We've been flashed. You, Humboldt, flashed us with your fiction, conjuring in just 99 words the key elements: character, setting, conflict, plot and theme.
Characters: We meet a hungry dragon, a tactless apostle, an inebriated orange glutton.
Settings: We visit a Vegas motel, an island cemetery, the Arcata Co-op.
Conflict: Between a gunslinging cuckold and his rival. An oyster and a palate. Integrity and success.
Plots: A man stumbles, context shifts, God flirts.
Themes: Loss, redemption, fleeting connections.
Booksellers, those saints, helped judge — Northtown, Booklegger and Blake's, each awarding a $25 gift certificate for their fave.
Thanks, Humboldt, and enjoy.
— Ryan Burns
I checked my pocket watch and spit in the dust.
The first bullet whizzed overhead. The second hit the fence post.
I scrambled behind a tree.
"Where's my wife, Dooley?" screamed the shooter near the woodpile.
"I'm not Dooley," I yelled. "My name's Dickey."
"Ain't this Meadow Road?"
"Nope, it's Monday Road."
"I'm from Wyoming chasing the lyin' rascal my Marie ran off with."
"Mister, I don't know no Marie."
He mounted his horse, looked at the cabin, and rode west into the twilight.
"You're right," I told her as we galloped north. "He's a bad shot."
— Neil Tarpey
Northtown: Unlike most of the other entries, this one actually told a story with a beginning, middle and end.
(Also among the favorites of: Blake's Books, Booklegger and North Coast Journal )
The man and the woman stood facing each other on the trail, intent in their discussion. Their dog, a McNab, sat by them.
The woman's shoulders were tense, her hands clenched by her sides. The man's shoulders slumped, and he leaned toward her, hands outspread at his sides.
Something was decided: The woman turned abruptly and walked away rapidly south. The man looked after her, then walked slowly and uncertainly north.
Their dog stood in the middle of the trail where the couple had been, frozen, looking first south, then north, then south, then north, as their figures diminished.
— Andre Lehre
Booklegger: Separation has an elegance in its economical description. A potent and painful human scene, using only body language and gestures, which are understood by the conflicted family dog.
(Also among the favorites of: Blake's, NCJ)
Go to sleep, honey. Tomorrow we're moving to Aunt Lisa's. It'll be fun!
I will take a last look, a last listen. I will sit in your dad's leather chair, and feel the mold of his back on mine.
I'm sorry to leave that chair, but there's nowhere it can go. I've called in all the favors I can.
I will open my heart to what's next. As we do. But the seven years of our lives in this house we loved taste like ashes to me now.
Ashes. No need to clean. The bank can do that.
— Sue Greene
NCJ: A poignant scene about relationships — parent and child, borrower and lender, homeowner and home.
"Could the senator restate the question?"
"What Captain Picard did on the holodeck?"
"Staff will subpoena this Picard."
"Metadata is data about data content, Wikipedia says."
"The chair will tolerate no wikithings. I'm concerned about privacy. Content in the texting context. The number of e-mails I sent my mist — uh, minister — that's metadata?"
"The number of times I used the word 'lasciv — 'Leviticus'?"
"The content/data horizon is not always a bright line."
"This is Congress, we don't expect brightness. Can I sleep peacefully in my own bed?"
"As often as you do now."
— Lynne Page
Bling. "The Journal is having a flash fiction contest. The word count is 9." Said the text, from my girlfriend.
Wow, that's short. I could make a bad joke out of it, by adding three words to the end of Hemingway's famous, six-word short story.
"For sale: baby shoes, never worn. Baby sold separately." I said out loud to my lazy cat.
Bling. "9 or less. The due day is July 24." Said the second half of the text. The contest was actually 99 words or less. I laughed to myself, as I began to write this.
— Matthew Fleming
"If you're lying, nerd, I'll kill you," the tall girl yelled to the small, ugly boy on the slope above her.
"Look." He pointed to glyphs incised in rocks and disappeared inside a cave.
She paused at the entrance.
His flashlight scanned rock carvings. "There's more inside."
He ducked behind a rock, covering his ears. He hated this part. Screams ended abruptly.
The dragon rested its head by the boy, blood still on its jaws. She was skinny, only feed his friend for a few weeks. But the big bully ...
Smiling he stroked his new pet.
— Stephen Sottong
T'was a bad day for Rainbow. Some Co-op asshole had caught her labeling organic lentils with the bin number for traditional lentils and loudly corrected her. She carried her groceries to her boyfriend's pickup on H Street — her father's BMW had rear-ended someone weeks ago and dad wouldn't fix it until she chipped in. She climbed into the pickup, nodded at the dreamcatcher, then felt the urge for a Don's donut. As she flung the pickup's door back open, a bicyclist rammed her, flying head over heels. "Oh no!" she moaned. The door hinges were, like, totally bent.
— Mitch Trachtenberg
I came upon the island cemetery while hiking.
Headstones for eight children, drowned when the school ferry went down.
What happened on that November day 61 years ago?
The foghorn bellowed.
Disregarding fatigue, I started rowing back across the wide channel to my campground.
The swift current persisted.
I realized, "The tide has changed, it's pushing me out to sea."
The rowing exhausted me.
The fog thickened.
I spotted a boy's small yellow cap floating by.
But I didn't notice the jagged rock.
After the rowboat sank, I swore I heard a young voice say, "We're over here, mister."
— Neil Tarpey
She approaches stealthily, filching food behind our backs. We let her. Throughout the weekend, the calico kitten gets bolder, a regular gonif, brave as the ravens who care not that we're there. But she won't let us touch her, looks at us askance as she gobbles our scraps.
She won't survive winter. So we catch her, the old food-beneath-a-box-and-string trick, and take her home. I look at my friend and ask, "Your house or mine?" He has five cats to my three. Ten years later, Ochosi, guardian of the forest, still sleeps with me.
— Claire Josefine
Georges was 18, heading home to Quebec. I was 40, still searching for home. At Lake Louise Hostel, we shared dinner, canoed Lake Moraine. In Banff, we bid au revoir, though we've never seen each other again.
Nowdays, Georges is a nephrologist; I am comfortably ensconced on my farm, tending cats, chickens, ducks, the land. One eve, I posted on Facebook that I was preparing zucchini-feta fritters with food from the garden. Georges commented, "Isn't that what you made for me 15 years ago?" Our lives had touched only briefly, dragonflies upon water; still, he remembered our shared meal.
— Claire Josefine
"What makes you happy?" he asked her abruptly.
She looked him in the eyes, then quickly looked down.
"Happy?" she asked in a small voice, befitting that of a girl of 10 years.
"Yes, happy. You know, what makes you smile, laugh, enjoy yourself? Do you like dolls, books, drawing?"
She scoffed. It had been a long time since someone asked her about herself.
"I like to play." she stated. "Play? That's great!" he exclaimed, desperately.
"I like to play with my prey." The little girl giggled into her hands.
— Shirine Azimianaraki
"It's political suicide."
"It's three little words."
"Say them or kiss the election goodbye."
"But I don't believe."
"You're a politician. You've had practice saying things you don't believe."
"They're meaningless. One thing I do know — God doesn't need my suggestions."
"This audience will be looking for a sign."
"You're devout, yet you're my campaign manager. I've got your vote without an incantation."
"Realist. Smile and say what you must to get where you can make a difference."
"As long as I'm not too different."
"Just three little words: 'God bless America.'"
— Lynne Page
One box contains Shakespeare's completed works, wrapped in onion thin paper. One box contains six display cases, each with a blue morpho butterfly pinned to a square of foam. One box has a box inside of a box, but there must have been something inside once. One box has a lavender-colored cashmere throw; we can wrap ourselves in it as we watch television; there's a note from the sales rep: "Thanx!" One box contains a framed photo of a wrinkle-faced man, his face smothered with birthday cake. One box contains broken stemware — a shame; we drink wine too.
— Raul Palma
"Get eggs." May Apple was able to work sitting down, frying the eggs along with a lump of sausage the size of a goose egg. When it was divided between them, they ate by the stove.
"They're gonna put in electric down at the Vance Hotel." Billy spoke with his mouth full.
"Probably burn themselves up."
"I want to see it."
She didn't know if he meant the electric or the burning. The kerosene lamp threw a carroty halo around his head, as lamplight will do to red hair. "Hold your horses," she told him. "You'll see plenty."
— Carla Baku
Kate discovered a baby rattlesnake sunning itself on a hot rock in her garden. She brought it into the house and gave it a home. It was the first friend she'd made in her four years of marriage.
That evening, when her husband ordered her to fetch his slippers, Kate replied, "Fetch them yourself."
He struck her cheek with a closed fist and roared, "I thought we were through with all that, woman! Now do as you're told!"
Her face stinging with pain, shame, rage and revenge, she muttered, "Of course. Forgive me. I'll fetch them. Wait here."
— John M. Daniel
Charles tapped the bell on the counter with his palm. There wasn't a soul in sight. Suddenly, the back door swung open. In came the winemaker who hefted a white box onto the counter.
"I see you got into the Cabernet." The winemaker nodded at the nearly empty bottle in Charles' hand.
"Drank it for our anniversary the other night," Charles said, setting it on the counter between them.
"Sounds like a perfect evening."
"It was until my mother joined us."
"Ah, the uninvited guest."
"Quite. She's been dead for 12 years."
— Alexis George
I drank in a bar named after a fish. I was invisible in the background of dangling arms and legs, which had little heart or head. After the bar closed, I staggered toward home alone.
I climbed into my beautiful neighbor's orange tree, like a drunken bear. I ripped oranges in half and drank the juices. I tossed piles of orange peels onto her perfectly cut grass. I'll clean up the mess in the morning.
I woke up in the afternoon. I opened my front door, and found a brown paper grocery bag of oranges on my porch.
— Matthew Fleming
"Sixty years you lived with me," he shouted when she stepped out of the metro. "Sixty years!"
I almost didn't see her, shocked as I was by his accusation. I almost didn't see her among the whirled faces, but she alone didn't look, eyes finally focused forward, chin proud, as if she didn't hear him at all or was too intent on beginning her new life, like a cicada that had just shed.
— Edward Mack
"Eat it, go on!" she says.
I hesitate. It looks like the innards of that thing my dog brought me at the beach yesterday.
"Just try it. I'm not kidding, it's sublime."
"OK." I slurp in the slick medicinal mass, tasting ocean, mud and snot — the taste of a bad tumble in the winter waves.
"Jesus Mary, I though you said this was good!" The only likeable part was the way it slid past my gag reflex.
She's laughing. I look around. No, it's not a joke. People everywhere are actually eating these things.
— Maja Hanson
"Give him cold cereal," said Mom. "He's not supposed to eat certain foods."
"But he's 84, dying from cancer," I protested.
She scowled, and left for church.
I was flying home tomorrow.
"Dad, want a burger?"
He smiled like a kid offered cupcakes.
I walked him to the table.
I cut his patty into small pieces.
Fed him, slowly.
I washed the dirty dishes.
Mom returned, sniffed the air.
"What did you do?"
Dad and I exchanged guilty glances.
Ketchup on his shirt exposed our conspiracy.
"Phil cooked me a burger," he confessed.
"Rare. Just how I like it."
— Neil Tarpey
Tom had been waging a lifelong war against the Himalayan blackberry vines that encroached on his vegetable garden and orchard. He had tried everything: digging the tubers out by hand, diesel sprays, an excavator, and once he had burned the vines down to the ground only to have them back more vigorous than ever the following year. In a final battle, Tom with a loaded spray gun of banned DDT, tripped over a cane and pitched headlong into the briars. The berries were especially large and sweet that fall where his body had composted.
— Joe Wixson
Sitting on the bed and sneezing into my hand I get a whiff of week-old underpants. When I lie down on the orange polyester spread a horsefly zaps me repeatedly, honing in on sticky cheeseburger crumbs. I flick the fluorescents in the bathroom; he zooms toward the light and I close the door. Hours later, I see the fly on the sink washing his hands and I squash him with a wad of toilet paper.
Back on the bed, it's very quiet, it's very cold, after killing the only living thing who knew where I was.
— Peter Nash
Sara stole a glance back at the biker-looking dude that seemed to be following her in the mall parking lot. Terrified, she quickly opened her car door, got in and relocked it. Now the gray-haired man was actually knocking on her window. She could see now he had a patch on his riding leathers that said "Bikers for Jesus" and a silver crucifix on his neck. She rolled the window down a crack and asked him what he wanted. With a smile that reminded her of her father, he held her wallet and said: "you dropped this."
— Joe Wixson
I knew he was a recovering addict when I met him. It didn't stop me from falling deliriously in love. Within two months we were sharing a home.
I often pondered his past. Too afraid to try anything stronger than a whiskey sour, I wanted to know why someone would give up his life for a needle and a full spoon.
"What is it like — doing heroin?"
I watched as his eyes glazed over and his face went soft.
"Imagine the best orgasm you've ever had and multiply it by a thousand."
We never had sex again.
— Kristi Patterson
At the shelter for another Willie.
Gentle Giant, chocolate lab, Willie.
Now beneath our blueberries.
"This way, ma'am."
Keys jingling, cages clanking, lonely dogs barking.
A mama lab blinked. Tiny squeaks rose up from her velvety belly.
"What's dat?" My 3-year-old pointed, eyes like silver dollars.
"Puppies. Baby dogs."
A dull ache burned my chest. Willie's picture still on our fridge.
Damned glasses always getting smeared.
"Mama, did Willie had babies?"
"No sweetheart. But he was a baby. A sweet baby."
Headed home, squeaking sounds from the back seat were echoed by joyous giggles.
— Mashaw McGuinnis
What story would satisfy a cop at 2 a.m.? "Well, Officer, poison is torture. A quick snap, maybe ... but glue traps are barbaric." Shabby coat over Disney pajamas, carrying nothing but a terrified mouse in a plastic cube. Psych hold, for sure.
A vacant lot of briars. This'll do. The sable mite makes an Olympic leap into the weeds. Will he be attacked by the resident mouse king? Back home, is there a bubble gum wad of babies, already growing hungry?
It's hard to know what's kind in the middle of the night in the dark.
— Lynne Page
Can't sleep. Worries swirl around in the dark: car acting up again, property taxes due, divorce getting messier. Take a deep breath and count my blessings: friends, a roof over my head, food to eat, books to read, and my health. Fall asleep, at peace. Wake in the early morning dark, an odd noise, plink, plink, plink. The skylight is leaking over the foot of my bed and the blankets are sopping. The only sane response is to laugh. There's still a roof over my head; just no roof over my feet.
— Janine Volkmar
I come home at lunch and catch her on the table, several of my books from college opened to various pages. The phone is on speaker, and she's reading my margin notes aloud to whatever voyeur is listening on the other end.
Her look of surprise and shame lasts only fleetingly. She smiles.
"What a perceptive student you must have been!" There's a giggle on the other end of the line. I stifle a growl in my throat.
"But what do I know," she says, "I'm a Chihuahua."
Bitch, I mutter. And slam the door.
— Christopher R. Weaver
We sat there, exhausted. We had been backpacking for months to get to that beach.
Then, an unsolicited comment: "I'm stronger than you."
Appalled, I lofted her above my head and labored toward the ocean, ready to teach a cold lesson in simple biomechanics.
When the seawater met my waist, I gave the ultimatum. "Who's stronger!?"
As she squirmed and gleefully cackled "ME!" I could see it in her eyes: The relentless determination that had carried us both from ocean to ocean. The fearlessness.
She IS stronger than me.
I made sure to not get splashed by her entry.
— Tyler A. Belarde
Is there any more bread? Eleven faces turned to start at him. What? I just wanted more bread, to go with this wine, he said.
— Janine S. Volkmar
"Having a big party?" the salesgirl had asked, as she took Leena's last dollar for the helium and balloons.
"No. Quite small. But I'm writing the name of each person who can't be there on a balloon." The idea had just come to her.
So now the cluster of marked balloons pushed against the apartment ceiling. Except Jem's. His hovered in a dark corner. Always had to do things his way. Well, no time to stab it. The pills were working. Time for the gas. The ceiling wouldn't block her flight. Up, up and away.
— Lynne Page
I was taking my usual evening walk when I saw the dog. It was a McNab, rotating her small head between two people stopped in the middle of the trail. The man was slapping an invisible ball angrily skyward. The woman answered by shaking her head, eyes downcast. Finally, the man strode north alone. The woman stood still, then slowly started south.
The dog? It ran north a few feet, stopped, then ran south, stopped, ran north again, stopped, then ran south once more. Finally it froze, trembling, suspended between north and south, between its two worlds, completely lost.
— Kate Lehre
Editor's note: Although no judging team singled out this story as a top favorite, we think that is only because it appeared on the judging sheet immediately below another version of the same episode, and the judges weren't able to see that this one was by a different author.
Lois danced around the sofa, gliding and twirling. Harry would have told her to act her age — old poop.
A knock interrupted her. A police officer greeted her. "We were wondering about Harry, ma'am."
"So was I," she said, hands over heart. "Have you questioned the people from that meth house down the street?"
The officer cocked his head. "Why? Harry is a pillar of the community."
Lois shook her head slowly. "Always the ones who fool you."
"We'll check." He left.
Lois smiled, danced round the sofa again and headed downstairs to finish the new basement wall.
— Stephen Sottong
A writer visits a dangerous country. Fiction's his thing, but fiction won't sell; the world wants the world truly. He's there but can't find a story. So he gets himself kidnapped to have something to say. He's in a high-end hotel surrounded by palms, wind teasing the bay, free to leave, but sits with paper and pen and his piña coladas, monitoring each mortal feeling he has.
Downstairs, the captors get edgy. They want money, and action. They've started books, too, in their rooms. But no one will pay. What next? Torture? Decapitation? Or will he ransom himself, self-redeemed?
— Kirk Nesset
We waited in roadside wildflowers, her head in my hands. I didn't speak and she was soundless, but our eyes found each other and spoke a language we could both understand.
My legs folded under me; she lay with three of hers tucked, in animal perfection, beneath her deerskin torso. Her left hind jerked out from her body in an agonizing angle of misshapen bone, flesh, and fur — my doing. Hardest to look at, easiest to see.
Heavily, her muscles relaxed into mine.
I'd hit her.
I held her.
I waited for death to drop into my hands.
— Heather Quarles
He awoke to a sun-washed view of Las Vegas. The blond-haired prize beside him still slept contentedly. He had pleasurable flashes of Elvis and the rock and roll wedding, of which he had always dreamed. In the exhibit hall for his Dairy Farming Show it had been announced the Supreme Court voted in support. Caught up in a massive Overturning Celebration he was swept along by all the intoxicating party guys.
His smartphone rang. A picture came up of him kissing the blond.
"Yes?" he said.
"It's your wife you idiot. Where are you?"
— Larry Strattner
As I walked out on the Pont de Bir-Hakeim, I encountered a lone figure fingering the keys of an accordion, which breathed a plaintive song. The sound stirred something in me so beautiful and melancholy that the moon herself strained to listen.
He stopped playing long enough to tell me his name which sounded something like "God."
"'God', comme Dieu??" I burst out laughing. I couldn't help it; I just never expected to meet him this way. ...
Then, with a flourish, he handed me his business card. "Call me," he said.
Oh la la, what a flirt! Who knew?
— Lisa Pelletier