The River Cities’ Reader’s 2016 short-fiction contest, presented with the Bettendorf Public Library, received more than 130 submissions. Here are the winners and some of our favorites.

Contestants were limited to 300 words beyond using one of 10 prompts from the work of author Ethan Canin, who picked the first-place winner from among six finalists chosen by our judges: Hedy Hustedde and Barb Reardon of the Bettendorf Public Library; Michael Hustedde and Emily Kingery of St. Ambrose University; and Lauren Wood, Mike Schulz, and Jeff Ignatius of the River Cities’ Reader.

Many thanks to Canin, our other judges, and all who entered the contest!

Merchandisia

The day after Thanksgiving my mother was arrested outside the doors of J.C. Penney’s, Los Angeles, and when I went to get her I considered leaving her at the security desk.

I had a 30-minute break before my next six-hour turn on the floor and according to the Segway cops there’d already been 70 arrests plus the riot at Best Buy plus the murder-suicide in the Toys “R” Us ... . It had been a strenuous morning.

Mom wasn’t worried about any of that. She just wanted her Cuisinart classic 14-piece ceramic cookware set.

“We had to pry it out of her arms,” a rented guard told me. “That was after we disarmed her, of course.”

“Disarmed her?”

“Pepper spray. She blinded four other shoppers. And a toddler.”

“This is all a misunderstanding,” Mom said, trying to shrug with her hands still zip-tied behind her back.

“Normally, we’d call local law enforcement, but ... .”

I started to argue as he cut her loose, but a voice over his walkie broke in: “Code Blue: stabbing at the food court merry-go-round.”

He threw my mother at me and bolted.

“That man attacked me,” Mom insisted as we exited the building. “I was trying to pepper spray him. I didn’t mean to get everyone else. I would never mace a toddler! And I wasn’t trying to shoplift. I was trying to get away from him! He attacked me!”

“Mom.”

“I’m done here, anyway. I still have so many more stops. I got you another monitor. For your computer. Now you have three.”

By this time she’d found her keys and swooped behind the driver’s seat. I could tell she’d already made several trips out to the car, filling her minivan with the junk retail centers pull out for Black Friday sales.

She clipped an SUV on her way out of the lot but didn’t slow, and as gunfire rang out near Olive Garden, it dawned on me that I should have hopped into the passenger’s seat.

– Melanie N. Hanson, Davenport

Sixth Place

Connections

We land at the airport as the snow is beginning to fall heavily from an angry, late-afternoon sky. In the backseat of our rented car, Sadie nestles sleepily against me. She reminds me of a bird, feather light, little legs encased in brown tights, her tiny chest rising and falling rapidly as she sleeps. My hand finds her fingers and grips them, bone and tendon, fragile things. In the front seat, my husband sings incoherently as he peers through the icy windshield. Nothing but static can be heard from the radio but he’s oblivious. Keeping the car on the road requires all of his concentration.

The roads wind through the Irish countryside, seemingly little more than rutted pathways in an unexpected sea of white. Branches heavy with snow reach out and brush against the car windows. The starlings that usually dot the fields are nowhere to be seen. I hope their small bodies can survive this onslaught from Mother Nature. I wonder if they’ve frozen to death. I lean ever more protectively over Sadie.

Two snow-covered cars parked in front of the house witness the end of our journey. Light pours from the kitchen window, creating an untouched, magical path across the snowy yard. We promise Sadie she can play in the snow in the morning.

The house is warm but eerily quiet. We hurry up the stairs, stray snowflakes clinging to our hair. The room is darkened and hushed voices greet us. We made it in time to say goodbye but not to make amends for the past.

In the morning, the snow is already beginning to melt. We gather in the kitchen with our memories and hot mugs of tea. The starlings are back in the fields, picking optimistically through the stalks for seeds.

– Mary O’Leary, Davenport

Balancing the Scales

I am an accountant, that calling of exactitude and scruple, and my crime was small. More precisely, I am in charge of equipping Duke Bracellen’s army, and my crime was to send his platoon into battle with six carts of rations and two carts of munitions instead of the other way around. It’s a small raid, but without proper arms it will prove to be a fatal one. There will be an ambush – I’ve received the scouting reports personally in recent weeks, and in my haste to round up the supplies I forgot to pass the word along. Pity. I wish I could witness the Duke’s reaction when he realizes his main defense against the enemy cavalry is salted venison and a few heads of cabbage.

It wasn’t actually his fault, I suppose. The Duke hadn’t personally shot the arrow through Vivian’s lung. Presumably it wasn’t the Salvian soldier’s fault either; her death was collateral damage, one of the handful of civilian casualties which even I must admit is within the margin of error. But she’s dead nonetheless, because of an age-old war that Bracellen has done nothing to end.

Nothing, that is, until today. His death will ensure victory for the Kingdom of Salvos, and our grand duchy, left without its Duke, will be absorbed into the Kingdom. The Duchess will be killed promptly to ensure the bloodline hadn’t been continued when no one was looking. A wife for a wife: that’s justice. Rather more than justice, considering the thousands of lives I’ve saved by ending the war, but those are merely collateral benefits.

There’s just one final step before tallying the ledger. I am, after all, a self-confessed traitor, and Lady Justice doesn’t play favorites. She’s an accountant too, and likes things to be balanced in the end. So what have I done with my knife?

– Peter Anderson, Davenport

Salt and Pepper

The light in the kitchen flipped on. Across the apartment, Pepper and I exchanged looks. The Big One was rummaging for food, giving us only a few minutes to make our planned escape. We quickly finished gnawing through the tape over the hole in our cage, but just before we could dive through, the Big One plopped on the sofa and turned on the TV. We were stuck. Luckily, the Big One was soon snoring, and the TV still flashing. We squeezed through the freshly gnawed hole. I sniffed the air – no sign of the Clawed One. Without hesitating, Pepper took off towards the edge of the table, I on her heels. We climbed down the leg, scampering across the ground, so soft and unlike our cage’s wood chips. As we neared the Big One’s feet at the edge of the sofa, he let out a large snort.

We froze in fear. We were silent, standing in his darkening apartment, and I tried to imagine what the world was like for him. What would life as free gerbils be like for us?

He snorted again and rolled to the other side. We quickened our pace, climbing the bookcase towards the open window. After all of our planning, the time had come. Pepper went first and disappeared over the edge. I stopped.

I couldn’t do it. I was too scared. My home was here. How could I leave? I turned and ran as fast as I could down the bookcase, across the carpet, up the table, through our hole, and back into my cage. I could see Pepper, looking back in. She looked confused, then sad. I turned and curled into the corner under the water bottle, ashamed. I heard one last squeak, and Pepper was gone.

– Colin Sommers, Moline

Moonlight Messages

It was easier to sneak off on my birthday than I would have ever expected. It was as simple as waiting until everyone in the house was asleep after the party. They didn’t even notice. I was gone before it even dawned on me that I was really doing this, that I had successfully run away. The park was only a short walk but I ran it. I wanted to feel the cold bite of the winter night. It reminded me that I was alive, that I was here, in this moment. It’s easy to forget that I exist in this world.

There are trees lining the park that are decades older than me, that have seen countless condensed worlds like me walk by their bare branches. If I focus hard enough I think I can see scripture in the frost on the bark. I knew what I needed to do, where to go. I had been to this same spot many times while the sun’s rays harshly beat down instead of the moon’s soft light.

I was here to meet her. I had finally accepted what I felt for her was more than platonic. We weren’t just best friends anymore. What we are is so much more than that and that is exactly why we were meeting with only the dead stars as witnesses. I had finally found someone who would love me the way my parents claimed God always would. There were nails in my palms and her kiss on my lips as I walked into church the next day. The summer I turned 18 I disappointed both my parents for the first time and they would never know.

– Alyssa Dutil, Davenport

Fashion Statement

The day after Thanksgiving my mother was arrested outside the doors of J.C. Penney’s, Los Angeles, and when I went to get her I considered leaving her at the security desk. After all, she and J.C. Penney had left a stale taste in my mouth for decades. I’d spent the better part of my first fifteen years dressed in J.C. Penney duds. Grades five to seven were the worst. The Viet Nam war and hippies raged, even in little old Davenport, Iowa. I didn’t know everything back then, but I knew hippies wore Levi’s, not Wranglers. I had my own private war to fight each day on the playground, all because I wore pants that looked like blue jeans, but in the eyes of my friends and classmates were sissy pants. How’s that for a ready-made nickname?

At fifteen I got a job at a fast food restaurant in the mall and blew my entire first check on Levi’s. Mother was furious. “But it was my money,” I shouted.

“That’s not the point!” she screamed. She turned and began to cry.

Truth be told, I think the reason my mother wouldn’t costume me in full Levi’s regalia back in the day was because we were so damn poor and neither she nor my dad wanted to try and explain the concept of “poor” to a child whose favorite question to a teachable moment was “Why?”

“What did she steal?” I asked the burly security guard.

He motioned me aside with a subtle tilt of his head and whispered, “Damnedest thing,” then tilted his head back toward my mother.

She looked past me in an Alzheimer’s fog. “What did you buy, Mom?” She smiled and triumphantly handed over the bag. Inside were three pair of Levi’s, boys size 24x28.

I leaned in toward the guard and whispered, “I promise, this will never happen again.”

“That’s what you said the three last times.”

– Rodger Wilming, Davenport

Second Place

She’s Wearing Her Favorite Nightgown

Mom stays by the front door, waiting for the ambulance. Not that it will do any good. I’m still in Grandma’s room, looking over her bird-like body, skin sunken and grayed, stomach bloating with the gas byproducts of organic decay. I know an ambulance is unnecessary, but Mom doesn’t. Or rather, she’s not ready to believe it.

After a dozen unanswered calls to her mother over the past 24 hours, Mom dragged me out of my Saturday-morning hangover. That’s what tells me she at least suspected it: She wrangled me here because she knew she could count on me to go in first.

It’s for the best. She shouldn’t have to see this. She still talks about her mother as a vibrant, dynamic woman, brave and creative. I, on the other hand, only knew Grandma when she was old, with a shuffling walk, delicate, forgetful. She’d sent me Happy Sweet Sixteen birthday cards three years in a row and often misspelled my name.

Mom lets out a pitiful cry, unlike any sound I’ve ever heard her make, cutting into my heart, mind, and guts.

I lean down, looking into Grandma’s face, which has recessed into a frown she never would have worn in life. My hand finds her fingers and grips them, bone and tendon, fragile things. I touch the top of her head with my other hand. Her scalp is ice cold, but her hair is still as soft as a baby’s.

I stroke her white curls and kiss her forehead as the paramedics bang on the front door like they’re delivering a pizza.

“It’ll be okay, Grandma,” I tell her. “I’ll make sure everything’s taken care of.”

Stepping around the medics, I go to comfort my mother. I guide her out of the apartment and lie about how serene Grandma looks, all snuggled into bed.

– Melanie N. Hanson, Davenport

10:55

The clock on my stand read 10:55 by the time I felt my eyes grow dry and tired. It’s the last thing I see. I remember very little, other than her crumbling teeth, breaking off in the pit of my throat.

I remember I couldn’t scream.

I remember I couldn’t scream.

I remember it was dark, her skin was rotting, and I couldn’t scream.

Her skin was rotting fruit, the pulp of something that used to be good. I couldn’t catch my thoughts. The only thing I could manage was this doesn’t happen. It felt like there were spider legs pouring like water down my throat. My hands find her fingers and grip them, bone and tendon, fragile things. Her knuckles popping through her flesh like mounds on her hands. She digs her nails into temples. This doesn’t happen and yet it is happening. I can see my name, growing old and grey on some newspaper. This doesn’t happen. Her breath was rancid, that of dying rats, but it was the only thing to breathe.

I remember it was dark, I couldn’t breathe, and I couldn’t scream.

I looked up to her and her hair was pooling around my cheeks. It felt like chicken wire on my skin.

This is happening.

She went in for another tear at my throat, but was unsuccessful. She was gone. I opened my eyes, and she was gone. I let my chest fall like a collapsing forest. Dreams are cruel.

I looked to my clock. 10:54. The odd odor of rotting fruit began to roam the room.

– Erin Hantz, Rock Island

The Plans We Make

“His party is supposed to be big,” I yell from the couch. “Something quite big, lots of people we don’t know. To celebrate his return.” I stop as a man on the TV uses a knife to cut through a tire-iron. All it takes is one fluid swipe. The gorgeous blonde next to him stares, astonished. I hold out one finger, pretending, slicing the space in front of my mouth. I hear no applause. “He doesn’t even want to have the thing,” I continue, “but he sent out the invitations weeks ago. He wouldn’t even have the thing except some friends of his parents are supposed to be there. So he feels like he has to. We’re supposed to dress up.”

Tina takes her time before speaking. “You get your suit from the cleaners?” she eventually asks, shouting her reply from the other room.

And what can I say?

“I’m not getting it for you this time, do you hear me? I’m really not. It’s closer to your office, anyway.” And with that, all is quiet for the longest time.

I move to the kitchen then, slowly, furtively, my movements veiled by the soft hum of the fan above her. Once in close, I put my hands to her hips – “I’m working here,” she says – and bring her mouth to mine. She doesn’t move at all, gives no ounce of forfeiture. I can barely taste her coffee. My hand finds her fingers and grips them, bone and tendon, fragile things.

She pulls back. “You think I forget things,” she says. “You think we’re totally okay now.”

“Babe,” I say.

“You really actually think things.”

“I don’t.”

“You promised me.”

“I know.”

“You think we’re totally okay now.”

“Tina,” I say, and turn to the window, searching.

– Brian Burmeister, DeWitt, Iowa

A Momentous Occasion

He looked through the curtain at the crowds. Their spirits were buoyed in spite of the bitter cold and spitting snow driven by a stiff breeze. He fingered the hand warmer, thoughtfully provided by someone, in his topcoat pocket. The wintery weather, which he would be standing in shortly, gave him no pause of concern. Successions of Montana winters had accustomed him to much worse. He would have preferred his shearling sheepskin jacket with its broad collar, though. Getting used to new surroundings was something he would have to work on. His life was changing radically, just as he had sought it to.

While he waited, his mind wandered. “The summer I turned eighteen, I disappointed both my parents for the first time. They should not have given up on me.” He pondered what he had done to get to where he was today. Some things had been honorable, but most were not. He was compelled ... no divined by Another, to do what he had. Once committed, he had not hesitated. He could not have allowed matters to continue as they had. If he had not acted, what had gone before, his struggle, would have been for naught. Fortunately, people had believed in him.

His reverie changed focus as someone ushered him outside. “The workers have done a great job in moving the snow. The people will be happy.”

Suddenly, he was no longer in thought, but mindlessly talking ... no reciting ... no repeating something that an official in front of him was saying. All else was quiet. He was the focus of attention.

“ ... and faithfully discharge the duties of the President of the United States of America ... ”

– Dan Moore, Davenport

Switchback

My hand finds her fingers and grips them, bone and tendon, fragile things. Long and sinewy, like the twists and turns in the road as we sped through the night towards Mercy Hospital. Mercy, ironic name really, considering the circumstances. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The entire thing seems like a blur. One minute she’s standing at the podium, scanning the crowd for that familiar face, the one. Then the shots, the blood, the screams, and she was down.

The rain coated the windshield. I took a sharp right and could feel the car lifting off the ground; I had to go with the hydroplane or they’d be scraping us both off the pavement. I could hear the sound of the guardrail as it connected with my door, and see the sparks like fireworks on the Fourth of July. I jerked the wheel even tighter to the right and pulled the car back onto the asphalt and off of the shoulder.

Her body slumped in the passenger seat. I knew if I didn’t get there soon it would be too late. This entire thing was supposed to give me a second chance, an opportunity to redeem myself, and now all I wanted was a second chance for her. How could this have happened? I followed all the rules, listened to the directions, and watched the crowd like a hawk. I was so careful, had my guard up, how did the shooter get by?

I could see the red emergency sign from the highway; the car veered onto the off ramp like it had a mind of its own. I skidded around the corner, two wheels up on the median, then through the concrete columns stopping two inches short of the automatic doors. I pulled myself out of the car and wrenched open her door. She was supposed to be my bodyguard.

– Kelly C. Morris, East Moline

“You think your family’s weird?” I asked her. “The day after Thanksgiving my mother was arrested outside the doors of J.C. Penny’s, Los Angeles, and when I went to get her I considered leaving her at the security desk.”

She leaned in on her barstool a bit to ask me, “So what did you do?”

I cocked a half smile, glancing for a moment at her suddenly visible cleavage, just long enough for her to notice. Then I leaned in and whispered, “I left her there, of course.”

“You did not!” she rocked back, slapping me playfully on the shoulder.

It was really almost too easy this time, almost formulaic.

“Sure I did. If you think that’s weird, you should hear about what I did to my sister.” I paused a moment for dramatic effect, waiting for her face to contort a bit, wondering what incestuous thing I was referring to. “Not like that!” I returned the playful slap, letting my hand linger on her thigh for a moment, before adding slyly, “You perv.”

When she bit her bottom lip, I knew the deal was sealed. But, just to make sure, I ordered her another martini. Alcohol is the lubricant of love, after all.

The sex was actually better than I thought it would d be. Twice. I even considered giving the husband a discount, but two days later my head cleared and I knew better. Another good reason to wait until the check clears. Rather than use a timestamp on the DVD, like the husband wanted, which is amateurish, I put that day’s newspaper in full view of the camera.

Prenups.

I end up making an easy two grand off the night.

I actually saw her again a few months later. She was at my family reunion. It turns out she’s my cousin. I guess her family is pretty weird, after all.

– Jonathon Cody, Davenport

Fourth Place

Nature Girl

The flowers on the Buddleia are even more abundant this summer than last. Davi would have been enchanted. Last summer, Davi, at age five, could identify all the butterflies in the garden: the Tawny Crescent, the Viceroy, the Question Mark and Mourning Cloak. Michael and I were so proud – we called her our Nature Girl.

Last October, just before her sixth birthday, Davi disappeared – like a migrating butterfly that has never returned to her favorite garden.

Earlier that year, Michael had cut the Buddleia down to the ground, leaving stumps of brown, dead twigs poking from the cold soil. Davi cried.

“It will grow back,” we promised her. “It has to be cut down to grow stronger.”

The same cannot be said for people.

I cannot tolerate the sight of the shrub’s lush blooms.

I get the pruners from the garage and take them to the far edge of the garden where the Buddleia stands silent like a monument.

Michael yells from the back porch. “Stop! It’s too late. It won’t survive.”

Neither will I.

I attack the branches. Purple flowers fall around me, but it’s not enough.

I drop to my knees as if I am going to pray. Instead, my fingers dig into the earth, soft and yielding despite the dry summer. I’m going to rip this living creature from the ground and kill it.

I unearth stones, roots, worms, white blind squirming horrors. Deep below the surface, I feel something soft, softer than stones, unnatural.

My heart knows.

My hand finds her fingers and grips them, bone and tendon, fragile things. White against the loamy soil.

I turn my head to find Michael. He is no longer on the porch. I need not have looked so far.

He is beside me. He is holding a spade.

I see it coming.

I do not flinch.

– Mary Kay Lane, Muscatine, Iowa

It Came Through the Walls and Up Through the Floor

We were silent, standing in his darkening apartment, and I tried to imagine what the world was like for him.

“It comes at night,” he murmured, his eyes still focused on some point in the far distance – some point outside the apartment, possibly even beyond the physical plane.

“It comes at night,” he said again. “Only at night.”

His apartment windows faced west. The disappearing sun had cast gold along the blinds and across the floor, marking the aged hardwood with prison bar shadows. Dusk had come quickly, the sky turning from pink to lavender, and now fading into indigo.

I grasped his hand. He allowed me to do so, but did not return my reassuring squeeze.

“I’ll stay with you,” I said.

“Are you sure?” he asked, finally looking at my eyes.

“I’ll stay. I’m not afraid.”

“You can’t leave once it starts. It won’t let you. You can’t even find the doorknob.”

“Why do you stay?”

“I don’t have anywhere else to go.”

I knew what he meant. I didn’t have anywhere else to go, either. That’s why I was there, with him, in the only occupied rooms in a building that contained roughly eighty others over its four stories. In many places, I could see through the brick’s crumbling masonry, straight to the outside.

But it didn’t come from the outside. It came through the walls – all of the walls, including those on the interior – and up through the floor.

He said it wasn’t liquid, despite appearances. It was darkness made tangible, he said. Malevolence. Evil. Sin.

“Can it hurt us?” I asked as night fell in earnest.

A low groan reverberated from below. The cracks in the floor expanded.

“You’re about to find out,” he whispered.

– Melanie N. Hanson, Davenport

Fragile Things

“Who are they? What do they want?”

Silence is all I can give her. I have no answers. There’s mucous clogging her voice, and I know she’s crying − thick, splashy tears that will wash her face of makeup.

“Derek? Are you still there? Oh God, are you dead?”

“I’m still here. Anila, everything’s gonna be all right.”

I’m lying to her. I know things are bad. Worse than I think, probably. The cell we’re in is small, very small. We’re sitting back-to-back, separated only by some sort of metal grate. I’m blindfolded, but I can tell there’s no light. The floor is sticky. It smells like sewage and − strangely − sea brine.

“Oh my God, we’re going to die!”

I came to terms with death hours ago. My head is pounding and my throat is dry − my stomach raw and empty. Anila’s body wracks; her sobs shake the metal. She is so weak. I picture her face, full and round, beautiful − her chocolate eyes, uneven freckles, Orphic smile. I hear shifting behind me and feel her presence closer to my back.

“Anila, it’s okay. We’re not going to die.”

I’ve only lied to her once before. It had been about the wedding venue. She’d wanted to get married at the gardens, but I knew we didn’t have the budget. I’d told her that they were booked solid through the rest of the year − which wasn’t true, they’d had openings. Stupid, really. Seems trivial now.

Suddenly, there’s a mad shuffle of boots against ground. The door to the cell bangs open and there’s loud shouting that I don’t understand. Anila’s sobs escalate, like her lungs are trying to escape her ribcage.

My hand finds her fingers and grips them, bone and tendon, fragile things. I close my eyes, ready to die a liar.

– Emma Stough, Crystal Lake, Illinois

Flight of Fancy

Perhaps the clock was to blame. Quarantined in his room, Franklin was forever subjected to the incessant tick-tock-tick-tock-tick. Nightly, he twisted around, burying his head beneath pillows, blankets, anything to block out the repetition.

Each afternoon, the sickly teen lounged atop his wrinkled comforter, staring at his latest book. Sometimes, he found concentrating a chore, despite his enjoyment of reading. His parents deemed reading safe enough and bought him a new book weekly. This week’s was nonfiction, his parents’ favorite, about war and laws and important things.

Franklin stopped at the word “eagle.” He often sat at his window, sketching the eagles circling in the heavens. Once, in a dream, he drank a chemical to transform into an eagle. The world spun and grew, until the table nearby was four times his height. One wobbly step followed another as he adjusted to his new form. Hopping onto a window sill, he flew, feeling wind in his feathers as he soared. He felt majestic.

The stuffy scent of dust and paper overwhelmed him then. He tossed aside the book in his haste to open the window, the rumbling of a plane reverberating through the glass and into his fingertips. Searching for the plane, he climbed onto the sill for a better view. His parents would faint if they knew his dangerous habit. Worse, they would probably move him to a windowless room.

“It’s for your own good,” they would recite.

Franklin balanced on his sill, watching the plane. The clock was still ticking in his ear, and he realized that nothing could do him more good than to regain that feeling of majesty. He needed to be a plane or an eagle, flying in the heavens. The plane roared and tilted, in his chest the lightness of escape, then lift.

– Bridget Quesnell, Bettendorf

Chicory

My hand finds her fingers and grips them, bone and tendon, fragile things. She smiles and swings our two hands back and forth extravagantly. We walk together feeling the heat in the soles of our shoes as the blacktop gives up a day’s worth of stored-up sunshine. I take baby steps. She can’t walk very far or very fast with her braces.

“What is that flower, Daddy?” She pauses to allow a honeybee’s evacuation and then bends at the waist until her nose touches the cornflower-blue blossom at the side of the road. “It is sooooooo pretty.”

“That’s chicory.” I sound it out for her and she forms the word, “chick-ree.”

“It grows in the rocks, Daddy. It grows real pretty. It’s the bluest flower I ever saw. Isn’t it pretty?”

“Yes, it is, sweetheart.”

She bends down again as if paying her respects to the chicory. She sniffs. “Why does it grow in the rocks, Daddy, and not in the garden with the other flowers?”

Our shadows lengthen, one long and one short.

“The prettiest flowers grow in the rocks, my dear.”

Now she grips my fingers, tendon and bone. We are all fragile things.

“Why, Daddy?”

“Nobody knows why, my dear. Nobody knows why.”

– Dustin Joy, Illinois City, Illinois

Spirit of the Season

The day after Thanksgiving my mother was arrested outside the doors of JC Penney’s, Los Angeles, and when I went to get her I considered leaving her at the security desk.

After all, it wasn’t like this was the first time.

I could see it all in my head. They’d have security lead me authoritatively into their high-tech “office,” which doubled as a supply closet, and sitting on a stool by the wall would be my 80-year-old mother clutching her ill-gotten gain, a Toastmaster.

Ever since dad died three years ago, this had become the ritual. Always Black Friday, always a store of considerable reputation and, always, a toaster.

Maybe I could just go to customer service and pay for the toaster under the guise of a Secret Santa, a holiday Good Samaritan with an unexplainable desire to pay it forward – toaster style. Then bid them adieu, slide out the door anonymously, and wait in the parking lot hunched down in the front seat of my dad’s old El Camino, praying for a Christmas miracle that no one would see me.

Let me make it clear before I go on: My mother was not crazy. That being said, trying to rationally explain that my mother had been contacted by my father’s spirit and that he told her to steal the Toastmaster because not only was he in it, it was, and I quote, “America’s Toaster,” seemed inconceivable.

And yet here I was, third year in a row, about to do just that. The whole thing seemed insane, and what made it even more insane was the only thing out of the entire story that really seemed to bother me was: Why a toaster? Why not a BBQ or a deep fat turkey fryer or a power drill or a band saw, something with a little more machismo? I’d settle for a roll of duct tape – easy to fit in your pocket, less risk of capture.

– Kelly C. Morris, East Moline

Fifth Place

In the Dark

We were silent, standing in his darkening apartment, and I tried to imagine what the world was like for him.

Daniel made no move to turn on a light, and I stood near the window, unsure of what I should do. Where were the switches? Did the light fixtures contain bulbs? Surely he had guests on occasion.

Dusk grayed the apartment as I followed Daniel to the sofa. The lowering light felt almost awkwardly intimate, but Daniel’s tone and cadence remained the same.

Aren’t blind people supposed to be able to sense emotion more easily? Why wasn’t he catching on? Though, it was our first date. Maybe I’d sounded a little nervous the whole night. I couldn’t blame him too much for missing out on that tiny detail.

The light was almost gone. My eyes strained to see what they could before I suddenly closed them. Instead of imagining what it was like in here for Daniel, why not feel it? It was dark enough that no light seeped in through my eyelids.

I heard the changes of Daniel’s tone more clearly than I had while I was worrying about the lights.

We continued to talk until the room was so dark that I couldn’t tell a difference between having my eyes open or shut. Finally, Daniel realized how late it was getting, and offered to walk me to the door.

“Hold out your hand,” he instructed. I did, and he took it after only a couple of seconds. He led me easily to the door, avoiding every obstacle. I opened the door and light flooded in. I blinked quickly to help my eyes adjust, and leaned in to give him a kiss on the cheek.

“What was that for?” he asked.

“For letting me see what you see,” I told him.

“Crap. Did I forget the lights again tonight?”

– Laura Webster, Forreston, Illinois

Jakob Weitz stowed the duffel under his bench and feigned indifference with the bustling terminal around him. Boarding was imminent; the chaos around him was comforting. Weitz was his Jew name; plucked from a pile of passports due to a vague likeness and plausible surname. He had left Poland three days ago on an antiquated motorcycle, traveling southwest to avoid troops or roving partisan gangs looking for payback. His plan was to go from Prague to Buenos Aires via Lisbon; then anonymity and freedom.

Weitz was a realist. He’d followed the progress of the Russians racing east; aware that decisive action was his only hope. He’d grown his close-cropped hair out for weeks, finally achieving a look that didn’t indicate a career soldier. He had gold bundled in his coat lining; with token cash and clothing in his claimed luggage.

He felt the penetrating gaze from a cloaked stranger who abruptly sat down and started talking in German. “Regards Mein Herr, I’m a watcher. We’re positioned in stations and airports throughout Europe, detaining Germans for interrogation. You’re far too healthy, and your posture and bearing screams Nazi. Officer? Definitely. Maybe Schutztaffel. Tell me. Am I close?” Weitz feigned shock. “I’m a journalist trying to cover London before it ends.” The watcher stared back with baleful eyes. “You must come. My friends need to figure out just who you are.” He didn’t see the stiletto Weitz had produced as it sliced through his sternum, upward and out in a millisecond. Weitz gathered the jacket around the man’s slumping shoulders, and whispered, “You got a big one. I was the Sturmbannfuhrer at Belzec. Perhaps I put a few of your family into the box myself.” He offered a final vulpine smile, grabbed his bag, turned and boarded the idling craft. The plane roared and tilted, in his chest the lightness of escape, then lift.

– John Nawor, Highland Park, Illinois

If Only ...

The day after Thanksgiving my mother was arrested outside the doors of J.C. Penney’s, Los Angeles, and when I went to get her I considered leaving her at the security desk. It wasn’t the first time I had considered leaving her somewhere; after all, she had left me when I was nine. And it wasn’t the first time she had been arrested, either, but it wasn’t her fault, of course.

I paused, staring blankly at the officer whose curious expression filled the silence.

Suddenly, I blurted out, “I’m here to get my mom.”

I regretted those words the moment they left my mouth, but it was too late. Out she came fighting and fussing with the 280-pound security guard that towered over her.

She stopped, hands on hips, and said, “Took ya long enough!”

Once in the car she finally ended her tirade with an emphatic “Humpf.” Slowly, I began my heartfelt prepared speech. By prepared I mean mulled over since childhood. When I finished, I breathed deeply, feeling the sting of familiar tears seep into my soul. I bit my lip and looked over cautiously. My mother was sound asleep.

Laughter escaped my lips and I covered my mouth, letting out my own muffled “Humpf.” I breathed deeply, pulled the car over and got out, quietly closing the door behind me. A cool breeze hit my hot cheeks. I would like to say I never looked back, but I did. One last longing look. What I saw, for the first time, was a child. A frail wrinkled woman with two gray braids and a small trickle of drool, sleeping like a baby. The hotness that filled my body melted.

That night, eating leftover turkey in a dark apartment (which happens after they shut off your electricity), I felt a moment of relief rise within me. I was no longer bound.

And I never did mind leaving that car behind. It was stolen anyway.

– Marsha Husar, Davenport

White Space

The day drew to a close and he invited me to his place. Crossing the threshold, my heart skipped. We were silent, standing in his darkening apartment, and I tried to imagine what the world was like for him. How different could it be?

He flipped a switch. Light shone above the front door. I studied it. He reached his hand outside. The light flashed off and on; his version of a “doorbell.” I smiled. He smiled, closed the door, and traversed the room.

I considered things as he illuminated the lamps. A telephone, decades old, rested on a machine I didn’t recognize. A television, vacant of other electronics, sat in a corner. A grandiose tower of connecting bookshelves, centered along the main wall, commanded attention. Each shelf, stuffed full of books, was labeled. I perused the titles.

He touched my spine, as to encourage my examination. He moved to the kitchen to prepare tea.

I pulled a sketch book from the section labeled “Mine.” I opened it. Page by page, meticulous sketches of my eyes, my hands, and my lips filled the white space. Like a segmented mirror, I saw parts of me communicating messages; gentle and real.

He returned. Embarrassment flooded his cheeks. Setting down the teacups, he scooped up my hands. He stared at them, willing a reply.

I made one of the few gestures I knew. “I love you.”

He immediately kissed me, hungrily and sloppily. Noises, like the ones he makes when eating, echoed into the air. I almost laughed, but didn’t. How do you tell a deaf person they kiss too loudly?

He pulled away, wet lips quivering. I wiped them dry. He countered the gesture, allowing his fingertips to slowly trace my mouth. He looked into my eyes.

With a loud, guttural cry he stammered, “I love you!”

My heart swelled.

– Susanne M. Anderson, Bettendorf

Third Place

Recoil

I stood outside the kitchen window and waited, staring at the grass, until Mom noticed me out there. My shame wouldn’t let me knock on the door.

I didn’t have to wait long before she threw the screen door wide and loped down the steps, crying, “Oh! Oh! Oh!”

As she embraced me, I dropped my suitcase. I let it stay in the mud as she pulled me inside, babbling about how hungry I must be.

The kitchen seemed less pleasant than I remembered. I’d grown accustomed to my own, with its bright new curtains and flatware and all my favorite teas right above the microwave. Mom had liked the chamomile. I asked if she had any.

“Oh, we drink coffee,” she said with a wave.

I listened for sounds coming from other areas of the house. All was silent. No – the television murmured in the front room. I recognized the sounds of a football game.

Before I was aware of it, I’d already walked down the darkened hall. He looked as I’d seen him last: sitting in the recliner, wearing his ball cap, his stubbly face illuminated by the flickering blue television.

“He left ya,” he said, without looking at me.

“I left him,” I mumbled.

He grunted, as if he knew everything already. Maybe he did. It was a small town.

I imagined he might have softened over the past two years. Maybe he would stand and, while walking past me toward the kitchen to grab another beer, mutter I could stay there until I got on my feet.

Instead, what my father said was, “You pays your dime, you takes your choice,” which, if you don’t understand it, boils down to him telling me one thing: Get out.

Barely aware of Mom’s protests as I left the house, I plucked my suitcase out of the mud, determined to be out of sight before she could gather any kitchen scraps he’d let her get away with.

– Melanie N. Hanson, Davenport

Tandem

The jumpmaster, Travis, hitched the strap around my waist and buckled it. I felt his hand brush over my hip.

“Tighter,” I said.

“That’s tight,” he said.

Brandon said, “Mom.”

“Check his.” He was taller than me now. The goggles made his eyes buggy and bewildered. This boy had sat on my feet while I cooked dinners, running his police cars along my calves. He had afternoon stubble and a divot in his eyebrow from that damn bolt on the swingset when he was five.

“This is the love of my life,” I said. “You hear me? And it’s his birthday.”

Travis scanned him, yanking the straps that swaddled his jumpsuit. “Happy birthday,” he said.

“Thirty hours of labor. Doctor put him in my hands and I said, that’s the love of my life. In front of his father, too.”

Travis nodded and said, “Just keep your feet together.”

“She’ll get it once we land,” Brandon said. “Right?”

Travis hooked his carabiner to my belt and said, “3116.”

“What?”

“Jumps.” I looked at the pack strapped to him. It didn’t look big enough to hold safely, to cradle two human lives back to earth.

“Then this is 3117,” I said.

“3116. I always count the jump coming.”

“Isn’t that superstitious?”

“Five,” Brandon said, bracing his legs.

I looked back and forth between them.

“One,” I said, heaving out the word.

“Let go,” Travis said, looking at our hands.

The plane roared and titled, in my chest the lightness of escape, then lift.

“I’ll never let go,” I said. Travis reached across me and jerked the cord, unleashing Brandon’s chute.

“Geronimooo!” Brandon threw himself into the tunnel of light, howling and fearless as the day he tore out of me. And as I have every day since, I threw myself after.

We leapt together, and the sky caught us.

– Misty Urban, Muscatine, Iowa

Pa was the worst sort of drunk; vicious while liquored up; remorseful when sober. Oddly enough, the sad version of Pa felt worse. Our life was hardscrabble. He never could keep a job long, and we moved lots. We shuttled from one shabby apartment to another; the kind with crappy heat or rusty water.

My mother endured it with an air of stoic resignation. Unlike me, Pa never hit her, but the things he’d say drunk were too cruel for most to endure. Although I hated him, I resented her for putting up with it.

I graduated 1965, and weighed my options. I had a job as apprentice electrician; I was good and the tradesmen liked me. On the other hand, a childhood friend kept writing about opportunities in SoCal, with good jobs and cheap college tuition. I broached this predicament with her on the odd night when Pa was both home and sober. They listened, and he cut me short with a cryptic statement. What my father said was, “You pays your dime, you takes you choice,” which, if you don’t understand it, boils down to him saying one thing to me: Get out.

At that point, I took that to mean right now, and gladly. Despite Ma’s tears and entreaties, I stuffed my bag, intent on putting a couple hundred miles between me and that old bastard by morning. As I was leaving, she hugged me and tucked a wad of bills in my hand. That $950 was more than I’d seen, by plenty. She whispered, “This was my runaway money. I guess this counts.” Although I tried to give it back, she refused. “What about you, Ma? Why not just use this and go?” She just smiled and shook her head.

It took another 20-some years until she earned her freedom through death. One semi-redeemed lifetime later I still feel the burn of her tears on my cheek and shame for the choice I didn’t take.

– John Nawor, Highland Park, Illinois

Fable of the Cloud

The summer I turned eighteen I disappointed both my parents for the first time. I decided to take the shape of a human.

My mother, who was not afraid of drifting to where the Cloud Gate, our home, could no longer be seen, dissolved into tears. My father, always the more cautious one, went into fits of thunder.

If you happened to be on the island that summer, you probably remembered the sudden torrential rains and storms that baffled everyone – meteorologists did not see them coming in any of their radars. That was the disturbance of my family – mother cried, father yelled, and I stubbornly kept my silence and my mind.

You see, if you were a cloud like us, you did not take the shape of a human. You drifted around, descending if you like, taking shapes of rocks, mountains, trees, and, for the truly brave, birds and animals. You could feel how it was like being lively, yet always safe to find your way home. But humans? Absolutely not! Too much temptation, corruption, and sadness! Before your knew it, you would be irredeemably lost, never to find your way back to the sky. “And they have to pay taxes!” as my uncle Tuba would grumble.

I was happily trailing behind my parents when I spotted him, the boy for whom I would take the shape of a girl. Oh how was I transfixed! By the slightly frowny eyebrows and almost-not-there smile when he was absorbed in his book, and by the body that smoothly weaved in and out of the water, more agile than the most skillful fish.

I imagined him turning around, finding me, and saying, “Hello, you are here.”

Many summers have since passed. Occasionally, I look up to the sky, tracing my parents, while my love sleeps silently, next to me.

– X.H. Collins, Bettendorf

Just One

It was going to be one beer. And after all, it is legal for eighteen-year-olds to drink beer. I am always the rule follower, the good girl, do as I am told. So I am not breaking any rules or laws. I shiver as the first swallow goes down. Wow, how can people drink this nasty stuff? It tastes like the name suggests – Blatz! By the time I finish this first beer, it is warm and even more disgusting. My parents won’t approve. Alcoholics didn’t just take a stroll through my family; they run rampant. But I am not going to become an alcoholic with just one beer. Then my friends bring out the Boone’s Farm. It reminds me of strawberry Kool-Aid. Much better than the beer. It goes down easily. We sit around talking and drinking, thinking about our senior year coming to a close and what plans are ahead for all of us. For some it is work; others are headed to college. I am headed to the university to study medicine. My parents are so proud.

I sway as I stand up to leave, steadying myself against the picnic table. I assure them I am okay ... as long as my folks don’t find out. I carefully put the car in drive and head down the road. It happens in an instant. I hear the crunch of the car as it hits the old oak tree. I can hear someone talking, but I can’t move or talk. A voice calls out, “We have another fatality here ... another drunk kid.”

The summer I turned eighteen I disappointed both my parents for the first time ... and apparently the last.

– Karen Kline-Jerome, Davenport

First Place

Fell Far from the Tree

The day after Thanksgiving, my mother was arrested outside the doors of J.C. Penney’s in Los Angeles.

A gruff voice woke me out of a deep sleep that chilly Black Friday morning. The caller informed me, with surprisingly pleasant cadence, that a Ms. Lorna Tuff-ing-ton was in their custody and would I please come to the security office as soon as possible to discuss the situation. I replied, like any good daughter would, that she could tell my mother to go to hell.

Only I didn’t say it. Instead, I dragged my sorry frame out from under the warmth of a drooling black lab and pulled on last night’s jeans and sweatshirt. It’s never easy waking up in a stranger’s place, and I hoped to get out without rousing the man whose foot was hanging over the edge of the bed. A foot attached to one well-built, handsome, intelligent guy. Or at least that’s how I was going to remember him. Wine clouds your judgment ... .

Thankfully, traffic on the 405 was light when I went to get her, and the trip from the Valley to the grimy downtown holding room on the third floor took less than an hour.

“I’m here to pick up my mother,” I told the harried-looking man across from me.

“And which one of these crazy old bats is yours?” he asked, waving his arm at a trio of gray-haired ladies huddled together on a bench along the wall.

“That one,” I said, pointing to the elegant woman in the T-shirt plastered with the message “Fur Is Murder.”

My mother came toward me, gave me a hug, and told me under her breath that I desperately needed some mouthwash. I considered leaving her at the security desk.

– Alex Lemke, Bettendorf