Winter 2020–The Winners of the Scintillating Starts Contest Are…
The Winners of Writer Advice’s 2019 Scintillating Starts Contest are Sue Stewart Ade, Sarah Russell, and Michael Jack Webb.
All are excellent writers and I love the voices represented here. The openings of their work are below. My compliments to everyone who entered. There are so many wonderful books out there.
In FIRST PLACE is
(A Child without a Country)
By Sue Stewart Ade
The sirens are shrieking. The bombs are coming. Then you have to run into the bunkers, and the bunkers aren’t close.
So you’re running. Then the bombs are falling, stuff is burning, the children are screaming, the people are bleeding, and you’re running. You can’t stop.
You see all the people getting shot. By the time you run into the bunker, half are lying in the streets. When the sirens stop, you go back to your apartment.
Then the sirens go off again. You can’t stay inside. They say if you stay in your apartment and they find you, you’re going to get killed. So you have to go.
Sometimes it was three or four times a night you were running. It was bad, very, very, bad.
These are the words of Irena Holtas who lived in Hamburg during WWII. She was six years old when Russia attacked her homeland of Lithuania. To keep the family safe, her parents decided to leave Lithuania and flee to Germany.
Thousands of Lithuanians fled from the Russians into Germany. Two-thirds of them died.
According to Irena, living in Germany during WWII was unimaginable. We ran straight from the fire, right into the flames.
Irena (Holtas) McCrary, May 3, 2019.
Lithuania, spring 1940
Five-year-old Irena Holtas stood at the window of the second-story apartment. She twirled around, basking in the sunshine streaming through the window. Her brown pigtails flew out to the sides, and her skirt billowed around her twiggy legs.
After the harsh Baltic winter with its blinding snow and bitter winds, she itched to be outside, running barefooted across the meadow. Mama wouldn’t have time to take Irena and her little sister outside today. Mama was busy, gathering their dirty clothes to wash in the sink.
“Irena!” Mama called from the kitchen.
Irena stopped dancing and shuffled into the kitchen. “Yes, Mama.”
Mama, barely five feet with walnut brown hair like Irena’s, untied her bib apron. “Get your sister ready. We’re going to the river to wash clothes.”
Irena’s green eyes sparkled. She scurried into the bedroom to help four-year-old Bridget. Together, they clamored down the stairs. Mama hefted the basket of clothes and trailed behind.
On the way to the river, Irena breathed in the spring air, a mixture of wildflowers and mossy forest. Barefooted, she skipped between Mama and Bridget, giggling as the grass tickled her toes.
Mama was barefooted, too. Her feet were plagued with bunions, and her only pair of shoes did not fit well. When the family went to church, Mama carried her shoes and before entering would slip them on.
Irena spotted some blue wildflowers and sprinted to pick them. She returned with a fistful of flowers and presented them to Mama.
Mama smelled the flowers. “Lithuanian blues.”
Bridget picked some yellow wildflowers and handed them to Mama, who called them yarrows.
Irena searched for her favorites wild roses, but today she didn’t see any.
When the river came into view, Irena dashed ahead, her pigtails flying behind her.
“Be careful,” called Mama.
Irena stopped when she reached the rocks along the river banks. She didn’t want to slip into the water. Mama didn’t know how to swim.
When she was a young girl, Mama had been thrown into the river and almost drowned. Now she was afraid of the water.
Mama stopped next to Irena and set down the basket of clothes. “Stay here and watch your sister while I gather some rocks.”
Irena held onto Bridget’s hand so she wouldn’t fall into the water, but her eyes followed Mama walking along the muddy banks, searching for rocks to scrub the clothes.
Mama scooped up rocks from the river and rolled them around in the palm of her hand, keeping some and discarding others. She made her way back to the girls and led them to a flat boulder where she began washing the clothes.
First she dipped the clothes into the river, swishing them around. Next she slapped them against the rocks to rid them of the water. If the clothes were still dirty, she laid them on the flat stone and scrubbed them with the small rocks she had gathered.
As Mama washed the clothes, she created a rhythm—the swishing of the clothes, the slapping of the wet garments, the clicking of the rocks. The sounds created a soothing melody. Swish-swish-swish, slap-slap-slap, click-click-click. Swish-swish-swish, slap-slap-slap, click-click-click. Irena dangled her feet in the water and tilted her head back, letting the afternoon sun warm her face. A soft breeze whispered under her pigtails, tickling her neck. In the distance a train whistle blew. The train chugged into sight, crossed the tall trestle spanning the water, and disappeared.
Too soon Mama gathered up the basket of wet clothes. Irena dawdled as the three of them trudged back to the apartment.
Mama pinned the clothes on the outside line and went inside to begin supper. Tonight they were having meat loaf. Irena watched as Mama sprinkled spices into the raw pork. The fresh air had made Irena hungry. Mama turned her back. Irena snitched a piece of pork and popped it into her mouth. She liked eating raw meat, even though Mama scolded her. When Pop came home, the family gathered around the table brightened by a glass jar filled with the blue-and-yellow wildflowers. Pop listened to his girls babble about their day at the river, and then he told them about an incident at the candy factory where he worked.
“When I arrived, I spied a rat hiding on a high shelf.”
“A rat!” Irena’s green eyes widened. “What did you do?”
Pop rose and pantomimed his actions. “I grabbed a pitchfork and started jabbing at it.”
“Did you kill the rat?” Irena asked.
“He was trying to get away and jumped right at me.”
Irena gasped and covered her mouth.
Pop chuckled and patted Irena’s head. “Don’t worry. The rat landed on the prongs of the pitchfork.”
That night as Irena drifted off to sleep, she thought about candy and the soothing sounds of the lapping water. She thought about August when she would be six and start school.
Irena had no way of knowing that these were her last idyllic spring days. By the time she turned six, her childhood would be over.
Lithuania, August 1940
Pop hurried home from the factory and burst into the apartment. “The Russians are coming!” Pop’s hat was askew and his wavy hair mussed. “They’ve invaded Lithuania.”
Irena rushed to the window expecting to see soldiers marching down the street or tanks rumbling through the town. Instead flocks of people were scurrying away. Some carried suitcases. Others gripped lumpy pillowcases flung over their backs. A few cradled possessions in their arms. A mass migration.
Irena’s stomach knotted. She turned away from the window.
Mama wrapped her arms around Pop. “What are we going to do?”
Pop’s bushy brows furrowed. “I heard the Russians are killing men or sending them to Siberia.”
Irena and Bridget rushed over to Pop. They grabbed his pant legs as if they could keep him there. Pop had killed the rat, thought Irena. He would be able to ward off this danger, too.
Pop wiggled free. “We have no choice. We have to leave on today’s train.”
“Leave?” Irena was looking forward to starting school. “Where will we go?”
“Someplace safe,” Pop said. “Germany.
Sue Stewart Ade has published two novels, Friends Forever, a Nancy Pearl Finalist, and Friends Together. “Pumpkin Blossoms,” a novella, is published in the anthology Food and Romance Go Together, Vol. 1. Sue, a former English teacher, and her husband Larry live in Pana, Illinois. Her website is sueade.net.
In SECOND PLACE is
The Ballerina Swan Lake Mobile Homes Country Club Motel
By Sarah Russell
Wanda cracked a Coors and was lighting a half-smoked Marlboro she dug out of the ashtray when the dinging started. One ding, which she ignored, then two, with a Hallo called out afterwards.
“Damn bell. Where’s Chico? Damn dog’s s’posed to bark.” She hoisted herself out of the recliner and started across the room.
“Coming. Hold your horses.” Wanda pushed through the bright pink beads that separated the living area from the office and saw a scraggly girl and a wagging Chico. “Must like you. He usually barks.”
“Yeah, dogs do,” the girl said. “How much are rooms?”
“$35 for a single plus $7 state resort surcharge.” Wanda knew she didn’t have it. “In advance. You alone?”
The girl looked over her shoulder. “Yeah. Yeah, I’m alone.”
“You ain’t sneaking someone in here.”
“No. No. Got rid of them, I think.”
“Yeah, well . . .” Her lip trembled. “Pretty sure no one followed me.”
“Aw shit. Girl, are you in trouble? I don’t need trouble.”
“No, no. See, me and my boyfriend was camping up the mountain, and he got mad and took off, and then I didn’t want to stay, ‘cause, you know, bears, so I hitched a ride on a logging truck, and the guy says OK, but you gotta give me a blow job, and I’m like Not in a truck going down a mountain with a ton of logs, and he says OK, when the road goes flat, and I’m like OK, and then we was just quiet awhile, him looking over at me creepy-like til the road leveled out, and he says Now, and I told him the turns made me feel like I was gonna barf, and he says Not in my truck, and I’m like Stop then, so he does, and I jump out and start running, and he’s cussing, and I know he’s all pissed and honking, but I keep running and turn on a gravel road ‘cause I don’t think he’ll turn in that big truck, and then I see the road to this place, and now I’m here. So I think I’m alone except my stuff is part on the mountain and part in the log truck, and I’ll do whatever you want if I can stay. I got fifteen dollars, and I’ll do whatever you want.” Her voice trailed off, and her lip started trembling again.
Wanda scowled. “Let’s see the fifteen.”
The girl pulled two grubby fives and some ones out of her jeans.
“How old are you?”
“Bullshit. Sixteen, right?” The girl nodded. “Thought so. Where’s home?”
“Wichita. But I left there a year ago, and nobody’s come looking.”
Wanda sighed. Chico was sitting next to the girl, looking up like she hung the moon, tail thumping, and Chico was a good judge of character. “Shit. Give me ten. A woman’s gotta keep a little mad money.”
The girl forked over the two fives. “Thank you, Ma’am.”
“Did you put that fire out at your campsite?”
“I think so.”
“Douse it with water?”
“Shit, Girl. C’mon.” Wanda grabbed her truck keys off a nail by the “Natural Wonders of Colorado” calendar and flipped the Open sign to Closed. “We can’t have you starting a forest fire too. Mountain’s dry. You shouldn’t even’ve had a campfire up there.” She started across the rutted parking lot toward the pickup. “C’mon Chico.”
Two mutts, Wanda thought. What’s up with me and mutts?
Sarah Russell’s poetry and fiction have been published in Kentucky Review, Red River Review, Misfit Magazine, Rusty Truck, Third Wednesday, and other journals and anthologies. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee, and her poetry collection, I lost summer somewhere, was published in 2019 by Kelsay Books. She blogs at SarahRussellPoetry.net.
In THIRD PLACE is
By Michael Jack Webb
Less than ten minutes before we’re dead, thought Ethan Freeman, and there’s nothing I can do!
The stricken A320 Airbus–originally bound for St. Thomas and now limping back to Charlotte, North Carolina—shuddered like a bird suffering a mortal wound, then shook violently. Shouting and screaming from the rear of the plane drowned out the prayer of the older couple seated in front of them, “Our Father, Who art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy Name, Thy kingdom come—”
Lisa, Ethan’s wife, sobbed beside him. Across the aisle his eighteen-year-old son, Josh, yelled, “Dad–are we going to crash?”
“No, son,” he lied. “We-are-not-going-to-crash.”
Megan, his sixteen-year-old daughter, seated next to her brother, screamed, “The engine is on FIRE!”
Lisa clung to the seat arms so hard her fingers turned white and whimpered, “We’re going to die—like Greg,” then moaned, “I don’t want to die—”
Ethan reached for his wife’s hand as a thunderous explosion shook the plane and slammed him against the window, knocking breath out of him. He cried out in agony as a jagged metal clasp sticking up on the armrest between him and Lisa sliced open the palm of his right hand. Blood gushed out of the ugly-looking wound and splattered the back of the seat in front of him.
The plane banked hard to the right and the nose suddenly pointed toward the ground, six miles below, as if the commercial airliner was being plucked from the cloudless, crystal blue heavens by a giant unseen hand. Ethan glanced toward the rear of the plane. A gaping hole replaced the emergency exit. Loose debris disappeared violently out of the plane—and there were two rows of seats missing!
Swinging his gaze back to the First-Class Cabin, Ethan noticed that ice crystals now clung to the windows. His ears popped as oxygen masks dropped from overhead. Shivering, he reached for the oxygen mask dangling in front of him like a puppet on a string and struggled to place it over his mouth and nose. He took several deep breaths, ignoring his bleeding hand, then yelled out to his family, “Put your masks on!”
In the next instant, he was pressed so hard into his seat it seemed as if he weighed four to five times his normal weight. Black spots danced before his eyes and he fought for breath.
All he could think about was that he had failed his family—that he couldn’t save them. He cried out in desperation, “GOD HELP US—”
Moments later, a flash of blinding white light enveloped him as a blast of fiery heat washed over him.
Then everything went black.
Sam Weaver, lying on a towel in the hot sand, thirty feet from the edge of the blue-green ocean, daydreamed about what it might be like to lead a normal life, when her pager buzzed.
She opened her eyes and fought rising resentment.
It was her first vacation in over eighteen months. Her boss, E. “Mac” Macready–the Chief of the Major Investigations Division of the National Transportation Safety Board, or the AS-10 in Board nomenclature, had promised he’d page her only if it was necessary.
She stared at her bright pink beach bag, one that matched her swimsuit, for several
seconds tempted to ignore the pager. Then she remembered that when she’d signed up to be an investigator for the NTSB, she’d literally signed the rights to her life away. Shows what she must do as well as her attitude. Good. She sat up, brushed several errant strands of thick black hair off her face, and reached inside the bag.
Her heart was beat rapidly as she read the text: Call Mac at once. Major accident involving Quest Airways A320 your neck of the woods. Go Team notified.
No matter how frustrated she got with the government bureaucracy, her pulse always quickened whenever she received a message like this. Her friends back in DC found her reaction gruesome, but her dad understood. “The thrill of figuring out complex problems others find too challenging, or too painful, is in your blood, Sam,” he’d told her more than once. “You can’t help yourself. You love Gordian knots.”
She found her cell phone. When she reached Mac he said, “Sorry to interrupt your vacation. I know I promised not to call, but this one is big—and bad.”
He did, and finished by saying, “I’ve spoken with Ted, Marissa, Tony—and Frank. All of them but Frank are on their way to Hanger Six at Reagan International.”
Ted Anson was the human performance specialist, while Marissa Chen was highly regarded as one of the world’s foremost experts on cockpit and flight data recorders. Tony North was a top-notch metallurgist. Frank Bacon had two Ph.D.’s and was the NTSB’s expert on the A320.
Sam knew that Frank obsessed about planes manufactured by the French consortium. He blamed Airbus for the downsizing that cost him his high-paying job at Boeing. It was widely known he’d compiled a detailed and extensive computerized list of all suspicious incidents resulting in the crash of planes manufactured by Boeing’s chief competitor. When it came to fatal crashes involving Airbus, Frank was like a detective tracking a serial killer he’d pursued for years in his spare time.
“Frank is in Dallas,” continued Mac. “He’ll meet you and the rest of the Team at the Command Center later this afternoon. You need to call him and let him know where that will be.”
“Me?” Was it finally time?
“But—but,” she stammered.
“Well, well, well. I’ve always wondered what it might take for the unflappable Sam Weaver to be at a loss for words.”
“I want it official—on the record.”
“Okay. You’re the Investigator-in-Charge. After five years of working with you, I know you don’t care about the title, or need the pay raise. You want to be in control of your own investigations. I know the feeling.”
Sam took two deep breaths and pulled a notepad out of her bag. “Who’s the Regional on the ground in Georgia?”
“Ed Landers. He’s the senior IIC out of Atlanta, but he’ll answer to you. He’s a first-rate investigator, has a calm head on him, and if he has any agenda, I’ve never heard about it.”
“Which translates, he’s smart, soft-spoken, and doesn’t play politics.”
“Not everyone in government service subscribes to the ‘dog-eat-dog’ mentality, Sam.”
“You could have fooled me.”
Mac snorted and continued. “Ed is on his way. He’ll set up a perimeter, set up security, and get the investigation started. He’ll also coordinate with local authorities, including police and firefighters, and inform the media the investigation is under our jurisdiction.”
Sam scribbled on her notepad as Mac talked. “Am I flying on one of the Board’s planes? Or going commercial?”
“The Citation is in Fort Lauderdale. The pilot can land at Patrick in an hour.”
“I’ll be ready.”
“One more thing, Sam. Watch your back. Frank’s been looking for an excuse to make life miserable for you—”
“I can handle Frank,” she retorted. Her male counterparts at the safety board behaved with the macho air of men in a locker room. Frank was one of the biggest proponents of the pervasive mentality.
“I know you can, Sam. Frank has more time with the Board, but you have the moxie, and the people skills, it takes to handle all the egos involved. You’ve worked hard for this slot—you deserve it.”
Michael Jack Webb is the author of five novels and one non-fiction book. Over the past forty years he’s travelled the world in search of adventure. He writes stories that ignite imaginations and stir souls, edge-of-your-seat supernatural thrillers filled with fascinating characters, suspenseful plots and exotic locations.
Spencer Stephens’ The Only Thing to Fear
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