You know the drill: pull the pile out of your mailbox, rifle through it, toss most of it in the recycling bin. And, if you're like us, sigh a wistful reminder of when getting the mail used to mean actual surprises. Hey, we get it. There's email, texting, Skype, Gchat, Facebook—none of this is new. But in the bulk-rate world of the physical mailbox, a genuine hand-addressed envelope or package inspires a special kind of wonder.
That's what we were counting on when we announced this year's writing contest, in which readers sent us their mailing addresses and we, in turn, sent them random objects on which to base a 400-word piece of creative fiction. The response was overwhelming, and 146 people signed up, a new record for our annual writing contest. Turns out people love getting free stuff in the mail.
Due to the huge response, shipping was delayed slightly, and then affected by a postage error—sorry, our fault—but eventually most everyone received a manila envelope with an object of inspiration inside. No two objects were the same, and contestants had only two rules: (1) to work the object into the story somehow, and (2) to use, in some way, the phrase "it showed up on my doorstep."
You, dear readers, did not disappoint.
How could we forget the tales of "Nevermore and the Golden Coin," of "magic sperm," of "beloved Cheerios"? How could we forget the submission that was, uh, the same story submitted the year before? How could we forget phrases such as "Like an emblem for Liberace's cat, it was sparkly and gay as all hell"?
In the end, five stories out of 146 had to be chosen as winners, and believe us when we say it was not an easy decision. That's why we've picked five honorable mention entries: Andy Covert, Thea Rhiannon, Brian Gellman, Lois Pearlman and Noah Hallett, thank you. Virtual silver medals to you all.
Printed below are the five winning stories, by Don Stoddard, Amy Robinson, Diane Swan, Gabriella Buonassisi and Aloysius Beerheart. Each of the winners will receive a gift certificate to Copperfield's Books. Please join them, and us, in a public reading and celebration on Thursday, Oct. 17, at Acre Coffee in Santa Rosa's Montgomery Village. The whole soiree goes from 6pm to 7:30pm, all winning entries will be read and discussed, and it's completely free. We'd love to see you.
Without further ado, the winning stories!
THE BLACK PANTHER
By Don Stoddard
The fuse is lit, soon it will be over.
I've never forgotten that night all those years ago. He had been gone so long, decades. I was sure he was dead. He was a likable guy, the kind of person you would do anything for. A smooth talker with a mesmerizing voice with so much to say about the world, and how it could be better. We were young, times were different. Things were wild, free, dangerous, radical. We were a small, inseparable group of social misfits. This is how we spent that summer.
The talks started innocently enough, over coffee, listening as he spoke of the world and the things that weren't working. He never said how, but we would fix it. We would know when it was time to act, time to make it right. Late that summer, we were gathered at his place, a small unadorned room. He served us his special tea, a deliciously bitter elixir with some definite side effects. He could always come up with a great story, but this night was going to be different.
As the elixir kicked in, he removed his shirt to reveal a tattooed body like none I'd seen before or since. It was 3-D. He was covered in animals of all kinds, snakes, apes—yes, there were lions, tigers and bears—and creatures no man has ever seen or would hope to see.
The animals were interwoven with geometric symbols, strange alien writings with colors so bright and vivid they could light up a room. Everything was dancing, pulsating hypnotically, as he told his tale and laughed. I saw a black panther begin to pace back and forth, becoming larger and larger until it leapt full-size from his chest right at me. I screamed, and woke alone in my room.
I never saw him or any of the others again. Life went on. I worked, loved, grew older. Then it showed up on my doorstep: a package. In it was a beautiful, porcelain, black panther, crouched and ready to leap. I knew it was from him. He was alive. I broke it open to get my instructions. I knew the others would be getting theirs, too. We would be in sync, no matter how long it been. Things haven't changed, maybe gotten worse. He was right. It was time. Hypnotized? Perhaps, for here I am watching the sparkle of the fuse waiting, waiting for the end.