Editor’s Note: Thank you for your submissions. We had a record number of entries. I picked 20 finalists and forwarded them to the judges, who were last year’s winners. As usual, we had a range of opinions from them. One judge would give a high score to a piece that another one scored low. This no longer surprises me.
The judges score independently. They don’t talk to each other. Why does this matter? If one qualified judge doesn’t like your piece, take heart and resubmit. Another one will. Just keep searching. Of course if you find things to fix in the meantime, do so.
On behalf of the judges and me, we hope you enjoy these scintillating starts. They are not ranked but are all equal winners.
By Ryan Stone
I was carrying a tiger snake in a hessian sack when I came across my old man and Mrs. Bennett out on the salt flats. I saw a flicker of light in a place there shouldn't have been any and went to investigate. First I saw a car, then I heard moaning. I dropped onto my guts and slithered over the broken ground like I was a snake myself.
Drought choked the Australian outback, but patches of straggly bush managed to poke through the dry lake in places. Not much, but enough that I could get close and stay hidden. I lay the hessian sack beside me, checked it was still tied, and made a peephole in the bush. My school tuck-shop lady was naked, on her hands and knees, backing up to my dad. His skinny arse was bare and almost as white as the dry lake bed he was kneeling on. Each time he pushed forward into Mrs. Bennett, I could see her heavy tits swing beneath her like ripe fruit. My old man had his eyes closed. He was thrusting and slapping with more life than I'd seen him display in years — certainly more than he brought to those rare occasions when I'd hear a slow, steady beat from his and mum’s old bed in the night. No gasping cries of "God!" ever came from my parent's bedroom the way they rang out over the salt flats.
I lied to myself that I was hiding to avoid the beating my dad would dish out if he caught me. They were making so much noise I could have slipped away unnoticed. The truth is that I'd never felt as turned on as I was at that moment, the sun beating down on my back while a grown woman bucked and writhed, completely oblivious, only a few feet away.
With one last cry of "God! Oh, Jesus!" my dad collapsed onto Mrs. Bennett and shrunk back to his former self. She stayed on all fours for a bit longer and used her hand to finish the job. When it was done, she wasted no time in extricating herself from under dad's flaccid form and getting dressed. Then she moved back over with her hand outstretched. Dad rose up onto an elbow to hunt through his discarded slacks, found his wallet and handed over a few notes. "That was something else," he said. "I bet you haven't been fucked like that in a long time."
Mrs. Bennett took the cash. "Yeah, Norm. It was great. You're a real man."
My dad seemed satisfied and lay down on his back, shielding his eyes from the sun's glare. I wondered if he'd missed the spiritless tone in Mrs. Bennett's voice or if he just didn't care.
That evening, I sat down to dinner with my oldies and my little sister, Gertie. Dad was his usual insubstantial self, so different from the bareback rider of that morning.
"Jimmy's got another snake in his room," Gertie told Mum.
"Jimmy! How many times do I need to tell you I don't want snakes in my house."
"It's only for tonight, Mum. I'll take it to Doc Jones before school."
"It's all stripy like a tiger," Gertie said.
"Jimmy! God help you if you've brought a tiger snake into the house," Mum said, her voice rising a notch.
"It's locked up tight, Mum. I swear. Doc'll give me twenty for a tiger."
"Twenty dollars! You're risking your life for that vet, and all he can manage is twenty measly dollars?"
"It's for your birthday present," I tried.
"What does Doc Jones want with tiger snakes, anyway?"
"He makes his own anti-venom to treat dogs with snake bites. The stuff costs a fortune, and they'd never use it to save a dog." Mum loved dogs.
"Make sure it's gone by morning. And if it gets out overnight..." Mum let her glare finish the thought for her.
Before bed, I checked that my snake was secure in its aquarium and then curled up myself. It didn't take long before Mrs. Bennett invaded my thoughts, and peeled off her canteen uniform to stand over me. I tried to imagine the weight of those breasts on my chest, the feel of the curly hair between her thighs.
I waited in line at my school canteen the next day. Once I was close to the front, I could see Mrs. Bennett serving behind the counter. She looked up to take my order with a cheerful grin.
"What can I get for you, love?"
"I…I... sold a snake to the vet," I said. "I caught it yesterday, out on the salt flats."
"The salt flats?"
"Yeah. Have you been out there lately?"
"No, Jimmy, I can't say I have. What would you like?"
I lifted my gaze from the front of her shirt to her face. "Ah, nothing. I've changed my mind." I turned and walked away.
It was a slow walk home from school. The sun was hot, my bag was heavy, and underneath my shirt I was sweating like a hooker in church. I was kicking a stray pinecone along the footpath when a car pulled up beside me, window down.
"Hey, Jimmy." It was Mrs. Bennett in the same station wagon I'd seen out in the salt flats. "Do you want a ride?"
Ryan Stone writes after midnight. His short fiction and poetry have appeared in publications including Eunoia Review, The Drabble, Algebra of Owls and Silver Birch Press and placed first in a number of competitions at venues including Goodreads, Writers’ Forum Magazine and Poetry Nook. He lives in Melbourne, Australia.
Aloysius the Great
By John Maxwell O’Brien
“We walk through ourselves, meeting robbers, ghosts, giants, old men, young men, wives, widows, brothers-in-love. But always meeting ourselves.”
—James Joyce, Ulysses
That posturing hippopotamus couldn’t possibly know about Marthe, could he? No. Not Dean Irwin. He’s oblivious to anything beyond his own résumé.
Marthe wouldn’t breathe a word of it. Or shouldn’t. She’s the one who did the seducing. Okay, lacing my coffee with gin while still at the college was an error of judgment, but who expects students to be knocking at your office door at ten o’clock at night?
Stop playing the victim, Aloysius. It’s unbecoming. If you hadn’t been drinking, you would have persuaded her to back off, or at least made a break for it. If she has pointed a finger at you, no one will believe your version of the story. Screwed—that’s what you are.
I glance back down at the letter on top of the pile.
Aloysius Tabeel Gogarty
Department of History
I start to unpeel the envelope, but stop and turn it back around. No, it’s not my absurd name that’s troubling me. It’s the return address in the upper left-hand corner: Office of the Dean of Faculty. Footsteps approach from the hallway. Beware of prying eyes in the faculty mailroom. Retreat to the sanctuary of your office.
September 11, 1967
Dear Professor Gogarty,
A situation has presented itself that demands immediate attention. It is of utmost importance that we meet concerning this matter. Contact Mrs. Delagracia at my office (ext. 1922) to arrange a meeting with me, and do so promptly upon receipt of this letter.
Dean of Faculty
Municipal College of the City of New York
There’s no please, not even a sincerely yours. Maybe civilities are superfluous when it comes to notices of execution. One vulnerable moment and—poof—everything you’ve worked for goes up in smoke.
Go ahead. Do it. Pick up the phone. Climb onto the funeral pyre.
“Hello, it’s Aloysius Gogarty from the History Department. I understand the dean has been looking for me . . . that is . . . uh . . . wishes to see me. Yes, I’m over here in Hammersmith Tower and can stop by now if that’s all right. Good. See you soon.”
I walk across campus at a brisk pace, but stop dead in my tracks in front of the dean’s office, immobilized, gaping at the doorknob.
Take a deep breath. Open the door. Don’t slam it behind you.
Elena Delagracia looks up from behind her nameplate and catches me unaware. I take a step back to process what I see. Her red hair moves upward in an irregular curl at the apex of her forehead, just as Alexander the Great’s did. Her eyes are avocado green, but when the light catches her right eye, it turns chestnut brown. Alexander’s eyes were said to be like that.
“Might you be Professor Gogarty?” she asks in a high-pitched voice, breaking the spell.
Off on the wrong foot again. Color me hapless when it comes to women.
“I beg your pardon, you remind me of someone. Yes, I might be . . . I mean, I am,” I shake my head theatrically, “Aloysius Gogarty.”
Her winsome smile puts me at ease for the moment. Elena Delagracia isn’t what you expect to see in a Latin American; her hair and ivory skin hint at a Celtic or Germanic influence. She seems amused.
Make the most it.
“May I ask—are you from Spain?”
“Actually, Professor Gogarty, I was born in Cuba, but my parents come from Andalusia which, as you know, is in Spain.”
The German tribe of Vandals left their name in Andalusia; maybe they’re the guilty party. But the Greeks and the Jews and the Arabs and the devil knows who else from all the ends of Europe traipsed over that region. So, it’s anyone’s guess.
Didn’t the dean’s letter say Mrs. Delagracia? There’s no ring on her finger? “Simply for reasons of protocol, should I address you as Miss Delagracia or Mrs. Delagracia?”
“Either way,” she says, with oracular ambiguity. “You can take a seat if you’d like. Dean Irwin will be with you in just a few minutes.”
I find myself stealing another glance at her. They say my mother’s eyes were a different color too. She gave me life, but I killed her in the process. Now it looks like I’ve killed my career. I must have the Midas touch in reverse. Everything I lay my hands on seems to turn to—
Dean Irwin emerges from a corridor behind Elena’s desk and signals for me to follow him. There’s no handshake, a sure sign that my fate is sealed.
Irwin can’t be more than five feet five, but must weigh close to two hundred and fifty pounds. I can’t resist mimicking his waddle as I follow in his footsteps, but this risky routine comes to an abrupt halt when my shoes sink into a thick crimson carpet.
His office is a large horseshoe-shaped room with intricately carved mahogany bookcases lining its walls. The bookshelves are filled with leather-bound classics arranged chronologically, except for one area, French literature. There, foot-high marble busts of Montaigne and Racine face out into the room, drawing a visitor’s attention to the three volumes they frame—Irwin’s celebrated tome on the use of the accent circumflex in France during the seventeenth century. In the next life he’ll probably focus on the accent aigu.
An antique chandelier hangs over a mahogany chair directly in front of Irwin’s larger-than-life desk. He points to the chair and we sit. Irwin’s head is silhouetted by the sunlight streaming through a semicircular window behind him, making his round face barely visible against a postcard profile of the Manhattan skyline. A pungent wave of his cologne wafts in my direction, but I restrain myself from retching.
John Maxwell O’Brien is an emeritus professor of history who wrote a celebrated biography of Alexander the Great (translated into Italian and Greek), as well as numerous articles on ancient history and alcoholism. He’s recently turned to fiction and written a dozen poems, several short stories, and his first novel, Aloysius the Great.
By Claire Isenthal
The thrill of killing never gets old. It’s satisfying in a finite way. A flame smothered. A beetle crushed beneath a boot. Pain inflicting more pain. Isn’t that how the world works? The predator and the victim. The ones who feed versus the rest who starve.
Bass notes low enough to vibrate the entire stadium pulse through me, gyrating around my taut muscles. The stadium lights extinguish in unison, enveloping Soldier Field in darkness. Sixty thousand cheers intensify to a roar, drowning out the rain. Blue numbers glow from the face of my watch. In minutes, the fans’ frenzied excitement will transform into screams of terror. My teeth grapple each other, the pressure of my jaw like a vice, nerves raw from adrenaline.
I’m ready. For years, I’ve been ready.
Sweat clings to a concealed suicide vest strapped to my body. Just in case. Heavy raindrops slide over the edge of my hood, spilling a cold trail of water down the collar of my orange work crew jacket. The tiny hairs on the backs of my hands stand on end in rigid anticipation. I inhale deeply, relishing the moment, tasting the cool air in the back of my throat. Tonight my mission will finally be fulfilled. My life’s work. My masterpiece.
I stand guard on the outskirts of a sound booth tucked in the back corner of the field, careful to avoid spotlights swirling over the crowd. Two dead crew members lay at my feet, the blood oozing from their throats glistens black in the dark. Illuminated faces stacked in the stands blur together. Chanting echoes through the arena. My concentration is not on the shrieking crowd or their pumping arms. It is not on who will die, but how many. Saliva fills my mouth as if I just bit into a sweet summer plum.
I can’t wait to kill them – to seal the fate they made for themselves.
“Sixty seconds, Falcon.” Glancing over my shoulder, I shift to shield
his body from crew members rushing past. They yell into staticy radio sets, voices strained against the surrounding din.
Falcon stoops over a large crate, cracking open two latches. “This is the one.”
Tossing the lid aside, he pulls out blocks of dense black foam and several AK-47s. He silently passes a rifle to my eager hands. I sling the strap over my chest and reach for another. The more rounds the better. The ammunition’s weight wraps around my shoulders, warm and familiar. Exhilaration courses through my veins, igniting every nerve. My skin is on fire. This must be what pure joy feels like.
Falcon hooks a grenade launcher beneath the barrel of his AK-47. A beam of light glides over his face, illuminating a soft smile. “Alright, masks on. It’s time.”
My heart thrashes in my eardrums, muffling his voice. The mask’s thin, silky fabric conforms to my face’s contours. Behind it, a concealed part of me roars to life. By tomorrow, the world will fear its crimson color. Jamming a magazine into the rifle, I pull back the hammer. The round clicks into the chamber. My finger hovers over the trigger, ready for rapid fire.
Now, is my chance for glory. Now, the world will finally have to see me. Except this time, they won’t forget me.
Claire Isenthal is twenty-eight and lives in Chicago. She’s spent the last three months abroad in London working for Google. When she’s not writing, you can find her seeking out the perfect cup of coffee or glass of wine (even better while binge watching Netflix). CRIMSON MASKS is her first novel.
We had a 3-way tie for Honorable Mentions:
By Debra Koehler
By Cathy Rath
Where the Past Belongs
By E.J. Colling
Feel free to state that you were an Honorable Mention in your cover letter. We had 148 submissions and you were one of the top 6. Congratulations!