Well, aren't you a pill-popping, lover-offing, strangernapping lot? Channeling Westerns, lurking around noir, donning armor, stalking cosmos, dallying with meta or just up late channeling confessions. And is that frog your id? The finch your conscience? We don't know.
But you are prolific, walloping us with a record 351 submissions — 21 from our winning man in Canada, alone! Canada, pfft. Who let him in? Kidding, Peter! Entries came by email, hand-delivery and post (some lovingly wax-sealed). An entire English class joined the fray. We and our notorious judges slogged — hearts racing! — through them. Here, now, we present our favorites.
— Heidi WaltersIllustrations by Joel Mielke
Our literary judges this year were Jay Aubrey-Herzog, bookseller at Northtown Books; David Holper, English professor at College of the Redwoods; and Kitty Yancheff, librarian at the Humboldt County Library. Each selected his or her top three picks.
The NCJ editorial staff chose the overall winner — "Noses" — and the runners up.Overall winner - NCJ
By Peter Mehren, Toronto, Canada
"Let's get one thing straight," she said, as we sat chatting over coffees. "If we ever kiss, which I doubt will happen, but if we ever do, noses to the right."
I looked from her eyes to her nose and back again. "Meaning?"
"Meaning I don't want clumsy, amateurish bumping of noses and foreheads and chins. We're not beginners. If I ever decide you can kiss me, which — "
"I know: you doubt."
"Yes. It won't be a sneak attack, so don't think about doing that. No, just like deciding on which side of the road to drive: noses right."
This quick, playful sketch of a pair of characters and their burgeoning relationship tickled us without wasting a word — just easy dialogue and reading between the lines. —NCJJUDGE'S PICK - Jay Aubrey-Herzog
By Christopher Christianson, Shelter Cove
"I'm a loser," said Charles.
"No," said Brian. They sat at the bar. "You're a winner. Everyone you see here is a winner." He spread his arms wide and smiled.
"How so?" asked Charles, drinking.
"Well," said Brian. "We were all sperm once — one of millions, going for the same thing at the same time in the same place. Think of the odds!" He laughed. "But we won." He slapped Charles on the back. "We're winners!"
Charles thought of it.
That night, after masturbating, Charles felt like a winner as he flushed all the losers down the toilet.
This made me laugh, and unlike many of the other entries, the humor was intentional. — Jay Aubrey-HerzogJUDGE'S PICK - Kitty Yancheff
By Stephen Sottong, Eureka
She jogged on, feeling his eyes intent on the sway of her hips.
He jogged beside her, young, shirtless, sweat-soaked shorts clinging, days beard growth, broad chest heaving. "Hi."
He glanced furtively at the rhythm of her tanktop. "Haven't seen you jogging before."
"I vary my time." She slowed. He kept pace. "I live down here." She turned down a cul-de-sac. He followed. She stopped at a house obscured by tangled vines. "Want to come in for something cold?"
He jogged in place, face flushed, grinning. "Sure."
She smiled. He'd make a fine addition to her basement collection.
With all the sweat, rhythm, heaving and swaying there's no doubt that someone's going to see some action! — Kitty YancheffJUDGE'S PICK - David Holper
By Neil Tarpey, Eureka
My burning headache worsened, so I bought water at a desert market.
"Will you trade your bracelet?" asked an Indian woman sitting in the shaded doorway. "It shows the frog clan — my mother's people."
The bracelet had circled my wrist for nine years, so I hesitated.
"What do you offer?"
She handed over her corn maiden kachina doll. I fingered the cottonwood's lightness, considered the painted symbols, the masked face.
I gave her my bracelet.
She slid it on, her brown eyes sparkling.
That night, while I dreamed of a frog jumping through a moonlit cornfield, my fever broke.
This story as brief as it is seems a gem in that it is both complete in itself and evokes a sense of character, mystery and myth. — David HolperJUDGE'S PICK - Jay Aubrey-Herzog
By Iain MacDonald, Arcata
"A gnu?" the bank clerk queried.
"Just hand over the money and nobody gets hurt," the man growled.
But the clerk was still reading the note. "This says gnu," she repeated.
"I'm losing my patience," he threatened.
At last she looked up, and she was laughing. "This says, I have a gnu," she told him. She laughed again, louder this time.
"Okay, don't say you weren't warned," the man said grimly.
The final sound she ever heard was the thunder of hooves.JUDGE'S PICK - Kitty Yancheff
By Garrett Purchio, McKinleyville
The overgrown grass and rotting wood of the dugout couldn't ruin Old Sam's day. He was here. The scene of so many games. So many fans. So many memoJUDGE'S PICK - David Holper
By Stilson Snow, Eureka
The sound of anxious, flapping wings. Looking out my window, I see the finch caught in the netting, turn back and sip my coffee.
I push the button and listen to the message, again. "Ben, you can't stay away forever. I know you're there. Pick up. Please." Long sigh. "Julie needs you." Pause. "Please." Hang up.
My mind wanders out to the road. The fluttering of finch wings draws me back. I sip, again, and glance at the picture of Julie and me, all those years ago. I put down the cup and go to set the finch free.JUDGE'S PICK - Jay Aubrey-Herzog
By Steve Brackenbury, Fortuna
They told him if he put his tooth under the pillow he would find money waiting for him in the morning.
"Dumb ferret," he muttered as he got under the covers; for you see, he had heard it all wrong. "Ferrets ain't got no pockets to keep things in and they're mean and dirty. I hate ferrets."
Midnight came. His eyes were shut but he was wide-awake. The bedroom door slowly opened. He tightened his grip on the handle of the sharp knife he had taken from the kitchen drawer. He was ready for that stupid old ferret.JUDGE'S PICK - Kitty Yancheff
By Joseph E. Lerner, Arcata
He heard laughter inside the bar, boasts of rape and murder. He entered and straddled a barstool. Nearby six men sneered then looked away, not thinking him a threat. He twisted his wedding ring, loosening then setting it on the bar. He wouldn't muddy her memory with what he planned to do. Ordering a whisky, same brand as theirs, he told himself their final sentence would be mild compared to their own heartless deeds. He rose, his pistol out. Moments later all six were dead. He left the whisky, a silver dollar, gathered his ring, and left the tavern.JUDGE'S PICK - David Holper
By E.B. Kirwan, McKinleyville
It started with Jason-who-had-cancer. Somehow terminal illness made the sex that much better. It felt precious, temporary, fragile ... like a gift. After that, she couldn't get off unless the guy was close to death.
But terminal patients are hard to come by, and she was a creative girl. A problem solver. And the muscle spasms of an O.D. are nothing if not orgasmic. She'd hold them close as they gasped, bucked; whisper love as their breathing ceased.
Afterward, she'd light a cigarette like it was Sacrament, exhaling Last Rites. They always died happy.NCJ'S PICK
By Anthony Westkamper, Carlotta
No one knew what to expect when he reopened Sweeny's old herbarium. He was the Glittering Man on account of the way he walked and talked and dressed. His potions, salves and notions were quite miraculous.
Now, I alone, am left to rue the dark and moonless night we chose to rob him.
William took his right arm, Robert his left. A wallop from my shillelagh settled him right down.
We took rings and watch. Bobby fancied his shoes. When he pulled 'em off in the dim light we all saw his polished hooves.NCJ'S PICK
By John Onstine, Eureka
It was dusk.
The farmer and his dog were looking up at a flying saucer.
It hovered 20 feet off the ground without making a sound.
Looking back through a small round window was a chicken.
The farmer was troubled. He had eaten chicken for dinner that night.
A small cruel smile played across the chicken's face.
The farmer's dog whined softly and started to back up, putting distance between himself and his owner.
Noting the movement, the farmer silently cursed the cowardly dog and began to sweat.NCJ'S PICK
By Arnold King, Eureka
Letdown flashed across the ATM screen. He scanned keywords in the statement, like a lover scans a breakup email the first time through in order to absorb pain in consumable waves. "Insufficient ..." "This request ..."
This request was $20.
Balance inquiry. $18.12.
He went inside for $10.
The woman ahead had dirty elbows. Peering closer, it was newsprint. He pictured her up late, at her kitchen table, perhaps studying for something better, growing tired, head in hands.
He walked back to Texaco for one gallon and a SuperLotto ticket. He left behind his license for collateral on the fuel jug.NCJ'S PICK
By Doug Ingold, Arcata
Western diamondback rattler, the sign said. Crotalus atrox. A good-sized snake, thick, 4-feet long or better, confined and enraged behind a wall of glass. The boy liked to stand nearby as people passed: how it struck at them, smashing its mouth and fangs against the glass, smearing the surface with a milky, semen-like substance, the sound of it hitting. He was thrilled by the speed and violence, by the sudden slap against the glass, by the gasps and leaps of the passersby, by the slight nausea he felt at this cruelty masquerading as science, by his own guilty pleasure.NCJ'S PICK
By Joseph E. Lerner, Arcata
In a large hotel scheduled for demolition, antique fixtures of crystal and stained glass twirl beneath tall tin ceilings while below, along scaffolding and ladders, a disposal crew scrambles, wielding pliers like giant pincers. Wires snap like frayed nerve-endings and lamps topple, shattering onto the distant parquet floor. Their work done, the workers leave.
Years pass, the hotel forgotten, the demolition incomplete. Eventually herds of rhino and wildebeest take residence there: They relish the crackly light, the shards that don't pierce so much as scour their raw scabrous skin, the itch of centuries slowly discharged like spent lightning bolts.NCJ'S PICK
By Sue Buscher, McKinleyville
It was then that the fish chose to leap, and the startled boy saw that the end of his hook disappeared into the side of its head, where its eye should have been, where only a gray, deflated sac was now. The trout, lightly speckled and fluid sterling, flipped to show his other rainbowed side, and the boy looked into the eye that was there. It stared at him, glistening, enormous, unblinking, and then the whole body slapped the surface, burying itself in water, never to be slick, silver or the same again.NCJ'S PICK
By Bruce M. Taylor, Trinidad
He rounded the last of the seemingly endless turns through the alders and the firs, and there it was, the remnants of the cabin. The place where his sister had been born. The place with the creek where he'd caught his first fish, and that had also saved his family from the wildfire one autumn. It was the place he raised a pup, and then buried his best friend. The place he dreamt of often, and that couldn't grow old, as he had done. Now, it would be the place where, somehow, he would spread his mother's ashes.NCJ'S PICK
By Peter Mehren, Toronto, Canada
In the pond, washing off the sweat and bits of hay, Anders said, "I'm moving to Italy. Do you want to come with me?"
"It's warmer in Winter."
"What do you plan to do there?"
"Do you think there's a big demand for that?"
"Admittedly, it's a niche market. But Italian men love you tall, blonde women."
"They can talk to us in Italian. Or English. Have you thought this through?"
"You want to come?"
Agnethe submerged, came up, shook her long, blonde hair, then swam back to her clothes on the shore. "No, thanks."NCJ'S PICK
By Iain MacDonald, Arcata
"Do you understand what I'm saying?" he raged. "I'm sick of you, I'm leaving, and there's nothing you can do to stop me!"
Her head lowered, she gave the briefest of nods. With a disgusted snort, he stormed out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
She sat unmoving, but a tiny smile was starting to play around the corners of her mouth. She could almost feel the weight of the paper in her pocket. How things had changed, she thought. Time was, he always had to be the one to check their lottery numbers.NCJ'S PICK
By Allyson Boltzen, Arcata
The smell was pungent, and the air was dank with mold and must. It was only barely bright enough to see shadows dancing across the weeping wallpaper. It felt like the room was moving, swaying back and forth like a carnival ride. It made me sick. I stood up slowly and staggered over to a lone door. I traced the tired wood, every crack, every small split. Its rough exterior felt cold against my prodding fingers. I followed a line downward and touched a small, metal knob. I turned it, and the door cracked — I welcomed the auspicious morning.NCJ'S PICK
By Lori Brannigan, Eureka
Knowing my rival is in the alley below, I press my bare ass against my lover's bedroom window, and the full moon shines.