Got time for a tale? Just a quickie? Sure you do, especially if it's only 99 words. This year contributors spun miniature yarns rife with family drama, internal battles, faith, space travel and, as always, murder. (Why so murder-y, Humboldt?) All that wrapped up in tight nuggets of text you could cover with one hand, just like this paragraph here. Our judges — Booklegger owners Nancy Short and Jennifer McFadden, author and College of the Redwoods English professor David Holper and retired children's librarian JoAnn Bauer — labored over their choices, all of which you can read here, starting with this year's champ.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
- Illustration by Jacqui Langeland
The Deep, Dead South
Pa left me this swampy land when he bit the dust. It was all mine. I wasn't sure if some kinda voodoo spell kept intruders out, but the outside world finally invaded the day I found that bloated, naked body bobbin' in the brown river. It was caught between two jagged rocks that jutted up like them teeth of some kinda river monster. Gotta admit, I had the urge to dislodge that body with a strong branch and send it on its way, but I didn't. Now people are askin' questions and I hate people, and I hate questions.
Ryan Hazen, Arcata
The well-chosen details and matter-of-fact voice of this relatable misanthrope with a conscience had us more interested in him or her than the mystery of the body in the river — that's saying something. Not that we're going to go poking our noses and asking questions. — NCJ
No One Should Have Mayonnaise
In the midst of a visit from out of state, my older charismatic brother burst into the living room from my kitchen and declared, "no one should have mayonnaise in their home." It was a comment on my weight. As usual, I received his judgment in silence, even as my thoughts screamed in defense, "It's low-fat mayo, dammit!" His words rang in my head for years, through The Zone diet, the SlimFast liquid diet, and Atkins. We didn't speak much. Until I received news of his passing, I had no idea of his addiction to painkillers.
George Inotowok, Eureka
The writer has managed to portray a family dynamic in all its comedy and pathos. The narrator accepts judgement in silence, defends him/herself inwardly, lives with the imposed "should" — and discovers after the fact the brother's own demon. Funny and moving. — Jennifer McFadden and Nancy Short
I was walking the beagle in Bowne Park when total darkness hit. No streetlights, houselights or traffic lights. The dog sensed danger and sniffed the early evening air. The full moon became less heavenly, more ominous. Eastern European neighbors came out, surveyed the sky for missiles and warplanes.
Back inside, taper candles dimly lit our kitchen. A scratchy-sounding transistor radio described unexplained power loss for thousands of miles. No TV or phone service. Mom placed her chocolate cake on the kitchen table. Fourteen flickering birthday candles. "Make a wish." I wished we knew where Dad was.
Neil Tarpey, Eureka
This exquisite gem kicks off with a bang, shrouding the city and family into an unsettling darkness. The twist at the end is that none of them know where the father is, which pitches the piece into even greater uncertainties. — David Holper
Basking in the shimmering light, sound of the waves, and music in the distance, this timeless place feels like heaven. The stopover has rejuvenated but a new mission is planned for distant shores: skills to develop, lessons to learn, meeting friends old and new, all the while the give and take of settling of old debts. A mothership builds a custom craft suited to my needs, abilities and history. Pray my compass always keep me safely pointed homeward. I'm off — bright lights, a cry, a child is born into the earthly realm.
Jim Bilderback, Fortuna
I loved the way the author led you into thinking this was a journey into outer space and then revealed it was the birth (rebirth?) of a human child. The term "mothership" was especially apt. I found more to ponder each time I reread it. — JoAnn Bauer
You're running at full speed, not getting tired. As you sprint across the street, you see an oncoming car and stop it with your mind.
The man driving yells at you, you flash him your tits. What is he going to do, call the police? Let him try. No one can stop you. You got the gold star on Mario Kart and are invincible.
You climb the stars at your high school, breaking down the door to the roof.
You survey your kingdom, shaking with energy. You jump off, expecting to land on your feet.
Christina Dunbar, Arcata
This second-person narrative is one of few lyric pieces this year, focusing on the intense, exhilarating feelings of a manic swing and its destructive end with equal parts humor and panic. — NCJ
- Illustration by Jacqui Langeland
Say it Loud, Say it Clear
First, the text.
"Treatment going good."
Then the picture.
It doesn't match his memories.
He can't send one back.
He can hardly pick up the phone to check.
Of all the times to think of drives
with Dad ...
He laughed at it, secretly. A boy
Mike + The Mechanics. "The Living Years."
Her hair is gone.
They gave her a wig.
"Am being able to eat more foods lately."
Groans at the grammar.
Little pain flowers.
Happy face emoji.
Josue Valdez, Arcata
This story works well on several simultaneous levels: it's both the interplay of texting, photos, memory — so we encounter the tragedy of an aging mother and a son who recognizes her decay — but it's also the silences of what he cannot say, which we are privy to. — David Holper
Through the sleet, the curbside donation bin was illuminated in the headlights. She stretched her arm in as far as she could. Fingertips brushed fabric, just out of reach. Heart accelerating with anticipation, she levered her torso up, legs dangling, and maneuvered both arms inside. Hands clutched her prize. As she inched back, her weight snapped the door shut, pinning her arms. Feet scrabbling futilely for purchase, she screamed in pain. She screamed for help; she screamed at her stupidity. Her frosted breath came in gasps, then came not at all. At the curb, her Mercedes idled, heater blasting.
Julie Solo, McKinleyville
There is an expansiveness to this story despite the 99-word constraint. The author seems to have plenty of time to paint the picture of the scene and the movements of the character. It pivots on the last sentence revealing a twist that made me go back to the beginning and reread it, rethinking the character's motive. — Jennifer McFadden and Nancy Short
What the Helsing?
The snarling grew deafening. Claws and fangs tore chunks from the wooden door. Splinters flew at the terrified men. The old professor yelled to his new assistant. "Fritz! Quickly! The bag I told you to fetch. They'll be on us in a minute!"
"The werewolves won't be able to —"
The professor's horrified face gazed at the bag of garlic and wooden stakes, instead of the gun with the silver bullets.
"The bag with a W is for werewolves, the bag with the V is for vampires! Idiot! How could you confuse them?"
"Vhy? Vat's da matter?"
Craig Kurumada, Arcata
There is an immediacy to this situation that starts one's heart beating faster and then there's the punch line with its comic relief. I just enjoyed the silliness. — JoAnn Bauer
So I Thought
That summer night I was eight. We were packed into the Chevy Blazer, my sister and I asleep in the back. Kenny Rogers' Greatest Hits on the long drive up the lonely I-5, L.A. to Eugene. I awoke and sat up to see dad's LAPDog baseball cap tilted toward the warm starry air of the opened window, head in hand. The warm breeze on my face, I joined my dad's driving thoughts. For moments, I was all his, his whole world. He told me to go back to sleep. I was let down; I wanted to share his silence.
Amantha Wood, Eureka
Another small heartbreak that moved us. No action takes place here but there's an internal shift and the narrator — or at least his or her relationship with the father — seems changed by the moment. We all have moments like this in our memories but we can't all articulate the how and why of them. — NCJ
"Bacon and eggs. Eggs and bacon. Every morning for the last fifteen years it's been the same damn thing. Bacon and eggs. Don't you have any imagination? Can't you cook anything else?"
"Yes," she answered, as he fell from his chair grasping his chest.
"This morning I added a little something extra."
Ray Slater, Penn Valley
Like a well-told joke, we hear the nagging husband and sense he's been complaining to his wife this way for years. Of course, the ironic twist is the wife gets the last word both in speech and deed. — David Holper
This is perfect, having a limit of just 99 words, because often when I start I have no idea of my word count and tend to go way over since I get lost in some idea or other and forget who I'm writing for or indeed why I'm writing, which can be a real problem, especially when I'm writing for publication and — I read this somewhere — you're supposed to keep in mind the whole time who your audience is, which in my case I don't know, I can only guess which sort of makes the whole thing academic and
Barry Evans, Eureka
This one plays with the whole concept of Flash Fiction in a very clever way — the strictures that require compression and focus. It's not a form that everyone can master! — JoAnn Bauer
The Devil is in the Detail
I stuck the backpack shovel into the soil. Done. I wiped my sweaty brow. Suddenly, I heard growling. I spotted a cougar, who started chasing me toward a cliff. Jump or be mauled? I leapt. Dense bushes broke my 25-foot fall and I rolled onto a dirt patch. Yellow jackets swarmed out of their ground hive and stung repeatedly. Panicking, I stumbled through the woods and plunged into a river. The freezing water swept me through churning rapids and, miles downstream, spewed me onto a pebbly beach. I exhaled deeply. Then realized, "Shit, the shovel. They'll find her grave."
Neil Tarpey, Eureka
Like a series of consecutive left turns, the narrator falls prey to one mishap after another, only for the last disaster to be his dawning realization of a key mistake. — David Holper
Driving from Denver to L.A., somewhere in the desert night I picked up Vin Scully's familiar soothing voice. Suddenly something hit the hood of my VW squareback and four legs went spinning off into the brush. Shaken, I pulled over and stared up into the starry nothingness breathing heavily and thought of my sleeping daughter left behind, my cheating wife. I found the small deer and buried it. Back on the road the Dodgers were winning. I wanted a beer bad. It was like coming home from Vietnam all over again.
Craig Hiler, Arcata
"Leaving Denver" describes an event that is so difficult the whole world reflects its import. Everything mirrors the narrator's internal frame of mind. Not overblown, the story deftly describes an emotionally fraught time. — Jennifer McFadden and Nancy Short
Silence. Starched white lace-edged cotton, manicured nails, rosy cuticles.
Door squeaks, a rude interruption.
"Bless me Father for I have ... blah blah ... am a thief."
Father P, no longer reading Spider Man, tweaks the curtain, sneaks a look.
Shifty guy. Darting red-rimmed eyes.
"Continue," invites the confessor, sitting upright like a dog anticipating a tasty treat.
"My son, I assure the confidentiality of the confessional," he woos.
A bank robbery, a clobbered guard on the brink of death. A boatload of money.
Penance levied in hard currency not soft Paternoster's.
Deal done. Forgiveness bestowed.
Julie Benbow, Eureka
This narrative unfolds in the priest's sense of routine and boredom — only to have the irony sprung at the end that the priest is the one who should be confessing. — David Holper
The Flower Scam
It was the day of each month when the Virgin Mary, through her statue in a South American Catholic church, helped people find jobs.
The devout would buy a bunch of flowers from young girls outside the church for, let's say, two coins. Then they'd lay the flowers at the foot of the statue as an offering — bribe — with their prayer.
After a few such offerings, a priest would gather the bouquets, making room for more, carry them to the back door of the church, and sell them to the flower girls for, let's say, one coin.
Peter Mehren, Pacific Grove
Is this cynicism or an example of an immediate answer to prayer? There's certainly economic benefit, at least to one group of indigents. Reading this, I felt like I was transported to that place and stood witness. — JoAnn Bauer
It was finally my turn to hold the baby.
My heart swelled as I drew him in; kissing his forehead, dancing, singing softly in his brand-new ear. I briefly panicked that the infatuated way I was acting made it obvious. We hadn't told anyone.
I swung around dancing. Everyone was distracted, except for my love. He leaned against a wall, looking at me as if he was seeing me for the first time. He smiled softly.
I wondered if he was feeling the same thing I was.
Christina Dunbar, Arcata
"Family Reunion" is a gentle, hopeful story about a secret. The action is subtle, holding both potent excitement and tenderness. — Jennifer McFadden and Nancy Short
It's a Small World After All
True story. My dad escaped to New York City shortly after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Recently, he gave a presentation in Connecticut about his experiences during the revolution. He talked of gunfire, tanks, being wanted by the police, ending with his risky nighttime escape across a river into Austria with a stranger. Afterwards, a man came up to ask my dad if they knew each other. It slowly dawns on them that they had crossed that river together 61 years ago. And now their paths crossed again. Who said you can't step into the same river twice?
Attila Gyenis, Bridgeville
I remember when a Hungarian refugee girl enrolled in our elementary school and we learned about the uprising. I appreciate the way this anecdote captures a moment in history and brings it around to current times. The last sentence turns a cliché into a moving reality. — JoAnn Bauer
A rescued, junkyard pup would now be companion to my sweet dog Goldie. Dante yawned his displeasure. Goldie stalked her new "toy." Tails up, they launched at each other: "play fighting" some say.
Suddenly ill, she passed.
I faced the facts: I disliked Dante. He was not Goldie. Nowhere near. In every way opposite. Reflecting on this disdain for him, the unfair comparisons to our Goldie, I felt a twinge of compassion. Eventually, love?
Eyes dilated, Dante contemplated his rank in the pack as he watched me clean his muddy paws, my face close to his. He yawned.
We appreciated that this story looks not at the grief over the beloved dog but at the more complicated — and harder to admit — disappointment with the one left behind. It's all too easy to imagine the same dynamic among humans. — NCJ