Every year, we give the introduction to a story or theme for our contestants to consider or, as with this year, visual prompts to induce writing-contest brilliance. As always, our readers jolt us with joy as they tackle the same thing from so many directions. Thanks to all who contributed this year; below, we've printed our five favorite entries. Please join these writers and our staff to celebrate this year's contest with a free public reading and reception on Wednesday, Oct. 20, at Cafe Azul from 5:30 to 7:30pm. Azul is at 521 Fourth St., Santa Rosa, 707.636.0180. We hope to see you there!—Gretchen Giles
I used a short length of rope to tie the door closed. Blood, which looked dried and brown on my skin, was a slick, crimson smear across the rope's white knots. I tied it as tight as I could with one hand, looping it through the handrail affixed to the wall. I'd found the rope below deck in a small kitchen area. I'd been given a tour when I first boarded back in Miami, but I hadn't paid attention. I'd just nodded and tried to keep my balance as we bobbed in the harbor. My job was going to be simple: Film the crew bringing up the treasure. Get all the faked oohs and aahs from a couple of students and interns who had already seen the bits of pottery and gold coins via the divers' underwater camera weeks ago. Maybe I'd do some talking head shots with the archeologists in their wetsuits, get some establishing shots of the boat, etc. It wouldn't be exciting work, but Nat Geo signed my checks and I'd film whatever academic dog and pony show they assigned me to film. Had that really been yesterday? Had I really stood inside this door yesterday morning, squeezing cold globs of sunscreen onto my arms, my face? Pissed that I'd forgotten a hat? I could see my yesterday self from the outside, like I'd filmed it, but my mind couldn't take me back to it happening. Still, I could smell the faint scent of coconut oil beneath the layers of fear and blood that drenched me, and I knew it had been real. All of it.I pulled on the rope to make sure it was still tight. It was. My breathing was steadier, no more of those painful gasps. The blood stopped oozing from the wound in my side during the night. It hurt less when I kept my hand tight over it. I wasn't sure if that was a good thing or not. I pulled again. The rope was fine. The rope was fine. It would keep the door closed, at least for a few minutes. Long enough for me to jump overboard. I turned my back to the door and slid down to the deck, careful to keep myself from twisting too much. I'd need to get something to drink soon. There was a pallet of bottled water on the port side, next to the plastic bins of seawater intended for the artifacts. I'd have to step over two of the bodies to get there—the blonde intern with the pierced eyebrow, Tara, and one of the deckhands whose name I never learned. I don't think he spoke English.
It had been Tara who'd told me. As I checked the battery on my camera, she'd leaned over the railing watching as the divers disappeared beneath the water into the darkness. "Technically, this isn't a shipwreck. It was sunk on purpose. It's supposed to be cursed, you know. The gold."
She'd smiled at me.—Rebecca Wetzel
SistersSkipper stands on the front bumper of the neighbor's family van, scissors in hand, about to cut the rope that is the mannequin's noose, when a moth distracts her. A moth with electric orange feelers and the furry torso of a yellow lab. A moth which rests on the mannequin's deliciously bodacious left boob. Big Brother.
"Quit judging me with those black eyes, moth. I'm fighting crime here." Snip, snip, down. Skipper picks up the mannequin and tosses it with the scissors and the rope onto the passenger seat of her pink camper.
"No one has needed a drink more than you do right now," Skipper says, resting her hand on the mannequin's thigh and patting it gently. She pulls out south to the B&B.
"Two bloody marys, extra horse," she orders from her leather stool, she on one, new friend on the other. "Who you got there?" asks her older sister from behind the bar.
"Don't know her name, but I saved her from the Dia de los Muertos display the Joneses put up every year. They went too far this time, lynching her like that."
"She needs a spa day," says Barbie, placing the bloodys on the counter, olives like green silicon breasts, celery sticks like daddy longlegs.
"Pass me that liniment oil mom gave you, I'm gonna give her a rubdown."
Barbie unscrews the lid off the Sloane's, and passes the bottle to her younger sister. "She'll need therapy, or at least an aura fluffing."
"Herself's not much for words. Doesn't it look like she walked off the set of Deadwood? All gold-panner prostitute. She's the kind of woman people think was asking for it."
"I know that story too well," sighs Barbie, taking a deep breath and wishing for a cigarette.
"Yeah," says Skipper, "people think we can't have it all—looks, a career."
"Wouldn't call hooking a career," sneers Barbie, rolling her eyes, pissed off as usual.
"This from my sister who graduated from Cal and settles for being Bartender Barbie. Desperate times. People should be more concerned about the Wild West male mannequins with their wood guns and dueling spirits. All the couch liberals of the world, putting the focus on whether we dress too-too, whether we perpetuate the fuckable stereotypes that keep women down, whether we shop too much. Assuming we are brain-dead, that we haven't made our own choices."
Skipper massages the ointment onto the mannequin's feet. "This stuff is better than La Mer. Look, she's smiling. Hey, Barbs, you want to take off tomorrow night and go camping with us? I so want to get on the road, build a fire, roast some marshmallows, see some tall trees."
"A raging fire is just what I need. I'm in."
"And tall trees remind me that everything is OK—that it was and is and will be OK," says Skipper, finishing off her bloody mary, her arm around Gold Panner.
"My name is Loretta," the mannequin says loudly, looking Skipper in the eyes and reaching for her drink.
"We have the world in the palm of our hands. We really do, Loretta."
Barbie looks to the corner of the bar, where the bug zapper zaps, nodding.—Molly Brown
Benedictine Bait & Switch
I rubbed down Benedict, Father Abbot's old gelding, with Dr. Sloan's horse liniment ("good for man and beast"), then rode toward the baptistery where Gabriella was waiting, and heaved her up, doll-like in her favorite Spanish bustier, gently whipping Benedict with the white belt of my monk's tunic, leading the equine eunuch past the cathedral and the Leaning Tower out of Pisa to the bucolic meadow I knew so well.
It had been a long wait since the hour of Lauds, the morning prayer that we junior monks must attend at sunup without brushing our teeth, our voices so hoarse that the Lord's Prayer sounds like one of Bob Dylan's ballads. Between Prime and Terce, I had helped in the library, but actually checked into that internet chat room again.
As the youngest novice, I am something of an IT specialist in this monastery, so it took me only a minute to figure out that our dear Father Abbot had signed in as BadBoy666, and was raving about "legs like Hermes and a chest like an archangel." I chose a very sexy painting of archangel "Goldilocks" Gabriel by Botticelli as my avatar, and my chat was coy and flirty. An hour later (are abbots always online?), Father BadBoy666 wrote he'd like to meet me shortly after Sext in the monastery's wine cellar, while everybody was resting or reading psalms on his own. Then, in the abbot's name, I sent an urgent email to Bulbus, who's not only the bread and cheese merchant in Pisa's Via Niosi, but also a wine lover and widower and the unlikely father to Gabriella, who's pretty as a prayer book and sweet as an apple on Christmas Day. I told Bulbus to bring two loaves of multigrain bread, a slice of Stilton and some fromage bleu and Agnus Dei sheep's cheese into the wine cellar of the monastery, and that he needed to come stat, at 15 after midday.From the window of my monk's cell, I observed our portly Father Abbot, the pectoral cross bouncing on his tight tunic, trundle down into the wine cellar, followed five minutes later by Bulbus, who was carrying two heavy bundles of cheese and bread. What would happen next? Exactly what happened last time: after the initial disappointment that Bulbus wasn't the one he had expected, the one with Hermes legs and an archangel's chest, but nevertheless was someone who came with hearty bread and delicious cheeses, Father Abbot would invite the merchant to partake, and Bulbus, his nose betraying his weakness for the excellent monastery wine, would sit down, and together they'd feast and drink until they'd fall of the wooden benches and sleep through the night when the prior would come looking for Father Abbot to celebrate Lauds in the morning.By that time Gabriella would long be sleeping soundly in her chaste bed in Via Niosi, and I'd sing the morning hymn at Lauds with joyful abandon.—Wulf Rehder
Promises My Father Made
The chair was too damned sturdy, thought Dunn, but at least that meant he'd built it properly."Dunn! Where's the gold?" His assailant punctuated the question with another brutal fist to the gut. Dunn's arms flexed futilely against the rope that bound his wrists to the chair."Chet, over here," said the weasely little man by the shelf. "He keeps the whole mess of statues over here." He held one up, a doll in taffeta.
"What I done tell you 'bout usin' my name on a job, Willie?" answered Chet, massaging his knuckles.
The doll gazed forlornly at Dunn through Willie's dirty digits. His Papa had given it to his Mama back in 1850, promising that once they struck it rich, she'd be wearin' fine dresses, edged in lace. But they'd never struck it rich, and Mama had finished her days in simple cotton.
"Maybe in this one?" asked Chet, seizing the doll and throwing it straight down. Her plaster smashed against the wooden floor of the shed, but only plaster, nothing else. Chet screamed in anger and lunged for the shelf of statues.Next to go was a figure of a hand, grasping the architecture of Europe. In '56, Papa had told Mama that once they hit pay dirt, they could travel 'round the globe and see the sights. The pay dirt had always been a shovelful away, though, and Mama never saw Italy.Piece after piece crashed into the floor in front of the silent Dunn. Chet kicked through the shards of each, but all of the pieces were solid. With each piece, his muttered "Like hell!" grew louder and more violent.Willie's nervous whine interrupted his partner. "Look, maybe the rumors were wrong. Maybe his daddy wasn't the richest man in Hodson."
"I said like hell! You heard 'em ol' drunks last night, each talkin' 'bout Dunn senior's riches tied up in these lil' clay things. Now, his son still got 'em, but they ain't hollow!"
The ceramic was throwing up dust now with each minor explosion. It forced involuntary tears to Dunn's eyes, blurring his sight but not his recollections. Fifty-two, '53, '54. Each year had been another promise sealed in a statue, and each year was an empty promise, gone unfulfilled. Still, Mama had kept on loving Papa, and he'd loved her.
Chet's fist was swinging again into Dunn's temple, and the tears flowed down with each impact.
"They ain't hollow!" Chet screamed, his voice reaching a fever pitch.
Chet was right.—Mark Bellinger
What the Dancer Saw
The pub door flew open and a draft of chill morning air kicked up a flurry of dust around the figurine of the dancer that occupied a shelf above the bar. Detective Hugh Wallace swept in, trying to use bluster and confidence to conceal his disheveled state. He guessed by his aching, pounding head that he had been there the night before, though he had no recollection of it. The bar was filled with solemn-faced uniforms that exuded far less merriment than the dark-paneled pub walls were used to.
Hugh thought wryly that he himself would have to be considered a suspect for the murder, since he had no alibi. Officer Benton accosted him at the door and began to give him the usual lengthy and tedious report, but Hugh waved him away. The murder victim lay on the floor of the pub, his heavy wool coat in disarray around his spread-eagled body. One of his hands clutched a frayed scrap of rope, and a small green bottle lay forlornly on the floor beside his coat pocket.
Hugh took in each aspect of the scene with a professional detective's keen eye, though his mind was elsewhere. His memories of the night before were returning slowly and unsteadily. The figurine of the dancer had been sitting in its usual spot above the bar, observing the huddles of men in the dimly lit room. Hugh remembered the men talking in grumbles over tall glasses of amber liquid. Some laughed, some complained, but the atmosphere was one of relaxed camaraderie. He could vaguely remember a man (the same one now lying on the floor before him) sitting in the smoky shadows of the bar ranting something about a boat. The man moved stiffly as though suffering from arthritis, and the lines on his face were even more prominent in the shadows. Occasionally he would stop to let loose a hacking cough that made his entire bony frame shake. Once he finished ranting, his audience shifted away, mumbling excuses to escape this angry old man.
Hugh closed his eyes, desperately trying to access his jumbled memory. Who else was there? Who would have wanted to kill him? Why? Officer Benton interrupted his mutterings to inform him that the victim had been stabbed with a knife. If the officer was surprised to see Hugh pale so quickly, he didn't mention it. But Hugh was suddenly overwhelmed. He swayed with shock as memories rushed to fill in the gaps in the story. There had been a knife—oh, he wished there hadn't, but he could remember it, the cold gleam along its sharp blade, the weighty feel of the leather handle and the sudden horror of the blood, the figurine's eyes judging him from the shelf. Hugh looked up to see painted eyes boring into his. Her hand was splayed elegantly across her forehead, index finger out, as though quietly pointing out the culprit. Her eyes flashed accusingly.—Kajsa Edvardsson