Just as dynamite comes in small packages, the winners of our 95-word fiction contest show size doesn’t matter
Thanks to each of you who entered our little, little fiction contest. Here are the winners—peaches, each and every one.
Every year, we—the editors who read all these stories, trying to judge greatness from mediocrity from dreck—attempt to take something away from this little exercise. There are those in society who believe nothing can be learned from reading fiction. With the experience we get reading the public’s fiction, we can easily dismiss this argument. Plainly, there is something to be gleaned from the group mind, the meme. Every year, there are certain themes that appear with greater or lesser frequency among the hundreds of entries. Themes in past years have included things like love is enjoyable, war is bad, sex is fun, funny is funny. This year, the themes were very dark: The future is terrifying, Judgment Day is coming, fear is everywhere.
One of our judges has participated in this contest for at least 10 years. He says this was the darkest selection ever, lots of innocence lost, fear of divine retribution, and the end of love. The problem is that those huge themes are difficult to express succinctly and well. Stories require the development of character, and wit is hard to come by in concepts that require deep thought and expression.
And yet, there were rays of light. Even in sad situations like the breakup of a marriage, there were arcs of humor and brilliance: Blood diamonds. And those were the stories that caught our eyes, the wacky, the ironic, and the bluntly hilarious.
As is our tradition, the winners win bragging rights and a place in the pantheon of heroes of short fiction.
He carries the last of their marriage down the stairs.
“I’m glad I found the kaleidoscope. Remember when …”
Two more steps, across the tile, one hand on the doorknob.
Oh! She disappears, re-emerging with something fluttering between her fingers. A tie.
On the porch, air.
“I have pesto chicken, it would only take a minute …”
His cell rings, a tone she doesn’t know but instinctively understands. Her chattering stops.
He walks down the driveway.
“If I find anything else.”
He nods, key in the ignition.
He backs out. She waves in surrender.
Bev Kling-Hesse has lived in Reno since 1985. She’s a retired social worker. Her Muse is her friend Kim: “The story’s genesis is in my friend’s attempt to get back to work after hauling up a bag of cat food for me, and she’s backing down the stairs, but then I thought, ‘What if it’s not a friend, but a lover who’s trying to leave?’ And then I thought, ‘What if it’s not a lover but the final remnants of a marriage dissolving?’” That inspiration informed her technique for writing the story. “I wrote out everything. I made the guy much nicer, and then realized I was nowhere close to 95 words and kept cutting, kept cutting, kept cutting until there was nothing to cut back. I was not going to get rid of the kaleidoscope, the tie that was fluttering—I liked the word fluttering—and I wasn’t going to get rid of pesto chicken. Those words had to stay.”
For seven years as an EMT, this never happened to me. We were dispatched to a motorcycle/car collision. Upon arrival, we discovered the motorcyclist lifeless. While searching the body for ID, I found a ticket to the upcoming sold out Van Halen concert. Against professional and moral practice, I pocketed the ticket.
That night I went to the concert. The seat was incredible, 12 rows from the stage. To my surprise, a beautiful blonde girl sat down next to me and extended her hand to shake mine. “Hello” she whispered, “I’m Brittany, your blind date.”
George Pelham, 58, is a social worker for Washoe County. He recruits and trains foster parents. Pelham says the story just came out of the blue, “Wouldn’t that be a strange thing to happen. I wonder if it ever happens. I had surgery on my knee recently, and they tell you not to bring any valuables with you—not that I don’t trust hospitals, but this is the warning they give you.” As far as technique for writing incredibly short fiction: “I submitted two pieces [both made the cut for publication]. They’re sort of scenes from a greater story. The opening was the EMT responding to a crash.”[page]
“You forget the nice things we have done for you,” said the circus owners to the striking elephants.
“Like what?” screamed the elephants.
“We will not be bullied into dialogue,” said the owners softly, on the advice of their attorneys.
The strikers urged the media to cover their huge picket lines. The owners reacted with swift brutality, and there was no media coverage … none.
The elephants never recovered from the owners’ televised statement: “We won’t stand by silently while disgruntled employees try to manipulate the media into making a courtroom out of this circus.”
—Don WeberDon Weber of Reno is a mysterious individual. His entry included neither a phone number nor an email contact. We dutifully went to the apartment listed and found no one home, but we left a message. Turns out Weber’s in his “60s” and doesn’t like his photo taken. “Years and years ago, there was that business about allowing cameras in courtrooms,” he said of his inspiration for this story. “I wondered how they could get around that. It’s too easy to misrepresent what happens without the cameras.” Anyway, he’d had the idea of playing off the “turning the courtroom into a circus” cliché several years ago, but he procrastinated sending it in. “I just didn’t get around to mailing it, so I had to rewrite it from memory. The length was a little tricky, but I really enjoyed crafting it. That’s about all there was to it.”
(in no particular order)
The witch had not always wanted to eat people. But she developed a taste for them, and try as she might, she felt helpless. People disappeared. So she moved to the woods, away from temptation.
But now, after months of discipline, the witch stood in the darkened bedroom, staring at the sleeping youngsters who had appeared one day, hungry and abandoned.
She thought she saw the girl stir.
Her stomach growled.
Do it now.
A few well practiced movements, and the sheets were dark and sticky. Her hands and mouth filled, she wept.
I found an oak end table discarded in an alley. Though it was beaten up, I saw its inner beauty in the shape of its carved wood and the pattern in its grain. Though wind and sun and rain had disturbed its glow and made it drab and gray, I took it home.
Armed with sandpaper, I touched its distressed surface. Its voice once again proclaimed, ‘I am worthy of saving. I am worth your adoration. I can be of service.’
Next to my bedside, it was rewarded with a graceful vase of fresh flowers.
“I’ll protect you,” said the tree to the daisy growing beneath her branches.
“But, what if boys try to stomp me?” asked the daisy.
“I’ll straighten my branches and look so tall that they’ll climb instead of stomping you.”
“What if girls try to pick me?”
“I’ll shake my branches and drop juicy apples so they’ll want them instead.”
“And the winter?”
“Oh,” said the tree. “I can’t do anything about that. But, spread your seeds under my leaves, and I’ll protect your children come next spring.”
“Well,” said the daisy. “That will certainly do.”
When Ma’s Papa died, the Aunties said Ma dried up like a tobacco leaf and the Aunties didn’t understand it. Ma was the pretty one, white like Paperwhites. The Aunties slept in one room so they heard when their Papa came in when the night owls were out and climbed in bed with Alice. He made sounds like the owls and Alice made no sounds at all. At first the Aunties were jealous because they loved Papa and loved to climb in his lap when they were girls. It made them hate Alice a little.
—Laura Boren Newman
Neither Here nor There
Mr. Middleman was having a mid-life crisis in his middle-management position out of a moderate location off Center Street in the modest little town of Midville, which wasn’t too north, south, east or west of state lines, where he had a mediocre job with Mid Corp.
One Wednesday, halfway from home and midway to work, he was sideswiped by a semi truck at noon, sadly bringing his life to an abrupt end.
His few friends and neighbors lettered these few words on his tombstone: Here lies Joe Middleman, who died a fair to medium man.
—Richard W. Turner
The smell of chipotle chicken was enough to intrigue him, despite the obvious carnage of feathers and bird claws by the trash of the small adobe. His mouth watered, anticipating a cold Corona in the cantina. A waitress approached him as he picked a bench near a rough table.
What would you like?
Chicken, please, and a cerveza por favor.
Then she was gone. Sunlight cut oblique patterns in the cool shadows. A couple held hands across their table. Absorbing the posters and colorful rugs pinned to the walls, he took a deep easy breath.
The old hound dog has an odor that stings the nose. Not an “I rolled in something odor,” but an “I’m old and produce a horrible smell odor.” Unfortunately, the dog always wants to be petted, but every time you pet the animal your hands smell, too. So you wash your hands and dry them. You walk away with pleasantly clean hands, but the dog is back flipping your hand up to be petted again. It’s a horrible cycle of smelly dog and clean hands. So I find a stick and pet her with that.
Iowa Summer in The Great Depression
If there was a dust bowl in Kansas and a stock market in New York that caused people to jump out of windows, and an exodus of immigrants destined to starve in the very cornucopia of California, well, Iowa was having none of that nonsense. The corn was growing and fireflies haloed the inky sky. They tangled in Maureen’s hair, and she was the faerie, and I fell in love with her simply because she tucked silver-gold bugs behind her ears. The lightening bugs blinked on and off and buzzed like neon all summer long.
—Laura Boren Newman
What Goes Around
Open cans of paint offer vibrant colors to the artist. He’s painting a mural on the wall of the Red Cross building.
Up 39 feet, the artist fluffs the sky with clouds, adds some rain and applies a distant bird. He leans back to check its flight, loses his balance and sails off the scaffold. A bandage folder on the second floor hears his passing scream.
At 5 feet, 4 inches, the artist lands on Betty Channelworth of Cleveland, Ohio. Betty’s family asks that donations in her memory be sent to the American Red Cross.
We hated her. At least at first. She only had marmalade and wheat toast. Nothing but PBS or BBC. She was beyond old, nearly 50. Feet off the table. Wash up. Don’t swear.
While my brothers waged dirt-wad wars in the yard, we took the Buick to go for an ice cream.
She licked hers as old people do, properly, with the napkin wrapped around the cone. I scooted close, resting one sticky hand on her thigh. It felt soft, like unbaked biscuit dough.
“We’ll be alright, kid,” she said quietly.
And I believed her.
The ‘F’ Word
I am exhausted by this youth obsession. It haunts my thoughts, my dreams.
A magazine cover catches my eye, touting the allure of turning 50. The article asks the reader to compile a list of ‘F’ words to celebrate this event. I close my eyes and inventory my solitary life.
These are not the words of my yesterday. Yesterday, I was Mathew’s wife. Today, I am the woman he tossed aside.
I raise my wine glass with hopeful anticipation. Other ‘F’ words spring forth. Fearless. Fabulous. Fuck you.
I like those much better.
She tossed the bottle into the trashcan by the entrance. He looked over as it clanked, and she realized he hadn’t heard a single word she’d said. He was acting so weird; definitely crabby, and she knew that could turn ugly quickly. She’d better get him some food and get his blood sugar back up. She turned to him with her sweetest, loving-smile and said, “C’mon, Babe. Let’s get you something to eat.”
He looked into her eyes, finally, with a pathetic mixture of pity and shame on his face and mumbled, “I’ve met someone.”
—Lili Masuret<p<b>The Size of Her Fist
The persistent thump of fruit on the vinyl tile brought us to immediate and curious attention. Carts clanged frantically. Our mouths gaped. A woman splayed between the fruit bins. Oranges wobbled across the blood-flecked tile. A freezer door sucked shut. Her eyelids fluttered. A baby squealed joyfully. The fluorescents hummed in monotone. She convulsed. The last of the oranges descended. I took a picture with my cell phone. “Cleanup: fruits and vegetables, cleanup.” Her right hand clenched involuntarily, gently repelling an orange. Sirens blared in the distance. It was upsetting, the size of her fist.
My Time Travels
When I go back, I do the really important stuff. All those old bluesmen that died in obscurity. The garage bands that never got off the ground. All those invisible geniuses.
Lost in time, I find them.
Cochlear implants recording onto quantum memory stored in the nannites in my blood.
Melodies of ghosts. Their rhythms are encoded in my hair.
For all of history—I rescue them.
Also, I visit the same bar 25 years ago. Sit next to the same man. Buy him the same drink.
The only time I ever see my dad.
“Bobby Lee, you have been playing piano here every Friday night since last February. You keep doing these ‘Tribute Nights’ to different rock stars but you don’t play any of their songs, you just put pictures of them on your piano and keep playing your same old stuff over and over. I can’t keep advertising your act when people expect to hear Elvis and you don’t even play one of his songs.
“I have to let you go. I have already booked a Michael Jackson impersonator for next week. Good luck, and tell Mom ‘Hi.'”
I kept everybody’s ashes on the mantel until the cats knocked them over playing leapfrog. Now the cats are ashes, too.
Ashes don’t look like ashes, not the powdery charcoal of Ash Wednesday. They feel like kitty litter. Maybe that’s why some cats don’t use litterboxes; they sense friends, mortality.
Now everybody’s ashes are mixed together in a big Walmart bag until I find the perfect container, something interactive, a plexiglass ball or hourglass. Sometimes I close my eyes and sift the ashes through my fingers, trying to remember the scents of Beth, Mama, Muffin.
Sorry to break it to you, but the future isn’t all laser beams, flying cars and robot slaves. No Moon colonies or settlements on Mars. It’s pretty fucking boring. We didn’t have the time or energy to make all the cool stuff you always wanted. Because we had to clean up after you. And fix the atmosphere. And reverse global warming. Figure out how to live without oil and without meat. And now, we’ve got a whole lot more problems to deal with. But why should we worry about it though?
Didn’t stop you guys.
Our train is hurtling through the midnight blizzard. It’s just the aging conductor and I now, arms around each other’s shoulders. The passenger cars have been let go and we’ve thrown our coats into the fire as the coal has run out. We will be sorry later, perhaps, but we operate on hope and must keep this alive no matter how irrationally it burns. Surely our long-awaited paradise lies somewhere through the rushing white ahead. In any case these tracks must lead somewhere. I believe I could easily crumple him into the furnace if necessary.
Progress, as you know, means moving beyond the past. It means destroying your past.
It’s telling your parents: “I am not going to live up to your expectations. I will disappoint you.”
It’s smashing outdated morality. Redefining what it means to be human. Evolve.
Just as modern man wiped out Neanderthal. Europeans killed the natives of wherever they “discovered.”
You must annihilate the past, or be doomed to repeat it.
That is why I send messages to you in the past.
To let you know that the future is coming back to kill you all.
Tuesday the sun stopped moving across the sky. By 5 o’clock the world was in a panic. Pundits pontificated; scientists explained; the religious prayed. Iconically, in Islam a crescent moon hung in the sky. A state of emergency was declared, Earthwide. It didn’t get any hotter with the sun beating down or any colder under the starry heavens. Now there was a word! Heavens.
Secularized by most, blasphemed by many, praised by few. Suddenly thrust into the conscience of every breathing thing. He was up there. He was. And it was time to settle accounts.