Starting this month I will be offering Scintillating Starts as an ongoing opportunity…
Editor’s Note: I’ll give the same individualized feedback. This opportunity will be available year round and you can get feedback on any opening of prose. Details are on the Manuscript Consultation Page.
Each piece here is a winner. There is no first, second, or third place, though we have three winners since there was a tie for second place.
These are the top submissions to our 2022 Scintillating Starts Opportunity.
By Bo Kearns
A semi backed up to the warehouse ramp. The burly driver hopped out and raised the rear door to reveal stacks of lost luggage. A crew began unloading, taking stuff to Alice Pickett’s station. She watched the items pile up. She knew the brands—Samsonite, American Tourister, Travelpro and the colorful Baboon To The Moon. She spotted the distinctive monogram of Vuitton — a Vuitton Pegase, a Vuitton hanging bag, and a Vuitton Damier graphite that cost $3,400, a month’s salary for her. She suspected the flight came from Los Angeles. A surfboard, a child’s car seat with a Disneyland sticker and a Yosemite patch on the backpack, confirmed her suspicion. Alice worked at Unclaimed Luggage in Scottsboro, Alabama, the largest repository of lost luggage in the world. She liked working there. Every day was a surprise.
She grabbed a floral print suitcase from the stack and heaved it onto a long table. Other women working alongside hoisted suitcases, too. Using a small screwdriver, Alice popped the lock without damaging the case. She began sorting. Instinctively she knew which items could be cleaned and sold at Unclaimed Luggage’s retail outlet. The remainder would be carted off to Goodwill or the city dump. She lifted a red dress with sequins and let it unfurl. She pictured Julia Roberts wearing the red dress as she walked the red carpet at the Oscars. She picked up a small rectangular case. A gold necklace lay on green velvet. She could imagine Julia wearing that, too. Alice signaled to the woman who handled jewelry. Next, she opened a lightweight box with torn teddy bear print giftwrap. A pair of infant pink pajamas and a matching hat dropped onto the table. She froze, then picked up the garment and pressed the soft fabric to her check. She suspected a first time grandma excited to see her new granddaughter had left the gift in the overhead bin. She set the pajamas down and placed her hand on her stomach. Earlier that morning her home pregnancy test showed positive. That wasn’t supposed to happen. She was on birth control, an IUD. The pink pajamas prompted her to think of the fetus’ sex, though she dared not go there. She’d only told her friend and neighbor Charlene. She was afraid to tell Travis. She knew the pajamas and matching hat could be sold at retail, yet she set them in the stack for Goodwill. She breathed deep, dragged up a chair and sat down.
Molly her supervisor walked over. “You okay?”
“I’m fine,” Alice said. “Just resting for a minute.”
“We’re about caught up,” Molly said. “Take the rest of the day off.”
Alice drove through the neighborhood toward the bungalow she shared with Travis. She passed Charlene walking her Chihuahua, Bella. The sight of Charlene, a large-framed African American woman, and the tiny dog made Alice smile. She tooted the horn and waved. Normally she would have stopped to chat. Not today. She pulled into the driveway, turned off the engine and just sat there. She looked at the small white house with green shutters and red camellias in bloom. It hadn’t always looked like that. She’d bought the fixer upper a few years ago with money she’d saved for a down payment. Low mortgage interest rates helped. Travis fixed it up, and then moved in. The scary faced pumpkin Travis carved last week still sat on the steps. She’d been surprised at how he’d gotten into the spirit of Halloween. He’d dressed as Dracula with fangs and ketchup dripping from his mouth. When he opened the door, the kids ran away. She didn’t know much about him other than he was from Texas. She wondered how he’d handle her news. She got out, went in and made herself a cup of tea to calm her nerves.
For distraction, she turned on Thelma and Louise, her favorite movie. It was her mother’s favorite too. They used to watch it together. Her mother said it was about time they made a movie about outlaw women. Alice had seen the movie so many times she could mime the dialog. She’d smile in the happy parts and cry when things got sad. She’d raise her fist and cheer when Louise shot the guy who tried to rape Thelma. Now, with her face glued to the screen, she leaned forward twisting her hands, worrying as the women made their mad trek across the country staying just ahead of the police.
When the door opened, she startled. Travis stood there. Alice hit pause.
“You watchin’ that flick about those crazy chicks again? You already know what’s gonna’ happen,” he said.
“I do, but I turn it off before the convertible sails over the edge into the Grand Canyon. I’m into happy endings.”
Travis with forearms arms the size of ham hocks dominated the room. He stepped past Alice, went into the kitchen, opened the fridge and took out a bottle of beer. He twisted off the cap, threw it in the trash and took a swig. Alice turned off the movie.
“How was things at work?” she asked.
“I got laid off,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” Alice said, though not surprised. Travis couldn’t control his temper.
Alice stood and gave him a hug. “I put a chicken pot pie in the oven for dinner.”
She set the table and they ate in silence. Alice nibbled at her food. This wasn’t a good time. Travis had already had a bad day.
He reached across and squeezed her hand. “I’ll find another job. Lotta’s people looking for workers.”
“Off your meds again?” she asked.
“What happened this time?”
“Oh, Travis. You can’t keep doing this. Let me help.”
“Not your problem. I don’t think the new meds are working anyway. I’m going to talk to the doctor about giving me something else.”
“Want me to go with you?”
“No,” he said, his voice turned sharp.
Alice leaned back. “Okay. Just trying to help.
“I don’t need your help. Let’s talk about something else.” He paused, lowered his voice, regained his composure. “Tell me about all the crazy stuff you found at work.”
The pink pajamas popped into Alice mind. She knew she had to tell him about the baby, though she doubted this was a good time. He seemed so on edge.
“There’s something we need to talk about,” she said. “I’m pregnant.”
Travis face went ashen. “You told me you’re on birth control.”
“IUD’s don’t always work. I’m the 1% statistic.”
“Don’t give me that statistic bullshit,” he said. “You tricked me.”
“No, no you don’t understand. I don’t want a baby either.”
Travis rose from his chair, balled his fist and smacked Alice in the face. She reeled back. Blood spouted from her nose. He grabbed her by the shoulders and threw her up against the wall. She slid to the floor and lay in a heap. She cowered, her hands over her head.
“Get rid of it,” he said. He stormed off to the back room, slamming the door behind him.
Dazed, Alice lifted herself off the floor. She held onto the counter for support. When her head cleared, she made her way to Charlene’s house.
Charlene stood in the front yard watering geraniums. She glanced up.
“Oh Alice,” she said. She turned off the hose and helped her friend inside. “You must have told him.”
Bo Kearns, a journalist and writer of fiction, lives in Sonoma, CA. His novel, Ashes in a Coconut, received the 2020 Eric Hoffer Finalist BookAward. His short stories have appeared in the California Writers Club Literary Review, Adelaide Literary Magazine, the Blue Mountain Review, and several anthologies.
By Marlene Dotterer
A rumbling quake threw Commander Alex Stafford from his bunk. His knee hit the deck as a second tremor raced through the old and run-down space station. He was pulling on a pair of pants before the emergency alert sounded its long-short-long signal of distress. His mind supplied the popular ditty to the signal as he slipped on his boots: Whaaat the fuuuck… whaaat the fuuuck?
He was out the door with his shirt in his hands before the duty officer’s voice overrode the signal, “Commander to Ops.” They must have been hit hard up there; it had taken Alex at least eight seconds to dress.
He hit the intercom as he passed it. “On my way!”
A slight tilt told him the gravity was haywire, but not out completely, thank any god. Nausea added complications. Crew rushed past to stations, most half-dressed as he was. They liked to run an Earth-typical day/night rhythm on the station, with most of the crew working days and smaller swing and graveyard shifts working the other times. He glanced at a flashing monitor as he reached the gangway to Ops: 0200, flat in the middle of graveyard. What the fuck, indeed.
“This better be good,” he muttered as he slipped off the ladder into Ops. “Shut that up!” he ordered to the side as he bounded to the center station. The tactical officer gratefully flipped the switch to silence the alert. In the deafening quiet, Alex turned to his duty officer. “What’s up?”
She wasn’t happy—not looking up from her rapid perusal of the monitors, her jaw clenched so tight it hurt just to look at her. Any faint hope he had harbored that the alert was a glitch crashed around his ankles. They had a problem. Well, another problem.
“Collapse of the Blue Tubes, Decks 2 through 5.” She looked up then, her eyes dark and unreadable. “It’s spreading.”
His response was automatic. “Contain it.”
“We have.” The comment came from his right, and they both turned. Candy Sugar—yes, that was really her name, and it was never wise to let on that you’d noticed anything strange about it—was just entering Ops from the gangway, her engineer’s jacket unzipped and her blonde hair loose around her shoulders. She joined them in one stride and pointed at the monitors. “We’ve cut off O2 at deck 8, which is the closest we could get. It will continue spreading to that point but should stabilize.”
“Stabilize? That’ll kill it, Candy!” Alex resisted the urge to kick something. “You can’t just cut off the O2.” Any minute now, Doc Nantu would be on his case. Without the feed from the Blue Tubes, ’ponics would shut down. Damn, they didn’t have many reserves left.
She sighed. “Had to be done, Alex. I know what it means. But it also means we’re not floating in a million pieces through the ether.”
Alex stared at her a moment, before turning toward his office. Just before he disappeared inside, he yelled back, “Call a meeting. I want to see all senior personnel in fifteen minutes.”
The bottom third of a gas giant took up the view from Alex’s office, its atmosphere shifting dizzily from gray and green, to orange and yellow, then back again. It had an official moniker for reports, but its puke-green appearance was responsible for the commonly used name of Bullfrog. Lightning flashed continuously over the planet, flashes that appeared tiny at the distance of half a million kilometers, but were nightmare demons to the miners closer in.
Alex stood at the window and glared at Bullfrog, a generous splash of the station’s Dry Rot filling a third of the mug in his hand. He considered his space station, along with another swig of the drink. It didn’t help much.
Station Two was the oldest of DuraMines hydrogen processing plants, Station One having collapsed under its own rotten core fifteen years ago, committing suicide with a plunge into its planet. But that station had been abandoned years before the implosion. No one was killed.
That wouldn’t be the case with Station Two.
He turned, liquid sloshing onto his hand with the violence of his movement. Reaching his desk in one giant step, he yanked open the bottom drawer. His hand fumbled through the tangle of datasticks and cords, reaching toward the back of the drawer, underneath everything… he sighed when his fingers curled around it, and he deliberately kept his mind blank as he drew the vial into the light of his office. The crystals inside were minuscule, shimmering blue and silver. The shimmer drew him in, filling his vision with its beauty. Such a lovely dance. He took a breath, and imagined the taste of it in his throat, the familiar buzz filling his sinuses. As he let the breath out, he saw his trembling fingers popping the lid off and watched as his hands, entirely of their own volition, shook one tiny crystal from the vial. It rested on his palm, innocent, shimmering beauty. He swallowed it, closing his eyes as the shimmer seemed to vibrate his throat and fill his being. Slowly, his body relaxed. The crisis still existed, but now he stood one step beyond it, at a distance where the crisis could not touch him.
He had just returned the vial to the drawer when his intercom chimed. He sat as he touched the switch.
Candy’s face glared up at him. “That’s it. Hydroponics is gone.” She blew a breath through pursed lips. “But we won’t blow up. Not today, anyway.”
He didn’t like the implication in her voice. “Tomorrow?”
She looked away, then sighed and turned back to him. “Tomorrow is in the hands of the gods, since DuraMines has not seen fit to send us any spare parts.”
He swallowed the hundred possible replies to this. “Meeting’s in three minutes. I’ll need you here, if things are stable down there.”
She nodded, her expression hard. “On my way.”
“Whatever mechanical problems you can’t seem to solve, Alex, we can’t live without food.” Dr. Anjellan Nantu had not even bothered to sit at the conference table in the small room off Alex’s office. He stood glowering, a small, dark man made taller courtesy of the turban he wore. “Without hydroponics, we’ll die.”
“Doc, sit down.” Alex gestured toward a chair, without meeting Nantu’s eyes. “For once, try to look at the big picture. We’ve got enough stores laid by to last us a few days, with rationing. That’s a few days we wouldn’t have if Candy had not contained the explosion.” He watched the wall behind Nantu, blinking slowly as his detached mind observed the others in the room. Candy sat across from him, zipping her jacket, her hair haphazardly pulled into a tail down her back, except for a few dirty blonde strands that framed her face. Her skin was pink from exposure to radiation—Nantu would have to treat that soon. Lemi Johnson, head of Mining & Operations, slouched in a chair at the end of the table, chewing on his lower lip, but otherwise giving no hint to what he was thinking. Malcom Fischer, Alex’s deputy, sat at the other end, lost in his datapad, tapping furiously through screen after screen of cascading Problem Reports. Alex heard Malcom’s teeth grinding.
Born in Tucson, Marlene Dotterer lived there until the day she loaded her five children into her station wagon and drove to the San Francisco Bay Area. After earning a degree in geology, she went through several jobs and wrote a science fiction novel. Then she wrote three more. Now she volunteers too much while working on novels 5 – 8.
By Peggy O’Connor
“I’d like to put you in my pocket and keep you with me,” my mom said to me one day. We were saying goodbye after our visit at the hospital where she was being treated for chronic asthma. My heart understood how she felt, but my brain didn’t and suddenly I heard my 15-year-old smart-ass self, answer her: “I know, Mom. But you can’t.” And I gave her a quick kiss and left, mostly ignoring her sad smile. By the next morning, my Mom was dead.
When my mother, Annie Ryan, was around 5, she asked her own mother why she and her brothers and sisters could not go to the Orphans’ Picnic. The Orphans’ Picnic was a huge field day-sort of event that Detroit’s charitable organizations held on an island in the Detroit River. Once a year, Detroit’s orphans were gathered up and treated to an amazing picnic of food, games and gifts. There was music and fireworks, ice cream, pony rides and all the fun a kid could have packed into one summer Saturday once a year. The rest of the time, the kids lived the Dickensian kind of lives that orphans did in the early 1920s.
My grandmother handled her daughter’s question with diplomacy. “Well, Annie, you have to be an orphan to go to that picnic.” My mother apparently responded with, “Well, that’s okay…it’s only for a day, right?” Grandma said, “No honey, your dad and I would have to die for you to be an orphan. You don’t want that, do you?”
My mother got a stricken look on her face as she contemplated the entire scenario. “No, I guess not,” she said, shaking her head sadly and walking away. For a 5-year-old, the pull of an all-day fun fest was strong. But losing your mother, well, that was a different story.
What Do You Do the Day Your Mother Dies?
Easter Sunday fell in the middle of the month of April in 1973. That Easter, instead of spending the day with our mothers’ side of the family, eating ham and deviled eggs and watching our uncles drink beer, play euchre and argue about cheating, we stayed home. Our paternal aunts were hosting Easter dinner and they included the five of us that day because our mother was in the hospital.
She had been taken there late Friday evening by the fire rescue squad. Mom had been sick for a few days and on Good Friday, was unable to kneel and pray the Rosary between 12 and 3 the way she had since we were small. She rested on the couch in the living room, directing us at chores, and reminding us to keep an eye on our baby sister. Mom was mostly confined to the pull-out couch in the living room – her bed since she and our dad never did have their own bedroom in our house: the upstairs flat in a two-family duplex at 5282/84 Chalmers in Detroit.
That night, we were awakened by the sound of Mom having a bad asthma attack. There really isn’t anything on earth that compares to that sound. Gasping for breath, Mom would stand holding on to the back of a chair, taking short, quick breaths trying to fill her lungs with air. Her body would heave with the effort of holding on – literally – to life. Her eyes would be opened wide and if one of us was in front of her, she would stare deeply into that person’s eyes. And what was in her eyes? Fear, to be sure. But much more. Determination? Fierceness? Love?
We’d be bustling around her, waiting for her to tell us what to do. “Don’t call the fire department yet,” she would sometimes say. “Bring me more hot water. When I tell you, squeeze my (atomizer) pipe into my mouth. Bring me a bucket, I have to urinate. Guess you’d better call the firemen now; it’s not getting better. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, please help me. Claire, please brush my hair so I don’t look so bad. ‘I’m sorry, kids,” she’d say, struggling to breathe. As if she could help it.
So, on the Tuesday after Easter 1973, only a few hours after I scolded her for voicing what would turn out to be one of her dying wishes, my beautiful, kind, and loving mother died after choking to death during a respiratory therapy treatment.
That morning, I doing the dishes. My sister Claire was sitting on the pullout sofa bed playing with our Patty, a bright and curious 4-year-old. The phone rang and I answered it. “Yes, may I speak to the family of Ann O’Connor? This is Bon Secours Hospital.” Having also answered the phone four years earlier when Bon Secours Hospital called and asked for the family of Patrick O’Connor, I knew what the caller would say next.
“Yes, this is her daughter,” I replied, tears already running down my face. “We would like someone to come to the hospital right away,” the voice said. “Mrs. O’Connor has taken a turn for the worse.” I hung up the phone and walked into the dining room where my sisters sat listening. “Claire, clean up the house, will you? That was Bon Secours Hospital. They said Mom has taken a turn for the worse.” Claire’s blue eyes filled with tears. Like all my siblings, she too, knew that phrase was code for “(family member name here) is dead.”
I ran downstairs. The aunts were at the kitchen table, like always, drinking coffee. I told them about the phone call. They tried to reassure me that maybe nothing was wrong. Bert told me she would drive me to Bon Secours, but then she fell apart. So, I got into the driver’s seat and told her to get into the car. She was crying and praying and I finally told her to be quiet so I could concentrate. When we got there, I handed her the keys and ran up to my mom’s hospital room.
The curtain was drawn around the bed. I pulled it aside. There was my mother, lying there peacefully, her eyes closed, and her lips slightly open. I touched her still-warm arm. I looked at her face. It was beautiful and for the first time in a long time, her muscles were relaxed. Her lips — those lips I had watched so often as she carefully applied her favorite Maybelline lipstick — formed a little “O.” Like she was surprised. It looked like my mom was blessedly at peace, not having to fight to breathe for the first time in decades. That made me happy. But I knew my mother wasn’t surprised. She had long feared dying during an asthma attack and now, she had. That made me sad.
“Oh no – you shouldn’t be here,” said a voice behind me. It was a nurse, red-faced with embarrassment at my having walked past her without her knowing. “Your mother, Mrs. O’Connor, well, she has expired.” She what? I thought to myself. “My mother isn’t a parking meter,” I heard myself saying to the nurse. “She died. My mother is dead. It’s okay to say it. Dead. Gone. Deceased. A turn that couldn’t be any worse. Now leave me alone so I can talk to her and tell her I love her. So I can tell her how sorry I am that I couldn’t fit into the pocket of her robe,” I said with a sob.
Peggy O’Connor is a native of Detroit, the second eldest of five children. She is the parent of two brilliant adult children and two amazing grandchildren. Peggy holds degrees from the University of Detroit and the University of Southern California; she spent four decades as a journalist and communications practitioner.