Do the write thing

Here are the winners of our “Exactly 95 Words (excluding title)” short fiction contest

Photo By Audrey Love

Every year we, the editors and judges of the short-fiction contest notice trends in the stories submitted. We take that as a peephole into the minds of contestants and an indication of the community meme. A few years ago, it was the war. Last year, it was zombies. This year, it was the economy: separation, loss, death—the economy and pets, actually.

But unlike the themes that change almost every year, the criteria editors use don’t. We love it when a trap is set and sprung in 95 words, those unexpected endings that shock, but make perfect sense on second reading. We like a bit of character development and quotes that sound like how people really talk. We like stories with a beginning, middle and an end. We like sex.

With that said, here are our choices for the best 95-word stories we received. We’ve highlighted the top few winners and published a few more, but these are only a fraction of the total number of submissions. Every story was read by every editor with the authors’ names removed. Judges’ selections were assigned a point value, agreements among judges were noted, and points tallied up to establish our champions.

And awayyy we go!

1st place

A Simple, Too-Familiar Gesture

By Laura Newman

Dinner at their best friends’ home was always a fine affair. Tonight, roast rosemary chicken, fig salad. Talk ran to politics, work, the trip to China they all went on together.

After dinner, port, then time to leave. Dillon brought their coats and helped Joe’s wife into hers. Their eyes did not meet, but after Joe’s wife’s arms slipped one, two into her winter jacket, Dillon tucked her collar tight to her neck like one would a child. Or a lover.

And all the months of hiding were exposed in that simple, too-familiar gesture.

The surprise would be not to see Laura Newman’s name in the winners’ circle: “I’ve won first place three times, second place twice, and I’ve placed every year since probably about 1995,” says Newman, pictured at right with her husband, Dave Newman. “One of my stories that came in second, ’Catholic Girl,’ inspired the hate letters from the Catholic group, and the cover story ’Burn in Hell.’ Her advice to write a great short piece: “Catch a moment because it’s so short, just think of a moment in time and capture what that little moment feels like.” She says her first book, Parallel to Paradise, a collection of short stories, will be available on Amazon in 2011.

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2nd place

The Summer I Turned Ten

By Meleva Hill

Mother was having an affair. I stared in shock as the strange man kissed her and called her honey. She turned and saw me. I started running and went to the river. The next thing I knew, I was on a Greyhound bus bound for Grandma’s ranch in Southern California.

I learned how to ride, rope, play the piano, herd cattle and guard sheep. It was a wonderful year. I went to school on the Indian reservation and swam in pools in the desert. I became a young woman. And Grandma gave me a horse.

Another past winner, Meleva Hill is the friendly face at the front desk at the Reno News & Review. Her piece is a fictionalized version of something that really happened. “It’s a true story.” She’s uncertain where her inspiration comes from. “I don’t know; I still live in the holler. I live in the holler with horses, and fences that are falling down, and crazy mothers.” Her advice is direct: “Just tell the truth, tell the story. … Tell the story, tell the story.”

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3rd place

Election Day

By Jeannie Harkema

Rita was nervous. She knew John couldn’t possibly see what she was doing, but what if he could? What if he found out? Rita knew she would surely pay a price for her disobedience. But this was a risk she was willing to take. And besides, she reasoned, it was in a public place.

Now, she found herself trembling. Just walk in, show your identification, step into the cubicle, pull the curtain, glance again at your sample ballot he insisted he fill out, and vote against everything he checked. Rita smiled as she hit complete.

Jeannie Harkema, a Reno medical worker, says her inspiration came from the way some people engage in passive-aggressive acts. “It’s kind of a joke—but not really—with they way they cancelled out each other’s votes.” Her advice to short-fiction writers could work for any kind of writer: “Go with what you know. Write about things that you like, things you like to read. Don’t write for others; write for yourself.”

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4th place

Let The Punishment Fit The Crime

By Ron Shulman

“Wait ’til your father gets home.” When she said those familiar words, I knew the punishment must exceed the mild stuff my mother could hand out.

Had I earned such punishment? Maybe so.

Lewis had used his forty pound weight advantage to pin me to the ground and refused to let me up even though I had given up. He was a bully. I did the only thing available: I bit his nose and it worked.

When my father came home and heard the story, he sternly asked what flavor ice cream cone I wanted.

“I know these are supposed to be fiction, but it was the way I remembered something that happened a long time ago,” said Ron Shulman, a Reno master gardener. “It was the way my father handled a situation I thought was a bad situation that turned into a good inspiration.” The avid gardening volunteer says it’s the first time he ever tried to write a story in 95 words, but since the event took place around 1940, the statute of limitations must surely apply. “After that much time, all my memories are more or less fictional.”

Honorable Mentions

Her Husband Stu

Jan sat alone in the quiet museum gallery, absorbed in a landscape. She longed to be in the picture, sitting next to a still lake.

Her ex-husband, Harry—now married to what’s-her-name—hadn’t cared for art. But he was a good man, better, she’d discovered, than Stu. Stu liked art, but he was a manipulator. Of his partners, his clients, and her.

Someone sat down next to her, but Jan was living in the painting.

“Wish you were on that shore?”

Jan turned. And for some reason, she noticed Harry wasn’t wearing a wedding ring.

—Mark S. Bacon

Downward Slide

Mona stared at the school bus she had driven for seven years. Preoccupied and tired, she had forgotten to set the emergency brake, and now the rear end was wedged under the awning of Brown Jug Discount Liquor. Glass was scattered on the sidewalk. A frightened cashier stepped over a jagged piece of plate glass window.

A man who had been packing groceries in his car had seen the whole thing. “That looks like a DUI,” he said.

“I haven’t had a drink since last night,” said Mona.

“I’m just saying what it looks like.”

—Matt Reed

Full Immersion

Merritt stood chest deep in the river; it wasn’t his idea to be baptized. That choice had been made for him by his Aunt Evelyn. She had, in fact, demanded it.

Just before immersion, Evelyn stood near, her eyes welling up with tears.

The deacon took Merritt’s head in his huge hands and shoved it down.

Merritt’s eyes opened. A snake slithered by followed by an empty wine bottle.

Too long. More than a minute. Two. Then nothing.

In a newspaper article, it was stated that the drowned man had been found entangled in sticks.

—Jim McCormick


She scans magazines for siblings Santa never delivered, aqua-eyed, olive-skinned celebrities (Charlize, Jude, Angelina), carefully pasting their photos into

scrapbooks, baby shoes, mementos achingly personal, discarded at Goodwill. He examines a crystal plate engraved, “Milton and Louise, 9/10/28,” and wonders, were they happy? Did they dance to Glenn Miller? Did Louise pack Milton’s lunch?

Every morning, I look for Abby at bus stops, staring so intensely that parents clutch their blond daughters. “Sorry. She looks like”—a kind, cerebral child who danced with cats until her white cells exploded—”someone I knew 20 years ago.”

—Bev Kling-Hesse

Here Kitty, Kitty

Millie was an eighty-three year old widow who lived alone on the third floor of a Brooklyn tenement. She barely survived on her Social Security and welfare checks.

Every Wednesday, Millie would use the telephone in her neighbor’s apartment to call her food order to her local supermarket. Joey, the bag boy, was given her order, made the selections, and delivered them.

Joey said to Millie, “Every week I deliver your groceries and you always get three cans of cat food, but I have never seen your cat.”

“I don’t have a cat,” Millie replied.

—Philip Napolitano

The Lamp in Coach Morgan’s Office

Coach Morgan retreated into his office, slapping the hanging fixture as he went by. The lamp, seven feet above the floor, was his surrogate punching bag.

He slumped at his desk. When he’d played college hoops, Morgan always wanted to coach high school basketball. But years of losing seasons and talent-starved squads were discouraging.

“Coach, that transfer sophomore’s here,” said an assistant.

What’s the point? Morgan thought. “OK, send him in.”

When Morgan heard the bang, he looked up to see a muscular young man holding his forehead where he’d hit it on the lamp.

—Mark S. Bacon

The Ice Queen

After forty minutes of twiddling thumbs and idle chatter, the recital began. The lights dimmed, and everyone claimed seats in clear aisles to take videos, and she sat among them like she belonged.

If she had been disinterested by the children on stage, Madeline didn’t show it. She sat in faux rapt attentiveness until they had nearly all finished up, had one drink at the concessions table, then re-wrapped herself up in a blueberry- colored coat and striped scarf that were not hers and exited out the back set of double doors into the cold night.

—Andrew Nixon


It may just have been one of the hardest decisions of my life to make. It is very hard knowing a secret, and keeping it. I didn’t know what to do. I knew a secret that I had to tell my friend, but do I tell her because it is the right thing to do, the right thing for her to know? Or do I still keep it a secret and continue seeing her be happy living her life, although she needs to know the truth? I was at a loss of what to do.

—Allison Hamlin

Just an Accident

Tim flipped a dashboard switch and a red light blinked. When Larry got in the car, Tim pulled out.

“So,” Larry growled, “whaddaya want now?”

“You’re abusing her. First, cuts and bruises. Now broken bones?”

“Just an accident. She wants to leave, it’s her choice.”

“She won’t. She’s terrified.”

“Then stay out of this.”

Tim’s speedometer said 45. He glanced in the mirror, then swerved into the concrete wall.

Minutes later, aching, but otherwise unhurt, Tim looked down. “He was my son-in-law. Didn’t believe in seat belts.”

The policeman nodded. “And his air bag malfunctioned.”

—Mark S. Bacon

Pillows and Icicles

She couldn’t do anything anymore. She just kept on having the same daydream about pillows and icicles. Whenever she began to nod off, Kristin’s eyes would bolt open. She still had dirt under her fingernails and on her shoes. Who knows when her last nap, or even last shower was. After being kicked out of previous apartments by roommates, she moved in with Ron. She looked over at Ron. He was lying on the couch with his eyes closed. Kristin went over to him and tried to shake him awake. He was cold. “Not again.”

—Brenda Juarez

Good Intentions

His Buddhist wife wanted to feed the rabbits baby carrots. She insisted that her husband bring home five dollars worth. He grumbled about it. Even before she put away the milk and butter, she carefully arranged carrots in front of the rabbit burrow.

The next morning all the carrots were gone, but the severed leg of a dead rabbit lay in a pool of blood.

“Your act of kindness killed the rabbit,” her husband said with a satisfied note of “I told you so” in his voice.

“Yes,” she said, “but it fed the coyote.”

—Ace Remas

Between Shots

She raised the pistol to his head and wept as she pulled the trigger.

“And cut!” shouted the director. People immediately darted about as the scene was reset.

“Hey, do you want to get dinner after this?” the man questioned the woman with the gun in her hand.

“Sure, that sounds great,” she replied as her tear-streaked makeup was fixed.

“Alright. It’s a date,” he said as she readied the gun.

Silence filled the air. Fresh tears began to fall.


She raised the pistol to his head and wept as she pulled the trigger.

—Jason Spencer

Big Day

She walks into a dimly lit building with tons of people. Some she knows well, others not so much. She walks slowly, looking around for a safe place to stop and chat. She prepared as best she could knowing this day would eventually happen. When she stops, a small crowd begins to gather. There is a lot of aimless chatter, some hugs exchanged. Then it happens. She knew it would, unavoidable really. Someone walks right up, leans in with arms outstretched and says, “Can I hold your baby?” With a smile, she replies, “No, sorry.”

—Lora Mattingly-Enget

Bedazzled, Bedraggled, Betrayed

Suzie wishes she had a scintilla of the confidence Simon possesses. He moves in, no discussion, no need for a reply.

Acclimating to Simon’s nocturnal wanderings is exhausting. Suzie questions: “Is Simon ‘catting around?’ This is a charge Simon finds no need to deny.

Daylight erupts; Simon is home. Suzie is relieved; Simon has no need to try.

Simon disappears; he has no need to say goodbye.

On a star-studded night, Suzie spots Simon sitting on a porch. Suzie’s neighbor strokes Simon’s fur; Simon flashes his ethereal Cheshire grin.

Suzie has no need to cry.

—Kathryn McFadden

Two Days Late

Thunder rolled and lightning flashed, illuminating the Nevada desert. In a lone cabin, Maria stared out into the stormy night with watch in hand. The lightning flashed again and again, revealing a dark figure on horseback. Her skin crawled as the rider drew closer with every strike. Checking the clock on the wall, she rose from her chair with shotgun in hand. Hearing the sound of muddy boots on the porch, she threw open the door and saw a rain soaked cowboy holding a pizza. Leveling the shotgun, she said with a scowl, “You’re late.”

—Patrick Justice