Literary LEO Short Fiction Winners Are Here!

Mar 1, 2023 at 2:57 pm
Literary LEO Short Fiction Winners are here!
Literary LEO Short Fiction Winners are here! adobe

Another year, another Literary LEO.

This year, the entries brought something that we haven’t seen enough of in recent years: a tilt toward the feminine, in tone, submissions, and the deep tenderness in the entries. It was a kind year for choosing winners and honorable mentions, as we were highly impressed with the quality of the work. 

We hope that you’ll agree and make plans to send your own voice to the magazine for the next Literary LEO. 

As usual, there are the categories we’re all used to: Poems, Short Fiction, Cartoons, and Photography, both Black & White and Color. 

The stories span experiences, settings, and tone, but they all share something that we’re all looking for:­­­ a way to connect to our experiences. We look for meaning, feeling, and understanding in so many places, and one of the ways literature helps us is by putting that experience into words and giving our humanity form. 

The poems, likewise, speak to a world where we are trying to make sense. Sometimes it’s making sense of loss, and at other times we are seeking to understand the experience of existence.

The writers in this year’s Literary LEO have beautifully captured a span of these moments, and we’re exceptionally proud to share them with our readers. 

Likewise, in our Photography categories, we saw a range of artists keen on deeply observing the objects, life, and world around them. Photography is art created to look. It feeds our voyeuristic nature. We “see” the world in a particular way, in light or darkness, shadows or shade, and the photography entries this year gave us all of those things. In the Cartoon category, we’re seeing growth in the number of entries, but we definitely would like to see more next year. Louisville has an amazing number of artists, and perhaps, instead of only cartoons, we might need to broaden our category to 2-D visual art. At the same time, Louisville has an amazing number of cartoon, webtoon, and comics creators that we’d love to see in this category. We chose winners, and we’re happy that they chose to share their work with us. We want more of you next year. 

Winners are:

1st place-"Shelter in Place" by Cara Marco

2nd place- "Puppet Show" by Connor Pierce

3rd place- "Pot of Gold" by Jennifer Bair

Honorable Mentions:

"The Recollections of Daryl Beauregard as Recounted to the Boys One Night While Drinkin’" by Sarah Matthews

"The Shape" by Andrew Michael

Short Fiction-First Place Shelter in Place

By Cara Marco

Your grandma’s at my house. We found her in the woods.

When Amy got the text, it had been raining for three days straight and it showed no sign of slowing. When she drove through the woods to the Hutchison house, she could barely see Pine Mountain in the mist, so the house looked like it was floating in space behind the dark green boughs of eastern hemlock. She parked the truck and as she stepped out, she could hear the roar of the creek, louder than she’d ever heard it before.

Amy put her head down and jogged toward the house where it slumped in the late afternoon light. Someone stood in the doorway, one arm stretched across the opening, shadow cast by the light behind him. Not Mr. Hutchison, she realized, but his son, Noah. She stopped short.

“You’re tall now.”

“Seems like.” He pushed the door open farther, squinting. “Come on in, you’re getting wet.” She ducked under his arm into the dry warmth of the house.

“Thanks. Where’s Nana?” she asked.

“In here.” He stepped around her and called through the doorway. “Miss Lou?”

“Yes?” Amy felt a tension she hadn’t know she was holding go out of her at the sound of her grandmother’s voice.

“Amy’s here.”

“She’s likely not very happy with me.”

“I’m not,” said Amy, her voice losing its force when she turned the corner. Nana’s lost expression looked like she’d just woken up, wrapped in a blanket on the couch, holding a mug. Her short hair was twisted wet ropes.

“Nana. What the hell?” Amy lowered herself into the chair across from her. “Why didn’t you tell me you were leaving?”

Nana looked down at her tea. Her lips were pursed. “I thought I’d be back before you got home from work.”

“Have you looked at the weather lately? Heard the tornado sirens?”

“Of course I have. That’s why I went out.”

Amy heard a door shut as Noah left them to their talk. His house smelled exactly the same, dogs and laundry detergent and a sharp fiery odor like matches. They hadn’t ever been able to figure out why.

Your house smells like fire.

Does not.

Yeah it does. Maybe you’re on a volcano.

He’d paused, thinking. Maybe lava will come out of the sink.

Out of the TOILET.

And burn your butt.

They’d laughed for what felt like forever.

Nana was watching her. “I hadn’t seen Noah Hutchison in a good long while,” she said. “Do you ever see much of him?”

“I haven’t seen him since I was a kid,” Amy said. “The Doppler is showing a huge funnel cloud maybe two hours away. Headed straight at us.”

Her phone buzzed, and Nana’s eyes followed it as Amy pulled it out and thumbed the notification off.

“You can take that,” said Nana.

“It’s Aunt Mary completely freaking out. We didn’t know where you were.”

“You both knew where I was.”

Amy texted that Nana was okay. It gave her a minute to hold onto her temper.

“I didn’t think you were going to go out in a brewing tornado,” she said finally, “to leave a sacrifice to a storm god or whoever.”

“She’s not a god,” said Nana.

“But she wants a sacrifice,” said Amy. “Which you have to provide, apparently.”

“No one else does it anymore.”

“Nana, it is folklore.”

“It is not.”

“Tornados happen when warm air meets cold. That’s all it is. It’s not a curse.”

“You can tell yourself that, honey.”

They were silent for a minute. “So what happened then?” Amy asked finally.

“I went to shoot a deer, of course.”

“Good God almighty Nana. Why?”

Nana closed her eyes for a minute. “Because I knew. It’s been too long since the last time. We’re starting to make her angry.”

Amy took a long, calming minute before she responded. “So how’d that work out for you?”

Nana half-smiled. “Damn useless legs. Couldn’t even climb the deer stand.”

“And that’s where Noah found you,” Amy finished. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Her grandmother lowered her mug. “Didn’t you just go and tell me it was all a story? Folklore?”

“Well,” she said, “I would have wanted to talk to you about it.”

“Tried to talk me out of my foolishness.”

“That’s not what I said.”

“I could help,” said a voice.

Amy turned. Noah stood behind her, tapping the doorframe with one knuckle. “What?” she asked. “Help how?”

“I haven’t been hunting in a while.”

Amy looked back at Nana. Her eyes were alert. “That would be–” she started.

Amy shoved a throw cushion out of the way. “Hold on. He shouldn’t be out in this either.” She turned on him as he shrugged. “You just want to see if you can bag a big buck in a tornado.”

“Maybe so.”

“Why would you possibly do that?”

“It won’t actually be in a tornado, Amy. They’re saying the storm won’t hit for a couple of hours, even if it does. Can’t hurt to try.” He crossed his arms, leaned against the doorframe.

“Are you hearing this?” Amy asked Nana, who lifted her hands. “Stop. You’re the one encouraging him.”

“He’s free to go.”

They faced each other across the coffee table.

“Noah,” Amy said, forcing a smile. “Can you show me where the glasses are in the kitchen?”

Nana sat back, wrapping herself tighter as they left the room. Amy turned to face Noah across the island as he propped the door to the hall barely open.

“What are you doing? No one needs to be out in this.”

“I’ve been out on the deer stand on nights like this one.”

“Not when there’s a tornado.”

“The deer stand is less than two miles from the house. I have a car and a phone. If it gets crazy, I come back.”

“It’s already gotten crazy,” she whispered. “This is crazy.”

“Maybe you were right. Maybe I just want to do something impressive.”

“That’s—” She stopped to steady her voice, suppressing a shiver. “That makes no sense.”

“Nah, maybe not.” He leaned against the counter, watching her. “You okay?”

“I’m fine.” She crossed her arms. “How did you find her?”

He rolled his shoulders, eyes moving past her to the window. “I saw the headlights. Went to check it out. She was out there having some difficulty.”

Amy bit down on the corner of her lip. She looked down where the cabinet met the floor edge to edge.

“I knew what was happening as soon as I saw her.”

“I kind of thought when grandpa died,” she said slowly, “we could finally put this weird ritual to rest.”

Noah shifted, leaned his hands on the counter, head down. She could see his hair was wet too.

“I was trying to watch her,” she said, the words hurting her throat. “I just had to go out for a little while and Mary hadn’t—”

“Amy,” he said, looking up. “I know.”

“I should have been more prepared that she might try this.”

“Sometimes people need help.”

“No one is going to die because we don’t kill a deer and leave it as some weird offering,” she said. “If a tornado hits or if it doesn’t, it’s not because of anything anyone did. And the only way we’re going to move on from that kind of thinking is to stop going through this foolishness.”

“But,” he said, quietly, “You can’t deny there’s a tornado on the Doppler. Coming right at this town. On the date it’s always supposed to be done.”

“It could turn. It could burn itself out. We should shelter in place and wait.”

“Maybe.”

She met his eyes. “Noah. You don’t believe this shit.”

He nodded, pulled idly on the strings of his sweatshirt with one hand. Tighter, tighter. “I don’t. I just hate sitting here waiting.”

“You just want to see if you can do it,” she said. She tried to smile, as if it were a joke, but she couldn’t quite manage it.

“Maybe I do.”

“So you’d be going out in the woods alone, without bringing anyone.”

“Who is there to bring, Amy?”

She heard a creak from the other room.

“You’ve made your decision,” she said finally. “You’re definitely going.”

“Yeah.”

She felt the thunder in the soles of her feet like an underground explosion.

“I could go too,” she said finally.

“I can’t let you go.”

She raised her eyebrows. “Seems like I ought to be there.”

“I don’t want to have to worry about you,” he said.

“Oh, so I should be worried instead?” she countered. “When the only reason you’re going out there anyway is because of my grandmother?”

She wondered if Nana was still sitting there where they’d left her. She wondered if she was listening.

“And anyway,” she said. “Isn’t it supposed to be a member of my family? Do you even count?”

He didn’t respond, just let the silence stretch to a breaking point.

“Sorry.” She looked down. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

Noah shook his head. “It’s weird, seeing you again,” he said. “You’ve changed and you haven’t.” He gave no sign whether it was a compliment or an insult or neither.

“Same with you.”

He ran his hands over his face, then let them drop. “Fine. I’ll just get a couple of things together and we’ll go. You’re going to need a better coat.”

“Okay.” She exhaled. “I’ll drive.”

#

“Feeling lucky?” Amy drawled as Noah aimed his rifle into the trees. The sky was lead-grey from their vantage point in the deer stand. The rain had slowed for the moment, but flashes of lightning glinted in the clouds above the feathery tops of the pines.

He looked up from the scope, sighed. “I am not.”

“Too late?”

“Way too late. It’ll be dark soon.” He cleared his throat. “Tell me how we’re supposed to do this again.”

She could hear her grandmother’s voice in her mind. “Don’t go into the cave any farther than you have to.”

“Would have been nice if they’d defined that,” he said, eyes scanning the trees.

“Then, once you’ve left the deer, leave and don’t look back.”

“Easy. I don’t plan to linger.”

“Finally. Don’t talk to her. Don’t listen to anything she says. Don’t say her name.” They sat in silence for a minute. “Do you even know her name?” Amy asked.

“No,” he said. “Do you?”

“Yeah,” she said.

“How?”

“Spooky stories in the schoolyard.”

“Better not tell me then,” he said. “Or I might go and break a rule.”

“We’ve already broken a rule. You’re not a member of my family, and you’re going to shoot this thing.” Rain prickled her face as the wind changed.

“You want to take the shot?”

She wiped the rain out of her eyes with the tips of her fingers. “No, I’m terrible. I won’t hit anything. She’s going to have to deal with it.”

Noah cleared his throat. “Here—” He stretched an arm behind her. She heard the rustle of a hood being pulled forward, felt his watchband catch a few strands of her hair and the breath of his muttered apology. He brought the hood up over her head, the rain tapping the fabric. By the time she glanced back over at him, he was looking back through the scope. She followed the line of the barrel where it pointed into the trees. It was only then that she saw it.

A doe, bark-brown, like part of the forest had stepped away from the rest. Amy grasped the edge of the seat, held on to the urge to stand up and say run.

The shot cracked through her bones. The doe coiled and vanished.

“Fuck,” Noah breathed.

“It’s okay.”

“Nah, it’s not.” He took off his hat, pulled it back on again. “Don’t tell anyone I fucked up that shot.”

“It’s okay,” she said. “Noah.”He was nodding, his eyes distant.

“I’ve probably scared away every deer in the county,” he said.

“Maybe not. It’s rutting season, they’re dumb right now.” They waited, listening to the rain crescendo.

“Do you think--?” he said, then his hand closed on her knee and squeezed. His voice barely a breath, he said look.

The antlers of the buck rose among the near-bare branches. He was following the doe, intent.

Noah squeezed her knee one more time and raised the rifle. The shot, she remembered someone saying, when it comes, should surprise you.

But when this shot came, it didn’t.

#

Water raced across the road as Amy slowed the truck. She could smell the dark scent of the deer as if it were in the cab with them instead of heaped in the truck bed under a tarp.

“What’s wrong?” said Noah.

“Do you think that water is too high?”

He shifted forward with a zing of wet nylon. “No, you’re good.”

“You sure?”

“Unless you want to call this whole thing off.” His fingers tapped the dashboard as he leaned forward. “We can make it.”

“Why do you think they have these rules?” she asked.

He sighed heavily. “We going or not?”

“What will happen if we break them?”

“Is it going to make any difference? Go on and go.”

She rubbed her hands together, thinking, then took the wheel. “We do this, and we’re done.”

“Right. So go.”

The rush of water surrounded them as they bounced across. Noah exhaled as the tires caught solid ground again. Amy stretched her cramped fingers.

“You were scared,” she said, smiling.

Lightning bleached the inside of the cab white.

Noah peeled his hand from the dashboard. “Nah. Not scared.”

They braced. Amy could feel the crash of the thunder in her teeth.

Amy drew a shaky breath, forcing her grin back into place. “You were.”

The lights of town slid past the truck window and into the dark as they swept toward the cave. Amy parked the truck under the white glare of the security light.

The minute they opened the door, Amy heard the roar. Water glittered in the light as it flowed to the edge of the road. She saw Noah’s shoulders drop.

“Flooded,” he said flatly.

They went to see anyway, staying well away from the moving water, looking down over the ledge. Water was rushing into the opening of the cave like something underneath was sucking it down.

“That’ll take both of us down with it,” said Noah.

Rain prickling against their faces, they walked back to the truck. The sound cut off as she slammed the truck door. A chill raced through the sleeves of her wet sweater. Noah rested his head against the seat, eyes closed, profile outlined by a security light.

“Another mistake,” he said.

“Not like we had any choice.”

“Maybe she wanted us to go down there anyway.”

“Stop,” she said. “We couldn’t go down there. There’s another mouth of the cave, isn’t there? On Pine Mountain?”

He rolled his head against the back of the seat to look at her, nodded.

“Think it’ll be flooded too?” she asked.

“No, that’s the park. It’s pretty high ground. Supposed to be closed at dusk, though.”

“Well, no one will be out there tonight except us,” she said. “And a cave monster. Or whatever it is.”

“She.”

Headlights swept by on the road, lighting up the cab, drawing swirling rainwater patterns across Noah’s squinting face. “How does everyone know she’s a girl?” Amy asked.

“My dad told me. He says she’s a witch. Or a ghost. Or both at this point, I guess.” His eyes were bleached grey by the floodlights before he closed them again.

“Of course everyone thinks it’s a woman,” Amy said drily.

“Sounds like a woman to me,” he said, rubbing his eyes. “He said she was sent out of town. Banished. That’s how she ended up in a cave when she was alive, and she’s never left.”

Amy blinked. Her eyes were getting fuzzy with sleeplessness. “I asked my grandfather why we needed to sacrifice a deer once. When he went out to shoot one a few years ago when they were warning about flash floods.”

Noah rolled his head toward her. “What’d he say?”

“He said it’s the smallest sacrifice she’ll accept in return for not destroying his home, and that’s good enough for him.”

“Did he ever say why it’s your family that does it?”

“No. I wonder if maybe we were the ones who put her in there.”

They were silent for a minute, listening to the clatter of rain on glass. Then he said, “I wonder what she’ll think about us going to a different cave.”

“Well, she should have thought about that before flooding this one. But it’s the same cave system, right? Don’t they connect?”

“They do. Where the mine was dug.” Thunder crackled again. He shivered abruptly, a tight tremor. “There’s probably no rock shelf or whatever inside the other cave. So where do we drop the thing?”

“You know,” she said, “these fools seriously needed to paint a line on the floor or something.”

“With a note,” he said, a smile lightening his voice. “Put the deer here.”

“Damn right.” She breathed in cold air. “We could just forget the whole thing.”

He looked away, spoke to the window. “I’m willing to make the trip if you are.”

“It’s your deer,” she said. “You decide what to do with it.”

“It’s yours,” he said.

She tapped her fingers against the steering wheel, then started the car. The windshield wipers flicked the view clear.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “For everything. I know this is insane.”

He shrugged. “Lots of things are.”

#

She swerved around the locked park gate without slowing.

The mouth of the cave was lost in the shadows. She knew right where it was, just off the walking path, blocked off by signs warning of unexpected drops.

When she opened the door, the wind pushed into the cab of the truck, snapping her hair around her face. Noah slammed the door and walked around to stand next to her, one hand wrapped around the mirror. Black clouds boiled through the gap between the mountains. As they looked, a single shard of lightning crossed the mass. The tornado siren wailed in the distance, echoing off the mountains.

Noah eyed it assessingly. “Doesn’t look great.” He had to raise his voice over the wind as he crossed to the back of the truck.

Amy realized she was chewing her lip. “I guess that’s why we’re here, right?”

Noah raised his eyebrows, then clanged the tailgate open and heaved up the wet-black slick fur. She tried not to look at the deer’s blank eyes, at the curved claws of the antlers.

“You can stay here,” he said. The black cave yawned behind him.

“You could get lost.”

“Girl, how far in do you think I’m going? I’m dropping this fucker and getting the hell back out.”

“I need—”

“Need to know what, need to know what’s in there?” he said. “I thought you were pretty sure there’s nothing.”

“I need to know that you’re not going to disappear and leave me out here.” He met her eyes, rain flickering in her flashlight beam. After a moment, he silently turned toward the cave, and she followed.

The flashlight beam rippled against the rough walls, the only sound the crackle of their feet on the graveled floor and Noah’s sharp breaths. “No farther,” he said over his shoulder, heaving the deer up higher.

“Okay, just,” she shined her light on a shelf of rock that jutted from the wall. “Here.”

He nodded. “Next time.” he whispered as he passed her. “I’m spray-painting put the deer here.”

“You’re never coming back here,” she said instantly.

Boy and deer cast a warped shadow along the wall, Noah’s silhouette circled by claws as he dropped the deer with a thud. Amy sighed. The sound seemed to stay with her, barely travelling in the still cold air.

“Step 1 complete,” she said.

He didn’t move. One hand closed on the antler.

She waited. “Are you going to take a picture?” she asked finally. “‘Noah with sacrifice?’”

“Yeah. Me and my sacrifice,” he said, voice thin as smoke.

The shadows moved. “Come on Noah,” she said. “Time for Step 2, get the hell out.”

No.

“What do you mean, no?” she said.

He looked up, hand still. “What?”

“You said no.”

“I didn’t say anything.”

“I heard something,” she said. His hand was still on the antler. He looked down at it, put the palm of his hand against the point and pressed down.

“Gross. Stop.”

Noah gazed at his palm, then turned it toward her. Dark red blood, far too real, swelled from his hand. The antlers’ shadows curved above him.

She felt something move in the air, as if the cave walls had pressed in on them like a breath.

Amy inhaled. “Noah. Time to go find shelter.”

“You can go,” he said, his voice higher than usual, not his own. “I need to stay with her.”

Her hand tightened on the flashlight, her fingers gone numb.

Noah looked up at her. “He’s staying with me,” he said.

His voice crackled through her like lightning.

“Some things need doing right,” he whispered, his voice right in her ear, though he still stood on the other side of the cavern. “Or it’s here you’ll stay.”

A scrape against rock in the dark. She heard the thunder again, felt it from the heart of the mountain.

She had to try twice to form words. “Noah did everything right,” she said, voice stretched thin. “He shot a buck for me.”

Noah took a step away from her, backing toward the black. “You didn’t do what was needed.”

“No.” Amy said sharply.

He raised his chin. “But you brought me something better,” he said, in the voice that wasn’t his.

Amy blinked hard. Don’t look. Don’t listen.

“Noah,” she said, hating the way her voice wavered. “We need to get back home.”

A crack high above, a rock breaking to dust. For the first time, she could hear water roaring, somewhere back in the blackness, far below.

Noah turned his head, eyed her from the edge of his gaze. “He wants to stay,” he said. Then he smiled, all teeth. “He wants to do something impressive.” The smile dissolved like something eaten by acid. “Like all the rest of them.”

“He did. You got your deer.”

“I like him better.”

Something in the air shifted, something that made Amy draw a deep, straining breath and still feel suffocated. She could hear the tap of Noah’s blood dropping from the ends of his fingers onto the stones. She remembered his hand pulling up her hood in the rain just before he raised it to the trigger.

Her jaw went tight. “No. It was a beautiful buck.”

“It wasn’t—”

“It was shot by the best hunter in town.”

Noah blinked.

“He’s not yours,” she said. “He’s ours. The deer, that’s what you get.”

He took another step back. “No.” said Amy. “He stops right there. That’s not the deal.”

“It’s not enough,” Noah said. Another step away from her. Amy started forward, flashing the beam of the flashlight where the ground dropped away behind him.

“You want him?” she said. “Then you can come out of here with him.” Noah went still. Amy exhaled.

“Okay,” she said. “Okay, okay. Noah. Come here.” He didn’t move.

He wasn’t backing up either.

“You can destroy the town or--” she couldn’t get the words out, looking at Noah, “do this, and you’ll still be in this cave. Or,” she breathed around her strained throat. “You can come down from the mountain.”

Noah stopped short, his eyes focused and locked on her.

“Come back down with the rest of us,” she said. The flashlight beam shivered as she waited, making Noah’s shadow leap while he held perfectly still.

Then he moved. His hand curled in on itself as he took the first deep breath she’d seen since he pulled the deer out of the truck bed.

“Amy.”

“Noah,” she replied. “Come on out of here.” She felt the cold air in her rain-wet hair, drew a breath that didn’t hurt. He walked to her with quick steps, put his uninjured hand on her shoulder, she reached for the back of his coat and crumpled it into her hand so tight her fingers cramped.

Their footsteps echoed as they walked toward the sound of the trees at the mouth of the cave. The smell of the deer hung in the air where they left it slumped against the wall, then it was behind them, and they were stepping out of the cave into the moonlight. She could see over the mountains, where the sun had set and the moon hung in the cloudless sky. Amy turned, and Noah was looking straight at her.

“Amy,” he said. “Amy. Look.”

The air was still, and the rain, for the first time in days, was slowing. When it stopped, the breeze shivering the last drops from the trees was the only sound. 

Short Fiction: Second Place

Puppet Show

By, Connor Pierce

“Forget it Mister”

She’s put away her chapstick, shut off the faucet, inspected the ficus beside the door, has halfway turned the doorknob, popped the lock, had her head filled with the wash of the music from the speaker mounted on the wall on the other side of this door, she’s supposed to be somewhere, she’s going to take it off—

Ugh.

She reads the card again.

“You hold in your hands Bill  This is a real Bill  Do not operate Bill under the influence of alcoholic beverages  Do not use Bill overnight  Bill is not a Rudy  Patent Pending”

She looks him over.

“I’m Dishwasher Safe”    Bill brags.

Bill shows her all his teeth.

Sam sighs and turns the faucet back on.

She’d been reading the puke of bar graffiti scrawled on the wall beside her, seeking some sort of a horoscope to guide her, some sort of direction— something to take the edge off, something meaningful— with soft displeasure when she felt something tugging all her attention… 

So she cut to the chase.

Staring into the shadowy corner beside the lacquered chest of drawers, she realized she’d been staring at it the whole time— she’d only been thinking about the graffiti.

She became certain.

There was something there.

She feels foolish as she does it.

She still does it.

—no razor blades. 

Yeah— no Floyd Collins, either. No needles— no buzzer— no fingertraps— no evidence of fluids— just fine red silk into which her arm vanishes.

She dares a sniff. 

All she gets is tequila.

She sees herself in the garish light of the mirror out of the corner of her eye and feels— what? …something about it transports her to a real memory, lived experience, a first-year Drama professor telling you Stanislavski-says-do-not-do-this-you-fucking-hack sort of place which feels— no, not thrilled— that’s not the thing— but not thrilled, either… not proud, that’s not what’s going on here— it’s naked but it’s not really naked, not just…

Up his ass to her elbow.

She chews her tongue and does some wriggling.

Bill sucks his whole face in. 

“SAM”    Bill shouts— far away.    “CAN YOU HEAR ME”

“yesbill”    she answers despite herself.

Bill inflates.

She thinks    this is a mistake

“hey    Sammie”

“hello    Bill”

“Much better”    Bill peeps  “Before we begin I need the tooth”

“uh huh”    Sam nods.

“Swear  to your lovin crocodile”

“sure    bill”

“You    swear  ? 

She sighs.

There’s no way out.

Who’s she kidding? 

She squares away, lifts her chin, straightens her spine, raises her left hand.

“I swear to tell the Tooth”    she pledges    “the whole Tooth    and nothing  but  the Tooth”

Sam held out. 

Only when she could resist no more— a discretionary interval here, kids, just a little class— Sam stood, rolled her leggings back up, yawned, flushed, feinted.

It turned out to be a tote bag.

There was a note— 

Losers Only.

Kinda sorta maybe, just a little— no, not guiltily, not guiltily at all— scientific curiosity, pure and simple— no losers here—

She looked.

She frowned.

One of Bill’s pupils has lodged itself in place. 

Sam tries frowning again. 

No-sell.

It is unabashedly unrepentantly unacceptably    not    googly.

How does this happen?

She presses closer to the mirror on the vanity to inspect him against his reflection and in the corner of her eye she sees her hand doing it, too, flint-flicking, tapping away— hesitant at first— with the tip of her finger. 

The eye stays stuck.

Sam notices the Sam in the mirror giving Bill a good shake.

Still nothing— give or take a chaw of vertigo.

She looks at Bill in the eye and does it herself.

“oh”    Bill urges    “oh    doit  again”

She shakes him again.

“no  no”    Bill sputters.

Sam hesitates.

“No  please    I mean  no    No  Pleasemore    Donstop”    Bill pleads.

Unbelievable.

She slaps him.

“ZIP”    Bill flops ecstatically. 

The eye flies off altogether and disappears under the sink.

“oh shit”    Sam kneels.

“ZAP”    Bill claps    “ZOP   o    O    my  STARS    i see    DOUBLE”

“gross”    Sam grunts.

There comes a rapping, tapping at the bathroom door.

  again      Bill demands.    

    Jistamennit”    she tells the both of them, stiffly.

She looks around, finds herself seeing the caterpillar spots left by the soft golden bulbs boxing the mirror. Her eyes still adjusting back to the darkness of the rest of the restroom play hell. She looks around. 

The card is right here on the counter…

…but what happened to the tote bag?

Bill gussies her hair for her.

“maybelater  Bill”    she tells him.

Another set of knocks.

    cops        Bill says

Between the speaker thumping and the water running and the racket, Sam’s having trouble hearing herself think. 

“Yes  No  One Second”    she says, mostly to the door, thinking it— yeah— making the nasty discovery that— 

Wait— 

If she can’t even hear herself—

“act natural”    Bill whispers.

The handle jiggles… turns and the door swings open.

Sam throws her hands up in surrender.

The pair of ladies— the redhead and the girl sucking her hand— are just as surprised to see her as she is to see them.

Nobody says anything.

Next to her head, Bill snorts.

Sam starts.

She pushes Bill forward at the girl sucking her hand.

“isthisyours”    Sam mumbles.

“WHAT    did the    DUCK DENTIST    say    that upSET  the DOCTOR”    Bill jobs.

The girl squirms.

    o shit”    breathes the redhead.   “ Rose look it’s a Bill ” 

Sam panics.

“QUACK”    she quacks.

This girl— Rose?— holding the door open has eyes big as saucers.

The friend stays jazzed.

she looks    Sam thinks    like she’s gonna pass out

“We dig yer alligator”    the friend says.

Sam smiles weakly.

Rose closes the door.

It takes a minute, but Sam does drop ‘em. 

She just stares at the door.

She shudders.

Then she remembers to lock it, so she does that.

Then—

“ crocodile ? ”    she hisses.

Bill clears his throat nervously.

“Did I say”    Bill starts.

She doesn’t let him finish.

“yeahyeahyeah”    Sam snaps    “dishwasher safe”

She’s figured out the bag— and this one she’s heard.

Short Fiction: Third Place

Pot of Gold

By Jennifer Bair                                                                                      

She saw the sun setting like a liar sneakin’ through the back door. She knew she had to get, before something dark and too terrible to think about now came after her.  She headed for the house, just about a half mile up the road. All she had to do was follow the faded white fence to the door. She moved quickly, keeping an eye on the dim lights now appearing from behind the dust covered windows.

Breathless, she found her way to the door, chancing a glance on the road behind. She thought about knockin’. She felt the cold wind on her back and grabbed for the dull brass knob, pushing with all her weight till she was clean through. The rooms were dimly lit by kerosene lamps and two candles over a cold, dark fireplace. It reminded her of the old Wild West, like on TV at Grandma’s. 

Not a real Grandma, one of those volunteers who takes in the rough trade, the homeless, and receives a lousy chicken dinner and a plaque once a year or something-like on TV. But Grandma hung in there, crimping her dark kinky hair while watching Wendy Williams set up the next show segment. Grandma really liked watchin’ that show. She’d say, See, you can be like her someday. Little black girls sometimes win. 

Her fear was back on her, winding round and round till she couldn’t utter a sound. That’s how they want you to feel. And then they call you a good girl for taking the sting of the strap. But you beat em’ with your head in the back of a pickup somewhere on a long sunny, warm ride to nowhere.

She heard a noise — froze in place. 

“What’s the matter, darlin’? Come on in. I just made some macaroni and cheese.”  

She just stood there, watching this old woman adjust cushion covers and rearrange knick knacks like a quake just set all off.  Not like Grandma at all. 

She stepped back as the old woman began to rearrange her hair. The old woman was takin’ it down from its captive barrettes and shakin’ it. That hair went clear down to her ample middle and then some. The old woman had the most beautiful old hair she had ever seen.  It was silver and gold and hung in loose, sweet smellin’ ringlets. Smellin’ sweet, like flowers or somethin’.  That old lady’s hair just kept unraveling itself till it flowed clear across the room and stopped at her dirty bare feet.   

“Sweet Jesus!,” she said. “Your hair must be ten feet long, I swear.” 

She was popping like a jack-in-the-box, even if she never did see one of those things workin’. She knew that’s how they felt.   

Something made her turn around. She was looking back to see if the darkness had found her. She shivered. She thought about bolting out the other side of the house. But then she saw the old woman’s eyes had turned from a soft amber to a metallic purple-like one of those fancy cut stones in the jewelry store window. The old woman was shuffling her pink, padded limbs into a big, black circle in front of her on the floor.  It looked like the old woman was askin’ for a hug-but not really.  

“Jesus, what is that?”

She let out as she looked into the hole appearing to get larger and more-hollow with every shaky breath out of the old woman’s mouth.

The hole opened up, right smack in the middle of the living room, leaving a space to walk around it and still flop down on the doily-edged couch now teetering at it’s edge. She peered into the hole. Saw a bright column of light pulsing and changing colors. She followed the column of light as it burst through a hole in the roof and out into the dark of night. 

“Jump in if you need to. I’m not using it anymore,” the old woman said as she waved her arms like stirrin’ a pot.

“Why?”  She couldn’t think of anything else to say. 

The cold was slicing at her from the open night air, silver spray like gunmetal hammerin’ between arms and wavin’, and head bobbin’ to protect the tender bruised flesh underneath the blows. Silence was always better than askin’ too many questions. She knew that. But she let it out anyway.  

Maybe this old woman was like Grandma after all. Watchin’ and whisperin’ while the social workers filled out all those colored forms and shoved them in front of Grandma for her signature. Her TV tray soap star books and search-a-word puzzle magazines fallin’ to the floor without a hand to help.  Yea, she thought this old woman was like Grandma. Safe.

But what she meant to say was why wasn’t this old woman usin’ this lightshow exit anymore. What was the matter with it anyway. Time slowed, like those seconds in the bread thrift store.  You squeeze em’ to see if they’re still any good. But you can’t never tell till you eat it. 

She pulled her eyes away from the undulating stream of light. The old woman seemed to be getting’ tired or somethin’.  Her arms started shakin’.  The old woman’s lips parted like she had somethin’ to say but nothin’ came out ‘cept this little arc of spit.   She watched as the spit left a darkened trail down the old woman’s chin before disappearing into the swirling, golden light. 

Then the old woman jumped. The old woman faded like a burnt-out TV tube and the hole shut down quick as it opened. She was left alone. The house lights turned up like she was in the movies. It felt comforting, but she didn’t have time to think about that. All she knew was that she had to get out of there and fast, before the darkness caught up to her. 

She grabbed one of the tattered throw blankets from the back of the couch, draped it around her worn polyester t-shirt. Then she spun around and skittered out the same way she came in.  

She could feel it.

The wall of blackness had reached the front yard. Her mouth was bone dry. Her legs refused to move any faster. The smell of macaroni and cheese was singeing the back of her throat and twisting her empty belly. She looked up, catching a shooting star in a small circle of untouched nighttime. And then there was nothin’.   

Short Fiction Honorable Mentions: 

The Recollections of Daryl Beauregard as Recounted to the Boys One Night While Drinkin’

By Sarah Matthews

“I seen doggone Richard M. Nixon on my trail cam the other night.

Yeah, the president. You know anyone else named ‘Richard M. Nixon’? 

I know he’s dead; I ain’t stupid. But I know what Richard Nixon looks like, and I seen him on my trail cam. Or at least something that looked like him.

I figured it was probably some fool in a mask, tryin’ to hunt deer on my property and not get caught. I was gonna get my rifle and go scare ‘em off, but they was actin’ kinda strange. Crawlin’ on all fours. Figured they were drunk or something. No telling what someone’ll do when they’re that drunk, so I sat and watched ‘em for a bit, just to see what kind of mischief they’d get into. Mostly, they was just wandering around, bumping into trees and shit. It was kinda funny at first.

But then I seen a deer comin’ along the trail. The guy in the Nixon mask (least I thought it was a mask at the time) must’ve heard the deer, ‘cause he skittered off into the bushes. Never seen something that looked like a person skitter on all fours. Kinda creepy-lookin’.

Anyways, this deer comes along, headin’ toward the salt lick I got set up by the trail cam. It’s doing its thing when the bushes start to rustle a bit. The deer looks up, all startled, but before it can bolt off, doggone Richard Nixon jumps outta the bush. He lands on the deer’s back and pins it to the ground. I’m thinkin’ this is a damn funny way to hunt a deer, but it seems to be working. I expected Nixon to tie up the deer, or get a knife out or something, but no. He goes and sinks his teeth into the deer’s neck. I got a glimpse of them teeth. They was long, fang-like. And there was at least two rows of ‘em. Looked like something offa doggone Shark Week.”

“It ain’t bullshit, Carl! I seen it!”

“And you know I don’t drink more’n a beer at night, so I wasn’t drunk, Jer.” 

“No, I was sober as a damn judge when I saw Richard Nixon rip that deer’s head off its shoulders. I ain’t ashamed to say I let out a scream. Now, there’s a couple seconds’ delay on that trail cam feed, but I swear as soon as I screamed, Nixon looked dead straight into the camera. His eyes was as red as hellfire. Color shouldn’t show up on the night vision mode, but it sure did. Them eyes bored into me from afar, and I knew if I’da gone out there, I’da been as dead as that deer.

As it was, Nixon was approaching the trail cam. That jowly face of his was smeared with blood and gore, and he was starin’ into the camera like he could see me sittin’ in my garage watchin’ him. I held my breath. Couldn’t hardly bear to look, but I didn’t want to look away, neither. ‘Fraid he might be gone when I looked back. I sat there I don’t know how long lookin’ into that camera feed. Finally, somethin’ out in the forest drew his attention. His lip pulled up in a snarl and he returned to the headless deer carcass. He grabbed it by the neck stump and dragged it into the bushes. Now when I say he grabbed it, I don’t mean with his hands; he sunk those fangs into the deer like a dog with a particularly meaty bone. His hands was occupied with crawlin’ back into the bushes.

I forgot to mention, Nixon was wearing a full suit and tie, with shiny shoes. That shoulda clued me that something wasn’t right. You don’t wear those kinda clothes for hunting—not even city folk are that dumb. His suit was torn where he’d been in the bushes, and it was covered in deer blood. I didn’t know what the hell was going on, but I sure didn’t like it. I watched the feed for a few more minutes, but Nixon never came out of the bushes. Well, you know I gotta go outside to get from my garage to the house, and I tell you what, I hightailed it across the yard.

Next morning, I went back out to the garage and checked the footage again. It was all the same as what I seen before, and there weren’t nothing after where I left off. I sat there in the garage for a good spell, thinkin’ about what I should do. Thought about callin’ the sheriff, letting him know there was some nut on my property. But you know me. I don’t like to go gettin’ the law involved in my business if I don’t have to. So I grabbed my rifle and went out in the woods to investigate.

I don’t mind telling you, I was pretty jumpy heading out there. Every little rustle in the trees or bushes, I’m whipping around, half expectin’ that nut to come charging out at me. ‘Bout blew a couple squirrels to kingdom come. I reached the tree where the trail cam is, and I start looking around. 

Found that deer’s head right away. Buncha flies were already swarming on it. A bloody streak led off into the bushes where I seen Nixon drag the body. I poked at the bushes with my rifle, but Nixon was gone. The carcass was still there. What was left of it, anyways. I seen my fair share of dead deer in my day, and it ain’t never bothered me before, but this was different. That deer had been ripped to shreds, its guts all over, reekin’ like an outhouse in summer. I ‘bout threw up, but I kept it together. 

Then I seen a path flattened through the bushes, blood all over the leaves. Musta been where Nixon went after he was done with the deer. Wasn’t sure if I really wanted to follow that path, not after seein’ what happened to the deer, but I ain’t no wuss. Plus you know, curiosity killed the doggone cat and whatnot.

So I followed it. For some reason, Nixon hadn’t kept to the trail, but went through the underbrush. You’d think that’d be hard to do with those slick dress shoes he was wearin’. Course, he’d been crawlin’ so maybe that’s easier. I dunno. Still, you’d think it’d tear up his hands somethin’ awful to crawl all that way…

Oh shut your trap, Carl! Who’s tellin’ this story, me or you?

Anyway, the trail led to that old shed of Zeb Roscoe’s that he put right on the doggone property line between our land just ‘cause he knew it’d piss me off. Normally, I wouldn’t go on ol’ Zeb’s property, but this wasn’t exactly what you’d call a normal situation.

The shed’s roof was smashed in and part of one wall was gone. I went inside to see what’d caused the damage. I could hardly get the door open. Somethin’ was blocking it from inside. I shimmied in and let me tell you, I was plum surprised. I thought maybe it was a tree branch what done it, but I found myself staring at a doggone UFO.

Quit laughin’! I watch enough History Channel to know what a UFO looks like. It was your standard flyin’ saucer. Silver, but kinda shimmery, like an oil slick. Not too big—probably about 15 feet across—but big enough for something to fit inside. And there had been somethin’ inside it, judging by the mangled hatch that was partway open. The trail of blood led right into the UFO, and snuffling noises were coming inside, like when an animal’s really hoggin’ down its food. 

Well, that was enough for me. I was about to skedaddle on out of there when I laid eyes on the shed wall. It was chock full of old political posters and stuff, and chief among ‘em was a big ol’ poster of Richard M. Nixon. Then it all clicked for me.

If this was a genuine UFO, it stands to reason that what come out of it musta been a genuine alien. And not wantin’ to stand out any more’n it had to, it probably took on the likeness of whatever it first laid eyes on. And this varmint was unlucky enough to see Nixon’s ugly mug first. So that’s how I come to have Richard M. Nixon on my trail cam. It was a doggone alien. 

You can scoff all you wanna, Jer, but you ain’t gonna be so cocky when you hear what happened next. 

I was about to get my scrawny ass out of there when that thing came shamblin’ out the UFO wreckage. It’d shifted back into its original form a bit. I didn’t quite know what I was lookin’ at. It was kinda like a giant crawdad in some regards, but it still had Nixon’s face. It had them shark teeth bared at me, so I shot it right between the eyes. Doggone bullet ricocheted back at me and grazed my ear.

Shootin’ it didn’t seem to do much good, so I reversed my shotgun and swung it at the thing. Bastard grabbed it outta my hands and flung it away. So I tried runnin’ outta the shed, but the critter grabbed me with these big-ass pincers that just erupted outta the suit it was wearing. It roared, then lunged at me and bit my head clean off!

Yeah, laugh it up, but it’s true!

Well, I’m standin’ here talkin’ to ya, ain’t I? 

Unless, of course, this isn’t me. Maybe that alien was looking for another specimen to replicate. Maybe after it bit my head off, it devoured the rest of me and assimilated my form into its own. The alien couldn’t have gleaned much from just an antiquated poster of an ex-president. Why, it didn’t even understand our language, as primitive as spoken language is. No, it needed a better form. Plus, it hungered. It still hungers, for that matter.

Hey! Why you runnin’ for? Don’t you know doggone resistance is futile?

The Shape

By Andrew Michael

Michael stepped onto the sidewalk. He hadn’t been on this street in years. The sun had long since gone down, the only illumination coming from the lamps lining the street and the decorations on the front porches. A crisp fall wind rustled the branches, shaking hundreds of leaves loose from their perches. The neighborhood was brimming with activity, children everywhere running up and down front stoops.

Tonight was the night. Halloween. The night he came home...again. Clad in dark blue mechanic’s coveralls and his signature mask and wielding a butcher knife, Michael Myers was back...and bloodthirsty.

 He didn’t waste any time. A family of four neared him on the sidewalk and made to pass; he grabbed the father by the shoulder with one hand, using the other to drive the knife between his ribs. The man gasped and looked up at him, shocked, confused, a strained gargle escaping his lips. His legs wilted under him, and he began to fall. Michael looked up from him to the rest of the group, tilting his head to one side menacingly. The mother pulled her kids close to her and they backed away, fear etched on their faces.

Suddenly she screamed, whirled around and fled, practically dragging her kids along with her. Her voice cut through the night, a screech of raw terror.

“HEEEELLLPPP!!!” she cried, “Somebody please help us! William Shatner stabbed my husband!!”

Wait. No. What did she say? Michael took a step to follow her, but stopped, unsure of what to do next. The Shatner thing had thrown him.

To his right he heard the creak of a door. He turned to look. A resident had stepped outside onto his porch, peering out at him, trying to see what the sudden commotion was about. In four swift, bounding strides Michael was up the stone walkway to the foot of the front steps. He took them two at a time, bloody knife raised high. The man’s eyes grew as big as saucers, shocked realization dawning across his face, and he retreated back into his home. He slammed the door just as Michael buried the point of the knife into the wooden frame, missing the homeowner’s hand by a fraction of a second. The man locked the door an instant later. 

Michael punched through the flimsy plate glass of one of the small sidelight windows framing the door, clawing viciously at his prey within. The man backed away from the door and out of reach, dipping his hand into his pocket and retrieving his phone, never taking his eyes off of the killer at his door. He dialed quickly and brought the phone to his ear.

“Hello? Hello police! Please send help, please! International star of stage and screen William Shatner is at my door with a knife and he’s trying to get in!! Please hurry!” 

What the hell.

Confused and enraged, Michael threw his bulk against the door. He slashed the air furiously with his knife but the man backed away further.

“He’s really pale for some reason and his face looks a lot less animated than it does on TV but it’s definitely Shatner! Please send a mounted unit, the man is a well-known equestrian and may attempt a horseback escape!!”

What is going on here, I am not Shatner!

Another voice cried out behind him. “Oh snap! Shatner’s finally lost it!!”

He turned. Back out on the sidewalk a group of teenagers were staring at him, a few with their phones out, filming.

Finally?

Michael hadn’t been keeping up on the latest Shatner news but he had never thought of the man as anywhere close to some sort of mental break. In fact, this was the most he had ever thought of William Shatner. Check that, he had never given a single moment of thought to William Shatner before right now. No matter though. It was time to get back to what he did best.

The man in the house now forgotten, Michael pulled back his hand from the shattered window frame and made his way back down the front steps, determined to get this night back on track. He crossed the front yard back toward the road with swift, purposeful steps. The kids collectively took a step back, clearly caught off guard by his aggressive movements.

“Wow, he moves really well for a guy in his 90s!” one of them exclaimed, “I heard he did a lot of his own stunts on TJ Hooker.”

Again with this. He made a beeline for the closest of the group, raising his knife high to strike. The boy staggered back, dumbstruck, seemingly unable to move fast enough in the face of his impending doom. Michael savored the moment a second longer, preparing to bring the knife down, when a new voice cut through the night.

“MICHAEL.”

At last, somebody got it right.

He turned to face his most elusive prey of all...Laurie Strode. She stood a lawn away, a shotgun in her arms, aimed squarely at him.

“Leave them alone, Michael.” she said fiercely, through clenched teeth.

“Aww dang!” the kid from earlier piped up again. “This lady thinks it’s Michael Donfield, the character William Shatner played during his guest starring role on The Man From U.N.C.L.E.! Deep pull lady!”

What the heck was this kid’s deal? How did so many people around here know so much William Shatner trivia?

Laurie looked thrown off as well. She looked to the children momentarily, “No no no, this is Michael Myers, he’s a deranged psychopath who?

In an instant Michael was upon her. He swatted at the shotgun, sending it flying from her hands. She reacted swiftly, dodging as he brought down the knife at her. The two circled each other like a pair of prize fighters. He swiped at her with the knife again, missed, swiped again, this time landing a glancing slash across one shoulder. She grunted in pain and retreated further from reach, her good hand going for her belt. 

In one motion it was out of its loops and in her hand. She lashed at him, the end of the belt hitting him like a crude bullwhip. It struck him in the side of the head and he staggered back a step, shaking his head, taking a moment to regain his bearings. He looked back to Laurie, tightening his grip on the knife. It was time to finish what he’d started all those years ago.

A new voice called out from the darkness, a commanding, powerful voice that cried out, “EGAD!” 

Michael and Laurie broke their focus on each other and both turned to look at the voice’s source. There on the sidewalk, a costumed grandchild at each side, a look of stunned amazement on his face, stood William Shatner. 

“My word...it’s like staring into...a mirror!” he gasped in his trademark staccato rhythm. He let go of the children’s hands, leaving them on the sidewalk as he stepped into the yard, approaching Michael and Laurie. His eyes were huge, staring at Michael, “I was just in town...to take my grandkids...trick or treating…” he studied Michael’s mask, entranced, taking in every detail, “I didn’t know I’d spend the evening…questioning my very personhood...which of us is the real Bill Shatner??”

“Oh come on!!” Laurie shouted suddenly, throwing her hands up in exasperation, “What is going on here?! This is Michael Meyers! He is a maniacal killer!” She made scoffing face “The mask barely even resembles you, it’s all white and flat looking! Why does everyone keep acting like you two are the spitting image of each other?!”

Just then a police car screeched to a stop in the driveway, it’s rollers flashing. Two officers leapt out, guns drawn, and positioned themselves behind their open doors.

“Everyone down on the ground now!” one of them screamed.

Shatner turned, “Officer, I want to press charges,” he pointed back at Michael, “this man has stolen my identity!”

“That’s not how that works,” Laurie muttered, looking over at Michael, who shook his head and shrugged.

“Oh no, Bert!” the other officer shouted, panic in his voice.

“What is it Carl?” his partner replied.

“I can’t tell which one is the real Shatner! I don’t know who to shoot!!”

“For crying out...are you kidding me??” Laurie practically screamed. 

Shatner took a step toward the police car, “Officers, it’s me, Bill! Captain James T. Kirk! Denny Crane from Boston Legal! The host of Rescue 911!!!”

Carl looked terrified. “Sir...get down on the ground!”

Bert yelled at his partner. “Put your gun down Carl, take a breath! Do not fire unless you have no other choice.”

Shatner went on, “I stopped Khan!! I WAS THE FIRST TO SEE THERE WAS SOMETHING ON THE WING!!!”

Laurie reached over and tapped Michael on the shoulder. He turned from watching the commotion to look at her.

“You want to…” she gestured with a head cock, “find some other place to finish this?”

He nodded.

“I AM THE PRICELINE NEGOTIA—”

Shatner’s booming voice suddenly cut short as the taser prongs entered his chest and began shocking him repeatedly.

***

If you ask the residents of Haddonfield, no one will tell you they remember a masked killer threatening their town that night, or a lady bound and determined to stop him. What they will tell you about is an event they will never forget: when a William Shatner impersonator tried to accost the famed thespian and received the tasing of a lifetime for it.