It's only 99 words — what could happen? Evidently a lot. Entries in this year's flash fiction contest gave us talking animals, zombie apocalypses, young love blooming, old friendships withering, family reunions and familial shunning. The breadth of these tales belie their humble size, much to our judges' delight. Along with myself, returning for duty are retired children's librarian JoAnn Bauer, Booklegger owners Jen McFadden and Nancy Short, and College of the Redwoods professor and newly minted Poet Laureate of Eureka David Holper. Here's what we dug most, starting with this year's winning story, "Grand Canyon" by Colin Trujillo.
Jennifer Fumiko Cahill
LISTEN NOW Flash Fiction stories read by Jennifer Fumiko Cahill and Paul Bressoud. Music by Telegraphy, "Extraluminal Transmission."
- Illustration by Annie Kassof
Overall Winner chosen by NCJ
"Hola mamá, ¿Cómo estás?"
"Bien, ¿Y tú?"
She doesn't remember her son, but she remembers her high school Spanish.
"I brought your favorite."
She takes the plate. Looks at me like a stranger.
I read her the paper for a while. No-thing overly exciting. Travel section.
It's so grim here. Off white. Institutional.
She nibbles a fry, but hardly touches the fish.
"Remember that vacation to the Grand Canyon?
You walked right up to the edge and said, 'I thought it would be bigger.'"
A shadow of a smile.
For just a second, I think she does.
Colin Trujillo, Arcata
Stories, especially brief ones, can sometimes treat people with dementia as props or emotional shortcuts but this one gives the mother and the speaker equal humanity and individuality with its details. Those details anchor the reader in a real world for a moment. — NCJ
This author, like it's subtle title, powerfully captures the sad reality of the damage that Alzheimer's can do to a parent — and how painful that is to be witness to. — David Holper
Somehow this story encapsulates a particular grief while giving us a glimpse of what is lost. Its art is in the celebration of a relationship that continues even as its history has slipped away from one of the parties. The widening gulf is, of course, a grand canyon, yet it left me with a sense of affection and connection. — Nancy Short
A prisoner sits on a gray transfer bus, four and a half hours into a seven-hour drive across Kansas. It is sometime in the deep of night, and the monotonous view out of the slits of windows, hour after hour, is dark fingers of corn. A transfer guard occupies the same bench seat, but keeps a considerable distance. The prisoner is still, but his face is etched with discomfort from the chain cutting across his stomach. Silently, the guard reaches over and loosens the chain. The corn begins to appear yellow as the morning sun lightens the sky.
Melea Cadmium, Arcata
We never learn how either of the people in this story arrived at this moment but their interaction, small as it is, is meaningful. Something changes with that gesture and it comes across in the final description. — NCJ
This author offers a bleak vignette of a prisoner on a bus driving across Kansas. Although subtle, the small kindness the guard offers and the sunrise offer the smallest amount of hope in what otherwise seems a dismal life. — David Holper
The power is out for 24 hours and Turkey invades Syria?
Feeling like Rip Van Winkle here, folks.
(pic of) wreath
(pic of) DIY wreath
(pic of) steak & eggs #butitsvegan
c'mon, we are bigger than posting pictures of jack-o-lanterns or this morning's breakfast, aren't we? People (OK, not us) but people are going to die today.
I'm just saying that somebody could've said SOMETHING.
Just saying ...
Because my power was shut off, but you guys ...
(pic of) turkey created from child's handprint
(pic of) eggs benedict #butitsvegan
M. Susan Pahl, Arcata
This quick capture of social media posts in relation to the recent news about the Turkish attacks on Syrian Kurds reminds us about priorities. — David Holper
It happened atop a soiled moldy mattress, whose broken springs groaned exhausted squeaks when we shifted our weight.
A steady stream of cars screeched down Brookhurst Street; the strip mall skyline depressed by our smoggy sunset. We gazed from an abandoned yard, chip bags tumble-weeding between clumps of dusty grass.
Jacob, like me, had just moved to this motel peppered with folks who were down on their luck. Broken beer bottles cobbled the path to peeling blue doors. Behind No. 9, my father snored. Our bathroom sparkled with crumpled bits of foil that wrapped singed residue of crystallized happiness.
Aisha Cissna, Eureka
This poignant story of human connection in heartbreaking circumstances impressed me with its restraint. The author's careful choice of words and images draws a vivid scene. — Jen McFadden
What a totally bleak landscape this narrative evokes. Every image adds to the oppressive atmosphere. In contrast, the last line with its "sparkled ... bits of foil" and "crystallized happiness" makes an even sadder commentary on self delusion. One can only hope that the narrator and Jacob find their way out of this shadow life someday. — JoAnn Bauer
Lady Luck Strikes Again
She stepped into the casino and relaxed. The cool dark, the ringing of happy slots all coalesced to confirm she was right to come, that she'd be lucky today. Wasn't that a song, "Luck Be A Woman Tonight?" That was her, a lucky woman tonight.
He was smoking in front of "her" slot, chatting with his friend. Which was rude, either play the machine or get up. She told him that. He gave her a look, then lazily drew a quarter from his pocket. There, on her machine, on a quarter bet, she watched him steal her luck away.
Lauri Rose, Bridgeville
This one has a heroine, a villain and a tragic ending, all in 99 words. We even get to know our relatable protagonist through her thoughts and her misremembered lyrics, just as we do the scoundrel who stole her luck. — NCJ
The American Mushroom Society
"It's with a heavy heart that we must inform you; Mushroom Season is canceled. Sorry for any inconvenience this news may cause."
The letterhead seemed authoritative: The American Mushroom Society, Philadelphia, PA. Gladys was no skofflaw; She would refrain, but she couldn't help wonder how Ben Dover, Society Board of Directors President, knew she collected mushrooms. She had only told Ada!
Lunching with Ada and picking mushrooms were her only Joys! First the feud with Ada, and now this. She'd just have to eat alone and wait for news about the next season.
Sarah Godlin, Fieldbrook
What a sad and circumscribed life this describes. Ada might have been a good friend once, but she has surely proved to be a resourceful and malicious enemy. Also you don't see "skofflaw" (or scofflaw) used in a sentence often enough! — JoAnn Bauer
An old fox met a young cat. "You should come with me," said the cat. But the fox was wary. "This will never work. Your legs are not the same length as mine and you have my disease. Our colors are different and we speak different languages. What I think is beautiful makes you afraid. And what you desire hurts my nose."
"These things are true," said the cat. "But you should come with me anyway. I promise, you will have all that you desire."
But the fox was right. Even so, he searches for her day and night.
Joe Fox, Ferndale
This feels both like a folk tale and a painfully accurate story about how protecting ourselves from disappointment in love can leave us brokenhearted anyway. And "What you desire hurts my nose" is the new "It's not you, it's me." — NCJ
I was 4 years old yelling look Mom no hands when I urinated anywhere but in the toilet bowl as she ran toward me shrieking.
I was 12 years old yelling look Mom no hands when I crashed my bicycle, her shouting as she ran toward me and gathered me up to take me to the hospital for a broken collarbone.
I was 20 years old returning from a tour of duty in Afghanistan after an I.E.D. explosive accident. I walked slowly off the plane and up the ramp toward her, and I didn't have to say a word.
Bruce Taylor Jr., Westhaven
This author uses a humorous list of anecdotes to frame the last unstated revelation. It is that unstated delivery that we as readers intuit that delivers the punch. — David Holper
A person can learn to live with loss. A woman can spread her grief through the layers of her life so no one stratum bears too much weight. In that fashion she can continue to do the laundry, go to work, cook the dinner. She can spend a lifetime making love to a husband, wiping the noses of their children and holding grandchildren on her lap; while just below the heart the small beloved ache of longing never dissipates.
Then, one day, the phone rings, a prayer un-prayed for is answered, "Mrs. Brody? I think I'm your daughter."
Lauri Rose, Bridgeville
I found this very moving. People often experience grief as a physical pressure on their hearts and the second line gives this feeling powerful expression. With the current proliferation of DNA testing, I would imagine such reunions are becoming more common. — JoAnn Bauer
- Illustration by Annie Kassof
Rev. D. L. Kent
Reverend's preaching was pastoral this evening, recalling Virginia and the farm where, "Unc' had a hog would eat anything. Once it ate Unc's overalls ..." Florida, picking oranges, where he met, "Her name was Rosie. Her skin was the color of peanut butter ..."
Other evenings spirits released demons, New York recounted and his descent into, "Attica! Attica! Attica!" Some doubted but had seen the documentary in the mission's common room, with its grainy images of a younger Reverend.
Reverend breathes soft and deep, no prison riots haunt his sleep. Rosie lies with him tonight, soothes his brow, holds him tight.
Stephen J. Carey, Arcata
The glimpses the reader gets of the Rev. D.L.Kent's voice and dreams tell us his life story with a light touch. We get a feel for the man, his character and past through spare, carefully chosen details. — Jen McFadden
Deliverance, (No Banjo)
A dried clot matted meager strands of hair against his scalp — a memento from the bloodbath of the previous night.
He'd made it, alive, enduring the forced pilgrimage that was inconceivable to retrace. Only one other before him had survived the journey.
His head throbbed. Sharp pains shot through his left shoulder when they tried to reposition him. He grimaced. Spent, he drifted off to sleep only to abruptly awaken, urinating on himself.
Traces of sticky vernix coated the folds of his groin and armpits — testament to the comfortable surroundings from which he had emerged.
R. Collins, Arcata
The title immediately put me into the horrific backwoods of the film and the following descriptions seemed to fit the story. It is only at the end that we see the title in an entirely different light, as attendants in their scrubs (at least in my imagination) bustle about their duties. — JoAnn Bauer
"It's a bear," Alan whispered. "It's after the hamburgers."
Kate nodded. From inside their closed, dark tent they could hear the shuffling of some massive creature outside. Every time the creature grunted, Kate wanted to scream. They wished they had the courage to light their lantern.
It brushed against the tent. Kate moved closer to Alan, who held onto her.
A low growl sounded outside the tent flap.
"Eat the damn burgers," Kate muttered into Alan's chest.
A howl almost made them pee.
"That's no bear," Kate whimpered.
The tent zipper started its upward trail and they began screaming.
Doug Brunell, Eureka
How difficult it is to pull off horror in 99 words, but the sense of dread here is utterly Shakespearean. We don't know what's outside the tent, but we, like the couple we meet, are well aware it isn't a bear. — David Holper
Before the end of surface habitation, our ancient parents built great domes on Pleistocene aquifers. The upper-halves admit the sun and block hot wind. We few live in a terrarium where only wise stewards survive.
After sunsets with a waxing moon, we walk to the red cliffs where clever mirrors throw light deep into workshops and churches, where the precious bonsai spruce and dogwood, bide. Like us, they wait for the day we can live in open air again. Our destiny is atonement, to spread the sacred compost. But the winds grow stronger, hotter, and atonement grows more distant.
Mark Holian, Arcata
I read a lot of dystopian fiction and this is a perfect distillation of the bleakness, combined with the thin (perhaps fraying) thread of hope, that makes this genre so compelling. — JoAnn Bauer
- Illustration by Annie Kassof
A Slight Misunderstanding
A figure appears, fuzzy through the mist coming off the sand. Soon she sees it is a man walking toward her. The dog is near her, unconcerned and busy with sniffing, until the man runs at them. The dog begins barking urgently, as her body stiffens, ready to act. Then she sees the wave chasing him, white foam gathered around his shoes. She smiles at the misunderstanding, relieved. They wave to each other as they pass, a sheepish grin on his face. They are both in on this joke, but she glances behind her just to be sure.
Natalia Collier, Arcata
The fear and vulnerability that are stirred up by the slight misunderstanding in this story are familiar. Is this innocent situation truly safe? Are things turning? Can I relax? Should I? Looking back over our shoulder holds a familiar tension and the writer made it into a concise story arc. — Jen McFadden
She told me about the last time she saw him and felt his paranoia seep under her skin. She told me about studying grainy newspaper photos of people hunched over free turkey dinners and of hearing about unidentified remains found somewhere, never to be mentioned again, and of so many family gatherings that his missing eventually became missing. After 10, 20, 30 years, word recently came that he died. Finally, she can stop searching, with hope and with dread, the faces of homeless men who haunt the streets.
She can. But she hasn't yet.
Jenny Lovewell, Eureka
The woman in "Mystery Solved" has lived with an open-ended grief for so long, she is unable to move into closure when, finally, the mystery of her loved one's absence is resolved. In just a few words the author has delineated a way of being in which waiting in dread has become a state that is not only habitual, but preferable to the certainty of loss. — Nancy Short
In Plain Sight
When I was 12 and getting bullied at school, Uncle Rudy moved to our small hometown.
He had teeth like a camel, a weird accent and explained what he called moxie to me. Working as a groundskeeper at the cemetery, he insisted he knew where all the bodies were buried. Twice that joke saved me from getting beat up. It made the tough kids laugh and get over themselves. I wanted to be just like him, until the Feds came from New York and took him away. Wasn't a joke after all; it was moxie.
Jenny Lovewell, Eureka
We all have that one uncle, right? OK, maybe not quite Uncle Rudy and maybe not with "teeth like a camel," which, damn. But the quick, no-nonsense delivery, gallows humor and lightly handled twist make it seem possible enough while still surprising. — NCJ
The tone of this story has moxie itself. Blunt, arresting, and witty, the narrator's changing awareness blends admiration and shock with the revelation of Uncle Rudy's true vocation. — Jen McFadden