And The Winners Are …
This page used to be called Flash. It’s where we post the winners of each contest. The Scintillating Starts of Writer Advice’s 2018 contest are below.
Editor’s Note: For the first time ever, we have a four-way tie. The judges score independently. They don’t talk to each other. Why does this matter? If one qualified judge doesn’t like your piece, take heart and resubmit. Another one will. Just keep searching. Of course if you find things to fix in the meantime, do so. We hope you enjoy these three Flash Travel Stories.
Our next contest is for Flash Memoir submissions. We’re looking for mini-memoirs or life stories of 750-words or less. Note: We want stories–not vignettes. The contest will open on January 2 and close on March 1, 2019. More details are on the Home Page under “Latest Contest Guidelines.” Just click on the box and they will appear.
If you have a story about your writing or submission experiences that would fit on “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up,” go to that page and read the guidelines. You can submit there anytime.
By Rob Gruen
If the search for perfect parking has made the patient late, Tom Jeffreys thinks, crossing Central Park West for his session, and the doctor questions whether the patient dodges therapy from the get-go, blame the delay on grid-locked streets choked by city-wide repairs. Or come clean and tell the shrink how important it is to place the Corolla as close to the scene as possible. Either way, a quick departure is mandatory whenever therapy includes murdering the analyst.
Humid, spring weather leaves the art deco door to the prewar building wide open. The doorman has left his post. Luck lands Tom inside unannounced. A covert arrival, he thinks, with no building personnel to place him at the scene. But he needs the number to the doctor’s office, so leafs through the building’s register, a large three-ring binder on the reception stand, when the doorman, a big, white-haired senior, steps out into the lobby from a dark wooden doorway made visible when it breaks with an adjacent wall of identical veneer.
“May I help you?” The doorman holds a dry mop out in front of him — wielding it, actually, a gray pompom to ward off intruders who go beyond the entrance.
“I have an appointment with Dr. Howell,” Tom says, backing away.”
The doorman sets the mop aside for the book on the reception stand. “Apartment 3G,” he says, closing the log. “Now whom shall I say is calling?”
“Burke. Reuben Burke,” Tom says.
“Mr. Burke.” Scanning a panel of buttons, the doorman depresses one and holds the receiver to his ear. His head tilts toward the ceiling as though he can watch for a response through the floor above, and Tom considers bolting from the scene. Take off right now and leave this guy hanging on the handset. Pretending to be someone else is like a near-death experience, Tom concludes. A charade that fosters rage. A fury of diabolic rhythms to impeach an imperfect God. Tom likes this thought of his, the sound it makes rattling inside his head — the craziest of it. When evil is exposed, and revenge bends light to illuminate sexual misconduct, the angels look the other way, and fate, amoral fate, links you to a wedge of delusional space, a slice of time where anything’s possible. The psychiatrist needs to hear this at the start of the session, Tom decides, so the patient will sound screwy enough for treatment.
Cleared for his appointment, Tom takes the elevator to the doctor’s office, where he enters a deserted waiting area, when a voice from an adjoining room calls to him, “I’m in here!”
Tom parts the second door to find Dr. Michael Howell rising from behind his desk.
“Hello,” he says, extending his hand. “I’m Dr. Howell. You’re late.”
“Reuben Burke. The traffic — ”
“Please, Reuben, sit down.” The doctor gestures to a chair, and the two men face each other across a cluttered desk.
At fifty-five, Howell looks good, Tom notices, wondering how many patients know the exact age of their psychiatrist. Even though he’s bald with accompanying dingy-gray fringe, the classic Roman bridge to his nose, smooth jawline, and heavy-lidded hazel eyes bring a youthfulness to his face. He exudes a certain charm; a kind of kinetic appeal that a nineteen-year-old girl might find appealing.
“Now,” Howell begins, poised to take notations, “how is it that you came to me?”
“You’re a professor at Lehman College, right?”
The doctor nods.
“Well, a friend of a friend — at the college — told me you have a private practice.”
“So, you’re a student?”
“No, but my friend’s friend is.”
“And this friend of a friend’s name?
“I don’t know him.”
“Do you have insurance?”
“Your address, for billing purposes.”
“Before we get into that, I’d rather see what it’s like — you know, therapy. If I don’t think it’ll do me any good, I’ll pay you at the end of the session, and that’ll be that.”
“Fair enough. But still, for my records, I need an address.”
“I’m staying at the West Side Y,” Tom says, unwilling to divulge that he lives in his car.
“Just around the corner! Your phone number?
“Don’t have one.”
“Don’t have one.”
“No phone. I see. And what is your line of work?”
“I sell ads on bowling score sheets — for local retailers,” Tom explains. “You know, gas stations, Pizza Huts, beauty shops.”
“Haven’t seen one of those score sheets in years — not that I remember the last time I went bowling! A profitable business, then, placing ads on score sheets?”
“There’s always placemats,” Tom adds.
“You’ve seen them … if you eat in diners. Paper placemats, you know, covered with ads for local retailers.”
“Oh yes, of course, disposable placemats!” the doctor says, his tone dismissive, smug.
They watch each other warily, and Tom notices the diplomas hung on the wall behind the analyst, surrounding him in the way that the backrest of a Polynesian throne aggrandizes a king. “Sure takes a lot to be a psychiatrist.,” he remarks. “Years of study. But what do you know about near-death experiences?”
“I’m sure not enough.” Howell smiles.
“Well, it’s like rage,” Tom begins. “A fury of diabolic rhythms to impeach an imperfect God.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes. And when evil is exposed, and revenge bends light to illuminate sexual misconduct, then, well, ah, the angels look the other way, and faith, um, amoral fate links you to a wedge of delusional space, a place where anything’s possible — even a half-decent slice at Pizza Hut!” Tom cackles wildly
“Is this what you came here to tell me?” The doctor takes notes.
“Then why are you here, Reuben, really?”
“I have no money or not much, and my marriage is on the rocks.”
“Oh, so you’re married. And what is your wife’s name?”
“Ellie. But she moved back home with her mother.”
“From the Y?” Howell refers to his notes.
“The Y?” Tom wonders whether he’s tripped himself up.
“She left you at West Side Y and went home to her mother’s. Isn’t that so?”
“No, she lived with me when I had an apartment in Queens. Then my business tanked, and she moved out.”
Howell presses. “Because you had money problems?”
“No, because this guy conned her into leaving.”
“So, she found someone else. And what is his name?”
“It’s not important.”
“Not important. I see.”
“You don’t see a thing!”
Startled, the doctor stiffens, and Tom wonders why, at this very instant, he isn’t busy murdering the man, when he suspects that this conversation, this psychiatric probe, dilutes the venom it takes to do the job. Talk will do that. Cops talk suicides in off of ledges. Nations have peace talks. Labor unions negotiate settlements. Talk long enough and, unless you are psychotic, goodwill eventually bubbles to the surface, postponing the urge to kill, maim, or countersue.
“Breaking the silence, the psychiatrist asks, “Would you agree you’re depressed?”
Scanning the office for an object with which to whack the doctor, Tom realizes that, unless he plans to use his bare hands, a murder weapon hasn’t been considered until now, when his gaze shifts to a decorative letter opener on the desk between them. He thinks he could lunge for it and stick Howell before he has a chance to fend him off.
A DGA director, Gruen won a Gold Medal at the New York Film Festival. As a painter he had his first one-man show at the Bonnier Gallery in SoHo, NY. For years he was the president of a division of Ogilvy & Mather, which created unconventional opportunities for clients.
A FIGHTER BY HIS TRADE
By Alexander Jones
During the twelve years he spent in prison, Shark got a chemical burn on the back of his right hand. The burn had itched so badly and he’d scratched it so vigorously for so long that when it finally healed he would still stroke it with his left index finger out of habit, sometimes staring and meditating on it for minutes at a time. After his release, this continued.
Shark removed his heavy gloves and sipped cool Jersey tap water from a Poland Springs bottle he’d filled at the slop sink. A stream of water ran down his chin, smearing the grey grime speckling his face. Some of the water dripped onto the piece he’d just finished welding and boiled away with a hiss of steam.
He picked up a battered tape measure that didn’t fully retract and a piece of soapstone. Measuring in nine inches from the edge of the metal plate in front of him, Shark marked the gray steel with the soapstone then puffed his breath against it to blow away the extra chalk crumbs, leaving his line as crisp as possible. He set up the tape to measure again.
A loud boom sounded out in the shop, echoing.
Shark’s head snapped up.
Next, he heard the scattering of little pieces of metal over the cement floor, then a man yelling.
Shark tossed the tape measure and the soapstone on the table as he moved to the edge of the enclosed nook of the welding area, around a corner from the main floor of the factory. Before he made it there he heard another loud bang, more yelling, footsteps, louder yelling.
Pushing aside the heavy fiberglass fire blankets separating the welding area from the chaos of everything else, Shark stepped out and saw an overturned rickety shopping cart, nuts and bolts all over the floor, and a small crowd of his coworkers standing in a loose circle around two guys fighting.
Jackson, a heavy set black man with tattoos all over his muscular arms, fought a tall, stringy, light skinned kid named Reggie Gary.
Shark watched as Jackson, stronger and meaner but also flat footed, swiped at Gary, who easily backpedaled out of reach. Jackson, a twice convicted armed robber, came forward and swung a meaty fist at Gary, the junkie car thief, who danced backward again. Again Jackson swung and again missed by inches, but this time Gary tripped over the nuts and bolts littering the floor.
Jackson charged in. He punched Gary across the face and shoved him backward, shoved him across the shop, through the throng of watching coworkers.
Gary kicked out at Jackson and hit the sturdier man’s muscled stomach, but Jackson kept coming forward and Gary scrambled backward on hands and heels to the edge of the shop. Jackson caught up to him and grabbed him, lifted Gary’s upper body off the ground and slammed him back down.
Gary slipped free and scuttled toward Shark.
Shark stepped back into the welding area and a moment later Gary crawled in, the bottoms of the hanging fire blankets grazing his head. He looked at Shark with eyes wide from pain and fear. Blood ran down his face from a gash in his forehead.
Shark regarded him.
Jackson burst through the fire blankets a moment later, pulling one down as he whirled into the room, and found Gary at Shark’s feet.
The rest of the crowd had followed the action and Shark now became aware of them, of their eyes on him, of his actions now being scrutinized, of himself now as a player thrust unwillingly onto the stage as part of this spectacle.
Jackson scooped Gary up.
“Mind your business,” Jackson breathed at Shark, shaking Gary as Gary struggled and twisted in the bigger man’s grasp. Jackson body checked Gary, flinging him across the cramped welding area into a warped metal shelving unit with sagging, overloaded shelves which rocked and creaked at this impact. An open box of welding rods fell on the floor.
Gary slid to the ground.
Jackson went after him.
Shark threw a chunk of scrap metal. It clanged against the wall and Jackson looked over at him.
“Get out of here.”
“Bitch hit me with that cart, spilt oil all on my new fucking boots. And I’m beating his ass for it.”
“Fuck you!” Jackson faced Shark, the big muscles of his chest shiny with sweat in the dim light.
So here it was. Again. Fight, and face the consequences. Or face ugly consequences for not fighting.
He’d had these thoughts so often that over the years that they’d dug a track through his thinking the way running water will erode land into a gully. The will to fight over even the most trivial bullshit- and having his pitiful little domain invaded like this wasn’t even close to the most trivial- cascaded through Shark’s mind like a flashflood through a prison-crafted Grand Canyon in the blink of an eye.
It never occurred to Shark that he wasn’t in prison anymore.
So Shark hit Jackson.
Quick left to the face.
He stepped in and punched with the right hand, no longer thinking about the greater implications of any of this, no longer thinking, the impact of his fist against the side of Jackson’s jaw registering before he came under with the left, a tight uppercut to Jackson’s throat that doubled the muscular man over.
Grabbing Jackson by both moist, powerful shoulders, Shark drove him to the ground.
For the briefest moment Jackson looked over at the crowd of coworkers and Shark understood that Jackson thought he had friends. He’d been joking with these people maybe two minutes ago, but none stepped forward to help him. Even after all the years and all the fights it was still the speed, more than the ferocity that caught Shark off guard. He’d been sipping his water, two minutes ago.
Jackson landed flat on his back with Shark beside him, and Shark scrambled up, driving a knee into Jackson’s middle as he tried sliding his leg over the man to mount him. Jackson bucked and Shark lost his balance; Jackson bucked a second time and sat up, throwing Shark off him.
Shark got to his knees and Jackson grabbed him, yanked him down and they both rolled around on the ground, struggling with each other.
Jackson grabbed a welding rod from the pile on the floor and stabbed at Shark’s thigh; the blunt end of the rod didn’t cut into him, but Shark grunted as pain bloomed up and he yielded.
Jackson pressed this advantage, trying to roll and muscle his way on top of Shark, but Shark controlled his fear and waited, waited, waited for Jackson to reach for a further grasp and then smashed the point of his right elbow into Jackson’s left eye, whipping his shoulder into the movement.
Stunned, Jackson’s hold on him loosened.
Alexander Jones began reading at age 5, writing at age 10 and getting published in his 30’s. He still reads fiction every day. He has a BA in English and is currently pursuing a second in History. He works as a metal fabricator and lives with his family in New Jersey.
Unveiled—Field Notes of a Queer Mystic
By Jan Phillips
There is always one moment in childhood
when the door opens and lets the future in.
~~ Graham Greene
Leaving Religion Behind
I decided to be a nun at age 12. This was because Sister Helen Charles, my sixth grade teacher, kept me from killing myself. If nuns had that kind of power, I wanted some for myself.
On a balmy fall day in 1967, at the age of eighteen, I entered the convent. My family dropped me off at St. Joseph’s Provincial House, never knowing when they would see me again. I could not have been happier. I’d waited six years to trade the hazards of my life as a queer outcast for the safe shelter of a quiet convent. The world was in turmoil, I was in a tailspin, and a house full of prayerful women seemed like paradise.
Closing the door on my family’s red Chevy Bel Aire that day felt like closing the door on trouble. The Viet Nam war was raging like a wildfire. Race riots had erupted in 150 cities. Police from New York to San Francisco were attacking homosexuals, and soon our nation would be weeping over the My Lai Massacre and the murders of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. As fast as I was running toward a life of prayer, I was running away from a life of turbulence, both inside and out.
The Promised Land always lies on the other side of the wilderness.
Our official title was postulant. After a year, we would graduate to first-year novice, then second year novice, then, with the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, leap to Junior Professed sister. As postulants, we wore black mid-calf skirts with a white blouse and black jacket. Tucked away in our pockets was a black mantilla veil for visits to the chapel. Simple black flat shoes and stockings completed the outfit.
Once we had all toured the bedroom area, located our rooms and changed into our convent clothing, we assembled in the Postulate, our main meeting room, where Postulant Director Sister Mary Matilda welcomed us and issued a few introductory warnings.
“Sisters, you are in training for the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. We take the rules seriously here and disobedience will not be abided. You will carry out your assignments in silence, maintain silence in the hallways, and once you have made your final visit to the chapel at night, you will be under Grand Silence,” a phrase that rolled off her lips like a boulder.
There were thirty of us, sitting five each at six long wooden tables. A few of us made eye contact with each other at the ominous sound of Grand Silence. The sister across from me rolled her eyes. Sister Mary Matilda missed that, and went on about the silence thing.
“Everyone goes to chapel after evening recreation and says her final prayers. When you leave the chapel, you enter into Grand Silence and begin custody of the eyes.”
Again, a new phrase. It sounded like something out of divorce court.
“This means that you keep your eyes lowered. No matter what is going on around you, do not lift your eyes any higher than the hem of someone’s skirt. Once you are under Grand Silence, there is absolutely no communication. You go to your room, brush your teeth, and turn off your light by 9 PM.”
This was our first test of obedience. I never took it too seriously, though one night, I had my light on after nine, happily preoccupied with tasks in my little eight by twelve foot room. Suddenly, with no notice, the door opened a crack, a hand slipped in, flipped the switch, and closed the door. I knew enough not to turn it on again. I felt my way to the bed and crawled in, wondering how I was ever going to survive there with all these ridiculous rules. It turns out, the magic hand trick was a common practice. The Superiors often walked down the hallways after nine, switching off lights and keeping track of who needed discipline. I was always in that group.
Close to four hundred sisters lived in the Provincial House, or Motherhouse as it was called. One wing, C wing, housed all the novices and postulants. There were three floors for thirty postulants, forty-five first-year novices, and fifty second-year novices. Each group had one superior and one assistant superior. Once the second year novices took their vows, they moved to another wing in the house, joining the professed sisters who were mainly teachers. There was also A wing, for the retired, the bedridden, the sick and the needy.
The dining room, referred to as the refectory, was large enough to accommodate everyone in the house. Sister Marion Ripski was the Provincial Director and the queen of everything. She sat at the head table with her very important assistants, and hand-picked novices waited on them like royalty. I knew the minute I saw those novices I never wanted that job. When Sister Marion was done with her dessert, she rang a little bell and everyone in the room stopped talking, stood up, said their grace after meals, and piled their dirty dishes onto the stainless steel carts.
Our days began at 5:30 when a loud bell clanged throughout the Novitiate. It sounded like a fire drill. Nothing kind or gentle about it. Sisters on three floors scurried to the bathrooms, put on their habits and glided down the dark hallways to get to chapel in time for Lauds. We prayed the Divine Office together which usually included a short prayer, a hymn, a morning psalm, an Old testament canticle, and a psalm of praise.
It was a magical way to start the day, the chapel filled with sisters, one side calling out, the other side responding, chanting antiphons that people had been singing for centuries. Lauds was followed by Mass, which was followed by breakfast and then we were off, each to our assigned charges. Some worked with Sr. Charlene preparing food for lunch and dinner, some in the steamy dishwashing room tending to a machine the size of a rhinoceros. A whole team worked in laundry, washing and drying sheets, towels and clothing for the whole house, with a few unlucky ones stuck at the hot ironing mangle, running sheets through from breakfast till lunch. Long hallways were dotted with Novices on their knees cleaning scuff marks off the marble floors with little erasers, while others polished linoleum with buffers big enough to kill them. I was stuck at the hot end of the dishwasher.
Jan Phillips is a writer, photographer and activist. She is the author of ten award-winning books including Creativity Unzipped, There Are Burning Bushes Everywhere, No Ordinary Time, Finding the On-Ramp to Your Spiritual Path, Marry Your Muse. Jan has performed with Pete Seeger, taught with Jane Goodall, and worked for Mother Teresa.
By Emily Marcason–Tolmie
…doctors recommend everyone get a flu shot as this year’s flu season is shaping up to be the worst in decades…Tune in tonight for complete coverage on Wavy News 10…
The night before he deploys I sit on the bed in our room and watch as he stuffs his sea bag with blue undershirts and black socks.
“I could hit you with the car and break your leg?” I offer.
Tim shakes his head. “With our luck you’d kill me.”
“How am I going to do this without you?”
“This isn’t our first deployment, Erin.”
“Everything is so different this time. It’s not just you and me.”
He is leaving and I am staying. Our family is involuntarily separating before we’ve even had a chance to be together. I halfheartedly throw a rolled up sock at him and it bounces off his arm. He smirks. “Good throw.”
“Don’t have too much fun on your vacation while I’m here on my own changing diapers and not sleeping,” I huff.
He rolls an undershirt and stuffs it into the bag.
“You’ll go to exotic places like Dubai and Naples. Eat delicious food and see historic monuments,” I continue. “I’ll see baby bottles, burping cloths, and onesies.”
He says nothing but his lip twitches.
“Just, you know, call me sometimes,” I say.
“You know there is nowhere in the world I’d rather be than with you and our baby.”
Guilt washes over me like a wave. I know he doesn’t want to go. I dig a little deeper. “Just don’t do anything stupid overseas.”
Tim flinches. “Jesu, stop. I love you, Erin.”
I am a bitch.
He finishes packing his sea bag and walks to the nightstand on his side of the bed. Out of the drawer he hands me a small black velvet box wrapped with a red bow. “What’s this?” I ask with raised eyebrows.
I open the little box to reveal a gold locket. “Tim, it’s beautiful.”
He takes it out of the box. I move my long blond hair over my right shoulder as he clasps the locket around my neck. I finger the gold circle.
“Look inside,” he says.
On one side of the locket is a picture of us on our wedding day with flashing smiles on our impressionable faces, fingers entwined together, and our whole lives ahead of us. On the other side is a picture of the last sonogram we received. Our future. I close the locket and hold it tightly in my hand. I reach up and softly touch his stubble cheek with my hand. He leans his head into the crook of my neck and his shoulders heave.
“I tried everything to stay with you.”
I wrap my arms around him. “I know you did,” I whisper.
“We’ve waited so long for this.”
I think about all the negative pregnancy tests we’ve endured. The ovulation kits. The ovulation pills. The hours spent researching IVF. The money draining from our bank accounts. The tears. The frustration. The times he picked me up from the bathroom floor and held me while I questioned why God didn’t want me to be a mother. Then it happened. When we least expected it a moment of joy. I will never forget the two little lines on a positive pregnancy test. We created life.
The last night I spend with Tim before he left for deployment is perfectly us. We watch movies we’ve seen millions of times but always makes us laugh. We order takeout at my request from the Chinese restaurant down the street and eat it out of little white cartons while snuggled in bed.
“What do you miss the most when you are deployed?” I ask as I munch on a piece of egg roll.
“Other than you?”
I give him a sideways glance. “Yes. I want to know what it’s like out there.”
Tim shrugs. “It’s not very exciting. I miss the bathroom.”
I snort. “Out of everything – our bed, football Sundays, fast food – you pick the bathroom?”
Tim’s heavy blue eyes grow wide. “You don’t know what it’s like having to go to the bathroom with a bunch of guys.”
I crinkle my nose. “Gross.”
Tim puts his container of takeout on his nightstand. “I need to tell you something.”
I lower my carton of sesame chicken down and lick the sauce from my lips. “What?”
“You are going to be a great mom, Erin.”
Tears sting the corners of my eyes and I look away from him for a moment.
“The baby, me, this family, is so lucky to have you.”
“I’ve wanted to be a mother for so long.”
Tim nods. “I will be home as soon as I can to see you in action.”
I kiss his bare freckled shoulder. I touch the stubble on his chin with my thumb before my lips find his. His arms wrap around me like a warm blanket. For a moment it is just me and Tim. There is no baby. There is no deployment. There is just us.
Tim flips off the lamp on his nightstand. The room floods with darkness.
I snuggle into him. “What time do you need to be at the dock?”
“Early. Before you wake up.”
“I’ll drive you.”
I feel his warm breath on my hair. “No, it’ll be easier if I just go.”
“Hold me all night,” I whisper.
“I’ll be holding you forever.”
I sleep in Tim’s arms like I have done for the past 12 years we’ve been together. Dawn inevitably rips him away from me. He moves through the room in the morning shadows. He leans over me with his sea bag in one hand. His aftershave fills my nose. He softly kisses me on the forehead. “I love you, Erin,” he whispers. Then, like a ghost, he is gone.
For the next three days I stay in bed with the blinds snuggly shut. I wallow in darkness and embrace the security within my walls. The kicks and tapping from inside of me brings me slight comfort and reassurance. I am not alone.
…this flu is unprecedented…take precautions…get the flu shot…frequently wash your hands…stay home…free masks are available at all area Walmarts…more tips on how to stay healthy tonight on WAVY News 10…
Emily is most recently published in Flash Fiction Magazine. She graduated from the prestigious New York State Summer Writers Institute and is a member of The International Women’s Writing Guild. She is completing her M.A. in English and Creative Writing at Southern New Hampshire University.