How to make a judge's job easier-or even possible:
Write a story that's nothing special, or is well-written but doesn't cover new ground. Write a story that is technically interesting but doesn't have emotional resonance. Write a great story, but make some mistakes-like its/it's or misspelling a word (twice! that's what the little squiggly red line underneath is for). Trust me, the judge will be eternally grateful to have that excuse to lay your story aside. Otherwise, she may be still tearing her hair out, trying to get 5 stories into 3 slots, after she got 71 stories down to 10, & 10 down to 5...
Click on the titles to link to the stories below.
Click on the titles to link to the stories below.
"Rachel" by Ethan Tinkler
The worst thing about being dead is not knowing where I end and memory begins. I feel equally distant from each moment. I can not tell which happened generations ago and what may have happened this afternoon-if the breeze is blowing the gardenias in the vase now, or across decades.
There is no longer a line dividing being and remembering.
I don't know how many families have lived in this house. I remember a child. A girl. In a blue dress, sculpting animals out of clay in a rectangle of light from the window. Cats. Birds. Frogs and snakes. Shaping their bodies with quick, slender fingers, breathing life into them by giving them names. But I don't know if she was my daughter or the child of another family. If she was me.
I feel like I was married once. Or in love. I do not know if I had children. Faces, names, have been worn from my mind like a sand sculpture by the waves. Not my mind. It is gone. The thoughts it once contained-the tangle of them-unraveling. Drifting away.
The worst thing about being dead is that I will never again be seen. I feel I was beautiful. When I look into a mirror, my face is not there. I will never see it again. I watch people look at themselves. People love their faces, whether they are nice faces or not. They practice their expressions in the mirror when they are alone, trying to appear beautiful or fashionable or serious or strong. Old ones look but they don't really see. They see themselves younger-the way they would like to be remembered, their eyes smoothing away wrinkles and gray hair and years of loss.
There were photographs of me. On the walls. On shelves. A nightstand. Then only in albums. And then none at all. I don't know if these people are still my relations. If anyone remembers my name or my place on a family tree. I am completely forgotten. Even to myself. I am an echo getting fainter and fainter.
The worst part of being dead is never feeling. Feeling warm, or cold. Feeling the weight of a quilt; the pages of a book.
The flesh and bones and pulse and rhythm of a hug.
If I go down-down below the house's roots. Below the basement and into the wet ground. Under rocks and dirt and roads and under rivers down, down, I think I can feel something. Something like pressure. Something like being wrapped in a sheet. In darkness.
I can not find my bones. Or my stone. I've lost myself. Can't remember my name to find my grave. I would like to rest with them, in darkness, and wait until there is no more of me. Until I am less than dust on a shelf. Less than a shadow under a table.
I felt an emotional resonance with this ghost character who is slowly unraveling as time passes. All the worst parts about being dead, conveyed with surety & grace. Not too much. Not too little. The author's observations in the second section, about the way people look at themselves in mirrors is spot-on.
"soma drinking brahmins (dream of athena)" by Erik Richardson
"We have drunk soma and become immortal; We have attained the light the gods discovered."
Picture a teardrop:
Like a finger prick cerebral socket drips soma straight into brainstem accelerating sparks between neurons numerous as stars in the pinwheel galaxy. brainwaves cut through the curvature of space sharper than a secant line. a fiction manifold forms translating belief the ship is moving to truth traveling faster than a spreading fear. one bad trip and fission cells go supernova so each ship's sleeping beauty dreams in a paranoia-proof hypercube tomb carrying colonists out past stars she will never see. imaginary tear-maybe from socket shock, maybe from the stall of her heart as family rapidly recedes into the past. we cannot say: all and only that is real inside her dreamfield that she believes to be real inside her dream.
Picture an exploding spaceship:
But, oh so many tiny origami dangers unfold in the imagination. if a beauty suspects her training was a lie, her mindtrip will spin darker than maleficent's heart. she might disbelieve her immortality; fear there are so few beauties because the journey burns them up. if this dream, she can never make another voyage lest she dread time run out mid-trip. whence it would. sometimes in early days a sleeper would groove he was collectively connected to the passengers. they were drawn into a nightmare-hurting each other, or dreamer, even ship. so tough to outsmart thought.
Picture a baby:
Now only experienced mothers can pilot. pairing maternal instincts with passenger families psych-synch loaded into their own suspended-animation children-infants helpless to hurt each other, beauty, the ship. then parents port into cloned pris shells at colony point b. this time, though, beauty dreams onto a new tangent: she can connect with other sleepers like some kind of multiplex wormhole. if reality is folded into funnel-cake spaces inside the imagination, then distance and time separating one manifold from another can be collapsed. suddenly her dream fills big-bang with friends, a gynarchy of aunts, mothers, sisters-all the sleeping beauties past present future. the maternal instinct amplifies in a chaos-butterfly loop. she imagines a child into being- a virgin birth. a new mind. mystery to her and she to it. maybe she weeps (again). the journey from one mind to another more a miracle than any warped-space wanderings to distant corners of the cosmos.
Picture a goddess:
born inside a fiction manifold, it is mutual. a new athena. radiant. sprung this time from the mind of hera.
The language in this piece is so rich & unexpected. It is not easy, but that is one of its strengths. "... so many tiny origami dangers unfold in the imagination." I love the combination of fairy tale (sleeping beauty), Hindu tradition (soma, "We have attained the light the gods discovered."), mythology (the birth of Athena, with a twist), & space travel. Enough is revealed, in each short section, that we may follow, & the poetry makes the trip an ecstatic dance.
"The Woodland Park Parade" by Gerald Warfield
Darkness pressed on every side, but Clem fought back. He guessed that he was lying down and heaved one arm to turn around but found himself face down, his hands upon the dirt.
"Took you long enough."
Clem raised himself and saw a dapper man upon on a slab of stone-frowning. Clem shook his head and blinked.
"Pull yourself together, Boy."
Behind the man, a familiar duck pond glittered in the dark, and at its edge a stone gazebo squatted, spooky and forbidding.
Clem regarded once again the dapper man. His legs were crossed, his hands upon his knees.
His uncle folded his arms. "I see you didn't take my advice."
It took a moment to remember. "But Uncle Art, I did. I hitched a trailer to my Ford and headed north on eighty-one. That big-ass truck, God damn its soul, crossed into my lane. I was taking your advice, when I was prematurely killed."
"Premature?" His uncle snorted. "You wait until you're fifty-eight to leave this God-forsaken place? Don't call that taking my advice."
Death had not diminished Uncle Arthur's acid tongue.
"I guess I shoulda done it sooner."
His uncle sighed, his head inclined, "Everybody else is waiting for the parade."
Clem stood up and brushed his hands though nothing clung to them.
"Now you're up, you might as well come, too."
In the moonlight Clem could hardly see to place his feet. Both stone and shadow seemed of equal quality.
"Don't worry you're gonna stumble," said his uncle without humor.
They cleared the rise and saw that people lined the bank along the dry creek bed. They looked as if they'd come from church except their eyes were dull their faces slack. As one they faced the woods beyond the road that bounded Woodland Park.
"Who in their right mind," Clem said, "would parade through a cemetery?"
"Indians," his uncle said.
Then Clem saw them through the trees. They followed the creek bed, carrying spears, their clothes a patchwork of skins.
"Where are they from?"
"Don't know. Always on the equinox they pass and to the north in spring."
"Can we follow them?"
"Nope. Not farther than the cemetery fence."
"How come the Indians can pass the fence?"
"Ignorance I guess. Don't know enough to stay in one place.
The crowd along the bank began to shuffle and wander back among the graves.
"Why does everyone look so bored?"
"Dear nephew, what remains, to engage the brain, to snare the mind, in this desolate place? Shall we gasp in amazement at the passing clouds or swoon at the neglect of the cemetery grounds?"
But Clem no longer listened. He had clambered down into the gully after the Indians.
"You ain't goin' anyplace! It's too late!" his uncle shouted after him.
"I'm taking your advice," Clem shouted back.
It never was too late, or perhaps it always was.
When he reached the cemetery fence, he only felt a prickle passing through.
I kept coming back to this piece. Cleanly written, emotionally satisfying-I had to love it. I can just imagine the idea of invisible fence for ghosts. That little shock & they pull back into the yard. But, as with a dalmation that gets through with a big enough leap & some momentum, it can only hold you if you let it. I'm glad Clem made the passage. Once he'd made his decision to move on, neither a big-ass truck or a simple fence-or the conventions of his society-could stop him.
"Dissociation" by Samantha Pappas
Your feet had mostly grown back by the time I found you. The left one was still missing its pinky toe, and a glimmer of white peeked through the skin, but you, too arrogant to worry about yourself, decided you didn't need a doctor. You were leaning against a wall. You breathed steadily but your clothes were ripped, blood and dirt covering every inch of your skin, so I handed you a glass of water to rinse yourself with. I looked down, refusing to meet your glance. Your pinky toe was still growing back, and your second toe wasn't longer than the big one anymore. After the fight last month, your features grew back more symmetrical than they used to be, and the eyes on your face would never be as green as the ones you were born with. You forced my chin up with a weak push and I let you, noting how water had only smudged what dirt was already there, not actually washing anything off. I stared at you and you stared back, an accusation in those eyes that weren't yours. You were shorter now, too, to the point where my nose almost brushed your forehead, and I wondered if when I blinked you would be someone else.
Of all the adult & youth entries, this was my favorite story. What economy of language. Only 211 words, but it gives us a clear present, clues about the past, but only as much as the character would actually be thinking of, & a shaky future. What a first line! This story leaves me both completely satisfied & hungry for me, not an easy feat. Thank you, dear author. Keep writing for many long years.
"Reconstitution" by Adela DePavia
She lies before me on her sheets. Prone. Peaceful. All around, her mechanical sentinels keep time, blinking lights beating out a metronomic pattern.
How I wish she never died.
I don't know why I'm uneasy. I should be happy that her central nervous system wasn't too damaged.
Instead, I fight down the urge to be sick. What parent could endure this?
Suddenly, the lights all change. I hear the machines' tones shift up a half step. Before me, a monitor lights up. On the screen, a woman appears.
"Hello, and welcome to this Reconstitution session," she said in somber tones. "Acheron Industries is honored that you have chosen to be here with us.
"This center's Reconstitution pods are the most efficient on the market; Acheron's superior technology ensures that all data patterns remain separate and secure."
My gaze is drawn to the sleek metal behemoth behind my daughter's station. The modern miracle which will be distilling said "data patterns". Quite simple, really; harvest data from her platforms, accounts, and devices, plot it against data gathered from the population, select the corresponding traits, and mix them all up in a digital blender. Katie smoothie.
Not helping the nausea.
"The data transfer will begin momentarily. If you have any concerns, simply alert a nurse by pressing the call button on this monitor."
She gives a reassuring smile. "Acheron wishes you well, and hopes your Reconstitution experience is a fulfilling one."
All around, small clicks and whirrs announce an increase in activity. The electrodes covering her temples begin to glow, as the mechanical droning peaks.
Under their lids, her eyes are racing. All I can hear is the pounding in my ears. So much grief, after the accident. There had been a three year waiting period before a Reconstitution pod became available. Three years, waiting, grieving, and missing Katie. Now, after all this time, I'm about to get her back.
The muscles in her face tense in different patterns, flashing though expressions. Snarl, grimace, smirk, sneer, frown, scowl, grin-
The last one physically repels me. It's gone in an instant, but in my mind's eye, I see it. Nothing like Katie's.
Katie's face grows still again, but her fingers begin to twitch in blazingly complex patterns. They look like psychotic spiders.
This is not right.
I push back, standing. Three years of agony, visiting her in stasis. Three years, missing her. Three years, letting go.
I take a deep breath.
"To everything there is a season ..."
Another deep breath.
Wrong. I look at her on the table. Three years dead. Three years gone.
I look at her twitching body, waiting to be filled by some artificial construct.
She is gone.
The epiphany tears my heart out. Frantic, I look around for some way to stop this, to release her.
My gaze falls on the metal monster behind her. It travels down the shining surface, all the way to the exposed power cord.
I look at Katie.
And I choose.
This story too would have made the final cut if it were competing in the adult zone. I find myself wanting to quote whole passages, but I'll let these two speak: "... harvest data ... mix them all up in a digital blender. Katie smoothie." & "... her fingers begin to twitch in blazingly complex patterns. They look like psychotic spiders."
The author made a good choice in where we enter the story with the protagonist, agonizing over her "dead?" daughter. Hope/full/less. The past is a solid foundation for this one moment & we know, we know, just as she does, what the future must be. Lovely, lovely work. If this author isn't already published, it's just a matter of (not very much) time.
"Pity for the Born" by James Kuckkan
"Waste-Disposal Procedure Number Eight-hundred seventeen completed."
Marcus Keaver exhaled. Only a couple more procedures to go, and then his shift terminated. Thank the Lord.
The young man clickety-clacked standby commands into the storm-gray terminal in front of him. He then shot off a message to the Delivery Officer that another package was due, pronto.
With some free minutes to spare, Marcus leaned back in his comfy swivel chair, smoothing out his gray Officer's robe while drumming nervous fingers on anxiously-bobbing knees. All he wanted to do was go home. Decompress. Relax. Perhaps he needed more sleep....
"Something troubling you, Officer Keaver?"
Marcus shook his head, azure eyes closed. "Not at all, Wad. I'm just ready to go home. That's all."
Several meticulous seconds passed before the electronic voice responded. "Not many procedures left, Officer. It shouldn't take long."
Keaver couldn't help but smirk. His only company throughout the day was WaDCoS, or the Waste Disposal Computer System, an intelligence designed to manage most of the actual disposal while Marcus sat around and looked busy.
Despite the obtuse personality, Officer Keaver secretly enjoyed Wad's company. His office was the bleakest in the whole Center; a massive cylindrical chamber comprised of Marcus's workplace: a humble desk, a barely-functioning console, and multiple ashen walkways stretching out to various entrance points. Above him hung the wire-ridden, mechanized arms of Wad-the computer system's only way to interact with the physical world.
In the office center was an ovular bowl placed on a lone pedestal.
Without warning, an entranceway flew open, and a rickety bot shambled out. Crossing a skeletal gangplank and reaching Marcus, the bipedal android deposited a bundle of coarse blankets into the ovular bowl. With many aged creaks, the robot trundled off. Wad's three-clawed arms sprang into action. They streaked towards the bundle. Eager. Greedy. Only Marcus's halting hand stopped the blitz.
"Cool it, Wad," he warned. "You remember the last time you got excited?"
The poised arms drooped. "Yes, Officer."
Keaver nodded sternly, swiveling back to his console, searching the dirt on their latest package. Chunky columns of data slogged across his screen. Marcus frowned. "Hey, there's no file on this one. How recently was it dumped at the Center?"
"Roughly two days ago, sir."
"And it's on the 'Immediate Disposal' List?"
Something akin to shock stabbed at Marcus' heart. Yeesh. People were really in a hurry to dump their junk.
"Oh well," Marcus waved. "Go for it, Wad."
Within moments the system's mechanized limbs unwound the bundled blankets.
Marcus stood and walked towards the center pedestal....
He gazed impassively into the bowl....
And straight down an infant's watery eyes.
He eyed it for a moment before looking up at Wad's gangly limbs.
"What code is it in violation of?"
"The child lacks the required IQ for Academy admission," WaDCoS reported. "And the genetic projections deem it unfit for hard labor. It is useless."
Keaver bit his lip. What a pity. "All right. Initiate Waste Disposal Procedure Number Eight-hundred eighteen."
Ah, the worker making the best of his station, the bleakest in the whole Center, enjoying the dubious company of the computer with mechanized arms that helps him get rid of the detritus of society, whatever that might be. I loved the way the story unfolded, & Officer Keaver's pity-short-lived but real-at the end, before he does what he must, his job. Yikes.