Grim. Grim, grim, grim. That about sums up the overall tenor of the entries in the North Coast Journal's first-ever flash fiction contest. We asked you, our readers, to send us your stories, encapsulated in 99 words or fewer. And you -- you murderous, unhappy lot -- took that as an imperative to make us tremble, cry and sink into a vague depression. Or, worse, rejoice in revenge.
Sure, there were the odd brainteasers, philosophical puzzlers and scenic mood pieces. And, inevitably, there were one or two sappy, go-nowhere tales of happiness (who needs happiness?!), at least two serious cases of purple prose and a smattering of triumphant I-did-somethings that did not involve offing one's best friend or lover.
But in more than half of the stories, people dropped like flies, suffered nasty breakups, begged for food and money or endured crumbling minds. Or, worse, had their balls knocked off. Among the 125 entries, we counted 43 deaths (24 accidental deaths, 15 murders, four suicides), two near-deaths, one world annihilation, three cars submerged in water (resulting in five of the deaths), seven breakups, four cases of Alzheimer's, nine scenarios with beggars and two with zombies, plus numerous instances of emotional or spiritual loss. On the cheerful side: two sets of happy lovers and a bunch of animals (bears were popular). Plus there was one lord, one emperor, one witch, one "benevolent ham and cheese" and one naked lady. Alas, however, there was only one gentleman.
To judge these nuggets, we chose the proprietors and staff of three independent, locally owned bookstores: Northtown Books in Arcata and Booklegger and Eureka Books in Eureka. Who better to judge fiction than the people who sell it all day long? We gave each bookstore a blind copy of all the entries -- no names attached -- and they judged each story on a 1-10 point system. We combined the three scores and ranked the stories.
Our judges didn't complain about all the mayhem. They did, however, get a little testy here and there. Booklegger's Jennifer McFadden, just six stories into the task, scribbled on the page, "Do I have to keep reading after being subjected to this?" Jay Herzog, one of our Northtown Books judges, wrote beside an especially frisky, misty, adjective-laden tale, "Go toward the white light!"And Eureka Books' Scott Brown, who generally only noted good things when he saw them and otherwise kept his counsel, couldn't help writing "Grammatical nightmare" next to a revenge piece featuring stuff you flush.
Actually, many of the judges had nice things to say -- but why spoil the mood by repeating them? And we, at least, are thankful to the hardy folks at those three bookstores for the time and thought they devoted to the contest. Even more, we thank the people who contributed their stories. You're wonderful.
We now present you with our judges' top 25 stories plus two more stories which, though they did not rate high in the bookstore judges' hearts, made some of us here at the Journal smile. The overall winner gets a $50 gift certificate to dine at either Abruzzi, Plaza Grill or Moonstone Grill -- ayiii, do we smell murder mystery dinner theater? Plus, each bookstore singled out one story for a special prize, which comes with a title and a $25 gift certificate for that bookstore. Runners-up, you get the satisfaction of seeing your stories in print. Losers? We shudder to think ...
-- Heidi Walters
[Winner of the most points from the judges. Also, winner of Eureka Books' "Hard Boiled Egg for Crime Fiction" Award.]
I noticed a handgun holstered inside his gray tuxedo.
"Beautiful wedding," he said.
"Handsome couple," I said.
Dark eyes scrutinized me.
"You the Irish kid who helped them move to Long Island?"
"I'm Uncle Rocco."
Handshake like a bear, smile like a fox.
The bride's felonious, but generous, Uncle Rocco.
"We always need strong guys. For deliveries."
He puffed on his cigar.
He stuffed a business card in my breast pocket.
"You're now a friend of the family. Think about it."
I thought about it.
I moved to California.
-- N.P. Tarpey
Winner of Northtown Books' "Best Naked Lady Punishment" Award
"Blind Date at the Kabab Cafe? Sure."
He talked about NASCAR and his sister's chiropractor. I ate.
Walking past other shops afterward, a large peach object breached my side view. I turned toward the Laundromat window and through it, wearing a teal beret and huge turtle shell glasses, was a naked older lady hunched over her laundry basket. She was surprisingly well built for her age, which looked to be 60ish. As punishment for a cruddy time I didn't mention it to my "date."
I still check that window for a repeat show, but everyone is always so dressed.
-- Sarah Godlin
The salty taste on his lips from the splash of the waves onto the north jetty of Humboldt Bay brought him out of his reverie. Amid the calls of the gulls, a winter storm was building.
Walter took comfort from the ocean. But his 70th birthday was just weeks away, and his future had come undone. His house was, financially, under water. His retirement account had crumbled to uselessness.
He was unsure how to proceed. Sitting and waiting for some unknown change, on the damp rocks, in the cold ocean spray, was all he could muster.
-- Robert Fornes
I dropped to hands and knees, hypnotized by particles that migrated down from the canopy above. We weren't going to make it to the hospital. Another wave hit and a lip inside me peeled back. I rocked as the world pulsed and swirled, primal intonations emanating from my core. A giant mouth opened into which I yielded and then, there you were, radiating, wet and beautiful. Astonished, I slipped you under my shirt, warm against my skin, your tiny hands searching, and I was sure that this consecrated grove of redwoods was the center of the universe.
-- Roberta Mickelson
Good News / Bad News
My friend Peter is waiting for a new liver.
The good news is that he's high on the waiting list.
The bad news is that he's so sick, even dying, that he's high on the waiting list.
I go to his house to visit, carrying a bunch of snapshots. "Hi, Pete," I say. "I've brought some pictures of your wedding."
He turns a quizzical face to his wife. "What are these?" he asks.
"Pictures, hon," she says, "from our wedding."
He's still confused, fingering the snapshots one by one. "What are pictures?" he asks.
-- Janine S. Volkmar
When Life Gives Mangoes
Winner of the Booklegger's "Lusciousness in Literature" Award. Say the Booklegger judges: "Truly lovely."
We lived in the mango grove, my father called it honest work. All day it was climbing, picking, moving, packaging, shipping, it was a life, a living he called it. At first I sat in wonderment at all the people we were making happy by sending them fruit and nourishment; it was life and money, all about the fullness of the belly that lulled me with fructose and moisture.
But then one day the taste became too sweet, and from then on I only felt the sense of too much whenever I saw two or more mangoes gathered together.
-- Joe Shermis
No More Insanity
You used to joke "I'll sleep when I'm dead." You always liked stimulants: double mochas, cocaine and then finally meth, or as you called it "my bionics." Under the influence, you would stay up for days, "cleaning the house."
I had seen you fall asleep in the bath before. Once out, a bomb could go off next door and not rouse you. This time was different. I heard the drip of the leaking faucet. I called your name, no answer. With a growing unease I opened the door. This time nothing would ever awaken you. Not even meth.
-- Joe Wixson
The bay rocks slightly, like a large ship at sea, as if all the water together was one mass, moving in tandem first this way then that. Sometimes a seal's head bobs slowly along the surface.
When father came down here, his back to town, did he know what he would do? Was it the bay's quiet timelessness that made his decision seem simple? Perhaps it came to him at once, the idea calming.
So long ago, could it ever have been easy to decide to go to war, to leave this still place, for an ocean away?
-- Mary Kate Boughton
The Logistical Army Defense unit, or LAD as they were called, locked optic sensors on the object approaching the perimeter. The object's approach had set off the alarm. The object seemed to be employing evasive tactics, darting first towards the east, then reversing back to the west, before making a straight approach towards the entry gate. LAD #1617 deployed a round from the Remington Tactical Attack Weapon which streaked to the object before detonating on impact.
The report was automatically forwarded to Command Center. When Sentry Guard McMurphy arrived on scene, he found the remains of the boy.
-- Attila Gyenis
The deer remember where the lettuce grew last year. They still go searching for it, their bright black noses snuffing the dirt for something that no longer grows there. Tender lettuce is good spring and summer fare. But in the fall the deer will want the life-sustaining acorns. I fed you acorns also, but it did no good. You left me anyway, despite the hours spent pounding brown nuts to mush. Now, I miss your broad shoulders in the morning and there is no one to remind me why I love the first daffodil so much.
-- Lauri Rose
It was a quiet morning in Wrangletown, unusually quiet. Jed realized he had overslept with no yowling young bear to wake him. He glanced at the woodstove embers and the empty coffee pot and headed out for the old-growth stump where the bear was chained. No bear.
The sight of the dangling chains froze him. Jed never thought it was a good thing to chain up that cub for men to wrestle for whiskey and boredom relief. To this day, no one knows who freed that young bear but the peace of that morning remains in Freshwater Valley.
-- Sheri Johnson
At The Speed of Balance
The monk was distressed. He had gone through much of life trying to live the balanced life by following the middle path. But he was unprepared for the wave of emotion as he realized the cherry tree that he planted so carefully on his first day as a monk was dying. He had always believed that the tree would outlive him. That thought had given him peaceful calmness through the years.
Now the leaves were brown, and no amount of dutiful attention and devoted care seemed to help. He limped back to his room in silent prayer.
-- Attila Gyenis
Death By Reunion
Two students, Mary Jane and Oliver, are married in a first-grade playground ceremony complete with pretend bible, minister and rings. Later they reunite at a class reunion.
After conversing, it becomes clear that Mary Jane still loves Oliver though he is now happily married to another. Sadness overcomes Mary Jane. After telling the others she will return in time for dinner, she departs, walking alone along a nearby wooded mountain trail.
Nearing nightfall, Oliver searches for his childhood bride. Seconds later, screams are heard. Authorities are notified. And even now the mystery remains, murder, suicide or wildlife?
-- Sharla "Skyspirit" Shotwell
He loved teaching at C.R.; liked to play with the students. "Bears don't pee, they sweat it out," he said. "Prove me wrong."
So there I was at Sequoia Park and that dang bear did everything but pee. It squatted, sniffed, slobbered and practiced yoga. Closing time arrived and so did the zookeeper.
Could I, would I ask him? My face in a hypertensive sweat, I did. He looked off in the distance. "A while back some lady was asking if wallabies mate through the nose," he said. Then he tsk'd and walked away.
-- Jenny Lovewell
Anna, the sun warming her face, sits on their bench. She thinks, Look at her leaning against the pier, laughing. She can't be more than 16. What's he, 17? 18? Reminds me of us, Henry. She taps the small box on her lap as though he could still pay attention to her. Remember when you first kissed me? I was 16 too. Ah, Henry, I always wanted to die with you lying beside me. A sigh. Now I can't.
Her children, in the house across the highway, have decided she'll spend half of the year with each of them.
-- Lauri Rose
Manny had been fighting with whatever was on the other end of the line for hours. It was big, bigger and stronger than him, and if he didn't play it just right, he could already feel the snap. Suddenly the line relaxed completely. The shark breeched almost directly in front of him and instantly stared Manny down with one glistening black eye. It flipped its tail up and slammed its nose back into the water. Manny gripped the pole and held on so tight he flowed into the sea like he had lived there forever and will again... .
-- Joe Shermis
As John drove across the country, he had time to think. He was headed to the west coast to start over. He scanned the horizon and realized that even out here, where he could see for miles in every direction but down, that his eyes always ran into something man-made. He thought he could probably count on one hand (if at all) the times in his life when he could look around and not see anything manufactured. As the landscape changed from corn to wheat, he figured he should stop at the next town to eat and sleep.
-- Lynn Jones
My Friend Dave
Dave and I were both from the Midwest. We'd talk about familiar places. We shared camaraderie, though our relationship revolved exclusively around his visits to my coffee shop in old town. Dave was a little fidgety but was always smiling and eager to talk.
He was living in a cave out past Burnt Ranch. He loved to hunt and fish and was always bringing me homemade jerky. It tasted funny but I ate it anyway. I turned down his invitation to go fishing a week before police discovered the partial remains of three teenaged girls in his cave.
-- Mitch L'Herault
An Instant Slip
She stared as the computer hummed in front of her, frozen for an instant for a better part of an hour. She breathed slowly, knowing that she was at a fork in the road, a vector, one of those key moments... .
She knew she needed to go and that she would stay, like being on hold while waiting to hang up on a travel agent. It was being here now and there then simultaneously, being fully present in a future moment for this very instant.
She reached out to hit the keystroke and her finger slipped. Everything changed.
-- Joe Shermis
In small towns, there are things you say and don't say. Answer questions in terms of your family. When asked how you feel, keep it simple. So when June told Essie she was sad about the boys and about her nightmares it was no surprise that Essie avoided her for a week. Nightly June awoke, hearing screams from the back seat, as the water came up over the windows. The glass should have shattered on impact, but held up just long enough, then caved. One of the boys bled to death, but the other two just drowned.
-- Dawn Watkins
We'd been up paddling the Smith in the endless rain. Endless as in new rivers under tents, waterfalls gushing from every seam in that moonlike rock, the impossible blue of the river, rising overnight to the chocolate mud of creation.
The way home saw flood everywhere. Klamath, Lost Man, Redwood, Mad, all laden with logfilled runoff.
To our surprise, Arcata was no different. The only way from Wildwood Market to our Stromberg home was a 50 cent canoe ride. And in the midst of that ephemeral pond, the car, left for the weekend, beneath its windows in water.
-- Chris Hatton
Centrifugal force pressed a huge dog to the wall of the truck bed as the pickup launched into a 180. The cab drifted sideways as the tailgate swung uphill.
The dog held steady, but a large gear bag tumbled into the dense brush alongside the mountain highway. Some distance behind, I pulled over.
The driver continued to the bottom of the hill, made a quick U-turn, and headed uphill again, accelerating past his lost bag and disappearing.
I peeked inside the bag, locked it in my trunk, and headed in the direction from which I'd come, imagining the possibilities.
-- Rachel Owen
I left the note on his nightstand with her ring; it said, "Feed the cat. P.S. I hate your wool jacket almost as much as I hate your taste for women."
I zipped my fly in the hall. I wore his shirt to the wedding, the button-up that still smelled like him, the one I put my cigarette out on last night before he kissed me.
His fiance was already waiting at the altar. I wondered what he would say about the burn on his shoulder and my three-day-old beard.
-- Piper Tyler
I left the truck idling in the rain, then walked past the warning sign where the fingers of land nearly meet at the entrance to Humboldt Bay. I'd dropped my phone on the seat, vibrating her toxic messages.
I'd read how a Volkswagen van parked here, with a couple inside, fighting. Anyone paying attention can see sneaker waves coming. They weren't.
The couple emerged hours later, dead with cold, still mouthing those last angry words.
I climbed over turtle-shaped rocks to mount the spit, and stared into rushing water. I was paying attention, yet my wave never came.
-- James Faulk
What Did I Do Last Night?
The ringing in my ears tells me that I was at the Alibi, but the shiner under my right eye lets me know that I wandered over to Sidelines, and judging by the chocolate stain on my shirt, I made a pit stop at Don's Donuts. I dig deep into my pockets and find a smashed ping-pong ball. The Shanty. I must've gotten a ride back to Eureka. A crumpled-up Denny's receipt almost gives me some closure on the night, until a deep-pitched singing voice coming from my shower enlightens me to an unexpected stop...at Auntie Moe's.
-- Brian S. Millett
It was the kind of cold December morning that felt as if the pond would freeze over at the drop of a hat, promising ice thick enough for skating come afternoon.
And sure enough, it did.
Herman, a tiny sausage link of a dachshund, was busying himself with the sort of things that nearly legless dogs do; mostly lamenting the cruel joke played upon him that was his ridiculously configured physique, interrupted by the occasional sniff of the nearly invisible mounds covered by last night's inch of snow.
"I must find my skates!" he thought.
And fortunately, he did.
-- Marshall L'Herault
The Sex Lives of Roadside Attractions #1
It was the Canadians' fault; they were the last straw, kissing it, hugging it for photos. Marty worked with a chainsaw under the belly, an ancient forklift supporting the load, Rush was on his radio. Marty wished he was still falling timber; Rush, the loss of his trade, the Canadians in their fancy RV all churned in his guts. ". . . they're traitors..!" With that the forklift backfired and died, the top-heavy load it held pirouetted and slid off, narrowly missing Marty's leg; it rolled through the flowerbed and came to rest in the Enchanted Garden trail -- a giant, blue scrotum.
-- Frank Onstine