Vote Now!! for your favourite story in the Feb. 2011 SDMB Short Fiction Contest Anthology Thread!

Hello, everyone, and welcome to the Anthology Thread of the SDMB Short Fiction Contest - Feb. 2011 Valentine’s Day Theme edition. A quick recap of the rules -

At 12 Midnight EST, Thursday, February 24th, 2011, I posted a link to a photo (found by random means) and also generated three words, again by random means, in an auto-reply message at sdmbpoetrysweatshop at gmail dot com. Writers still have until 10 PM EST Thursday, March 3rd, 2011 to write an original piece of short fiction on a Holiday theme, 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 24 hours left to any interested participants.

Writers - send your completed work to me, preferably in a .doc format, at sdmbpoetrysweatshop at gmail dot com before 10 PM EST on Thursday, March 3rd, 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. 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 EST, Thursday, March 3rd, 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.

To recap the compulsory material -

A Valentine’s Day Theme
The Photo

and the three words -


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 a reply sent by me - only one of these stories is mine.


Le Ministre de l’au-delà

When Ellie broke up with you three days before Valentine’s Day, she’d said that she was worried about you. You were, in her words, unstable, if not worse. She looked sad as she said it, a portrait in angst, but she meant it. You were through. Forever. In a teeth-gritting way, you were glad you hadn’t married her, because if she sincerely believed you were ill, she definitely wasn’t going to live up to the ‘in sickness and health’ clause of traditional wedding vows.

[spoiler]Maybe it wouldn’t have gone down that way if you hadn’t been so honest with her. Your mother drilled honesty in all things into your head, and even as an adult who should know better, you found yourself still desperate to live up to parental expectations. So, when you realized that you and Ellie had a deep connection, you told her. Initially she seemed flattered, but as you elaborated, you began to notice that fear was creeping into her eyes.

The break up hardly came as a surprise a few days later. But that didn’t mean it didn’t hurt. Having your heart ripped out and stomped on, no one gets past that without a whimper or two. Without waking up with the desire to scream when they realize it’s all real, not a nightmare that would soon dissolve away.

So, you learned two lessons. One: honesty is not the best policy. Two: when it comes right down to it, Ellie is a bitch. These two thoughts grappled in your mind like dogs fighting, and eventually you began to wonder if revenge was a better policy than honesty.

Revenge sat across from you as you sipped cold coffee and mechanically chewed toast that had been burned because you hadn’t wanted to leave the toaster on the setting Ellie had preferred before she walked out on you. And revenge put its arm around your shoulder when you stood in the bathroom and contemplated suicide. The ring that you slipped out of your pocket then, as you thought about it being smeared red, sparkled in the light from the open window. The stone scored well in all the qualities you were supposed to look for, clarity, cut, color, and caret. Sitting in the palm of your hand, it represented 200 hours of listening to people complain. Jared’s wouldn’t take it back, you’d asked. Begged. Ranted. Been asked to leave the store. Snapping the ring box shut, you walked away from the straight razor, the clock radio close to the bathtub, the bottles of pills Ellie left behind. They’d wait patiently, if it came to that.

If the ring couldn’t go back, and the hours it cost couldn’t be unlived, and you couldn’t unlive either, maybe you could perform alchemy instead. After you called into work, you hit the streets, looking for someone who could help you transform the ring into something different, something that you had more of a use for, considering you weren’t going to be asking Ellie to marry you on Valentine’s Day.

All the stores along the strip were dressed up like cheap whores, flashes of red everywhere you looked, and you could almost smell the cheap chocolate crammed into every one of them. It didn’t matter. Your head was full of 1929, and cheap paper hearts weren’t enough to lift your thoughts to the present. But even more, as you concentrated on the task at hand, you were able to ignore the thread that stretched out before you, leading back to Ellie.

It was the thread that had you thinking of revenge, of Lincoln Park, of Ellie…when she broke up with you, you assumed that the thread would snap, that cold and moiraeic, she’d take shears and cut through the fabric of a shared life. It wasn’t a literal lifeline, you knew, you were pretty sure, but you’d still worried that the severing would leave you lifeless. It hadn’t, and the thread hadn’t broken either.

No, instead the trailing light still spooled out in the distance, leading back to wherever Ellie had gone to be a her again instead of half an us. For a while you tried to convince yourself that Ellie was right, and you were becoming unhinged, but you’d followed it again, the day after the jewelry store incident. And there, at the end of the line, she’d been, morosely sipping coffee in Starbucks. How could you have known she’d be there, if the link between you wasn’t real? She wasn’t such a creature of habit that finding her was more inevitable than chance.

If she hadn’t immediately freaked out when you told her about the connection between you, it would have been nice to talk to her about what it all meant. Calmly, rationally, maybe the two of you could have gotten to the bottom of why you’d noticed, just a few weeks before, that a cord of light bound you both. You had your theories: maybe you were seeing beyond the weave of the world, and were noticing something that others couldn’t; maybe it was like those people who promised to read your fortune and tell you the color of your aura…that could be an interesting new line of work, better than hearing customers whine, but so far you only saw it between you and Ellie; maybe it was a brain tumor, and if it was, it was pretty low of her to dump you when you were defenseless.

Another time, the next night? it was getting hard to recall the passage of time, but the Valentine’s decorations everywhere still, not yet desperately proclaiming “50% off!” said it hadn’t been as long as it felt, you followed the thread again, and found yourself standing outside a motel room, looking in through the windows like a peeping Tom. Ellie had been in there, dressed in a white robe you didn’t remember, and she managed not to see you. It shouldn’t have surprised you, not considering that she’d packed up all her things and left your apartment looking like the scene of a half completed robbery, but in a way it had. You’d assumed that she’d turn to her sister, but she’d ended up there instead. You walked away, hoping she wouldn’t look out the window as you retreated.

She hadn’t been sobbing. Instead, she’d been reading, and she looked…content. Maybe if Ellie had looked wounded too, you might have relented, but for her to seem fine…Revenge slipped an arm through the crook of your elbow and walked you home.

In the end it was an idiot you’d found on Craigslist that helped you forward your plans. It was hard to imagine that the police wouldn’t have beat you to him after reading his ad, since it was unlikely that trading “anything” (and listing what that meant, which was the part you felt would interest the police) for a “good” ring was even legal, but he’d opened the door and welcomed you in, asking to see the ring before the draft from the winter crouching outside had even dissipated.

He’d jabbered about how much his girl was going to love the ring, but you weren’t really listening to that beyond wondering if she would. Instead you interrogated him about the list of “anything” he’d mentioned in the ad. No, you weren’t interested in the all-star hockey tickets, not the X-Box 360 setup, none of that. You wanted to know about the gun.

Oh, that, it was a beauty he claimed. Guns didn’t strike you as beautiful so much as utilitarian, but you let him talk about it anyway. He’d bought it at a gun show after one two many TV shows about FBI agents convinced him that owning a glock would be so cool…but he’d never gotten around to learning how to shoot at a firing range.

A smarter man might have asked why you wanted a gun, perhaps recalling that there were waiting periods to buy them, but he wasn’t that sort of guy. Instead he’d wrapped the gun up in a soft cloth bag, and handed it to you the moment the ring box dropped into his out stretched hand.

It was heavier in the pocket of your winter coat that you imagined it would be. LL Bean reinforced the pockets of their outerwear, so the weight wasn’t a problem, but it made the gun feel very real as you walked back past the tarted up stores. Eventually you passed a newspaper machine and read the date: those desperate signs would be going up bright and early the next morning. That bothered you: if someone passing by had asked the date, you would have thought it was the 13th still. That meant you’d found the craigslist idiot just in time.

Why it had to be Valentine’s wasn’t something you’d completely worked out in your mind, but it just seemed fitting. Asking Ellie to marry you that day was going to bring you together forever, but she’d wrecked that. She didn’t seem to know it, but you were still bound to her, and it was growing unbearable. The light between you hadn’t dimmed, not even a little, and it was beginning to frighten you. What if it meant Ellie was your soulmate? A soulmate who didn’t want you seemed like a special sort of hell, so you had to do the snipping yourself, and the gun seemed like the tool to get the job done.

You didn’t want her to suffer, so it was good that you were a decent shot. Your dad had taught you to shoot when you were small, first with air rifle almost as long as you were tall, and then with live ammo around the time he taught you to drive. Once, straight through the heart, and she’d barely feel it. You didn’t owe her much, but you did owe her that.
Waiting was the hard part. Joyful couples streamed the sidewalks, and you couldn’t find Ellie then. Well, you could find her at any moment, but it didn’t seem wise just then. So you waited, endured watching people kiss, walking by with roses tucked into the crooks of elbows, sharing a love you worried you’d never find again, not while you and Ellie retained an unwanted connection. By then you’d decided you didn’t want it either, not if she didn’t love you any more.

Eventually the crowds thinned as people went home to fuck. That’s when you got in your car and followed Ellie’s trail. A worry that following it by car would be hard crossed your mind, but it was no more distracting than GPS so you managed fine. To your surprise, you found yourself in the museum district. Dimly, you recalled hearing something about an Egyptian art exhibit, but you hadn’t realized Ellie was interested in that.

You weren’t so you barely noticed the art in the windows, samples meant to whet the art appetite, as you made your way to the windows outside the gift shop. Ellie was there, as you knew she would be. Her hand was about to touch a scarab beetle paperweight when something made her turn her head and look out.

Your fingers closed on the gun, ready to pull it out and end what lingered between you. You’d never fired on a living thing before, but this had to be considered self-defense the way she was making you suffer.

The light between you flared up as she continued to turn her head, as the gun came halfway out of your pocket. Her eyes met yours, and you said a little prayer, asking for forgiveness for what you were about to do.

And the cord snapped. There was a bright sparkle as the center was cut, and it quickly faded from both ends, racing back to you, to your centers. In seconds it was gone.

You jammed the gun into your pocket, turned, and walked away, leaving her to stare after you.

The End


Mom pulled the car up to the gate in the long chain link fence. After a moment, a man in a purple security uniform came out of the gatehouse. “Good afternoon, Miz. Do you have a pass?” he asked.

“Yes, of course, it’s right here.” Mom reached between the seats, and glared at me. I sighed and passed the card back to her, and she relayed it to the guard.

“Good afternoon,” the guard continued, sounding a bit more cheerful now. “You must be Christopher Sheldon?”

“Kit,” I insisted. “Everybody always calls me Kit.”

“All right, Kit. It looks like you’re going to be joining us for a little while.” He handed the pass back to Mom and went back into the gatehouse to let us through.

[spoiler]Mom shot a dirty look over at me. “You don’t have to be like that, honey. This could be a great opportunity for you.”

“Yeah, a really great opportunity,” I said. “I get to stay out here with all the other freaks, unless I’m chaperoned on a trip or get a holiday pass to go home.”

“Yes, an opportunity,” she insisted as she drove into the school grounds. “I know that you’re scared of being a Paranormal. But learning how to control these powers that you were born with, that’s a chance that nobody’s ever had until Paranormal schools like this one were built, and one that only a few people have now…”

“One in a hundred thousand,” I repeated. “I know the statistics for how many Paranormals there are in the city, mom. To me, all it means is how different I am from everybody else.”

“Well, Kit, maybe after a little while at school, you’ll learn to see that’s how special you really are.”

We had a few hours to get me settled into my new home, (no roommates, at least, though I’d be sharing a bathroom and kitchenette with four other guys,) and I hugged Mom goodbye before going down to my orientation session.

“Hey, Kit! Catch - no hands.” A stocky guy with a bristly beard tossed a softball my way.

It took nearly a second before I really understood what he’d said, and then reached out with my mind, but it was no good. The ball whacked me in the cheek, and nearly knocked my glasses off. “Ow, hey!”

“Sorry. You’ll have to work on your reaction time, and we’ll have to see if you can get any more telekinetic oomph than that. But you slowed it down, changed its course. I could see that. If you’d tried to divert it to the side with the same amount of force, it’d have missed you.”

“Yay for me. Who’re you?”

“Oh, right. Call me Mister Wilkinson - I’m your faculty advisor, for orientation. We might transfer you after we’ve finished your assessment. So, why don’t we sit down?” He gestured over to a table. “I promise that I won’t throw anything at you for the rest of the session, if you’ll tell me about how you initially manifested as a Paranormal.”

“Okay.” I took the seat closer to the door, and opened up a can of diet Coke. “It wasn’t anything, really. I gave a few guys from the offensive line attitude, back at my old school. They started giving me a hard time in their own, more physical way. I was feeling really frustrated and helpless, and then - well, Jet Li showed up and started to trash-talk them.”

Wilkinson actually smiled. “Did Jet actually kick any ass himself?”

“No - actually, the biggest and stupidest guy on the team tried to tackle Jet, and well, I guess it was like he turned into a rainbow.”

“Yeah, okay, I know what you mean now. He was an illusion, that you’d projected out of light energy.”

“Whatever you say. At least that bought me enough time that I could start running. But the story spread, and eventually one of your Paranormal flunkies showed up to test my skull. But I’ve never been able to do anything like that since.”

“Well, you did slow down the softball. That’s the way it is for a lot of Paranormals - we use our abilities first because of a really primal motivation, and it’s hard to learn to do it deliberately. We can try with something small for today, though - project something small, between us, here above the table. A neon sign, maybe.”

I concentrated, imagining the words ‘Bite me’ in bright green. But there was nothing. “Dammit, I can’t.”

“Okay, well, maybe I’ll be able to give you a different kind of motivation tomorrow.”

I stormed back to my room, locked the door, and tried to sob into my pillow as quietly as I could. I was homesick and missed my family, and I just couldn’t see the prospect of being stuck at this school until I learned how to make neon signs on cue as an opportunity.

The next morning, after showering and breakfast, (which was actually really good, pancakes and bacon and everything,) I followed Wilkinson down to a beautiful veranda on the side of the main school building. There were solid stone pillars and arches holding the roof up, and a bicycle rack next to one of the pillars. The veranda looked out onto a flat field.

There was also somebody else waiting for us there - a short girl wearing a black T-shirt with the school logo on it, and baggy jeans. Her hair was light brown and lanky, and she smiled nervously when she saw Wilkinson.

“Hello, Beth,” Wilkinson told the girl. “This is Kit, and it looks as if he’s got what it takes to be a light artist like you, except he’s still having some trouble getting the hang of it.”

Beth’s smile got less nervous. “Oh, okay Mister Wilkinson. You thought that he might be able to figure things out better if he was trying to keep up with me?”

“Maybe.” Wilkinson chuckled. “Why don’t we give that a try?”

Beth chuckled, and then snapped her fingers in the air. A blue pattern of light appeared, floating in the air between us, like a rectangle, with an overlapping square below it and a few other glowing lines within the two shapes. It reminded me a bit of a stylized icon for a television set, but aside from that there was something that was bugging me about the picture.

And she’d done it so easily, just like I’d tried to to the sign yesterday. I reached out to snap my fingers and create a rainbow, just like Beth had done it, except it didn’t work for me. I don’t just mean no rainbow, I mean no snapping sound. That was another thing that I’d never quite gotten the hang of, though I can snap my fingers every now and then. Just like projecting light, I guess, I haven’t learned to do it on cue yet.

Wilkinson rolled his eyes. “Sorry, but I guess this might be a long day.”

It felt about a month long to me.

I didn’t have to spend the whole day out on the veranda with Beth, trying to keep up with all the incredible light patterns that she could create effortlessly, at least. There were meal breaks in the dining hall with the other Paranormal students, and time outs in the library for me to study the history of the Paranormal discovery, and what scientific results had been made on the source of their abilities.

I did manage to create one light-show of my own, an impressive burst of fireworks in green and yellow sparks, but that was only after both Wilkinson and Beth started to taunt me in unison, and had gotten me nearly as upset as the football players did that first time. When I couldn’t repeat the same performance after they stopped jeering, even Wilkinson had to admit that that wasn’t the best way of teaching me how to get my powers under control.

I fell asleep without crying, though I still felt just as lost and unhappy in this stupid place, and struggled out of bed again in the darkness when somebody kept knocking and knocking on my door. “Yeah, just a moment,” I growled, throwing on the bathrobe and slippers that Mom had packed, and then threw open the door.

There was a girl standing there, and it took me a moment to recognize Beth, as she looked different from the girl that I’d met out on the veranda in a lot of little ways. Her hair was up in a ponytail, and she was wearing glasses of her own, along with a black Firefly t-shirt that almost reached to her knees, and bright red leggings. “What is it, Beth?” I asked.

“Come with me,” she said. “I think I know one thing that might help you get in touch with your inner light. I’m not sure if it’ll work, but I want to try it.”

“Why didn’t you suggest it yesterday?” I grumbled. “Or wait for today’s session, if it’s something that you just thought of in the night. I’m sure that Wilkinson will have us both at it bright and early after breakfast.”

“This isn’t something that I could ever try in front of Wilkinson, or anybody but you,” she muttered. “Just come on.”

“What, in my bathrobe?”

“Hey, if Doctor Who can save the world in a bathrobe, it’s good enough for you,” she muttered, and who could argue with that? I grabbed the key I’d been given, locked up, and stuck it in a robe pocket, then followed Beth back down to the veranda.

“Okay.” She stood directly in front of me, well inside my personal space, looking up into my face. “Close your eyes.”

I shrugged and did what she said. “Bend your knees, a little more, okay.” Once I had flexed enough, I felt two slender arms wrapping around my shoulders, and then Beth’s lips were pressed against me. I saw fireworks again, without opening my eyes.

“Wow, okay,” I muttered, pulling my head away just far enough so that I could get a good look at Beth, but smiling. “Was this whole thing just about sneaking away for a kiss, and not about my projector talent? I haven’t forgotten that it’s the fourteenth, now.”

Beth giggled cutely. I hadn’t been looking at her as a prospect until now, partly because the last thing on my mind since I got to the school had been romance, but she definitely had the girl-next-door sweetheart thing going for her, and apparently she liked me too, which had never really happened before.

“Not quite,” she told me. “The thing is, for me, the trigger to projecting light has never been self-defense, or anger, or pride or anything like that. I - I made my first show for a boy I liked up north, but he was scared of what I could do, and ran. But even though that didn’t work out, for me it’s always been passion, or love, that lets me perform. I’ve never been as on top of my game as I was yesterday, just from seeing you. Do you want to try something now?”

I smiled, grabbed one of Beth’s hands with my own, and waved with the other. A rush of orange-yellow lines erupted out of nowhere and zoomed off in a varying curve, like the trail of an imaginary spirit playing some crazy game.

Beth grinned, and snapped her fingers. A double trail of blue-white seemed to dance in the air as it followed my orange rush. Another snap, and one of her floating televisions appeared off to the side, and I realized one of the things that had been nagging at me about it. Some of the pattern of lines was forming the image of a Valentine’s heart.

I laughed, made a Valentine’s heart television of my own, and kissed Beth again.



I’m waiting for Mary in the cafe by the piazza. Her last text said she would be here, but that was early this morning and her work with the embassy makes her prone to sudden emergencies.

There's something really galling about sitting alone in a cafe on Valentine's Day.  My waiter recognized me from our filming of the last six weeks and happily gave me a table but every time he passed and my companion had not shown up, he looked at me as if he expected me to start sobbing into my wine on the spot.  I was calm - she would show, or she would not.  In the meantime, I thought back to when Mary and I had first met in Grade 11.  

[spoiler] It had been 1970. My dad was doing work with a geological survey of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan as part of his doctoral thesis. His supervisor hoped to prove or disprove some theory about the time line of the formation of the Great Lakes, and so, we all left Montréal and settled in this tiny town of 3,000.

'The huge kid with the funny accent' was actually the best of the things I got called.  This was a town where you were either a jock or a loser but I found whole new ways of not fitting with my fellow students.  The idea that I chose not to fight, that I could get straight 'A's with little effort and couldn't give a toss about team sports made me as alien as if I had three arms and pointy ears.

Never mind - having been the sole francophone in our Westmount neighbourhood had long prepared me for being a bit of a loner, and I took my year's exile in stride.   Solitary walks and motorcycle rides became the norm for me.

Mary was the cop's daughter, and by far the most beautiful and intelligent girl in town.  Much to the dismay of the farm boy football gang, I wasn't intimidated by her father and found her fascinating.  I also wasn't scared of them, as they found out when one of them tried to jump me and found himself face down in the dirt with me sitting on him.  I patiently explained to him that I would leave him and his friends alone if they would leave me alone.  As to Mary, it was her decision to whom she spoke, and if they wanted to get anywhere with her, respect would seem to be the key.  The word was spread, and I was left to a grudging, distrustful peace.

This was the winter that my love of practical chemistry began.  Initially, the science teacher at that school showed me some of the more exciting exothermic reactions at his disposal, and when I expressed my interest, he recommended some further reading.  

Fireworks - I couldn't get enough about how they worked, and what went into the design. By spring, I could have sat for the exams for my Pyrotechnics license, except that I was still too young.  It was the start of a lifetime's obsession.

When I first discovered the disused quarry, I knew I had found the ideal lab for my efforts.  It was out of the way and, being a deep lake surrounded by steep rock, perfect in terms of fire safety.  I had no access to the modern electronic ignition systems - instead, I had to make do with old-fashioned slow match/quick match fuses to set off combinations.  It was great in terms of learning how to mix and time effects, because each combination took such an effort in measuring and laying out the line.  

In early June, I planned out a masterpiece - 60 fireworks, a mix of homemade and store bought, lit from 3 fuses.  I spent most of the morning and afternoon of that unseasonably hot day planting and fusing the various combinations all around the quarry lake.  It had been exhausting, but exhilarating at the same time.  By five, it was done.  I roared home for supper, planning to return at dusk to set it all off.

When I got back, I was impatient.  I killed the motor, did the quickest sprint possible around the lake and decided it was ready and safe.  I had just lit the first line and was bending down to pick up the second when I heard a splash.  After all these months, I had come to think of the quarry as being mine, but of course, the local kids would have known about it.  That water was still freezing, but it had been sweltering in the upper 90s all day, and somebody had decided to take a twilight swim.  I didn't think for a second - I stripped off and dove in.  The line I had lit should be setting off 20 fireworks over the next five minutes, and even at the water line, that swimmer was in danger.

It was Mary.  I hit the water about ten feet away from her, and as I opened my mouth to speak, the first three roman candles went off. "Dive!" I yelled and we both went under. 

We spent the next few minutes surfacing only to catch a breath, and then submerging again.  Sure enough, some of the bursts went off just above the water.  The sight of the fireworks through the rippling of the water was astonishing - the purple sky rippled by the water made it pure magic.  After the last of them went off, we surfaced.

"What was that about?" she screamed at me.

"I've been working on fireworks the last couple of months."  I explained.  "I'm sorry, I wasn't expecting anyone up here." I realized that I was trying to make casual conversation with a naked girl who had just wandered into a firestorm.  "Are you alright?" I asked, rather lamely.

"Just shut up and get out of here!" she cried.  "Get back up there, and don't let me catch you looking at me when I get out!" 

I started climbing my way out - not so easy in the dark.  It was about ten minutes before I reached the edge and started walking to where I had started the first fuses.  By the time I got my clothes on, she was already out, dried, dressed and walking over to me.

As she reached me, I said "I have two more lines to light - would you like to see them?"  She just stared at me for a minute, and I was about to ask her again when she said "You are unbelievable, do you know that?"

I didn't know how to deal with her anger, so I did the only thing I could think of - I lit the fuse, setting off another 40 fireworks that had been carefully timed out with the first string.  The rhythm would be off, but I hoped she would at least see the effect I'd been after.  By now, it was quite dark and I walked over and sat near the quarry's edge.  After the first couple went off, she came over and joined me.  

My own fireworks were still uneven - nothing was a dud and nothing had been grossly over-loaded, but you could still spot which were store-bought and which were home-made.  When she shivered, I shifted a little closer, only to have her move away.  I thought she was going to stomp off, but then a Catherine wheel went off, and she stopped to stare at its reflection in the water.  

When the last firework had gone off, we sat in silence for a moment.  I could sense she was still angry, but I couldn't understand why.  I was feeling stupidly proud of myself for having designed and pulled off my first fireworks show, and I didn't get why my unexpected audience wasn't telling me how impressed she was.  

"How did you get up here?  And how are you going to get back?"  I asked  "I could give you a ride"

"I hiked up from Johnsons' Field." she snapped "I should have walked back about an hour ago, but now I'd better take a ride with you.  Just don't get any ideas - my father's going to be furious as it is."

As if that was his cue, I saw the headlights before I heard the engine of his squad car.  He'd received a couple of calls about the noise and the lights from the quarry, and had come to investigate.  "I'm not interested in a God-damn thing you have to say, Frenchie." was what he snarled as I tried to explain.  "I'm taking the keys to this motorcycle, and I'm taking Mary home.  You can walk back to town from here.  If you want to see your wheels again, you come to the police station tomorrow morning, and I'll see if there's anything I'm going to charge you with."

I wasn't charged, I got my bike back, we left town that July and despite my trying, Mary wouldn't speak to me.  I wrote to her constantly from Montreal, but she never wrote back.  I couldn't tell if she was ignoring my letters, or just not getting them.  After a couple of years, I gave up.
Fast forward a few decades - after my first Oscar nomination for Special Effects, Mary got a hold of me through my producers.  As I'd suspected, her father had torn up my letters.  She was now an attaché the US Embassy in France - she wouldn't go into details beyond that.  Most important, she wanted to pick up where we left off and so did I.  After a couple of years of e-mail and text, I felt like I now knew her better than anyone else on the planet.  When I found out I would be in France for a film shoot for six weeks, I invited her down to come see me, and she agreed.  It turned out she would be here for Valentine's Day - I started to plan something special.

Since that time in the quarry, I had been obsessed by two things in my work - safety and distance.  How to put the viewers  in the middle of a detonation while keeping them safe. Tonight, unbeknownst to the people of the town, I was going to try out an entirely new effect.  I had imagined the same sudden movements of air and light, only using bio-luminescence and LED technology.  The piazza was wired all over with helium balloons and regular balloons with LED nets that would release

and blow randomly through the square. Some of the balloons would fill from three separate canisters, so that the helium would float the balloon while the other two mixed to form a giant, floating glow stick. There were hearts made from metal foils that would seem to incandesce. When you own one of the largest and most successful Hollywood FX companies, you have the freedom to create romantic gestures which are over the top.

I needed to show her that I loved her, that she inspired me, that I now understood her anger at our last meeting.  

As the night wore down, I had finished my wine, my meal, my dessert and my coffee.  The rest of the cafe had shut down, the patrons moving on to celebrate the rest of Valentine's Day in a club or at home.  I was the last person sitting among the upturned chairs when I heard her coming from the other side of the piazza.  

She was still beautiful, and she was still brilliant.  "I'm sorry I'm late; we had a situation." was all she said as she sat.  

"That's alright; I've been waiting." was all I said as I pushed the button.  As the piazza began to light up with glowing, flying objects, I reached for her hand and said "For you I'll wait as long as I have to."


Le Ministre de l’au-delà

“Perhaps the reason why poor and less educated people have more love and kids is because more educated people are full of doubts and less educated people are more certain.” said Bill to his suffering little brother.

“How is that supposed to help?” David said.
“She just send me a note telling me that she is dumping me because we live too far away from each other, and just before I could send her the animated valentine I made myself, not the usual tacky animated ones one usually gets”

“What I mean is that there were a lot of problems with either of you moving, Lots of uncertain things”, Bill continued with more concern on his voice. “and just because one has more doubts it does not mean that they are unjustified.”

[spoiler]“Uh huh. Well, I imagine that our older brother had it right marrying younger” with a heavy sigh David continued: “what is sad is that I fell for her smarts first and not her looks. That I found out later that she was a peach was a bonus.”

“Well, will you continue with dating online or will you finally take a look at the match our parents are setting you up?”

This was a very sore item for David, now in his mid 30’s, even his family was getting worried he was never going to get married or that he was gay. Initially, this idea of looking at an arranged marriage was too old fashioned to be considered; however, even an arranged marriage was beginning to creep into his “maybe” columns.

At least it was not an imposed match, he thought. “We are still talking about Maria in the old country Bill? Sure, I met her and her family before in our last trip to our old place, but in America things like that do not happen.”

“Then again, people like you do not usually happen, you have a job, you still have a good future ahead; however, you already look like a settled down person with no one to share that state of affairs. And the reason I think that is so, is that you get stuck with your old “now it is not the right time to marry””

“Oh please, getting married is easy for me, and you know it, I could go right now to the old country and several girls would jump at the chance to get an American citizenship and live in better conditions, what happens is that I do not want to do it because I know that I would be getting a girl that is more interested in other things rather than love”

“And that is just being a romantic, and a romantic that is getting… old. I guess you could get lucky and a huntress will get you someday”

The next day David continued working with a program module for a new computer control camera developed at his company, he was reflecting on what Bill told him the other day, when he was checking his email.

There was a note from their parents on the top of the list reminding him of his visit to his old house, and his match-making meeting. Then a note from Maria telling him how she loved his parents and helped them in the old country. Then a note from Diana… “Uh?”

She worked at the quality control department and testing, and wanted to discuss the project with him during lunch, and she was inviting. That was odd, David thought, he had invited her to lunch before many times before but he had always paid, she was a good friend, but he had never asked out yet. “Never mind the reason,” He thought” I will ask her for a date when we finish lunch” he told himself.

There was a small cafe just a block from the workplace, David was siting down nervously waiting and thinking how to properly ask her out. She came in looking voluptuous, some would say that she was a little bit chubby, but David had no dislike for rubenesque beauties, specially when they showed great intellect. In the case of Diana, David became interested on her because she mentioned in a meeting some obscure scientific subject that he was aware of. His brother just thought that it was because David had a thing for girls with glasses.

“Hello David” Diana mentioned while sitting down, “have you ordered already?”

“I…” he looked at her nervously “I was waiting for you, and I have to make clear that I want to pay for our meals.”

“Oh, that is sweet of you, but I already told you first. I’m inviting”.

After ordering the food:

“So to what do you want to discuss about the project Diana?”

“I looked at your code and I noticed that you are doing a great job, and I want to talk about your coming vacation, we are close to completing the virtual camera for the 3D world, and the computer module that simulates streaks of light is not finished yet, I was wondering if you can help the group working on that before you leave.”

“Is that like what a famous artist did using a tiny light in front of camera with low shutter speed? I think I saw once a picture of that, but I’m trying to remember who was the artist that used that in the 1940’s…mmm”

“I believe you are thinking of what Picasso did in 1949 for a LIFE magazine photographer.”

‘Marry me!’ David thought, but that is not what it came out of him. His face was betraying his modesty by getting red. What he actually blurted was “I… I… “ the phone ringed and a picture of Maria appeared as the one making the call, and David blurted: “I’m getting hitched in the old country!..” ‘crap!’, he thought as he looked up with shame to Diana.

Diana looked directly at him, batting her eyelashes and looking confident, “Too late… ,I already know why you are going, I got the info from your brother. We are still friends and he tells me lots of stuff about you, so, how are the tourist attractions in your old country? Anything good to see there?

A few days later, on February 14, David visited old friends and family in the morning before going to an archaeological dig outside the capitol city of the old country, he was dusting a piece of a carved stone under the instructions of the head archaeologist when his cell phone rang and behind him a familiar voice said:

“Darling. can you stop for a moment and get your call?”

David had a chat then with his parents, they reported a few sobs from Maria, but that she understood the situation, after the call he turned to Diana and said while giving her a rose: “You know what day is today huh?”

“I know, it’s Valentine’s day, I do think it is mostly a commercial holiday, did you know that historically speaking there were no reported romantic things that Saint Valentine did?”

The same look in his face and emotions as he had in the cafe came to him again, and this time he did not think about it, he just said it.

“Diana, will you marry me?”

“Ha! Too late… I already asked you first, you can not change history, I was the one who proposed and you already said yes. I know that in this old country of yours that it would be shameful for macho guys like you to be the ones being proposed to, but just to make you happy, I will not mention it.”

Swooning, David softly responded “Never change, dear…”


“Imagine there’s no heaven. It’s easy if you try.” Phil said.

Leslie smiled and supplied the second line of the couplet: “No hell below us; above us, only sky.”

Phil looked up. “No sky here—just a ceiling.”

Leslie laughed. “Then we’ll imagine there’s a sky. Full of stars.”

Two weeks ago, Leslie had no idea that she would be sitting in a terrace cafe in Rome. By all accounts, she should be back in Toronto, doing her job (“Good morning, Field and Turner, how may I help you? One moment, please”), and going home to the apartment that she shared with her cat, Arthur. Dinner would be something microwaved; and instead of the wine she was enjoying right now, it would be a Diet Coke. Maybe two, if she was feeling particularly adventurous.

[spoiler]But ten days ago, Phil had come into the office for an appointment with Ms. Turner, whose previous meeting was running over; and while he waited, he had struck up a conversation with Leslie, and he had (rather impetuously, she thought) asked her to accompany her to Rome, and she had (rather impetuously, she knew) said yes. And now, they were in Rome.

Why Phil—a high-powered, well-dressed businessman, of about her age—wanted to go out with her, she didn’t know. She didn’t believe there was anything special about herself, and she wondered why he hadn’t asked her to dinner or a movie first, but instead, to spend a few days in Rome with him. And he had been enough of a gentleman that he hadn’t expected anything; he had arranged for Leslie to have her own hotel room.

A couple of children ran by their table, laughing and waving some sort of lightstick. A man was selling them in the square, and the kids were having fun watching the patterns of light in the darkness.

“We used to do that with sparklers when I was a kid,” Phil mused. “You know, make shapes, and write our names, and such.”

“We did too,” Leslie agreed absently. “It was fun.”

Phil looked at her. “You’re thinking about something else,” he ventured.

It was phrased as a statement, but it was really more of a question. Leslie hesitated, then answered, “I’m wondering why I’m here.”

“I’m wondering why too,” Phil said. Seeing a look of dismay cross Leslie’s face, he quickly continued, “Oh, no. What I mean is, that day in the office, I was just having a little fun. You know, ‘I’ve gotta go to Rome on business and I’d love a companion,’ that sort of thing. I didn’t expect you to say yes.”

“But I did.”

“Yes, you did; and I thought it was only right that once I had extended the offer, and you had accepted it, that I follow through. You get a vacation, a few days in Rome; while I attend to business. And I get somebody to enjoy dinner with, and to talk with, and if I can find a little time, we can do some sightseeing.”


“You thought there was something more?”

Leslie was silent. Phil’s expression showed he realized his gaffe.

“If you like, I can arrange to have you go home tomorrow. You don’t have to stay, if you don’t want to.”

“No, I’ll stay until we leave. I’ve never been to Rome before.” Leslie stood up. “But please excuse me—I think it’s the jet lag; I’m tired, and I want to get some sleep.

“Breakfast tomorrow?” Phil asked.

Leslie managed a weak smile. “Breakfast tomorrow,” she agreed.

Back in her room, Leslie fought back the tears, but finally gave up and gave way to sobs. It was all a joke! Something to brighten the day. True, Phil had been enough of a gentleman to follow through when many wouldn’t, but it was still another in a long series of disappointments. High school dances, college parties, singles bars; most evenings had ended with Leslie being tolerated at best, and ignored at worst. Some incidents had been downright cruel, such as the frat party at college where, it was revealed, the fratboy who brought the most unattractive girl won a prize of some sort. It was small comfort that the boy who had invited Leslie didn’t win the prize, but it was cruel nonetheless.

And now this. “Well,” Leslie thought to herself, “if Phil is giving me a vacation, then a vacation I shall have.” She reached for the tourist guide that the hotel thoughtfully provided in the guest rooms.

The next day, Leslie had composed herself enough to meet Phil for breakfast. They made polite small talk—the weather, the attractions of Rome, and so on. Leslie planned on taking a bus tour of Rome while Phil was at the office; and maybe tomorrow, she would go to see the art in the Vatican. They would meet for dinner, and perhaps a drink; and the day after tomorrow, it was back home.

After her vacation, Leslie never planned on ever having anything to do with Phil again, but that proved to be difficult. He did business with her employer, and would telephone for appointments, always saying hello to Leslie; and worse, would show up for them, again, saying hello to Leslie, and sometimes conversing while waiting until Ms. Turner could see him. Initially, she greeted him coldly, and rebuffed his attempts at conversation with one-word answers, but he persisted and Leslie learned a few things about him.

He was divorced. His marriage had been brief, lasting only a couple of years, before he and his ex decided that no matter how much it had seemed otherwise one weekend in Las Vegas, they weren’t really meant for each other. It was just as well they had never had any children. His business kept him busy, but when he could, he liked to work in his garden. It wasn’t always easy, with the amount of business travel he did, but somehow he managed to grow roses he could be proud of. And had a dog, Dudley, who loved to go for walks and to romp and play with other dogs in the local off-leash park.

That revelation struck a chord with Leslie. How many lonely evenings had she spent playing with Arthur, throwing a toy mouse for him to run after, or watching as he batted at the string she dangled in front of him? Arthur kept her company through many such times—was it possible that Dudley did the same for Phil? He never mentioned anything where he might be in the company of a lady—no dinners or shows or social events; outside of his business, there was only talk of gardening and Dudley.

Perhaps because there was no talk of Phil’s social life, Leslie eventually found herself conversing with Phil too. He learned about Arthur, and her fondness for Diet Coke; and how she enjoyed growing geraniums on her apartment balcony. She had never been married, and liked her job, but wished she had a better-paying one. “I answer all the calls, but they’re never for me,” she laughed one day.

And so, one day, the phone rang. “Good morning, Field and Turner, how may I help you?”

“Good morning, Leslie; it’s Phil.”

“Phil! Yes, I’ll put you through to Ms. Turner right away.”

“No, I want to talk to you.”

Leslie paused. “Me?”

“Yes. Well, you always say that you answer the calls, but they’re never for you. So, this one’s for you. I’d like to know if you’re free for dinner tomorrow.”


“How about Angelo’s after work? We’ll have a cocktail in the bar, then some dinner.”


“Nice Italian place. You like Italian?” Leslie heard Phil chuckling. “Silly question—of course you do; you’ve been to Rome. I’ll be by to pick you up at five. See you then!” And the call clicked off as Phil hung up.

Stunned, Leslie just sat there looking at her switchboard.

Phil was as good as his word—he came by at five the next day, which didn’t surprise Leslie. After all, he had already made good on his word to take her to Rome, even though it was a joke. She hoped this also wasn’t a joke, and just in case it wasn’t, she had done her best to look nice for Phil. But if it was, she made sure that she had the number of a cab company plugged into her cellphone, and cab fare.

But things seemed to be going well, and they had made polite small talk in Phil’s car on the way to Angelo’s. He spoke about how Dudley had enjoyed playing in the snow on the weekend; and she mentioned the trouble Arthur had got into when he became a little too curious about the tuna-fish sandwich she made one day. The two were laughing about their respective pets when they entered Angelo’s.

Soon, they were seated in the bar, and had ordered cocktails. When the waiter came with the drinks, he had a rose, which he gave to Leslie. “Every lady gets a rose at Angelo’s on Valentine’s Day,” he explained.

Phil smiled. “I would have given you one of my own, but they just don’t grow in my garden in winter.”

Leslie looked at the rose. She had forgotten this was Valentine’s Day. And here she was, with a man who had asked her out—for Valentine’s Day. While she was pleased to have been asked out on such a day, she was also a little confused. Was this going to be another joke?

Phil leaned forward. “Leslie, just in case you’re wondering, I really did want to go out with you tonight.”

He continued. “Rome was hasty. Rome was a bad experience. I played a joke and it backfired on me, and it upset you. To be honest, I didn’t feel good about it. I still don’t.”

Leslie looked at Phil, who cleared his throat and went on.

“Um … yes. But I’ve been hoping you can look past that. One of the things I’ve enjoyed about our conversations in the lobby is that you are just so wonderfully ordinary, and I hope you don’t take that the wrong way.”

Now, Leslie was totally confused, and her face showed it. Phil understood.

“Leslie, as you know, I move in some high-powered business circles. I wheel, I deal, I talk with bigwigs, and I make money for people. But while you see a well-dressed and confident businessman, what you may not see is the ordinary man. Who likes nothing more than to play with his dog, and grow roses; and—“ Phil cleared his throat again “—who really isn’t the person that you see. And who has been lonely for some years.”

Leslie remained silent. This was a side of Phil she didn’t know.

“In you, I see somebody I’d like to know better. I want to meet Arthur some day; I’d like to show you my roses. I’d like to see your geraniums, I’d like to—oh, I don’t know; order pizza and watch an old movie with you some night. I’d like you to come with Dudley and me to the park. I’d like to get to know you, and for you to get to know me.”

Phil now looked lost, and out of his depth, but he went on. “I guess what I’m saying is, that Rome was a mistake, and I apologize. Leslie, can we start again, please?” He paused. “Imagine that Rome never happened—“

“Imagine there’s no heaven,” Leslie interrupted. “It’s easy if you try.”

Phil picked up the reference. “No hell below us; above us, only sky.”

Leslie looked up. “But there’s a ceiling above us.”

“We’ll imagine it’s full of stars.”

Leslie smiled as she reached for Phil’s hand. “Starting over? I think we can manage that,” she said, as she gave it a squeeze.



Nicole fumbled nervously for her keys as she sprinted from the grocery store to
her car, rain drenching both her and the bags of groceries she was carrying. Had she
been paying attention to what she was doing, she would have taken her keys out of her
purse before leaving the store and saved herself several seconds of being in this
downpour. But her thoughts had been elsewhere, as they had been all day – namely, with planning the perfect Valentine’s Day for Robert. This one would be their tenth
Valentine’s Day as a married couple, and Nicole wanted to make it a day he would never
forget. She had planned everything down to the last detail, from picking out the perfect
present to finding a fantastic recipe to cook him his favorite meal. Now, with this freak
thunderstorm causing slow-and-go traffic all over town, she was worried he would beat
her home and that she wouldn’t have time to set everything up.

[spoiler]Having finally found her wayward keys, Nicole got into her car, tossed the
groceries in the back seat and took off out of the parking lot. She looked at the clock on
the radio – 5:22. In about one hour Robert would get home from work, and she
absolutely had to have everything ready by then. She didn’t want to half-ass any of this,
especially after dropping nearly $1200 on his brand new watch. She glanced over to the
passenger seat to see the jewelry store bag still sitting where she had left it and beamed
with pride at picking out a gift she knew her husband would cherish. She had spent her
lunch hour showing it off to all her co-workers as they ate their lunches outside on what
had been an unseasonably warm February day.

And now, just five hours later, the skies were black and she could barely see the
road in front of her. Just the thought of the weather screwing up her plans for the day
made her nervous, and she clutched the wheel tighter and took in a deep breath, hoping to
calm herself down. She glanced at her rearview mirror as a flash of lightning illuminated
the sky and everything around her. Was that Robert’s Jeep she saw a few car lengths
behind her? No…no, it couldn’t be him. He never leaves work early, she thought. She
decided it was just her anxious mind playing tricks on her, and she turned her attention
back to the road in front of her. But try as she might to concentrate on driving, she
couldn’t keep her thoughts off of her husband.

He had been so sweet to her lately, so extra nice. That’s another reason why she
wanted to do something special for him this Valentine’s Day. He had always been good
to her, but for the past few months he had been like a new man. He seemed like he had
a new spring in his step and a whole new outlook on life. Briefly, she had entertained
the idea that he might have another woman in his life, but she had quickly banished
that thought from her mind. Robert was a kind, good-hearted man, and she could never
imagine him doing anything like that. Alone in her car, she smiled at the thought of her
amazing husband and at the wonderful evening they would soon share.

Arriving home at 5:45, she parked in the driveway, gathered up all her bags, and

ran into the house. This time she did think ahead and had the front door key out and
ready to go. This must be her lucky day, she thought, because she made it home just in
time to get the dinner started, change out of her wet clothes, and wrap Robert’s present.
She walked in, set the bags down on the kitchen counter, and dried herself off with a
dishtowel as she began unpacking the groceries. But before she finished emptying all the
bags, she glanced over at the table in the dining nook where something caught her eye. It
was a little red envelope that had definitely not been there when she had left for work that
morning. For a brief moment, chills ran down her spine. Where did this envelope come
from? Could Robert have sneaked this back into the house? She failed to see how. He
left before she did that morning, and he never has time to come home during his lunch

Walking over to the table, she looked down at the card with a bit of relief. It
was definitely Robert’s handwriting. Suddenly she wondered if he was in the house
somewhere, waiting to surprise her with something special. This thought made her
smile and hug herself, and she eagerly opened the envelope to find a nice, handwritten
card inside. Still smiling, she began reading the scrawling text within the card. As
she read on, her smile began to fade. Soon, the expression on her face became one of
bewilderment, then of utter confusion, and finally, a look of abject horror.

Robert kissed Nicole goodbye and headed out the front door. Pulling away from
the curb, he turned left at the next street, backed into an alley and waited. He knew it
would be about 20 minutes until he would see Nicole’s car driving down their road, on
her way to work. He sat in his Jeep, knowing he was obscured from view, and called his
boss to request a sick day. He then turned his attention back to the road and waited for
Nicole’s car to pass. Exactly 23 minutes later, it did. He waited another half hour just to
be safe and then pulled out of the alley and drove back to his house.

Inside, he placed the carefully constructed card where he knew she would find it
(and more importantly, where he would be able to watch from outside), took a pop from
the fridge, and headed back out the door. He knew he didn’t have much to do for the
next few hours, so he just parked down the road from Nicole’s workplace, drank the can
of pop, and sat, deep in thought.

He had known all about Nicole’s secret life for years now – all her affairs, her
one-night stands, her “business trips” out of town. She played the sweet and innocent
wife so well that he initially refused to believe any of it. But as he uncovered more and
more evidence against her, he finally gave in and let his mind absorb the truth. She had
slept with at least 15 other men that he knew of, and that was just going back over the last
three years of their marriage. He was sure that if he dug any further back that he would
uncover even more infidelity, but there was no need at this point.

At noon, he watched her eat her lunch outside, all the while showing off his
lame-ass gift to all her friends. When he had overheard her telling one of her friends

that she was buying him a new watch, first he rolled his eyes at the thought of such a
useless gift (after all, he already owned three watches that he never even wore), but then
he smiled, knowing that she would never live to give it to him. He did have to give her
credit though; she was amazing at keeping up appearances. They would go out together,
exchange gifts on holidays, have parties with their mutual friends – and not once in ten
years of marriage had she given anyone the impression that she was anything more than
a devoted wife. She was even able to act modest when it came to discussing things like
their sex life, even though he had proof that she had recorded several of her rendezvous.

He had come to realize that she was a sociopath, able to compartmentalize her life
so well that the two sides of her personality never bled through to one another. In fact,
Robert was sure that he would still be in the dark about her if he hadn’t seen her kissing
another man outside a restaurant while driving home one night. From that moment on, he
slowly uncovered more and more of her dark secrets until he knew that something had to
be done.

And something certainly had been done. His plan had been in motion for several
months now, and he had been so excited to see it come to fruition that he had been as
giddy as a child on Christmas morning lately. He knew Nicole could sense this and that
she got some form of joy out of it, which would only make this day that much more
satisfying for him.

By the time he had followed her home, the sky was pitch black and the rain was
coming down in one solid sheet. “If you think this is dark, Nicole…” his thoughts trailed
off, and he chuckled a bit at himself. He slowed his Jeep down the street for a bit and
waited for her to go inside before pulling up in front of the house. He could barely see
anything, but he could make out her figure inside, putting away groceries. Then he saw
her silhouette stalk slowly over to the table where he had placed the card, and he smiled
in a way that conveyed both glee and insanity.

Nicole put the card back in the envelope and stood in stunned silence for a
moment. She began to say something to herself, but before she could, she found the
room spinning. Or maybe she was spinning, she couldn’t be sure. Before she knew what
was happening, her world turned into a million points of light that began spiraling all
around her, enveloping her. She felt herself pulled inexorably forwards, and she realized
(without knowing how she knew this) that she was being pulled through time and space,
riding on ever-twirling, ever-changing paths of light. For a brief moment (which may
have lasted one second or one million years, she wasn’t sure), she thought that the lights
were the most beautiful sight she had ever seen. That moment quickly faded.

She came to her senses and found herself in a place that would defy any human
comprehension. She didn’t want to believe it, but she knew deep down it was true, and
that everything Robert had written in the note had been true. She could only vaguely
recall snippets from the note now… “gateway…all the times you wronged me…very

special place for you…no way out…should have been more careful…would give the
elder gods themselves nightmares…once you read this…you’re fucked.” As darkness
closed in on her, she thought about Robert one last time before she completely lost what
was left of her sanity.

Robert watched from the window as his wife of ten years dropped the note on the
table, stood for a brief second, and then disappeared in a flash of light, just as the gypsy
woman said she would. He got out of the Jeep and walked towards his house, noticing
that the rain had all but stopped and that the clouds were quickly fleeing to once again
reveal beautiful sunshine. He stepped inside and took a look around. He walked over
to the dining nook and thought of Nicole. He wondered if he would ever miss her, if he
would ever reach out for her at night or sob over her pictures.

“Nah,” he said, glancing down at the envelope. “Time to burn this sucker now.
Don’t want anyone else reading it.” He took the envelope into the kitchen, struck a
match, and set it ablaze in the sink. As it burned, Robert couldn’t help but chuckle one
last time at the words on the front of the envelope now turning to ash.

“Happy Valentine’s Day, Sweetheart!” it had read.[/spoiler]

Justin Credible

John stepped under the vaulted arches of the shopping center. Above him the structure opened up into a magnificent ceiling decorated with paintings and sculpted reliefs. Over one of the archways a prominent relief depicted a beautiful woman standing between two groups of people, huddled together, admiring the woman’s beauty. One lady in the corner held her face in her hands, sobbing, presumably because the standing lady was too breathtaking to handle. She looks like Alexis, John thought. He suddenly understood how those admirers felt.

He checked his watch. He was a little late, but not improperly so. If his girlfriend had been waiting, she wouldn’t have been waiting long. And this restaurant was worth the wait. For Valentine’s Day, you couldn’t do better than La Vita Toscana. It may have been a bit much for their third date, but John wanted to start things off right.

[spoiler]John pulled open the elaborately carved, heavy wooden door to the restaurant. Warm air gusted out at him and rustled his hair, carrying along with it scents of tart wine and garlic. Inside, his girlfriend was seated along one of the benches at which people wait for their table to be readied. John initially noticed her deep red dress, subtly accented with heart shapes. It was a design that should have been gaudy, had every right to be, but she pulled it off with sophistication that hid what John knew was a giggly festiveness.

“John!” She stood and walked, nearly skipping, to him. “Quite a place for a third date, I’d say. You know, for the record, I’d be perfectly happy with hot dogs and a movie.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.” John said.

“Last chance.”

“You’re worth it.”

“That’s sweet, but you only say that because you’d probably spend more at the theater anyway. Like the dress?” She mocked a model’s pose. “Isn’t it appropriate? Look at the hearts, see?”

“Love it.” John said. He imagined only Alexis could have worn it so well. “Did you check in, Becky? The reservations are under my name.”

“Becky, is it? I see you’re getting comfortable. Two can play at that game, Johnny.” She said.

“Well, if you want to call me what my mother calls me, feel free. I’m certain that’s not exactly how you’d want me to think of you, though.”

“In that case I’ll think of some other appalling pet name. I’ll do it, you know I will.”

“Looking forward to it.” John said.

John reached out and grasped her hand. He led her to the hostess’s podium. The hostess checked her book and then led the two to their table, a cozy two-seater along the far wall, under a row of vibrant green plants. John pulled the chair for Becky, and she sat, daintily. John found her youthful manner charming, but felt himself sometimes longing for Alexis’s graceful maturity, though the two women were of a similar age.

Their server arrived shortly after and took their drink order. Iced tea for John, and for Becky “a red wine, whichever is your favorite.” Once the waiter had left, she hunched over and whispered to John, “I only asked because, honestly, I don’t know the first thing about wine,” she laughed. “Do you think he noticed?”

When the server returned, Becky ordered a salad for an appetizer. “You aren’t going to come all the way here and just eat a few bites of lettuce, are you?” John asked.

“No, no. I’m having a light appetizer because I plan to really clean up on the Ziti.” She said.

“Sounds like a plan. Maybe then I can save on the dessert.”

“No, sorry, I’m making it my plan to never fit into this dress again.”

“That’s an awfully forward goal for a third date. I heartily approve,” John said.

“Well… this is a really nice place…”

Their food arrived shortly after. John’s Parmesan Baked Salmon was served atop a heaping plate of pasta and vegetables in such a generous serving as to make the restaurant’s exorbitant prices seem much more reasonable. Becky’s Ziti was very nearly a mountain itself. “Yeah, good luck with that.” John said. Becky gave him a determined look and got to work.

“It’s strange to me that dining is a social activity,” Becky said between bites, “seeing as how it’s impolite to speak with your mouth full and we’re spending our time stuffing our mouths.”

“It’s like a movie in that way.” John said.

“Yeah, exactly. You can’t talk during the movie, so why go with someone?”

“That’s a very anti-social perspective. You don’t have a lot of friends, do you?” John smiled.

“Ha, well, that’s why I eventually became a veterinarian, I suppose.” Becky said. John wondered what Alexis eventually did after college. She was probably a doctor, or a surgeon. She was certainly brilliant enough to have done anything she wanted. A brain surgeon, likely. John found her fascinating, even after all these years.

John reached out and touched Becky’s hand.

“Don’t worry, there’s hope for you yet.” He said.

“Well we can’t all work in the socially demanding field of accounting.”

“Technically, I’m in HR.” John said.

“Have you ever watched The Office?” She asked.

“Ha ha, funny.”

“Maybe I’ll call you Toby.” She said.

The rest of the meal passed quickly. True to her word, Becky finished her Ziti mountain. “Maybe I should go into financial advising.” She said afterwards.

“Why?” John asked.

“Because I just saved you from bankruptcy.” She tossed her napkin onto her plate and slumped slightly in her chair. “I couldn’t possibly have dessert after that.”

“Better than I did, I couldn’t even finish.” John had finished the salmon and made a noticeable dent in his pasta pile, but couldn’t complete the task. “I guess this means I’m picking up the check after all.”

“I hope so, I couldn’t fit a wallet into my dress.”

After finishing, the two talked for a time while waiting for the check. Small talk, mostly, about work and college and their families. It wasn’t the in depth philosophical conversation John used to enjoy so much with Alexis, but Becky seemed a willing partner and that counted for something.

John felt the first tendrils of a deeper connection reach out to Becky, and knew he felt them from her as well, meeting somewhere in the middle. Maybe it wouldn’t ever take hold deep within his heart as John knew could really only happen once, and that special place had been claimed already, but he liked Becky. He wondered if he could ever love her.

They walked out of the restaurant together, through the heavy wooden door to the outside, and under the exquisite ceiling. Just under the vaulted archways John hailed a cab for Becky. When one pulled alongside the curb, John reached out and took her hand and kissed the back of it softly.

“I had a great time.” He said.

“Me too, really. Thank you for dinner, it was lovely.”

“I’ll call you tomorrow, get some rest.”

She kissed him. Then she got into the back of the cab and John closed the door for her. He watched her for a moment as she drove off.

John looked up to the sky and wondered if Alexis was gazing at the same stars, wherever she had gone after college. John’s eyes caught the arches above the walkway and followed them to that same relief he saw before dinner. Alexis stood there alone, defiant in her perfect beauty and daring the people huddling around her to stand in direct comparison. None could, he knew. None ever have.

John reached out to her but came up with only empty air.


Jules Andre

The poll is now established - it will close next Thursday, March 10, 2011 at 10 PM EST.

Please, read and savour these various stories, then take a moment to cast a vote for however many you feel deserve it. I’d also like to open the floor to commentary - in general, writers get either an acceptance or a rejection, with very little in way of praise or constructive suggestion. Part of the fun of these is hearing directly from your audience.

As an experiment, I’d like to try leaving this thread free-floating, rather than using a sticky to keep it at the top of the page. We tried this with the last Poetry Sweatshop, and I found it increased both the vote count and the commentary.

I’d also like to take a moment to thank and congratulate all of our writers for sharing their work.

A special thanks, too, to the Mods for their ongoing moral support and for their help in fixing problems past the edit window. It is greatly appreciated.

Enjoy, spread the word and don’t forget to vote!
Best wishes,

Le Ministre de l’au-delà

There seems to be a lot more variety in story type and structure this time around. Great job everyone, good luck with the voting!

Well, let’s see what happens. I agree, there is a lot more variety. Good luck, all!

Not a whole lot of action on the poll so far. At the very least there should be one vote on each story, right? :smiley:

…and now there is. And yes, I did quote myself. It’s like going third person in an interview, sometimes Jules Andre likes to do that. Sometimes Jules Andre likes to write a few dozen words in place of just typing “bump” and being done with it.

Hey, thanks for the vote! And for the thread bump; I was considering doing that myself.

Can Jules Andre stand a little commentary? I quite liked your story, “Pedestal.” It does, however, display some of the problems we were all commenting on in the other thread–most notably, the lack of character development that is a byproduct of the word limit. In your case, though, it may not be as much of a problem–I found I was able to “fill in the blanks” about Alexis through what was reported by the narrator. Nice work!

Well, that is not my vote (thank you voter!) as I do think one should not vote for himself for herself.

I didn’t actually vote for all of them, it just happened. Curiously timed, but coincidence nonetheless.

Thanks for the commentary, it’s always welcome, critical or in praise. For all the comments made in the logistics thread about word constraints and verbosity. I probably had the least trouble. I came in way, way under budget (my story is only about 1200 words). So if it was a failing to not have more development about a certain character, it was one of design and not of limitation of format.

I voted for Straight Through the Heart, The Trigger, and Happy Valentine’s Day Sweetheart! My votes were at least in part arbitrary though, given the pass/fail nature of the poll.

Straight Through the Heart - It took me a little while to figure out the literalness of the “connection” - and it would have taken me a little longer had I not seen the photo. But this was a really intriguing premise that kept my interest with suspense. The second person perspective was a little odd - I don’t think it was needed, but it didn’t kill it either.

The Trigger - The ‘paranormal school’ thing is a little tired and rushed, but the ending was sweet.

Fire and Light - It started out well, and had some intriguing ideas, but it got too rushed after the cop arrives. Didn’t quite get why he’d take the keys. And then suddenly it’s years later and it’s happily ever after at a reunion. I think it hurt the story that the only interaction we actually see between them it the one with the fireworks. It’s very vaguely implied that he spoke to her before, but it’s not clear what their relationship was like before that night.

The new matchmaker - Didn’t quite understand what was going on here. Diana treats him to lunch and suddenly she is going to his home country the next week and proposing marriage at an archeological dig?

Starting Over - I actually liked this one, except for the ‘Imagine’ quote at the beginning and end. If you took that out I might have voted for it.

Happy Valentine’s Day, Sweetheart! - I’m not sure the supernatural end worked, other than it being a way of working in the photo, and if you had to have it, you shouldn’t mix different mythos - I think gypsies and Lovecraftians are different genres. And I don’t think we got an adequate explanation for the wife’s behavior. But the twist between the wife’s perspective to the husbands was brilliant and interesting. I also liked his opinion of the watch gift, I was thinking the exact same thing when she got it LOL.

Pedestal - Pleasant enough, but there didn’t seem to be any actual story. Two people went on a date. It seems the guy misses some other girl, who looks like a statue. But we don’t really learn anything about that or what it has to do with this date.

Thanks for the vote, jack, and for your comments. I agree that the school wasn’t the most original of concepts, but it was what occurred to me as a way of introducing the elements from the picture. I think I’d like to play with that concept a little more when I don’t have a word limit and see if I can make something more compelling of it.

Okay, I’ve cast my own votes now, and here are some of my own impressions. Overall I think that we managed to come up with some great stories this time around! Responses or questions are welcome, I’ll try to check back for them:

Straight through the heart: This was disturbing and a little raw, but very powerful.

Fire and Light: Really something good here - the history, the sense of the characters, the ending. Still needs a bit of polishing (as what story written in 60 hours wouldn’t?) but this is one of my favorites, from a fairly good crowd.

The new matchmaker: Rough, but still somewhat charming. I guess I’m a sucker for happy endings. The characters need to be fleshed out more, though.

Stating over: Good stuff. Very real characters, and a little romantic comedy of theirs, complete with misunderstandings and lovable pets.

Happy Valentine’s Day, Sweetheart! This one was nicely creepy, and I almost got a sense of Nicole’s sociopathy as well as Robert’s vengefulness.

Pedestal: Something seems to be missing here - we’ve got a touching story of a guy going trying to build a new relationship after the love of his life is gone, (she died?) but no real resolution to it.

Here are my thoughts on the stories:

Straight through the heart: I was thoroughly intrigued by this story. There was a lot of emotion, and it was very easy to relate to. The second person perspective, to me, made it feel more emotional. I liked that. Also, I love the idea of a literal “soul mate”.

The Trigger: I think maybe the word limit really restricted this story and it could have had a lot more potential. It felt like there were a lot of scenes missing that would’ve made the story flow a bit better.

Fire and Light: After reading this, I had so many questions. There wasn’t much explanation. Why was she angry? He said he knows why, but as the reader, I didn’t understand it. Why would her father take his keys and make him walk?

The New Matchmaker: I’m not really sure what was happening here. The story was really jumpy, and I found it very difficult to follow.

Starting Over: I loved this story! It was so real. The characters were so believable.

Happy Valentine’s Day, Sweetheart!: I was really getting into this story. I felt like Nicole was trying really hard out of her guilt, and you could really feel Robert’s sadistic nature. However, the ending really threw me for a loop, and I just don’t think it fit with the rest of the story.

Pedestal: This story was my favorite! I see a guy that obsesses after a girl. The way he talks about her, to me, it seems like he always wanted to date her, but she wouldn’t have him. Now he’s dating a girl (Becky) that could be great for him, but he just keeps comparing her to his idea of the perfect woman (Alexis). Loved it!

So…now that all the stories have been written, what the heck was that building in the photo? I looked at a bunch of the other photos in the album, and while some of them are pretty neat, none of them helped me figure out what we were looking at.