Short Story Competition 2: The Grand Finale is Live!
The time we all have been waiting has finally come. The eleven (yes we had a tie in one round) most voted stories in the ten qualifying rounds are now competing head to head for the grand winner title.
If you have not already, make sure to read them. Some are funny, others are intriguing, others yet are touching, but all of them are worth a read!
I would also like to thank all the writers who contributed with their stories, and the readers who gave their attention to the competition.
Now get on with the stories, and remember to cast a vote for your favorite one! (RSS and email subscribers might need to visit the site to cast a vote on the poll)
1. Crazy Fay by Sherry Roth
The outer bands of Tropical Storm Fay were circling unpredictably over South Florida, sometimes lurching forward and dumping buckets of rain that flooded the streets, sometimes shrinking back, allowing all the waters to recede. Weaving through this schizophrenic weather were blustery winds that came and went, so that umbrellas were rather useless.
Hurricane season in South Florida is a mental strain, and I was too tired of dealing with the vicissitudes of the weather to think about cooking dinner that day. Instead, I chose one of the restaurants along University Drive, conveniently on my way home from work. Several people stood in line ahead of me, including one woman who had matted, wet salt-and-pepper hair, with rainwater droplets bizarrely hanging from her earlobes like a poor excuse for earrings. I tried not to stare, but those little droplets had me mesmerized. For her part, she didn’t seem to notice them. I tried to think when, if ever, I had ever seen anything like that. The woman was short and skinny, malnourished like, and her jeans were soaking wet from the hems to the knees. I can’t say how old she was; she might actually have been my age but looked older. Her shirt was clean and not torn, and she had a small white canvas purse slung over a thin shoulder. She waited on line quietly, patiently.
Then it was her turn. I’m not an eavesdropper by nature and I certainly wasn’t going to attempt to listen outright. With all the ambient noise I couldn’t quite catch the entire exchange anyway. So I can only assume that the young employee behind the counter said something helpful like “What can I do for you?” The skinny woman began rifling through her purse in an agitated manner; “I’m very angry at my government. If you want to help me you can do something about that.” She wasn’t particularly loud, but she kept up the harangue, talking the way people talk when for whatever reason they have not taken their psych meds in a few days. The employee handed her a cup for a drink; the woman snatched it from her, filled it with water from the nearby carafe, and surprisingly sat down without another word. My turn soon came; I ordered, got my food, purposely sought out a seat with my back to the woman, and ate. As I was leaving I glanced around, but she was gone.
I couldn’t stop thinking about her. Heading north on University in the fading light amid Fay’s renewed squalls, I tried to scan the sidewalks and side streets looking for her, knowing that it was ridiculous and probably futile, since she could be miles away in any direction. Why was I looking? Crazy, illogical thoughts; I wanted to help her somehow. What would I do if I saw her? I wanted to know her name. I had an extra umbrella. I had a $20 bill.
Suddenly, just north of Sample Road, I saw a skinny figure in soaking wet jeans, a white canvas purse slung over her left shoulder, head high, marching along in the pouring rain. I was in no position to pull over because of the evening traffic. Trying to drive and prepare everything at the same time, I fumbled in my purse and took out a $20; I twisted halfway around and reached into the back seat to get my spare umbrella. I made a U-turn as soon as I could, doubled back quickly and made another fast U-turn…but by the time I got back there, she was gone.
2. 2 AM and Counting by Katrina Mohr
The car window was crank-powered, not electric, but he preferred it that way. He never warmed up to the idea of being entombed in his car should it refuse to start. He rolled the window down, the silver Zippo hissed as he lit a Marlboro Red. Taking in a deep drag, he watched the smoke rise with his breath in the cold air.
He eyed the entrance from where he sat, aware that it was unwise to just sit, parked in front of the buzzing neon signs that lit the empty liquor store lot. Most of these places, including the dilapidated ones like this, had cameras inside and out. Even a low-quality image would have picked up on his license plate by now, but he couldn’t bring himself to care. He just needed the money, he just needed to find TJ, and he just needed to get his shit. He made a deal with himself that he would conserve it this time, make it last longer. Shoot just enough to make everything stop spinning and calm the sloshing in his guts.
The ashtray was full, spilling butts and gray-white powder as he crushed out the cigarette. Leaning across the passenger seat, he popped open the glove box, pulled out a pair of cheap gloves he swiped from a flea market. He removed the tags with one impatient tug and slipped them on. Reaching back in, he made a fist around the handle of the gun; the freezing metal penetrated the gloves. He closed his other hand around the door handle. Casting a quick glance to the entrance again, he stopped dead. A squatty middle-aged woman with a giant green purse toddled into the building. SHIT!
His eyes shot in the direction she seemed to come from and he saw a silver Accord parked not three spaces down. He hadn’t noticed anyone approaching, too absorbed in rehearsing his immediate future on a loop. It’s two o’clock in the goddamned morning! What is that bitch doing?
A balding brown man dressed in a red and yellow uniform popped up from behind the counter when she entered.
This second witness counted as an unnecessary complication. He removed his hand from the car door handle, shifted in his seat.
The view through the window was mostly obscured by cigarette advertisements and a large money-green sign declaring “ATM INSIDE!”. He could still see the bitch browsing the aisles, taking her time. Her hair was shoulder-length and brown. She wore it parted and held in place with a purple headband. Come on! Hurry up! He watched as she disappeared behind a rack of magazines.
He glanced at his wristwatch. The store would be closing soon, and once it did, he would lose his opportunity for tonight. Bruises along the underside of his arm throbbed impatiently and he felt like he was about to puke again. He needed the cash now. Two minutes, bitch. You got two minutes.
With thirty seconds left in an arrangement she knew nothing about, the fat little woman reappeared with a handle of some kind of whiskey, though not a brand he knew. She pulled a wallet from the giant green purse and began the transaction with the man behind the counter. He watched her refuse the receipt and waited for her to head out the door. He squeezed the handle of his gun; its weight on his thigh oddly comforting.
But she didn’t come out. She was still inside, standing at the counter, leaning on it. Getting comfortable. They were chatting it up in there. He ran a shaky hand through his hair and pulled the ski mask from his jacket pocket. You had your chance… Now I’m gonna have to change your fucking life.
He pulled on the ski mask, exited the car and made a quick dash to the entrance.
The door jingled as he pulled it open, two heads turned his way. Smiles quickly disintegrated and the woman let out a scream.
“HANDS UP!” The gunman demanded.
“Please. I do not want any trouble!” the bald man said in a stilted something-stani accent.
“GET BACK AGAINST THE WALL!” He instructed the woman, pointing the barrel in her direction. She obeyed, whimpering and sobbing, her belly fat jiggling. He turned the gun on the short man.
The gunman moved behind the counter, pressed the cold metal into the back of the little man’s head. He used his other hand to grab a plastic bag from the roll. The tiny man seemed frozen in place, staring into the cash register. “EMPTY THE CASH IN HERE.”
The man didn’t move. Another wave of nausea washed through him, he blinked and shook it off. “FILL UP THE BAG!” he demanded, driving the gun in harder. Everything was spinning again, he needed go get the fuck out of here and find a fix.
That is when a phone rang from inside the giant green purse. The gunman snapped in the direction of the sound, the gun seemed to fire automatically. A dark red-brown circle started in the center of her chest and rapidly expanded in every direction. The woman’s face filled with incredulous surprise. She collapsed with a heavy thud.
The gunman wretched, his puke splattered, yellowing the counter. The brown man jumped back, repulsed and shocked, considered making a break for the door.
The gunman righted himself, wiped his mouth with the back of one hand. “MOVE!” He looked into the cash register.
A few lonely twenties and random change waited inside. He spun on the man.
“We… we emptied already for the night…” he stammered.
Weak from withdrawal, exhausted from a lifetime of bad choices, he turned away. The woman was sprawled on the floor; she had landed lifeless and indignant, limbs spread. Her purple headband had slipped out of place and her hair hung loose around her face. A few quiet tears streaked a path down his cheeks.
He turned the gun to his temple and let everything go.
3. I Live In A Coffin The Size Of A Two Bedroom Apartment by Joshua Shelleyi
I spend all of my time six feet below the earth’s surface. Actually, it’s only sixty-two inches below the surface. I had it put in my will; my nose was to be above ground if I was to stand up in my grave. It’s kind of silly, but I always had this fear of being buried alive. I thought that 10 inches closer to the surface would be a safe bet.
I spend a majority of my time decorating the coffin and making sure my fingernails are at perfect soil digging length. I spend the rest of my time thinking of the woman I left behind and writing down my memories and dreams for her.
I had a dream about us last night. We were just hanging out and goofing off. It was nice to see us back to how we were in June . . . even if it wasn’t real. We went to the local university and walked around for a bit, telling stories, wearing our sunglasses and begging for time to stand still, if only for a few hours.
We had only been together a week at that point, but we both knew it was love. It was more than a mere puppy could understand. I had never felt anything like that before and I was enthralled by it. By her. I sat on the bench in the shade. She danced in the fountain in front of me, her shoes on the rim and my heart in her hand. The wind came by and carried a cool mist from the soaked strands of her black hair away from the fountain and kept me cool while I fell in love.
I counted our footsteps back to my car and kissed her once for each one. My mouth was dry afterwards so we walked from my car to a building on campus. It was the Art and Architecture building and the doors weren’t locked on the weekends. It was dim in the building but it felt good to be out of the sun for a few minutes. I reached across the concession counter and stole a drink while she used the bathroom. I assume dancing in the fountain had caused her to have to go. When she came out of the bathroom I woke up, still alone.
It’s dreams like that that I will never be able to shake. They were so real, so perfect and so simply unforgettable. And it’s that girl that I will never be able to forget. Her kitten smile, her smell, her laugh. How she always embarrassed me when we went places. I miss watching her put on makeup. I miss seeing her face light up when she saw me. I can’t forget all the times I surprised her. I can’t forget anything about this girl, but I’m not sure if she can even remember me.
I leave off my return address when I mail her stuff. She knows where I’ve always been and if she wants she can find me. I died the day she sent me away. Car wreck. Crossed the median with my arms spread out, ready to fly. Ready to die.
I need something to fly over my grave again and let me know that I could be alive, to someone. I was buried with my lioness in my heart or at least my loneliness.
Coffins should come with better ventilation systems. It’s hard to bear smoking a cigarette when plush, silk pillows surround you. I could really use another cigarette right now. My heart sometimes sinks down to my stomach and the smoke helps to push it back into place.
I’ve been in here just short of five months. She’s the only thing I dream about and the only thing I miss. Well, to be completely honest, that first part could be a lie, but as far as I know it’s more honest than George Washington is on the one-dollar bill. I’m sure I’ve had thousands of dreams but the only ones I can remember are the ones where we’re together again. But we aren’t together again at the end of the week. I’ll pass out tonight and dream of her smiling as she covers her mouth with her right hand. I’ll pull out a camera and try to snap a picture. But she disappears before I can push the button. Besides, pictures tend to fade away over time, but memory is forever.
Perhaps she’ll stay in my crosshairs someday. Maybe another guy will kill her and we can be together. Or she’ll come back and decide dating someone who was once deceased isn’t so bad and try to make it work. She’ll save all of the letters I write her and cry to herself at night. I pray that I haunt her dreams, both day and night.
Even more so, I hope that she is happy without me. She deserves it. She deserves everything that we had those first two months and everything more I didn’t think I could give her.
The rain comes three times a week to wash the soil away. I’ll make sure it takes me with it next time.
4. Red Light, Green Light by Easton Miller
She faced down a third grade thug who pushed me off a swing when we were five. She sweet-talked my dad into doubling my allowance when we were twelve. At seventeen, sleepovers meant climbing out her bedroom window to meet boys and drag on unfiltered Chesterfields she’d snitched from her Dad’s dresser. “Audrey, we are going to get in such deep trouble if we get caught. We’ll be grounded for eternity.”
“Dad promised Mom he’d quit smoking. I hardly think he’s going to mention any missing cigarettes, do you?” She’d lean against the boy she thought was worth the risk, light up and blow smoke rings at the moon.
Audrey planned my wedding and insisted on driving the get away car she’d festooned with clattering tin cans and fifty or sixty pounds of rice. She drove me to the hospital for the birth of my first child, breaking some kind of land-speed record. She talked the cop, who’d followed us the entire way with his siren blaring, out of the ticket. She drove me to a pit bull lawyer when I divorced, then dragged me back into a world of adventurous living that usually involved men and driving me somewhere I didn’t want to go. It’s always been a given, whatever we do, Audrey drives. She’s going to anyway.
A beautiful spring day motivates us to make a Dairy Queen run. “We deserve ice cream and chocolate,” Audrey says as she expertly fastens me into a seat belt.
We are sitting at a red light, windows rolled down allowing the warm breeze to stir our memories. California Dreaming wafts over the oldies station. I’m singing back up. Audrey belts the lead beating out the rhythm on the dashboard. In front of us an elderly man with a walker steps off the curb into the crosswalk just as a giant monster pick-up, the size and color of the Viet Nam War Memorial — big, long, dark, awesome — pulls up behind us, its deafening boom drowns out California or dreaming. The light turns green.
The fragile old man puts one hesitant foot in front of the other. The sun glints off his aluminum walker, the rubber tips scrape reluctantly across the pavement. He is so slow; I purposely stare without blinking, to make sure he’s really moving. The shadow of the monster truck takes on weight as the driver behind us hits his horn. The light turns red.
“Chill,” Audrey mutters. “You’d think a flock of angry Canadian geese was behind us for all that honking.” Icy impatience has crept into her voice. Uh oh. I’ve heard that tone more than once or twice in the last five decades. I can practically see steam emitting from her nostrils. I’m fearful she might get out of the car and start something right here in the intersection. I’m confident of the outcome. Audrey always emerges a winner, but things could get ugly here real fast. The old man shuffles forward. The light turns green.
We sit, motor idling, waiting for the old fellow to clear the hood. The slam of the pick-up door behind us sways our car like we were caught in an eighty-mile an hour crosswind. The crunch of boots on asphalt is ominously audible.
I haven’t spent my life along side Audrey without learning something. I hit the button to roll up windows and lock doors. The side view mirror reflects a three hundred pound animal with muscles the size of basketballs approaching. His dark glasses wrap around his face like the darkened windshield wraps around his truck. In fact, he looks a lot like his truck. Audrey rolls down her window.
“Are you crazy?” I hiss. I’ve asked her that question at least two million times in the fifty years I’ve known her. She has yet to respond.
A three-foot wide male chest fills the driver’s window. Our elderly pedestrian has advanced to the right front of the hood. The light turns red.
“What a coincidence. I can’t remember the last time I saw you. My how you’ve filled out.” Audrey twinkles into Godzilla’s midriff. “And tell me how’s your dear mother?’
“Why, thank you, ma’am, for asking. She’s doing real well. Did you know she’s been pretty sick?” His voice filters in from somewhere above the sunroof. He sounds surprising light and mellow for a guy built like an aircraft carrier.
“I heard. I called, but the machine picked up. I’m delighted to hear she’s better. How lovely we ran into each other this way.”
I can’t believe she’s having a conversation with this guy.
“Just wanted to see if you needed help, since your car wasn’t moving.”
“What a gentleman you are — a real credit to your mother.” The aircraft carrier shuffles his feet in embarrassed acknowledgement. Audrey reaches out the window and pats his arm. “We’re fine. We wanted to let the gentleman cross safely.” She gestures toward the windshield. Tiny geisha steps take the old man to the left side of the car.
“Oh yeah. I see. Glad to know everything is ok. I’ll tell mom I ran into you.” I shudder to think a few minutes ago he might have meant that literally. The boots pound back to the behemoth of a truck.
Audrey flutters a hand at Godzilla’s retreating back. “Say hello to your mother. Give her my best,” she calls.
“Did he just tip his hat?”
“I believe he did. Oh good, the light is green.”
“Actually it’s yellow, Audrey.”
“Close enough.” She shoots through the intersection leaving the monster truck still sitting at the stoplight. The old man places his walker on the far curb.
“Was that good luck or what?”
“What do you mean?”
“That you knew that guy and his mother.”
“Geeze, Louise. You are so naive.” She flashes me a sly, smile. “I never saw that guy before in my life.”
5. Orange Bubble Power by Violet Toler
I love to write. I hate housework. However, some mundane chores just won’t wait. One look at the bathroom sink caused me to grab my trusty Orange Bubble Power Wipes dispenser. Too bad those cute little scrubbing bubbles from the commercial aren’t real. I’d love to let them do the job while I compose the next NY Times best seller.
Might as well get it over, I thought, as I hurriedly opened the lid and snatched at the wipe. The tip tore off in my hand. Irritated, I pulled on the stub more forcefully this time. It ripped again. Grabbing the last smidgen that barely peeked through the slit, I yanked hard. Out came the rest of the wipe–unattached from the rest of the roll.
The second wipe should have fed through the X-shaped cut in the plastic top. It didn’t. Impatiently I jerked the lid off to feed the darn wipe through from the underside. The orange lid was stiff and unyielding.
“I don’t have time for this!” I grumbled. Accentuating my words with action, I vigorously crammed the wipe out the other side. That’s when my troubles began.
One-half inch of my index finger now protruded through the hole with half a wipe. A stream of Orange Bubble Power Wipes drooped between my hand and the open container on the hamper.
Try as I might, I couldn’t get free. I tugged and the blasted lid worked like Chinese handcuffs. The harder I pulled, the tighter it stuck. I twisted and turned, but remained trapped. Every movement sucked my fingertip in tighter still. Within minutes, sharp V-shaped points were digging into my flesh cutting off circulation.
How humiliating. This situation was far beneath my dignity. After all, I was a professional woman. I couldn’t allow anyone to see me like this, especially Stephen, my proper gentleman husband.
I was determined to solve this problem by myself in privacy. God knows I tried. I lathered my finger with soap. I pried. I twisted. I pulled. Nothing helped.
Oh, gosh durn, I thought, this hideous contraption is going to eat me alive! Orange Bubble Power indeed! I wondered if my finger was only an appetizer for this plastic vampire. It appeared voracious. Panicked, I swallowed my pride and called for help.
My urgent tone brought Stephen down the stairs two at a time. He burst through the bathroom door, out of breath. When I saw his concerned expression, I regretted frightening him. However, as he surveyed the situation, worry fell off his face so fast, I swear I heard it hit the floor.
His dignified manner disappeared as his lips twitched, then his whole face rippled as he broke into laughter. This was no mere grin or snicker, but was a total knee-slapping belly laugh. I stood there, annoyed, humiliated, and in pain. He finally regained his composure, held my finger tight, and tried to unscrew the lid, so to speak. His plan went awry. So did my usually mild demeanor as I told him what I thought of his attempt.
He poured half a bottle of liquid soap and some cooking oil over my finger. It added goop to the mess, but didn’t penetrate the orange grip of death. Imagining the worst, it dawned on me that my finger could die without blood. For all I knew, I could be facing amputation!
Panicked, I ran through the house for my sewing shears. Ten feet of Bubble Power Wipes streamed behind like crepe paper from a Main Street parade. The empty container rolled onto the floor with a thump. With my left hand, I grabbed the scissors and tried to cut myself free. No luck. Stephen took over, but my scissors couldn’t grip the slimy lid. We tried again after rinsing, but the rigid material was unrelenting. So was the pain!
Stephen headed for his basement workshop for tin snips leaving me helpless and alone for what seemed an eternity. By this point, I was ready to stoop to just about anything. I seriously considered dialing 911 with my good hand, all the while picturing the Jaws-of-Life rushing to my rescue.
Stephen finally returned. I wailed shamelessly as he snipped at the blasted lid. Jagged points bit deeper with every clip. After several distressing snips, he pried the plastic apart and set me free. My poor finger had four pointed indentations that resembled tooth marks and a bloodlessly white tip. Other than that, I had escaped the Orange demon.
My hero tried to manage a straight face. “What on God’s green earth were you trying to do?”
“Believe me,” I pronounced grimly, “Those Scrubbing Bubbles may look cute on TV, singing their little high-pitched song, but don’t let them fool you. Those sweet grins hide sharp, powerful, orange teeth that are just waiting to attack! Lucky for me, you were here. They would have done their dirty deed, wiped up the mess, and you’d have never known what became of me.”
He left the room muttering something about finding a support group for husbands of imaginative writers. Me? I headed for the computer to write this story one-handed.
6. Welcome to the Circus by Ted Dong
It is already my third week on the job and still I have much to learn about the business of entertainment. Having been fascinated with animals for as long as I can remember, this occupation seemed at first, destined to suit me; but nothing is ever what it seems. With that in mind, I set out on my first show of a month-long tour.
I enter today’s performing venue through the backstage, to a blaring chorus of elephants, which drains the Sunday morning drowsiness right out of my system, as their trunks rain a storm of noise into my eardrums. Having been crossly ignored my first two weeks, maybe this is a sign that they have accepted me into their world. I graciously accept this welcome without daring to second guess myself, and pat one of them on the trunk in return.
The elephants’ pen is strikingly claustrophobic, as most of the animal areas are. We are amidst the vast expanse of a dome-like tent right now, but the animals are condensed into cages and stables backstage. Standing around each are groups of trainers, now feeding the animals their first of two meals for the day. They give such minute servings it is a wonder how these animals manage to continue performing. I walk past a pair of my colleagues feeding the birds, and into the nearest bathroom, where I change into my drab uniform.
I head over to the lion’s den, which is really a series of claustrophobic cages now, in which each lion is separated from its counterparts. This is the area where I have been spending most of my time, assisting in the preparation for their upcoming act. Out of all the other stations, though, this one intrigues me the most; how these fearsome, courageous kings of the jungle have become squalid, helpless peasants in this new kingdom of ours. Still, I suppose it would be more accurate a statement to say that they are really coerced jesters in our royal court. What an honour.
Roy, my mentor greets me warmly with a grin and says, in his southern tongue, “People are gon’ start packin’ this place up in about an hour, you wait ‘n see. Ready for your first show, kid?” I can’t say I am.
Sure enough, after sixty brutally anticipated minutes I bring myself to peer out of the backstage curtains, to see a horde of people migrate their way into the stands. Most of them are small children, accompanied by their fervent parents, who hold their hands like escorts to a ball. They have entered the royal court.
It is a different place out there from when I first entered the tent. The performing area is now a magical realm, isolated from the outside world. The stage lights brilliantly illuminate the entire tent, as their golden beams dance off the walls like tiny ballerinas. The tent in and out of itself has become a solid, scintillating ball of wondrous excitement. The crowd attempts to sit in patience, but the children have become restive and their parents equally as antsy.
I look back inside the curtains to see that all of our performers have taken up their respective positions backstage and aloft, some of them appearing so inconspicuously that I hadn’t even noticed them before. It seems that I am the only person out of position, so I quickly retreat to find Roy and the rest of our entourage, nearly toppling over the clowns as I make my way to the lions.
The lion-tamers and I move to the designated entrance, where we are to make our sumptuous entry later in the show. I peer out again, to a now silent crowd of hundreds. The lights have dimmed and the spotlight has come on. I feel a sharp pang in my stomach, as the butterflies start to pervade.
“And now, ladies and gentleman… Michael Jordan!” thunders the ringmaster’s voice, which chops through the air of silence. The crowd cheers in euphoria.
To my surprise, a single cub stumbles out onto the performing area, led by the two trainers, one of who pushes along an undersized basketball hoop. The cub is dragged along by a leash, wound upon a grimy, rusted ring that has been pierced through his two nostrils. They force the young cub to stand, uncannily on his two hind feet. At first he stands there, inert; an expression on his visage I can only describe as apprehensively confused. They shove a dirty basketball into his chest so hard that it ricochets up and hits him in the ringed nose. The audience, children and their parents alike, cackle at the helpless cub as he sneezes. He waddles towards the hoop and drops the ball through. They roar in delightful amusement.
After the cub is finished, the ringmaster screams through his microphone, unnecessarily loud, “Welcome to the circus!”
The audience screams back in jubilance; the children clapping their hands, their parents cheering along. Out of nowhere two trapeze artists swing from aloft, nearly crashing into the ground before exchanging swings with each other in midair, soaring back to the ceiling. More deafening roars from the audience, as the exhilarating acrobatics continue. The show has begun.
I see a mother in the audience pick her son up and embrace him in her arms, as she rises up to give a standing ovation. She beams at her son, conveying a proud sense of love and affection, as if nothing in the world matters more. Then I peep backstage to see the cub fiercely tugged back to his cage by the leash, so hard I fear his nose is about to peel off. I see his mother in a separate, solitary cage, dressed ignominiously in a navy blue sailor’s suit. They stare at each other for a moment, their eyes radiating affection. But this warm moment is brought to an abrupt halt, as a trainer drags the mother away by an analogous leash.
Welcome to the circus.
7. Crash by Tanya Alderman
It is 11pm. I can’t sleep – again. Sitting by his side, I stroke his fragile hand—the one not invaded with an intravenous needle. Puncture wounds discolor his tiny hand with putrid shades of blue, green, and brown. The last time the nurse probed his veins, he didn’t shed a single tear. He stared into my eyes and watched the tears spill from me instead.
His hand feels cold. I curl my hand around his and swallow up its frailty.
I can’t drown out the rhythmic tit-tat, tit-tat of the monitor and I don’t want to—the promise of life is in every beat. If only I could hold more than just his hand. There are too many tubes, too many wires.
Surgical staples, recently cleaned with iodine and covered with new gauze, invade the length of his chest. There is a feeding tube down his nose, a catheter to collect his urine, a chest tube to drain fluids, an IV in his leg, and another one in his other hand.
I want to talk to him, but I’m too tired to speak and I’m not sure he can hear me or even understand. I stare out the window into the starless night. A faint glow from the parking lot below provides some illumination, but not a clear view. His previous room didn’t have a window. I would spend hours staring at the sterile white walls because I had run out of words to pray. Only the occasional interruption of nurses and med techs would bring me out of my trance.
I should be catching a few hours of sleep, but I don’t want to leave his side. I don’t want….. Beep! Beep! BEEEEEEEEEEEEEP!
Jerked to attention by the alarm screaming over my son’s head, I spin around and gasp as all color drains from his face. His lips start turning blue and my knees begin to buckle. “I NEED HELP! SOMEBODY, PLEASE,” I shout into the hall. “Oh, dear God, he isn’t breathing!”
I hear the sound of the medical team running, skidding across the ICU floor. “Code blue,” is announced through the intercom. In seconds, my son is surrounded and I am pulled away from his side and deposited in a corner. Nurses frantically execute all the commands being fired at them by the resident doctor.
I know if I stay quiet they will let me stay in this corner; they won’t make me leave. I watch as they put a tube down my son’s throat. A nurse pumps air into his lungs while the doctor does compressions on his heart. I can’t move even if I wanted to. I want to cry out, but I know I have to stay quiet, very quiet.
My heart is pounding out of my chest. I bow my head and clench my fists, desperate to touch heaven. Please God, don’t take him from me… please not now… not like this! The alarm is still screaming. Where is the tit tat, tit tat? If my soul could be heard by the human ear, the whole world would bear witness to my agonizing, desperate plea for tit tat, tit tat, tit tat.
The doctor calls for the paddles. My head snaps up. Is this the end? Don’t let this be the end. They’re going to shock my son. My vision is blurred by uncontrollable tears. I hear, “Charging! Clear! AGAIN! Charging! CLEAR!” The doctor sounds so desperate, “Come on little guy, not tonight,” to the nurse, “One more time! CHARGING! CLEAR!” The electricity courses through his little eight pound body. The doctor is frozen, paddles in the air, as he stares at the line on the monitor, a line so vulgar, so flat. One second, two seconds…then, “tit… tat, tit… tat, tit tat.”
I exhale the breath I’d been holding as I collapse to the floor. Silently I thank the Lord for just a little more time. I thank Him for every tit tat that doesn’t just sing in my ears, but wraps my soul in a symphony only God could write.
After what seems like hours, the doctors and nurses finally clear out of his room and I am back at his side. I hold his hand a little tighter and let my lips linger on his forehead a little longer. I stroke his tiny head until I fall asleep where I sit.
In my dreams, he’s nestled in my arms. There are no more wires or tubes, no more bruised hands. He smells like baby lotion instead of alcohol swabs. I sigh as I listen to his rhythmic breathing. I rock him to sleep in my favorite oak rocking chair, keeping time with the cadence of his heart.
9. Silly, I Know: The Tale of a Driving Range Golf Ball by Sean McMenamin
I hate being at the bottom of the bucket. I always feel like such a jerk when everyone else is between five other balls, while I only have to cope with two or three.
Silly, I know.
But what really ticks me off is that I can’t talk. I mean, God gave me thoughts, how ‘bout some words too? I suppose if we all could speak, one would hear a helluva lot of screaming out on the driving range.
Silly, I know.
A pudgy English gentleman picked up the basket which I had called my home for the past few minutes. From my position, I could not tell what kind of driver he had. See, there are two types of drivers for us: the hard hitting woods, and the Sunday-morning-hangover-inducing, titanium-reinforced Big Bertha. I hate both, and-because I’m the luckiest ball in the world, I am going to be hit by one of the two because golfers tend to save their drivers for the bottom of the bucket.
Seriously Silly, trust me…I know.
Sir Twinkie, which I dubbed the man because of his mustard cardigan, dumped half the bucket onto the golf mat. He started by stretching, swinging two clubs at once, causing me and my fellow golf balls an unimaginable amount of anxiety. The first ball was chosen, an eight iron was picked, and Twinkie’s practice began.
Then I saw his driver. It was a Big Bertha. Seriously, it wasn’t my day. Very few people understand the excruciating pain that follows from being hit by one of these things. Add to it that Mr. Rogers was hitting my comrades with a slight hook, which meant that I would never be hit into the water hazard that was placed at the 300 yard flag. I was only hit in there once, and it was better than a long ride in a ball cleaner.
Yeah, I know. Silly.
There were only a few balls left and from my placement on the artificial grass mat, I would be hit last. Seriously, this was a really bad day. No, not bad—horrible.
Fat, sweaty fingers picked me up, just lovely. I was placed on the plastic tee when Twinkie suddenly said, “I say! It’s one terribly hot day! I think I need water before I pass out.”
Seriously? One ball left and he needs a drink? If I could cry out of my dimples…Did I mention I currently reside in Arizona? It was 120°F, and there I was, lying upon the tee, baking in the sun. Sure I may not have a “nervous system” or any sort of “emotions” but I know that if I was out there much longer I would probably melt into a puddle of liquidized plastic, rubber, and some silicone. But hey, I’m just a golf ball! Who cares?
Twinkie was coming back, finally, sans sweater. I guess the genius figured out that cardigans and Arizona don’tgo well together. He seemed pretty red in the face, making me assume that he was mad and/or hot. I further deduced that he may have not gotten his water.
My suspicions were confirmed when I heard him mumble something about the price of water and the stupidity of Americans. He sighed and took out his Big Bertha.
Well…here we go again. The man bent his knees, exhaled, and swung a few practice swings. Those are the real killers. The psychological effects of seeing a block of titanium swing past one’s face is horrifying. I think I know what the narrator in Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum felt like under the razor-sharp torture device.
It wasn’t so silly anymore.
Omitting numerous expletives and cries of pain, my trip can be described in one word: ouch. I do have to admit, it was a pretty good hit. It was such a nice whack that I could see the water hazard approaching, fast. In fact, I was spinning so much I could have sworn that I was going to fly right over the pond.
I did. It would have been just a fine and dandy landing, except that I touched down in a recently watered sand trap. It should be understood that it is often a ball’s dream to land in the soft comfort of a sand trap, but not when it’s watered. See, when ball meets wet sand, one of two things can happen. A, which always occurs, is when the sand becomes wedged in the golf ball’s dimples, and no one likes this. B, which is the cruelest of situations, is when a chunk of wet sand clings to the side of a ball.
I previously admitted to being the luckiest ball in the world, and this still stands true. By chance, this landing caused the additional scenario B. I was left with only a few dimples that were unfilled. Did I mention that golf balls see from their dimples?
Ok, that’s it. I am now an atheist. No omnipotent, loving god would allow a bird to excrete gooey…substance…onto my uncovered dimples. It was particularly welcomed because I was now being baked alive in half bird feces, half now dry sand under the devilishly hot sun.
There I lay for hours upon hours until the cool night breeze came, where I was swept into a short lapse of tranquility and bliss that would last the remainder of the evening.
Silly, I know.
10. The Dress by Varada Sharma
It was early summer. We were all gathered at Grandpa’s house at Manali, a hill station in the Himalayas, during my family’s once-in-five-years India visit. Dark, cold with withered paint and partially dilapidated furniture, the house looked as old as its owner and felt equally gloomy.
If one paid any attention to the ramblings of people there, fragments of hushed exclamations would be heard. “What a ridiculous dress for her age!”, said my aunt who herself was dressed in a white tee and beige cargoes which did little to hide tyres around her torso. “What was the old man thinking when he allowed such a thing?”, scoffed another gentleman, I had not met before. My parents, aunts, uncles, cousins all were whispering amongst themselves while sipping tea. I was rather confused about the whole affair.
In India, in spite of the wave of modernism, families like mine tried to stick to our pristine old traditions. All respectable ladies were expected to wear a saree. My grandma was a classic old Indian lady. She had refused to wear any other outfit when she visited us at Chicago last year. Even when it got too windy, she did not switch to something more comfortable like tee + jeans, preferring to wear a man’s coat or wrap a shawl around over her saree, if she had to step outside the house. What had changed now?
Amidst all the confused taunts and accusations over his sanity, my Grandpa (“Daddu” as I affectionately called him) looked sad, torn, yet determined to stay by his wife’s side. Being the pet of my grandparents, I decided to put things in place and save everyone the embarrassment when more people started walking in.
Putting a youthful, loving hand over his shoulders, I said to grandpa, “Daddu, people are talking about Grandma’s dress. Why is she wearing a red gown fit for a ballroom dance? Shall we drape a red saree for her instead? It will be embarrassing, you know… ”. My voice trailed off when Daddu looked at me with tearful eyes.
“Divya, your grandma and I were married when we were very young. She was 16, I was 21. I still remember how beautiful and innocent she looked in her wedding saree. She left behind her friends, playmates, studies, parents everything for me. As the eldest daughter-in-law she gladly embraced the responsibilities of me, my old widowed mom and young siblings. She loved theatrics, but had to give it up. She did not complain. While trying to meet the demands of my younger siblings and later on our kids, she always forwent her own desires. She did not ever ask anything for herself.
That day in Chicago, when we were passing by Macy’s, she found this red gown and was mesmerized by it. She stared at it so longingly that I could read in her eyes how much she liked it. It brought back memories of our younger days. On that last day of our Chicago visit, I secretly purchased this dress and packed it. When we reached home, I gave it to her. She had tears in her eyes. For the first time in her life, her husband had got her something which she really ‘liked’. She cherished and treasured this dress, affectionately fondling it now and then. Today when she has left me alone and is ready to begin her last journey of no return, I wanted her to carry this gift on her person. I was a very lucky man to have married such a loving woman. If we are ever born again, I want to entice her to come back to me”, said Daddu with a sad smile.
I felt humbled by their love and devotion towards each other. I could not withstand his pain. At a loss for words, I quietly hugged him. Together we picked one of the red sarees and draped it over the dress which was by now stained with our mixed tears…
11. Jasmine by Sandra A. Mushi
She couldn’t keep her eyes awake though she felt drowsy. Maybe from the herbal concoction he had made her drink. This one seemed to be much stronger than the ones she had been drinking before. Her ears pricked to the sound of mountain wolves. She had heard that a wolf or two had been spotted around the mountains. Hugging her cold frame, she prayed they wouldn’t come, that they would not smell her, that the strong smell of the jasmine would mask her human blood scent. Her eyes bulged with fright and watered from the cold she felt.
The sensation of yearning suddenly exploded in her breast – for a while forgetting about the cries of the mountain wolves. I have to have one, she cried silently. She had been trying for years! Instead of their support, they called her names behind her back. And instead of his support, he curled to a corner not saying a word, not defending her – which of them was to blame.
Every night they visited, the aggressive ones would shamelessly spit their venom spiked insults at her. After they left, he would cushion his inadequacy at a pub near their home, while she would curl up trembling in their big bed and cry alone.
He wouldn’t go for medical check up. They wouldn’t allow him. “He is a man,” they would spit at her. “You are the problem! Our family only has real men!”
The blood rose up to her neck as she choked grief and anger and let her freezing body fall back against the tree trunk as if she had been struck with a blow from the pain she felt. Loudly she cried in anguish and pain, pounding her clutched hands angrily on the red earth. Breathing in, she sniveled. As she hugged herself tighter, she wished she had remembered to take a jacket with her.
At first she was afraid to ask him why she should spend every fortnight outside for six weeks. The bone earring he wore that elongated his earlobe had made her afraid. It looked like a bone from a finger – a baby’s finger. She had never seen a man with such an earring and such long red hair. She stared at the earring as he chanted, her eyes straying from the earring to the small bones and horns scattered on the red earth. Every now and then he would pick up the biggest horn, shake it and then listen to it as if it was talking to him.
The hair – long curly hair was a dull colour between yellow and red. It somehow reminded her of the red ochre and clay Maasai warriors back home used to colour their hair with. She watched his scruffy ponytail bounce up and down as he talked to the horn excitedly. After which he would go into a trance as if he was possessed.
“The spirits are waiting for you, my child, just follow your nose,” he would say after waking up from the trance, his eyes blood shot red. Finally explaining he added, “follow your nose, child, it will lead you to where she will come from.”
The smell of jasmine whose flowers opened in the night like white stars would waft by her nose by the night breeze as she walked blindly through the still of the night following her nose, silently memorizing the strict instructions he had given her.
“Don’t look back,” he had always warned her.
She was always so tempted to look back – to see how far she was from his little thatched shack with old black cloths, horns, amulets of every sizes and colours as well as pots draped casually at the entrance.
He must be of Arab descendent, she mused. How else would one explain the colour, length and texture of the hair? Drowsily she smiled as she imagined him bending down to pick up herbs, his ponytail falling over his wrinkled caramel brown skin, sweeping the flowers on the grass.
Every fortnight morning she would wake up disheveled, tired and aching. Memories of the night before toying with her mind – the prayers, infusing herself in incense, the chanting, beheading of the black cock, massaging her breasts with the warm blood, the trances, the cries of the wolves … were there someone with her, a companion – a night visitor? Every morning she would shake her head as if shaking the thought away.
Quietly the thought would creep back, teasing her tired mind that desperately need some sleep. Maybe it was her. Maybe she was finally coming. Jasmine, that’s what she would call her. No, she would shake her head angrily; she should count the chicks before the eggs hatch.
She shivered and welcomed the thought as she remembered them. The worse was the older sister, Zalika. Always wrapped in the most expensive Kente or Adinkra cloth, her well manicured hands dangling car keys of the BMW X5, she was given as a gift after she had bore a boy. After his circumcision, she was taken to Paris for shopping.
“Useless woman!” She would spit on the floor disgustedly. Her lipstick chic, the words would trip out as cold as ice and as sharp as a blade – cutting her insides, “just filling my brother’s toilet.”
She sighed. Jasmine – breathing in the syllables. There was already one Jasmine in the family – her brother in law’s, two year old daughter with curly reddish brown hair, like the colour of jasmine oil. Jasmine’s mother, Lulu, was quiet always wearing a mocking smile.
“Even if her grandfather was from Tanga, I don’t see how Jasmine could inherit the red hair!” Zalika had spit when Lulu was presented with a RAV4. “He was as black as coal, I hear!”
Jasmine. She arrived finally – six weeks ago. They had a hair cutting ceremony after arobaini; her hair is not as black and kinky as her father’s and hers. Her Jasmine – whose hair colour is that of jasmine oil.
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52 Responses to “Short Story Competition 2: The Grand Finale is Live!”
Mary Ann Hunter
@Daniel, I expected your exact response!
@Mary Ann Hunter: Mine was the other story that got left out. Quite the bummer.
Nonetheless, I will definitely be submitting it to other markets. I spent a good amount of time on it and am proud of the result.
Hopefully yours makes its way out there as well. Best of luck.
Authors, congratulations on making it to the second and final round.
The essential element I look for in a short story — actually in any narrative, be it flash fiction, epic poem or creative nonfiction — is story arc. A story must have a beginning (introduction of a conflict within a character in a setting), a middle (complications to the conflict which make the reader wonder how the story will turn out), and an end (the resolution of the conflict which transforms the protagonist, with foreshadowing in the beginning and middle leading to a surprising yet inevitable ending), all in detail that shows instead of telling me what to think. The story arc is a promise made by the writer to the reader, offered in the beginning, threatened in the middle, yet fulfilled in the end.
I have read your stories and have some thoughts:
About “Crazy Fay” by Sherry Roth: I believe the writer aspired to equate the tropical storm to the mentally ill woman in the restaurant, using the medical term “schizophrenic” to describe the weather, and foreshadow the woman’s agitation. The author also mentioned “rainwater droplets bizarrely hanging from the woman’s earlobes…[which] had me mesmerized.” This foreshadowing, emphasized as important, was not followed through.
The writer *told* me about the woman “soaking wet,” “white canvas purse” “rifling through her purse in an agitated manner.” (is there any other way to rifle?) The author didn’t step back and just *show* me what the woman did, and let me decide she was crazy.
Somehow, the protagonist decided to give this woman twenty bucks. I wasn’t shown the progression from mesmerization with droplets, to ignoring the woman while eating, to needing to her her. And the woman disappears during the protagonist’s U-turn. This could have been an inevitable end to the story if the protagonist tried to help her two previous times, say trying to speak to her while in line at the restaurant and the woman disappears into the bathroom, trying to find her after eating and she disappears out of the restaurant, then at last the scene on the street.
The paragraphs read as a prose poem, describing a moment, hinting maybe at a realization hidden within the protagonist, but the story doesn’t have an arc that I see.
Matthew G. Miller
About “2 AM and Counting” by Katrina Mohr: This story made promises. The protagonist is tweaking, determined to hold up this convenience story, and things get in the way. I can hear the protagonist’s voice “shit,” “bitch,” “squatty,” but also “dilapidated,” “low-quality,” “conserve.” He’s an educated addict. I sympathized with the abhorrent protagonist because, the story is written with detail that *shows* me the story….
Until the sentence “Weak from withdrawal, exhausted from a lifetime of bad choices….” In the penultimate paragraph you *tell* me what to think. I know the author needed a reason for the protagonist to shoot himself, but I wish I had been shown. The suicide, I felt, was surprising, not foreshadowed. I felt the author promised me that the protagonist was getting cash in any way he could. I was led to believe the few twenties in the register and the contents of the lady’s purse would have gotten him his score. I saw no guilt before he went into the store, he’d done this before “aware that it was unwise to just sit parked in front [with] cameras inside and out.” If he was unsure how to use the gun, fretted about it being loaded even though he didn’t want to use it, then I might believe his turning it on himself.
This ending betrayed the promise I felt the author made. I expected a different ending, or foreshadowing to let this one make sense.
Matthew G. Miller
About “I Live in a Coffin the Size of a Two Bedroom Apartment” by Joshua Shelleyi:
I like the idea of a dead man still dreaming about the woman who left him earlier the same day he died, and the arc should be a circling around, and a return to the dreaming the same dreams. I like that the dead man still acts like he’s alive “decorating the coffin,” manicuring his fingernails, jonesing for a cigarette, and dreaming of the woman he used to be with.
But the author promised me the protagonist wants out: The grave is only as deep as his nose, his fingernails are ready to dig him out, and dreaming of the woman he wants to be with again. The dream was described moreover as a memory, a reminiscence rather than a goal. Again, I felt promised he wanted out more than he felt stuck in.
Then I was confused by new metaphors: “something to fly over my grave again” (did something besides the dead man fly the first time?), “more honest than George Washington” (were we to think the dead man was lying to us?), “try to snap a picture, but she disappears” (I thought she was already gone).
The story does arc around to the idea of, since he cannot leave his “apartment,” that she could find a way to get back together with him, but it involves suddenly violent images of “crosshairs” and “another guy will kill her,” in stark contrast to the gentle language of his dreams of her.
And is rain, three times a week, enough to carry away 62 inches of soil from a not-so-deeply dug grave? As a metaphor, I can’t be sure.
Matthew G. Miller
About “Crash” by Tanya Alderman
This is a poignant moment which reads as if transcribed from real life. I want to emphasize that I comment on the story, on the fiction, as it is presented here on the page. It’s all I have, as the reader. If it is important to the author that this “really happened” then the words should be submitted to a non-fiction essay contest. I would use different criteria to comment on it there.
The story is rich in detail, “shades of blue, green and brown,” “tit-tat, tit-tat,” “faint glow from the parking lot below.” Does this faint glow parallel the faint spark of life? Does the life provide illumination that the street lamp does not?
This, like other stories here, is a prose poem, about a tender moment. This moment is exquisitely described, but it does not describe a transition from one state of being to another. The protagonist doesn’t learn something from the code blue emergency, she doesn’t decide anything new. She only reaffirms her love for him and returns to the cadence of his heart.
What stuck out to me, a train wreck of a surprise, was that the man was her son. I have no reason to think otherwise, I went back and checked. The author gave me no clues as to the man’s identity, and so I fell back onto my stereotypes: heart surgery, frailty, I presumed an eldery with his wife of decades. If the author replaced “my son” with “he” or “his” in paragraphs seven and eight, I would never have known. Now I wonder “How old is he? A child, or adult son?” “Does he have kids of his own? Or is the heart surgery premature, performed on a child, with years ahead about to be lost?” All sorts of new story elements spring to mind, and are not answered at all. The unmarked story still reads as elderly man. That’s the default scenario that doesn’t require additional detail.
Because the unexpected identity of the patient was “buried” seven paragraphs down, I felt betrayed: a poignantly written story with a distracting detail.
Matthew G. Miller
About “The Disappearing Martins” by Trine Grillo:
This is a lovely children’s book, about letting some things go and trying to call back other things. I’m not sure though that the lesson is consistent through the story, or what the lesson ultimately is.
The common wisdom, that the purple martins went to Heaven with Grandma, could have been said once and first, then each successive adult (a series of three) could contradict that with their less satisfactory explanations “Birds don’t go to heaven,” “new elm tree planted in the wrong spot,” “cold snap last week.”
The story has a conflict: How does Sophie get the martins to come back? She follows Grandfather Adahy’s wisdom. (Is this Grandma’s husband? The connection was suggested, but I missed it’s import.) She is frustrated until she plants the gourd at the top of the flag pole. And the martin returns.
But what does the martin returning tell us about how Sophie feels about her grandmother dying? She is obviously trying to figure out how she is supposed to feel. (Her beloved parakeet didn’t go there, so how good can Heaven be?) Sophie feels triumphant that her placing the gourd gave a place for the martins to return, but the lesson I could infer could be:
* I am more powerful than death because I can call back the martins Grandma took with her to Heaven.
* People who die are gone, but if you provide a place for birds, they will always come back.
* If I keep myself busy thinking about birdhouses, I can forget about the people I have loved who died.
The story could come around to a different moral if language used earlier in the story, to describe Sophie’s love for her grandmother, was used again to describe her feelings for the return of the martins, equating the two, suggesting “As I provide a home for returning birds, so I can provide a home for the returning memory of Grandma.”
@Mary Ann, we tried our best. Out of 99 stories sent to us, 1 got blocked by the spam filter, 1 we missed in the inbox, and 97 got published.
We will improve this on the next competition and miss no stories at all.
Thank you for taking the time to critique my story. I found your comments difficult to swallow, but I know that I have a lot of growing to do as a writer. I hope that I am able to apply the techniques you posted here.
There is one other clue that lets you know the age of my son –
“The electricity courses through his little eight pound body.”
It is in fact a true story. My son was 4 months old. He went through 4 open heart surgeries before he died when he was only 5 months and 4 days old.
I take absolutely no offense to your comments… rather, I welcome the constructive criticism. I appreciate the time you have taken with all of our stories. I think it is safe to say that we all want to improve and mature as writers.
I wonder what your comments would be in a different venue.
Thanks again and God bless you.
One last comment…
I’m so sorry that you felt betrayed by the hidden identity of my son. I was trying to hide his age until the end as an element of shock and surprise. It seems that I waited too long to reveal his age and identity. I will work on improving this technique.
Again, thank you. I find your comments very valuable.
Yes, your vivid details WERE too rough for many to “swallow”, I am sure! But, life is just that way…recounting the details in the drama of life CAN be to- many – a fight or flight response…you did not reveal that you had, in deed, in the end, lost this little baby-in THIS world …you forgot to say it “out loud”…but, as a mother of six children, I feel ya, girl! -and the little angel that now hovers above your very earthly life…and he will be waiting for you -once you cross that “golden bridge”! God bless you in your endeavors!
Thanks for the encouragement and best of luck to you too.
Thanks for trying.
I love the way you wrote your story. In my opinion, the element of shock and surprise was used perfectly; it made me read through to the end.
Thanks for sharing such an emotional experience with us. I felt it.
Red Light, Green Light and Orange Bubble Power are by far my favorites. Great stories! I truly enjoyed them!
Thank you so much. I wish I could have read your story. I hope we cross paths again in the future.
Matthew G. Miller
About “Orange Bubble Power” by Violet Toler, and musings on adverbs:
This is a funny incident — which reads as a first-person, “it really happened like that,” autobiographical sketch — and I’m sure “you had to be there.” But, as the reader, *I* wasn’t taken there.
The essay does have the structure of a narrative circle: The opening “I love to write. I hate housework” comes around to the closing “Me? I headed for the computer to write this story one-handed.” But what does the protagonist learn? She still hates housework. She still likes to write. But they’re not linked. Her love of writing doesn’t lead to her mishap with cleaning towels. THe extraction of her finger leads to nothing more than embarrassment and typing.
Nothing has changed. Thus, this is not a story: it is an anecdote, an essay, an exercise in description, an excellent stand-up comedy routine. For me, however, it doesn’t go anywhere on the page. It has no arc.
I am also *told* how the protagonist feels, how she does things in so many adverbs: “hurriedly,” “irritated,” “impatiently,” “forcefully.” These descriptions can be edited out, leaving the action to the verbs: “love,” “hate,” “grab,” “snatched,” “pulled,” “ripped,” “yanked,” “tugged.” I recommend the author trust her verbs more. They are doing their job well, when not diluted by adverbs.
A writing excercise I use: To test whether an adverb — or really any adjective, noun, verb — is necessary, replace it with its opposite. If the new sentence doesn’t also make an important distinction, if the new sentence is a ridiculous statement, then the first adverb added no meaning. For example: “He walked quickly” versus “He walked slowly.” Here, the adverb makes a distinction, although “strutted,” “shuffled,” “sauntered,” “jogged” are more powerful verbs for conveying walking speed. Still, compare that to the use of the word “completely” here: “Fire destroyed the house completely”? Take the opposite: “Fire destroyed the house partially,” or “Fire destroyed the house only a little bit.” The word “destroy” already means destruction in toto, so “completely” can be edited out.
The old joke about a girl being “a little pregnant” is that she either is or is not pregnant. (In defense of some adverbs, though, “little” and “completely” do conveny nuances not carried in the verb. To avoid the redundant construction, go for concrete detail: “She is only six weeks along, but she has added a gesture, caressing her still flat belly,” and “After the smoke cleared, only water pipes, which led to the upstairs bathroom, stood out of the black.”
The protagonist in this story “hurriedly opened the lid and snatched at the wipe,” (Could she *leisurely* open the lid and snatch the wipe?); she “impatiently jerked the lid off,” (Could she *carefully* jerk the lid?); “the lid was stiff and unyielding,” (Could the lid be both *supple* and unyielding?) Half of these words already have their work being done for them. The lazy ones can go.
Matthew G. Miller
Tanya on March 24, 2009 12:21 pm wrote:
> There is one other clue that lets you know the age of my son: “The electricity courses through his little eight pound body.”
Tanya on March 24, 2009 12:33 pm wrote:
> I’m so sorry that you felt betrayed by the hidden identity of my son. I was trying to hide his age until the end as an element of shock and surprise.
Whew. I am glad my comments were constructive and not offensive. You have endured an awesome and horrific experience, and you have dared to put what you have written about it out here for people such as myself to read. The original writing by definition is therapeutic, but as valuable as the act of writing is, it doesn’t necessarily make it a story.
I haven’t read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. She’s brilliant, but the subject necessarily verges on cartharsis rather than narrative. Do I really want to read about her husband dying? I’m more interested in how she transforms, grows, changes. And I read because, by proxy, me as the reader can transform, grow and change, without having to lose my partner of 40 years, or in preparation for when that does happen.
This is all in the realm of nonfiction essay, memoir and autobiography. That is another brave risk you have taken: To submit your essay as a fictional short story. Readers can be more picky because “you’re just making it up,” and writers can be more sensitive because “this really happened!”
It cuts the other direction too, as James Frey found out after publishing A Million Little Pieces.
I’m glad you understand I am looking only at the words, the story as it exists here.
I said as the reader, I felt betrayed when I found out in Paragraph Seven this was your son and not your elderly husband. (My father died two years ago after heart surgery, so I had ready images.) “Betray” is a strong word, maybe stronger than I should have used. “Surprised,” for sure.
You’re right: I had missed “little eight pound body” deep in Paragraph Eleven. I also missed “little guy” earlier in that same paragraph. I was reading quickly through the resuscitation, spurred by the action. I would recommend important character points be mentioned during your meditative sections.
You say you wanted the fact that this was your son to be an “element of shock and surprise.” As an important plot point, I recommend you either front-load or back-end that detail. Put it in a position of prominence, of importance. It could be at the front, as the subject of the sentence, topic of a paragraph or thesis of the essay. Or as the final word of a sentence, thought of a paragraph, or punch line to the article. For shock and surprise, it should go at an end.
Though Roy Peter Clark writes about journalism, his list “Fifty Writing Tools” is the most useful advice to writers in all genres since Strunk and White, maybe better. Number Two is about ordering words for impact.
This is good and brave work you have done here. Thank you for sharing it with us.
Thank you Mr. Miller for reinforcing what many of us have been saying. Many of the stories submitted were not actually stories at all. They were scenes, or events – but had no arc, as you put it.
I’m curious as to what Mr. Miller has to say regarding “Jasmine”. It took four difficult reads before I was finally able to determine what that submission was about.
Matthew G. Miller
About “The Dress” by Varada Sharma:
First, this story, like many others, reads as an essay, a chapter from a memoir, rather than as a fictional short story. I hope that for this as a piece of fiction, the author has included details, and excluded others, because they further the plot, and not because “they really happened.”
The details chosen do feel to me to further a story. This story promises an narrative arc, a transformation in the protagonist, although I am unsure if the protagonist is the first-person narrator or the grandfather Daddu. Both seem open to growth resulting from the story.
After a more careful reading, I have decided the grandfather is the protagonist. I was confused because of a single missing punctuation mark. The essay is written in the first person: “I” means the narrator unless we have clues otherwise. In Paragraph Six, the grandfather tells his grand-daughter about how beautiful his newlywed wife was, and how she sacrificed everything to become part of his family. I know this because of the opening quotation mark, and the shift in voice: “[Quotation mark] Divya [addressing his grand-daughter], your grandma and I [meaning Daddu] were married….”
Paragraph Seven lacks an opening quotation mark. Or is it that Paragraph Six is missing a closing mark? I get contradictory readings depending on which mistake was made.
On my first read through, the one that left me confused, I guessed Daddu had one paragraph of soliloquy, and I was returning to the narrator speaking in the first person. That made sense at the time: The narrator was remembering when Grandma was visiting Chicago last year, foreshadowed in in Paragraph Three. Daddu wasn’t mentioned, “they” didn’t visit, so it must have been only Grandma. So I was led to believe the grand-daughter bought the red dress, overlooking the single word “our” in “brought back memories of our younger days.” Otherwise the early half of that paragraph is ambiguous. When I got to “when she left me alone,” and “I was a lucky man,” I felt confused. I had to reread the entire essay again to make sense of who was talking, what point was being made, in Paragraph Seven.
It was also at that same moment in the essay, the very same sentence when I questioned who was talking, that I felt confused about the state Grandma was in: “[She] is ready to begin her last journey of no return.” Surprise! Grandma isn’t old and eccentric, deciding to wear her dress from Chicago to entertain the visiting relatives. People aren’t visiting during the “family’s once-in-five-years India visit,” as you told me in the opening paragraph. It’s a funeral! That wasn’t foreshadowed enough for me for that to be a reasonable reversal. Yes, family talked in “hushed exclamations” but gossipy aunts and uncles be”whispering amongst themselves” to hide their open disapproval from a living matriarch. I find it hard to believe an aunt would compare her “white tee and beige cargoes” to how a dead body was dressed.
Given now that Daddu is the protagonist, and Grandma is laid out in culturally inappropriate funereal attire, I wonder what the resolution of the plot is. Grandma was a die-hard traditionalist, “refused to wear any other outfit [than a saree] when she visited us in Chicago.” Daddu tells us she “cherished and treasured the dress” but never wore it, only “affectionately fondling it now and then.” I have been shown why he dresses her in this dress.
But I am not shown why the grand-daughter — the one whose family moved to Chicago, ostensibly independent, free-thinking, non-traditional, young, preferring clothes which are “more comfortable like tee and jeans,” one who wouldn’t have “paid attention to the ramblings of people there” — would give in and and cover the dress with a saree.
And what changed in Daddu, from his looking “sad, torn, yet determined to stay by his wife’s side” to picking “one of the red sarees and drap[ing] it over the dress.”
These characters are not one-dimensional, which is hard to accomplish in the course of 664 words. The grandfather had traditional expectations of his newlywed, but appreciated her sacrifice, and defying cultural mores, honored her unconventional longing for an American dress. The grand-daughter may be resentful of infrequent visits to an old and dilapidated house and grandfather, she resents the gossip of relatives she’s never met, notes tradition, prefers comfort and practicality, but is humbled by her grandparents love and devotion, while still not able to withstand her grandfather’s pain.
This is complicated and I didn’t feel the pieces led to the conclusion.
yasmine is one of those african ju-ju stories. i guess its easy not to understand yasmine if you haven;t heard of their stories or lived with them. i liked yasmine as it reminded me of my stay in malawi some years back.
yasmine is a good reminder of how people can be so prone when desperate.
i liked the originality and how sandra described everything.
just gotta love it.
Matthew G. Miller
About “Jasmine” by Sandra A. Mushi:
I am not sure what is going on in this story, and my lack of knowledge about the indigenous cultures of Africa may be interfering with my understanding.
This is my synopsis, after two close readings and many Wikipedia and Google pages: A woman, blamed by sisters for not bearing a child to her impotent husband, is sent to a shaman for treatment. She is given an herbal sedative and sent out of the village to be ritualistically raped once every two weeks until she is impregnated, which must be a common occurrence because children’s hair doesn’t always match the husbands’. Women are considered useless until they bear children, then are rewarded with expensive automobiles. This woman names her daughter Jasmine.
Some confounding details:
* Wolves live in northern Europe and North America. It must be some other dog-like animal the woman hears at night. Without a description of what she looked like, I imagined native Alaskan, native American, continents away.
* I imagined her mountains and trees as the craggy, snow-capped peaks of the Rocky Mountains and red cedar. Her freezing fit. I had to back pedal when the author described “bones and horns scattered on red earth” and “jasmine flowers.”
* Not a fault of the writing, but my own provincial knowledge led me to be confused by shamans, trances, Massai warriors mixed with pubs, medical check-ups and BMW X5s.
* I thought people of Arab descent would have jet-black hair, not yellow-to-red.
* The wolves prominently portrayed in the opening paragraphs weren’t mentioned again, a broken promise and a missed opportunity given that children are born with a hair color different than their fathers’.
* A “fortnight” is a Middle English noun meaning “a period of fourteen days, two weeks.” It is not an adjective (Paragraph 13), nor does it mean “once every two weeks.”
* I was in the same paragraph by “beheading of the black cock, massaging her breasts with the warm blood.” I expected the word “semen” and not “blood.” Personally, without more context indicating ground fowl or birds, I would use the word “rooster” instead of “cock.” The latter has fallen out of usage in mainstream American English to mean a male chicken rather than a male’s penis.
* Ahh, and as I study the paragraph, I find an echoing mention of wolves, “a night visitor.” Once more, please, at the end of the essay, would tie its length together.
* Help us through the single sentence that is Paragraph Nine: “The smell of jasmine whose flowers opened in the night like white stars would waft by her nose by the night breeze as she walked blindly through the still of the night following her nose….” What I read was “night nose night night nose.” I also heard too many i’s: “night like white night blind night” then “silent memorize.” This paragraph stood out, it derailed the narrative for me. Less repetition, more commas, more periods would help.
* What is the time sequence of the story? We enter in media res, in the middle of the action, the woman already stumbling in the wild. The author flashes back to her husband’s inadequacy. We return to her freezing in the wild, and flashback to the shaman ceremony. We return to her thoughts of the shaman’s beautiful hair, then flashback to a repetition of accusations from sisters. Then the story doesn’t end with a return to the present, but jumps to the future, six weeks after the birth of Jasmine. This defies the pattern promised at the beginning and used throughout, except for the last paragraph.
* “Arobini” means “40” in Swahili, according to translation sites brought up by Google. Is the final hair-cutting a rite of passage for woman entering their fifth decade of age? Or entering motherhood? Is she really that old to be having her first child? Or is mine a mistranslation? And could the author have sprinkled more Swahili or Maa terms as flavor and color through the rest of the story, with context or definitions for us ignorant Americans?
And what is the narrative arc? What does the protagonist learn? How does she transform? I don’t see that she does. Life, despite the medical check-ups and RAV4s, doesn’t change for the Massai. She wants a child, the people of her village require her to have a child, and the shaman necessarily drugs, rapes and impregnates her.
Is the moral of the story, the message the reader is to be left with, that life continues unchanged for African women (without the outrage that accompanies clitoral circumcision), despite the inroads of modern conveniences?
Matthew G. Miller
I’ve been asked to pause and let other people comment.
I apologize for my enthusiasm. As critical as I sound, please know that your stories have been inspiring to me. As a reader and as a writer, I see potential in every one. Now instead of giving feedback on more, I should dare to write and submit some of my own.
Thank you again for all your stories, brave and true, daring and inventive. Keep up the good work and keep writing.
~ Matthew G. Miller
Red Light, Green Light seems so true. An incident like this happens in everyones life sometime or another. Brings back memories. Wonderful writing for a short story.
Matthew, where is your story? Your comments are too long. I got lost. They don’t make much since. Are you the writing police? Give it a rest. This was for fun not $200,000.
These all are good storties but the one strike me most was “The Dress by Varada Sharma” .
It reminded me those old days of living with 10 of the family members where every one care for others not for themselves.And that was amazing bond which I am missing now a days.
As the family become nuclear now a days , things got changed and we just think about ourselves and lost the loving and caring of others. Is this good , I really don’t know about that!
Thanks for taking time to analyse my story and comment on it. For a writer like me, who is but a couple stories old, comments like yours are a wealth of learning. I’ll definitely strive to polish the areas of improvement you mentioned.
I am glad you could relate to the exact picture I wanted to paint. The feeling of being in a family, working for one another and growing together, giving in to our family members’ desires rather than our own are disappearing fast. Our generation, at least, has experienced this culture at some point in life.. I wonder how it will be for our kids..
Matthew, your critiques are very much appreciated. Please, keep them coming!
Thank you so much Daniel, for allowing us to participate in this contest. To say the least, it was awesome.
Also @ Katrina Mohr: Your story was one of my favorites out of this contest. I enjoyed every word. Thanks for participating, and congratulations!
Tanya, Thanks for the compliment. I enjoyed all the stories, but Red Light, Green Light was my favorite. It was well written and entertaining.
this is gurpreet tell me about process
# 8 is the best!
Thanks for the critique!!! I will be better for your steel eye.
I really really wanted the protagonist to seem different from your average junkie. I tried to get across that he had a heart, he had a glimmer of understanding between right and wrong, but in the end he was just chasing the dragon- trying to stave off that illness of withdrawal.
I tried to show this by having him hesitate before going inside when he saw the woman- recognizing that what he was about to do would change them, alter the way these people would see life forever. He tried to put it off, but instead his urge was too strong. I failed in getting that across!
I love your idea of having him seem more inexperienced, fumbling and uncomfortable with the gun. Spending more time on his guilt would have been good.
I agree with you completly. In all honesty, it was a cheap and easy way to terminate the tale without having to do the clean-up work after a climax. It’s a surprise ending not because it’s a well-written plot twist, but because it smacks of gimmick.
I won’t be too hard on myself though, because it’s really not too bad for a first blind stab at writing, I think!
Thanks again, your critique is *greatly* appreciated!!!!
Also your critique on the Bubble story was very helpful for me. Good stuff.
Matthew, I appreciate your comments on all the pieces, including mine. In some defense (of myself!), I wrote the story when the 500-word Short-Story contest was going on, but for whatever reason I didn’t get a chance to submit it. Therefore, it is much shorter than the others’ stories (which were allowed, for this contest, to be up to 1000 words). My story actually was somewhat longer originally, but I cut it back to be under 500 words.
Still, the arc it lacks represents an unfinished story. The woman disappears. I don’t want to debate this in a public forum (and I certainly won’t comment on any other story except my own), so that’s all I will say here. However, if I get the urge to expand the story, I will definitely take your comments into consideration, as I do consider them (ALL of them) to be very cogent. Thanks again.
Matthew, In looking over your comments and my story, I see you are absolutely right!
This is my first attempt at humor. Do the same rules apply in humor writing as in other stories?
I’d like to email you with my ideas on improving this piece. If you agree, perhaps Daniel could forward an email to you.
Thanks for your input.
I enjoyed reading these, but my favourite was Red Light, Green Light. Nice little twist there.
This story is too sweet Trine! I hope it wins with flying colors. You have tough competition, but what a great little story. (I like some of the names you chose:)
This story is too sweet Trine! I hope it wins with flying colors. You have tough competition, but what a great little story. (I like some of the names you chose:) I hope I entered it on the site alright. If not I am truly sorry. Sus.
Matthew G. Miller
To Violet Toler; and to Sherry Roth, Katrina Mohr, Joshua Shelleyi, Tanya Alderman, Trine Grillo, Varada Sharma, Sandra A. Mushi; and also to Ted Dong, Easton Miller and Sean McMenamin; even (or especially) to “beth”:
I would be eager to start e-mail conversations about writing off-site.
Daniel hereby has my permission to forward your e-mails to me at the e-mail address I provided in the comment form.
Again: You’ve done great work. Keep on doing the great work.
Red Light, Green Light
Daniel, please forward my e-mail to Matthew G. Miller. I would appreciate feedback. Thanks!
To Matthew Miller,
I appreciate your comments and criticism of my story. After I wrote the story above, the first time through I felt it was pretty solid.. but as with any writer or musician.. the more i read/listened to the story, I honestly felt there were A LOT of points that I could have improved upon. My email is email@example.com, and I would like to have some further communication.
N. J. Nottingham
My vote goes to Orange Bubble Power by Violet Toler! Toler did a great job making things come to life and I thoroughly enjoyed laughing till my ribs hurt 🙂
i read out all the stories & felt it so touching but some where sme charm is missing………..that charm is a glare of commets which is following this story daily….even i also have a huge interest in writing articles & stories if i get the oppurtunity to glare my talent den do tell me…
i like THE DRESS, its a great story
Congratulations on writing a winning story “Orange Bubble Power.”
I loved the story and laughed all the way through it. Hope to see more of your work in the future.
Congratulations, Violet. You were a formidable competitor. Savor your win for a bit and then write some more. Who needs housework?
In regard to your question about the rules for humorous writing you addressed to Matthew Miller: Good writing is good writing and the same rules apply. You obviously have a gift for humor as was apparent in “Orange Bubble Power.” But, just to reinforce and give you confidence check out the website, “Seven Steps to Better Humor Writing.” I own a book entitled “Comedy Writing Workbook” by Gene Perret. It’s an accessible workshop style book to help writers recognize and sharpen their humor. Amazon.com carries it, but it’s twice the price it was when I originally purchased it—–even used. You might check your local library.
Now, go straight to your keyboard and create. Get someone else to mop your kitchen floor.
Congratulations to you too, Easton. I like the idea of someone else mopping the floor. That’s a great incentive to write!
Thanks to Daniel and all those who voted for my story, whoever you are. I appreciate it. I’m looking forward to reading and voting for the stories in the next contest.
My favorite story won!!!!
Congrats to you and everyone that had the courage to put their babies out there. And for those that couldn’t understand how some people could get so many votes…it didn’t matter.
Thank you, too, Jeanette. You’re right – it takes courage to toss our work out there to be exposed. I have read your story a few times and I still think it is a great one. Quite haunting, actually. Good luck with your writing. Maybe some day we will all recognize eachother’s names in print somewhere.
Many many many congratulations Violet!
Sherry, Katrina, Joshua, Easton, Ted, Tanya, Trine, Sean, Varada, thank you for sharing your stories – and congratulations for being short listed! Yes, it does take courage to toss one’s work out there and worst still getting grilled by Mr. Miller. lol. Mr. Miller, thank you so much for your critique – it is quite hard to swallow, lol, but I have learnt alot from your points. Points taken, lol.
To all those who voted for me – thank you so much! Aksante!!