Murderous spouses. Murderous strangers. Vignettes of love and friendship. Hauntings, literal and metaphorical. ... and even Arts Alive! All in 99 words or less.
The winning submissions to the North Coast Journal's Flash Fiction contest tell stories with grace and precision, or sometimes with a rough-edged creativity that judges couldn't resist.
We invited three bookstores and our editorial staff to pick one winner and a sampling of other good reads, out of packet of more than 120 entries. Each group settled on a different top choice, and we're highlighting all four, with comments by the selecting judges. We're also printing a selection of the judges' favorites, with little summaries above each title, so you can see who picked what.
After the North Coast Journal's judging, when five members of the editorial staff sat down to compare our individual rankings, we all wished we'd recorded the group session. Those sputtered "You liked that?" Those mumbled confessions: "OK, I gave way too many 4s." "I was mean." A strong concept, iffy execution. Mundane execution, salvaged by a great last line.
We scored stories on a scale of 5 (really good) to 1 (WTF), and only calculated a group score for the top 40 or so contenders. And we were all over the map on those. More than half of our semi-finalists racked up widely diverging individual scores, ranging from 2 to 5 or 1 to 4.
Our staff and the other judges were given time-stamped entries, with no names attached. Folks at the Booklegger noticed that the contest's final days generated a higher ratio of strong submissions. "Did these writers spend more time fine tuning their words and editing their stories? Or is procrastination beneficial to the creative process?" they asked in a note from the store's six judges.
Maybe you'll enter next time, and decide for yourself.
-- Carrie Peyton Dahlberg
-NORTH COAST JOURNAL WINNER-
Life Lessons at WinCo
Charles Manson shops at WinCo. He hobbles, greasy and toothless, between the Gravy Train and Palmolive.
I step to the other side of the aisle.
Digging something from his ear, he inspects it, like a diamond. I pretend to scrutinize cat litter.
His stinking, ragged sleeve brushes against me. "I buy cheap ..." he whispers, pointing to the generic detergent.
"Uh-huh," I mumble.
"...so I can afford the good stuff for Baby."
I stare, holding my breath.
Boney arms lift Iams for Senior Dogs into his basket.
Now he looks nothing like Manson.
Just Jesus, having a rough day.
-- Mashaw McGuinnis
We loved the strong verbs, descriptive language and the story arc. Judged by five members of the North Coast Journal editorial staff.
(Also among the favorites chosen by: Blake's Books, Northtown Books and Booklegger.)
All Bets Are Off
At 66 days sober, disregarding advice, I revisited my favorite bar.
It was almost empty. Duffy was washing glasses.
"Black coffee, Duff."
"You're drinking coffee, Nigel? No shots? No beer?"
Should I tell him about my night sweats, DTs, depression, Antabuse, AA?
"I bet someone $100 I could go 100 days without a drink."
Duffy's green eyes blinked. He stroked his thick mustache.
"Is that right?"
Should he ignore the lie, pretend to not know?
"Well, sure as shit you're not losing your bet because of me," said Duffy, wiping the bar clean.
Sometimes I miss him.
-- N.P. Tarpey
The writer fit a lot of well-crafted story into 99 words. Starting with a sense of impending doom ("disregarding advice"), "All Bets" delivers realistic dialog and inner monologues from two characters. Its conclusion is satisfying but not overly simplified. For breadth and graceful economy of style, "All Bets" is our top choice. Judged by six members of the staff at Booklegger in Eureka.
(Also among the favorites chosen by: Blake's Books. Note: Tarpey won the Journal's last Flash Fiction contest in 2009.)
-BLAKE'S BOOKS WINNER-
Darwin's finches now adorn a bird-feeder perched low on the edge of a church. Every so often, a lurking cat will lunge out at one and kill it.
-- Christopher Christianson
The best entry was "Evolution." The entire controversy captured in two sentences. Judged by Courtney Blake, owner of Blake's Books in McKinleyville.
(Also among the favorites chosen by: NCJ)
-NORTHTOWN BOOKS WINNER-
The Catcher in the Night
He cried again. My wife groaned, "My turn."
"I'll go. I've been awake since last time."
I grumped to the night-lighted nursery and leaned over the crib to change the amonia-perfumed diaper, then held his sobbing body to my chest, resting in a rocker. I promised to protect him from the cold attacking his body, and from all life's slings and arrows, if only he'd let me sleep.
Peace filled the room, the strongest feeling I'd ever known.
We both slept in the rocker that night. Next morning, I was the one with the cold, and no regrets.
-- John M. Daniel
So hard to choose! I will go with The Catcher in the Night because of the writing and the sentiment. Judged by Monika Zerzan, a bookseller at Northtown Books in Arcata.
Harry - (NCJ/Blake's Books/Booklegger selection)
Harry really was right, single malt Scotch was better than blended. Lois swirled the snifter and let the potent fragrance tickle her nose. She closed her eyes and sipped. It tasted of caramel, smoke and the pungence of 100 proof. Lois grabbed the bottle from Harry's private cabinet and settled in Harry's favorite easy chair. In the humidor beside it rested Harry's illegally imported Cuban cigars which she would eventually compost. Harry had spent a lot on his little pleasures. That was over. Tonight she'd bask in the warmth of his Scotch. Tomorrow she'd worry about the blood stains.
-- Stephen Sottong
The Ivy Planter - (NCJ selection)
"Mom, where did this come from?" I asked, pointing to the hand-crafted bamboo centerpiece on the dining room table overflowing with ivy.
"I found it at a garage-sale. It's an ivy planter," she said, whipping her hair to the side proudly. Mother was a florist.
"Can I have it?" I asked, as innocently as I could muster.
"Well sure!" she acquiesced, pleased that her purchase was admired by another.
Mother never had a clue that she gave me my first bong. I kept it on my dresser all through-out high-school, never forgetting the ivy.
-- Bailey Fletcher
Clarity - (NCJ/Blake's Books selection)
She stood there in the midst of foot traffic in front of cut-out storefronts; staring at me from across the street, alone. A tiny shadowed face that fell down into forever ... she just knew. Huge, obsidian, translucent eyes laced with long black lashes, caramel skin, hair hung like fat black curly strips of satin, pointed chin harboring a puckered pink bow of a mouth: all revealing no emotion. The everyday noise filtered into a long static, then faded into nothing. The next instant was wiped completely clean by the explosion; a large frothy orange blossom, like stained glass.
-- Jessica Johnston
Thirty Seconds in the Life - (NCJ/Blake's Books selection)
What time is my doctor's appointment?
It's tomorrow at 9 a.m., Dad.
Oh, that's what I thought.
Where is that ... that ... THING?
It's in the next room, Dad. I can get it whenever you want.
That's what I thought. No, I don't need it.
Are you going to ... to ... ?
Yes, Dad. I've already done it.
Oh, I thought you had.
I sure do love you.
I love you, too, Dad.
What time is my doctor's appointment?
Untitled - (Blake's Books selection)
I held my hands over the stranger's fire on the beach that night.
"I am not a cop," I replied, when he asked.
He did not ask me, if I am a cannibal.
-- Emily Cureton
To Take It All Back - (Booklegger selection)
Where were we? Oh yeah, you were going on about how goddamn hot Josh Hutcherson is in The Hunger Games, and I was trying to block you out by concentrating on my sweltering coffee, inhaling the fumes deeply as if it would help mute you, which it didn't. Does it ever?
Now all I'm wishing for is to hear your voice. Anything would do at this moment. Any sound, noise, word. ... The blood pounding in my ears is drowning everything else and I think it's raining, but I can't really tell.
-- Kaylee Savage-Wright
Gertrude's Soliloquy - (Booklegger/Blake's Books selection)
My son and Claudius have never gotten along. I think the boy somehow blames Claudius for his father's death. Crazy, but you know how kids are.
Claudius suggested boarding school, and I went along with it. We were newlyweds, and a kid moping around the house is no aphrodisiac.
But now my son's graduated. He's back, and he's worse. And Claudius isn't much better. He can be a real shit sometimes.
"They teach you philosophy, boy? Zen? Existentialism? Nihilism? Ever think about nonexistence? Something you might consider."
Honestly, those two. They're going to be the death of us all.
-- John M. Daniel
My Uncle's Theory - (NCJ/Booklegger/Blake's Books selection)
In death we become someone's job. Someone might pump on our chest a while, then another man cranks up the oven that turns us into ash, or else another man, who works for a different company, dresses us in a suit we've never worn before and paints our face with a cake of makeup to make us look more alive.
Someone gets paid for this.
And then goes home to a wife who asks how work was today?
It was fine. Just fine. I'm very hungry though. I'm starving.
Then it's steak and green beans. Green green green beans.
-- Drew Cleveland
Transformation - (NCJ selection)
I ate a moth today. I ate it because I wanted to eat my sins, swallow my history, erase the things I don't want to remember. I ate the moth to change from within, to un-become who I am.
The moth refuses to help. It only sits there counting the other moths I have eaten, the other attempts I have made to amend my life.
Knowing there will be no light to fly to, no flame to guide it, the moth closes its wings, becomes hardened, like a fossil, along the dark walls of my inner Earth.
-- Ben Tremillo
Looking Out - (NCJ/Booklegger/Blake's Books selection)
I've survived the marriage of eight women, the death of three. I'm almost a riddle.
Now it's a young blonde. They think she's just waiting for me to die, but she actually loves me enough.
I've been writing poems forever and I tell her, "Baby, all those poems I wrote about them, were really about you."
She giggles. I like that joke too.
Tonight we'll see the Lakers, if I'm still ticking. If not, she'll watch the television tribute to me and then she'll get all dolled up to go out for drinks with friends.
See, I've perfected it.
-- Drew Cleveland
Roman Holiday - (Blake's Books selection)
"My wedding ring!" she cried. "It came off when I threw the coins!"
"You lost it?"
"I'm so sorry!"
"I'll go after it," I said, unlacing my shoes. "Like Marcello Mastroiani."
"Don't be a spectacle."
"We'll dance all night," I tried. "On that barge on the Tiber. Then, when they drain the fountain at dawn...."
"No. I'm exhausted."
"We'll buy you a new ring tomorrow," I offered.
She smiled and took my hand. "I saw one I really like in a window on the Via del Corso. It's only thirty thousand lire."
"Did you make a wish?" I asked.
-- John M. Daniel
iheartbreak - (NCJ selection)
This morning after reading the local news on my Kindle Fire, I logged into my email, only to receive notification that I had gone from "in a relationship," to "single." My text plea was thwarted by T9, letting my now former lover know that "I love Yahtzee." I poured myself an 11am glass of scotch and lit up a cigarette; cursing myself, caller I.D and the "like" button on her relationship status update. I stared at the spot on my end table where the house phone used to be and wondered what I missed more; her or 1996.
-- Brian Millett
Letting Go - (NCJ/Booklegger/Blake's Books selection)
Wyatt returned to the ranch yesterday, beat up, broke, smelling like a polecat. I told Morgan to quit early and fire up the cookstove.
After supper, Wyatt told stories about rodeos, grizzlies, goldmines, and whorehouses. Morgan just sat there.
This morning Wyatt rode off grinning, 50 bucks in his new shirt pocket.
"How long you reckon he's gone for this time, Pa?" Morgan said. "I wisht he'd stay away. You never quit work early on my account."
I saw I'd lost another son. I pulled out another 50 and said, "Better saddle up quick. Maybe you can catch him."
-- John M. Daniel
The Voice - (NCJ selection)
The voice was singing again. "Tommy Bly, Tommy Bly, kill yourself, you need to die."
"Shut up," Tom muttered. "Please, shut up."
It did. Tom sighed, relieved.
The whispering started. Tom groaned. People were staring. They couldn't hear the whispers.
Tom stood abruptly, suddenly determined. He headed for the roof.
Officer Lynn watched as the jumper's corpse was loaded into the ambulance. The cop sighed at the waste.
"Davy Lynn, Davy Lynn, fire your gun, blow your face in."
Startled, David looked at the paramedic standing beside him. "What was that?"
The man frowned. "Huh?"
David blinked. "Sorry, nothing."
-- Mariah Southworth
Guilty of Baptism - (NCJ/Northtown Books selection)
I watched a spider die in the shower today, though he tried hard to escape the torrent. I did what I could to spare his life, purposely scrubbing myself out of range while he struggled up the ceramic tiles, desperately searching for shelter.
As I shut off the faucet, his legs stacked in neat ninety degree angles and his face pushed tightly against the smooth surface of the tub. I thought maybe he was using an ancient survival technique passed down through generations of bathing spiders, but in reality, he had died of suffocation. I mourned the spider's death.
-- Matt Berman
Visiting My Mother's Hometown - (Booklegger selection)
The ocean outside immense Manila, an aggravating sprawl of people, structures and traffic, is dotted with countless houses built on stilts. Corrugated tin roofs or traditional nipa huts of matted, dried palm leaf. Thatched bamboo or fallen billboards for walls.
Carrying everything, men, women and children paddle boats, or anything. Planks of bound bamboo poles kept adrift with empty plastic bottles. Green two liter soda bottles, small water bottles, tied underneath.
"What happens during a typhoon?"
"No more! Just garbage on the water!"
"But there is typhoon every year!"
I stop the car and take a picture.
-- Issa Stemler
One Morning in a Minnesota Graveyard - (NCJ/Booklegger/Blake's Books selection)
Larry the vault man was hung over.
He mixed up the Peterson and Pederson graves
"No one will notice," laughed the gravediggers, covering the headstones with dirt.
Few attended the spring burials. The undertakers and us.
Six of us placed the coffins over the open graves.
The vault man fidgeted lowering the caskets.
We made jokes. It was a beautiful April day.
Waving goodbye we shoveled dirt in the holes.
Larry opened a beer, "What happens in the graveyard stays in the graveyard."
We gravediggers laughed as the dirt hit the top of the coffins with a thud.
-- Tim O'Leary
Sophie's Song - (NCJ selection)
Sophie's mother gave her the first rock before she died, a flat green river pebble. It was beautiful, and it comforted her. She collected stones everywhere, trying to fill her empty heart. She became aware of stone all around her. After a time, the rocks even acknowledged her. And then they called to her, offering their embrace. For years she resisted, fighting through life's heartbreak alone. But then her heart broke one too many times. She went to a familiar mountain and pressed herself against the stone. As it finally pulled her in, Sophie heard a soft lullaby.
-- Faith Steeves
99 words About a Dog Named Nick - (NCJ selection)
A dog named Nick was my Granddad's constant companion. Nick was a black and white Boston Terrier...sweet in spite of his menacing growl. I spent many summers visiting my grandparents in the hot, nothing little town of Paso Robles. Every summer Nick would greet me, nipping at my knees, offering slobbery kisses. The summer I turned seven, I noticed Nick didn't have a spot where one should have been. "New Nick," replied Granddad. Later Grandma told me that this was the third Nick. There were six little dogs named Nick. When the last Nick died, my grandfather soon followed.
-- Patti Miller Stammer
Heading Upstream - (NCJ selection)
She felt already gone. Claire surveyed the empty room, the paths worn in the carpet, mildew speckling the wall where her dresser had been. Outside the rain continued, pelting then retreating.
She thought of the fish.
Pushing through the wet brush to the stream's edge, she'd spotted its brown shape, obscured under the water's sheen. A thrill of an explosion as it suddenly dove into the current, thrashing and twisting in the shallow riffle.
His voice echoed from the kitchen. She turned, elation and sadness churning within her, a fish beating itself against a rocky bottom.
-- Kathleen Becker
Home - (NCJ/Blake's Books selection)
I carried the small TV into the room. The other men's eyes followed my movements as they lay in their beds. The darkened room contained four beds, one empty with the sheets pulled stiffly up. Just until you can come home again, I told him. His eyes showed appreciation but also glints of panic and desperation. "I'm getting stronger every day. I'll be able to go home soon." Yes, any day now I said as I angled the TV toward the bed. I pulled the metal folding chair up to his bed so we could feel right at home.
-- Marca Kime
The French Confession - (NCJ/Blake's Books selection)
In famous Saint-Sulpice - "The DaVinci Code" church - confessions happen in a glass-enclosed soundproof room, not in a traditional private booth.
"Father Pierre speaks French," said another tourist.
My best conversational French involved ordering coffee and cheese, but somehow the Paris priest understood I wanted him to just listen while I confessed in English.
"Oui, monsieur, s'il vous plait."
We sat facing each other.
I bared my soul. He listened.
When I finished, I felt relieved.
He blessed me, shook my hand, and said, "Au revoir."
Then he added, in perfect English, "Forgive those people. And be kinder to yourself."
-- N.P. Tarpey
Close Call in Reverse - (NCJ/Booklegger selection)
I didn't have to go anymore.
Before that she leaped 10 vertical feet, onto a broken tree, and walked away.
Before that I shook in my booties, literally, as my heart raced out of control.
Before that I came face to face with a giant female cougar.
Before that I was just taking a stroll in the woods with a shovel and a roll of toilet paper.
-- Sarah Godlin
Notice - (NCJ/Blake's Books selection)
How did it get so late so soon? So read the card her daughter gave her. Beneath the inscription stood an over-worked pencil drawing of a woman wearing a suit, lines tracing the creases in her face, her arms glued to her sides. On the other half of the card, her daughter had fingerpainted in leaping swirls of reds and greens and blues: It's night before it's afternoon.
The mother smoothed out a wrinkle in her skirt, leaving a gash of red on its houndstooth print. "Sir," she slid the card across the table, "my letter of resignation."
-- Dianna Heimstadt
Freedom - (NCJ/Booklegger/Blake's Books selection)
The guests had finally gone, leaving behind their food gifts. Bernice had managed to hold her feelings in check as she endured their condolences and reminiscences of Bill. Bernice had declined her sister's half-hearted offer to spend the night. "No I'll be all right" she said. Thirty years she had spent with Bill, every night with him telling her, "Don't leave the window open you'll catch a cold," or, "Turn off the light I'm trying to sleep here," when she wanted to read. Tonight would be different. Bernice opened all the windows and read her book until the dawn.
-- Joe Wixson
I Want my Baskets - (NCJ/Booklegger/Blake's Books selection)
I awoke in the middle of the night. The man I loved slept on the floor on one side of me. His young son snored softly on the other side. We were staying in the studio of an artist who lived on a cliff overlooking the ocean. The artist's house was filled with Indian baskets, collected over the years.
An old Indian man, dressed in a faded plaid shirt, sat in a chair, looking intently at me. I couldn't tell if I was dreaming but it seemed real: the soft breathing of the sleepers, the old man's stare.
-- Janine Volkmar
Watching TV - (Blake's Books selection)
One character says to another, "Hey, what are you doing? Watching TV?"
"No," says the other. "The TV is watching me."
-- Christopher Christianson
Fortune - (Booklegger selection)
A month later, the bike disappeared in the night. We tore through the damp streets before dawn, in heartbroken rage. Outside the Co-op a lady bum cried about her friend, incarcerated for manslaughter. Eric gave her a smoke while I went inside for some napkins. When I came back, a clean-shaven santa claus had joined them.
"You look cold, sister," he told me, then placed his scarf around my shoulders.
We walked quietly, Eric and I, through the blossoming morning, our eyes unshut in amazement.
-- Maura Rasmussen
Phil Collins Revenge - (NCJ selection)
My best friend hates Phil Collins. I'm neutral on the subject. Why she chose this man to hate, I haven't a clue. Nor do I have a clue as to why she chose her distant cousin as her maid of honor and her best buddy since seventh grade didn't make the cut.
On the hung-over ride home from the wedding, a man was giving puppies away on a corner. Maybe it was the hangover, but I like to believe it was fate. You have no idea how hard it was to fit "Su..Sussudio Oh, Oh!" on a dog tag.
-- Sarah Godlin
Untitled - (Booklegger selection)
She is a good woman, she always was. Me, I've always been a terrible husband.
I never settled down after the first divorce. Never drove her kids to any of their soccer games. I never tell her I love her, but God knows I do.
It wasn't even that bad of a night. Sure, I smell like bourbon, and a man I don't know is showing me his tattoos; she won't be too mad. She is always there for me.
Here she comes: she always wore her pajamas to the jail cell.
-- Matthew Reeves
Mending Time - (Blake's Books selection)
Silly Strawberry. Every night it was Silly Strawberry. She knew her thoughts were drifting when she put on the minty grownup toothpaste instead. The eldest held out his tongue, pointing into his mouth uttering "Ahhh, Ahhh", as if his mother could divine some greater meaning there. Then she realized her mistake. Rinse. Repeat, this time with the right kind. How many mistakes were made? Words misspoken, loved ones forgotten, work done carelessly. If only they could all be solved this simply. Simple directions, like the labels on shampoo. Say I'm sorry. Rinse. Repeat.
-- Natalia Collier
A Welcome Temblor - (Northtown Books selection)
I was at the end of my tether at the telemarketer boiler room. The manager was a smarmy drugstore cowboy with slicked back hair, snakeskin boots and an obnoxious cloud of cologne that permeated every inch of the cramped call center. After work I went to a bar down the street, a scummy place filled with decrepit waterheads. Early the next morning I awoke, still half drunk, to an intense shaking. The entire building was slammed hard, as if by a giant with a temper tantrum. The earthquake was my pink slip, and the answer to my prayers.
-- Jay Aubrey-Herzog
From Nearby In The Cellular Infrastructure - (NCJ selection)
Ramones. 99 word thing.
Have an idea?
CU @ arts?
Got this story thing.
Idea not pan out?
That contest so important?
UR not even a writer.
Not the point.
Piante haz cheez!
U R no fun.
What do u mean Im not a writer?
You sell socks.
That's my job not me.
U really care about this?
Use text messages.
Is dialog story?
Yup. 1st Street?
-- Matt L'Herogan
Something About This Stinks - (NCJ selection)
Call me Ishmell.
I sauntered through a forest campground after midnight.
Suddenly, a white dog barked and ran towards me.
"No, Moby!" yelled a man, tumbling out of his tent, naked.
I stopped in my tracks.
"Scram, get outta here!" hollered the naked camper.
I considered responding.
("Dude, where's your clothes?")
("How about keeping Moby in your tent?")
Instead, I turned my white-striped back on them.
The man flinched, covered his groin, and grabbed growling Moby by his tail.
They were lucky I didn't spray.
But I did pee near their pickup truck.
Because that's how I mosey.
-- N.P. Tarpey
#Occupy SD - (Northtown Books selection)
All Samieh wanted now was to keep the ashes out of her mouth. She tried a respirator. Wet bandanas. Even dollar-store cellophane, which nearly caused a whole other problem. But with the shadow of the Civic Center slowly stretching across the crowd, these protestors with upturned faces, sleeping faces, unreadable faces, she knew she could not close her mouth. Not now. Maybe not ever.
At three downtown points, the banks burned. Their CEOs waited at their heliports, high above the city street. Their money: gone, sprinkling down on the Gaslamp in gray flakes. Their, and all, lives forever changed.
-- L Lambert Lawson
An Easy Story - (NCJ selection)
I'm typing this in my bathroom.
There is a mirror you can look into while you're sitting on the pot and I'm sitting on the pot.
My eyes look wild. They don't look happy, which is fine. At least they look wild.
Now my little girl just walked in.
"Daddy. Why are you pooping with your pants up?" she asks.
"I'm writing honey?" I say.
"Daddy, why are you pooping and writing at the same time?" she asks.
"That's a good question Cynthia," I say.
That is a very good question honey.
-- Drew Cleveland
Meditatus Interruptus - (Blake's Books selection)
Ten thousand acres of wilderness stretched out before Lenny, but he found his attention welded to a single sunlit rattlesnake grass seed head. A savannah aparrow landed on the shaft of grass, plucked two ripe seeds, and flew.
"They really weren't my seeds, anyway," he said aloud, to quiet the strange sense of deprivation he felt in their absence.
-- Bob Sizoo
Underwater - (Blake's Books selection)
Death rattle. That's what the nurse called it. When the liver shuts down and fluid begins to fill the lungs, like drowning from the inside. He wasn't more than a skeleton already, his jaw slack and gaping, his smell sour like the liquid in kitchen garbage. And then there was the sound of gargling.
She took his hand: "Sorry dad -- swim tournament." and left. She wanted to get into the pool desperately, under the water where she could finally breathe.
-- Dianna Heimstadt
Domestic Disturbance - (Blake's Books selection)
It's Daddy's fourth Budweiser.
"Your parole says ‘no booze,' asshole!" screeches Mom.
Neighbors in the next trailer peek around threadbare curtains. Under the stained tablecloth, I hide with Barbie and Ken.
He'll grab his gun, Mom will cry, then sirens. Just like last time.
"Gimme that gun, Stupid! Do you wanna' go back to prison?"
Barbie whispers, "Hold teddy bear over your ears. It'll muffle the bad words."
Daddy drops the pistol. It spins, sliding across the floor, under my hiding place.
It's heavy. Not like my water pistols.
Daddy falls, Mommy screams.
Shoulda' done that years ago.
-- Mashaw McGuinnis