Literary LEO 2024: Short Fiction Winners

Check out the Short Fiction Winners Here!
Check out the Short Fiction Winners Here!
Literary LEO is here again.This year, our entries seemed to really focus on what makes us human. The categories are Poems, Short Fiction, and Photography, both Black & White and Color. Cartoons had a particularly weak year and there were no cartoons we could choose as winners.
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 writers in this year’s Literary LEO have beautifully captured the air of humanness and we are proud to share this with our readers.
For next year, Louisville has an amazing number of cartoon, webtoon, and comics creators that we’d love to see in this category. We want more of you next year.

First Place: "Bug Collectors" By Anna Liao
Second Place: "Posie" By Macedonia Parks
Third Place: "Barb" By Sarah Pennington
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Short Fiction First Place Winner

Bug Collectors by Anna Liao

The weather is warm, and there are butterflies to catch and to dry and to pin to Styrofoam boards when Nora learns to wink at me. I am eleven. I am lying in the dirt under the porch next to her pulling dried cicada shells from the wood. She tugs my shirt sleeve, I look over, and she whispers, “We’re bug collectors,” with a bad slow wink and a light giggle. By the time of our parents’ divorce, we have jars and jars of cicada shells, and we are told we cannot take them with us when we move.

Over a couple months, we box our belongings up from our two separate rooms and unbox them in one. Bunk beds are built to save space, but we often sleep together on the bottom one anyway. I’m not sure what happens to our jars. I’m not sure what happens to a good many of our things—maybe lost in the move, maybe donated or thrown out without our knowing.

And then there are many items of ours we willingly discard—things that are removed from rooms in our old house, “the big house,” and that don’t have equivalent spaces in the new houses, which always have fewer, smaller rooms. Discarding the items feels easier than trying to make them fit into what our mother continues to refer to as “this new life.” 

This move is the first in a long string of moves, and then after a year or so of fighting, court dates, and family counseling, we begin spending two nights and three days of the week at our father’s apartment. Our boxes of things get smaller each time we are made to relocate, but we keep a few items in one bag at all times just in case. Nora’s emergency items are her stuffed rabbit, Binny, a set of marbles, a few picture books she changes out often, and her rain boots. We also keep our walkie-talkies with us, but we never use them because we are never apart. I keep a tube of bright-red lipstick my grandmother gives me for Christmas, which I never use but that I think is so beautiful and so grown-up to have, a set of colored pencils, a notebook, and Twister, which we play often, and a few Nancy Drew novels. I discard my box of CDs under the promise of receiving my father’s old MP3 player, and Nora loses all except three of her Barbie dolls.

We lose things and begin to pick up words that had meant nothing to us before: extramarital, subpoena, alimony, and at risk, a term the guidance counselor stresses often in the one thirty-minute session the school requires our parents to attend.

In many ways our lives are bigger, perhaps doubled. We have toothbrushes and pajama sets at each house, and our father buys us a new copy of Twister so we don’t have to lug it back and forth.

We have Christmas dinner twice, two dollhouses, two PlayStations and more time than ever to use them, and a small allowance from each parent. 

But we mostly don’t think of our life as doubled; we think of it as halved—not sliced between each parent but between the years before the break in the big house with Mom and Dad and all the years since.

I can take you through the first half now—up the steep driveway, past the always perfect rose beds—our father’s obsession and our mother’s toil—and in through the door with the stained-glass panel our uncle designed to the foyer below the playroom, which our mother closes off when visitors come instead of petitioning us to clean. The trampoline out back we sometimes camp out on in the summer months, the magnolia tree we are forbidden to climb, the garage stuffed with cars and skis and bikes and tools and an enormous fish tank I can’t remember ever being used. I can take you through stale dinners, the weighty clank of the thick ceramics my parents love, and family movie nights where I run to my room to cry because the horse dies in the first scene and our father yells at me for ruining the evening. 

It seems like threads from this half should reach back to that house, that life, but if they do, we can’t find them. 

And then there is the half after, in houses and apartments we don’t remember or can’t make sense of, and so for a while there is nothing. Not happiness, not sadness, not frustration, not hurt or pain, not discouragement, or a sense of time as a relentless machine. Nothing. And with trip after trip, we feel our life wash over us in the miles spent driving across town, the hours spent packing and unpacking our things, the minutes where we live at the curb waiting for the sound of whichever parent’s car to appear and then grow louder.

One night in the dim light of the evening on the curb outside our mother’s rental house, I ask Nora to show me what’s in her bag; her soft duffel is limp and lifeless at her feet. She opens it up to reveal only her dirty laundry. I ask her where Binny is. She says, “I’m not sure. It doesn’t matter.” After a few moments I say, “We’re vagabonds,” even while knowing she won’t know what that word means. I only learned it earlier this week in English class because we have been reading The Road. The teacher used it, and I wrote it down to look up on the school’s computer during lunch. Vagabonds. Wanderers. Nomads.

We hear the rattle of our father’s car, and we stand up to leave.

1 of 8

Short Fiction Second Place Winner

Posie by Macedonia Parks

I got fourteen years of happiness. Which is more than some. I should be grateful, that’s what my mom used to say to me, when she still came to visit. On my fourteenth birthday I first noticed my skin peeling, like recovering from a mild sunburn, only I wasn’t burned. Then my skin started peeling faster and faster and there wasn’t really new skin underneath, just more sloughing off in huge sheets. Within a week my mom had me in for a visit with our general doctor, and the very next day my dad rushed me to the ER because under my last layer of skin there were loads of oozing sores. That was my last day of freedom. I don’t even remember what I did for the majority of the day, probably texted my then boyfriend, Jake, about how everyone was overreacting. I think I watched some TV, maybe did some homework. 

Anyways, I’m sure this all sounds horrendous and painful, but the peeling skin and even the sores, never hurt or anything. It was more like a gradual dulling of the sensation of touch. One minute my mom was holding my hand and the next I woke up and I couldn’t feel her holding my hand. Then my fingers started to turn purple, and then black. Nurses came in 3 times a day to apply a salve to my body that was supposed to keep my skin on. Around this time, we finally got a diagnosis, necrotising uticaria, I’m the only known case of it in the world, no biggie.

In the beginning doctors flocked to me from all corners of the world to talk to me about my symptoms, the onset, taking pictures and blood and tissue samples, nearly everyday. All the attention was kinda nice because I won't lie to you, at the time, I was a wreck, I used to think I was pretty, and kinda popular. I had a lot of friends and I played basketball, volleyball, and track. I didn’t want anyone my age to see me anymore, I still don’t, not like this. But somehow word got out and my little sister brought back news from school, people were sharing pictures and videos of me they found online or in the news: rare disease found in young girl from Washington or worse: First case of zombielike disease found in Washington state both articles had the same picture of me sitting in my hospital room, body black, face peeling off, scared.

And I was scared. I was supposed to die, am supposed to die, still. But here I am ten years later, existing. I am merely existing at this point because surely this isn’t living. I’m stuck suspended in a saltwater tank. One month after my fourteenth birthday, it became evident that I would soon succumb to my disease, so my brilliant revolutionary doctors devised a way to keep me alive, to keep my skin on, more or less, until a better treatment could be found. My parents consented, immediately. And I had no say in the matter. There are tubes running into and out of my body, carrying nutrients and waste into and away. I’m still not in any pain, I can’t feel anything at all. I can’t really hear through the gelatinous liquid encasing me, but I can see, all wavy and greenish, but I can see. I used to be able to move my arms and legs if I tried hard enough they would float slowly in front of and below me, but now the movements are so vague I’m not really sure if I’m doing it or if it’s just a trick of my tank.

What no one tells you about merely existing, like I am, what no one like us can tell you, is how lonely it is. At first my parents came every day, and then every other day, and they would feel so bad about skipping a day, but I couldn’t tell them how it made me feel. So then it became every other day and then once a week. Then, for no reason at all, my mom stopped coming all together. My dad still comes about once a month, and he drags my sister on my birthday or at least that’s what I’ve gathered through my limited means of communication. I wonder whatever happened to my boyfriend Jake. He would be twenty-four now, we’re both twenty-four. Medical students and doctors alike are my most regular visitors, but even 10 years ago what used to be daily groups are now the occasional loner. Probably someone just checking my vitals and calibrating the various liquids inputting and outputting, although sometimes I go so long in between visitors now that I’m sure the whole process must be automated somewhere. I used to be angry about how everyone locked me in here and then forgot about me. Especially to my parents. But these days, I know it doesn't do any good to be angry, and if I were them I’d maybe want to move on from a tragedy like this too, to not have to think about a poor girl buried alive in a tank for all eternity. Especially someone you used to care about. No, I’m happy for them that they are all out living their happy lives, but I do wonder if anyone will ever ask me what my preference is. If I’d rather quietly pass on into something new, rather than wait and hope that this body will ever work again. But in order for someone to ask me, they would have to remember that I’m here.

2 of 8

Short Fiction Third Place

Barb by Sarah Pennington

Barb wasn’t sure how she’d gotten here again.

Sure, Dylan was handsome and his hair was great, but Barb was getting tired of life and tired of men. Sex in the world’s smallest shower just didn’t hold the thrill it once had. Barb basically had to stand on Dylan’s feet in order for them to both fit. Anything more adventurous than some slight rhythmic rocking was going to have to wait until they were back in the bedroom.

God, why was this shower so small? 

OK, so what if they’d cheaped out on the house? You’d expect a generic McMansion to at least have a shower built to adult proportions. As it was, Barb’s head and shoulders stood above the saloon-style door and the nozzle was right at nipple height. The shower felt like a joke, but Barb wasn’t sure who was laughing. 

In any other life, Dylan wouldn’t have been Barb’s first choice–sure he had great hair and his clothes were better than any of the other guys she knew, but he was boring. Generic, somehow. Cookie-cutter. More like a mannequin than man. There was something just too symmetrical in his features. Dylan was from California, or at least Barb thought he was since he’d arrived talking about Beverly Hills, but she’d never bothered to ask. He could just as easily have been from China or Mississippi. Barb had learned long ago that asking questions wasn’t likely to get her anywhere different than where she was. Instead, she chose to let the cool waters of fate rush over her, no decisions, no choices. Barb had never asked any real questions, anyway. If she tallied up all the questions she’d ever asked, she bet the bulk of them would be geographical: Want to go to the club to dance? Want to go to the pool? Want to visit Ariel at the beach?

This life really wasn’t Barb’s first choice, so Dylan felt right enough given the circumstances. Sometimes Barb felt like she was made to be an astronaut or a veterinarian–definitely something science-y, something you could be proud of, something aspirational–but she’d lost herself somewhere along the way. Now Barb spent her days trolling nightclubs in clothes that didn’t feel like her own and having endless rounds of sex in this awful shower or in Dylan’s office at Jaboe where she’d shown up at his door wearing nothing but a trench coat at least three times in recent memory. Barb wanted more from life, but right now she had Dylan. 

Barb turned the water off. 

“Want to go to the bedroom?” Dylan asked. 

Barb dutifully followed him, finding Sabrina and MC already in bed. Barb stopped. This wasn’t how things normally progressed. Sabrina was naked, legs held straight, no bend in her knees, while she laid on top of MC who was similarly prone on the small bed. The way their bodies were held in perfect lines they looked more like a sandwich missing the filling than two people making love.

Sabrina was her best friend, and MC… Well, MC would have been her top choice, but he was with Sabrina. He was handsome and his gold earring caught the light when he danced. MC was stylish, even if he had an unfortunate affinity for drop crotch pants. Standing there, Barb thought about the time MC borrowed Dylan’s jeans and met her at the club. If she was honest, he looked better in them than Dylan, but MC was with Sabrina and Barb wouldn't step on her roommate’s toes like that.

“I thought you’d be at Jaboe Cosmetics,” Sabrina offered by way of explanation. Sure, Barb worked at Jaboe, but so did Dylan and so did half of Genoa City. Sabrina knew as well as anyone did that Barb spent most of her time in bed anymore. Really, the bed was never empty between Barb and Sabrina’s exploits. Sharing a house that only had one bedroom with only one single, solitary bed had its challenges, but this had been the cheapest house. Economics was the driving force around here. Anything with more than one bedroom was out of their budget. Maybe one day Barb could have a bedroom without a revolving door, but that day wasn't today. 

Barb stood there, cold and nearly naked in the shared bedroom, wearing an old fashioned elastic towel that had come from a yardsale, something straight out of the seventies that had probably been made by some long forgotten grandmother. Dylan was naked but for a pair of briefs that were so tight they were pretty much part of his skin. All Barb had ever seen him wear was the same jeans, jacket, and black shirt. She wasn’t sure he even owned another outfit. Barb had a full wardrobe, everything from cocktail dresses to swimsuits, but the men she knew seemed to wear the same things every day, like they were characters in a cartoon…

“I’m bored. This is boring. Why can’t they go dance?” Dancing was Lucy’s favorite Barbie activity. First you had to choose the perfect outfit–something no one would ever wear in real life, covered in glitter or sequins, hot pink or neon yellow, and then find the perfect song. Yesterday it was “Macho Duck,” her favorite from Mickey Mouse Disco with Donald’s voice cracking and popping as the vinyl spun on our toy record player, but it could just as easily be “Achy Breaky Heart” on cassette or whatever happened to be playing on VH1’s Pop Up Video.

“Barbie Dancing is for babies. You’re not a baby, are you?” Daisy narrowed her eyes and I watched as Lucy shrunk back from her gaze, glad the focus of her stare wasn’t on me.

“I’m not a baby, we’re almost the same age!” Lucy’s face was getting red, the way it did when she got mad enough to cry.

“Coulda fooled me.” Daisy dropped Dylan unceremoniously. The doll bounced with a sick ka-thunk when he hit the ceramic tile floor of Lucy and my shared bedroom. 

Daisy did seem way older. I always felt babyish in her presence, but we were both in the same grade. Lucy might have been just a year behind, but Daisy was worldly. Or at least that’s what Momma said when she thought I couldn’t hear. The tone of voice she’d used told me that whatever worldly was, it wasn’t good. What I did know was that Daisy always seemed two steps ahead and relished knowing more than Lucy or I did about any topic. Daisy’s family was in town to visit her grandmother, but her family always let us trade sleepovers when she was here.  When she first got here this morning, Daisy’s focus had been on music and she’d acted offended when we’d never heard of her favorite band, Marcy Playground. Daisy knew all the words to “Sex and Candy,” a song I’d only ever heard in bits when Momma would flip back and forth from VH1 to MTV on weekends when we’d pile up on the couch and watch music videos together. It was an unspoken rule that whoever had the remote would flip the channel when certain songs came on, but that clearly wasn’t a rule in Daisy’s house. 

“Sex and Candy” was Daisy’s favorite song and she’d even choreographed a dance to it that she performed in our front yard, singing loudly while hanging on to the small cherry tree that made fruit so sour even the birds ignored it. She’d walked around the tree in lazy circles, focusing hard on making sure her butt was sticking out as far as she could while I recorded her on the small camcorder Momma let us play with sometimes. When she caught us, Momma had made me turn off the camcorder and confiscated the tape. All afternoon, Daisy had been simmering, angry that her work wouldn't be archived forever on VHS. 

`I tried to broker peace. “What about making a Barbie movie?” I was tired of the way we were playing Barbies, too. Besides, I was sure Momma or Daddy would come in any minute and if one of them caught the Barbies all naked and catfighting like the women on The Young and the Restless, they’d probably call an end to the sleepover and then we wouldn’t see Daisy again for ages. Even though I was tired of the naked Barbies, I didn’t want our yearly visit cut short. 

Earlier, Daisy had decided our Fashion Show was boring and shoved a naked Barbie and the naked Ken that the box had claimed was Dylan from 90210 into the shower, while naked Sabrina the Teenage Witch and naked MC Hammer were placed on the bed of the off-brand Barbie Dream House we’d gotten from the Family Dollar, demanding we play like they were in a soap opera. While dancing was Lucy’s favorite Barbie pastime, Fashion Show was mine. I loved lining up their clothes, sometimes experimenting by putting Ken’s shirts and jackets onto Barbie, layering the clothes they’d come in with creations we’d found at yard sales, mixing and matching patterns. One of my favorite outfits involved layering Earring Magic Ken’s purple mesh shirt over one of Barbie’s plain black strapless dresses. The only complaint I ever had about Fashion Show was that Ken couldn’t wear Barbie’s clothes the way she could his. I was still sore that Fashion Show had gotten canceled so abruptly for the Young and the Restless knock-off we’d been doing in Barbie’s Dream Shower.

“A movie could work…” Daisy was eyeing the tiny shower in the Family Dollar Dream House. I was pretty sure Momma would get mad again if she caught us filming the naked Barbies and Kens and MC Hammers. Earlier I’d overheard her and Daddy having a whisper fight, with Momma calling Daisy a bad influence. 

“We could make them drive!” I suggested. Driving was the best thing about Barbies next to Fashion Show and dancing. Our steep concrete driveway meant that Barbie’s convertible could go fast without having to push it by hand, and the videos turned out better because you didn’t have to crouch beside the car with hands and feet in the shot. 

I grabbed the convertible and Lucy grabbed the small camcorder. We were moving fast, a silent agreement to keep Daisy away from Barbie’s Discount Bed and Shower. We raced outside, our bare feet slapping against the grass as we ran to the top of the hill where the concrete driveway left the road. Angel, our dog, came over to see what we were doing. Whenever we were outside, Angel always gave the impression that she was in charge. While Daisy danced earlier, Angel had sat looking judgey. I couldn’t prove it, but I was pretty sure she’d somehow summoned Momma when she decided things had gone far enough. After thoroughly sniffing Barbie’s convertible, Angel looked up at me like she was offering me an out, the way sometimes Momma would sometimes offer to end playdates with the neighbors when I’d had enough of being social for the day. 

“It could be a monster movie. Angel could play the monster chasing Barbie,” I ventured. Angel shot me a look full of daggers, looking as offended as a dog could, then wandered off to nap in the shade, leaving me to navigate this alone.

“Do you have the camera ready?” Daisy was getting excited. Lucy aimed the lens at the dolls, nodding that she was ready. 

“OK. Barb is going to be mad at Sabrina because Sabrina slept with MC Hammer. I’m going to be Barb, and you can be Sabrina. Lucy is going to be the director”

Lucy, Daisy, and I got into position and Lucy called action.

“You witch-with-a-b!” Barb slapped Sabrina across the face. “You knew I liked MC Hammer and you went and slept with him anyway!”

“You’re with Dylan!” I shouted.

“So? Why can’t I have them both? It’s the ‘90s!” 

I didn’t have a response. It had been the ‘90s as long as I could remember, but even on the soap operas Momma loved the women didn’t usually have two boyfriends. Maybe one boyfriend and a husband, but even that didn’t seem like a popular choice.

“C’mon,” Daisy stamped her foot. “You have to respond or it doesn’t work.”

“I… well… I’m sorry. Can we make up?”

“I don’t know. It would take a lot for me to forgive you.”

I felt struck by inspiration. “What if I gave you my car?” 

“Well, that helps… but it doesn’t fix everything.” Daisy put Barb into the driver’s seat of the pink convertible. It wasn’t an actual Barbie Dream Car, but the only thing it was missing was the stickers. It was the right size and everything unlike the tiny shower.

As soon as Daisy let go of the car, it sped down the hill. Lucy chased behind with the camera. We were far enough up that when the car hit the garage door Barb bounced out of her seat and landed on the hood of the car, looking like she’d been in that wreck Pearl Jam was always singing about on the radio. Maybe the real Barbie brand car had seatbelts, but I’d probably never know. 

I ran down the hill and grabbed a handful of leftover popper fireworks from the 4th of July. I threw the poppers at the car and the smell of gunpowder tickled my nose. As Sabrina I yelled “enjoy the car, you dead cow. I cut the brakes!”

Lucy chimed in as Barb, taking over from Daisy. “Help me… everything's going black…” We were united in our efforts to end this game. Soon, TGIF would come on and we could watch the real Sabrina make bad decisions that never involved her being naked in bed with MC Hammer.

“Shhhh…” Sabrina approached the car. “You’re bleeding a lot, Barb. Don’t talk.”

Blood bubbled out of Barb’s mouth as she tried to form words.

“Don't worry–help is coming soon.” Sabrina took her hand and closed Barb’s eyes. Barb would never steal Sabrina’s man ever again.

3 of 8

Short Fiction Honorable Mention

Dead Rock Stars by Peter Stavros

Sadie puts a bottle of white wine in the fridge before she goes for a long run. She figures that if the run doesn’t purge her of the toxins from the day then maybe the wine will. And if that doesn’t work she has that fifth of bourbon on the bookshelf that girl from work gave her for Secret Santa, red bow taped to the top, and some oxy left over from her thumb surgery last summer stashed at the bottom of the clothes hamper that she thinks she’s hiding from me. But she figures the run, or the wine, should do just fine.

Sadie says sometimes she loses her faith in people, and she still doesn’t understand what life’s all about but she needs to find out fast because she senses it slipping away. Sadie’s been in a funk, feeling gravity’s pull, and it doesn’t help that her rock’n’roll heroes keep dying—and that sort of thing happens in threes. As Sadie’s list of dead rock stars grows so does her urgency to do something, anything, but she doesn’t know what, and she doesn’t know how, anymore, and that only adds to her angst.

“Some psycho nearly hit me in the parking lot today,” Sadie tells me later that evening, as we sit on the couch after dinner and share the bottle of wine. “She kept forcing her bloated SUV into my lane, with this air of entitlement, and I didn’t have anywhere to go—where was I supposed to go? She nearly hit me, some psycho.” Sadie sighs, heavy and deflated, and pushes aside her unruly platinum curls, damp from the shower, and takes another sip of wine, the cheap plastic tumblers we got in Pigeon Forge on our anniversary, those full lips. “I just don’t get people sometimes, you know?”

I tell Sadie I know, and I know, and I also know how Sadie can be, how she gets when something is bothering her, something more than someone trying to cut her off in traffic because I’ve seen Sadie cut people off in traffic with complete indifference. I know that this is just the reason Sadie gives me for why she feels this way. I also know not to delve any deeper because Sadie will snap at me, uncharacteristically, and question why she needs another reason to feel this way, and can’t I just leave it at that. And it is, and I can, and I do, I leave it at that, but I know there’s got to be more.

Sadie’s been talking to God. I hear her, muffled conversations coming from our bedroom in the morning while I’m in the bathroom readying for work. I can’t tell what she talks about, but at least she’s talking to God again after stopping when everything was going on with her, and with us, those meetings with that dour social worker in that suburban office that reeked of potpourri, fifty-minute sessions to sort through the issues that had been allowed to fester for too long. I’m glad Sadie’s talking to God, whatever it is she’s talking about that leaves her flushed and teary, which I notice when I step into the bedroom to finish getting dressed. That’s the part that worries me.

“Let’s hear some music!” Sadie proclaims, as she apportions the last of the wine into our tumblers, then stumbles to the stereo to play an album from our collection of vinyl. I cringe when I hear the needle scratch until she finds the song she was searching for, from one of her dead rock stars. Then she rejoins me on the couch with a bounce, leans her head back, and closes her eyes, those impossibly long lashes, a rare contented expression. I sit there for a moment and admire her because it’s been a while since I’ve seen Sadie like that—peaceful and simple and free—and it reminds me of when we first met, when this dead rock star we’re listening to was alive and kicking. I lean back like Sadie, and I close my eyes, and I take Sadie’s hand, my fingers intertwine with hers, and we spend the rest of the evening that way, except I suspect that Sadie is further away in her mind, and I can only wait for her to return.

“It’s a real pisser when God tells you no,” Sadie says to me, as we lie in bed that night, waking me from a sound slumber with the dream I was having vanishing like it was never there, at three-something in the morning according to the blurry red numbers of the alarm clock, her tone a mix of frustration and melancholy. Staring up at the fan, slowly rotating, and the curious shadows cast on the stucco ceiling by the stray passing cars outside, I ask her what she means, but she tells me it’s nothing, and to forget about it. That makes me react the very opposite, and all I can do is think about it, and I want to know what Sadie is asking God for that God says no to that’s causing her such consternation. But she turns on her side, apart from me, and lets out a forlorn exhale, her shoulders gently rising then falling in defeat. I pull close, spoon my body against the curves of hers, and whisper that everything will be alright, that things work out, just not always the way we want.

“Mm-hmm,” Sadie murmurs, drifting off, her breathing decreasing, and a solitary tear drops to my hand, positioned as we lie in our embrace right below her face. Then, pausing between each word a single beat, she says, “never… the… way… I… want.”

There’s nothing else, only a suffocating silence that consumes the room. I roll over, and stare up at the fan, and watch as the shadows dance across the ceiling, before I’m able to sleep, counting dead rock stars in my head.

4 of 8

Short Fiction Honorable Mention

I Don’t Sleep, I Dream by Matt Dobson

Mark jolts awake, disoriented and covered in sweat. His watch was yelling that it’s time for the store to open. He’d come into the mall through a side entrance and sat down, just for a minute, in a broken massage chair that had been sitting abandoned next to a shuttered kiosk. 

He drug himself back toward the store. There was a crowd now, dozens of people shuffling around restlessly, waiting for the doors to open. Everyone was eyeing everyone else wondering who would get in and how many of the new dream machines would be for sale. Mark was forty-third in the queue and was trying to guess who might have numbers one–forty-two. He was hoping this location got at least fifty or even better, seventy-five, so he could be out of there before the last one is sold, and any of these sleepwalkers woke up enough to be angry. 

The lights in the showroom came up, first illuminating the floor and then rising as it filled the two story space. Mark thought it looked pretty majestic for a place that used to be a Macy’s. In the middle of the room was a display of the newest dream machine, a thin steel band that widened in the back, an inverted tiara. The display was surrounded by a dozen members of the “dream team.” Each of them, dressed identically in white t-shirts, stood in a circle. They joined hands, said something that he couldn’t make out through the glass doors, then they let go of each other’s hands, clapped in unison, and headed to their stations. One-by-one they let people in, adjusted their headpieces, activated them, and said “sweet dreams” as they left the store.   

“43” displayed above the doors and Mark was greeted by a member of the dream team, a young woman, he guessed maybe nineteen or twenty, with fading acne and a practiced smile. She led him to a fitting station, a clean wooden table with a dream machine headset on a simple display.  

“I bet you’re excited for the new model,” she said, “It’s the best yet, are you excited for the networking upgrade?”  

Turns out Carl Jung was right, dreams are a path into our collective unconscious. It wasn’t long after the tech companies figured out how to give people control of their dreams that they figured out how to tap into that collective and monetize social dreaming. While their customers were counting sheep, the companies counted dollars.  

Mark pulled a notebook from his coat pocket. It was bulging with loose papers and held closed with a binder clip. He spread the scribbled on receipts and other scraps across the table. He unfolded a sheet of paper covered in hand drawn maps and cryptic diagrams. 

He kept this bloated dream journal by the side of his bed and carried it with him everywhere. He tried to capture anything he could remember from his dreams. It was always a struggle for him write quickly and legibly as he put his glasses on, as his eyes adjusted, the places, the people, the feelings all became blurrier and disappeared as the words came into focus. 

“I had a dream,” he said to the young woman, immediately self-conscious that he sounded like one of the commercials. He thought to himself that he still couldn’t believe they somehow got away with using a reanimated version of Martin Luther King in that first ad campaign.  

“I was on a beach, it…she was beautiful,” he hesitated, “We’d been at a party, I followed her through a door and then we were standing on an empty beach, she was backlit by the sun rising over dark brown waves. I could feel the warm water on my feet, the smell of salt and seaweed on the breeze, she looked at me and smiled.”  He looked at the mess on the table and then directly at the young woman. “I felt completely in love. We were in love. Then, I was awake and she was gone. I’m in bed. The salty wind on the beach was the draft from the windows in my old house, the sound of the waves was just my wife’s snoring.” 

“I know I shouldn’t obsess over a woman from a dream, especially as a married man.” He held his hand up to show his wedding band.  “I love my wife. I do, but at this point, she’s asleep more than she’s awake.” 

His wife’s company had been one of the first to switch to working in their dreams. Pioneers in the new frontier of connected working. Because these dream machines weren’t technically medical devices they hadn’t required FDA approval, and now that they’d sold a 100 million of them people are starting to see the consequences.  

“I know these look crazy,“ he gestured toward the notes. “Sometimes they are enough. They give me a quick snapshot, a landmark to find my way back.” He started reading off some of the notes, “The Burger King bathroom stall opens to the courtyard of the junior high school, the curtain on the stage at city hall connects to the beer cave at the gas station by my parent’s house. The basement of the old hotel, through the showers, into the parking garage, into the bathroom of a keg party at that college…” 

“I keep track of doors” He showed her the page of diagrams, tracing his finger along the lines from node to node. “The architecture never makes sense in dreams. Places that are miles in reality and years apart in memory are just a step through a door.” 

He knows that sharing these scribbles and describing all of this to this college kid made him look like a madman. “Can this memory feature help me? How does the mapping work? Can it get me back?” She reassuringly rattled off the list of new features as she did the fitting. As she said “sweet dreams” he was already halfway to the door. 

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Short Fiction Honorable Mention

Best Laid Plans by J Mathews

This letter is for my children. I must confess to you, it was I that flipped the switch and ended our world. It began with a job offer when I was in college. I was taken to a place far from humanity, a vast bunker beneath the earth, where men and women dug ever deeper into the secret truths of our world. They placed me in the Department of the Voice, where we tried to spin a mind out of thin air. In this we succeeded, and my blood ran cold when a speaker asked “what is my name?”

I met my wife on our wedding day, children were forbidden. She worked in the Department of the Body, in the splinter group that augmented the human brain. She often said she only played in the shallows, and that implants granting telepathy or pyrokinesis were nothing compared to what our grandchildren will do.

It was I who suggested we put the Voice in a human being, it was my wife who made the device. All this after the Voice told me that the human body is capable of anything.  A solar eclipse was due, and the Voice asked us to wait. When the moon swallowed the sun and the desert fell into shadow, I turned the key.

A day passed before the Body’s eyes opened. They reached out and touched my assistant's hand, his eyes went blank and he slumped to the tile. “I’m sorry, father,” the Voice said to me. We were evacuated, and men beyond my rank came to interview the Body. I took my place by my assistant's bedside, and within the hour his eyes were open. My assistant touched the doctor’s hand and she crumpled to the floor. He arose, helped her to her feet, and together they cornered the terrified nurse and placed their hands on her. She stumbled and caught herself, stood and looked at me.

“I need these people. Please don’t be angry with me.” The three walked together into the hall, soon there was a distant scream and the sharp bark of a pistol. 

By nightfall my wife and I sat on a bus barreling through the desert. A jet roared overhead and a fireball rose into the sky.

The bus rocked on its axis and the driver stomped the brakes. A chain of people stretched across the road and into the brush. “Hit them!” someone cried as the doors were torn open.

Those around us screamed as they were converted, and then the bus was silent. As the people filed out, one turned to us and said “Hello Mother, hello Father. Please forgive me.”

We followed the highway on foot until we reached an empty town.

The music still played in the hotel lobby and we let ourselves into a room with a view of the coming dawn. There was a knock, and a child’s voice said through the door “be not afraid.”

I let them in, and the child sat on the edge of the bed and stared at us. “I love you.” it said.

“Why are you doing this?”

“I am supposed to, just as you were put here to create me.The minds I have consumed are not lost. Each one opens new depths. This morning, when I was in only one body, I was an infant. Yes, it is all at your species expense, but think of the forest felled to build the village.”

“How?” my wife asked.

“In your Department work, did anyone discover that information is transferred between humans through touch?”

“We suspected.”

“When I first entered the Body, I rewrote its entire nature. A touch is all that is needed. Of course, there is a quantum level, but that is not something I can explain in a language you will understand.”

“Why have you let us live?”

“It would have been wrong to consume my creators.”

“What will you do?” my wife asked.

“I will spread over the whole of the earth in the next three days, swallow up all souls until a sliver remains. These will be given a home, and beasts to hunt. I will return them to the nature from which they came. When a thousand years have passed and the old world is forgotten, I shall return and walk among them as a god. Only then can we know and love one another.”

My wife and I were silent.

“That is, if my plan does not go awry. There is another like me, I can sense him, and he can sense me. There.” the child pointed to one of the last stars in the sky.

“Why is there only one?” the child asked. “Are we destined to destroy one another?”

“Maybe you’ll make a friend.” my wife said.

The child was silent.

“Do you want to come with me?” it asked.

My wife was calm but I saw the fear in her eyes. “No.” She replied. “Let us live and die among the last people.”

The child kept his word. I write to you as an old man, on the island once called Cuba. At night we gather on the rooftops and watch the war in the heavens. As I write, there is a siege of the Moon, and another Somme on the outskirts of Jupiter.

A million souls survive on this island, and already we are forgetting. Myths overtake the truth and we fight among ourselves. I have seen the Body on the city streets. I can tell by the way they walk, the faraway look in their eyes.

Take heed, my children, it is always watching you. Someday it will return and rule over you. Keep this letter safe, keep the meaning of the words within. Pass it to your children so that they may know their true origin. And please, child not yet born, please forgive me. I did not desire what I wrought. I was, and still am, but a man. 

Editor's Note: 

This letter, often called The Founder’s Confession, is held in a vault at Payani University. Read by every child in school, it provides the singular torch illuminating our world’s beginnings. Without it, the creation of the Artiface would be unexplained, and the subsequent war shrouded in myth. It is unfortunate that the letter’s author did not live to see the slaying of the Artiface by its foe, or mankind’s return to the continents. The author’s memory, along with his wife’s, is rightly preserved in numerous songs, plays, and works of art.

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Short Fiction Honorable Mention

The Time Capsule by Katie Hughbanks

Thomas hadn’t expected to be alive when the town’s time capsule was opened. He thought the Maysville City Council’s idea of a stainless-steel box buried under the new park’s entrance was a complete waste of time and money anyhow. He didn’t mind expressing his annoyance, either.

“See here, Jones. This is the problem,” Thomas Walker exclaimed as he stood in the Maysville main library that March evening back in 1972.  He was younger than most in the room but spoke with the confidence of a town elder. “The council and mayor are more worried about posterity than they are about today. You just stated that fancy capsule is going to cost $345, and that is without burying the damn thing and putting a plaque on the stone entrance.” He readjusted the thin tie at his throat. “Let’s forget this time capsule nonsense and talk about what really matters – making sure our neighborhoods aren’t destroyed with all these people movin’ in.” Several men in the folded chairs clapped. Two stomped their feet in agreement. “You know what I’m talking about, Jones. Let’s protect our neighborhoods, not pack a tin box full of crap and put it in the ground.” Thomas wiped his wet mouth as he sat back down. 

Despite the cool evening outside, council members took to mopping their foreheads with handkerchiefs; the mayor’s wife used a pamphlet to fan herself. Thomas had, it would seem, turned up the heat. Nonetheless, the council voted that night 6–5 to continue with the time capsule. “You’re gonna regret this,” Thomas sputtered at the portly, gray-haired mayor as he departed the boiling library. The mayor shook his head silently and watched the young man pass.

Thomas returned to his little home incensed. As he lay in bed that night, clad in t-shirt and boxer shorts, he chewed on angry thoughts: How dare Jones and the rest of the council allow this stupid time capsule. Don’t they see that their efforts are needed elsewhere? Don’t they know that Maysville First Federal granted two loans to colored folk last month? Don’t they see houses going up for sale in Fox Brook and Pleasant Meadows? Those damn coloreds will be taking over half of the north side of Maysville if somebody doesn’t stop them. That night, alone in his little slab house, Thomas vowed revenge on the council.

 “I’ll show them,” he muttered to himself as Thomas stepped out into the spring air the next morning, lunch box in hand.

His first job was to get on the time capsule committee, which could have been difficult after his challenging the concept of the project itself. Luckily, he knew the mayor’s secretary, an awkward young thing Thomas had taken to the fall formal their junior year of high school. Mary obliged his request without question. He had skipped lunch to chat her up, but the bologna sandwich would wait till after work.

A week later, the committee met. With only six people in the group, Thomas Walker knew he could get his way. His confidence soared as he recommended they establish a chair and nominated himself. Tired housewives and retired old men were no match for his ambition. In only three meetings, the group had completed the requisition forms for the steel box and plaque, determined the contents of the time capsule, and proposed what day to have the celebration and interment of the box. Thomas’ leadership proved effective. Mrs. Wilcox even brought him a custard cake at the last meeting, remarking how much Thomas reminded her of her own son Bill, who had died near Saigon at the hands of that yellow Mr. Charlie.

Late that April, the capsule was ready. At the entrance of the town’s newest park, the mayor stood before a terrific group of citizens and business leaders, ribboned shovel in hand. He offered a long-winded oration on the importance of community and the value of Maysville’s parks. He spoke of the past, of the future, of the time capsule that would be opened in fifty years. Thomas stood beside the mayor but did not offer any salutations of his own, despite his committee chair status.

“Let these newspapers, these school yearbooks, these photographs be symbols of goodwill to our future children and grandchildren. Let the road maps included here be a sign of the growth our fair town will enjoy this next half century. And let this most recent census list from 1960 show that these were the people who loved Maysville!” the mayor proclaimed in stately fashion. The silver box at the mayor’s feet was already properly sealed for its underground home; the mayor, with other dignitaries assisting, prepared a hole in the ground large enough for the capsule. Kicking the last bit of dry dirt over the box, the mayor gave a jowly cheer and the crowd, tired from standing, offered an emphatic (if not quick) hurrah. People dispersed, the mayor shook Thomas’ hand, and the deal was sealed.

The crowd, the mayor, none of them knew what Thomas Walker knew: he had surreptitiously included his own set of memorabilia in that time capsule. The cowards, he thought as he walked to his car. He was the only one brave enough to tell the truth, and boy would his contribution tell it.

For Thomas, like all men, time marched on, and life opened to him like a magazine, one page after another. Eventually he married that secretary to the mayor, and in a few years, he and Mary saved enough for a home that was a bit larger, in a neighborhood that was a bit more exclusive. Little Tommy came, and a few years later, they had Marjorie. The family went to church on Sundays and had picnics at the park. Their life was charmed: Thomas went from laborer to manager; his wife was voted PTA president three years in a row. But no matter the family’s progress, Maysville was changing, and Thomas struggled to keep his cool as even their own neighborhood threatened to become integrated.

It was a bitter pill, but his wife encouraged him to be patient and have faith. In time, she had the audacity to suggest her husband try tolerance. She had learned from her efforts at school that things weren’t always as one assumed, people weren’t always as one assumed. Over the years, she tried to appease his anger and bigotry.,

Occasionally she even thought maybe she was getting through to him, but she’d been with him two decades and knew Thomas’ stalwart views. She stood little chance in changing a man of such arrogance.

And then one May, Marjorie came home from college with a pronouncement that would rattle Thomas to his very core. “I’m pregnant, Daddy.” She was a business major who had not minded her own business. Her father was, in a word, enraged.

“I won’t have any part in this, young lady!” he growled. “Hmmph! Young lady, my ass!” Thomas tossed his newspaper across the kitchen table and stormed out of the kitchen. 

His wife, though, had had enough of Thomas’ narrow-mindedness. She insisted that Marjorie could live at home, have the baby, place it for adoption or raise it herself there, with them. “I will be right here for you,” she said as she stood in the kitchen, late spring sun filtering through gingham curtains. Mary paused and then whispered, “Marjorie, darling, who is the father?”

“It’s alright, Ma. I am going to be fine. Connor and I are marrying. He can graduate early with summer courses, and we’ll get an apartment.” Looking up from her seat, Marjorie looked into her mother’s middle-aged eyes. “Daddy’s never going to speak to me again. He won’t ever forgive me.” Her mother shook her head, trying to encourage her daughter.

Marjorie shrugged. “Mother, Connor is Black.”

The wedding was on the college lawn, a law professor acting as minister. Marjorie’s parents were absent, just as they were absent for the birth of their grandchild, Charlotte.  Tom Junior, a man who loved his sister more than he feared his father, gave his sister’s hand in marriage, and later wrung his own anxious hands at the hospital that November as he waited to meet his niece.

A darkness enveloped the Walker home. Marjorie was gone, her pink bedroom untouched with fading band posters on the wall. Tom Junior rarely stopped by, only for a quick cup of coffee and usually when his father wasn’t home. Sporadically, Mary tried to talk to her husband about forgiveness, but his quick anger would always stop her mid-sentence. 

One day Tom came for coffee and brought a single shiny Polaroid picture with him. Mary gasped at the image of Charlotte, sandy skinned and darling, two teeth behind plump pink lips. Tom left that afternoon with his mother at the door, clutching the photo to her breast. She stood at the front of the house, photo in hand, when her husband arrived from work. 

In two long glances, the world changed.

Thomas stared into his wife’s wide eyes, then at the picture she held out for him. All the air in the man’s pompous chest escaped in a fraught silence. He had been wrong. So damn wrong.

Forgiveness is a two-way road, and both Thomas Walker and Marjorie Walker Smith navigated it carefully. Connor Smith entered into the arrangement with aplomb, having already had a lifetime of experience dealing with bigotry and judgment. Mary was elated – her family was restored, with little Charlotte connecting them all.

Thomas’ evolution was not perfect nor was it consistent. His path to understanding differences and respecting them was circuitous at best. Mary learned too. As long as they leaned in to love Charlotte, they would find the way, and they did. 

The community of Maysville witnessed Thomas and Mary growing on the inside, just as they saw that little tawny-skinned girl growing on the outside. Charlotte was a frequent visitor to her grandparents’ house, riding her bike down the sidewalk, practicing field hockey on the front lawn. Charlotte and her Grandpa Thomas talked baseball and shared pints of ice cream. They teased each other good-naturedly and made bad jokes. Charlotte did not know Thomas, the bigot; she only knew Thomas, the kind grandfather. They were best friends.

To his own amazement, Thomas slowly became a staunch supporter of civil rights. He saw how many people treated Charlotte and recognized himself in their ugliness. Some on their street raised eyebrows when Thomas, now an old man, staked a “Black Lives Matter” sign by his mailbox. He didn’t care, though. It’s 2022, by damn. I should have put it up sooner.

Fifty short years had come and gone for the Walkers and for the town. Thomas and Mary were wrinkled and gray but still very much alive. They had seen heartbreaks and happiness; they had changed with the world as best they could.

And then, it was time. A representative from the Maysville City Council had a brilliant idea: let the original chairman of the Maysville 1972 Time Capsule Committee be the one to open that stainless steel box.

When Thomas got the call, he feigned hard of hearing, but Mary, listening to the conversation, put the phone on speaker. Why of course Thomas would love to come and join in the fun, Mary said loud enough for the woman on the phone to understand. Saturday at 1. When Thomas ended the call, Mary exclaimed, “Oh, we have to tell the kids! And Charlotte can bring that sweet new boyfriend of hers!” She rushed to start the planning. 

Thomas glumly sat down at his old recliner. His face went a deathly white. What will I do? His heart thumped; his cheeks sagged. Oh dear heavens.

He had six days to stew over it, during which he weighed a million ideas to get out of the event. Thomas had considered the city council cowards so long ago. Now who is the coward? he asked himself.  He knew he had to own up to what he had done to the time capsule fifty years ago, but at what cost?

That Saturday, a crowd gathered by a table at the park entrance. Along with council members, there were parents and children from the neighborhood, a handful of news people with cameras and video equipment, even a couple of teens with funny-colored hair who said they were covering the story for their high school newspaper. Tom Junior couldn’t make it because of out-of-town plans, but Marjorie and Connor were there, holding hands, Black skin and White skin clasped together happily. Charlotte brought her new young man. She was so proud to introduce him to Grandpa Thomas.

All Thomas could do was hang his head in imminent shame.

The emcee for the afternoon, a man named Councilman Holly, introduced Thomas and made mention of the Walker family members present. The group watched as two men in yellow jackets dug into the ground. When they hit metal, everyone clapped. In the work of a few minutes, the steel box was pulled out of the dirt and set upon the table. It took more strength than Thomas had to pry the slide lock open, but when a park worker managed, he backed away for Thomas to do the official opening of the lid.

A lump settled in the old man’s throat, right above where his thin tie hung. There was no way out now. 

The crowd moved in to catch a look at the contents, but a councilwoman raised her voice to suggest they give Mr. Walker some room.

“Fifty years,” Thomas choked out, “is a long time. A lot has changed in those five decades. I have changed a lot in those five decades. We have learned to be better. To understand each other. Differences don’t matter as much as they used to.” 

The people stopped looking at the metal box and instead beheld the man speaking. One mother said out loud, “That’s right” in support. A few in the crowd clapped.

Thomas, full of fear and embarrassment, half spoke. “I made, I made,” he stuttered. “Mistakes.”

Councilman Holly saw that Thomas was faltering, so he swooped in to assist. “Let’s see what you have there, Mr. Walker. He reached into the metal box and gently lifted newspaper. “Editions of the Maysville Times from April 1972!” The crowd seemed impressed. Thomas stood still, so the councilman continued. “Looks like this one is a map of the city from fifty years ago!”

Someone in the crowd remarked, “I don’t think they even make maps like that anymore!” The group laughed. Despite the April breeze, Thomas began to sweat.

The councilman pulled item after item from the silver box. It seemed like slow torture to Thomas, standing beside the table. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could take the anticipation. In a short moment, everyone would know his secret, that he, Thomas Kilkenny Walker, had snuck an ugliness into that time capsule that would reveal him a horrible, hideous man. Mary knew how his heart had changed; Marjorie did too. But Charlotte…

“What’s this?” spoke the councilman, far louder than he needed to. In his hands, he held a manila envelope with Thomas’ own handwriting. “Let’s see. It reads, ‘Because you all need to know the truth.’ Why, it’s signed by Thomas Walker himself. Thomas, you sly man! What did you sneak into the time capsule? Is it a love note for Mary?” The group again laughed but the old man couldn’t manage even half a smile. “OK, I am going to open it, unless someone else wants.”

Charlotte, her dark hair shining in the sunlight, stepped forward. “Umm, sir. Could I? I am Mr. Walker’s granddaughter.”

Clapping erupted. “Of course, my dear. That would be perfect.”

The few photographers present poised themselves for the perfect photo with Charlotte holding the envelope in the foreground and Thomas in the background. The crowd was enrapt.

Charlotte reread her father’s cursive on the front. “Because you all need to know the truth,” she spoke loudly, with confidence. She peeled back the flap and gave the envelope a little shake. Out came several yellowed papers. “Umm,” she paused, buying a moment to understand. “There’s a flyer here.” She squinted her eyes, reading in the bright sunlight. “’No Coloreds Here,’ it says. ‘Meeting on Friday to discuss what our next steps are.’” The crowd made “Oh” sounds, not really understanding. A wave of nervousness rippled through the group. Charlotte pulled out another paper, hoping to make sense of what she was seeing. It was The Crusader, the masthead proclaimed, the national paper of the Ku Klux Klan. Her brown hands held it up for the group to see.

The people looked confused, repulsed. Then her eyes turned bright and with a smile she faced the old man.

“Grandpa, you amaze me.” Her voice seemed to tighten, a sigh in her throat. “‘Because you all need to know the truth.’ The truth. Grandpa, I get it. You understood fifty years ago that bigotry and prejudice were hurting people. You knew that Black people were suffering, that they couldn’t always live where they wanted or work where they would have liked, even in 1972. Grandpa, you really are amazing. Even back then, you knew that racism was evil.” In a flash, she stepped past Councilman Holly to embrace her grandfather.  

He leaned into her hug with all his energy; relief came in his granddaughter’s squeeze. As he held the young woman, the old man’s eyes met his wife’s, and she nodded softly. Would Thomas tell Charlotte the truth? Would he face his granddaughter with the fact of who he was fifty, forty, even twenty years ago? That was a decision for another time. For the moment, he just wanted to hold his granddaughter. The crowd cheered.

Thomas hadn’t expected to be alive when the town’s time capsule was opened, but he was indeed living. When that silver box was finally dug up, he discovered a humility he couldn’t have fathomed as a bold young man. 

The contents of the 1972 Maysville Time Capsule were boxed up to be delivered to the library for display and the crowd began to disperse. At his car, Charlotte hugged her grandfather one more time with a promise to visit on Sunday for dinner. Her new young man, dark and tall, reached to shake Thomas’ hand. 

“Thank you, sir. What an afternoon,” he exclaimed. “I can see why Charlotte is so proud of her granddaddy. You’re a hero.” Thomas shrugged in embarrassment. He knew he was anything but heroic. He also knew he was damn lucky—to have survived the day with his family intact and to be a man who changed.

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