“I have judged many writing contests and I would say this by far was the hardest. The quality of writing was SO good.” ~~Sue Ade
The Winners Are
Promising Openings from our Scintillating Starts Contest
One of the judges sent the following encouraging comment which I am delighted to share: “I have judged many writing contests and I would say this by far was the hardest. The quality of writing was SO good.” I thought her perspective was worth sharing.
Worth Noting: When I read J.L. Hippler’s piece, Ground Rules, the title grabbed me even before I read his opening. I knew it would be a perfect title for the YA I’m editing, which is a sequel to Talent. I checked with the author who said it would be fine for me to use it. Thanks for helping me find my title, L. J. Hippler. It’s used here for a totally different story. You’re one of the first to know where and how I found this title. BTW, titles cannot be copyrighted, but if you want to use someone else’s title, ask first.
This year we have two winners who will share the prize money and two Honorable Mentions who are invited to include their status every time they query an agent.
By L. J. Hippler
I knew already he had to have her. He was like that. Two days spent with Mr. Stark and I knew all about him. Both of us saw the woman at the same time. She seemed so at home in the lobby of the Lord Baltimore, perfect brunette hair kissing the collar of her white silk blouse, the long, crossed legs and the Armani heel, dangling like a moss green bauble from her tapping toe as she searched on her phone. Authentic, for some reason that English word flashed in my mind like a neon billboard in Tokyo. She was the real thing, the rarest of things, an authentic woman.
“Ms. Ibanez? Hi. Robert Stark.” He kept walking forward, coming closer to her than he needed to. The right hand at the end of that long arm shot out and stayed in front of her. “Sorry we’re late. This is my assistant, Mr. Faung.”
Thankfully, he remembered the Mr. Often he would refer to me as Faung, like he was introducing his pet turtle. But the authentic woman nodded to me with a smile that would have put the proverbial Mona Lisa to shame, and I was fine with whatever came next. Already, I was at her service, not his.
“I hope you don’t mind meeting here in the lobby,” she said, managing to make eye contact with us both. “Up on the eighth floor we do have some space, one big office and a gigantic conference room. But I only secured those yesterday. Right now, they’re moving in the office furniture, tables, chairs, all that.”
“Wait,” Stark interrupted, his first impression’s smile dripping from his face like makeup under a hot spotlight, “this is your campaign headquarters and you only have two rooms?”
“It’s all I need.” She affixed the moss-green shoe to her right foot and placed it on the carpet next to the left one. “And won’t you please sit down? The two of you leaning over me is a little awkward.”
“Sure,” Stark chuckled, taking a seat on the couch opposite her. He motioned with his head for me to sit next to him.
“Actually,” Ms. Ibanez went on, “I have three rooms. One of them I’ll be living in until Election Day.”
“I love it. Going to the mattresses. You don’t play around, do you?”
“It’s not all that dramatic, Mr. Stark. But my run for the State Senate isn’t some half-hearted lark. For the next nine months, until I win and transition, my law practice, personal life, everything is on hold.”
“I’ve seen other political races,” I said. “That level of dedication is rare.”
She sat up straighter on the couch, put her hands on her knees, and gave me a curious stare. Stark glared at me as if I’d just wet my pants.
“Well, minimal distractions,” Ms. Ibanez went on. “I locked up my townhouse in Canton and took my son to live with his grandfather until it’s all finished.”
She motioned to the passing, red-coated doorman, the one I had previously assumed was physically attached to the revolving glass-and-brass front doors of the hotel. He stepped closer and she whispered to him.
Stark had managed to position his upper body into a confrontational pose, leaning across the black lacquered coffee table. “Faung, my money guy, will be here for you, twenty-four-seven. I’ve set him up in a room on – is it the sixth floor, Faung?”
He went on. “I need some floor space for my staff, promo people, communications…”
Despite the silence, she didn’t respond.
“Look, I’m no newcomer to this business. Trump’s win in 2016, maybe you’ve heard about it. I was instrumental in making that happen.”
At that moment, a black-skirted, matronly lady from the bakery appeared and put a silver tray of confections on the table. She smiled down at us as if she were treating neighborhood toddlers. When no one else reached out, I grabbed a cheesecake square and popped it into my mouth, only to show Ms. Ibanez her gesture was appreciated.
She focused those blue eyes on Stark before she spoke. “First, Mr. Faung will be working both with me and my personal money guy, Mike Drazinski. Second, I asked you here today to set some ground rules. Rule one, you work for me, not the other way around.” The authentic woman stood, signaling our talk was over. “If you’ve taken the time to read anything about me, you know I’ve been a practicing Baltimore attorney for almost a decade. Believe me, I know all about political fights.”
Robert Stark of Stark and Associates parted his lips to speak– then thought better of it. Another American phrase, Walk of Shame, presented itself in my mind as I followed my employer through the lobby toward those revolving doors. Logically, there was no reason for shame. Still, the phrase felt appropriate. We stepped outside into the sunny mid-morning, but a burst of March wind let us know that winter was far from vanquished.
“They’re bringing the car around,” Stark said, lighting a cigarette and blocking the wind with his overcoat. “I need you to ride up town with me. We’ve got a lot to talk about.”
“Excuse me sir.” The red-coated doorman was hurrying toward us without his hat. “You can’t smoke this close to the hotel door.”
“Chrrrist!” Stark groused as he moved to the curb, cupping the cigarette in his hand to keep it lit. “This is Baltimore, man. People get killed on this sidewalk every day, but I can’t smoke here?”
For the first time, I was seeing the outside of the Lord Baltimore Hotel in the daylight. “This building just exudes character,” I said. “How old is it?”
Rather than answer my question, Stark stared down at the cigarette in his hand as if surprised to find it there. He flicked it out into Baltimore Street. “This hotel is old as shit. I would have torn it down. But two years ago, they redid it inside. Put several million into it. Why do you want to know, Faung?”
“I am just curious.”
A white Town Car rounded the corner and a young black valet bounced out of the driver’s seat to hold the door open.
“Is this a Lincoln?” I asked. “I didn’t know they still made these.”
“There’s a lot you don’t know, Faung.” Before starting the car, Stark fumbled under the driver’s seat with his left hand. He produced a red plastic box the size of a bar of soap and began sniffing something from it. “My asthma medicine,” he said after a particularly deep inhale. The wind brings it on.”
“Still, an amazing building,” I said, looking out the side window as we eased into the traffic on Charles Street.
“Forget that. I need you to think about little Miss High and Mighty, and how we can make sure she’s with us – exclusively. Get a handle on who her campaign contributors are.”
“Campaign contributors.” Stark repeated those two words like a mantra on the way to his uptown office. “If I was on the other side and looking for dirt that’s where I’d start.” At North Avenue the light changed and Stark slammed his foot down on the brake and fumed, waiting for the light to change. He banged the steering wheel with the heels of both hands. The entire dashboard shook.
“Ground rules. Screw her!”
L J Hippler is originally from Baltimore, Maryland. He worked as a Cost and Budget analyst until retiring in 2005 to write full time. Hippler is the author of two novels: Cathedral Street and The New Road. Currently he lives and writes in Lancaster, South Carolina
By Julie Colacchio
Mrs. Twoshades burst into Bud’s Suds. “Ya better come quick. Yer sister’s on fire.”
I inhaled the lightning scent of Matt the Mechanic’s coveralls and put them aside to fold later. Tucking a yellow washcloth into my pocket, I followed the old woman to the Post Office parking lot.
My sister, Coral, killed herself. She was not yet twenty-one, but had taken to drinking with mom at The Driftwood Lounge. If there was more than one bar in town, I would have been a bar slut as well, but three women from the same family competing for drinks from out of work men isn’t a conversation starter. It’s a sick sideshow.
That was her First Death when we said goodbye to Coral’s giggle. She shaped her words out of laughter. Coral threw herself at life–soap-making, painting, drumming–but she forgot it all when she went into the bar. The First Death, the death of her body, set her free, but her family was left to perform the sacred rituals. In accordance with the Old Ways, we had to gather her ashes in a soul basket and perform the Witching Hour Chants. Only then, will her magic be released to Canopus.
Mom had a gray tub, the kind used for busing tables, but my father and little brother gathered Coral’s still smoking ashes into red Solo Cups. I used the washcloth to fetch smoldering embers of my sister and put them in Mom’s tub. Gray flecks drifted on the wind like mourning butterflies. People from town stood on the Post Office sidewalk and watched, but nobody helped.
One of the Swiftharts, Merelyn I think, placed the Macbeth Soul Basket on the ground and pushed it forward with her foot, fearful of contracting tragedy. She smelled like whiskey, but mom’s hands were steady as she picked through the gravel. I missed the mom that alcohol stole from me. My father stayed a few feet away from us. Church was his family now. I stood halfway between my parents, the reliable buffer. I motioned to my brother, Malachi, to empty his cup of ashes into the basket.
“In the name of Jesus Christ, amen,” Dad whispered.
I hissed at him, “Don’t you dare.”
“Sissy,” he began, “The Old Ways and Christianity–”
“Don’t,” I muttered as I moved away from him. Was I angry that he was praying to Jesus or that he had called me Sissy? He had not called me Sissy since he abandoned the Old Ways and my mother.
I squatted next to Malachi. When he looked at me, there were unanswered questions and tears in my tough brother’s eyes. “I’m sorry, Mal,” I whispered. And I was sorry. Sorry our family was fractured. Sorry he was a prisoner on the croft.
Wind lifted ashes to mingle with the gray sky. The people from town wandered off. There is no spectacle in quiet grief. I thought of the unfolded laundry. Matt needed his coveralls by six.
When my mother sang the Witching Hour Chants for Grandma Fareye her voice had vibrated with power. The Fareyes were crazy moonshiners, but they followed the Old Ways. Our shout, “May your magic die with you,” trailed Grandma’s magic to Canopus.
Shifting twilight had mingled ashes and gravel when my mother stood. She bit her lip as she eased Coral’s ashes into the soul basket. She did the same thing when she used to tie my shoes.
Mom said, “Canopus will be up soon.” She threw the tub across the parking lot toward The Driftwood lounge, cradled the basket against her breast, and walked toward the woods.
Malachi and I hurried to catch up. My father’s sigh and footsteps echoed behind.
Mom was surefooted, stepping over breached tree roots and jutting rocks. No alcoholic shuffle or stumble. My eyes searched the darkening woods for a darker shadow as I followed her. Twilight was Remnant Time. My mother carried a Remnant, amoral motherless magic, in the Soul Basket. I wiped my ashy hands on my jeans.
Mom stopped at the Final Death Bier clearing and murmured, “May your magic die with you.”
“May your magic die with you,” Malachi and I responded.
A black rectangle of cement hulked in front of us. The last resting place of Coral’s magic.
Mom drew me and Malachi close. “It’s okay.”
I was safe. My Mom knew what to do.
Dad bowed his head.
“The Old Ways protect us. We do this for the Tenkiller Family; for Amber, my eldest child who turned her back on her people; for Topaz, my strong talented daughter; for Coral, who was too beautiful for this world; and for Malachi, my dear son.” Mom’s voice was clear. She placed Coral’s Soul Basket on the concrete bier. “We await Canopus to reunite her with Coral’s Magic.”
“Mom,” Malachi sounded younger than his fifteen years, “where do we go after the First Death? I mean, we’ll release Coral’s magic, but what about her?”
Mom’s voice was soft, “Honey, when a Mage dies—”
My father cut her off. “She’s in hell. Suicide is an abomination in the eyes of our saviour. The 34th Psalm says when the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them. The Lord saves the crushed in spirit. He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken. Coral should have turned to the Lord.”
Mom stiffened. Same argument. Same Psalm.
Dad continued, “I invited Bishop Allgood to offer a proper prayer before you begin your chants. An all-forgiving God shall redeem you.”
“We need the Old Ways now. Will your God save us from magic without reason?”
“You can be saved. Accept God’s love and escape the judgment reserved for the wicked, for those who,” he swept his arm around the clearing, “worship false idols.”
The sky was deepening to black. Canopus had risen. When the star beckoned purple, the Witching Hour Chants must begin. I intervened, “Mom, Coral wouldn’t mind one prayer.”
Mom wavered, “But she would. Coral followed the Old Ways.”
A throat cleared behind us.
“Bishop Allgood, thank you for coming,” Dad rushed to the pale man in the dark suit.
“I’m sorry for your loss, Hank, children.” The Bishop smiled at us. “Mrs. Tenkiller, your husband asked me to say a prayer for Coral. I trust you agree?”
Mom shrank. Was it the suit? The whiteness of his teeth? The word Missus? “Well, I hadn’t planned–”
Bishop Allgood spoke over her, “Surely one little prayer would not harm the soul of your dear child?”
Mom’s face sagged. Her eyes darted around the clearing. “I think…I just…I need a drink.” She stumbled to the path. Mom’s heaving breath echoed then disappeared as she ran back to the safety of The Driftwood Lounge.
Malachi looked from me to dad. He was fifteen, but he did not understand the swirling emotions. My parents gave up on each other and gave in to their vices before he could walk. I put my arm out and he leaned into me. We were a small tower of grief.
Bishop Allgood spoke to Dad. “I believe in redemption, sir. Although your daughter will not pass through the gates of Heaven, prayer will ease her path.” He steepled his hands and Dad did the same. The Bishop looked at me and Mal. “Shall we?”
Malachi looked at me. I shrugged. What harm could a prayer do?
Julie Colacchio teaches high school English, college English, and college Public Speaking. She wrote her current novel to teach her students that smart girls kick ass. She lives in New York with her three lovely children, 10 poorly behaved pets, and supportive husband.
Our two Honorable Mentions:
A Murder of Crows
By Kodie Van Dusen
And The Train Kept Moving
By Michael Kiggins
When their books come out, you will learn more. Many thanks to all who participated. It takes courage to send your work out into the world. I enjoyed reading and responding to every piece.