Please, VOTE!! in the SDMB Short Fiction Contest, October 2011 Edition - Anthology Thread!

Hello, everyone, and welcome to the Anthology Thread of the SDMB Short Fiction Contest - October 2011 edition. The poll will appear about 84 hours from now.

A quick recap of the rules -

At 9 AM EDT on Friday, September 30th, 2011, I posted a link to a photo (found by random means) and also three words (again, obtained by random means) in an auto-reply message at sdmbpoetrysweatshop at gmail dot com. Writers still have until 10 PM EDT, Tuesday, October 11th, 2011 to write an original piece of short fiction, no more than 2,000 words in length, based in some way on that photo and those three words. All interested participants will be working from the same compulsory material.

As of the posting of this thread, there will still be ~84 hours left to any interested participants (though, of course, interested participants are only permitted to use 60 of those hours consecutively).

Writers - send your completed work to me, preferably in a .doc format, at sdmbpoetrysweatshop at gmail dot com before 10 PM EDT on Tuesday, October 11th, 2011. I will verify that it is 2,000 words or less, and I will post it in this Anthology Thread. Please include your SDMB username, and please let me know if your story incorporates any special text such as bold, italic or underline. (These codes do not always transfer directly, and I do want your stories to look right.) I will post the stories as a ~100 word teaser, followed by the rest of the story in a spoiler box, (Click the button labeled ‘spoiler’ to reveal the text, for those not familiar with the SDMB.) with the authors’ names in separate spoiler boxes.

At 10 PM EDT, Tuesday, October 11th, 2011, a multiple choice poll will be established to determine the readers’ favourite story. I would also ask voters to choose those stories that have incorporated the compulsory material in the most interesting manner. At the end of a week, the poll will close and we will declare a winner of the PoeHenryParkerSaki award.

The poll, once established, will be a secret ballot type poll. No one need ever know how you voted. I would, however, encourage everyone to please vote. You are providing an important source of feedback to the writers.

While we welcome readers’ comments, may I please request that readers hold off until after the poll is established. That way, the first posts in the thread will all be the various stories. After the poll is established, your comments are enthusiastically encouraged.

The compulsory material has been temporarily withheld from this thread until ~60 hours before the contest closes.

And now, here are the stories that this contest has produced. I want to point out - the authors’ user names are in spoiler boxes at the end of the stories. Please do not be fooled by the fact that they appear in ‘replies’ sent by me - only one of these stories is mine.

Enjoy!

Le Ministre de l’au-delà
ETA: The words are:

Album
Perspiring
Bizarre

The Photograph: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jandolan/6192680993/

A hammer of light pierced the blinds at just the right angle to breach the hopeful fortresses that were Donald’s resting eyelids. His eyes flew open and he struggled to remember the hazy night before. He recalled enough to surmise there had been drinking, in amounts large enough to warrant the preemptive bottle of Gatorade on the nightstand next to his bed. He swallowed the whole thing in just a few gulps, and felt the effects of dehydration begin to wash away. But his memories of the night before were still a bit fuzzy, and there were still the pounding drums of blood pulsing and throbbing in his head.

[spoiler]After his shower, Don felt his headache fade to a distant whisper, but he was still groggy from the early hour. Some neuron tasked with the sole purpose of reminding him that there was no coffee left sent a ping to the forefront of his thoughts. Hunting and gathering time, then. He would stalk the fearsome caffeine bean downtown, and make it his bitch. Dressing was a bigger obstacle than he anticipated. Best to throw on the nearest pair of jeans and a plain black tee, and head to the nearest coffee shop with the least amount of mental effort possible.

His heart fell as he rounded the corner to the shop entrance. There was a line out the door of Javatronic. But the least mental effort principle demanded he simply stay and wait it out. It wasn’t long before Ned, a guy he knew from yoga class, showed up and called him out.

“Ballsy move, Don.”

“What?” Don wasn’t sure what Ned was getting at. Had he embarrassed himself during the previous night’s drunken adventures?

“Wearing a Cuppa Jospehine shirt to Javatronic. Some of these caffeine addicts are as religious about their coffee places as football fans.”

Don looked down. His shirt did, indeed say “Cuppa Josephine” on it, along with the silhouette of a coffee cup with a handle shaped like a curvy woman contorting her body into a C shape, three sideways tildes steaming over the brim. Wear had that some from? He might not have noticed when he put the shirt on, but he didn’t recall owning a CJ t-shirt. Some forgotten relic from last night?

“Crap,” admitted Don, “I didn’t even notice. But come to think of it, that’s not a bad idea. This line is outrageous, and CJ’s is only a few blocks away. Want to come with?”

“Nah,” said Ned, “I actually come here more to flirt with the barista girl than for the coffee buzz.”

Don smiled. “Suit yourself. Later.”

“Ciao.”

Don squinted as he walked south. The sun sure seemed bright for 10:30am. The street traffic was light but still felt noisier than he was used to. The odors from the public garbage bins seemed to reach out and impale themselves in his sinuses. He imagined his Sim satisfaction meter dipping perilously close to zero bars. But then he turned another corner and the sharpness of reality was suddenly cushioned as he walked into a blanket of sweet tangles of the scents of brewing coffee blends. CJ’s at last!

He didn’t even need to start drinking. Just the warm smells and whatever breezy album was playing over the speakers reinvigorated him. And there were only two people on line. The woman in front of him had on a white t-shirt. The logo appeared to be a stylized street sign version of Princess Leia bending down to record her famous plea with R2D2. Cool! From what he could tell from behind, she was pretty attractive, and now it seemed she was a Star Wars fan too.

He went fishing. “Obi Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.”

The girl spun around, looking at first expectant, and then confused. The front of her shirt had a little drawing of a bow tie near the neck, which on closer inspection turned out to be a Tie fighter. “Have we met? How did you know my name?”

“Your parents named you Obi Wan Kenobi?”

“No I’m Tobie. I thought you said Tobie. Sometimes my friends will joke around and call be Tobie Wan Kenobi.”

“Oh no, I was just commenting on your shirt.”

“Hmm…” Tobie looked deep in thought. Her mouth opened to say something but she thought better of it. Finally she decided on, “Of course.”

“So, Tobie, is that your real name?”

“My real name?”

“I mean, is it short for anything? Like…I don’t know. Tobitha?”

“Tobie is just my slave name. My real name is Kuntakinte.”

“Kunta…?” Then it dawned on him as he saw her smirk. “Oh! Roots.”

Tobie giggled. “You’re an easy mark. Yes my name is Tobie and no it’s not short for anything. And no, it’s not a boy’s name. I think that covers it. So….” Tobie raised an expectant eyebrow.

“Oh!” said Donald again. “Sorry. I’m Donald. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” He held out his hand.

Tobie shook his hand. “The pleasure is mine. I’m up.” She turned to place her order.

Donald squeezed next to her and told the cashier “make that two, my treat.”

They sat down on the bench to wait for their coffees, both trying to think of what to say next, when a little blond boy wandered away from his Mom, walked right up to Donald and asked him, “are you really Green Lantern?” He seemed to be staring at his shirt. Donald looked down. His shirt was emblazoned with the big green logo of the superhero.

“Um…” Donald tried to simultaneously think of a reply for the boy, and also figure out how his CJ’s shirt had turned into a Green Lantern shirt.

Tobie stepped in. “My friend here is just a sidekick. The real Green Lantern is in Coast City.”

“Can you really fly? Do you have superpowers?”

Don finally managed to play along. “I… left my ring at home.”

“And who are you?” He asked Tobie. Don looked over and noticed that her shirt was different too. Things just kept getting more and more bizarre. Now it had the same purple logo as Lantern’s girlfriend.

“Star Sapphire,” answered Don. “She’s like Green Lantern but purple. She left her ring at home too.”

Satisfied, the boy returned to his parents. Don went to retrieve the now ready coffees, and handing one to Tobie.

“So, it’s been happening to you, too.”

Tobie’s face brightened. “Thank you! I thought I was going crazy there for a minute. How long has it been happening?”

“Since this morning. I don’t even remember putting the shirt where I found it. I thought maybe… I don’t know what I thought,” he said, not wanting to bring up his overindulgence last night.

“Me too. I haven’t seen it happening to anyone else besides you and me.”

“Me neither.”

“I suppose we should stick together until we figure this out.” Tobie grinned. She enjoyed potential adventure. Don could tell that this was also partly just an excuse to spend time with him. The events were out of the ordinary, but even behind that, it was clear they had chemistry and the desire to keep flirting.

They decided to wander aimlessly around town, sharing each other’s company, and learning more about each other. Whenever there was an awkward moment of silence or inactivity, one of them would notice a new design on the other’s shirt, which would lead into a new path of conversation, or remind them of something fun to do or a cool place to visit.

Having spent most of the day together, they had settled into each other’s company and felt content to walk together in silence, holding hands, and enjoying the slowly passing scenery. They spotted a beggar ahead. He was an old man, known for his frequently changing cardboard signs and red felt hat upturned for donations. Today’s sign said “The beginning is near.”

“Well that’s a refreshing change from the usual,” said Tobie, referring to the cliché of “The end is near” placards.

“Quite optimistic really,” agreed Don.

“What’s the opposite of apocalypse?” Tobie wondered.

“I’m not sure. What’s the antonym of doom?”

“We’ll have to chew on that.” Tobie tilted her head. “Be the change you want to see.”

“That’s prosaic.”

“No” Tobie laughed. “I’m reading your shirt”

Don smiled. “Maybe we should help out this guy with our ‘change’. Got any spare coins?”

Tobie reached in her pockets and fished out a few. “Here we go.”

Don saw that her shirt had changed too. “Complete the circuit.” A dim memory surfaced and an idea suddenly flashed into his brain. Tobie was about to toss her coins into the hat when Don stopped her. “No! Don’t. We’ll need those. I figured it out!” He got out his wallet and tossed a few singles into the hat instead.

“Figure out what?” Tobie put her coins back in her pocket.

“What’s going on! Come on, we have to hurry!” Don took her hand and pulled her as he started to run.

Together, they ran several blocks until they got to the park. Out of breath and perspiring, they stopped to rest for a minute but then Don urged her on again. “Come on, we’re almost there.” He pointed into the woods.

“The woods?” Tobie raised an eyebrow and a barely contained smirk. “What if you are some kind of killer?”

Don started towards the trees without her. “I can’t be the killer if you’re chasing me!” He accelerated and Tobie ran after him. After a few minutes they reached a clearing. Unlike the rest of the woods, this clearing was edged by a few feet of bamboo plants all the way around. In the center of the clearing was a lone tree. Tobie squinted. Was the tree sparkling?

Don took her over to the tree. “I just remembered. I was here last night for a party. This is a wishing tree.”

“A wishing tree?” asked Tobie.

Don brought her closer and put her hand on the tree. It was bumpy, and shiny. Embedded into the tree were hundreds, maybe thousands of coins. “Each one is a wish.” He moved her hand to one in particular. “This is the wish I made last night.”

“What did you wish for?”

“I can’t tell you that!” Don said, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world. “Haven’t you ever had a birthday cake?”

“Gotcha.”

“Only in this case, like the t-shirt said, I think I have to complete the circuit.”

“What does that mean?”

“Let’s just say, my wish doesn’t come true, unless somebody else has the same wish too,”

Tobie was catching on. “So, let’s say I take one of my coins, and put it next to yours. If we both have the same wish, then it comes true?” Don nodded. Tobie found a rock and pounded her coin in next to his. “Shouldn’t something be happening?”

“Like what?”

"Er… magic?”

He came closer. “I think it’s probably up to us to make our own magic.” They kissed. They both looked down to see if their t-shirts had changed. They both had emoticons with tongues sticking out. “That’s a bit rude” said Don.

Tobie agreed. “I think they are getting bored with us. Maybe it’s time to get rid of them.”

They both smiled as they helped each other get rid of the shirts. And a few other things.[/spoiler]

jackdavinci

Tracey Jemisen, who had become my ex-girlfriend mere minutes ago, sat beside me on the edge of my bed, tears streaming down her freckled face. It was just something I had to do. She was never a long term girlfriend, just a cute girl I made out with at Travis Leston’s party over Labor Day weekend. We’d only been dating a little over a month, so I was actually surprised at how hard she was taking it.

        “We can still be friends, you know?” I said in attempt to break the awkward silence, but for her sobbing.

[spoiler]“Fuck you, Gil. Why are you doing this? I thought we were a great fit.” Fortunately, I suppressed my urge to chuckle at that. We had almost no similar interests. She didn’t even like the new KoRN album, which baffled me.

        “Tracey, I just think we’re better off as friends.  I mean look, I’m a senior and you’re a junior and I just don’t see this working out long term,” I replied.

        “Am I unattractive to you?” she asked.  The sobbing had subsided a bit, but her cheeks were still glowing wet with tears.

        “Of course not, Tracey.”  Hell, her good looks were the reason I drug this out for a whole month.  But now that Jaime Bantman had recently broken up with that douchebag Ronnie Lentz, it made it easier for me to set my sights elsewhere.  I’d had a crush on Jaime since kindergarten.

        “Then how come we never did anything more than make out?” she asked.  “I mean, if you’re so attracted to me?”

        “I just wanted to take it slow, I guess.  What does it matter?”

        “You don’t  have a reputation for taking it slow, Gil Hamond.  And that never bothered me because,” and here the sobbing picked back up, “I really…like you!”  Now she was near an all-out wail, which was somewhat annoying.

        “I like you too, but again, this doesn’t seem like a good fit in the long run.  Look, I’m sorry, but I just think we ought to see other people.”

        “Oh, so there’s someone else?” 

        “Jesus, Tracey, no, there’s nobody else.”

        “Fine, Gil.  I obviously can’t change your mind.  But at least answer my question.  Why didn’t you ever want to do anything more than make out with me?”

        “Honestly, Tracey, it’s because Jason Henderson told you have syphilis.”  That was the truth.  Back at Travis’ party on Labor Day weekend, Jason, Tracey’s ex, told me that he broke up with her because she confessed to cheating on him with a much older man and that she had contracted syphilis.  He told me this after she and I were making out by the bonfire, of course.  I could hardly believe it at the time.  Rumors like that usually spread like wildfire.  But Jason is a pretty good guy.  I honestly believe he was telling me because he genuinely felt he was looking out for me, even though we’re more infrequent acquaintances than friends.

        “What the fuck, Gil!?  You’re just now telling me this?  Jason’s full of shit!  I never had fucking syphilis!”  She seemed pretty upset.

        “Ok, Tracey, fine, but keep it down, my parents will hear you.  Shit.”

        “Fucking Jason,” she said, much more calmly.  “He knows goddamn well I never had syphilis.  It was chlamydia and I got it cleared up.”

        I didn’t know how to respond to that.  What a bizarre confession to be making to someone who just broke up with you, especially considering there was no danger she passed it to me.  I didn’t even know you could clear up chlamydia.  So, all I said was, “I’m glad for that.”

        When I finally walked Tracey to her car she was more pissed at Jason Henderson than at me.  I view that as a pretty victorious break up, despite the brief sobbing and wailing.

        Now that I was single again and Jaime Bantman was single, I needed to get something in motion.  Luckily, Jimmy Rocadotti’s annual Halloween party was scheduled for the following Saturday night.  I was sure Jaime would be there and I would have an opportunity to finally tell her how I feel.  I never said anything before because I feared a rejection could seriously damage my image.  So, up to this point of high school I played it safe, going out with girls who I already knew liked me.  But now I was a senior, time to take the risk.

        On Monday at school, I sat at the usual lunch table with a few of my buddies, including Jimmy Rocadatti.  “You doing anything special for the Halloween party this year?” I asked him.

        “Well,” he replied, “I was gonna surprise you guys later, but get this…my parents are letting us drink as long as everyone gives them their car keys.  I’m gonna have two kegs!”

        “Holy shit!” was pretty much the unanimous exclamation at the lunch table.  Of course, we had all drank semi-occasionally, but nobody’s parents ever actually let us before.  We’d always had to sneak off to some old barn out in the country, usually at the old, abandoned Gussell Farm.

        Jimmy got lots of high fives Monday at school.  As word of the kegger spread, it became clear this was going to be the biggest party ever.  Still, I remained focused on how I would impress Jaime.  It was all I thought about the entire week.

        So, imagine my disappointment with the following conversation that took place Friday at lunch.

        “Listen Gil, I need to tell you something,” started Jimmy.

        “What’s up?”

        He took a deep breath.  “I went out with Tracey last night and I think I really like her.  She’s coming to my party and I don’t want any embarrassment from either side, so, look man, maybe you should...” he trailed off.

        “I shouldn’t come?” I asked.

        “Dude, I’m sorry, but I just don’t want any awkward shit.”

        “What the fuck, Jimmy?  I don’t care if you like Tracey.  I mean, you coulda said something to me first, but seriously, I’m cool with it.  There’s no problem.”

        “Yeah,” he said, “but I just really don’t think it would be the best idea.  Look man, I’m sorry.  I just want to see where things go with me and Tracey and I don’t want shit getting in the way and getting weird at the party.  Come on man, you gotta understand that.”

        “Tracey put you up to this shit, didn’t she?”  And here I thought she was more pissed at Jason Henderson.  So much for that.  “I understand just fine.  Have a good time.”  I strolled out of the cafeteria by myself, pissed off.

        At the football game that night, several people approached me and told me they heard about what happened and agreed that Jimmy was a dick.  I was pretty shocked when, at the end of the first quarter, Jaime Bantman came over to me as I talked with some friends.

        “Hey Gil,” she said.  She looked especially pretty with her dark hair pulled back into a ponytail.  “So I heard you’re not going to the party tomorrow.  Is that true?”

        “Oh, hey Jaime.  Yeah.  I guess.”

        “That sucks.  I was looking forward to talking to you there.”

        Holy shit!  Jaime was looking forward to talking?  To me?  An idea came to my head and I spontaneously spoke.

        “Well, we’re gonna have our own little get together at the Gussell Farm,” I said as I indicated my three buddies, Brent, Brian and Amir.

        “We are?” questioned Amir.

        “Yep,” I said, confidently.  “And we’re gonna have a keg of our own.  But hey, don’t tell too many people.  I don’t want Jimmy to find out and get upset.  But if you want to come you can bring a few friends, Jaime.  Cool?”

        “Yeah, I’ll get a few friends and we’ll drop by tomorrow night before we go to Jimmy’s,” she said.  “Gussell Farm?  The one with the tree stump in the middle of the barn?”

        “You got it,” I said.  “See you around 9?”

        “Great!”  And off she skipped to a group of her friends huddled near the concession stand.

        “Gil?” asked Amir.  “What the hell?  Where are you getting a keg?”

        “Amir, Brent, Brian, we’re going to Jimmy’s house at halftime.”

        I knew Jimmy’s kegs would be where we had stolen more than a few six packs from his dad; in the shed in their backyard.  It took some time to convince my three timid friends to do it, but we ended up driving to the Rocadatti home.  We knew the place would be empty because Jimmy was the starting tight end on the football team.  The whole family was at the game.

        Jimmy’s nearest neighbor was a good three-hundred yards away.  It didn’t really matter as there were very few lights on the street.  Brent stayed in the car on the roadside as Amir, Brian and I made our way to the shed.  The door was, predictably, unlocked.  And there they sat; two kegs full of Bud Light.  Amir and I hauled it out.  Brian kept a lookout as we carried it to Brent’s car. 

        Now, one keg being half the entire beer supply, Jimmy was sure to notice it was missing.  He’d probably even suspect it was me who stole it.  I didn’t care and I didn’t even feel all that bad about it.  This was my chance to talk to Jaime.

        The barn at Gussell Farm had a giant tree stump right in the middle of the dirt floor.  Why someone built a barn around that, I’ll never know.  The place must have been abandoned for decades, because it had been a hangout for high school kids way before we ever started going there.  The thing to do was to hammer a coin into that big tree stump for every beer you drank.  There must have been a thousand coins poking out of that thing.

        We sat the keg right in front of that coined stump and waited on our guests to arrive. 

        “Let’s get this thing started,” Brian said.  “Who wants one?”  He pulled a plastic cup from the sleeve we had brought.  He quizzically analyzed the keg.  “Guys?”

        I stared at him in response.

        “Guys,” he repeated, “how do we…ah…get the beer out?”

        “What?” I asked.  I’d never used a keg before.  I’d seen them, and drank from them.  And then it struck me.  “Fuck!” I exclaimed.  “We need a tap!”

        Just then, Jaime’s blue Toyata pulled up in front of the barn.  She and three of her friends got out of the car and approached.  “So,” she said, “you guys starting without us?  How many coins you got in the stump so far?”

        “Um,” I felt like a damn fool, perspiring heavily now.  “Zero.  We don’t have a tap.  Can’t get any beer.”

        Jaime frowned.  Her friends cruelly laughed in my face. 

        “So what’s the plan, Gil?” asked Jaime.  Good question.

        “I guess I don’t have one.  Sorry, guys.”  What a moron I was.

        “Well,” said Amir, “I say we go to Jimmy’s.”  I couldn’t blame him.

        “Should we take the keg back?” asked Brian.

        “No, idiot,” I said.  “Knowing his dad, they’d probably call the cops.  I’ll take care of it.”

        “You guys stole that keg from Jimmy?” asked Jaime, very accusingly.  I’m not sure where she thought we would have come up with it otherwise.  I didn’t even have a chance to answer before she and her friends stormed back to her Toyota and pulled out onto the road, headed to Jimmy’s, no doubt.

        “Well, good luck, Gil.  We won’t say anything to Jimmy about it,” said Brent.  Then he, Amir and Brian climbed into their cars and drove off to Jimmy’s.

I drug that goddamn keg behind the Gussell barn, down to the river. Luckily the water was high and the river was flowing swiftly. With a heave, I watched the full keg tumble down the bank and splash into the water. [/spoiler]

Barkis is Willin’

I was awake before the sun rose that morning, and had to make a point of distracting myself so that I didn’t go into Trevor and Sarah’s room and wake them up too. After all, today was the last day I wanted to really annoy Trevor. He might change his mind about driving me over to the party. That wasn’t really likely, but getting woken up early did annoy him, and why should I take the chance?

So I actually did my chores - fetching water from the well, and chopping firewood, and weeding in the garden, though there weren’t many weeds and they were all small - but hey, as long as you can find them, that’s the best time, right?

[spoiler]Once I was done out in the garden, the sun was up, and Mom was in the kitchen making coffee and toast. I poured myself some corn flakes and milk, and ate in silence until the happy couple followed their noses out of the bedroom.

“Well, party day is finally here, little brother,” Trevor said, a cup of coffee in one hand and pounding me on the back with the other. “Are you going to seize the day and really impress Janet Weatherly?”

“Yeah, of course I am, brother mine,” I said. “You’ve only asked me, what, seven times now?”

“I hope it’s not just my city girl roots showing,” Sarah muttered as she reached for the toast and butter, “but this doesn’t really sound like much of a party, if the Weatherly’s are expecting you guys to work on their land all day.”

Mom rolled her eyes just a little when Sarah wasn’t looking at her, and Trevor reached out to take his wife’s hand. “Maybe it is a little bit of a country rubes thing, but I like it. The Weatherly’s and everybody else around would be here for us if we needed them too. You don’t have to come if you don’t want to.”

“No, no, I might as well,” Sarah said, hitching her mouth up at the corners. “If you’ll be okay minding the farm all day by yourself, mother.”

“Of course, I’ll be fine,” Mom insisted. “You’ll all have a good time at the clearing party.”

There were more than two dozen pickup trucks parked in the field when we got to the Weatherly’s’ place, and a handful of cars too. Carl Weatherly came over as we were getting out. “Hello, Polemans. Trevor, Tim, we could use you hauling logs out of the south pasture.”

“Morning, Carl. Can’t we grab something in the kitchen first? It’s a party after all.”

“Didn’t you have breakfast before you left? I figured that was why you were late.” Carl only lasted a few seconds before laughing. “Go on, take your time. I guess I was just hoping you were ready to work first thing.”

“I can,” I immediately said, though it wasn’t Janet’s big brother that I wanted to impress.

It wasn’t too hard to find where the work was being done. As I guessed, there were men with axes and saws chopping down trees at the edge of the field, and a second group cutting off branches and tossing them onto a pile. I got there just as a tree was bared. “Hey, Tim Poleman reporting for hauling duty. Where do I take this big log?”

Jerry James looked down at me, and stroked the bristle on his chin. “Well, Tim, we’re hauling the logs through that gate over there, and piling them next to the road for easy pickup on Monday.” He paused, and offered the end of the ropes that had been slung around the tree to haul it with. “Go ahead.”

So I took the ropes, oriented on the gate that Jerry had pointed out, headed in that direction - and stopped as soon as the ropes went taut. They don’t call it hauling for nothing. So I pulled. I managed to get it another four yards before realizing that I could probably get it to the road myself but not until noon.

So I turned back, and saw Jerry still standing there, watching my progress. “Jerry, could you give me a hand with this?”

He came over and took one of the ropes. “I didn’t think it’d take you quite that long to figure out it’s a two-man log, Timmy.”

Jerry and I worked together all morning, and hauled six logs along to the road. Jerry’s a good guy; he doesn’t talk much. He went to high school with my Dad, and they were friends until Dad died two years ago.

“Why don’t you go over and grab lunch, bud?” Jerry said once we had hefted log number six up into the pile together.

“What about you?” I asked, not wanting to break up the team early.

“I’m just heading back south to check on the choppers, remind them that they can knock off to eat whenever it’s safe,” Jerry explained. “You can tag along if you like, but it’s not a job that takes two, and…” He trailed off and jerked his head to the side in a quick gesture. I looked in that direction, saw a corner of the Weatherly house seeming to poke out from behind a patch of roadside trees, and a figure just coming round the trees in this direction. A girl my age wearing jeans and a black t-shirt, with straight blonde hair that didn’t quite reach her shoulders.

I laughed and shot a grateful look over at Jerry. “You know, I do feel very hungry all of a sudden.”

“You’ve been working hard all morning,” Jerry agreed. “Worked up your appetite.”

So I walked down the road, and after a few seconds waved at Janet - as if I had only just spotted her or something. Maybe I just wanted to make sure that she noticed me before I was close enough to bump into her.

“Hey, Tim!” she said once I was close enough that she didn’t have shout. “Thanks for coming.”

“Yeah, thanks for having us,” I said. My voice sounded much too high in my own ears. “I wouldn’t have missed it.”

“Okay. It looks like you’ve been working hard.”

“Uhh, yeah.” I looked down at myself, suddenly very aware of how much I’d been perspiring - which wasn’t all because of the exercising, as the weather was warmer than usual for this time in the spring.

“Were you cutting down the trees?” Janet asked.

“Um, no actually - just hauling.”

“Well, that must be thirsty work too,” she said. “We’ve got Pepsi and limeade, and there’s home-baked pizza and fresh spaghetti for lunch.”

“Cool.” I tagged along with Janet the rest of the way back to the house, wishing that I could keep the conversation going but not sure what to talk about.

“Oh, did you feed the stumps while you were out by the tree line?” she asked when we had a clear view out to the south field again. I couldn’t make out Jerry, but there was a small stream of workers leaving their tools behind and coming in to share in the feasts.

“Umm, huh?” I asked, suddenly realizing that I didn’t understand what she had said. “What do they eat?”

“Well, coins, mostly pennies for the copper. Did you bring any pennies with you?”

I pulled out my wallet and checked the change purse. “Maybe a dozen.”

“Do you mind feeding them to the stumps? Dad got a few rolls at the bank, but we can use more I’m sure.”

“Sure, yeah, as long as you come along to show me how to do it.”

“You’ve got a deal,” she told me. “Right after we have lunch.”


I sat next to Janet for lunch, and asked her about what she’d been doing in the morning, which was mostly seeding in the fields that had already been turned. I also slipped into the bathroom before we left to feed the stumps, and took time to wash and use somebody’s ‘just for men’ deodorant, since it seemed to be sitting there and asking for it.

I had my pennies in my hand as we approached the first stump, and was surprised to see Trevor there, with Sarah hanging back a few paces behind, and swinging a heavy hammer at the flat sawed-off edge. He stopped hammering as we approached, and I bent down just a bit to see that there had to be at least forty pennies hammered into the wood of the tree. “Bizarre,” I breathed.

“Not really,” Sarah pointed out. “The copper leaches out with time, not that there’s that much copper in a modern penny, and the zinc works nearly as well. That poisons the roots of the tree, to make sure that it won’t start growing again.”

“That’s one way of looking at it,” Janet said. “Some say that it’s an offering to the forest spirits, a sacrifice to placate them for losing this patch of ground to cultivation.” She waited a moment. “Well, I only ever heard my grandma say that, and she picked up a lot of woo-woo from the old country. Do you want to take your turn, Tim?”

“Sure, except - how do you keep the coin on edge to start driving it in?” I asked, holding out one penny as example.

“Somebody has to hold it there,” Trevor said. “Someone who trusts you to hammer right, obviously. If you like, I can…”

“No, I’ll hold his coin,” Janet interrupted. “I trust Tim. And this stump looks pretty well-fed; let’s move on to one that’s hungrier.”

“Okay.” I took an extra few seconds to judge the angle as Janet held the coin on edge above the surface of a new stump, and swung the mallet with as much force and control as I could. Janet squeaked a little when the mallet connected, but withdrew her fingers and flexed them nimbly to demonstrate that they had come to no harm.

“You don’t need quite that big of a windup, Tim,” Trevor suggested. “If you don’t have enough power, you can take another swing.”

“Right, thanks.” When Janet put the next penny out, I brought the mallet up above my head and just concentrated on guiding its fall. Trevor had been doing that, I realized, but I hadn’t clued in until I thought about it.

“Perfect!” Janet exclaimed, grinning up at me.

I’d have liked to work next to Janet all afternoon, but we were needed in different places - I ended up driving a tractor and she went to play hostess to some of the older guests who were too tired to keep working at full pelt. I came back to the house half an hour before dinner was to be served. Janet was leaning against the side of the side of the house. I cleared my throat and worked my lips for a few seconds until they didn’t feel so dry and stiff. “Hi there.”

“How was your day honey?” she said, and winked when she saw my surprised reaction.

“It’s been great,” I told her, and realized that there was music playing. Somebody had set up an antique turntable with an album of Frank Sinatra’s greatest hits.

Janet kept watching me with a cool stare. “Well?”

I had to think about that for a long time. She was putting the ball back in my court, I could figure out that much, but didn’t want to reply until I could figure out what she wanted out of me. Then a cold prickle ran up my back, and I knew that I’d figured out. “I - I’m not very good at dancing,” I blurted out, and could have kicked myself for not even trying to be suaver.

Janet smiled as she came over to me and put her hands on my shoulders. “That’s okay. You can learn, if you try.”
[/spoiler]

chrisk

Grandpa always said, “If the first thing you do when you wake up in the morning is fart, it is going to be a lucky day!” Well, maybe not so much for grandma, but for grandpa this always seemed to be true.

I was about 9 years old and grandpa let me know this was going to be a really, really lucky day for him. I noticed the window in their bedroom was wide open - a rarity on a chilly October morning, and grandma was off in the kitchen and mumbling in Italian again; she often mumbled in Italian when she was upset with grandpa.

[spoiler]Grandpa was all smiles though - and he was eager to start the day and discover what luck lay ahead for him. He yelled to grandma in the kitchen that he was taking me into town, but all I heard were some loud foreign words come back from the kitchen and it didn’t appear to be the equivalent of “have a nice day” in Italian.

We got into grandpa’s old, black, 1942 Ford pick-up truck. He loved that truck, and so did I. Grandpa would spend hours fixing it, perspiring profusely as he crawled under it to fix some hose or valve or whatever. Grandma hated that truck and would never ride in it - preferring their fancier 1952 Sky Blue Studebaker.

Grandpa backed out of the long driveway and swerved quickly to miss hitting Lucky, a three-legged dog, blind in one eye, that was supposedly owned by the Smiths’ down the street. Everyone in the neighborhood fed the poor thing and considered it to be their dog. Lucky didn’t need much encouragement and jumped up into the back of the truck for a ride the minute grandpa nodded and said, “Get on Lucky!”
Off we went, down the road towards town. Grandpa, Lucky and I were enjoying the crisp breeze that morning, and grandpa said, “First we gotta go hammer a penny.” I knew what that meant - it was a bizarre tradition in this rural area that when you needed some good luck, you went out to Patterson road, took a small coin, and hammered it into the Gold twins’ tree stump.

Long before I was born, the Gold family had twin boys who played on a huge tire swing hanging from a large branch on a tree down the road from their farm. People would drive by and see those cute kids playing every day on that old tire swing - until that fateful lightning bolt hit the tree and split it right down the middle! They say the only reason those two boys weren’t fried like breaded catfish is 'cause they were both holding on to just that rubber tire, feet off the ground. They later had to cut down the tree, but ever since then, that became the lucky stump and people from miles away would come, hammer in a coin and miracles would happen. Jesse Palmer’s wife found her lost wedding ring the day after she hammered a nickel in the stump; Joe Tiller hammered in a dime and won the tractor pull at the State Fair that year. Grandpa told me my Aunt Beth once hammered in a quarter and found out she wasn’t having a baby after all - I wasn’t quite sure why that was lucky, but grandpa said it was damned lucky for Aunt Beth at the time.
We got to the stump, grandpa gave me an old penny and I hammered it in, and grandpa took a half dollar (!!!) and hammered it in so hard and so far, I couldn’t have gotten it out even if I had come back and tried (which I was thinking about doing}.

Happy that we hammered coins into the stump, we drove on into town. Grandpa was whistling a song, Lucky had his head hanging out on the side enjoying the breeze and I was happy to be sitting in the front seat, so high my feet barely touched the floor of the truck. We got into town and the first stop was Al’s Billiard Hall. It was a smoky, dark place and most in the town never set foot in there - but grandpa liked to buy a cigar in there every once in awhile when grandma wasn’t with him. We went in and grandpa talked to Al for awhile before buying a cigar and I snuck a quick peek at the magazine covers I wasn’t supposed to see at that age. Oddly, those pictures of half-naked women didn’t really do much for me, but that’s another story entirely and wouldn’t become clear to me for another few years.

From there, we drove to Donna’s Diner for a piece of pie and coffee - but I had milk with my pie. Lucky seemed content to take a quick nap in the bed of the pick-up truck while we walked from Donna’s over to the store. Everyone called it “the store” as it was sort of the only place in town where you could buy groceries, pick up some beer, and find a few household products like toasters, coffee percolators, waffle irons and stuff. You could also pay a dollar to punch a hole in a big card and maybe win some money or a prize. You had to go into the backroom and punch the card - they didn’t like you doing it in front of the customers - but everyone knew you could play the punch card back there.

I was looking around at the cool things in the store. There was a 26" bicycle with a silver horn on it, there were roller skates, there was a record player and even a small selection of record albums. ! Suddenly I heard grandpa yell, “Yippee!” and I was dying to go back to see what he won, but kids weren’t allow back there and I had to wait until he came out from the backroom of the store. He was carrying a big box and had a smile so big you could see his gold back tooth!

We took the big box out to the truck, grandpa lit his cigar and off we drove towards home.

“What did you win, grandpa?!”

He smiled and said, “You’ll see - but let’s wait until your grandma gets a good look too!”

We drove slowly on the way back, so grandpa could finish his cigar before grandma even knew he had it. By the time we finally pulled into the driveway, I could smell the freshly baked bread grandma had made, and knew we were going to have dinner in about an hour.

Grandpa walked in, carrying the huge box and called out, “Kate, get in here!”

Grandma walked into the living room from the kitchen. She didn’t seem as annoyed as earlier in the day and said, “What have you got there?”
Grandpa said, “Open it and find out!”

Grandma always pretended she didn’t like surprises, but I could tell even she was interested in seeing what was in this big box.
She opened it and I could see she was happy, but she looked at grandpa and said, “We can’t afford something like this!”

It was a big radio with lots of dials and buttons. The box said with the shortwave stations you could even listen to radio stations in Europe.
Grandpa smiled, “I told you it was my lucky day - I won it on the punch board at the store!”

Grandpa plugged in that huge radio, and they fiddled around with the dials and buttons a bit until they got to a very weak station, but you could still hear the music pretty well on the radio. It was some Italian song they liked and for the first time ever, I saw grandma and grandpa dance! Grandma said something to grandpa in Italian and he laughed.

“What did she say?” I asked.

Grandpa leaned down and whispered in my ear, “She called me a lucky old fart!”
Grandma playfully slapped grandpa on the arm and said, “Don’t talk like that in front of the boy!”

It’s been decades since grandma and grandpa died, and I still miss them so much. But whenever I visit their graves, I have to laugh at the inscription grandpa insisted be put on his gravestone that only the family understands: “Let 'em RIP!”[/spoiler]

DMark

Trevor sat up in bed and clamped his hands over his ears. He could still hear it, reedy and thin, and coming from his brother’s room. “Stop,” he thought. “please stop.” The sound crept through his fingers and soaked into his ears, filling him with dread. He didn’t want to get up, he didn’t want to be the one to have to check. But his parents seemed to be sleeping through it. He took a breath, dropped his hands from his ears and climbed out of bed. The cries were even louder in the hallway but there was still no movement from his parents room. As he reached Charlie’s door the cries became more urgent and plaintive. His whole body shook as he grasped the handle and slowly turned it. As the door cracked open the sound stopped abruptly.

[spoiler]He pushed the door open. Standing on the threshold he glanced around. His eyes were already accustomed to the dark and he could see that the crib, as always, stood empty. He felt his heart hammering in his chest. “It was just a dream.” He thought, leaning against the door frame. He reached for the door without stepping foot in the room. He didn’t like to go in there. His parents didn’t like anyone to go in there. He closed the door quietly. “Just a dream.” He felt his shoulders sag and his eyes began to sting from the tears that had formed. Out of the silence came a gurgle, which turned into a whimper, which turned into a cry. Trevor backed away from the door as the noise grew louder. He walked slowly towards his room, shut the door and looked at his bedside table. The coin was still there, aged and green. He picked it up, turned it over and looked towards the wall dividing his room from Charlie’s.


Nick was in that grey area between sleep and awake. He heard the first whisper but it wasn’t enough to rouse him fully. The whispering continued and slowly the conversation began to sink into his body.

“I don’t blame him.” said the first voice, croaky and broken.
“Neither do I.” said the second, softer than the first.
“Coming here isn’t worth his while is it?”
“No, he can’t be getting anything out of it. I’d stay away too if I was him.”

Nick’s eyes snapped open.

“Maybe if he was a proper son.”
“Maybe if he wasn’t so whiny.”

Nick sat up and the whispering stopped. Snapping the light on, he looked around the room. But nobody else was there. The voices had come from the bottom of his bed. But the only things there were his broken Transformer and Bear. It must have been the TV. He glanced towards the door and strained his ears, but he couldn’t hear anything. His Mother must have gone to bed. He gave the room one more suspicious look and turned off the light. His head touched the pillow.

“Such a disappointment.”

This time Nick got out of bed as he switched on the light. There was nothing under the bed. There was nothing outside his window. He opened the door and looked down the hall. The house was dark and quiet. He closed the door and instinctively reached for Bear. Pulling him close to his chest he sat back on his bed and chewed his lip. He sat there with the light on, and stared nervously around him. He did this for some time until his eyes began to droop and his head became too heavy. As his chin sunk slowly, the soft velvety voice whispered into his ear.

“Who could love you?”

He flung Bear across the room and stood up on his bed. His breath came in ragged gasps. He edged towards the bottom of his bed and reached for his window. Opening it he looked back at Bear and was trying to think of the best approach to throw him out when a hand reached in the window and grabbed him.

“Jesus Christ!” he said, tumbling back onto the floor. His hand landed on Bear and he cried out, shuffling back away from him.

“Shhh it’s me.” Trevor’s pale face loomed through the window.

Nick scrambled to his feet. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “You scared the crap out of me.”

Trevor climbed onto the windowsill and into the room. He was shaking, and when he spoke his voice came in gulps. “We have to do something.” he said. “Tonight, we have to do it tonight.”

Nick looked from Trevor down to Bear, who still lay on the floor. “Something really weird is going on.” he said. “He spoke to me.” Trevor followed Nick’s gaze but Bear just lay there. “I know it sounds stupid.” said Nick, shaking his head. He pressed the heels of his hands into his eyes and rubbed them. “It sounds ridiculous but I swear…”

“I believe you.” said Trevor.

Nick opened his eyes. Trevor was still shivering, even though the night was warm, and he was paler than usual.

“What did you hear?” asked Nick.

Trevor looked away before answering.

“I heard a baby crying.”

“Oh.”

Trevor broke the silence by reaching into his pocket and pulling out a coin. Nick was startled. “You don’t think?” he said. But already his mind was spinning through the possibilities. Looking around the room he saw his own coin, brown and dirty. He reached for it and looked back at Trevor.


Mike was sitting on his doorstep pulling on his shoes when Nick and Trevor pedaled up. Nick’s brakes squealed as he came to a stop. Mike winced and glanced up at a window. They held their breath as they watched the black pane. But there was no movement from within. Mike breathed out and turned his attention back to tying his lace. The boys stayed silent until they had wheeled their bikes down the drive and out onto the road. Mike took one last cautious look back at his house before speaking. “I’ve had the most bizarre night.” he said, shaking his head.

“Us too.” said Nick. “What sort of stuff happened to you?”

Mike bit his lip and kept wheeling his bike. “It doesn’t matter.” he said.

“Did you bring your coin?” asked Trevor.

Mike nodded and climbed onto his saddle. The town was silent as they cycled through it. The only noise came from Nick’s brakes as they descended onto main street. The woods were about a mile from the edge of the town. They pedaled hard and by the time they reached the woods they were out of breath and their shirts clung to them with perspiration. Dumping their bikes in the grass Mike lead the way as they tramped between the trees towards the clearing.

“I told you.” said Mike, swiping at branches as he walked. “We shouldn’t have taken them.”

“How were we to know?” asked Nick.

“I told you.” said Mike, stopping and turning. “I told you we shouldn’t mess with stuff like that.”

“Its a fairy story.” said Nick. “None of us believed it, not even you.”

“What? I was the one that said not to do it. You were the one that thought it would be funny.”

“Yeah? And?”

“And? This is your fault.”

Nick brushed past him. “God, shut up.”

“You don’t know.” said Mike. “You don’t know what tonight’s been like.”

Nick stopped. “In case you haven’t realised, we haven’t had the best night either.” he said.

He looked at Trevor, who looked away.

“And anyway. We all took one, including you.” said Nick.

“Yeah, only because…”

“Only because nothing. Get off your high horse and shut the hell up.”

They walked the rest of the way in silence.


The clearing lay in a dip between the trees. The tree stump sat in the centre. The boys approached it slowly. They stood in silence for a few minutes. Mike took his coin from his pocket. “Do you think it has to go back into the place I took it from?” he asked. “Because I don’t remember exactly where that was.”

Nick walked around the stump, dark and green and studded with hundreds of coins. “I don’t know.” he said. “I think I took mine from this side, but I can’t see any slots or holes. Its too dark.” he said, shaking his head.

“It might not matter.” said Trevor. “I mean the best thing would be to put them back exactly where we found them. But if we can’t remember, then putting them back in the stump is probably good enough.”

Picking up a rock Mike knelt down and placed the edge of his coin against the tree stump. He clattered the rock against the coin until it was wedged firmly into the stump. Breathing out he stood up and handed the rock to Nick. Once his coin was beaten into the tree Nick gave the rock to Trevor. “Do you think its enough?” he asked. “Will it stop now?”

“I hope so.” said Trevor as he hunkered down and brought the rock down on his own coin.


When they reached Mike’s house the light in the upstairs window was on. Nick and Trevor exchanged a look. “I’ll see you later.” said Mike as he climbed off his bike. He wheeled it quietly up the drive with one hand on the handle bars and the other nervously pulling on his bottom lip.

Nick climbed back in his window. Bear lay on the floor where he’d left him. Sitting on the bed Nick shuffled back into the corner and pulled his knees up to his chest. His eyes never moving from the stuffed toy.

Sitting at his desk Trevor opened the album. The good one, the one that his parents didn’t want him to touch. He leafed through it, freezing every time he thought he heard a noise. Still clutching the album he stood outside Charlie’s room and placed a hand on the door. Closing his eyes he leaned forward and rested his head against the cool wood.[/spoiler]

Hrududu

“Hammer it flat, I said! FLAT into the cement.” Sam looked over at what was going to be the new bank to see one of the builders hammering coins edge-on into the outside wall. The worker’s hammer made a little “clink” against the pocket change, and Lane could have sworn the contact of metal-on-metal had sent a spark into the air. “Now they’re all bent. How are we going to prove that we’re worthy of being an advanced civilization if we destroy our own building materials?”

“Don’t panic, Sammy,” Lane yelled across the chipped sidewalk. Then to herself she said, “We have all the time in the world.”

[spoiler]Sam had decided that, after the “Breakdown,” their town had to be rebuilt as quickly as everything had crumbled, to prove that they were still an impressive city, despite the fact that they had no idea if anyone was left in the world to impress. As far as she knew, Lane was looking at the last 19 survivors of the human race as she ran her eyes up and down the street.

She was still sorting through family photos and newspaper clippings from the days leading up to the end. She was compiling an album that documented life before and after; an album that Sam had called dry and Donovan had called “the most morbid scrapbook I’ve ever seen.” Donovan had left the makeshift village two days ago to see if he could find any other pockets of survivors. He had left giving his blessing to Lane and her project, even if he felt it was not the most productive use for the remaining paper and glue.

Lane glanced once again at Sam, who was perspiring from the exertion of overseeing his city plan. He had bypassed the whole “make shelter” thing and was more worried about banks and city halls and museums. Her scrapbook was silly to him, perhaps, but it was an attempt at preserving history, and he could accept that as an occupation. He had already chosen the room in the new museum where the scrapbook would be housed.

Each person there reminded Lane of streaks coming off a firecracker, tossed in the air in a violent fit of celebration. Each sputtered and fizzed in a different direction, but on the whole created a work of glowing-ember art.

A glint in sun brought Lane back to the poor worker hammering away at the outside of the new bank building, the one who had dared to inject his own personality onto Sam’s project. The hammer that had been in his hand went flying across the pavement and landed with its handle lodged in a fissure in the road. The thrower, she thought his name was Paul, slumped against the wall of his bank. “They’re worthless, you know. They only meant something because we could use them to buy stuff, but now they’re just little pieces of metal, so who cares if they’re bent or if their perfect?”

“It’s important to me!” Sam called. There was a slump in his shoulders, though.

Another woman called the group to lunch in a bizarre attempt at restoring order and spirits. That one, Sandy, had done nothing but cook and seek out food since civilization had been destroyed. She had mumbled something about “the bread of life” one day.

The group ate in silence. Partway through the soup, a delayed “clunk” caused all 19 to look in the same direction. The hammer in the road had slowly pivoted on its center and finally hit the ground flat.

Lane was sure that it mattered to at least one of them, and that’s all that mattered.[/spoiler]

Quarter Lane

It was a Saturday morning when Carl first got stoned. I was in the kitchen, fidgeting with the hard back of a cigarette packet, trying to wrangle the tiny cardboard into a viable filter. My chubby fingers weren’t exactly dexterous enough to manage the job, and so a scowl had taken up residence on my face. I lit up a cigarette. Benson and Hedges. Gold. I’d recently promoted my smoking habit from the oh-so-fashionable Marlboro Lights, and I relished in the burn of my throat as the tangy air slid down. Carl, who was at this point recovering from his second testosterone injection, stood holding his ass near the injection point. Apparently, these kinds of injections fucking hurt.

[spoiler]He began to fiddle with my half-assed attempt of a filter, manipulating the paper into something that looked like it could work. I watched in fascination. I fleetingly thought that maybe the injection was making him more than grow a dick; it was adapting something more, well, social. He looked at my half-empty plate of poached eggs, bacon and toast, and offered a deal; he’d try and fix my filter if I cooked him breakfast. It occurred to me then that this was a little bizarre; you hear about people trading sex for drugs, becoming destitute, and yet here I was giving away tokes of black for the prospect of help with online gaming and help fixing a filter. I accepted, and was soon inhaling my black while griddling bacon on the stove; a feat I thought fucking fantastic when the meat turned out to be the best bacon I’d ever made.

Working through the embarrassment of having to ask for help in assembly (I was supposed to be the one experienced, having smoked four or five times before), I thought of asking Carl if he wanted a try. He’d told me before that he had never smoked any kind of weed, and wouldn’t mind giving it a go. He was perspiring near the stove, contemplating the fact that his student loan hadn’t yet come through. I asked if he wanted to try, and he accepted.

‘That doesn’t smell much like a cigarette.’ He looked slightly worried.

‘Because it’s not?’ I was already in a state of complete relaxation.

‘Oh. Ok. I thought it had loads of tobacco in it?’

‘I rolled it light on tobacco. Will you light the fucking thing?’ I guess he decided it was okay, as he followed my instructions, grabbing the nearby lighter, holding the joint to his mouth. He took a toke, looking nervous and relaxed at the same time (but then it was nearly impossible for Carl to look stressed).

‘Ok, how do you know when it’s working?’

‘You just do? And it doesn’t really work in the active sense. Oh whatever.’

Five minutes later, with the burning paper nearing the middle of the joint, Carl looked perplexed.

‘I don’t feel anything different. Do we have any bread that isn’t mouldy?’ He spoke with a slight rasp, one that I wasn’t entirely sure was related to the recent injections.

‘Erm check the cupboard?’ The statement was rendered redundant when I stood to check the cupboard myself, finding half a loaf that, although hard close to the crust, was edible. I busied myself buttering the hard bread, and handed the dusty plate across. Carl looked down at the globs of butter and stale grain. He looked up to the window.

‘I think I get it, now’.

His face took on an odd kind of expression. Something unlike Carl. If I had to guess, I’d say he was thinking of a man or woman he was obsessed with at that particular moment. I chuckled, glancing away to our washer-dryer that had been broken for three or four weeks.

Carl looked up suddenly, and began to talk animatedly about the lack of money in his life. He solemnly picked up the small bowl of coins on the table (our bus money collection for the trips to university) and tipped it over, laying out the busy coins over the table.

‘I don’t have a clue how it works,’ he asked with a face dynamic with confusion.

‘Money? I don’t think you’re supposed to.’

‘But look at the coins…they’re so small, and just material,’ Carl said with a raised left eyebrow.

‘And your point is?’ I felt tired; burdened by the intrusion of another person into my blah-head.

‘I could throw the whole pot out the window and it wouldn’t change anything.’ Carl seemed excited; and watching that would be worth whatever came next.

‘Well we would have to walk to uni for the next month.’

‘but like…in the grander scheme of things…it wouldn’t change anything.’

‘I guess…’ I trailed off, not really in the mood for the conversation of a philosophy-student, and began to clean up our plates. Carl began lifting the coins back into the bowl one by one.

He stood with an unrecognizable energy, grasping the bowl between his hands. I could see what he was about to do; it was one of those impulsive Carl-things, and besides, the injections had slightly messed with his perception of impulsivity (of all things!?).

The window was open slightly to avoid us angering the smoke detector with our joint, and so it wasn’t really much of a bother for Carl to slide the bowl so it was perpendicular in his hands, letting a few rogue coins fall down onto the snowy street below. He tipped the bowl further, watching the little copper and silver circles imbedding themselves in the white, slippery slush. He smiled with what almost seemed like glee, while I was left to ponder what the walks to University through slush and ice would be like.

I went to stand beside him, and looked at the coins three stories below us.

‘So now what do we do?’ He asked, and seemed to be quite simply flummoxed by the idea of activity.

‘Well, you could start helping me online. I’ve got a pesky little priest on Warcraft that needs help with something.’

‘Sure, that elf is hot!’

I laughed, and followed Carl to the living room.

He would later recall that particular Saturday morning as one of the strangest of his life.

And we cheated our way onto the bus for the next two years.[/spoiler]

Bohomite

I leave the yard through the gate, past the round cheeked and jowled foreman perspiring pungency from the root of the cigar clamped in his jaw. He grunts as he marks the book, as I and each man pass through the gate in the afternoon sun, as I have done so many days, on my way home.

[spoiler] I cross the tracks, and pass the tavern where the dark skinned man who doesn’t fill his checked cloth suit, lingers by the corner. He waits on the call to pass a wager to the bookmaker’s, or tote the bags and packages of passengers off the train, or arrange for the tavern customers to meet the women at the house on the hill. He is there most days, to make his living and feed his family from the coins his patrons bestow for his services. His eyes tilt upwards then down again to a paper in his hands as I pass by, as I have done so many days, on my way home.

           I  work my way up the hill on State Street, past the large house built with lumber from the yard where I work, carted up the rise by tractors, where the Welshman with hollow eyes who lost his family in the fire, kneels by the stump left of an ancient sycamore. He pounds coins that neighbors give him, on edge into the remains of the tree, knocking out a dirge with the hammer on each strike as he conducts his bizarre rite.  He looks out towards the street, seeing through me, as I see him weeping tearlessly in silence, as I pass by, as I have done so many days, on my way home.

           Part way up the hill I turn to follow the cut stone overlook where Mrs. Elwood stands in her flowered dress by the marble monument on the site where Lincoln once stood, telling her church friend of the day she saw the great man when she was young, and how she met her husband the day of the news of the president’s death. She says “Good afternoon Mr. McDermott”, and I respond “Good afternoon ladies”, as I pass by, as I have done so many days, on my way home.

           I stroll down the granite walkway on Main Street, alongside the shops, and the studio, whose walls are lined with pictures of the western frontier taken by the photographer Mr. Fellows. I see him leaning forward in the storefront window under the shingled façade as he turns the page of his display book to show on one side a young couple’s portrait in their wedding clothes, and on the other a photograph of a young girl, her mother, and grandmother all grinning in their ruffled dresses. He steps back to align the album on its stand, as I pass by, as I have done so many days, on my way home.

           At Side Street I turn up the hill again, past the cobblestone house built by old Mr. Vilari, the man from Italy, cradling a bundle of firewood across his arms, as he shuffles toward the door. His property is thick with grape vines hanging on the lines, and the stalks of roses and bushes that flower through the spring and summer. He quickly blurts “Good day” in his throaty accent, and tips his head, and I tilt mine in return, as he just as quickly resumes his chore, as I pass by, as I have done so many days, on my way home.

           Through the gate and down the walk between the flower beds I climb the white porch steps to see Kathleen, thin and fair, with wisps of hair loose from her bun, gripping the door frame with one hand as the other holds a cloth against her smock. The corners of her delicate lips rise and the afternoon light that filters through the elm sparkles in her limpid eyes as mine meet hers. And I smile too as I see her there, as I have done so many days, when I reach home.[/spoiler]

TriPolar

*It was awake and it was aware. ‘Hope’ is not an emotion that can be attributed to such a malignant being but it sensed the possibility of an improvement to its circumstances. It waited, cautiously. It had been wrong once before when it had sensed a weakening in the forces that trapped it here. *

Gareth dismounted from the ATV and took off his helmet. He turned to help Gwen, who was unused to riding. All around them, they saw the devastation from the forest fire. The hillside was completely bare, which made the one remaining stump even more strange.

“Here it is.” he said, unnecessarily.

[spoiler]Gwen was still silent - she had known about the wish stump for years. She’d deliberately excluded it from her albums of photographs in the local history section of the museum, however. Why draw attention to such an artifact of the early settlers in this region? It couldn’t be protected from vandalism in this remote spot, and it had never seemed right to uproot it and take it away.

At least, not until now.

*The shaman had done his work thoroughly - first, the spell which bound the dark spirit to the oak tree. Then, cutting the tree and burning it. Then, the copper beaten into the flat top of the stump, the symbols inscribed there a further binding and a bargain. The bargain then sealed by the shaman himself, unbeknownst to any in the tribe. When the shaman knelt and cut his own throat, he gave his life force to the stump of the oak tree. As long as the malevolent daemon continued to exist, its life force would amplify the dwindling fragment of life in the tree stump. The evil spirit was contributing to the maintenance of its own prison. For as long as the tribe lived in the forest, they continued to sacrifice on that stump, to renew the bargain. *

All around the stump, the ground was scorched and blackened. In places, the gaping holes could be seen where a tree had stood. Now, the holes were baked in the shape of the missing roots - the trees had burned completely, including what had been underground.

Even this old relic was now loosened from its place.

“I don’t understand - how long before a stump either rots or dries up and turns to dust? How old do you think this is?” asked Gareth.

Startled out of her silence, Gwen replied “I don’t actually know. My great-great-grandmother mentions it in her journal. They found it when they came here, and they thought that maybe the original Indians had been the ones who cut it down. The Indians had spread it over in a thin layer of copper, perhaps in gratitude for the gift of its wood.”

*When the tribe had died of smallpox, the sacrifices had stopped, and it had sensed an opportunity. Then the old Welsh woman had come along. She knew nothing of the specific spells that had been used against it but she felt the malevolence of what had been trapped there. She came back with the hammer and a bag of coins - it still remembered the searing pain throughout its being as the cold metal was driven in, reinforcing its prison.
*
“Maybe there’s something about the metal that preserves the wood. At any rate, these kind of wish trees aren’t uncommon. People have often driven coins into wood to make a wish, to ask a blessing, to give thanks. It’s like a wishing well, only made of wood.” Gwen continued.

They had no idea. They thought the coins were there to grant wishes. These creatures were so strange, with their tiny, shriveled souls. For all that these souls were atrophied and minuscule, there was a powerful scent to them. He yearned to gobble them down, to walk the earth in destruction once more. Soon, soon - the fire had destroyed almost all of the life force of this little stump. If only it were moved from the spot…

“Well, Doc, it’s up to you - I’m going to replant the forest up here in the spring. It’s almost completely loose; I’ve got the jack, the winch and the trailer with me. We could bring it back to the museum where you can study it and preserve it. I don’t feel like I have the right to do anything else with it, even if I do own the land. What do you think?” Gareth looked at her, a little lost. He was a practical man who was a little out of his depth with a bizarre pagan relic like this.

Gwen hesitated, but only for a moment. The opportunity to study this, to examine it in detail, was too great to pass up. Whatever strange quirk had allowed this stump to survive the years, even coming through a forest fire unscathed, they would be able to further preserve it at the museum. Her decision must have been obvious, as Gareth was already perspiring, readying the pieces of the field winch for assembly above the stump. She smiled and said “Can I help you with that?”

*As soon as the stump was entirely in the trailer, they felt the hairs on their arms stand up on end. There was a disgusting smell, and when they turned around they saw a glowing flame in the shape of some Paleolithic beast. Their minds had no time to register it, though - the creature was no sooner seen than it hooked a long, curved claw into each of their bellies. The claw, made of smouldering flame, was nonetheless freezing cold as it entered their flesh and drew out a long, glowing filament. As it slowly sucked their souls from their bodies, they realized, too late - the coins had not been driven into the wood to grant petty wishes to credulous humans. Each coin had been like a nail in the creature’s prison, and the stump had been a dam holding back a blood-dimmed tide. They screamed in incredible agony as the beast devoured their still-living souls before their very eyes.

Not remotely sated, it sniffed for a few moments, to determine where the nearest humans might be. It sensed a settlement to the southeast, and slouched off… *
[/spoiler]

Le Ministre de l’au-delà

Barely cold, and the obits either had her jitterbugging down to perdition or dancing with the saints and sitting at the right hand of God. (Probably whispering the intricacies of grassroots organizing into the divine Ear.) I couldn’t decide if the papers which lingered luridly on details of the affairs, the broken marriages and the jail time were overly harsh. Perhaps too truthful, I supposed.

But I was both jet lagged and hung-over, and was awake far too early in far too noisy a city to register disapproval over journalistic excess. I barely registered the shambling yeti crossing the hotel lobby toward my position on one of the few armless chairs. Ten snowmonster paces away, it boomed a full volume greeting.

[spoiler]“Jimbo!” Ceiling plaster fell amid the echoes and collected on the lobby floor. “Jimmy, I’m glad you’re here.”

“Sean.” I didn’t get up, so my older brother took care of that by grasping me under each arm and holding me at eye level. His eye level.

“You really look like crap, Jimmy.” Sean gently placed me in an upright, only slightly tottering position. “Maybe we should get you some breakfast.”

“I had coffee. Nobody calls me Jimmy or Jimbo.”
We had food and family photo album at a diner Sean liked. I had eggs and toast. Sean had a football sized omelet and part of a bakery. We discussed snapshots after the dishes were cleared, and through a few coffee refills, until at last we ran out of pictures.

After more than several minutes, the waitress intruded on our silence to offer more coffee. We must have looked slightly bizarre; buzz cut and clean shaven me in blue jeans, boots and a plain blue dress shirt, tie and leather jacket on the bench beside me, long bearded pony-tailed Sean in a neatly pressed gray suit, presumably from Sasquatch Wearhouse, pale gray overcoat neatly folded and stacked, tent-like, on a chair he’d pulled close to our booth.

“Thank you,” I told the slightly bemused woman who’d served us all morning, “but just the check please.”

Sean stared blankly at me for a second and then casually leaned in and tapped my forehead with his first two fingers.

“What’s knockin’ around in there, Jimmy?”

“How do you mean?” I asked. I’d given up, as I always quickly did when confronted with Sean’s indifference to my preferences, on trying to get a “James” out of him.

“Well, we’ve spent the last hour going over memories, and we haven’t talked about Mother once.” Sean scratched his ear and raised an eyebrow. “Remember her? She’s the body we’re planting in the ground tomorrow. You’re speaking at her service today.”

“Yes, big brother, I remember why I travelled a couple thousand miles to be here. We’re here to bury Marisol Hennessey, the great fundraiser and philanthropist.”

“You’ve come to bury, not praise, is that it?”

I shrugged and grabbed my wallet out of my coat as the waitress approached.

“Hard to praise her when we’ve had so little contact for the last, oh, my lifetime. It’s not like we knew each other well, Sean.”

He grabbed the check and waved me off. “Just leave the tip. Don’t short it.” Extracting himself from the booth, Sean turned toward the register. “I’ll be right back and then you can explain where you dug that bullshit up.”

“Technically you can’t dig up anything that’s not buried,” I replied to his well tailored back.

Outside, Sean stopped me at the door of his Land Rover.

“I don’t care how it got in the shovel, Jimbo. Just don’t wave it in my face.”

He moved around to the driver’s side and unlocked us. Inside the car, I began to recite my eulogy until Sean shut me off along with the radio.

“Maybe you can forgive her someday for all that good stuff other people got from her. Maybe if she’d had it to do over, she’d have gone to that concert of yours-“

“She never even asked about it, Sean. That was my big break, and it wasn’t important enough for dinner conversation afterwards.”

“When did you give her that chance, exactly?” Sean raised the eyebrow at me again. “Was it some time before or after you packed up your trumpet and your panties and moved to the other coast?

“But I guess you showed her up with that career change, eh? Honestly, Jimmy, how long since you’ve played? Can you remember?”

He merged onto the highway and adjusted his seat back. “Dare you to blame Mother for that one.”

Since I couldn’t argue with that, I didn’t, for the next 20 miles. We made it to the funeral home early.
The non-sectarian sermon was mercifully brief, but the mourners were many, and it was an hour before all the condolences and remembrances were done. I left Sean with a group of some of the ex husbands (not including, of course, our own father, who’d been the first ex-husband, and attained that condition honestly – by stroking out before the divorce proceedings could be finalized), and stepped out into the parking lot for some air.

After the chill of the morning, the sun had come out and it was warm enough to make me uncomfortable in the jacket and tie. There was a very large man perspiring against a very large sedan, who I recognized from the service and from hours of tv news reports.

Thomas Harrah, aka “Tommy Haircut” for the carefully sculpted mane of red curls which never seemed to be disturbed by wind, rain or hard negotiation was such an integral part of the USW public image he was practically synonymous with steel working in the eastern states.

There’d been rumors through the years that he was one of my mother’s conquests, or she one of his, but he’d avoided becoming one of the exes, and as far as I knew the rumors were based on a close and frequent working relationship and nothing more.

“You’d be James, the youngest son, then.” As far as I knew, Tommy had been born and raised in Pittsburg, but he affected an Irish-American burr. I was a bit surprised it wasn’t just for the cameras.

“That’s right, Mr. Harrah. Strange we never met before now.”

He wiped his hand with a handkerchief and offered it to me like a slice of ham.

“Call me Tommy. Sorry for your loss, lad.”

“Thank you for coming,” I murmured, as if we were still inside the funeral home’s chapel.

“Not a word of it, James. I knew Marzie for longer than you and your brother have been alive. Spent more than one or two sad afternoons attending funerals with her for people we both knew.” He shook his great head, the famous mane never ruffling in the slight breeze. “Never thought I’d be the one outside of the casket at our last one together.”

“I guess I wish I’d known her as well as you did, Tommy.”

He looked at me quizzically and snorted. “Ah lad, your Ma was a wish tree herself.”

I wasn’t sure I’d heard him right. “A ‘wistry’?”

Tommy chuckled. “You can find old trees and stumps, all up and down Great Britain from Wales up through Scotland, silver and copper coins hammered into them with rocks. Holdover I s’pose from pagan times when folks’d leave wards and wishes for the tree spirits. Now days, a coin does it, do y’see?

“Your mother collected coins, too, and wishes as well. There wasn’t a man or girl she ever turned her ear to who wasn’t likely to invest a dream or two to her attention. And I’m damned if she didn’t carry and remember most of them. Many times I’d see her work through a crowd, patting shoulders and asking about details confided years before.”

He cast his boiled egg eyes in my direction. “She’d talk about your music and Sean’s buildings, like she could live inside either one. Always took me right there with her words.”

We passed the flask again, and Tommy sighed.

“All those coins, all those wishes. Which ones will fly back to their owners, d’you think?”

With a quick smile and a handshake, Tommy Haircut was into his giant car and gone while I thought about that one.
I made it through the rest of that day, through the burial and graveside service and back onto the flight home before I broke down. I was still weeping when the flight attendants ushered me out of the cabin in Seattle.

I made it home in a mental fog that matched the literal one outside. I poured a drink and went to the bedroom closet and pulled out an old case, opened it and breathed slowly.

Two minutes later, I began to play a tune.
[/spoiler]

xenophon41

I always considered myself a rational person, so what was I doing out there in the forest with a hammer and a coin about to offer the coin as a sacrifice to the spirits who live in the forest?

One thing you learn if you live long enough is that desperate people will do anything. At the hospital my wife told me to go home and try to get some sleep. She was right that I needed it, I hadn’t slept since the accident two days before. I felt bad that I didn’t put up more of a fight to stay there. But I was so sick of that place, that hospital room with the beeping machines and the flimsy curtain, those nurses wandering in and out of the room at odd hours, trying so hard to look upbeat but not cheerful. I couldn’t look at my precious daughter lying there in the bed underneath those thin, pale green hospital sheets without wanting to scream. It was all I could do to not grab each of those doctors who wandered in by their prissy white lab coats and scream at them to tell me it was going to be alright.

[spoiler]It was my job to protect her and I failed. That was why I let my wife talk me into leaving for one night. I could no longer bear looking at the failure of the most important task I would ever have. From the first time a father holds his daughter in his arms as a crying baby, he instinctively knows that it is his job to protect her from harm for the rest of his life. It is a job that is 24 hours a day until they put you under the ground. I know that if she doesn’t make it that people will be coming up to me and telling me there was nothing I could have done. That the driver of the car was to blame, or the designer of the car, or the road. It makes me sick to think of people trying to comfort me at the wake or the funeral. That was the thought that drove me out here into the forest. I could not get the idea of people trying to comfort me out of my head.

So I lay there in bed perspiring like I just ran a sprint, and could not get that thought out of my head. First the doctor would try to break the news that Suzie was dead in as gentle way as possible. He would probably not say dead, he would say passed on or left us. Then the nurses would murmur something before scuttling away, desperate to avoid eye contact. I would ride home with my wife with nothing to be said by either of us. Then the neighbors and family members would come by mostly talking of anything but what happened, the bravest telling us how much they loved her and what a good girl she was. Then maybe the priest would come by and talk to my wife in that solemn way he has. That must be a horrible way to make a living, how can he get up every day knowing that he will have to talk to someone who has had a tragedy and will have to try to comfort someone who will never be comforted again. My wife loves to make photo albums. Will she be able to look at them ever again? Or will paging through an old album be her only source of comfort?

As I lay there I remembered my grandmother and a story she told me when I was a child. She was a young girl when a outbreak of the flu hit the area pretty hard. The parents of sick children would get a gold coin and take it out into the woods to hammer it into a stump. How sometimes late at night you would hear a loud sound from the forest and wonder who it was who got sick. At the time I heard it I scoffed at how ignorant some people can people and how they cling to superstitions. But now for the first time I understood. I understood how powerlessness is the worst feeling in the world and how desperate you become to do something, to fight something, to have something to occupy your mind.

So I went to my desk and I got a coin and went to my garage and got a hammer and a flashlight. I had a fleeting thought that if anyone saw me I would be embarrassed, but I realized I had no care for what anyone thought right now. I walked into the woods just like I had so many times as a child. I made my way to the famous stump where all those people had hammered coins in so many years ago. I looked at all those coins and thought about all those children that those coins represent. In normal circumstances I would have cried, but I literally was out of tears. I set the coin on the closest stump I could find. I raised the hammer and almost crushed my fingers. I never thought about it before but this was going to be hard. Finally after several minutes I was able to drive the coin into the stump enough for it to stick. And I sat on the ground, just numb, my mind a total blank.

Suddenly I felt a vibration in my pocket. Someone had left a voicemail on my cell phone. I knew it could only be my wife. She had news, either my daughter had woken up and was going to live, or that the worst had happened. I looked at the phone and a bizarre thought entered my mind. I should not listen to it. I should just stay here in the forest and the longer I don’t know what has happened, the better. As long as I don’t listen to the voicemail she will be alive. I don’t know if I stare at the phone for thirty seconds or ten minutes. Then I thought if she is awake I need to see her now, so I pressed the button to listen to the voicemail and began to walk back toward home.
[/spoiler]

Puddleglum

*“We can’t,” he said, voice throaty and strangled.

Ignoring his protest, she stroked his thigh, making him groan. Clarissa knew that was too close to the full moon to be trying to seduce Chase this way, but a naughty little part of her wondered. What would it would feel like if his bones began to lengthen and he started to sprout fur, to change while insi-*

I snapped the book shut with a sigh. The premise had seemed so promising when I read the summary in the bookstore, and I’d thought it’d be just the thing to lift me out of my sour mood. I mean, how could werewolf themed erotica not yank you out of reality? But then, the werewolf just had to be named Chase.

[spoiler]Of course the book was a failure, Chase was my problem in the first place. God damn Chase.

I’d had a crush on him since the 8th grade, and he finally noticed me in 11th. We went to homecoming together, and it felt like all my dreams were coming true. The feeling didn’t last, though, because two weeks later, just days after I’d printed out pictures of Homecoming for my photo album, he was caught with Alison McCreary at Ben Long’s party.

If he’d only kissed her I might have forgiven him. But they weren’t kissing. Even that literary whore Clarissa would have blushed if she’d seen what I’d walked in on.

Chase tried to apologize later, but I didn’t want to hear it. I mean, really, what could you say to excuse yourself from accidentally forgetting you were dating someone and screwing another girl at a party? He was now dating her, of course.

After letting myself stew over it for a week or so, I tried to find distractions from it all. In so many different ways, really. None of them worked, though, because I’d almost get to a happy place and then the memory of seeing Alison under him at the party would surface and blot everything else out. Reading urban fantasy porn as escapism was attempt number 67. Number one had been sending that page of my album through Dad’s paper shredder.

Maybe it was because it was Halloween, but after the werewolf story, I knew what I had to do. If I couldn’t be happy with Chase, Alison damn well wasn’t going to be either. Going back inside, full of the pleasant fire of determination, I gathered up my supplies and jumped on my bike.

I knew exactly where I was headed, and I should have done it a week ago, just like Kenna and Hunter told me to. Back when they made the suggestion I thought I was a bigger person than that, but it turned out that I wasn’t above revenge after all. A visit to the Judas tree was the answer to my problem.

~~~*~

From a distance the first thing you noticed about the Judas tree was the stump next to the trunk. Part of the tree, actually. Once the tree had been a set of Siamese twins, but one of the trunks had gotten diseased, so someone had hacked the sick half away to save the rest over a hundred years ago. The stump was no mere humble reminder of a tree’s better days, though. It had a sinister look to it now, and the coins sticking out of it resembled nothing so much as the raised scales of some prehistoric beached sea creature. It was only as you walk towards it that you noticed that the scales were in fact metal, coins. Malicious offerings.

There were always thirty coins. From what I had been told, and in fact could see on the tree itself, more than thirty people had availed themselves of the Judas tree’s dark breakup magic, but if someone took the time to count the coins, there were always thirty. People said that as time went on some of the coins worked themselves deeper into the stump, which was probably true. But how that meant only thirty were visible at a time, I couldn’t tell you.

The stump was an ugly thing, when you came right down to it. The living part of the tree on the other hand, was much more lovely. In bloom it had rich pink flowers, but now in October it was bare. People didn’t come to the tree to admire the flowers, though. No, it was the bark that was of interest: it held the name of dozens of lovers. Many of the names were crudely carved, but some of the names had a scrolling ornate look to them, as if they had been placed there with a great deal of care. Some of the pairs of names were surrounded by hearts that were quite ironic.

The irony, of course, was that every pair names on the tree represented a couple who did not stay together, which was the tree’s spiteful gift to the lovelorn. In my high school, people like to tease couples and tell them that they would put up their names if they did something to piss the teaser off. A lot of people acted like the threat was hollow, but deep down, I think most people did truly fear that they might come upon the tree and see their name there.

And it wasn’t just students, some of the names had been carved by vindictive ex wives, ex-husbands, ex-somethings, stalkers, and shy adults still too cowardly to ever do more than long for the object of their affections to suddenly become available.

As the legend went, you had to do two things: the first was, with malice in your heart, carve the names of soon to be doomed lovers into the bark. The second was to pound a coin into the stump beside the tree as an offering.

When I slipped the coin out of my pocket, it shone in the autumn light, more silvery than it had looked when I’d scooped it off my dresser. No one told me which order you did things, so I took my hammer out and pounded it into the stump. I could almost swear that another coin sank from view while I worked, but it might have been the sun in my eyes playing tricks.

That done, I picked up the knife my brother had given me before he left for college, and examined the tree. I found a bare spot just barely within reach, and began to carve the J first. By the time I was done I was perspiring, and my back and arms ached from having spent that much time reaching up. Chase and Alison’s names were neither the neatest or messiest there, and I left with a bitter lightness in my step, satisfied that I’d done the only thing I could to get revenge.

~~~*~

The next morning seemed like any other, at least until I got to school. The hallways hummed with whispers, and I felt happy when I finally heard someone say “Alison.” I looked forward to someone blurting out the details of their break up.

But it wasn’t to be.

Instead, as I slid into my seat during first period, I noticed that Mrs. Creek looked like she was barely holding back tears. As soon as the last person sat, she sighed and addressed us. “I’m afraid that there was an accident last night. Chase Holt and Alison McCreary were in a car wreck-”

She didn’t get any farther than that before someone else who hadn’t known about the accident already asked her if they were okay. She shook her head slowly. “They think Chase will be okay, just a few broken bones, but Alison is in Intensive Care. Things…they don’t look good.”

I sat in class, and wondered if how terrible a person I was showed on my skin. It was all my fault, all because I’d decided that they needed to break up too. Had I been too full of malice when I carved the names? Was the coin supposed to have come afterwards and I’d somehow bizarrely intensified the spell by doing things in the wrong order? That hardly seemed possible. I couldn’t be the only one to give the coin first, and no one had ever been hurt, physically anyway, before.

By the end of the day my guilt was threatening to swallow me whole: after lunch Alison’s brother had been pulled out of class to go to the hospital “just in case.”

We all knew in case of what.

**

I felt more than half-crazy with remorse by the time I got home. But I had a plan. I was going to fix everything. My parents didn’t even know I’d gotten home before I’d darted into the basement for my bag, and left again.

The tree seemed to glower at me in the distance as I pedaled up to it. Had anyone else ever come to take back their misdeed? I thought not, but I had to try. Chase and Alison didn’t deserve what I’d done. No one deserved that.

“I’m, um, I’ve changed my mind,” I muttered, not really feeling strange to be talking to a tree.

If it had been a fairytale, the stump would have immediately spit out the coin, and the broken bark smoothed over. But it wasn’t, so nothing happened.

“I’m calling it off, okay?” I asked, looking down at the stump. I thought I saw my coin, and tried to pull it out. It didn’t budge.

This wasn’t supposed to be happening. I poked at the coin with the tip of the knife, and barely felt it as the sharp edges of another one bit into my skin.

“I’m sorry!” I wailed, tears streaming down my face. “I didn’t mean it!”

Looking at the tree, leaning over the remains of its twin, I think I finally understood what made people so sure that its curse would work: it was forever separated from its other half, and looked so unhappy. Why wouldn’t it inflict that on others?

I shook my head, strangely convinced that the tree was merely trying to distract me from my task. Determined anew, my fingers scrabble against the stump, and I couldn’t pry the coin back out. If it was even the right coin. The coin wasn’t going to come out, I was pretty sure of it. So I turned to the tree’s trunk instead.

Frenzied, I attacked the bark where I’d so happily carved the day before, using my knife to score over Chase and Alison’s names again and again. Eventually the knife slipped and gashed my thumb under where that other coin had already cut it. I ignored the pain until the slipperiness of my blood made it too hard to hold the knife any longer. The bark was a smeared mess of lines and a red wetness I didn’t want to think about. Maybe it was a good thing, though, a blood offering to show I was serious instead of a mere quarter.

When the knife fell from my aching fingers, I was startled to see that the cuts on my thumb and palm looked almost the same as the J I’d carved the day before. That had to mean something.

By the time I got home, my sweater was red to the elbow, and my mother screamed. I didn’t whimper or cry out once on the way to the e.r., though, because I was gone on a feeling of serenity. I’d erased my mistake, and everything would be okay.

~~~*~

Three Days Later

It took seventeen stitches to close my wound, and all I could think about was how white the bandage looked on my hand as I stood in the cemetery during Alison’s funeral. It should have been dirty, dirty to match the new darkness in my heavy heart.

The End
[/spoiler]

Elfkin477

Somewhere in time, in the forest of Windsor, Galen proceeded to comply with the bizarre request of his master, he got the tracer inside the side of a coin and approached a tree stump, grabbing a rock on the side of the road he proceeded to hammer the coin into the stump, after a few hits the coin was in place, just then a hunter on an splendid horse approached Galen

“You sir, what are you doing on the premises? These are the hunting grounds of his majesty King Richard and I will take into custody if you are hunting”.

[spoiler]Galen replied, “As you can see my good guardian, I have no hunting tools, I’m only going the bidding of my master that is sick and told me of this wishing fallen tree to make an offering.”

The master hunter looked at the stump closely and noticed other old and bended coins nailed over the stump. “Mmm, well sir, I will let you go with just a warning, the king will arrive soon and this tree should have access just during the festival, please leave now.”

Galen began to leave and after more words were exchanged he gave thanks to the kind hunter. Just when he turned around and began to follow the road, his master began to communicate with him, “And that Galen is the reason why you did the coin thing, it is harder to explain items like nails as they could be used to set traps; besides, a coin on a wishing tree is harder to remove once you take into account the superstitions of the day.

“Yes my lady” thought Galen “but why put the tracer there?”

His thoughts were read and the reply from his master came with no one making a noise as the conversation was only taking place in Galen’s head, and far away in the future.

After a few hours of monitoring and conversation with Galen we go back to the present on a nice fall day in 2301, the time pod opened and after some comforting stretching the “master” stepped out to let the swing shift agent take his turn, “Well, nice to see you officer Kairos!” Kairos was always weary of the improvisations agent Mundgerd came up with to deal with tough problems, “Well Ms. Mundgerd, I hope you let Galen in an easy to deal situation, I do not want to go in and find once again that he is being accused of witchcraft.

“No problem” Mundgerd replied with a wicked smile, “but you will see in the report that Galen encountered the fabled Herne the Hunter”

“Was that the guy that hung himself on the Oak tree and became a ghost for failing to the king because of a curse?”

“The very same one, on one hand It is interesting that the legend has some basis on fact, or should we say that we are experiencing a time-line change by the Time Joker? I’m afraid that the TJ will attempt to change history and have King Richard II to be killed by the stag.”

“Interesting” said Kairos feigning interest, “but not likely to happen as long as we monitor that time-line”

Agatha Mundgerd began to run out of the time pod room, raising her voice she said to Kairos: “I will consult now with the chief to see if the Populus has found evidence of a change in the time-lines.”

Chief detective Gorsky was looking at the recent reports, Ms Mungred had stepped into the lab perspiring heavily and her wet uniform now left very little to the imagination to deal with, “never mind that now” Gorsky thought. Thanks to Populus amazing new shielded quantum array, the Time Police found the fist evidence of a time joker on the loose, first he or she started changing very inconsequential things, like inserting the idea into Paul McCarty of the Beatles to title his “yesterday” song as “scrambled eggs”, took some effot to change it back.

“Punctual Ms. Mundgerd! Do you have an estimated time for the attempt to take place?

“Very likely tomorrow chief, the sources of Galen report that the king will be making his last hunt for the season then, now we wait.”

This was the only drawback of entangling to a past contact point, matter could not be sent back in time; however, back on 2220 a way to also send controlled energy bursts at very high resolutions back in time was a huge development, it allowed for ways to create tools in the past that could be controlled remotely from the future, after many years of work in secret underground locations around the earth of the past, future researchers made things like androids with the capability to contact the future, and mingle with the inhabitants.

Making an entanglement with the brains of those androids had a disadvantage in comparison to the fantasy envisioned by people that thought that material time travel was possible: once an entanglement was made with the brains of the past, the arrow of time for both locations that were entangled remained in place, always forward and one could not skip back and forth, unless one created other enbodimentals or avatars as some call them.

What was happening here was worrisome, it was possible that a crazy inventor had already reverse engineered all this and was ignoring the laws, even the death penalty was not out of bounds depending on the time changes attempted.

“The time joker had send us once again a taunting note reporting his exploits, he told us to look with infrared light in specific portions of famous paintings, his messages ended always with “Good luck Mr. Grosky”.”

The Chief was not amused, he had a hard time keeping his name out of history, but some residual memory still came out in the form of jokes claiming that Armstrong said his name on the moon. “Oh, I’m going to get him.”

Next day the king was attacked by a wounded stag and was saved on the nick of time by the hunter, this was not the plan of the Time Joker, his henchman had already put poison in the water of the hunter, but Galen changed it back, although the original legend suffered changes, the legend became true by helping simulate the death of the hunter and with “magic” (actually some glow in the dark material that Galen got instructions from the future to make it) this time only one of the rival hunters was executed after the “ghost” of the hunter talked to the king about his case, as Ms Mundgerd predicted that peculiar coin enabled Galen to trace the location of the henchman.

“Do you suspect a zombie, Chief?”

“Yes, in those days it was not strange to die young, or people would dispose of you even before you were dead, our Time Joker is skipping the very tedious job of gathering the materials for an android and he is just removing the memories of his targets and taking control of their bodies; to be sure, Galen will remove the body and take it to the secret lab of the past and we can do a detailed autopsy, is the doctor ready to take control of Galen?”

“Yes, and please call me Agatha, I’m practically living at Time Police HQ since the start of this case and so are you, you need to take a break soon”

The Chief showed a bit of a red face and just managed to turn around before it was really apparent to others in the office, but the damage was done, he had begun to show some feelings towards Agatha and he was now making failing efforts to keep it all professional.

“Look at the main monitor… Look at the fine autopsy… not her!” thought the Chief”

The report from the doctor was clear, the jealous hunter had his mind altered, the TJ was making real zombies and the order came to get him, dead or alive.

Reporting from communications agent Pilgrim said:

“Chief, the Populus is reporting a change in the space time line, we think we found who is our Joker.”

It was clear from the report that the legend was not real, until now. The maps of the social media sites and the visual historical references showed a change, of course if someone still remembered the original tale it would had not noticed that anything was amiss, as they would had learned the tale already with the changes, only Populus could keep track of the changes and possibly our Time Joker.

The locations of the changes were reported, the general area looked familiar, Agatha smiled as she had known all along, the center of the reported changes in the map was the home of agent Kairos!

Thanks to the security measures Kairos could not know yet about this, but as he controlled or monitored Galen it was a monstrous beach of security, what else he could had done to Galen?

“Don’t worry Agatha, you should know that…” he had to stop himself from letting out one secret that only high command was aware of; sure, agents were aware of recordings being done, it was part of the job. But what was exactly recorded was not ever explained in detail, only the higher ups had access to that information.

“Ms. Mundgerd, lets discuss this in my private office.” Agatha and the Chief walked from the control room to the Chief’s office. The door dilated and after they entered the office it contracted.

The Chief turned around and got closer to Agatha and grasped her hand.

“Oh never mind time-lines, I already know you will be promoted soon and with my authorization I will tell you what else is going on”

''Even if Kairos thought that he controlled him, he was being monitored, the Populus records also changes made on the enbodimentals; and so, after a change was attempted the channel was encrypted, and some final commands made before the entanglement was terminated,”

“You mean, we lost Galen!..”

“No, I believe he is…”

Just then, there was a ring in the Chief’s communicator, “Well, come in…”

Agatha gasped as Galen stepped into the office.

“Galen! I thought that you…”

“Oh, so you are one of the masters!” Gallen said showing more emotion than ever, “Unlike you, I had no access to images from your end, you are beautiful my lady! Here is your coin, you were right, this one was so rare even in those days that a coin collector like Kairos could not let it go to rust in a tree stump.”

Looking with admiration to Gallen, Agatha said “I had suspicions before but I had to find more evidence.”

“Ahem”, said the Chief with annoyance “yes Galen, you have something to report do you?”

“Oh yes, Sorry to be late my liege, I had to stay in suspended animation for hundreds of years until just recently, could not come to HQ until the final order was completed, I could not change even recent time lines until a new signal from Populus and the Chief was received.

I know that you are looking for Kairos, you will not find him alive.

The order that was given to me hundreds of years ago was completed just a few minutes ago and I’m I’m here to give myself in.”

The chief noticed the concerned look in Agatha’s face and with confidence said “Oh don’t worry Agatha, Galen giving himself in is just a formality, I’m sure the judges will quickly dismiss any requests to disassemble our newest current time agent, when can you be ready to start again?”
[/spoiler]

GIGObuster

“Tim-berrrrr!” Jack yelled as the tree fell.

“That’s not exactly necessary, you know,” Phil observed. “We’re not in the north woods.”

Jack grinned. “True, but I’ve always wanted to do that.”

“Well, you’ve done it. Now, let’s get to work cleaning all this up.”

The tree in question was a spruce tree in Jack’s back yard. It was dying, and Jack decided it was time for it to go. Phil had come over to lend a hand, and with the help of a chainsaw, the two of them had been able to take the tree down.

It was a hot summer day, and the two men were perspiring. When the job was done, Jack asked, “Got time for a cold beer?”

[spoiler]“Always do, when the job’s done,” Phil grinned.

“Coming up,” Jack said, disappearing into the house.

When he returned with two beers, Phil was hammering something into the tree stump. Drawing closer, he noticed that it was a quarter. “What’s that supposed to do?” he asked.

Phil looked up. “Bring luck. I heard about it when I was in the UK last year.” He accepted a beer from Jack. “I’m not sure why it’s supposed to bring luck. But the locals mentioned it and so I hammered a coin into a stump over there, and the last year was pretty good, business-wise. Figured it was time to renew.”

Jack reached into his pocket and pulled out a quarter. “I could use a little luck too,” he said. “Give me that hammer.”

Jack didn’t think about the coins in the tree stump too much after that. They were there, certainly, and he noticed them when he was out working in the yard; but otherwise, they weren’t on his mind. When he did think about them, he admitted that his luck hadn’t really changed at all.

Or had it? He wondered. One day, for example, he had been working in the yard. He was digging a hole, so he could plant a bush, and at one point, his shovel hit something. His first inclination was that it was a rock, and a good hard shove would dislodge it. But then, he looked a little closer. Brushing away loose dirt, he found it was a buried electrical line—and it he had not taken the time to investigate, he might have pushed the shovel through the line, cutting off power to somewhere at best, and electrocuting himself at worst.

Then there was the time he got in his car, as he did every morning, to go to work. He had actually seated himself in the driver’s seat and put the key in the ignition before realizing he had left his cellphone inside the house. He wasn’t keen on wasting time to go back into the house to get it, but he did, returned to the car, and went on his way. Only there was a traffic problem on the expressway—from what he could see as he crawled past, a semi truck had gone out of control and crushed a car. The accident looked recent; emergency crews were not even on the scene. And he realized, if he had not taken time to return for his cellphone, that might have been his car—and him—under the truck.

Because those events made him curious, he decided to buy a lottery ticket. He never played the lottery, but if his luck had truly changed for the better, then a lottery ticket would tell him. And so, while on his lunch break one day, he went to the nearby newsstand and bought a lottery ticket.

As things would turn out, it didn’t win.

But while he was at the newsstand, he had run into Janice, an acquaintance whom he knew from seeing her in the elevators and common areas of his office building. She worked a few floors above his insurance company, in the head office of a bank. He nodded a hello when she saw him buying the ticket.

“Feeling lucky, Jack?” Janice smiled.

Jack chuckled. “Maybe I am. But you have to admit—this week’s prize is a good chunk of change.”

“That it is. What will you do if you win?”

“I hadn’t really thought about that,” Jack replied. “A new car? Travel? Retire?”

“I don’t think you’d like retirement,” Janice said. “You don’t strike me as the golfing and fishing type.”

“I’m not. Maybe I’ll become a rock star and record a few platinum albums.”

Janice laughed. “I’m not sure you’re the rock star type either.” She paused. “What do you really do again?”

“Insurance actuary.”

“So that means you study all kinds of demographic and other data, in order to determine risks, and set your premiums accordingly, right?”

“Well, there’s a little but more to it than that. For example—“

She cut him off. “Close enough though?”

Conceding the point, Jack smiled weakly. “Close enough.”

“Wonder if you’d be a good fit at my bank,” Janice mused. “We need a researcher-slash-analyst, and we haven’t been able to find just the right person. Maybe it’s time we stopped looking for bankers and started looking for people like, maybe, insurance actuaries.”

And a few days later, he had looked into the job at Janice’s bank. It was somewhat the same, but different enough to be interesting; and it paid more and had better benefits. So when it was offered to him, he took it.

He hadn’t see Janice much at the bank, but she worked in a different department on a different floor, so it was a nice surprise when she poked her head into his office one day.

“Hi, Jack. How’s the new job?” she asked.

“Janice! Great! Loving every minute of it.”

“Good to hear,” she said. “Listen, I wonder if I could ask a favour.”

“Sure,” Jack replied. Janice came in and closed the door.

“I don’t know how else to say it, so I’ll just say it. I need a date.”

Jack was speechless. Janice continued, a little nervously. “It’s one of those family things. A cousin’s wedding. I’ve received an invitation for me and a guest. And the last time one of these things happened and I went by myself, I had to put up with all my nosy and pushy relatives asking me when I’d be getting married, and whether I had met So-and-so, whom they thought would be perfect for me, and so on. If I take a date, then I don’t get all those questions and hopefully, they’ll leave me alone.”

“But why me?”

“Why not you? You’re pleasant, can make small talk, and your looks won’t make small children run screaming from the room.”

Jack smiled. “That’s a bizarre compliment, but I’ll take it.”

“So will you go with me?”

Jack paused. He and Janice had never made more than small talk when they did meet, but she seemed to be the type of person to whom he might be attracted. And Janice was attractive, there was no doubt about that. He smiled. “Okay, sure, I’ll go.”

“Great!” Janice enthused.


The wedding was the kind of wedding Jack liked: a brief, but serious, ceremony; followed by a lengthy, raucous reception. Most of Janice’s relatives had sized Jack up and given Janice approving looks, though a few had insisted on longer conversations. One such was Aunt June, an elderly widow. After introductions, Aunt June boldly asked, “So, Janice, when will you and Jack have a day like this one?”

“Oh, Aunt June, we’ve only been seeing each other a little while. It’s too early to think about that.”

“But you’re not getting any younger, Jannie,” Aunt June pointed out. “And if you want to have children…” She trailed away, knowing that Janice could fill in the blank.

“We’ll discuss it, Aunt June,” Jack interjected. “We’ve got a lot to talk about still, and we can put that on the agenda.”

Aunt June smiled. “See, Jannie? Your young gentleman is interested. I hope to hear good news soon.” She winked and wandered off in the direction of the dessert table.

“’Jannie’?” Jack asked, when she was out of earshot.

“A name I’ve never liked, but one that Aunt June and a few others insist on,” Janice replied. “My turn. What was that ‘we’ll talk about it’?”

“A way to quiet Aunt June for the moment. She hears an answer that to her is suitable, so she doesn’t press the issue; but we know it means nothing.”

Janice smiled. “You sure you’re a researcher? You’re doing a good job of amateur psychology.”

“No psychologist me,” Jack said. “Just a boring old researcher at a boring old bank.”

Janice laughed. “I don’t know about the ‘boring’ part.” She stepped back, and looked at Jack. “And I’m not so sure about the ‘old’ part, either. Still young enough to take a spin around the dance floor?”

“I guess I could, if paramedics, oxygen, and a defibrillator are standing by,” Jack deadpanned.

“Oh, stop it,” Janice laughed, taking his hand and pulling him towards the dance floor. “Let’s go.”

    • -.

The wedding was the start of it. Janice, mostly undisturbed by nosy relatives, had had a great time; and in spite of being a complete stranger to everyone except Janice, so had Jack. It had been a long time since he had been to such a gathering; and even longer since he had been in the company of anybody like Janice. Who knew that the businesswoman with whom he made small talk in the elevator could be so much fun?

He took the plunge one day, and asked Janice out for a drink after work. To his delight, she accepted; and drinks that day had turned into dinner. It was there that they made plans for another evening out—she had theatre tickets—and so, a few weeks later, they had enjoyed a show, followed by a late supper. A daytrip to a quaint small town a couple of hours nearby was next, and they had spent a happy day having lunch in a Mom-and-Pop diner and poking around the shops on Main Street. Jack was enjoying getting to know Janice outside the office, and was discovering that buried within the corporate businesswoman in severe suits was a fun young lady who looked great in a pair of blue jeans.

Some time later, Jack had invited Janice over to his house for dinner. Dinner at each other’s places was something they had done a few times before, but this day was a pleasant spring day, and for the first time, Jack and Janice were having pre-dinner cocktails in Jack’s back yard. It was too early for plants to come up, but Janice was looking around anyway, having fun guessing at what might come up where. Eventually, she was close enough to the tree stump to take a good look at it.

“Jack, what’s this?” she asked. “A couple of coins hammered into a tree stump?”

“Supposed to be for luck,” Jack replied. “My buddy Phil, who helped me take down the tree last year, said it was supposed to be lucky to hammer a coin into a tree stump.”

“Was it?”

“Well, over the past year, I nearly electrocuted myself, I was late for work, and I didn’t win the lottery. But I also wasn’t in a car accident, I got a new job that I like, and I met you.”

Janice smiled. “I think I understand.” She paused. “Got a coin and a hammer?”

Jack looked puzzled. “You need some luck?”

“No,” Janice smiled. “But Aunt June does. Remember she wants to hear some good news coming out of something we said we’d talk about? Maybe we can send a bit of luck her way.”

Jack laughed. “Maybe we could, at that,” he said, reaching into his pocket for a coin.
[/spoiler]

Spoons

Now that all the stories have been posted, the poll has been established. Now we get the pleasure of reading, savouring and voting.

I’d like to open the floor up to commentary. This is one of the interesting things about these short fiction contests - the authors get to hear not just the opinions of fellow writers, but also the opinions of readers. Also, the commentary is what keeps the thread on everybody’s radar, and ultimately leads to more votes.

I’d also make the offer to the writers who did not complete or submit a story before the deadline - while your work won’t be included in the poll, I’d encourage you to submit any finished stories for publication in this thread. The commentary has been respectful, encouraging and positive in the past.

Meanwhile, please, enjoy reading!

While I enjoyed all the stories (and continue to be amazed at the wildly different directions these writing prompts take people), I have to say that I enjoyed T-shirt Junction the most. It had a definite urban fantasy feel to it, which is a favorite genre of mine, and it felt the most “complete” of all the stories. A few felt a little fragmentary, or unfinished. This one felt whole and complete, and was a joy to read.

I enjoyed T-Shirt Junction too. I just thought it was really well written and there was a certain attitude about it that I really liked.

I loved all the different takes on the same three words and picture.

Wow, 14 stories. That’s quite a turn out. There’s some good stuff from what I’ve read so far. I’m definitely looking forward to the (hopefully honest) criticism, too.

Here are just a few breif comments on what I’ve read.

“T-Shirt Junction” was really well written and enjoyable.
“Paying the Stump” featured a lot of good dialogue. I like that.
“Buona Fortuna!” was a lot of fun. I could imagine that being my family (except for the Italian part).

Well, last time I think voting started to take off when a few brave souls gave substantial criticism to the stories. While I don’t believe my criticisms are all that substantial, I think I’d like to go over all of the stories with a simple tally of the required elements, some sort of overall commentary and any hopefully constructive criticism I can think of.

In order to keep the thread from sinking too far down the front page, I think I’ll spread my comments out to two or three stories per post, and add a post a few times a day. Hopefully other readers will join in and we can make this latest contest as productive as possible for the writers and organizer!

I’ll start from the bottom, since we already have some comments on the top few stories.

As Luck Would Have It (post #15)
Use of mandatory words: All three are used in the story.
Use of theme photo: The wishing tree concept is used literally and without apparent supernatural aspect, and its use is integral to the plot.
Comments: This story plays subtly and effectively with our perceptions of good/bad luck, and with the question of how much of our fortune is driven by random timing and how much by our decisions and our habits.
Constructive Criticisms: Nice limited use of exposition, but I like how the dialogue and situations primarily drive the narrative.

Collecting a coin in time (post #14)
Use of mandatory words: Two are used in the story. I couldn’t find the word “album” or an analog for it in the story.
Use of theme photo: The concept of the wish tree is used literally and without any apparent supernatural aspect in the story. Its use is consequential within the story.
Comments: Nifty science fictional ideas of “entanglement” between out of sequence contact points, and use of androids as active proxies. (Is there a Connie Willis influence?)
Constructive Criticisms: The story reads rather breathlessly and awkwardly. The first could be helped simply through better use of punctuation, and by breaking up sentences and speech into terser bits. The author should avoid the use of compound sentences until he or she is more confident and fluid in their usage. The awkwardness stems from the scattering of incorrect verb tenses (e.g. “send” instead of “sent”), and the just-slightly-unusual use of prepositional phrases and idiomatic speech. (e.g. “on the nick of time” and “give myself in” should respectively be “in the nick…” and “turn myself in”).
The Judas Tree (post #13)
Use of mandatory words: All three are used in the story.
Use of theme photo: The wish tree is used as a literal concept, with rumored supernatural influence but great psychological influence on the protagonist. Its use is integral to the plot.
Comments: This short story explores the nature of malice and its consequences. Rather than showing a clear cause and effect chain from an evil act ending in some moral conclusion, the author focuses on the protagonist’s reactions, forcing us to consider the moral implications of malicious expression on a more personal level.
Constructive Criticisms: The error of starting the carved name with a “J” instead of a “C” was noted separately by the author, and creates an unintentional puzzle which sort of breaks the spell and takes the reader out of the story. I guess this shows the value of editing and proofreading. (Don’t feel alone; there’s something similar in mine.)
I’ll post more later.