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Short Fiction Winners Revealed

Posted Dec 13 2010 10:23am

Thanks to everyone who submitted a very short fiction piece to both Ben Corman and me. We received a hefty number of entries (I counted until I didn’t want to count anymore, so let’s just go with “a hefty number”), and we read every one of them.  Thank you for sticking to the word count, because 850 words multiplied by a hefty number equals even more words.

After extensive discussion, we decided to go with what we saw as the top ten pieces (plus four “Honorable Mention” stories) to be posted here at ShrinkTalk (to ensure your immortality on the internet).  You can find the stories using the link below (note: stories are listed in alphabetical order by title; if no title was given, then in alphabetical order by author’s name ).

Please remember that if your story did not make the cut, it doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t good.  Also remember that Ben and I aren’t all that bright, so our opinion does not mean much anyway. We based our decision simply on those stories that we liked the most, whether that be for purely entertainment purposes, creativity, technical skill or, ideally, all of the above.

With that, I give you what we believed were the ten best stories.  Congrats! (Note: You can listen to our discussion of all the selections here ):

Bourbon at Christmas
by Clifton

Last year sometime right before Christmas our neighbor, Gina, came over half drunk with a little fake tree and three quarters of a cheap handle of bourbon. Every year since she was sixteen her family would get drunk on bourbon together for Christmas, but they were back in Wisconsin, so Mike and myself would have to do.

“Family bonding at its best,” she said pouring some into coffee cups that she got at Goodwill earlier that day. Those were part of the tradition too.

Mike and I had to work in the morning, but he didn’t mention that to Gina. I figured if they were up drinking I wouldn’t be able to sleep so I took my chipped coffee cup that had a blue kokopelli on it and hoped Mike would get drunk enough to make a move on Gina early, so she would leave and I could get some sleep.

Gina wasn’t all that interesting or good looking, but she was around. Unlike me, Mike took to her immediately. He saw her unloading her U-Haul the first day she was here, offered to help, and has done shit like that ever since. He even started watching Grey’s Anatomy. I wasn’t sure if I should tell him she wasn’t interested in him for anything more than moving heavy stuff.

After a couple hours Gina went back to her place to get some more soda to mix the drinks with and I thought about going to bed, but Mike engaged me in conversation.

“Gina is just a cool, cool chick, ya know? Not many girls just come and drink and chill.”

“I guess,” I said. “We need to call it a night soon. James is managing in the morning.”

“We got time, we got time.”

“So are you finally going to make a move or what?” I asked.

“I don’t want her to be too drunk.”

I laughed.

“I’m serious. Things can’t start off like that,” he said.

I was contemplating whether I should tell him to forget her when she walked back in the door. Mike started asking her about her family. I was thinking about the last Christmas I spent with mine and the Coors Light beer can ornaments my dad got when we visited the brewery. But then Gina said something I didn’t want to hear.

“I caught my aunt masturbating one Christmas.”

Mike pretended to be shocked, said he couldn’t believe it. I know Mike well enough to know he wanted to believe it.

“How old were you? And how old was your aunt?” Mike asked.

“I was 19, I think. My aunt was forty-forty five maybe.”

Gina took a drink and wiped the corner of her mouth with the back of her hand.

“It was so fuckin’ awkard,” she said. “I walked in to get something out of my room and there she is on my bed. I wanted to be cool about it. College girl and all. But I just stood there. We made eye contact and she froze and then I blurted out “Sorry” and she went for the sheet as I slammed the door.”

“Oh my god,” Mike said leaning in. “Did she ever mention it again?”

“Yeah, once,” Gina said and took another drink. “I don’t know why I’m even talking about this.”

Mike filled the dead air with some inane story about an uncle of his who would always tell the same story about his first ex-wife’s crazy family in Puerto Rico. I was trying not to let the Christmas music annoy me too much and Gina just seemed to be glad we weren’t talking about her masturbating aunt.

Mike went to the bathroom and Gina stood up and started prancing around the living room to Dean Martin’s Let it Snow. She grabbed my hands and tried to pull me off the couch.

“Oh, come on, dance with me,” she said bent over at the waist, face inches from mine, her hips swaying.

“No, I’m not much of a dancer.”

And since we’ve no place to go, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.

“You know you want to,” she said.

“What’s going on out here?” Mike asked as he came out of the bathroom.

“Oh. Nothing. Bobby’s no fun. He says he doesn’t want to dance with me.”

“I’ll dance with you,” Mike said.

“Um. Okay.”

I tried not to watch them dance. Gina kept making eye contact with me. I poured another drink and finished off the bourbon. Mike decided to run to the liquor store before they closed to get some more. He took too long.

When Mike walked in, Gina and I were already back in the living room. She was glaring at me for telling her that she couldn’t stay the night. She said that kicking a girl out after your first time with her was a “real douche move”, but I wasn’t worried about her. The conversation died, and Gina left forgetting her little tree on top of our TV.

“I’m surprised she left so early,” Mike said. “She was the one that started this bourbon business.”

“Yeah, I dunno what happened,” I said pouring myself a triple.

We started watching the Home Shopping Network. They were raving about some cutlery gadget that was supposed to allow every mom-on-the-go to keep their family happy. There wasn’t a whole lot of conversation.

“This is going to sound sort of awkward, but I know Gina likes you.”

Food in five minutes flat. What husband doesn’t love that!?

“Really? You think so?” I said searching for words.

“Yeah, I know so. Just please don’t do anything about it. I need some more time,” he said. “Just a little more time.”

The Day I Died
by Anonymous (edited by Lukas Serafim )

I sat down and placed my books on the desk. The children around me moved their desks away from me with a look of disgust on their faces. On that day, I genuinely did not care. I was beginning to feel accustomed to my classmates’ insults. I was running my fingers slowly through my shinny new pen, when I noticed children whispering and starring at me. “Oh, why could I not be invisible? Why can’t I make myself disappear?” These thoughts were becoming so frequent that they were more like a mantra at this point. Ms. Mary yelled out my name, and all the children turned to look at me at once. Just the angry tone of my teacher’s voice was enough to bring tears to my eyes. I was only six, but fear was very familiar to me. I feared God, my schoolmates, my mother, but most of all, Ms. Mary.

Ms. Mary was not a warm woman, and she demonstrated it every day. It was not that I believed she dislike me; I knew she hated me with passion. However, we all knew that it was not a bright idea to anger her. She was screaming at me to come to her, but it took me what it seemed like an eternity to do so because I could not feel my legs. Standing in front of the whole class, with Ms. Mary looking down at me, I could only stare at the air, in shock, as she accused me of stealing my pen from a classmate. She never asked me if it was true, instead she told me she was not surprised, and had known right away the kind of child I was. At this point, I could not hear what she was saying though. I’ve had become quite good at disassociating; however I could not help recognizing the familiar sound of the children exploding in laughter. Ms. Mary pulled me by the arm, and placed me facing the corner between a wall and an old wooden cabinet.

I could feel my face burning and my heart beating ever so fast, as if it were going to come out of my chest. I forced my face as deep as it could go into the corner. I started to feel nauseated and panicky. I immediately started praying, “Please, God help me not to…” Unfortunately, I did not have time to finish the prayer. I heard the children’s loud reaction behind me, as I vomited on my shoes. “Oh, why could I not be invisible? Why could I not make myself disappear?” I remained as stiff as a statue innocently hoping Ms. Mary would not notice.

Ms. Mary told the children to be silent, and then told me that part of my punishment would be to stand in my own vomit for the rest of the day. My mind wanted to escape desperately; not only because of the humiliation, but in addition the smell of the old wooden cabinet now mixed with the smell of the vomit was almost intolerable. I started replaying the incident in my mind, and guilt inundated my poor, young soul. The smell of wood reminded me of the smell of church and church always reminded of God. It was then, I had a frightful thought: “Was God going to forgive me?” I knew that because of my mother’s violent anger, her severe punishment would be painful. “What about God? Would he understand? Would he believe me?” I asked myself as tears rolled down my face. It was true that I hadn’t stolen the pen. I found it under my chair, but never made the connection that it might belong to someone else. “Did God see it?” I continued to reflect. One thing I was certain of is that my mother would not believe me. I started to prepare myself for my punishment because I knew Ms. Mara was going to send me home with a note. I decided to take the long path home that day, and I thought it was a good idea to stop at the church first. Father Paul always greeted me with a smile there. He seemed surprised to see me every time though. “Wasn’t he used to small children entering the church alone?” I wondered. Sometimes he would even sit next to me as I prayed. He would try to speak to me, but I was too shy to talk to a man. The day two boys from school were following me, he gave me cookies and ask me to tell my mother to come to see him. I decided that if Father Paul would try to talk to me, I might respond that time. Just the contemplation of talking to a man terrified me, but I knew going home with Ms. Mary’s note was going to be the end of me. As I remained standing on my own vomit frozen, one thought predominated, “I hope when mama hits me I bleed because that seems to scare her, and that sometimes makes her stop sooner.”

Hank Wakes Up
by Luke Jamieson

Hank woke up. First, slowly, easing himself into consciousness, becoming aware of the sounds around him, taking in a deep breath and wriggling the first inclinings of a stretch for the day out of his body. Then, with more vigor, turning his body flat on his back, raising his arms, and with a large groan forced his eyes open. Using great effort he slid one leg after the other off of the bed, triumphantly to the ground while the rest of his body awaited the swiveling of his torso to make himself perpendicular to the bed. One last mighty push and Hank sat up to greet the morning sun. The most difficult part of the day now done, Hank took a moment to relish in his accomplishment and plan his breakfast.

Toast. Jam. Honey – No. Peanut butter. Sweet enough with jam.

Hank yawned and stared blankly for a moment, only to realize that he still had to get up and make breakfast. Toast, hardly being an adequate breakfast alone, Hank took the task of finding his toast an accomplice.

Juice? Out of orange. Poma…poma…no, it’s guava berry blend. Don’t buy that again. Milk. Nothing wrong with milk. Good for the bones. Do I have good bones? I feel strong. That’s a good sign. Maybe I shouldn’t worry about drinking milk then. I did roll my ankle though…Was that a bone or a muscle problem. Wait, I want milk for my toast. Yes. The milk will do fine.

Armed with resolve, Hank propelled himself forward and shuffle-stepped toward the kitchen now that he had a plan in mind. His upper body swayed in circles, scraping against the hallway wall, then forward bringing his feet up to speed, then narrowly missing the other side of the hallway, then backwards slowing him down and stretching his stomach uncomfortably. His feet, none too pleased about being put to steady work after hours of lethargy, tried to not over exert themselves by keeping a slow but steady pace. Needless to say, his feet were getting mighty uncomfortable with all the wobbling upstairs. Hank, as a whole, was indifferent to the situation and thought only of toast.

Three more steps and Hank was intensely aware that he had entered the kitchen – below his feet the cold and dingy linoleum floor worked its magic again. He was now a full three times more awake than he was seconds previous. This set Hank into a groggy frenzy, quickly grabbing for the bread, but losing grip on the breadbox door and slamming it onto the counter. His ears joined his feet in the protest against Hank’s morning determination. Despite his unhappy appendages, he pressed on, resolutely sliding the bread into the toaster oven, and carefully set the handle back in the upright and locked position.

With minutes until breakfast was served, Hank moved towards the fridge, opened the door and gazed deep into the cold depths. A full thirty seconds passed while his eyes traced every crevice of the interior until he finally admitted that he had no idea what he was looking for. As the door shut, Hank had a flicker of an idea and ripped the door open once more, only to find the fridge contents had not changed, and he was entirely disinterested in everything there. As the door softly closed, Hank took a few moments to reflect on what he was doing. Where he was going. Only moments previous he was armed with a plan. He had a purpose. Now, in middle of its execution his morning began to fall apart.

DING; Toast is ready.

I need a plate. And a knife. And peanut butter. And jam. Oh, that’s in the fridge. Maybe that’s why I was there.

As Hank reached for his plate he saw out of the corner of his eye a glass -

Milk! That’s why I was in the fridge.

Now his plan was coalescing once again. Peanut butter on toast, followed by the jam on the counterpart, milk falling gracefully into its clear vessel. His morning had meaning. Nearing completion, Hank sat down and raised the glass of milk to his mouth to begin the final stages of waking up. Not halfway into his first sip, Hank began to feel troubled.

He had no idea what he was going to do about lunch.

Iteration
by Robert Martinez

We were walking along the coastline trying to survey the damage. Not a human in sight; not even half a human. It was a perfect beach day so I took a seat and looked out over the ocean. It looked the same as it always did. This seemed a good sign, so I decided to have a smoke. I put a cigarette in my mouth and Euclid offered me a light, which I accepted.

… Puff … Puff …

Puff.

Euclid said he wasn’t feeling well. I asked if it was the way his nerves were wired or some other such mechanical error. He insisted that he wasn’t feeling well, adding,”in my heart”. A big wave crashed a little too close to us and Euclid flinched, but I just puffed away ’cause I’d seen it all before.

“You used to not be able to smoke on beaches,” I said. He didn’t seem interested. I took a long inhale and the taste went straight to my brain, one of those sensory connections that I couldn’t put my finger on. I hadn’t been confused in a while and it felt good just then. There I was with the waves and the sand, and even the things I couldn’t understand didn’t bother me for once.

“New York in the morning, yeah?”

“I guess.” Euclid even seemed scared of the sand now. A reasonable fear for a robot, and one that I hadn’t contemplated.

“Know anything about the Big Apple?” I asked. I put the cigarette out next to me and stood up. The thought of the sand causing me to malfunction was really starting to kill my buzz, and I wanted to get moving to shelter.

“No.” Said Euclid.

“I know that you do. But it’s really an experience, not something you can learn by reading about it.” I sighed. “You should be excited.”

“I am,” he said. There was a moment of hesitation marked by the focusing and refocusing of his lenses, from the sand to the sky, to the water, to me. “Dad… Are we going to kill more people in New York?”

“Yes,” I said. “But only bad guys.”

“How can you tell who the bad guys are?”

“The good guys breathe and the bad guys don’t.”

“I don’t breathe.” Euclid looked me in the eyes. “I’m just like them, aren’t I?”

“No, Euclid,” I said. “Don’t get confused. You know what side you’re on.”

“I’m on your side?”

“Exactly, little man,” I said. I smiled and put my hand on his head. He was going to figure this all out soon. The jig would be up, and then I’d probably have to kill this robot like all the others. All blood and wires and glowing eyes; a bullet is the antidote. But not for a long time. Maybe I’ll die first.  “Big day tomorrow.”

“Let’s kill the bad guys!” He replied, raising his hands in the air. His smile looked fake because I hadn’t given him cheek muscles, but I knew it was genuine. I knocked on his chest, which made a loud, vibrating sound.

“And after that, lungs.”

September, 2016, Additions to the Deterrorizer
News Article Summary for “Proposed New Safety Measures at Malls
by “Natasha Fields,” 9th grade honors Social Studies
by Nadia Kudla

Sept 2016, Additions to the Deterrorizer
News Article Summary for “Proposed New Safety Measures at Malls”
by Natasha Fields
9th grade honors Social Studies

This article talked about the new changes that American malls have made and what people in America think about it.

The entry safety measures to malls and public places have not changed. The process involves stepping into a Deterrorizer with a Beacon of Safety officer. The cylindrical body can detect chemical weapons within 2 minutes
from the circulating air and scans for metal objects and bombs. It also self-contains explosions, so any bombs detonated would not harm anyone but the Beacon of Safety officer. The officers are very brave and admired for
their jobs, and luckily, there has never been an explosion.

After stepping into the cylinder, patrons remove their clothes and lay on the Detection Table. The Beacon of Safety officer inspects the clothing and body for explosives or dangerous weapons. When the process first
started, officers were required to use a special detection wand to search inside of people. Later some officers preferred using their hands and penises to perform inner-body searches. It was found that “a penis is just
as, if not more, effective in finding foreign objects.”

The new measures at malls have to do with entering stores. Walt Anderson, Chief Officer of American Safety and CEO of the Sol-Mart Corporation, stated that we as a nation are not doing enough to protect the stores’
rights. He proposed that patrons leave their clothes at the Deterrorizer and shop instead in paper gowns, costing only $2.00.

Research supports the theory that paper gowns drop loss in thefts by almost $200,000,000 a year. “These savings will be passed on to our customers,” Walt states. “A theft deterrent could be much worse.”

The bill still needs to be approved by three major corporations before it can pass. However Walt is confident it will pass.

I think it is important to protect people during shopping and also protect companies during shopping. The positive of this bill is that everyone will get lower prices on the things they need. The negative of this bill is that the mall is the most fun place to hang out and the gowns may be uncomfortable. Overall I think this bill is good and bad.

The Seven Year Laowai, Part 1
by Travis Lee

I was a foreign teacher in China for seven years.

They say life is too short. Well, then they ought to come to Wuhan, China. Life here is not short. It drags on; on through the scorching summers, on through the wet, freezing winters, on through the smog and the sun lying concealed beyond it like something peeking at us through mesh. On through the nights in bars, in KTVs, or alone in your apartment as you visit what sites you can, thinking about your life. Still trying to scratch that itch, that itch you can never quite reach no matter how many miles from home you go.

I spent all seven in our loud metropolis. It takes a special kind of person to stay in Wuhan for seven years—indeed, it takes a special kind of person to come here and teach in the first place. But I differ from them in two key ways. For starters, I left China. They don’t, won’t, and most of all, can’t. They’ve spent years working themselves into a nook of drinking, fucking, smoking, rambling, drinking,
traveling, and drinking. Trading all that away for the destitute lives they left behind is simply not an option.

Secondly, I admit who I am, where I come from, why I’m here. They don’t. In fact, listening to some of these guys talk makes you wonder why they ever left home in the first place. Oh, I’ve worked with former CEOs, former engineers. Former bodyguards, even one guy who told me he used to be a hitman. Men who were living gods back home, men who drove BMWs, who slept with only the most beautiful women, men who owned three-storey homes and just one day had an epiphany and swapped all of that for a few hundred bucks a month, a small
apartment.

And an outlet for their lusts.

The truth is, most foreign teachers are total basket cases at best, or else something that defies description entirely. One man claimed his female students propositioned him for sex. Another said he had fought in secret battles during the Cold War. This same man told many of his female students that he knew university presidents in America and could guarantee them admission. In exchange for what, I wonder.

Now there’s something you’ll see at least once: the older men with their younger Chinese girlfriends, their much younger Chinese girlfriends. It comes in different forms, but what I saw the most were the old men bragging about how much they got laid as if someone was keeping score and every time we went out, there she was. Decked out like the lead in a red light district parade. At dinner she laughs at the right times as her boyfriend goes on, unaware of what he’s talking about or even where he is, and she’s there beside him. Quiet.
Hardened, and you can tell she’s tallying the time served with this man, and all the time she has left to go.

Very few of them were in their right-minds before coming here, and after a couple years of cheap beer they’re tap-dancing their final years away in left-field. As for me, I’m neither right-minded nor wrong-minded, I just am who I am.

I was a math teacher. I had a love for math. I also had a love for twelve ounce cans—six years and three women later I was fired. Not given a leave of absence. I didn’t take a Far East sabbatical that I turned into a seven year vacation. No, I showed up hungover one day and spent the better part of my Algebra II class puking in the boys’
restroom. The principal smelled the alcohol from down the hall and gave me an ultimatum: get sober or get out. So did my wives. Get sober or get out.

I got out.

I haven’t seen them since. Haven’t seen my kids either. I did speak to my wife once—I needed our last address together—and she told me that my oldest daughter was getting married. My oldest daughter. Married. That was three years ago. I find myself thinking about them sometimes, wondering what they’re up to, and on those lonely nights in my apartment, where my walk from here to death seems an ever narrower path, I can see us together. It’s Christmas morning, under the tree exchanging presents and the grandkids call me Papa and we open gifts
and laugh and smile. These are dreams, sure, dreams of a smaller world that are but phantoms here in the real world.

Where dreams go to die.

We’re drawn here, we stay here. There is a real joy at being the big fish in the small pond and in a city like Wuhan, the pond is awfully small. But it is growing. Like the rest of China, it just keeps
growing.

I suppose my reason for writing this is to tell you who I am, what happened to me and why I did the impossible and came back home after seven long years.

Tuesday
by BL1Y.Com

The woman comes out from her bedroom, wearing a black garter, black leather stiletto boots, carrying a riding crop. The man is on the couch, just finished tying his shoes. He makes for the door.

“You’re leaving?” the woman asks. “I thought you said you were in toreally kinky stuff.”

“Hey,” the man says, “I fucked your dog, I shit in your purse. I’m outta here.”

At least, that’s how I’ve heard the punch line. Never quite goes down that way though, does it? Consider last Tuesday.

Week night, no date, and the only TV shows I cared about aired on Mondays. That only left one leisure activity, the consumption of large quantities of alcohol. I went to my regular bar, a popular spot for people who lived
downtown, but not trendy enough for the over-moneyed happy hour crowd. When I walked in I spotted one of the other regulars, a gorgeous twenty-something redhead. Just a shade under professionally good looking. I had talked to her maybe twice before. Nothing memorable, other than the unequivocal indication that she would rather drink alone than hear me prattle on. Who could blame her? I’d rather not have drinks with me, but I don’t really have a choice. I mean, it’s not like I can give up drinking. I took a seat at the other end of
the bar.

There was no one else around, just me, red, and the bartender. He knew I’d want a Guinness, didn’t need to ask. Before it got to me, red’s friends showed up. Three banker-type guys, and another girl, a blonde, maybe as pretty as red, but I don’t know. I didn’t get a good enough look as she came in. The guys where good looking as well, but in an obnoxious way that made me want to punch them in the ear. Not good looking like Brad Pitt. I’d
let Brad Pitt fuck me if I wasn’t so worried about feeling ashamed of my own mediocre body. No, these guys were good looking in a douchey way. They’re good looking the way a 1989 Corvette is good looking, because it’s a Corvette. Not the way a 1969 Corvette is good looking.

Colin Farrell good looking. I don’t get what girls see in them.

I wonder if girls don’t get what I see in red.

I wonder if girls care what I think at all, and that thought gets me to the foamy bottom of my first glass. I looked to the bar tender to order another pint. Sometimes, when he sees I’m getting low, he’ll go ahead and start the next one, so the bubbles will have fallen and the drink and I will be ready at the same time.

At that moment he was busy. One of the banker guys had ordered Patron shots. This is what they ordered when the bar was empty. If there had been a crowd, they would have ordered Johnnie Walker Blue, and done so loudly enough that everyone heard. It’s overpriced, but that’s the point. At the end of the day, there’s no currency like currency.

Eventually their little group left. I think I was four drinks in. Or five.

“Fucking asshole,” the bar tender said.

He went on to explain how one of the guys had an attitude, like he was above saying “hi” or “thanks” to a lowly bartender, a member of the servant class.

“He wouldn’t act so smug,” he continued, “if he knew every bartender in this place had stuck his girlfriend.”

Red.

And then I had another drink, and another. The conversation turned to sports, and the other sorts of things guys talk about when there’s nothing else to discuss. Craft beer, The Godfather.

Maybe a dozen other customers cycled through during the night. Mostly guys stopping by after getting off work late and wanting a quick unwind. Two women in their late thirties, maybe early forties, the
type who are unmarried for a reason, order Cosmos, and pretend Samantha Jones is sexy.

There’s one last round, then a shot of Jameson with the bartender, and another last round, because the bartender reminds you that you really don’t have anywhere else to be. And, you don’t want to be rude by
running out after a free shot.

You down the last drink without seeming like you’re in a rush to leave, pay your tab, and wonder why so few girls go out on weeknights. Are they drinking at home alone? Or just not drinking at all?

You know they never wonder what you spend your Tuesday nights doing. That’s how it goes. You stagger home drunk enough that this night will blur into the last, and then the next morning you find yourself in bed, apparently passed out in the middle of masturbating. You get a shower, go to work, and spend all day staring at a computer screen displaying text you don’t give two shits about, wondering if your apartment would be a little less depressing if you got a dog.

Untitled
by Clutch

“What city is this Bernie?” Michael yawned and stretched his arms as he walked down the steps from the jet. It was already dark out.

“Are you fucking serious?” Bernie stopped punching the keys on his Blackberry and looked back at Michael. “We’re in Myrtle Beach. How in the hell do you not know where you are? Did you even read the itinerary I gave you?”

“Hey, cut me some slack. I’ve been drinking since last Tuesday.”

“I know. It’s been making my life a living hell.” They walked towards the buildings of the airport.

“You need to lighten up.”

“I busted my ass to put this tour together. Could you at least pretend to take it seriously? The things you do affect a lot of other people now. You’re not just a person, you’re a brand.”

“Well, for your information, the brand is thirsty right now.” Michael stumbled over a crack in the sidewalk.

There was a cab waiting for them. Bernie opened the door. “I have some last-minute things I have to take care of for tomorrow. Can I trust you to check in, behave yourself, and be ready in the morning at six-thirty?”

Michael half-fell into the backseat of the car. “Probably not, but I promise to give it my best shot.”

“I guess that’s a start.” Bernie leaned over to tell the driver, “He needs to go to the Centurion.”

“Ooh, I like the sound of that.”

The cab started to pull away, and Bernie shouted after it, “Six-thirty!”

Once they were out on the road, Michael pulled a hundred dollar bill from his jacket pocket and handed it to the driver. “I’d rather go to the bar.”

“Whatever you say, man. Which bar?”

“When was the last time someone puked in your cab?”

The driver hesitated, then said, “A few weeks ago. Why?”

“I want to go to the bar where you picked that person up.”

Michael sat down at one end of the bar. “Ketel One. Leave the bottle.” The bartender gave him a funny look, and Michael responded by sliding the black AmEx across the counter. The bottle came and the bartender left.

Michael reached into his pocket and pulled out a photograph, carefully folded so as to keep the crease from cutting through her face. He stared at it as he sipped the vodka.

A blonde girl sat down on the stool beside him. Solid eight, probably a college student. “Hey, aren’t you that guy?” Her voice only had a slight southern twang to it. Masked, like she was ashamed of it.

Michael hid the photo under his left hand. “Probably got me mixed up with someone else. I sell electronics out of the back of a van down by the beach.”

She giggled. “No you don’t. You’re Michael Arlington. I saw you on the cover of Time.”

That had been Bernie’s doing. “Yeah, alright, you got me. So what, you want an autograph or something?”

“No, I just saw you over here by yourself and thought you looked like you could use a little company.” Not especially subtle, this one.

“Well, if you’re going to hang out here, let me get you a drink.” Michael motioned for the bartender to bring him another glass.

“No, that’s okay. I already have a tab open.” He could tell she didn’t want straight vodka, but wasn’t going to say so.

“Nonsense. Besides, he doesn’t know it yet, but tonight’s all on Bernie anyway.”

“Who’s Bernie?”

“My babysitter.” Michael downed what was left in his glass. “But he doesn’t seem to be doing a very good job at the moment.”

“Is that right?”

“Hell, he can’t even get me to quit calling him Bernie.” He poured another glass for himself, then one for her. “S’real name is Edward.”

She saw the photo while he was pouring the drinks. “What do you got there?”

Michael’s ears turned red. Caught, he showed it to her. “Just a picture of a girl I used to know.”

“She’s pretty.”

“Yeah.”

“Old girlfriend?”

“Kind of. I guess.” He folded it up and put it back in his pocket.

“Did something happen to her?”

“She went off to school, haven’t talked to her since. She’s probably back in our hometown by now.”

She picked up on the fact that he didn’t want to say anything else on the subject and let it drop. “So what are you doing in Myrtle?”

“Some sort of public relations thing Bernie put together. Says I’m the face of the company. I don’t really do much actual work anymore.”

“Doesn’t sound too bad to me.”

“Yeah, could be worse.”

They almost had the bottle finished by the time the lights came on in the bar. Michael was still conscious and not happy about it. “Closing time my ass. I’m not finished drinking yet. I’m famous, god dammit.” He slammed his hand down on the bar.

The girl put her hand over his. “We could go back to my place if you want. No closing time there.”

Michael didn’t say anything, but he stood up and let her lead him out of the bar.

Michael’s head was throbbing the next morning as he walked down the sidewalk. Somehow he had managed to lose track of a sock, so his left foot was wearing the shoe without one. His phone beeped to remind him he had a voicemail. He realized that the street he was on ran along the beach and stumbled out towards
the water. The phone beeped again. The voicemail was from Bernie.

“Michael, this is Edward. Where the hell are you? I’m standing here at the hotel like a jackass because they say you never showed up. Even if you walk through the door right now we’re already late. What am I supposed–”

Michael cut it off, crow hopped, and chucked the phone out into the ocean, then let himself fall to the
sand. He sat there and watched the sunrise.

Untitled
by Catherine Hayes

Christie parked her car on the street outside her parent’s home. This was the third house they had moved to in five years. The front door was at the far end of a covered porch. On either side of the door were long skinny windows. The glass in the window was thick and distorted the view from the outside.

As she approached the door she looked through the windows to the living room. Her mom appeared to be dancing with her sister, Sarah. Her mother’s arms were draped on Sarah’s shoulders. Her mom was smiling and Christine was sure she heard singing. Two of her aunts stood nearby and looked amused watching the action in the living room.

Christine felt giddy. Normally prone to depression and isolation, this was the one day out of the year she treasured. She didn’t think about being 28, working in a dead end profession where she had no hope of ever really succeeding, having so little money she was nearly always late on her rent, being single or otherwise dating a completely inappropriate man. This was the day she allowed herself to hope. This one was hers.

Watching her mother dance so awkwardly with her sister, Christine waited outside to marinate in this moment of joy.

“I think that was Christine’s car outside,” Sarah said.

“She hasn’t come in yet,” Aunt Amy answered and looked towards the door. Without the porch light, it was impossible to see anything outside.

Christine burst in at that moment. Just being in her parent’s house on this day made Christine feel as if her insides were lit by the sun.

“Well, there’s the birthday girl,” her dad exclaimed as he entered the house from the back patio, “I made hamburgers, do you want cheese on yours?”

“Yes, please” everyone said at once and laughed.

“So what are you guys doing?” Christine asked looking at Sarah and her mom. They were still locked in a strange embrace, but had stopped moving.

“It’s the way the nurse taught us to put mom in her chair,” and as she said this, Sarah turned her mother around to gently lower her to the waiting wheelchair.

“Oh,” was all Christine could think to say. What she had hoped for, what she had wanted more than anything was for the dancing to continue. She imagined her 364 days of darkness could somehow be the sacrifice with which the cancer cells in her mother’s body could not compete. Christine wanted a birthday miracle.

All through dinner, Christine swallowed the eruption of tears that threatened to explode at any moment. Her mother, so weakened by cancer, could not lift the hamburger to her mouth. Sarah fed her mother like a baby.

Later that evening, everyone sat down in the living room. Her mom, having just been given a dose of oxycodone was restless. Unable to lift her arms and legs more than a few inches, she would wiggle around in the armchair she favored over lying in bed now.

“I think we should give Cookie another dose of Haldol, Donald” Aunt Amy called to Christine’s dad.

Donald consulted the medication chart and asked, “Cookie, are you in pain?”

Christine’s mother mumbled something that sounded like a yes, wiggled a bit more in the chair, and looked at Christine.

Suddenly, everyone started talking at once, arguing actually. Christine kept her eyes on her mother.

The heated debate seemed to center on whether it was time to switch from morphine to methadone for Cookie’s pain. The Haldol was given to relieve the anxiety and tension caused by the morphine induced mental confusion. When the combination of the two stopped working, the hospice nurse advised them to switch to methadone.

The medication switch marked the end of the end. The methadone was a powerful pain medication. Cookie would probably not speak coherently again. She would not get out of bed. She would not be able to eat. She would be comfortable.

Reluctant to be a part of any more fights, Christine got up to leave.

“Come here,” Cookie’s voice was clear and when Christine turned around, her mother’s arms were outstretched. Her arms were lifted higher than they had been in weeks.

Christine bent down to hug her mother.

“I love you,” her mother whispered.

Christine closed her eyes. This was her day.

Untitled (inspired by the Machine of Death project)
by Lucciana Costa

That bothersome mosquito almost certainly carries malaria. This short car ride will almost certainly be my last. That man standing alone in the corner is almost certainly concealing a gun and an anger problem. I will be in the wrong place at the wrong time. I just know it.

When I first heard about the death machine, I was watching the news, waiting for a segment on what surprising toxin is in my tap. I reminded myself for the third time that I had indeed locked all the doors. It’s the thing I hate most about living in a house: so many doors leading to the outside. Or, more specifically, doors leading from the outside in. I desire nothing more than to live in an apartment on the third floor of a building, with only a single front door to worry about. High enough that an intruder could not enter through a window without being noticed, yet low enough that if there were a fire in the building, I could probably jump without breaking anything too significant. If this house weren’t my parents’ only gift to me, I’d move in a heartbeat.

The Death Machine didn’t even get a lead-in. Mentioned briefly, all the well-coiffed anchorwoman said was: “Scientists have developed a new kind of technology that, they claim, will actually tell you how you will die. Measuring the accuracy of the machine is the highest priority right now, but as you can imagine, the results will take time to gather. More details as they come to us.” And then she prompted the weather segment. At least she hadn’t worked in a pun about the upcoming gift-giving season.

I kept my eyes peeled for months and heard nothing. I Googled furiously and still found little.

“Nothing good can come of this,” people muttered, as news spread that machines were being installed for public use in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, New Orleans, D.C., Houston, Toronto, and Detroit. The one in Detroit was free; all the others cost twenty bucks.

Then the stories. Ten young men in Detroit, all strangers, received GUNFIRE on their card, and the next day were shot to death. Only six were actual gang members; the rest couldn’t flee in time. Some of those men killed each other.

Then there was the woman in Chicago who drew the puzzling “FALSE ALARM.” Two months later, when the college students who lived below her tripped the fire alarm with some massive bong rips, she ran out to the sidewalk just in time to be hit in the head with a flying cantaloupe. A man had chucked it out of his 11th story window in a rage of jealousy over his wife’s attractive co-worker. The woman was killed instantly.

“OLD AGE”-ers thought they had nothing to worry about until the 36-year-old father of two was mowed over by an 82-year-old with no driver’s license and an insistence on making it to Dairy Queen.

Perhaps the weirdest was the card that said “TAYLOR SWIFT.” The poor blonde singer took a serious PR hit and was basically forced into retirement until finally the man with the prediction was in a head-on collision with an Alabamian trucker named Taylor who drove for the Swift Transportation Corporation. This machine had a sicker sense of humor than any human would dare.

The “SUICIDE”s were self-fulfilling prophecies more than anything else, but then there was the woman who went on a bender of extreme activities after her card said “CURIOSITY.” Presumably she wanted to see which one killed her. In the end, they thought it was a skiing accident, but it turns out it was that, plus complications from a dirt biking incident a few months earlier. Neither injury alone would have killed her. Again, with the sense of humor.

I felt the anxiety level of the whole country rising, and it comforted me. Finally, I was among a band of brothers. Finally, they thought about death as much as I did. The mania reached a high when it was leaked that the American President had chosen to receive his death card. It said: “ASSASINATION.”

As I cross from the parking lot to the entrance of the grocery store, I keep my eyes peeled for suspicious looking men or vans with tinted windows. Also, big dogs. Big dogs make me nervous. But now, sitting in front of this small, fatalistic yet now commonplace machine, I feel calm. I don’t know why I’ve waited this long. I guess I am a bit afraid, but not so much of what the card will say. I am afraid it won’t give me the freedom I hope for.

I breathe deeply and plunge my hand into the nicely arm-sized hole. I barely register the prick on my finger. A pause, a noise, and an small card shoots out of the slot.

I don’t hesitate. “OVARIAN CANCER,” it says. Well. I walk slowly back to my car, and feel the faint beginnings of a smile. What I notice is the sun shining bright, illuminating the day.

Honorable Mention

Friendship and Support
by IrishnBritish

Gazing despairingly at the veritable witches’ brew of people blocking his path as he set off towards his destination, Rod’s irritability grew like a Viarga-stimulated sex organ and potent misanthropy surfaced to overwhelm and dominate his personality once again. To a man on a mission the population of New York city appeared to have doubled overnight. It was one thing living at the heart of the country’s most densely populated metropolis, but quite another trying to negotiate one’s way around so many moving obstacles at the height of summer.

Tourists meandered like tranquillised zombies before him; gazing skyward, seemingly their only purpose was to hold him up (not with the 100% commitment of Niners’ linebacker Patrick Willis, more the questionable intention of Patty Hearst). A frustrative situation indeed.

As soon as one clearing opened, as if by some sinister black magic conjured up by Satan himself, bodies plugged the gap within seconds. Old ladies appeared out of what seemed like nowhere to add their own particular brand of lumbering pedetrianism to his day. Usually respectful of his elders, all Rod felt was intense animosity towards these globules of shapeless, matt beigeness who smelled of a mixture of lavender and something pungent but a disturbingly indiscernible. This was an odorant his nasal receptors could never quite determine and something he didn’t want to stop and dwell upon. Certainly not today. For today was too important. Today was a very special day. His special day. Or so his mom said.

Growing increasingly annoyed, he side-stepped around his ‘tormentors’ in a grossly exaggerated manner. On completing each manoeuvre he leaned in towards them – completely disrespecting every unwritten rule of ‘personal space’ ever socially agreed – whereupon he would let out the loudest of sighs, directly into their faces, as if trying to physically portray the precise level of internal annoyance he was feeling at their mere existence through the medium of mime alone. Each unwitting antagonist felt the warmth of his exasperated breath on their skin, and all drew the same conclusion: scotch.

Turning one final corner Rod breathed a sigh of relief as reached his destination: Borders bookstore. The reason for his irritability today? Nerves.

Yes. For today was book launch day.

Today Rod was promoting “Bat Shit” (his autobiography, not, as title suggests, a complete history of his beloved Yankees).

Unspeakably nervous, Rod felt reassured by two things; firstly his best friend would be here shortly to offer encouragement and support, and secondly, arriving early, despite the challenges, meant he now had time to prepare psychologically. In fact, being two hours early meant he had all the time in the world. “Sometimes premature ejaculation really does have an upside” he thought to himself smugly.
~
Rod’s best friend, radio co-host and business partner Den Whoreman was a stickler for the healthy lifestyle. He’d moved to New York from Philadelphia the previous summer after turning his no nonsense “relentless exercise, no drinking, raw food only” approach into a highly successful business. His book “Three Months of Mental Toughness: Yes, Fucking Three!” was a national bestseller. This 12 week intensive programme was based on one ground-breaking principle: “eat as much oxygen as you like.” A principle which had radically transformed the lives of Karen Carpenter and Margaux Hemmingway (celebrities who’d made it to the end of the pilot programme and were now endorsing it posthumously).

Helping dieters achieve goals and overcome such monumental challenges like the “Three Days In: What to do when friends invite you for a drink” obstacle wasn’t something that could be done through diet and exercise alone. Mental discipline was key. This thing required grit. Den recognised such temptation could test the resolve of any man. Well, almost any man. Okay, maybe just one man, damnit! So, in order to assist devotees, Rod had created a complementary therapeutic approach know as “Extreme Hypnotherapy” which he’d developed from radical psychological principles first pioneered at a secret institute in Wacko, Texas in 1993.

Den wasn’t a man who hung about, it was always early to bed and early to rise for him. This was a guy who got things done. He’d never let anyone down. Unlike Rod, who, much to Den’s vexation, regularly delayed the show’s airing due to frequent trips to Europe where he’d become worryingly and perversely addicted to holidaying in concentration camps (something that fed a part of his soul that no-one but his mentor the great Emineminstein could ever fully articulate). In contrast, Den was highly energetic, reliable, dependable and infallible. No alarm clock was needed for this guy. No show or appointment was ever cancelled, at least not on his watch.
~

Over the squeaking sound of the men’s restroom door opening came the encouraging voice of the store manager “Five more minutes Dr Rod!”

“Fuck, erm, yes, YES…erm…coming…COMING! THANK YOU! WON’T BE A MINUTE!” replied Rod distractedly as he sprayed the remaining contents of the air freshener aerosol into the surrounding air.

The time was now. His moment of reckoning was here.

“Maybe just one more phone call to Whoreman to see what’s keeping him,” thought Rod upon exiting the stall.

“Finally!” thought Rod instantaneously upon hearing the chirpy voice of his friend at the other end of the line.

“Hello, you sexy beast you, you’re through to Whoreman. Please leave a message after the tone…”

The Man who Became a Robot
by Agnes Davis

Once upon a time, there was a man named Raymond. Raymond lived in a city where humans and robots worked. The humans were all good workers, but the robots were better. The robots could lift very heavy things. The robots could run very far. The robots could work all day and night.

Raymond was a very good worker, but no matter how hard he worked, the robots did better. Raymond wanted to work as well as the robots.

Raymond couldn’t lift very heavy things. His arms were weak and got tired. One day, Raymond got the idea that the robots worked better because they had metal robot arms. So Raymond took off his arms and put on robot arms.

Now, Raymond could lift very heavy things with his robot arms. He smiled and was happy, because he was becoming a better worker.

Raymond still couldn’t run very far, though. His legs were weak and got tired. Raymond got the idea that the robots worked better because they had metal robot legs. So Raymond took off his legs and put on robot legs.

Now, Raymond could run very far on his robot legs. He smiled and was happy, because he was becoming a better worker.

Raymond still couldn’t work all day and night, though. He needed to sleep and eat. Raymond got the idea that the robots worked better because they had metal robot heads. So Raymond took off his head and put on a robot head.

Now, Raymond could work all day and night. He smiled and was happy, because he was becoming a better worker.

But this time, when Raymond tried to go back to work with the humans, they chased him away. “You’re a robot! Go work with the robots!”

Raymond looked in a mirror. He had metal robot arms. He had metal robot legs. He had a metal robot head. Maybe he was a robot now. So Raymond went to go to work with the robots.

But when Raymond tried to go to work with the robots, they chased him away. “You’re a human! Go work with the humans!”

Raymond wouldn’t go away this time. “But I have robot arms and robot legs and a robot head! I work better than any of the humans! Why can’t I work with the robots?”

The robots replied, “Because you still have a human heart. If you take it out and replace it with this computer, you can work with the robots.”

Raymond took the computer. He said, “So this is really why the robots work better than humans.” Raymond took out his heart and replaced it with the computer.

Now, Raymond could work with the robots. He could lift very heavy things. He could run very far. He could work all day and night. He could work better than any human. But Raymond couldn’t smile, and he couldn’t be happy, because only a human heart can do those things.

Untitled
by BabyFunt

I think I’m going to die. I don’t want to, but I feel like I’m going to.

I will get high, I will be high, in every sense of the word. I’m scared out of my mind.

I will be totally out of my element. I will be in such an unfamiliar place. It’s so frightening.

I will tremble from the fear.

It will feel like I’m breathing through a straw. I will inhale harder. I will draw my shoulders back higher. I will make my chest broader. Maybe that will give me that one satisfying breath, the one that lets me know I’m not going to suffocate.

I won’t be able to concentrate. I will feel like I’m going to be sick.

It will take all of my strength to hold in the crazy. I think some insanity may leak from my crying eyes. Will I be able to stop it? Will the leaking turn into a flood of hysterics? Will people be looking at me when it happens? Staring at me like a bad car accident, not wanting to look, but not be able to look away.

I’ll want to run, but there will be no place for me to go. I won’t be able to get away. I’m trapped. I’ll feel like I’m suffocating again. My hands will shake. I will try to breathe again, deeply, through my nose, I will feel my heart beating in my head, pounding. I will exhale slowly.

I will pray. I will pray to the God that I don’t know. I will pray to the God that I hope exists. I will pray for someone, something to save me from this impending doom. I’m not ready to meet my maker.

I will feel totally out of control, and I will be. My life will be in someone else’s hands. I don’t even know who they are, yet I will be forced to trust them. Trust should be forged, not forced. I’m so afraid.

Why did I choose to do this? Why do I think I will die tragically? I’m a good person, I don’t deserve this. I’m spinning, round and round. Who, what, will make the spinning stop?

I hear a voice, over the loud speaker, “Now boarding Flight # 779″

Untitled
by Chris Panzarella

Billy’s alarm clock went off promptly at eight. He jumped out of bed, so excited he couldn’t sit still. Today was the day! Today the revolution began. He pulled on his uniform, checked his rifle, then slipped out his bedroom window to meet up with the others.

The young soldier met up with his trusted lieutenants Danny, Tommy, and Lilly as they were pegging snowballs at the morning’s traffic from the overpass. He walked up just in time to see Lilly uncork a particularly vicious screwball that clipped an eighteen-wheeler right on the rearview mirror. Lilly whooped with delight as the driver blared his horn in frustration; Billy grinned. “That arm’a yours is sure gonna come in handy when the shooting starts. Is everyone else ready?”

Danny lifted his pack in response. “You betcha, boss! We should get going.”

***

By the time the four soldiers reached their target, a squat, ugly white building, the rest of the revolutionaries had joined them. Billy clambered onto a parked car and waved his rifle over his head. “My friends, our wait is at an end! The time is now! Let us claim that which is rightfully ours!”

A hundred comrades-in-arms, each one of them tough as nails, raised their own weapons in reply. With a roar, they charged through the front doors.

***

Regional Manager Marvin Grundler was sipping his morning coffee when his assistant Marsha burst through the door, gasping for breath.

“Marv, something terrible has happened!”

Marv glanced at her, slightly perturbed. “What’s so terrible that it couldn’t wait until the ten o’clock meeting?”

Marsha gulped.

“Sir, one hundred children armed with Nerf guns have broken into the Lego section of the store. They’ve knocked down all the shelves within twenty feet and are building a barricade out of the new Transformers sets. It…it looks like they’re trying to start a revolution.”

Marv’s coffee mug shattered on the floor. Sweat broke out on his forehead as he reached, trembling, for the phone.

“This can’t be happening,” he moaned, “not now. Thanksgiving just ended! The Christmas shopping begins today!”

***

“…and that’s how the day came to be known as Black Friday all across the world! Well buddy, what do you think?” Bobby giggled and clapped his hands in response as his grandpa finished the story.

“Billy! What have I told you about filling your grandson’s head with those tall tales?”

Billy looked up at his daughter Karen and grinned, wrinkles creasing his forehead. “Ah, you shouldn’t worry yourself so much Karen! Everyone’s a revolutionary at heart!”

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