The Inlander’s 101-Word Fiction Contest returns (after previous appearances in 2004 and 2009) with three times the power of your average tweet (maybe four — we don’t limit ourselves to a measly 140 characters).
After I identified the top one-third of the 321 entries we received from readers over the last six weeks, Inlander writers Luke Baumgarten and Nicholas Deshais helped me winnow the field.
We’ve published the top 9 percent here.
You’ll meet bureaucratic aliens, satanic supermodels, confused cops, serial killers, rambunctious little boys and morbid office workers.
A handful of the writers whose work is represented below will be invited to compete in the micro-fiction single-elimination tournament known as the 101-Word Fiction Showdown. It’s the final event (well, nearly) of this year’s Get Lit! festival. So, for 14 more stories — performed live by their authors — join us at Auntie’s Bookstore on Sunday, April 17, from 3:30-5 pm.
The rest of the authors here don’t win any special honors. Their reward? Gaining readers. Like you.
Enjoy your flash-fiction experience.
— MICHAEL BOWEN, section editor
Thank you so much for donating your fondue pot (and set of six skewers!) to the homeless shelter. My buddies and I can’t wait to walk across town to the food pantry to see if they have any Gruyere and heavy cream.
Tonight when we huddle in an alley with your old fondue pot — it’s new to us! — watching the soft bubbles of cheese roll and burp and pop as we warm ourselves around that little can of Sterno (again, thanks), we will really feel like we have it all. You have made three disabled vets and confessed “foodies” very happy.
John closed the library door. “I’ve called this emergency session to amend the timetable in consideration of recent events. Harrison….”
“Recon cruisers have been detected just beyond the farthest planet,” Harrison stated. “The main fleet should arrive in two years.”
One delegate slammed his fist down. “This planet won’t be ready.”
Victoria spoke: “Move to initiate Contingency Plan E-2B.”
“All in favor?” asked John.
Twelve “aye’s” sounded.
“Unanimous,” John declared. “Motion carried. Dismissed.”
John resumed mopping the library. Victoria pushed her shopping cart across the street to the shelter. The others likewise lost themselves in the city’s two million people.
“We’re talking about even distribution and allocation!” Dr. Preston exclaimed at the podium, making a rapid chopping gesture with his hands.
“Please remember you’re making a vibrant, life-affirming investment. I know this isn’t long-term, but I strongly hope you will bless, accept, and diversify your marvelous opportunities and apply strategic support whenever necessary.”
Then he pointed to the sandwich. While some people use uneven content distribution as a technique, he explained, submarine sandwiches “... ought not to be a theater for this kind of variation, lest one consumer of the submarine sandwich covet his neighbor’s segment of the same submarine sandwich.”
“You’ve always been careless with people,” he said, shutting the door. The days grew long and still without him, punctuated only by her continual surprise to find him gone.
In the spring, she joins the family swim class at the YMCA, resolved to finally learn.
“It’s not that I’m lonely,” she tells the 8-year-old boy floating next to her. “I just never realized how much time is in the day.”
“It will get better,” he says, repeating his mother’s mantra and kicking with all his might.
She dunks her head underwater when he asks her, again, “Where’s your family?”
Gossips hissed, “That bitch became so thin after a fortunate demonic possession.”
Now the possessed whore commandeered the cover of Vanity Fair — sans text for the first time in the magazine’s history. Women felt Envy’s sickly pangs and the “fat friend” curse.
Weeks later, blogs began circulating about the soul takeover and Satan’s chosen bride’s sudden makeover. Headline: “Hellfire radiant-weight simply lifted from her body, since demons burn so many calories and only eat dainty melon balls.”
Despite her occasional raspy demon voice, projectile-vomiting, baby-eating and faint brimstone bouquet, society adored this woman.
Headline: “Heavyset women buy out Ouija boards everywhere.”
When I was little, around 4, sometimes when staring up at the sky, I would see these little splotches of color. They were gorgeous, vibrant shades, and they danced across my line of vision like butterflies. Their amazing shapes and movements kept me captivated. When I asked a teacher about the lights, she told me I was special, that sometimes different people saw strange things. It felt so good to be special!
Ten years later, I got glasses.
He came. I swam. I missed.
Grandpa’s face screwed up all funny-like, like he was fixing to clean out his teeth with his tongue.
“Now, boy, where’d you find this?”
Today I found an old suitcase in the attic. I liked how the attic smelled of Grandma, God rest her soul. Tucked inside that torn lining was a picture of a lady, arms tangled up with some dark-haired man and smiling fit to burst.
“Attic. That’s Grams, isn’t it?”
“Run along now,” he said.
I obeyed, looking back once. There he was, working that tongue like crazy and running his hand through that orangey mane of his.
“Let me show you the Happy Baby.”
Rajish rocked onto his back with his feet in the air, his hands reaching forward to grab them.
Frank was confused by this. It should have been a simple traffic stop — expired tabs, only a month out from the looks of it — and now the driver of the vehicle was lying beside the road with his feet in the air. Frank was more bemused than irritated — for now.
“Sir, I need you to stand back up here,” Frank commanded.
“This is really good for your back,” Rajish explained, “and it’s good for your chakras.”
Gary was never a popular guy in school. He had ADD, SAD, IBS, acne, scoliosis, and ringworm. Consequently, he was much maligned by his peers. His heart became a cauldron of animosity and ill will toward most. But that changed the day he realized he could pop his eyes out of their sockets a little. Suddenly, Gary found himself a celebrity at local bars and community colleges. Soon, though, the novelty wore off and his pariah status was restored. He withdrew from society, and vowed the hermit’s life. But I heard he works at Blockbuster or something now.
“Tornado Kills Child in Twin Cities” read the headline on the website.
I hope it wasn’t anyone we know, Rick thought. Two years before, they’d moved from Minneapolis. Scrolling down, he saw that the tornado had hit St. Paul. Good, they didn’t have friends over there. Wow, look at that! The house was blown to splinters! Standing outside was the victim’s aunt, holding his photo. A towhead with a devilish grin. Cute kid.
A minute later, Rick called out: “Sarah, come here for a second.”
“What is it, Honey?”
“They say gas could be four dollars by summer. Isn’t that terrible?”
I didn’t bury her with the others. Not her. I like to visit them now and again, relive it a bit you know, catch a thrill. She’d just ruin it. The others knew how to follow the rules. Knew their parts, followed the script: scream, resist, sob, bargain, beg. They played the game. She just stared. Those dark, pitying, accusing eyes refusing to cooperate, ignoring the rules. Well, doesn’t matter now anyway. She’s way up the canyon. I won’t be visiting her again. Ever. Don’t even want to think about those eyes.
Next time I think I’ll do a blonde.
The betrayal hurt. He’d seen it coming, but it hurt just the same.
The signs were all there — distance, evasion, strange hairs on his pillow — but it took coming home early and catching her in the act to make it real.
“Katelyn.” Wounded. Confused. “Why?”
She rose from the blankets. Proud. Unrepentant. Venus of the bed sheets.
“I didn’t want you to find out this way.”
“In our bed.” Numb. “With my . . . my own teddy bear.”
“I’m sorry, Henry. You’re just not that good a cuddler.”
With seven little words, she broke his heart.
There are many safe places for a homeless little girl, especially if she’s a loner. She can find safety during the day in libraries and malls, on the pier where tourists gather, at bus stations and airports, in hospital waiting rooms. When she eats at the mission, sits in pews for a sermon, and receives, from girls her age, a Bible, she pretends to read it all night at the 24-hour copy shop, occasionally Xeroxing pages with money she’s found in storm drains. A little girl must look smarter, more confident, than the men who, from the shadows, watch and wait.
“Poor little Boops. I knew she was not long for this world the last time I drove away after a visit and she grew smaller and smaller in my rearview mirror,” sighed the middle sister.
The eldest sister corrected her: “Even a fireplug grows smaller with distance.”
Then the youngest sister asked, “Did you see the great parking place I snagged?”
With knobby fingers, she plucked stuck rocks, green pennies, shards of amber glass. Here, a muddy, rusted wrench, no heft left, the way cancer once wasted her rattle-boned husband.
There, newspapers, still bagged, words blurred, yesterday reduced to soggy smears.
What’s this? A face in black earth, eyes gazing skyward. Awestruck, she crouched to meet frozen turquoise orbs, touch chipped rosebud lips. China doll! Nearly buried, petticoats filthy, the child’s dislodging proved hard. Backside disintegrated, alas, she’d been only half-preserved.
Gingerly, she pressed the doll back down. What now, pretty grandbaby, what, but grow a world of green around you?
He smiles. She approaches. They flirt.
He asks. She agrees. They dance.
He requests. She befriends. They chat.
He posts. She comments. They LOL.
He drives. She talks. They arrive.
He buys. She thanks. They play.
He romances. She falls. They love.
He proposes. She accepts. They set.
He impregnates. She glows. They expect.
He records. She pushes. They rejoice.
He disciplines. She nurtures. They stress.
He isolates. She angers. They fight.
He drinks. She cheats. They struggle.
He assaults. She files. They divorce.
Twins see. They copy.
Driving on any given night.
“I remember my first Barbie. Now that’s something you’d never hear John Wayne say.”
He punches the radio button.
“Gawd, what an awful song. ‘Oh, he left me. His soul is ice.’ He left you because you sing crappy songs.”
Looks out the window at the Lincoln statue.
“I want a statue of me on my tombstone. Flipping the bird with both hands, and it should say, ‘I’m dead, bitches!’”
“Oh yeah, you promised to cremate me. You know, because of the zombie issue.”
This is why we don’t socialize.
“The waters, Captain!”
“Hold your tongue, William!” screamed the weary sailor. “We’ve managed through worse!”
William could barely see his captain, whose encouraging words were lies. They had never been through worse. He slipped across the deck to the main sail and held on for dear life.
“It’s been an honor, sir!” shouted the first mate, anticipating a watery grave as his grip failed.
“Harpies!” yelled the captain.
“Jeffrey, I said get out of the tub.”
“OK, Mom.” The little boy withdrew his plastic tugboat from the water.
Outside Dutch Sinkovek’s ice fishing hut, snow blew slantwise. When he’d first come out after supper chores, kerosene barn lantern in hand, the first loose flakes swayed slowly down on Lower Phantom Lake. Now, past midnight, the wind was up. No bites.
The shanty door flung open. There, in a ratty fur and mucking boots, snow hanging in her wiry hair, stood his old teacher Mrs. Fierenzetti. “I seen your light,” she said. “I’ve got a bottle.”
Dutch waved, thunderstruck.
“By God, I swear I’m lonesome,” she said. “You know how that gets?”
Dutch nodded, then kissed her. “Where’s that whiskey?”
Gary had four busted teeth, two broken ribs, and a lacerated right cheek. He destroyed the bar and busted up six dudes pretty bad before the deputies Tased him and kicked his face.
“Man, that was the shit,” I said after bailing him.
“Sorry, bro, just happens.”
We drive to Uncle Nick’s trailer in the canyons.
Nick was fixing his El Camino.
“Get him the hell out of here,” Nick yelled, brandishing a torque wrench.
Drove back to town.
Gary laughed, “Cairo’s burning and I got no place to go.”
Six beers later, he hit me so hard I puked blood.
She’d thought it through, and it was decided: Martha just wasn’t thin enough at the present to go through with the suicide.
She sighed. She wasn’t fat, mind you, but she really couldn’t be discovered dead in her apartment until things were a little less … jiggly. And by that time, she suspected, she might not feel like killing herself anymore. Martha was exasperated. The whole thing was such a headache.
Very carefully, and with great delicacy, she repacked her Suicide Box and put it back in its hiding place — linen closet, third shelf down, beneath the flannel sheets.
When Sky Fontaine won the lottery, all the residual high school bullies shriveled but still stared. Before, they had yelled at her, but that never mattered. Sky’s nose had always been in an upside-down book, and her upturned eyes followed fans or watched the wormhole tiles do nothing on the ceiling. Now she lived in a remodeled factory building, brought gardeners to plant trees, and danced about her fenced-in wonderland, wearing a different ball gown every day. The cleaners complained of pigeon shit stains on her dress hems. When asked, she said, she’d planned it that way to keep people out.
I still think about him, some nights.
It’s when I can’t sleep, Anne lost in some soft dream beside me, and I’m alone. I sit and I think and I remember.
The crackle of a sticky-cold tropical night. A dull terror, hunger, longing in my bones. That goddamn blue-eyed kid from Wisconsin, the leg of his new uniform hollow, whimpering, “Kill me.” Holding him tight until he goes silent and still and the only sounds are the camp breathing around us, my heart pulsing behind my eyes. I’m already trying to convince myself I did the right thing.
I still am.
“To see an airplane take off on your morning drive to work is a good omen,” she says. “If you see a plane land, however, you should turn around and go home. Your boss will lose his temper. Someone will steal your lunch. On that day, you could easily die.” Corrina breathes deeply. “A walking crow foreshadows bad news,” she says. “A bird of prey in flight, like a prairie hawk or a barn owl, is always a good sign for risk-taking. This morning, I counted nine dead robins in the yard.”
“Are you breaking up with me?” I ask.
I didn’t expect the wind to hurt this much.
Have you ever heard if you throw a penny off a skyscraper it could kill someone? I’d imagine wind resistance would play a key factor in the fatality percentage; otherwise rain would have a probability of instantaneous death.
Someone should make a graph: chances of death up the side; shape and weight of the object across the bottom. They’d need multiple scales to take weather into account. It could be more work than anyone would care to do.
Would humans be close to sacks of potatoes?
This may have been a mistake.
“Mommy, I don’t understand. I woke before dawn and heard arguing.”
“An accident. Your father fell on it.”
“Why are we burying him so fast? The sun isn’t even down.”
“His religion demands it.”
“Why is the casket closed? I want to see him again.”
“It’s too ugly. It went straight in his heart.”
“The letter opener of aspen you made me in Scouting.”
“I wanted to make it out of aspen, but they ran out — it’s pine.”
She leaned her head on the casket, heard a faint rustle, and sighed. There’d be hell to pay at sunset.
As she ran, foggy plumes puffed from her mouth and slowly added to the frost on her eyebrows. Streaked by the dawn’s rays, the fresh snowfall muffled her footfalls and graced the trees around her. Beth loved running through the wooded hills. They were her second home. She felt safe. Calmed. Serene.
A deer startled and quickly bounded away. Beth admired the strength and beauty of the animal as it disappeared in the distance.
Too far away to chase the deer she was stalking, the cougar laid flat and stared hard as the prey came straight at her.
Her son was magnetic, compelling; he could sell toothpaste or spaghetti sauce with his dimples and slightly crooked grin. Every situation was an opportunity; every conversation, a potential job.
“You should hire him. He knows his angles and has perfect timing.”
She cornered the production assistant in Starbucks.
“Really?” The assistant attempted to maneuver around her, but couldn’t.
“He’s great with babies. It’s a toy commercial, right? He could hold a baby. Tell the director.”
“Oh, I will.”
“Here’s his résumé.”
The assistant hesitated, then read the page.
“Let me guess. He can play 15.”
Collette sat at her cubicle, battling an overwhelming surge of pity for the crushing mortality of her colleagues. Al wandered by, singing Lady Gaga with a slice of toilet paper stuck to the seat of his pants. Collette grimaced. "Hey," she screamed, waving her arms, wanting to save them all. "Death is everywhere! Death!"
The office white noise abruptly ceased. Her colleagues gaped. Their eyeballs reflected Collette back to herself: a crazy woman, a threat. "She'll kill us all," exclaimed Al.
They flapped like gulls outdoors. Collete watched them flee, pleased. Now she had only herself to save.
I’m going to miss you guys, I told my special-ed class. Last thing — did you know they found ants strung together in this 50-mile chain floating on the Pacific Ocean? They were all alive. You know why? There was a bloated dead whale floating there. The ants were chaining to eat it.
It proves no matter how little you are, you can accomplish great things by working together. Just something for you kids to remember.
No, it doesn’t mean you’ll only eat dead crap. No, Josh, you won’t need to grow a carapace.
I will miss them.
She was yelling from the back office. I replied, “What, Joanie?”
“Leptokurtic! Circumbilivagination! Dendrochronology!”
She thinks aloud every time she gets stuck in her writing. But what the hell was she yelling about? “What are you yelling about?”
“I’m just trying to see how long a story I can write for this mad 101-word contest.”
I thought of saying, “Yes, dear,” but I tuned it out.
“Methionylthreonylthreonylglutaminylarginyl…” (5.324 characters per word.
It’s a start.)
A flock of turkeys crosses here every morning. Sometimes a deer leaps from the brush. All is frozen and hushed. I pause. I’m on my way somewhere; between here and there, between last year and last night. I was on my way to help, but stopped. I’ve tried not to notice my halt. Usually, I’m anywhere but here. I hurry to where I’m buried in paperwork; oblivious to cold.
One turkey tippy-toes across the frozen ruts, and then another. I laugh as they race — each, alone — afraid to be without the others. Laughter reminds me: I used to fly.
He wrote my name on everything. The Polaroids that captured the evidence are stacked on the kitchen table. A stop sign. A yellow curb. A Taco Bell burrito. A cantaloupe. He calls it a gift of devotion. He smiles.
I imagine the grocery store — the cantaloupe being knocked on by the knuckles of strangers and then picked up and cradled by a woman who decides to take it home.
It sits on her counter to ripen. She doesn't know why the cantaloupe has a name but when the time is right, she peels the flesh from the rind anyway.