Really, in the age of 140-character tweets and 30-second elevator pitches, 99 words are plenty. (Nice try with those 100-word entries, by the way — oh, we see you.) In that space, the economical writer can do quite a bit: start an affair, skim rock bottom, destroy a planet, reveal a murder, construct a conspiracy theory, do a little smuggling or ponder the inner life of a unicorn. Not making up that last one, either.
Our judges this year include returning veterans David Holper, English professor at College of the Redwoods, Jay Aubrey-Herzog, bookseller at Northtown Books, as well as newbie JoAnn Bauer, retired children's librarian. Here are their favorites and ours.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
Overall Winner, chosen by NCJ
By Lauri Rose, Bridgeville
A marsh is a hideaway kind of place, the kind of place you might take someone else's girlfriend for a secret kiss. Samuel didn't come for that. Samuel came to add another bird to his life list. But, sometimes a morning on the marsh can shift like mud beneath your feet and a man with binoculars might see more than he wants to see. A marsh is a hideaway kind of place, the kind of place you can toss a gun away and it will never be found.
Our fondness for the marsh aside, this one was up to something from the first sentence, then, like that shifting mud, things took a turn. Instead of a trick ending we're left with a little danger. All that with 11 words to spare. This was one of JoAnn Bauer's picks, too. She remarked, "This seemed to me like the beginning paragraph of a great detective story and I would definitely want to read it. It really stimulated my curiosity and imagination about what would happen next."
NCJ Pick, Judge's Pick David Holper
By Tiana Cutright, Happy Camp
She remembers her seat in the canopied bed of her favorite uncle's pickup truck. The truck jounced along the gravel summit road, old pickle jars rattling in the dusty cooler behind her, broomstick butterfly nets quivering at her side. The jar in her victorious hands contained a live triangular marvel: her WhiteLined Sphinx Moth, swept from twilight where the roadside thistles bloomed. It vibrated within the glass, mothmighty and mysterious.
Recalling this, she savors her girlhood delight in a hindwing's secretive pinkness, and the geometric splendor thereof. She loads her brush. Her canvas receives the conjured detail.
"This piece richly evokes memory and image with its poetic language." — David Holper
By Larry Strattner, Cutten
Phil and Mel moved through the murky harbor. Ran across some tasty bits now and again. Unidentified, but tasty.
Phil watched for food or females needing insemination. Mel, was an emigrant monkfish.
"Cleans' relative. Coffee cup over there? Lid on?"
"Lasts 50 years. Falls apart into little white pebbles, swallow those white pebbles, makes it impossible to take a crap."
"Jeeze, the water seems clean here."
"Cleaner, schmeaner. Years from now fishermen dorks will be bitching they caught a beer can their father threw in today. But Mel? Better a beer can than me."
Judge's Pick David Holper, Jay Aubrey-Herzog
By Mike Wood, Trinidad
"Give me an S."
"Give me a D."
"Give me an A."
"Give me a P."
"What's that spell?"
The crowd just looked dumbfounded.
"I said what's that spell?"
Finally Mr. Jenkins stood up and yelled back, "That doesn't spell anything!" Adding you morons to himself. Then he walked over to the principal. "Now do you understand why the whole squad is flunking English?"
"This piece is funny and wry in the right measure." — David Holper
"I admit I have a preference for jokes." — Jay Aubrey-Herzog
By Stephen Sottong, Eureka
A swipe of claws woke the man. He cowered, holding his bloody cheek. A cat sat on its haunches at the end of the bed licking the blood from its paw.
"You're dead," the man hissed.
"Not so," the cat said. "You made me eternally neither dead nor alive."
The man retreated further to the corner of his bed. "You're not real."
"So sure? What about your cheek?" The cat stretched, yawned and ambled closer to the man who attempted to merge into the bedpost. "This conversation is not over yet," the cat said and faded away.
By Stephen Sottong, Eureka
If he moved his arms slowly, Dan could control his spin and enjoy the view without nausea. Ursa Major and Minor, Perseus, Andromeda rotated by.
Sun glinted off the scratch where debris from the explosion that had knocked him off the station impacted his visor. The light formed a rainbow inside his helmet. The only sound was his increasingly labored breathing echoed and focused by the faceplate.
Earth rotated into view, bright, green, achingly beautiful. Dan flicked his left arm to stop rotating. Over azure waters of the Pacific, day transitioned into night, beckoning him. He floated into darkness.
My First Kiss
By Tim Burwell, Eureka
The school dance was loud. I could barely piece together coherent thoughts. Being 14 years old, that task proved hard enough on its own. I'd just begun a slow dance with my new girlfriend of eight minutes. I felt pressure from my peers to act. I couldn't let this opportunity slip, as we'd assuredly break up by the end of the week. Awkwardly but resolute, I put my shaky hands on her hips, pulled her in closely and kissed her. Her lips were the softest thing I'd ever felt. Her hair smelled of name-brand cheese. I was in love.
Judge's Pick, David Holper
Forwarding Order Expired
By John M. Daniel, McKinleyville
At 10 I received a letter from the man I would become. "I've learned to correspond across the years," it said. "Enjoy your youth."
At 40, I received the boy's reply: "I can't wait to be your age."
I wrote the next letter forward 30 years. "I hope you're well."
My letter was returned unopened.
"In spite of its brevity, this time travel piece manifests both wonder and foreboding." — David Holper
Judge's Pick, JoAnn Bauer
By Elaine E. Cummings, McKinleyville
Dante the Doberman shredded his last stuffed animal and was now nosing couch cushions. Fortunately, a nearby thrift shop had what I needed.
A grandmotherly volunteer at the register smiled. "I'm so happy my animal collection will find a new home!"
"Will these be going to your grandchildren?" Her joy was almost complete.
"Yes." I whispered.
"Boys or girls?"
"One each." I kept going. "A boy, Zach, is 4. A girl, Jocelyn, is 7."
"I'm so happy they'll go to children!"
As I got into the car, I prayed she wasn't watching, as Dante began nosing the animals.
"This was just so cringe worthy and I think most of us have found ourselves in somewhat similar situations, when white lies seem required and then get away from us." — JoAnn Bauer
Only Four Alternatives
By Jon Darold, Eureka
"What do you want?" had been the unspoken question of our awkward goodnight. I could not sleep — feeling the pain of what might happen, foreseeing the many forms of potential loss. After the sun rose, I texted: "Either a secret, passionate romance or a publicly chaste friendship." Two days I waited, then the phone rang. A long silence, and then she whispered, "Why not both?" I could not speak and did not hang up.
My Good Friends
By Salem Crowe, Hydesville
The old ceramic jugs are luminescent in the moonlight, nestled amongst straw in the saddlebags.
I'd brought them up from my still, hidden in the pine thicket, the evening before. The geraniums watched from their coffee cans on the front porch as I made final adjustments to the delicate load. When finished, I turned Velma the mule loose down the narrow path. Sure footed, with animal intuition, she knows the way better than I. As I passed beneath the twisted and beautiful forms of the ancient oak trees, I asked for swift arrival, and safe return.
By Kerry Rasmussen, McKinleyville
Pop needed a beer on the way home. We had cut and split a cord of wood, though I had done most of the work. But he had held up well for a 56-year-old alcoholic.
The weathered barmaid with dyed hair served us Olympia in the can, popping them open. "This is my son, home from college," Pop said. The other drunks started buying me beers, and soon I had three more lined up.
Pop drank his beer, plus my three, and bought a six-pack to go. That was the only time I ever drank with him.
Judge's Bonus Pick, JoAnn Bauer
By Stephanie Bennett, Eureka
The timber wars are over in Elk River.
"I don't even think it's true, but it is such a perfect sentence. Is there a prize for the most compressed flash fiction?" — JoAnn Bauer
Judge's Pick, Jay Aubrey-Herzog
By Garrett Purchio, McKinleyville
Raymond couldn't wait to go home that day. He and his team looked on as the children were escorted back into the classroom, protractors in hand. It had taken minutes to calm them down.
"Every parent is going to want a thorough explanation as to how this could have happened!" the principal exclaimed. Just then the chief walked up.
"Raymond, I want to congratulate you," his boss chuckled. "You ordered the very first DEA raid on a math lab in the history of this program. Anything you'd like to say?"
"Math is one hell of a drug," Raymond replied.
"I must like spelling jokes." — Jay Aubrey-Herzog
By Alexis George
The terminal's blue light turns us to ghosts as we wait for the crackly voice to deliver our fate. Three times delayed, cancelled at last.
The wheels of our suitcases bumpity-bump down the long hall, out into the night. Doors open while others slide shut, a train snaking into the unknown.
Avis, Hertz, it doesn't matter, there won't be enough. Four strangers, united in circumstance, devour miles together as we drive back through the Redwood Curtain, homeward bound.
Judge's Pick JoAnn Bauer
Grapes of Dementia
By Karenna Wright, McKinleyville
My husband lies in bed at the nursing home. I sit next to him. We munch on red grapes while he waits for sleep. I tear one from the stem, toss it to him, thinking he'll catch it in his mouth. But it surprises him. We giggle. His eyes smile, mouth opens, a hungry baby bird. I toss another, lightly.
He pitches one to me. Out of bounds. He pulls another, feeds it to me. We continue like this until he tires and sleeps.
Outdoors, the darkness mingles with the peace in my heart.
"I found it very moving and very immediate. It felt like I was in the room with them and sharing that moment when her husband and she fully connect for one more (possibly the last) time." — JoAnn Bauer
Judge's Pick, Jay Aubrey-Herzog
A Question of a Story
By Christopher Christianson, Eureka
First of all, was the ending rushed?