The remaining seven finalists, selected by a panel of SN&R editorial staff members, are printed in alphabetical order.

Family Values

She felled the buck with one arrow. Good news; we’ll eat.

The burning smell from the valley has subsided. I guess most flammable stuff was quickly consumed, presumably along with all the fuel. Leaning against the flat truck tire, I’m grubbing down half-burned meat while she watches, the dog sleeping beside her. Her eyes sparkle like Venus reflecting flames.

The improvised still is purifying stream water. Good thing. The bottled stuff was exhausted. We might make it now, owing to the dog. Great for spotting predators, especially the two-legged variety. Best to keep it loyal.

Basic needs are becoming more basic every day. The soap is almost gone. That’s a problem, hygiene being paramount to survival. I need to find a book explaining the vagaries of soap-making. You make it out of animal fat, don’t you? No shortage of that.

I never needed this information before. The shelves always had soap on them. Now, I need a good treatise on soap-making. And a shovel. The septic system failed when the electricity died. The “pressure-dose leach field” only worked when the pressure-dose pump did.

In fact, most of what we need now our great-grandparents learned as children. That’s what I need now—“Gramps’ book of Survival Knowledge.” Mom always said, “Make do with what you’ve got.” I hear an atavistic echo in her words. I wish they were all here now. We can’t eat all this meat ourselves.

—Edmund Glass, Sacramento


Grasping the empty can, she looked down from the hill. Her mother had brought her here to find a gravesite. Everything was gone: the Japanese maple garden, the fig trees, the cherry-blossom petticoat and, with them, memories—Easter eggs, Christmas lights, summers on the hay bales—with cousins and aunts and other relatives she remembered now only through stories. More tragic than anything destroyed by human hands is something destroyed by the heart.

Her grandparents’ house was a ruined husk, with few left to remember what it had been.

Memories make us, her mother said. Without them, we’re new, boring people every day.

Grandpa’s furry arms, Grandma’s soapy lemon-verbena hands. The rocking chair, the green-slicked aquarium. She hadn’t known the last time she visited would be the last time she visited.

You can’t go back, her doctor had said.

She gave piss-all about the neighbors, who whispered about that eyesore and property values; about the new owners, digging their way in like worms. (There’s a light on, her mother said.)

This was for her family, for her memories: they needed clean fuel for nourishment, for salvation.

The house never failed her before. She would not fail it now.

She inhaled the scent of night-blooming jasmine, another balmy memory now intermingled with the fumes. The scent of peace. But her mother was waiting. Nestling the can in the bushes, she took out the matches.

—A.K. Cotham, West Sacramento


It all started with one innocent booger.

Lauren had gone to take a shower, and she left me downstairs by myself.

I studied the room. Nothing special. No secret cabinets to dig through or inconspicuous bags to rifle. I nervously sniffed, and then I felt it. Not much, but enough to hamper the normal inflow of air.

Instinctively, I reached for it with my uncut pinky fingernail. It took a couple of minutes to really get it out. It was one of those squishy ones that are hard to get a hold of. Finally, I trapped the bulk of it in my nail, forcing it out with a slow, deliberate swoop that doubled the size of my nose temporarily.

Oh, no. It was a string-a-ling.

The yellow snake slithered out and wrapped itself around half of my finger. There was no good place to wipe it. The bed was too hard and the couch didn’t look like it would take to the booger. I decided on the floor, always the default choice, but where? The beds were rather high and wouldn’t hide it, and I didn’t want to get on my hands and knees.

Footsteps thundered down the stairs. I frantically looked for somewhere, anywhere, but everything looked so clean. They were upon me too quickly.

Lauren was followed by an older man, an unpleasant-looking guy with a neatly pressed suit and expensive shoes.

“Jack, I’d like you to meet my father,” Lauren said, as her father extended his hand.

—Thomas Flynn, Fair Oaks

Prende la balle au bonde

Boy met Girl, and for the first year, life was bliss. There were the sleepy-eyed lip-locks (morning breath be damned), the shared venti peppermint mochas at noon, the evening foreign-film forays via Netflix and a cheap Swedish sofa.

For nearly 13 months, the jaunts to Half Moon Bay, the grueling but amorous wanderings into Desolation Wilderness, the art-walk amblings acted as an enchanting glue that adhered Boy’s heart to Girl’s. With the imaginary ghost of wedding bells pre-echoing in their minds, the inevitable cohabitation landed them in a roomy one-bedroom downtown. Routine, ritual, romance. Fate seemed to have played her hand.

And then something happened.

Boy, home early from work, fueled by caffeine and an addiction to deep cleaning, ventured into Girl’s side of the closet. It didn’t take him long to spot it: a small pink diary resting enticingly atop one of Girl’s shoeboxes. He held it in his hands, shifting its weight, deciding whether to tempt the forces that had led him thus far.

In the diary’s pages: whispers of a hidden love, secret kisses stolen in scant spare moments at work, poetic ramblings dotted with incriminating question marks and dashes. Boy’s face flushed; his head became a swollen balloon.

Before she could betray him further with words, he ended it. A shot in the night, a stifled cry and 79 shovel-loads of backyard dirt later …

Boy heard the telephone ring. On the other end, his sister.

“Have you seen my diary? It’s missing.”

—Jason Long, Auburn

Press Release

Fed up with inane regulations, teachers at Capital City Middle School boycotted fire drills this past week. Citing statistics, which indicate students in California are more likely to die of old age than sudden combustion, teachers have instituted emergency drills more suitable to life off the prairie.

For example, in science, Ms. Black’s students practiced shark-attack drills. “Gouge out their eyes,” they shouted in unison while executing an upward-thrust, inward index-finger lunge. “Gouge out their eyes!” One student suggested that multiple gougings would be required to effectively repel an attacking shark.

During P.E., students climbed on and off the gym roof, using only the furniture they could gather in 30 seconds. Unable to determine for what emergency situation they prepared, the teacher calmly pointed to the levee 20 feet away.

While in English, students practiced reading warning labels and identifying symbols such as the skull and crossbones. “No!” the teacher shouted. “For the fifth time, it does not mean the Raider Nation is invading!”

Students responded well to the sudden curriculum realignment.

“I always wondered what the deal was with all those fire drills,” Aesop Bean explained. “It’s like, dude, did no one notice our school is made from bricks and concrete and asbestos? That stuff is, like, permanent. We couldn’t burn it if we tried.”

—Michelle Brown, Davis

Reunion of ’23

Dinner needed another chicken, so Aunt Beth banged the spoon to the pan, summoning Jewell. Hopscotching, cousin Jorletta stepped by, lured by Jewell’s sweet warning: This takes two.

Jewell chose the nearest white hen. Jorletta held it at arm’s length, reading its eyes, gazing anywhere but the juniper stump and the ax raised easy by Jewell’s skinny arms.

“Hold steady,” she said. “Sweetie, me or the chicken?”

The ax fell slow, and country ears don’t prick at a chop or children howling. But the shrieking was nothing next to the hand held out from the cream-colored dress. Jorletta refused to fall to the ground and soil her city dress.

Jewell watched the headless chicken spray red across the side of the house, while Jorletta gaped at the relatives, walking fast, not running. Why don’t they run?

Jorletta’s thoughts tangled and fought. Run! She saw the chicken’s head on the stump beside four pale fingers. Dessert. Lady fingers. Run.

In Jorletta’s palm, miles of red unraveled. Run? What did I do wrong?

Her thumb pulsed at its loneliness. Jewell backed away from the blood between them, from Jorletta’s screeching affection.

“It’s all right … it’s all right … Jewell, I’m sorry,” she whined, as the gaggle of mothers came closer.

Jewell crossed the ax over her chest, barefoot in the dust. A little stone goddess of defiance, everyone ran to her first.

—Allison Meraz, Sacramento

Why I No Longer Shop at Foster’s Food & Drug

I was waiting at the photo counter at Foster’s because I wanted to pick up my Hawaii pictures. I waited for like forever. I swear, the customer-service guy saw me but pretended not to. I tried to draw him in, like an alien spacecraft, with my laser eye concentration, but it was no use.

Then I noticed these photos taped all over the front of the counter. There were photos of kids eating cake, a guy who resembled Geraldo with a mullet, and a plump lady also eating cake. I figured these were family members of the employee until I saw a little sign nearby that said “Unclaimed Photos.”

Then, the strangest thing happened.

The photos all looked really sad to me. It was like looking at the smiling faces of missing persons, except these ones had cake.

And then another thing crossed my mind. What if the plump lady wasn’t? What if it was just an unflattering camera angle? What if Geraldo had just had the worst haircut of his life? Maybe these photos were unclaimed because they were never meant to be seen.

Overcome by duty, I started peeling them off the counter and slipping them into my purse. And I guess this is how customers can get attention at Foster’s. It’s also how to get banned from the store.

Next time you’re there, you might see a photo of a petite blonde sipping a mai tai. Trust me, she looks way better in person.

—Danielle Best, Elk Grove