc-Seven. So I tutor her on her letters, and the rest of the time we just explore the station. She likes visiting the arctic biome. Well, really, she just likes the penguins. That’s her goal in life right now: to become a penguin. I also help run the community events of my block.

Sellenger: You sound busy! I’ve heard a lot of people talking about how hard it is up here. There’s a lot of work to do.

Daiyu: Oh, sure. Sure. But I don’t complain.

Sellenger: That’s very noble of you.

Daiyu says, “I don’t think so.” She’s very humble. Then she gets a strange look in her eyes. “Do you ever wonder why nothing changes?” she asks.

Sellenger: What do you mean?

Daiyu: The rhymes of history. We’ve come so far with our technology, and yet—where is our better future? There’s still…

Sellenger: The Venusians?

Daiyu: Them too. Yes. That’s not all but… yes.

Sellenger: How are you feeling about that? It’s been a year since—

Daiyu interrupts me. Suddenly, it feels like she’s in a hurry. “Fine. I’m fine. I try not to think about it,” she says. “I just try to be kind to others, and do the best I can for my granddaughter. Now if that’s all, please excuse me. I have a shift to get to, and I’ll be fired if I’m late again.”

She walks off at a clip, and soon enough, she’s just another person in the crowd.


As I head back to the shuttle bay, I think about all the lives that tragic day touched. But Daiyu is right: All we can do is keep our heads down, get to work, and try to smile for each other. Talking to so many people on the station has really put into perspective how much work the Arc Stations are, and how dedicated the workers up there are.

The shuttle departs, first drifting, then the engines fire, and I’m pressed back into my seat, watching on the feed as the sphere of Earth slowly grows. I think about all we take for granted down there.

A Stellar Control Interdictor passes to our left, sleek silver body cutting through the void, and I feel a sense of calm pass over me. I salute it, even though I know the crew can’t see me, and hope the day comes soon where justice has come, and we live in a world free from terror.

Jul 29, 2007

"That’s cheating! You know the rules: once you sacrifice something here, you don’t get it back!"

Chicken Wings in the Long Grass

(1880/1900 words)

The summer night’s breeze mixed the acrid burning of coyote piss with the exotic spice of the flowers lazily blooming in my hair. It was Friday night and the trees were refusing to eat.

I was hurling handfuls of sticky wings over Orchard Creek and into the long grass, licking my fingertips between each toss. I could separate each ingredient by scent – the soft mellow hum of butter, jagged stings of vinegar, fireworks of pepper and garlic and cayenne. Manny said that it was his special family recipe or whatever, but it was the same sauce I’d had anywhere I’d ever been.

Me, Conrad and Jonny waited around for a while to see if they’d bite, but aside from the occasional wriggle of a frond or the odd stretch of a forebranch, the trees were still.

I spat a chemical curse into the air and dusted my hands off against my jeans. Conrad was inspecting the rust around the rear wheel of the truck. I think he felt uncomfortable with my outburst. He sprayed a whisper of chem, a tiny scent of language that perfumed the air for just a moment. He was telling me the trees would be okay.

One of the trees fanned its thick branches and let loose a cloud of chem, an invisible silent howl, that drifted northwards on the wind. A minute or so later we were hit by the stinging chem reply from another herd somewhere down the river by Jackson’s Pond.

Jonny was lighting these lovely little firecrackers and tossing them to the side of the road where they’d writhe about for a while before shooting off in a trail of color. Between each flash, he tore handfuls of grass from the ground and scattered them in the breeze. Conrad chemed that we should start barhopping as the last of the fireworks pounced an awkward, bounding arc across the dirt road.

I sat with my head half out the window, letting the swirling currents of wind weave between my antlers. In the back seat, Jonny was pouring warm beer into his palms and lapping at it with his long black tongue. Conrad drove in silence, chain smoking Marlboros. When we were about five minutes from Shorty’s I dug around in the glovebox and found a stubby eyeliner and did my makeup in the wingmirror, mostly just to gently caress with any old boys who had beef with fey. I found a scattered set of silver bangles buried in the burger wrappers and cans on the floor and arranged them haphazardly throughout my antlers.

As I got out the truck, I chemed to ask if there was a clean shirt in the back. Jonny rummaged around for a minute then chemed that he’d been sitting on it. I cursed him out and he chemed that he’d just ironed the thing a little extra for me and tossed it into my chest.

‘She not head back to college yet then?’ Jonny chemed, his grin spreading to reveal his razor-sharp teeth. I gave him the finger and Conrad shoved him from behind. The two figures – one gigantic and bull-like, the other squat and wreathed in orange leaves started playfully wrestling across the dirt.

We went round back and walked through the open door to the kitchen where a red-eyed Manny was staring blurrily into the fryer with a vague smile on his face. He’d doused himself with a can of axe to cover the stench of weed but I could taste both scents independently.

He slung an arm around Jonny’d foliage wreathed form as Conrad bundled him in through the door, then bumped his small dark fist against one of Conrad’s colossal paws. I clicked my fingers to get his attention and signed if Jessie had been in that night. He shook his head and told me he hadn’t seen her. His sign was sluggish and clumsy. He continued, asking us not to tell him the score from the game if we knew it - then he asked us how the herd was doing. I tilted my head back and forth – not great. He mimed eating some wings and I shook my head. Jonny started pestering him for a joint, so I headed out into the pool hall with Conrad and we set up at a table.

Old Joe Rigby came over to the table and watched us play silently for a while. He didn’t speak sign and he’d never learnt to read so there wasn’t any way for us to talk but a few moments later Trisha turned up with three beers and three shots of Ghost Hill and we nodded our thanks to him. Old Joe had been one of the first people in town to treat us good. Jessie had told me his wife had been Fey but she’d died before we’d come through the ring of stones. Jessie reckoned that Old Joe carried one of her feathers in his chest pocket and that’s why he never took off his jacket.

After half an hour, Jonny reappeared and we moved on to Duke’s. The place was dead apart from a handful of older guys who paid us no mind and barely even looked up from their drinks when we came in. Jonny was technically barred from the place but since Shelly hated her manager, she’d let us drink just to piss him off. She practically swooned as Conrad walked into the room and they went through their normal song and dance where she’d tease him a little and write him a note asking when he was finally going to teach her to play guitar with little hearts on the I's and poo poo. She liked me too, on account of I’d given her little boy a load of my old tonkas and baseball cards and some of the rookies had actually been worth a few bucks on the internet. She liked Jonny too, because Duke hated him.

On the way to The Ice Box, Jonny got a text and chemed frustration asking if he could borrow the truck the next morning – his boss was making him come in early. I gave him a nod and Conrad chemed asking when he was going to chip in for gas.

Jonny was looking to buy some ammo and Conrad had said he’d take Shelly’s kid fishing so he went to pick up some bait (The Ice Box did both). I ordered us a pitcher and six shots of Mississippi Steamer. I saw one of the barflies propping up the bar glance up at me and mutter something. I signed asking him if he had something to stay and that if he wanted me to hear it he should write it down or learn sign. The barman, some younger guy I didn’t know, signed to ignore the guy, that he was bitching at me for ordering a ‘cocktail’ cause the Steamer had cinnamon in it. I laughed and the barfly made to get up but Tom Holderman appeared behind him and pushed him back down into his stool. Tom was the last big rancher holding out from selling his land to the big boys from the city. He’d been frosty to us for the first three years, then one day came over and slapped Conrad on the back, pointed to his great hooves and horns and signed to him that since they were both ‘big cattle men’ they ought to get along. Conrad, who was normally a little stoic, had busted a gut laughing. Tom asked how the trees were doing and we squirmed a little. Then we moved on.

When we got to The Amarillo Club there were some good ol’ boys gravitating around a barbecue out front, grilling hotdogs next to an icebox full of Coors. They all had that same lovely look – cowboy hats too small for their fat sunburnt heads, guts rolling over tight jeans, scuffed to poo poo boots with the heels peeling away. I chemed that I was going to try and buy some wieners for the herd.

Conrad chemed to ask if I was sure it was a good idea, but I went ahead anyway. I knew they wouldn’t sign so I just held out a few bucks and pointed, but they just sat their shrugging and acting like they didn’t understand. We got eyeballed a lot inside, so we drank half a pitcher and head back out.

It wasn’t until I got back to the truck, I realized I’d left my phone on the seat. I only cast it a cursory glance as I went to put it back in my pocket and saw three texts from Jessie. I flashed the spiciest at Conrad and Jonny stuck his head through the headrests and craned his neck to read what she’d sent me. He slapped me on the arm and chemed that he needed to be at the mill at 6, do I could drop the truck off any time before then.

When I got to Jessie’s house she was already sat outside on the curb. She spat her gum into the grass, threw a plastic grocery bag from Earl’s into the bed, and hopped in. She signed a greeting and I signed one back and then she took one of my antlers in her hand and pulled me in to kiss her. After a while she pulled away, fluttered her lashes and said we should go see the herd.

An hour and a half later we lay in the bed of my truck wrapped in blankets. She traced shapes on my chest with one finger and looked up at the silhouette of the herd across the creek, still doing little more than gently swaying with the breeze. In the darkness, they could have been native trees rather than anything that had come through the ring. Jessie got to her feet and threw on my shirt. She typed a message on her cellphone and handed it to me – told me she’d brought them a feast – knew I’d been worried about them.

From inside the Earl’s bag, she grabbed a random assortment of items, most food, some not. One by one, she started throwing them over the creek. The trees ignored breakfast muffins, the morning paper, a handful of fridge magnets and a box of eggs. However, when she took an assortment of batteries and launched them with all her strength, their forebranches waved frantically. The great trees unfurled themselves, twisting their necks and tasting the air with their fronds. I watched in stunned amazement as the herd made its way towards the creek, sieving through the grass with their great lowbranches like whales straining for krill. The batteries had called them, but the eggs were what they were after. Once they got a taste for food, they started devouring everything we’d thrown out between us. The chicken wings, covered in grass and dotted with ants were whipped up to maws filled with jagged wooden fangs which easily crushed meat and bone. Yolk trickled down their trunks.

Punching the air in victory, Jessie skipped back to the truck and climbed back into the bed. I wrapped my arms around her and squeezed her tight into me and drowned in the taste of her perfume.

Chernobyl Princess
Jul 31, 2009

It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.

:siren:thunderdome winner:siren:

I'm Happy For You
1435 words

Trish would be lying if she said she wasn’t feeling trepidation about meeting her old friend in person since Sandy had moved to Tennessee. Part of it was definitely related to Covid, even after her first booster shot she was hesitant to meet people indoors. Thankfully Sandy suggested an outdoor cafe that Trish had raved about several times in their group chat. She tried to put her misgivings aside and focus on how much fun it was going to be to have actual Girl Time, with no husbands or kids to bother them. That’s what Sandy had said, at least. A few times, actually. And with extra emphasis on the lack of husbands.

Sandy had found a table outdoors under the cafe’s awning and was flirting openly, if not quite aggressively, with the waiter setting down a pair of cappuccinos. Trish immediately checked Sandy’s left hand and saw that the wedding ring was still there. That didn’t do much to relieve the tension that settled into her shoulders as she approached.

When Sandy saw Trish her hand shot up into the air. “Oh my god! Trish! It’s so good to see you!” They embraced, each exclaiming about how beautiful the other looked and how perfect it was that their schedules aligned.

“I took the liberty of ordering us both coffee,” Sandy said as Trish took her seat. “And a big slice of that carrot cake you told us about the last time we were down here.”

“Oh, yes! That stuff is incredible, I swear they lace it with something illegal. You won’t be disappointed.”

Sandy laughed. “Joe’s going to be so jealous.”

Trish’s gaze flicked back to Sandy’s wedding band. “I’m sure. Marc was upset when he heard Joe wasn’t coming along. Between me and the twins I think he misses Man Time.”

“How are the twins?” Sandy’s phone vibrated. She checked it briefly before returning it, face down, to the table. “Last I saw them they were still practically grubs.”

Abruptly shifting the conversation away from partners, Trish noted, her stomach in knots. Joe was one of her oldest friends, hell, he’d introduced her to her husband. And Sandy was so good for him. Or had been. Oh, god, why had she decided to go into marital counseling as a career, and not just worked at Starbucks? Then she wouldn’t know half of everybody’s business, and she wouldn’t have the words to describe the problems she saw in her own or others' relationships.

But instead of saying any of that she just took out her own phone and started showing Sandy pictures of her twin three-year-old girls. “They’re absolute hellraisers,” she said proudly, then launched into a story about the traumas of potty training. Sandy’s son was just over a year younger than the twins, so she listened with mounting horror.

“I feel like I should take notes,” she said. “I can’t wait for that part to be over. He’s finally sleeping on his own, which makes it a lot easier to get a sitter for date nights.” Sandy’s phone vibrated again. She dismissed the message without looking at it. “You and Marc come here for dinner a lot, right? Is it a good spot for a date night?”

“Definitely. Are you and Joe thinking of going out next time you’re here?”

Sandy’s easy smile went glassy for just a second. “Oh, yeah. Next time we’re both in town, obviously. It’s too bad his conference got rescheduled to this weekend, he really wanted to be here.”

The arrival of the cake distracted Sandy enough to miss the way Trish’s face fell. This felt like a confirmation of her worst fears. Joe and Sandy had been the first of their group to marry, and they’d be the first to divorce if that were happening. Oh god, she’d have to choose sides. She couldn’t choose sides, Trish could barely choose what socks to wear in the mornings. The fallout from this would tear apart the entire social circle, it would be immensely damaging. It would be…

Sandy laughed, shaking her out of her spiraling thoughts. “We’re not the only ones thinking about cake,” she said, handing Trish her phone, which played a little video of Joe and their son making a mess in the kitchen. “I don’t envy that clean-up!”

Trish laughed, slightly forced, then saw a text message pop up on the screen.

Can’t wait to see you tonight, babe. She froze, staring at the name. She had just a moment to think about how important it was to be careful, to be gentle with her friend, but her mouth was running on autopilot, so she just blurted out “Who’s Dale?”

Sandy turned bright red and snatched her phone out of Trish’s hand, furiously scrolling through messages. “Nobody. No one. Don’t worry about it.”

Trish hesitated. “Sandy, is everything okay between you and Joe?”

“It’s fine.” Trish must not have looked convinced, because Sandy sighed, deep and aggravated. “Look, we’re not… we haven’t told a lot of people yet.”

Here it comes. Trish braced herself for the news of divorce.

“Joe and I are polyamorous. Dale is my boyfriend.”

Trish blinked. “Oh. Joe knows about it? And he’s okay with it?”

Sandy nodded, irritably. She wouldn’t meet Trish’s eyes. “Yes. Really. He’s fine. He has a girlfriend too. Her name is Cassandra. She’s nice.”

“Oh,” Trish said again, dumbly. She hadn’t even considered that. It seemed obvious now.

“I know it’s not exactly ‘therapist approved,’” Sandy said, making exaggerated air quotes with her fingers. “But it’s been working for us, you know?”

“Of course. We have some friends up in Philly who do that. Not polyamory, I think, ‘cause they’re not really dating people, but something on that ethical non-monogamy spectrum.” Sandy stared at her, half in disbelief. Trish snorted. “What? I’m hip. I’m on Twitter. I know things.”

“Oh my god you have no idea how nervous I was about telling you!” Words started to flow out of Sandy in a rush. “We started like, right before the pandemic began. Joe met Cassie and it was like… love at first sight. And he hated that, he was so angry at himself. But when he told me about it I just… I didn’t hate the idea. It actually kind of turns me on to think about them together. She’s super cute, you know, and so nice. She’s got a primary called Patrice, they run a nonprofit in Nashville. They come over for poker every week. It’s been really nice. We’re not so… so lonely anymore. The pandemic has been really freaking hard, but we were able to form a bubble between the four of us and just get away from our primary partners every once in a while but not have to be alone.”

Trish nodded, the weight of doubt and uncertainty was lifting. “I get it,” she said when she could get a word in edgewise. “I get so exhausted with Marc and the kids, and since you guys moved we don’t have anyone really local to hang out with.”

“I’ve heard there’s a pretty big poly scene here,” Sandy said. “Have you ever thought about it?”

“Yeah. I don’t think I could do it. The twins take up so much energy, I barely have enough left for Marc, much less a whole nother person.”

Sandy looked a little disappointed. “Maybe when the twins are older. Monogamy is a social construct, you know. It’s easier to raise kids in a group setting.”

Trish laughed. “Yeah, I’m sure. It’s just not for me. I don’t know if Marc could see me with another person and be okay. I don’t know if I could see him with another person and be okay. It’s just too risky for me.”

Sandy shook her head and picked her fork back up. “Only being with one person for the rest of your life? That’s what had me terrified of marriage in the first place. It got boring.”

“Maybe. But it’s kind of nice.”

Sandy took a bite, frowning. She stopped and looked at the cake, then back at Trish. “Holy crap. This is exactly as good as you said it would be.”

“Right?! I want to break into the kitchen to steal the recipe.” Trish took a bite herself, making exaggerated sounds of delight. “There’s got to be some sort of secret, I’ve never had anything this good.”

When it was time to part, Trish left feeling lighter. Her friend just had a different life than hers, and that was great. There had been nothing to worry about after all.

Jan 21, 2010

when i get up all i want to do is go to bed again

Lipstick Apathy

750 words
(astronaut in an elementary school parking lot)

Earth and everyone on her rotated 500 yards in the second it took Jayne to slip safely into a parking spot at the Doverdale Elementary school. She killed the engine and tried to clear her head. Ever since returning from the ISS, she’d been unable to ignore the motion of the cosmos. Everything swayed like a ship at sea. She opened her car door and her stomach tightened. A wave of vertigo splashed her. I’m on the blue marble. She leaned back in her seat to wait it out.

Fifteen minutes until she was due in the gymnasium to talk to a bunch of fifth graders about space. Or, about following your dream? She’d do some combination of the two to be safe. The blue marble fell through the void, covering thousands of miles in the time she’d been sitting there.

Everyone had told her about the overview effect. They said the sight would change her, and that it was so different from pictures. When you see that helpless little marble floating out there in the icy dark, it does something to your mind. A drop of blue paint on an infinite black canvas--that was Earth, and it was naked but for the thinnest, transparent film of air. I’m on the blue marble, right now.

She fished a crumpled sheet of paper from her purse and scanned her notes, but the chaotic scratches of her handwriting had lost all meaning.The paper seemed so pathetic, a sad little collection of atoms. The view in her mind’s eye telescoped out, flying away from her and up into the sky until her car in the parking lot was a flea crouching on a postage stamp, and then the postage stamp vanished beneath swirling white clouds. Our spherical ship sails on, rocked by gravity waves and pelted by 25 million meteorites per day and thousands of cosmic rays. If our sails are torn, if our hull is breached--that’s it. There is no one else, nothing else. There are no islands, there are no other ships to save us... we are so alone...

“Hey, you’re her. Aren’t you? You’re Jayne Singer? The astronaut?” A girl with a mop of red curls, thick glasses, and a binder with a NASA logo clutched to her chest stood outside Jayne’s open car door.

“Yeah,” she said. “That’s right.” The crisp fall morning was bright, and the air was cold and beginning to chill her fingers. She shoved her notes back into her purse and got out of the car.

“What’s your name?” she asked the girl.


“Well, Tanya, I’m Jayne, it’s nice to meet you. Will you show me where I’m supposed to be? I think I may be late.”

The girl took her hand and pulled her toward the school. Jayne still felt that tightening in her stomach as the Earth rotated beneath them with each step. The school and all the children inside hurtled through a deadly void, only shielded from murderous radiation by a magnetosphere that decayed at a steady rate of 5% per century. We’re alone alone alone alone...

They reached the entrance to the gymnasium and the girl tugged on her arm, beaming up at her with hopeful eyes. “Hey, will you take a picture with me?”

“Sure, I’d love to.”

She smiled at Tanya’s phone and the click sound effect coincided with a gamma ray burst that would rip the atmosphere off like a roof in a hurricane if it happened to be pointed at them.

“Thanks,” said Tanya, “I’m gunna be just like you someday.” Then her cheeks went red, and she ran into the gymnasium.

Jayne recognized the school principal, who was waving her over to a podium.

At the microphone she flattened her crumpled notes in front of her and looked at the crowd of fifth graders. Most seemed bored, a few were wide eyed and attentive, and all of them were only protected from negative 455 degree temperatures by a few hundred miles of air, 90 tons of which disappeared into space each day...

“Hi everyone,” said Jayne. She moved back a few inches as the microphone squeaked. “Hi, my name is Jayne, and I’ve just returned from space.”

There was a surprising amount of applause, and some shouts of ‘cool!’ She spotted Tanya in the back, on her feet and clapping. Jayne grinned, and Earth was still for a moment. Alone, yeah. At least we’re alone together.

Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:

Master Key
1561 words
Pro wrestler, train station, (hellrule) can't use the same word twice in a paragraph (besides articles)

“I believe the master key has fallen through the grate.”

Theodore looked toward Mr. Van Cleef. It wasn’t the whole truth, Theo thought, but experiential cowardice demonstrated that all mistakes, once uncovered, had to be unspooled very carefully. This, he considered, would distribute the weight of admonishment, minimizing ego-injury and mitigating any impact on future performance-based cash bonuses.

VC knelt and peered into the small circular grate.

The old railmaster angled around the perforated metal circle, trying to find the optimum mix of line-of-sight vs. station light, then shrugged. “Well, that’s why we have spares, isn’t it?” VC smiled at Theo and glanced back at what must have been a newly installed grate.

Theodore released another inch of blunder.

“I’m, ah, displeased to report that we no longer possess the spares.”

Yes, Theo thought. Integrate ‘we’ verbiage to distribute the gaffe, dispassionately report on your own mistake, and cast it as a condition of indisputable reality. Flawless, managerial-level work.

Van Cleef’s moustache twitched. His sunny countenance wavered for a moment. “You mean, we don’t have them here? Well, get to the engine office and get ‘em.” He checked the huge station clock. Across a lifelong career, three rail companies, and a million miles of track, VC had never run a late train.

Theo responded without a trace of contrition. “In an effort to increase our running efficiency, I placed the spares on the same ring as the master.” Theodore had taken a rhetorical gamble: the skillful deployment of an executive-level blame-reconciliation strategy, a rationale so ridiculous (but concurrently factual) that any observer or erstwhile critic would be forced to assume greater and more intelligent machinations were at play.

At that moment, VC realized that the young conductor had been educated beyond his intelligence. A steam whistle blew in the distance.

He looked down at the large gold pocketwatch from his first retirement, then confirmed the time with the silver wristwatch from his second: thirty minutes to unlock the engine compartment and get Number Six on its way. But something about the grate...

Oblivious to VC’s consternation, Theo delivered his coup de grace: “I’m so sorry for the situation. I’ll get a string and some gum, hook the key that way.” Before Van Cleef could respond, Theodore walked away in wide, heavy strides.

It was beautiful, Theo thought. The ego intact, a responsibility failed successfully. At-large apology, an immediate pivot to a solution, and a rapid extraction from the scene. Inscrutable.

Van Cleef briefly considered a third retirement. His bushy brows came together as he reconsidered the grate, noting for the first time that its holes were far too small to accomodate a laden keyring.


A thousand miles away, Charles Brudzynski pushed his broom in smooth, even strokes across the stockroom floor. He did a little twirl, briefly reminiscing on a short-lived tag team stint in The Ballet Melee, then stood in the corner and surveyed his handiwork. Perfect. But…

His eyes locked on a grate in the center of the floor and the keyring lying atop it.

He ran a hand over his gleaming scalp, an actually-pretty-flattering leftover from long-gone days as The Grapplin’ Otter. The keyring couldn’t have always been there. Charles’ broomstrokes were even, each in line with its neighbor, crisscrossing twice over the span of the stockroom.

He’d have noticed a keyring.

Charles meandered to the grate and hefted the keys. They were solid, heavy brass things, each handle shaped like a miniature locomotive. He looked up to the wooden rafters, wondering if the ring could have fallen from above.

No, he thought. Couldn’t be.

Charles tried the keys on the room’s locks in turn. Back door, no. Side hatch, zilch. He stopped at the cupboard and gently wiped a little dust from Mrs. Hannigan’s silvervines, then slipped a key into the lock. Nothing. He patted the climbing plant.

“Doin’ good, little buddy.”

Tidying handled for the night, Charles tucked the keyring into the pocket of his overalls. The ex-wrestler cleared some space and hefted a sack of flour. He needed to think.

To Charles, retirement wrestling was meditative, almost yogic. He suplexed the bag of flour once, twice, three times, shooting up like a rocket and laying down easy as a feather. Brudzynski noted that there wasn’t a trace of powder in the landing zone.

Charles Brudzynski, formerly known (among many other alises) as Kid Spit (World-Class Rumble), This Impassable Octagon (Black Hole Eye Promotions (an alternative-type league)), Big Hank (half of The Wild Goose Brothers, Aces Low Athletics, LLC), The Transubstantiator (All-Calvinist Wrestling), and Old Man Spittle (WCR, again), exhaled heavily.

Still got it, he thought.

He reached into a pocket and pulled out the folded-and-refolded offer letter from World-Class Rumble. Charles scanned it briefly, though the former wrestler knew every word. An old-timers match, a chance to recapture the glory of the ring. A way back.

For a moment, he could hear the roar of the crowd, chanting for Kid Spit. Charles’ fists shot into the air. The old grappler smiled. Crisscrossing the country, ridin’ the rails from venue to venue, running after the cry of a departing engine to another bout and a sold-out crowd.

But Charles found himself unable to pull his mind away from those train-keys. He tucked the letter away.

He walked back over to the grate and gently pried it up from the floor, then tentatively reached a hand in. He’d never cleaned down here. In fact, Charles had never paid the little hole any mind. The ex-wrestler put his face close, then jerked back in shock.

Was that a steam whistle?


A crowd had gathered around the grate and peppered VC with suggestions as he rubbed his second-retirement watch. Theo was nowhere to be found.

“Just pry the grate off!” shouted a woman as she wrung her hands.

A sharp-dressed man recommended using a high-powered magnet.

A short fellow scooted around the crowd for a better look, periodically calling the number of minutes until the train would be officially late.

Van Cleef’s sigh was lost in the furor. After a lifetime of driving the rails, he finally felt tired. The crowd clamored as the Senior Conductor knelt, futilely trying again to get fingers around the grate. A dismal thought bubbled up from an inky, sulfurous place, silencing the chattering commuters: Well, chief, why don’t you just quit?

VC considered the dark proposition. So many years on well-beloved track, reduced to this: a late train, a lost master key, a hundred stranded passengers, and a no-call walkout.

Van Cleef spotted Theo striding back. He checked both retirement watches again.


Charles had definitely heard a whistle.

His focus on the sound slipped away as he daydreamed to the squared circle. At first, he’d been disappointed taking the janitor gig. A world-class brawler and occasional pugilist, reduced to stocking shelves and sweeping up.

The trainwhistle had called Charles back to a different life. He’d been the star, face plastered on posters and name emblazoned on marquees. He took the letter back out of his pocket, reading it for the hundredth time.

And somehow, Charles knew that the keys were his way back.

A whistle emanated from the hole. It was clearer now, sharp and high. He could almost feel the steam of a departing train caress his face.

Charles considered what he’d left behind. A million fans, sure, but…

Never sleeping in the same bed, always waking up sore, the repeated flips from good guy to villain, over and again. No yogic peace, just a neverending climb for glory and satisfaction.

He looked around the stockroom, its clean crisscrosses, tidy stacks of flour sacks, and Mrs. Henderson’s lovely little silvervine.

Charles lifted the keys, tossed them down the hole, and closed the grate. The whistles ceased. He looked up, smiling in contentment.

Well, Charles supposed, the rafters could use a good wipedown.


Van Cleef dispassionately surveyed the crowd as Theo tried in vain to gum the keyring. The clock continued to tick down. Twenty five minutes gone. The young man’s internal strategizing was finally rendered dumb.

He looked to VC and his stomach dropped. He didn’t see worry, consternation, or even anger. No, Theodore beheld something far worse from the legendary old Railman: resigned disinterest. He leapt to his feet and gripped VC’s shoulder.

“Boss, the, um, gum isn’t working. And the crowd’s getting angry.”

VC barely reacted, only shifting his gaze to the young conductor.

Theodore was out of cards, lingo, answers. Pretense depleted, his eyes locked with Chief Conductor Van Cleef’s. He sputtered a few words.

“Chief, I don’t know what to do.”

Theo’s desperate final plea was definitively not in line with any managerial aspirations:

“I’m sorry. We need you.”

Van Cleef shook from his reverie and acknowledged the young conductor as the station clock tocked down. This was it: walk, or stay.

He looked around the station at Theo, the grate, the crowd, the clock. The kind of situation he’d smoothed and solved a hundred times before.

Just a late train, but not his last one.

VC blew his conductor’s whistle. The shrill silver trill cut through the crowd, the air, and the sibilant cries of departing engines.

Van Cleef’s voice boomed over the throng. “Ladies, gentlemen! I’m your conductor, and I apologize for the delay.” His eyes wandered to the grate.

He blinked, and the keys appeared.

My Shark Waifuu
Dec 9, 2012

Battle of the Bands
1043 words
Your character has a fear of spiders and the story is set in the Jem and the Holograms universe. Hellrule: you are not allowed to directly reference Jem and the Holograms, or any of the main cast.

The Dames of Brixton lounged on the couches of their dressing room, waiting for their turn on stage. Ruby picked at her guitar, pink mohawk bobbing up and down. Sheena, with her shaved head, smeared on more thick eyeliner. Dottie, dressed head to toe in black, rolled a cigarette and lit it. The smoke wafted out into the hallway, where a suited man walking past stopped and glared at them. “Could you please not smoke in here?” Dottie flipped him off and he walked away, offended.

“God, everyone here has such a stick up their arse,” Sheena said. “Remind me why we came out here?”

Ruby said, for the hundredth time, “The Starlight Music Battle of the Bands is the biggest contest there is. If we want to make it in the US, we gotta do it. And win it, too, so we have the money to go on tour.” She’d managed to convince the others to travel here, but now that they’d arrived, she was beginning to have doubts. The Dames were used to playing smoky London pubs, not American-sized arenas.

“That was rhetorical, Rubes,” Sheena said, poking her head out the door. “I’m gonna go look around and take a piss.”

“Oi, don’t forget to tune your bass,” Ruby called after her.

“She already did,” Dottie said, taking another puff on her cigarette. Her blue eyeshadow was spread over her face like Celtic warpaint. “You should give yours a rest, there’s still a few bands up before us.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Ruby said, but she put down her guitar. “Roll me a ciggie, love.”


After visiting the loo, Sheena stalked through the backstage labyrinth. What she saw put her in a bad mood: their competitors were vapid pop bands, with garish neon hair, makeup, accessories, instruments, etc. that assaulted her eyes. When she looked at the running order and saw the “surprise last-minute entry” that was closing the show, her mood blackened. She had to tell the Dames.

On her way back, she spotted a band huddled around the drum kits. They were putting glitter into Dottie's drums. Sheena doubted that Dottie had ever voluntarily touched glitter in her entire life.

“What the gently caress?!” Sheena yelled. The girls whirled around, shocked at her language, then adopted haughty poses.

“We’re the Mohawks, and we’re the only punk band that deserves to be on stage,” one of them, who did not have a mohawk, said. Sheena looked incredulously at their patterned leotards, which were indistinguishable from the pop bands’ outfits except for the addition of zebra print.

“Your band is so drab, all in black, Trish here thought you could use the pizzazz,” the purple-haired one said.

“Go back to your own country,” the leader, Trish, said in an obnoxious voice. At least she had a mohawk, but Sheena wasn’t intimidated. She pulled a switchblade from her boot. The girls squealed.

“Clean this up now. There best not be a speck of glitter when I come back or there’ll be hell to pay,” she warned. The Mohawks whined but started picking up the glitter.

Sheena walked deeper backstage, taking deep breaths to calm down. It wouldn’t do to stab someone; Ruby would never forgive her for mucking up this opportunity. But she couldn’t let insults go unpunished. Looking at the dusty corners, she had an idea.

“All cleaned up, girls?” Sheena said as she reappeared. They nodded and she glanced at it, confirming that they’d done an adequate job. “All right then,” she said, then grabbed Trish and rubbed a handful of cobwebs in her brightly coloured face.

She shrieked. “What was that for?”

“That was for insulting our aesthetic, you bitch,” Sheena said. Trish dashed off to fix her makeup and Sheena returned to the Dames’ dressing room, triumphant.


The room was hazy with smoke when she returned. “You’ve been ages, Sheen,” Dottie said, handing her a cigarette. “Get lost?”

“Got held up by some assholes trying to sabotage us, but I sorted them out,” Sheena said. “Bad news though: there’s no way we can win. You know the owner of Starlight Music? I just saw that her sisters’ band is closing the show.”

“I thought the lead singer was her cousin?” Dottie said.

Ruby waved her cigarette. “Sister, cousin, whatever. They’ve won for the past six years. If they’re playing tonight, they’re winning.” She was furious: if she’d known that group, with their outrageous special effects and nepotism, were competing, she wouldn’t have spent the last of the Dames’ money flying out here.

A dark mood permeated the room along with the smoke. Ruby was about to suggest warming up just to distract themselves when there was a scuffling at the door. A jar flew into the room and shattered.

“Thanks for the idea, punk!” Trish’s obnoxious voice shouted as the Mohawks ran away, cackling.

Sheena was about to go cut them up when she heard moaning behind her. Dottie was standing on her chair, staring, petrified, at the jar. A handful of spiders crawled out, scurrying for the dark corners of the room. One headed for Dottie’s chair. She screamed, “Get it, get it away!”

Ruby and Sheena stared at her, shocked that Dottie, who’d once smashed a copper with a beer bottle, was reduced to a quivering mess by a spider. But they sprang into action. Ruby squashed the spider under her boot and Sheena began overturning the furniture, hunting down every last one. Dottie slowly calmed down as Ruby held her hand reassuringly.

“gently caress this place,” Dottie said heatedly. “You say this is all bloody pop bands, the game’s rigged, and bitches are messing with us? I say we torch the room, beat up the Mohawks, and see if anywhere does a decent pint. Like we did in Bristol.”

Ruby nodded. “Absolutely no respect. I’m sorry I dragged us into this, but we can sure go out with a bang.”

“The Mohawks are scheduled to be on stage now,” Sheena said, smiling wolfishly. “Why don’t we go do a little British Invasion, kick them off the stage and play our song?”

“Smash up their instruments at the end?” Dottie asked hopefully.

“Of course.”

They looked at Ruby, who stood up, guitar in hand like a battleaxe. “Let’s go, girls.”

Apr 30, 2006

1487 words

When I was fifteen, my dad and I had our only real conversation. We had grown up parallel to each other, as he worked nights seven days a week and would still be sleeping when I got home from school. He would wake up an hour before dinner, turn on the Giants game, and, on a good day, he’d walk past me and toss a baseball in the yard with my younger brother. Before I was born, Dad was a minor league pitcher, drafted right out of high school, but he wasn’t anywhere close to getting called up when I came along. So he put down his glove and enrolled in the community college for boiler repair.

We didn’t have a lot of money, but I was an aspiring horse girl, and on special occasions I’d go with Mom to take riding lessons. It hurt that even when Dad was free, he’d just want to lie on the couch and watch ESPN. It’s not like he was rude, or cruel, or insensitive – like, he didn’t forget my birthday, and he’d make small talk about school a few times a week – but I had the expectation that he was a peripheral figure in my life. Most of the time, I was OK with that.

But at fifteen I had started working under-the-table at a pet supply store, sweeping the floors and stocking the shelves after school. It’s probably a PetCo now, but at the time it was locally owned by a genial, ruddy-faced man and his extremely shy wife. More than them, I remember the two horses they kept in their stable, Rudyard and Chamomile, and I remember Phil, the unsmiling clerk with a crew-cut who would never let me leave.

“Adelaide,” he would say, “the floors were filthy this morning. Whatever you’re doing to mop, it’s not working.” And after we closed, he would stay after to watch me mop the floors, sitting at the desk and leering at me until I’d worked to his satisfaction. If it wasn’t mopping, it was inventory, or some dog food pallets that needed to be lugged into our storage. Sometimes I was two hours late getting home. I was angry at him, but not because he’d taken advantage of me, but because by the time he would let me go, the owners would be gone for the day, the stable locked, and I wouldn’t get to feed Rudyard and Chamomile a sugarcube.

I was afraid Mom would make me quit if I said anything, so I’d make excuses for why I was biking home so late – that I stopped at the library, or I had to visit a friend’s house to pick up homework. I’m sure she thought I was secretly making out with a boy, but she didn’t say anything. I figured Dad didn’t notice, but one day, just before the store closed, he came in to the shop for the first time.

“We’re closing, sir. You’ll have to come back tomorrow,” Phil said.

Dad didn’t say anything. He picked up a squeaky dog toy and rubbed it in the palm of his hand before putting it down. I was peering over at him from behind a display of bird cages, wondering what he was doing here, if someone had died, when he walked up to the counter.

“Picking Addie up,” he said. Dad was almost a foot taller than Phil, and his arms were covered in half-healed burns. Despite everything, I almost admired Phil’s impassivity in the face of a man so many others saw as an implicit threat.

“We have to close. Sweep, mop, keep everything organized for our guests. That can take a while. Why don’t you come back in a couple hours?”

“You’re her boss?”

“We’re a team.”

“Well,” he said, “how about you take one for the team today?” He turned and motioned to me; through the bars of different bird cages I could see the frustration on Phil’s face and the impassive blankness on Dad’s face. Again, I was afraid to leave – this sense that Phil would talk to the owners, and they’d decide I was too much trouble, and then I wouldn’t be able to save up for a car or horse lessons. But I followed Dad out and he heaved my bike into the back of his truck with one hand. Then we sat in his truck in silence for a bit, without him turning the engine on.

“Guy’s a piece of work,” Dad said. “He’s keeping you late?”

“There’s stuff to do,” I said, carefully.

“Uh huh.” He cranked down the windows and lit a cigarette. “You ever tell him it’s not your job?”

“Like he’d listen to me.”

“No one’s going to listen to you if you don’t say anything.” Beneath his arm burns were sleeve tattoos, and as I was failing to meet his eyes I met the gaze of a snake winding his forearm instead. “You’re tough. You’re nails. I see it, kid. That guy thinks you’re soft but if you were soft, you wouldn’t keep going back. But you got to show him otherwise. You gotta.”

“He’s just going to fire me. He’ll tell the owners that I’m stealing cat food or something.”

“Yeah, sure. But you’ll find something else.”

“The only reason I got this job is because Mom knows the owner’s wife and she pulled some strings. Everywhere else says I’m too young.”

He started the engine. “Not gonna tell you what to do. Lord, I don’t–” He tapped his cigarette on the window, ran a hand back across his graying hair. “You’re too young to suffer for money. And for what, fifty dollars a day?” Then he turned on some AM sports radio and didn’t say anything else as we pulled out of the parking lot.

I have a certain affection for that now, the gravely certainty, the sense that he’d said his piece, but in the moment, it just made me angry. I turned off the radio and crossed my arms.

“Why don’t you ask your boss to take you off the night shift, then?”

“The night – oh, Addie, I gotta provide. Night pays more.”

“Oh, no, yeah, you’re right. What’s the age where it’s okay to suffer for money?”

“Once you know what it’s like to suffer because you don’t have money.” He honked his horn at a red light, and a flock of crows scattered. “What’s going on?”

“You don’t get to do this whole sitcom ‘fatherly wisdom’ thing. I literally never see you,” I said,
“and you literally never talk to me. Do you even know what I like to do, or were you just like ‘oh, she’s a girl, guess she can’t play baseball,’ and you just waited for Ben?”

I remember the feeling of adrenaline, that I had opened up a very narrow window that was certain to slam shut.

“Not while I’m driving, Addie.”


I felt this sense of shame and humiliation sweep through me, that I had thrown a dumb and childish fit. But a few blocks later, he said:

“I’m sorry. I dunno how to talk about – well. Anyway. I hope – I hope you bring that fire to your boss tomorrow. You’ve got it, Addie. You’re – you’re going to have good things in your life.”

We drove another couple of miles back to our house. But he didn’t turn the radio back on.


I told Phil that I wouldn’t work longer than an hour after the store closed. He called me selfish and told me I didn’t understand how the real world worked, but I walked out at 6 PM, and the owners let me feed Rudyard and Chamomile a sugarcube, just like normal. After a few days, Phil actually started helping with closing the store.

I wish I could say that it changed something with me and Dad, but it didn’t. Nothing tangible, anyway. I think I caught him looking at me a little more, studying me, like he was looking for something to say. But we never had a longer conversation than that day in the car, and a few years later, the year my younger brother went off to college, he ended up passing away on one of his few days off. Drowned. Mom, Ben, and I never talk about it, and it’s better that way, I think.

I drive by an equestrian school on my way to work, teaching business composition at a community college, and sometimes I think about taking lessons again. But just like the pang I feel whenever I see the Giants on TV, there’s something that tugs at me when I see a horse’s dark eyes. I used to feel charmed, but now, in the penetrating gaze of those creatures, it feels like I’m failing to translate a language I thought I understood.

Aug 25, 2008

I've lost twice, I've failed twice and I've gotten two dishonorable mentions within 7 weeks. But I keep coming back. I am The Trooper!


Flash: Your setting is a barnacle encrusted boulder at low tide.

1291 words

The beach stood still in that beautiful moment just before sunset, a place for careless leisure for all but those who were about to drown.

Or least it was supposed to be. We were drinking at a kiosk and Janet was going on about her job and I was distractedly watching the waterfront and its handful of denizens from the safety of my shades, nodding and agreeing at the usual cues. I wondered when I stopped caring, if I ever did. Used to be I wanted her to let go of work on our days off, but now it was just the (un?)bearable white noise of our relationship.

And then I heard it, a not so distant kitten’s meow, multiples of. I could tell she noticed it too because she looked annoyed. I raised my finger and asked if she was hearing it. Janet rolled her eyes.

“Love, please, don’t take in another cat.” she gestured around “Someone else will take care of it.”

“What if they don’t?”

“That’s your anxiety talking, you don’t need to take in another stray.” she took my hand in hers and offered a compassionate smile “There are a lot of good people in the world, you’re not the only one, besides, maybe this one doesn’t need rescue.”

“I’m just going to give it a look to be sure.” I got up, hypnotized by that siren’s call. Janet rolled her eyes and sighed, then told me she’d take care of the bill and what remained of our margaritas.

The insistent meowing drew me to a group of boulders irradiating late afternoon heat. They were placed here by city hall a few years back to protect the boardwalk, but the project was halted halfway through due to a lack of funding (or overenthusiastic grift, everyone presumed) so it just turned into a bunch of rocks haphazardly collecting barnacles and trash. The meowing had quieted, but I had a feeling, so I looked at the spaces between the boulders and, yep, a calico had nested there with her babies, I counted four, but maybe there were more. The mother looked at me with concern, I could tell she was very thin and it broke my heart.

Janet wearily and warily approached me, “So?”

“They’re with her mom, they will be fine.” my voice was low, I was trying to convince myself that there was nothing I had to do. My girlfriend offered a genuine smile.

“See? No need to worry, let’s go.” she held onto me and gently led me away “This is all very sweet of you, but you don’t need to save every cat. I spoke to the kiosk owner and they put some food for the beach cats every night, we’ll let them know the queen is here and then she won’t need to hunt far, what do you think?”

“Yeah, that’s a good idea. Let’s do that.” I smiled at her.

We walked a bit through the sand, arm in arm, it was almost nice.

And then a wave lapped at my feet and it dawned on me, it was the low tide.

The boulders would be fully covered in water in another hour or so. I guess the litter of kittens came to the same realization because another wave of desperate meows arrived. Janet looked at me with a warning glance.

“Look, we’ll need to at least move the kittens.” I declared, then explained. Janet just closed her eyes, then whispered a ‘fine’ after me. We passed by what seemed like a happy couple, the kind entangled in the kind of love that erases the entire rest of the world. How long ago was that?

The mother was carrying one of the kittens in her mouth when we got there, her eyes were desperate, her skin was very saggy, the poor thing. Janet held me back.

“You are going to scare her, let her do her thing, she knows what she’s doing.” her voice was calm and firm.

The cat didn’t look like she knew what she was doing, she looked back and forth, assessing threats, looking for a safe space. I wondered how well she knew this terrain, if she had been just abandoned here or had always lived by the beach. Then she ran off towards a boarded up shop and sneaked through a crack in its door. Janet smiled encouragingly and told me to be patient.

We kept our distance and waited for a few minutes, the water gradually rising.

“What if she doesn’t come back?” I asked. Janet gently caressed my hand and kissed it.

“She’s a mother, she will.”

What if she was afraid of us and would never come back and it would be my fault when the rest of the kittens all drowned? I felt we were at a good distance from the nest, the sea kissing our feet, but we were watching and that may have made her wary. I recalled how deep the cats were between the boulders and listened to the kittens’ calls. It was quickly getting dark. I had to do something.

“JJ, I don’t think she’s coming. Help me out here.”

“loving hell, Dave.” she replied and followed me, her practiced sweetness finally cracking.

Janet used her phone’s lantern to illuminate the boulders and I found the nest, four kittens now. At least four. I reached in to grab one of them, but no such luck. I’d have to move some of the boulders and quickly, the tide would be here soon.

“No luck?” Janet asked with what appeared to be genuine concern.

I shook my head and then started to move the top boulders out of the way. They were very heavy, way heavier than I expected them to be, way way heavier than they had any right to be. It was a good thing I had begun working out these last few months, I figured that if we broke I’d have to be in better shape to get back in the game. After the third rock I heard a new set of meows from behind me. More kittens? I turned back in despair.

Janet smiled and showed me her phone’s screen, it was a video. Of course. That was the smart and practical woman I was once in love with. I smiled back, the first genuine smile I had given her in a long time.

The actual kittens crawled towards the digital ones and in a couple of minutes we had five of them collected in my shirt. I double checked, that was all, had to be all. They were so tiny, their eyes hadn’t opened yet.

We brought them to the storefront we saw the mother get in and waited for some time. No luck, I’d have to do it on my own. Janet gently hugged me. I’d have to bottle feed them, keep them warm and of course keep them isolated from my other 12 cats, it would be a lot of work, but I had done it before. I could do it.

The drive home was quiet, I put in some Mozart as Janet drove. I could tell she was mad, I had way too many cats. I had no choice, I couldn’t let them die. I half heartedly promised that I would find homes for these. She was mad and she still helped me, even though I had been such a lovely boyfriend of late. I couldn’t have rescued them from the tide without her. She was pissed off, but she was there and I had no doubt I could always count on her. Did that mean she loved me? I caught her gaze in the stoplight and smiled.

“I love you.” I lied.

Aug 18, 2014


577 words

We like to ask important questions in our lives. Like, should I choose biology or physics as a major? Is moving in another country for work good for me? Those questions tend to live rent free in people's minds.

But right now there is only one thing taking all the space in my mind.

Why is the guy sitting in a corner of the cafeteria putting salt on his ice cream?

Like, that's weird, right? And it's not the first time I'm seeing him doing this so he has to enjoy salted ice cream somehow if he keeps it up. I'm kinda sure I'm not the only one to notice this. Furthermore, he's kind of a handsome guy, the kind that stands out for a reason I can't put words on. Some people would say that makes him look harder to approach, but it's actually making me curious.

I try to appear natural as I sit down in front of him. No reaction on his part, but now that I worked up some courage, I'm not giving up at the first hurdle.

"Hey, how are you doing?" I ask with a voice that's quieter that I would've liked.

He looks up from his ice cream. Unexpectedly, he smiles and locks his eyes into mine.

"Hi, are you a member of my fan club?"

"Excuse me?"

"I've picked up on the fact I attract some looks when I eat. I don't really know why, though. And I feel like I've caught you in particular stare at me several times."

It takes all my will no to stand up and leave at this point. I'm pretty sure I'm starting to blush.

"Okay. I've been staring, I'll admit it. But I feel like you're not getting why you're drawing attention here."

He tilts his head, looking surprised.

"If it's not for my looks, why are people staring at me, then?"

I lower my eyes towards his plate. He looks down, then back up. His expression tells me that he's not getting it.

"The salt, man! Why would you put salt in your drat ice cream?"

He freezes for a moment with an expression of disbelief on his face, then laughs.

"Oh, so that's what it's all about? I didn't realize it'd look so weird to y'all!"

"I mean, it kinda is."

"I don't feel like it. I've had some sea salt ice cream on a trip, and I liked it. That's all there is to it."

I try to keep as neutral an expression as possible.

"Really? I've never tried it so it feels like it shouldn't work."

"You'll have to try it then. By the way, what's your name?"

I blink. Then I stammer a bit before I can say it correctly.


"Hello Jake, I'm Chris. Wanna grab a beer later?"

"I'm not really sure...", I say, looking away.

"Oh come on! You're the first person that dared approach me here, so I felt like you wanted to know more about me."

I feel people starting to stare at us because of his outburst. Suddenly I want to be anywhere but here. But at the same time...

"Fine. I'll wait for you at the meeting point, south of the campus, after classes."

"Great. See you there."

As I stand up and leave, I take a side glance at him and see him smiling again. Right now, there is only one thing taking all the space in my mind.

Apr 21, 2010

Yes, the good words are gone.

Why are the good words gone?!

a character has a fraternal twin, a music venue, and the narrative of your story must flow in retrograde

You Cannot Change

698 words

They played an uptempo version of Freebird for the second encode, and as Jules watched Kayleigh thrash to the beat he knew she wasn't going to come back home. She began to laugh, and he started to smile, a sad little smile hidden in the darkness and haze.


"He'd be lost without me," Kayleigh said.



"He's not your responsibility," said Jules. "Not ahead of, you know, you being happy."

"He kind of is," she said.

"What's the worst that could happen?"

"He'd leave the house with his shirt tucked into his underwear and get arrested for indecent exposure, maybe."

Laughter, somehow less cruel than it should have sounded,  filled the car.


The first encore was Ice Cold Face, again, the extended version with the last verse doubled up and three choruses in the fade out. Jules swayed gently to the music.

"That's me," Kayleigh said, loudly.

"It is not," said Jules. "Misty Sanchez."


"She told me. Back when we were dating for a minute in the two thousands."

"That lying little skank," said Kayleigh.

"I bet everyone who ever dated an Electric Squid thinks they're the one it's about."

"Maybe," she said. "But the others are wrong."


"Sorry to come without calling," said Kayleigh.  "It's Scott."

"What did he do?" asked Jules, a hint of rage starting to form behind his eyes.

"Nothing," she said. "I mean, really nothing. He canceled out on the concert and he was all 'you go on if you want to,' and I know he thinks he meant it but he still not all sad when I said that maybe I would and I just couldn't take looking at him like that."

"You know," said Jules, "Franklin would love to have his Aunt Kayleigh around for a while.  You're welcome to stay as long as you need."


J. J. Chessman and the Electric squid had two short EPs worth of original music, along with the cover skills needed to play local weddings and high school dances. It wasn't a great set for a reunion concert.  Most of the band themselves didn't remember the deeper cuts, and the thirty years out of date popular singles weren't holding up all that well.

They had two hits, so to speak, if you defined the term loosely enough. Two songs that got a little airtime on college radio, that nearly have five digit play counts on Spotify. They played Burn Me Twice as the opener, followed by a couple of The Cure covers and a fee ironic gender-swapped Gaga songs before Ice Cold Face, a game attempt at the next most popular  of their songs, Phoenix Phoenix. Then it was back to the covers a while with a short break for Where's Your Soul At, which nobody ever liked apart from the Squid themselves. 

It should have been a disaster. It was objectively awful. But Kayleigh was loving it and she was contagious that way, not just to Jules but to everyone around them, the ones who vaguely remembered the band and the bored Gen Z kids who liked the logo on the t-shirt and decided to go on a lark. Even the insufferable one who decided a few minutes on Wikipedia and YouTube made her an expert on J.J. Chessman and the Electric Squid.


Jules was going to he the best man at Kayleigh's wedding. Scott didn't have many friends, no brothers, and the guy it was supposed to be got arrested selling pills and wasn't allowed to leave North Carolina until after the trial.

"Tell me why I should do this?" he said.

"Because I said so, " she said. "And I'm the older one."

"By all of thirty minutes."

"Still counts."

"He makes you happy, right?"

A strange smile came across her face, almost but not quite lewd.

"All right, all right," said Jules.


It began with a power chord in C, or nearly in C, discordant and silencing to the audience. He leaned in, augmenting the top note jnto into something that sort of made musical sense. 

It could have been the start of a new song, if Jacob Jasper Chesterton had the time to write new music anymore.

Aug 2, 2002

The Gumshoe’s Greasy Graveyard
1,254 words

Dale sat in the same diner booth she always sat in on the third Thursday of the month: a cheap cotton tablecloth with the red checkerboard pattern worn away where each respective person would sit. Even without a calendar, Dale would have known it was approaching the first day of winter because she could nearly see the table through the tattered tablecloth; they always replaced them when the seasons changed. Hell, half of the wearing away was probably her fault, and it was just the tiniest bit more worn away than where her friend would sit when she finally showed her face.

Dale had gotten to the diner later than she’d wanted, but the important thing was that she had won; she’d arrived first, settled into the booth with a leering look loaded in the chamber, and opened the manilla folder she’d brought to entertain herself. She kept one eye on the door--both to fire off her steely smirk and to slam shut the folder before Ryann caught a glance inside.

The door jingled at Dale didn’t have to look up to know it was her friend by the telltale thud of her belongings on the now-plexiglass door. She swiftly shut the folder.

“Sorry I’m late,” said Ryann. “Some idiot swerved into a streetlight and half the intersections are out.”

“It’s not a big deal, just got here myself.” Dale always wanted it to seem close; a blowout win wasn’t as exciting. When they used to play cards, even when Dale knew she could win she’d draw it out just to make Ryann think she stood some sort of chance.

Ryann took off her coat and pushed her things into the corner of her side of the booth: besides the jacket she carried a laptop bag, a separate purse, and her usual useless umbrella even though it wasn’t forecasted to rain. “What you working with?”

Dale shrugged and instinctively leaned over the folder, blocking it from the wiley writer’s watchful eye. “Oh, nothing nobody needs to see, and certainly nothing you’d be interested in anyway.”

Ryann sat down and picked up the menu, her eyebrows rapidly rising in response to Dale’s attempted handwaving. “Well, now you know I need to get a look at that case.”

“Not in a hundred years, not after the Finnigan Financial fiasco.”

Ryann laughed, her brindle braids bouncing along for the ride. “I can’t help it if sources share secrets with me instead of the police. Plus, you weren’t even close to catching those crooks until I broke that story.”

A scowl slowly seeped across Dale’s face until she remembered that going down that road never ended well. They’d in their years. Their relationship that lasted little longer than a month before they decided the friend zone wasn’t a void for unrequited love, but a buffer between two powerful entities. So she smiled instead. “Justice and jail from the jury is all that matters in the end, and frankly you’re right: we didn’t have the rock-solid evidence, so thank you.” Dale grinded her back molars together to keep from kicking that clown right in her shins.

Thelma, their thin, aproned waitress slid up to the table and exchanged pleasantries with the regular pair. “Oh, and today’s specials are Mama’s marinated meatloaf and piquant peach pie.”

“Just coffee for me, thanks though, Thelma,” said Ryann.

Dale nodded and closed her menu despite desiring dessert. “Same for me, actually; my mom is making dinner tonight so I should probably show up with an appetite.” Dale’s stomach pleaded in pointless protest, its growls unheeded. If coffee was the game, then Dale was prepared to drown herself in a carafe of caffeinated crude.

“Oh, how is your dear mother doing during this whole thing?” asked Ryann, her hands waving in the air as if “this whole thing” was a physical miasma.

“She’s fine, you know, still bugging me to settle down, or at least stoop to stealing some tragedy-stricken orphan to bring home and let her grandmother.”

“Well, I mean if they don’t got any parents, perhaps pilfering a baby isn’t the most immoral thing you could do.”

The sad thing is that even though she knew her morbid mother was messing around, for a moment it did sound rather appealing. Skip all the painstaking searching for a potential partner, the awful first dates, the good dates that disappointedly ended in bad sex. Do away with the paperwork and adoption agencies and just cut straight to an andoring baby. And best, she’d get a baby before Ryann. “How’s… Brett? Bobby? Brian?” Dale grimaced guilty at her glaringly obvious fuckup.

“Adam,” said Ryann, “and he’s helping his friend move this week, so I have the house to myself.”

Dale perked up as she chugged a cup of coffee. It sounded like a subtle suggestion, did it not? She slouched back into the booth before giving it a second thought. There was a reason they weren’t together anymore, and it wasn’t one hundred percent because they couldn’t work, but partly because Dale was damned determined that it wouldn’t work. Not just because of the professional rivalry, but because she had a rule: there was a reason their romance ended on rocky terms, and the same reason they remained friends for the last three years. Even though she fantasized about a wayward touch that would send them into a fiery, forbidden fit of making out, she knew better than to drag a dead horse out of its grave just for the thrill of beating on it a bit. Sooner or later you had to put the pony back in the pit. Dale stupidly let the silence linger a second too long, and Ryann pounced.

“At least tell me what mundane mystery they saddled you with this time. Bike theft? Broken iPhone? Belligerent racoons?

“Sure, if you share what story you’re writing,” countered Dale. “What intriguing investigation of public interest are you hiding from me? You know, I’m part of the public, presumably you have to tell me.”

“You’re literally a cop, funded by taxpayers, so if either one of us is owed an obligatory summary, it’s me,” teased Ryann. “I work for a private corporation, we’re probably protected under one of those amendment things you love to go on about.”

Dale laughed at Ryann’s reliable remissness of all things law. “Yeah, you know, the loving first, ya floozy.”

Ryann shrugged and slid her hand onto Dale’s side of the table. “Come on, can’t you consider giving me just a little peak inside? I promise not to pester you or pump you for more details.”

Dale shook her head, her hair whipping about her face. She smiled slyly, the situation exactly as she had hoped it would be. She finished another mug of mirky mud--putting her a solid two cups ahead of Ryann--and smiled back at her friend.

“Fine, I don’t wanna read that droll detective dribble anyway,” said Ryann.

Their chat turned to other topics, but Dale smiled every time Ryann’s eyes inadvertently glanced down at the folder. But to her credit, Ryann didn’t dare dwell on it or bring it up again. She said her goodbyes, took one last look at the folder, and her erstwhile lover exited the eatery.

Dale sighed and pushed the folder back in front with a single finger. She opened it to nobody, didn’t need to look at it to remember what she’d put inside, the same thing that was inside everything else she owned: nothing.

Nov 14, 2006

The man was stunningly well dressed. He had a smart looking jacket, and a really neat looking cape, the lining of which was shimmering and sparkling in more than Oriental splendour, which is a great deal of splendour indeed, just ask Kipling.

Rules and inspiration: A character has a gambling problem. This story is set at a farmer's market. Hellrule: Every paragraph that does not contain dialogue must reference a vegetable. Every paragraph that does have dialogue must have a gambling reference, no matter how oblique.

Oldest Established (Permanent Floating) 1128 words

It’s 2 PM and I’m at the farmer’s market, because apparently just being a couch potato isn’t acceptable on a Saturday afternoon. Personally, I think that’s actually the correct use of a Saturday, and this is a big waste of my time. But whatevs, Liv wants to come down here so I do the supportive mother thing and try to foster her burgeoning interest in whatever all this is.

‘Aren’t those the most amazing tomatoes?’ says Liv. ‘I bet you’ve never seen a bigger one.’ And I agree that I certainly have not, although if I’m honest I did not put a lot of thought into this because, let’s face it, they’re tomatoes. And then I see the animal section and suggest maybe we check those out, and apparently that was the wrong thing to do, because Liv is vegetarian now, and I should’ve known that, and I did but I thought maybe that would be related to her thinking animals were cute, and therefore she’d want to go look at the animals, but apparently she can’t bear to do so in the knowledge that the farmers are probably, at some point, going to kill and eat those animals. Which, let’s face it, at this point that’s why some animals exist. Like, if we weren’t killing and eating pigs, we wouldn’t be keeping them as pets or anything, so a whole species of farm animal would probably just go extinct or something.

I don’t say all that though, I suggest she continue looking at the radishes while I check out the animals, because I both love eating animals, and also like the cute ones that haven’t been killed and/or eaten yet.

So, I’m checking out the pigs because, OK, yes, they’re only really good for eating, but they’re still kind of cute, and there’s one in particular who’s come up to me and is making all sorts of amusing oinking noises, which kind of amuses me, and I look around to see if I can grab a carrot or something and see if this little fella will eat it out of my hand.

‘She’s a beauty, ain’t she?’ says a voice next to me. I shrug because I don’t know anything about pigs, to the extent that I assumed this one was a boy pig because, I dunno, pigs are boys and sheep are girls, just like dogs are boys and cats are girls, right? And also, this one looks like that boy pig from that one movie that talked. The pig talked, not the movie. ‘She’s going in the pig show at four,’ he continues, ‘and maybe I’m biased, but I think she’s the odds-on favourite to take the blue ribbon.’

Pig shows, ey? Like dog shows. That’s wild, I wouldn’t have even thought they’d have that. What are they judged on, the juiciness of their meat or something? What I say though, before I’ve even thought of it, is, ‘I’d take that action.’ And I really shouldn’t, I mean, my therapist has outright told me I shouldn’t, but it’s not like I’m down at the TAB or the pokies, it’s just a farmer’s market, right? It should be fine.

And he raises an eyebrow, and says, ‘Was just a turn of phrase, officially there’s no gambling on the show.’

And I raise my eyebrow as well and say, ‘Officially? So, unofficially?’ Because the way he said it implies there’s maybe an underground pig show gambling ring, which is an amazing idea, and even though I really shouldn’t, well, it’d be a great story to tell, right?

And he points out a guy to me, blue Akubra, chilling out behind the cauliflower stall, and I wander over because, well, what’s the harm, right?

‘Can I interest you in our fine cauliflowers, ma’am?’ he asks me. I know he’s just being polite and doing that charming rustic farmer’s market stall attendant thing, (that’s a thing, right?) but I’ve never liked being called ma’am. It makes me feel old, and yes, I know I have a nearly adult daughter so by some metrics I would be considered old, but still, I don’t need to be reminded of that. Nonetheless, he is my ‘contact’ so I disregard the ‘ma’am’ and continue on.

‘I was told you were the guy to speak to if I wanted to wager on the results of the pig show.’

‘Officially, there’s no gambling on the show,’ he says.

‘Of course not,’ I say, ‘but this would presumably just be an innocent wager between friends, nothing official at all.’

He smiles at me, turns and grabs who is presumably his son, who’s on some kind of handheld device, like a mini Sega system or whatever they have these days, and puts him in charge, then beckons me to follow him, which is so exciting, it’s like in Guys and Dolls where they had that underground craps game, right? And I follow him between a bunch of stalls, behind the radish stall and under the grandstand where the pig show is going to be held, where there’s already a bunch of middle aged men looking around conspiratorially, as if they’re afraid of being busted by their wives. Also a couple of other women, but it’s a little bit of a dudefest, although I’m used to that.

And they’re all whispering and putting bets on and it’s the most delightful thing I’ve ever experienced, and I’m about to put some wagers on when Liv and a young man come giggling through the door. They both look a bit surprised, and I walk over to her and grab her by the arm.

‘Are you here to gamble? You’re underage?’

‘What?’ she asks, then says, ‘yes, I am. I’m here to gamble. A whole lot of gambling, that’s what I’m here for, gambling and nothing else,’ and I start to wonder if I’m a bad mother and if it’s my influence that’s led her to this den of gambling and broken dreams. And I say my goodbyes to the Akubra wearing gentleman, because I’m sorry but I have to set an example for my daughter, and Liv hugs goodbye the young gentleman who led her there, which seems a bit overly affectionate for a gambling contact, but Liv has always been a bit of a hugger I guess, and we go back to the car and I drive home.

‘So, we’re not going to tell dad that I took my underaged daughter to a gambling den, right?’

‘Of course not,’ says Liv. ‘No need to tell him about any gambling or anything else that didn’t end up happening.’

Excellent. As far as Eli knows, we were just there to look at cucumbers or bananas or whatever.

Feb 13, 2006

Grimey Drawer

If you haven’t guessed, submissions are closed. Judgement wil be later today.

Feb 13, 2006

Grimey Drawer

Week 474 Judgement

Well guys, this was a pretty good week! Both judges left stuffed and in general agreement on the way the results shook out.

Gorka's Seasoning takes an unfortunate Loss on this one. It wasn't bad. But in a week with a lot of strong character work from other writers, it was a bit of a Flat Stanley.

There were no DMs this week! No one annoyed us to the point of wanting to call them out specifically for writing bad words.

My Shark Waifu and Carl Killer Miller take the red ribbons of HMs this week. We were won over by unapologetic punk rock solutions and tight, clever prose that never got stale.

sparksbloom goes home with this week's blue ribbon and a Win, though. The depth of the characters in this story sold it, and both judges agreed that it was the obvious victor.

Congrats to everyone who entered!

Apr 30, 2006

Week 475: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

I voraciously steal from other writers in ways that are both intentional and unintentional. You probably do too. This week, we’re going to come clean about that theft and write stories inspired by a close-read of our favorites.

To enter this week, tell us about one short story you really love. (Ideally, it’s freely and legally available online, and you can link it to share with everyone). If you’ve never liked any short stories at all and nothing comes to mind, feel free to hop into the Thunderdome Discord server and there will be people who can recommend things to you. (As excellent as some TD entries are, please don’t enter citing stories that have only been published in a Thunderdome thread.) And tell us why you admire this story – is it something that’s really striking about the prose, some really memorable characters, the cleverness of its plotting or ideas?

You’re going to try and take those qualities and use them for a story of your own. In no more than 2000 words (but please feel free to use less, even significantly less!), attempt to channel what you love about that story into your work. Do not write fanfiction. Do not set your stories in another writer’s universe. If you like the ideas of a particular story, maybe you focus on how the story makes communicating ideas and concepts engaging instead of sloggy exposition. If you like the setting, maybe you focus on how to integrate more sensory detail into your story, using the writer’s language as a reference.

Will provide hell rules on request. They’ll net you 500 extra words and will be connected to what you’ve decided to focus on this week.

Sign up deadline: Noon PST, Saturday September 11th
Submission deadline: 11:59 PM PST, Sunday, September 12th

Ironic Twist

crabrock with A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Idle Amalgam with To Jump Is to Fall by Stephen Graham Jones :toxx:
Captain_Indigo with Borges oeuvre/The Garden of Forking Paths
derp with Seven Floors by Dino Buzzati
sebmojo with city of Baucis by Italo Calvino
Yoruichi with Bettering Myself by Ottessa Moshfegh
Carl Killer Miller with Big Red Son by David Foster Wallace
Thranguy with William Tenn's "The Liberation of Earth"
fishception with "The Eye of Argon" by Jim Theis
a friendly penguin with The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees by E. Lily Yu

sparksbloom fucked around with this message at 04:04 on Sep 13, 2021

Aug 2, 2002

In with A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

It was the first thing I ever read by him and I immediately fell in love. I love the prose, but I was blown away by the dirty, realistic reporting of the celestial power.

Idle Amalgam
Mar 7, 2008


In :toxx:

To Jump Is to Fall by Stephen Graham Jones

I really just love the way he weaves normal human issues into unique and/or horrifying situations.

e: Really, a good number of his stories fit the bill. There always seems to be a sense of longing, a call back to simpler times, or some sort of pain tinged personal drama or nostalgia that makes the stories feel relatable.

Idle Amalgam fucked around with this message at 13:16 on Sep 13, 2021

Jul 29, 2007

"That’s cheating! You know the rules: once you sacrifice something here, you don’t get it back!"

In with... well practically all of Jorge Luis Borges Fictions, but to specify one - The Garden of Forking Paths.

If you have never read the short stories of Borges, I cannot recommend them enough. They are clever and weird and tear apart ideas about short fiction. He has this talent for almost inverse anti-climaxes, where the end of a story is often abrupt or somehow unsatisfying just to stress its lack of importance - to emphasise that it is the middle of the story that really carries the meat.

Apr 30, 2006

If you're really struggling thinking of a story, feel free to go in without picking a story and I'll assign one to you and tell you what I think the story does well. If you disagree, you can keep looking for your own short story and override my assignment.

Jan 21, 2010

when i get up all i want to do is go to bed again

Lipstick Apathy

okay I'm in with Dino Buzzati, I can't find the story I wanted, 'catastrophe,' but this one also is good:

every story of his that i've read perfectly captures a terrible sense of dread or impending doom, slowly building from the innocuous start of the story to the end where everything is going wrong.

Oct 23, 2010

Legit Cyberpunk

In with the city of baucis by italo calvino, from invisible cities

calvino is great, he's like your lovable but eccentric uncle who talks very quietly and you have a sneaking suspicion he knows everything in the entire world

Sep 21, 2017

Horse Facts

True and Interesting Facts about Horse

In and please assign me something.

Carl Killer Miller
Apr 28, 2007

This is the way that it all falls.
This is how I feel,
This is what I need:

In. I'll write based off the style of David Foster Wallace's essay Big Red Son. (Thought this was easier to find as a pdf. For readers, the superscript's are the author's actual footnotes as published, the highlights are internet people trying to be clever/informative)

As a young man, I was into The People's Court, Jerry Springer, and other 'subculture in a fishbowl' pieces of media. At the time, I found the piece cleverly written and completely engaging. Rereading it as an adult, I was put off by how incredibly cruel the whole thing is at points, and how DFW forgets that he's writing about real, complete people as he plays a marginal human interest story for yuks, with the gross (generally unwritten) rationalization that they're 'just' sex workers. Despite the solid cadence and technique, it taught me a lot about how not to write (and, to a different degree, consider) characters.

Apr 30, 2006

Yoruichi posted:

In and please assign me something.

Ottessa Moshfegh's "Bettering Myself" is a story about an enormously awful, unappealing character that manages to be very fun to read. Unlike most stories about awful people, this one is neither unaware of the character's awfulness nor rubbing your face in it -- it's not "hey, look how much she sucks!" Her stories always make me want to write characters like this, with almost inscrutable motivations that make you work to understand them.

Sep 21, 2017

Horse Facts

True and Interesting Facts about Horse

Ok, good, this is very good, thank you. I would also like a hellrule please.

Apr 30, 2006

Yoruichi posted:

Ok, good, this is very good, thank you. I would also like a hellrule please.

No one in your story can understand anything the other characters say out loud.

Apr 21, 2010

Yes, the good words are gone.

Why are the good words gone?!

In with William Tenn's "The Liberation of Earth" (with is not difficult to find online, but I'm not able to vet the copyright/permissions state of any particular result)

There's a lot to admire in Tenn's writing, not least a sense of humor that works over a range from gently warm to sharp and biting, but what strikes me in this story is his economy, telling a story that stretches over vast amounts of both space and time in such a compact package, while never feeling cramped or incomplete.

Feb 20, 2011

~carrier has arrived~

Oven Wrangler

In with "The Eye of Argon" by Jim Theis.

The persistence to abandon all reason, cast off all doubts, and write something, however bad, is the reason we're all here. This is not a good story. This isn't even really an absolutely terrible story. It's poorly written, obviously the author's first work, but what it DOES show is that the writer, for better or for worse, has a thesaurus, has a lot of misconceptions about how words work, and has passion. What strikes me about this story is the willing abandonment of reason or logic in a profane and loving ritual to the tropes and fixtures of a pulp barbarian story. It is a work of love, and thus, one to be cherished.

Gimme a hell rule.

fishception fucked around with this message at 16:53 on Sep 8, 2021

Feb 13, 2006

Grimey Drawer

Crits for Week #474

Uranium Phoenix - Living With What Happened: A Day in the Lives Of Those Affected By the Arc-Seven Station Attack by Senior Columnist Peter O. Sellenger:

So first off, credit where credit is due. You decided to write a short story this week instead of flash fiction, and critted your way into a word count that made that viable. Generally speaking, anything over 1500 words is pretty rare in the dome, and it takes a slightly different set of techniques to pull off a story that can stay engaging fir the average TD attention span.

So did it work? As a story in-and-of itself, I think it worked for the most part. It def. has a tone (thinly veneered agitprop for some sort of oligarchic or fascist government), and it sticks with that tone well. I enjoyed it and I think it functions well as a stand-alone piece as well as potentially being part of an anthology of stories using this setting to tell a larger narrative.

With that in mind, I don’t think it really hit the slice-of-life notes that I was looking for this week. Largely for two reasons: First, the overarching narrative of this story was a little too big, and a little too impersonal. The people in the story end up feeling lost in the setting, and the events are driving the characters instead of the characters driving the events. Much in the same way that a set of interviews about 9/11 or the fall of the Berlin Wall ends up being about that event and the after-effects rather than the people interviewed, even if a newspaper claims it’s “telling their story.”

And that sort of ties into the second reason, the interviewed characters are presented as snapshots instead of kinetic. We sort of get a glimpse of them, and hints at what their lives are like, but much like real people talking to a newspaper reporter, they self-censor and the time they spend in the story is too fleeting to get a real sense of their lives behind the mask. Likewise, the mask on the reporter character is a little too sterile to make them the compelling as a character, even if they’re the point-of-view in the story.

I think to get a true slice-of-life feel out of this story, the reporter needs to be more gonzo and Thompsonesque rather than an obvious party-line shill. Send him up there with a briefcase full of money and drugs and follow the Conspiracy Theorist around for a few days. Or if you want to keep him being a shill, then let the mask slip a little more. Either way, the story ends up more about the reporter and a slice of his/her oddball life.

Verdict: A well written story that’s interesting and ambitious, but doesn’t quite get deep enough into any given character to scratch my slice-of-life itch.

Captain_Indigo - Chicken Wings in the Long Grass:

Let me start by talking about what this story does right: This week I asked for slice of life stories, even if the characters were quirky and weird. This story was just that. It took someone unconventional, tried to get into their world, and show us what their personal concerns were instead of some high-stakes world-ending problem.

I particularly liked the concept of fey folk needing to use sign language or written word to directly communicate. The added layer of two culture trying to muddle along together, sometimes successfully—other times not, was a really nice touch.

Unfortunately, there were a lot of typos and other prose issues with the story, and those really hindered the narrative flow. Some are simple enough to fix—little typos like “do” where it should have been “so,” forgotten articles, and awkward constructions. (Some of those might have been intentional, but if so they didn’t really work.) A larger problem was paragraph construction. Some of them were really slammed together in a disjointed way that was really detrimental to scan.

Beyond that, I was a little ‘meh’ on the whole use of chem as a stand in for said, largely because that’s all it was. I got it, the fey folk can talk through a pheromone system. BUT the way it got used as a simple find/replace for “said” really left a lot of meat on that bone that could have been played for better effect.

Verdict: A really cool concept that functions as a S-o-L story, but is hampered by typos and prose gaffs.

Chernobyl Princess - I'm Happy For You:

Normally when I catch wind that something is a relationship story, I nope out pretty quick. “Oh hey, a rehash of the thing everyone’s been talking about since literally forever.” But, good news, I didn’t hate this.

Why? Because you handled it in a way that at least felt pretty fresh, by leading me down a rote “friend caught a friend cheating” script before twisting it into the poly angle. If you’d kept going with the simple cheating angle, or revealed the poly spin too early then I don’t think this piece would have worked. Good job, you caught me off guard and not being able to guess where it’s going is like 75% of making me like a story.

The characters were in the driver’s seat here, and the stakes were “low” so this def. qualifies as a slice of life story for this week. I am willing to buy in that both Trish and Sandy are real people and this is something that they might have done. And the cake thing…iswydt.

But for god sake, open up your word processor right now and go highlight that last paragraph. Now press delete. I’m not going to say that ruined the story for me, but it did annoy the piss out of me.

I think I understand why you did it—for writers used to writing “big stakes” stories, bringing a s-o-l in for a landing can feel a little daunting, because it feels like telling a joke without a punchline. There’s a compulsion to add some sort of THE END flourish as some sort of apologetic “well I guess that’s it, really.” But here’s the thing, don’t apologize. Just end the story with them enjoying the cake, because that’s where the story ends.
Verdict: A serviceable slice of life story that twists at just the right spot to make it both interesting and believable. A rare relationship story that I don’t despise on general principle. But the ending nearly snatches defeat from the jaws of victory.

derp - Overview:

This is one of the shorter pieces this week, but packs a pretty big existential crisis into that wordcount. I’m honestly a little torn about it. On one hand, anxiety attacks are most certainly part of daily life for a lot of people. On the other hand, this tends to wander into horrible space facts that cause depression rather than how that terrible knowledge informs how Jayne lives her life.

Granted, it makes her experience vertigo and panic, but aside from that all I really got from her was that she was frazzled to the point of keeping crumpled notes in her purse. And nothing in the prose really stood out to me as bad. It’s competently written and to some degree, Jayne is a believable character.

I think my sticking point is that while Jayne’s crisis is immense, it’s not particularly complex. It’s the awful realization that we’re tiny, tiny things in incomprehensibly large universe and if we were all snuffed out in the next moment, nothing would be fundamentally different. So,the only things that matter are the things we decide that matter. Yeah, sure, ok.

I think this piece would have worked better for me if I saw more of Jaynes coping strategies. If this is truly something she’s been grappling with since returning to earth, then what sort of tangible life changes has she had to implement to get through the day? The crumpled notes are a good start, but I needed more of that, even if the overall end of the story stayed the same.

Verdict: Serviceable prose and a decent concept, but needs more depth to go with the unknowable breadth of true cosmic horror.

Carl Killer Miller - Master Key:

So I’ll be straight with you, I really like elements of this, but overall I don’t get it. You did an outstanding job with the hellrule and Theo’s corp-babble got an audible “heh” out of me.

On its own the wrestler’s side of the story works for me as long as I ignore the bits about the keys. It’s whimsical, but believable that a person thinks about the glory days of the past, remembering the fun and conveniently forgetting all the aches and pains that went along with them. Suplexing the bag of flour was a nice touch for this.

And generally, I believed the Theo and VC storyline. Their conundrum was well written and I think that feeling of being at a job and having to decide if you even give a poo poo anymore is something that we can all identify with at some point.

The big problem with this story though is that the two stories feel really shoehorned together for the sake of meeting the prompts. A real “tick the boxes, ok done” sort of vibe. The master keys disappearing and reappearing just don’t make much sense—it’s magical realism without so much realism.

But the prose was really good on this.

My Shark Waifuu - Battle of the Bands:

You’ve managed to hit the aesthetic here really well. In all fairness, I gave you a hellrule that asked you to write me a piece of fanfic without actually writing fanfic, and I think you delivered.

More to the point, I think that this ended up being good slice-of-life as well, even if it’s a very punk-rock life. What I was particularly impressed with was how you handled the “stakes” element of the story. Like I said in the initial prompt, S-o-L is about how we cope with the mundane problems that life throws our way every single day. In this case it’s about how one group of friends decide to cope with taking an unavoidable L.

And you know what, I’ll buy in. It’s outlandish and over the top, but it’s also loving punk rock, so ok. It also fits the tone of the hellrule to a T, so that just makes it a little better.

My gigs on this story are mostly about the prose itself. There were a few places where I noticed some bland or awkward phrasing and repeated words within paragraphs that sort of flattened what would have been otherwise been some snappy narrative. Protip: turn on Word’s text-to-speech function and have it read the story to you before you submit. When you hear the story, those places where you need to tweak the prose just a tiny bit will jump right out at you. Turn that clunk into punk, if you will.

Verdict: Truly, but not perfectly, outrageous. A fun slice-of-life story that hits the right notes, but could still improve with another revision pass.

sparksbloom - Shutout:

Sebmojo is fond of saying that one of the first things you should do after you write a story is look at the first paragraph, then throw it away. This is a potentially powerful piece you’ve written, but I’m inclined to think that he’s right about that. I’m going to say some very nice things about this story in a bit, but for now I want to dive in on where I think it sort of falters in the early paragraphs.

The first two paragraphs are very useful to you as a writer for worldbuilding, but for me as a reader they sort of stole wind from the sails of this story and made for a sluggish start. I would rather have seen them snipped, chopped into bits, and then woven back into the action of the story as it progressed as necessary. Especially since this is a remembered slice-of-life.

Also, like Chernobyl Princesses story, you’ll probably want to trim up your final paragraphs as well. The story really ends with her feeding the horses sugar cubes and Phil pulling his own weight. Don’t feel like you’ve got to tie another bow on it at the end to make it more meaningful.

Now with all that said, this is one of my favorites this week. It’s a real gutpunch of a story in a good way that nails the S-o-L genre. A win that’s not completely satisfying is about as true-to-life as it gets. If Addie got fired, would it have been the end of the world? Nah. Did her gumption make all her dreams come true? Nah. But she kept putting one foot in front of the other even if the road led somewhere she didn’t plan on going. That’s some real poo poo.

Verdict: High quality slice of life and probably this week's winner, even if there’s some fat that could be trimmed.

ZearothK - Twelve+:

So this story was one that didn’t do much for me, honestly. As I’ve said before, any sort of romantic relationship story has a real uphill battle to get me to like it. In this case, the story about saving some kittens from a rising tide is fighting for space with a sort of bland “they aren’t really into each other anymore” narrative.

For this piece to really do something for me, I think I needed Dave’s character to be much more fleshed out. As it was, all I really know about him is that 1) he really likes cats, and 2) he’s not in love with Janet anymore.

What this ultimately does is change this from a character driven story to a situation driven story. Dave doesn’t really have a choice here. We know he’s going to save the kittens. And because of that, Dave’s not driving the story anymore—I’m just watching the story happen to him rather than because of him.

But the good news here is that neither judge hated the story, and I think it could be rewritten into something pretty interesting if you ever took the notion to do so.

Verdict: Not really slice of life, but also not terrible enough for me to hate into a DM.

Gorka - Seasoning:

In a week were the judges didn’t really hate anything, it was tough to pick our least favorite. So to some extent, this crit’s coming with a “sorry about that” sentiment. This wasn’t a bad little story, it just wasn’t as strong as the rest.

As with all relationship stories, my litmus test as to whether I’m impressed is if you can surprise me somehow. Unfortunately, there wasn’t anything particularly surprising going on here—it’s a pretty standard person-meets-person and they might hook up story. Salted ice cream notwithstanding.

There’s nothing that makes either Chris or Jake really pop here. Chris is a looker with a slightly uncommon food preference, but beyond that we don’t really get a good inner look at what makes either of these guys tick.

Verdict: A quick, cursory story that prevented a fail. Not awful, but not inspiring.

Thranguy - You Cannot Change:

So I liked this one pretty well, and if I hadn’t hamstrung you with that weird hellrule, it might have HM’d. This one’s tough to crit because the form of the story sort of gets in the way of the narritave. But here’s a try:

I think if I had one thing to offer, it would be that the story spends a little too much time on the band, and not enough time on Jules and Kaleigh. I know I’ve been like a broken record this week talking about how relationship stories aren’t my favorite, but there’s a compelling undertone here that I think had traction—namely watching someone you care about do something that you know isn’t healthy for them (in this case, emotionally) and not being able to say a drat thing about it because it’s not your life to live.

It took a couple of read throughs for me to grok what was going on in the story, but once I did, I found that I liked it pretty well.

Verdict: A decent story damned by a hellrule.

crabrock - The Gumshoe’s Greasy Graveyard:

I gave you a doozy this week, and you didn’t disappoint, did you? Honestly this read a lot better than I expected, with only a few places where it felt forced. As a Slice of Life Story, it was successful. The characters were the motive force in the narrative and the stakes were personal rather than world-shattering.

You may or may not have read the other crits this week—if you have this will sound like a broken record—but straying into “relationship story” territory was a little bit of a sigh trap for me this week. While you handled this better than others, there still wasn’t anything particularly novel about Dale being slightly horned up about Ryann.

Verdict: Made good use of a fairly brutal hellrule, was a decent story even if it strayed into the pedestrian.

Chairchucker - Oldest Established (Permanent Floating):

I get the feeling that you rushed this one out the door at the very end.

The first half of this is very good. At first I was a little nonplussed by the MC’s run-on sentence style of narrative, but after a paragraph or two I sort of got into it—it was part of that character’s quirk and honestly it worked. The choice to go first person with this story was really good because the MC had a very strong voice.

And to that end, it hit what I was looking for as S-o-L fiction for this week. It wasn’t about pig betting, or farmer’s markets, or unrequited love—it was about a strong personality negotiating day-to-day life and trying to make the best of it.

Unfortunately, as soon as the story hit the home stretch and the MC went to place wagers on the pig judging, things sort of unraveled. My guess is that the deadline was looming and it turned into a case of “just get it out and hit submit” combined with “stay under the word limit.” Ah well.

Verdict: Started strong with a rushed ending. Probably would have HM’d if it had been consistent throughout.


Apr 30, 2006

fishception posted:

In with "The Eye of Argon" by Jim Theis.

The persistence to abandon all reason, cast off all doubts, and write something, however bad, is the reason we're all here. This is not a good story. This isn't even really an absolutely terrible story. It's poorly written, obviously the author's first work, but what it DOES show is that the writer, for better or for worse, has a thesaurus, has a lot of misconceptions about how words work, and has passion. What strikes me about this story is the willing abandonment of reason or logic in a profane and loving ritual to the tropes and fixtures of a pulp barbarian story. It is a work of love, and thus, one to be cherished.

Gimme a hell rule.

Hell rule: no violence is allowed in your story.

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