Winners of the 2007 River Cities’ Reader Short-Fiction Contest Print
News/Features - Literature
Wednesday, 30 May 2007 02:39

Reader issue #635 For the River Cities' Reader's fourth-annual short-fiction contest, we got mean. Diabolical. Bound-for-hell cruel.

Oh, sure, in the past we gave the challenge of starting or ending with a particular line, or including seven specific words in a story. We've limited you to 200 words.

This year, in addition to the relatively mundane prompts of a photograph and a fortune cookie, we devised what we called the "Wheel of Fortune challenge," in which authors could not use the letters R, S, T, L, N, and E. As you'll see from the winners and other selected entries, that nasty constraint gave us our most creative and playful entries.



First Place

My Ad: Do You Dig a Chick w/Pizazz?


Hi! I'm Ivy! I'm a hip, bawdy, odd, buxom, moody, dizzy chick. I'm a widow. I'm a foxy mom (of a big baby boy, Jack). I'm a maid (I vacuum, mop ... ). I backpack, I camp. I cook a good cooky. I occupy a cozy pad by a pub by a bayou!

I dig: my puppy, my cow, my fox, my duck, my cuckoo, my hawk, my woodchuck (AKA my "zoo"). I dig my pickup, my hammock, my aqua couch, a good hoax, God, my Coach bag, a juicy book, yummy cocoa, jazz, a foggy, humid day, ham ... .

Who I'd dig: a buff guy, a chubby guy. A mafia guy, a goody-goody dad. A whiz kid, a dumb cad. A happy guy, a mad chap. A goofy pygmy, a wacky cowboy. Am I picky? Ha-ha! (A guy w/dough, I dig mucho.)

Oh, buddy, how you'd dig a chick of my pizazz! You my guy? Buzz my gizmo! (555-5555) - Ivy


Emilene Leone




Second Place



Push my buttons, and I shall set you free.

I know that magazine can't sedate the urge, the need, coursing through your veins right now. I know you crave the one thing the bus station fascists deny you, your right as a human being. The signs posted everywhere are in direct denial of that primal instinct you feel as you nervously pat the little box in your shirt pocket, wishing you were anywhere else but here.

But guess what? I have the answer. Yes, I am the miracle cure, the answer to your sweat glands. An interior-lit god, an altar to beautiful gluttony. Kiss me with your fingertips, whisper to me, "E-5," and let me offer myself to you in the form of crumbled carbohydrates. My orgasm is the roll of the coils, our shared bliss, that first bite. We have a moment in time that no relationship can ever imitate. And I know you will be back. You'll pause as you walk away, and I'll reach to you with chocolate appendages, beckoning. Yes, you will definitely be back, someday.


Sean Whitney

Mt. Morris, Illinois




Third Place



I chug by Okoboji, Iowa. A muggy day up a hazy highway, I whack away a cicada. My aqua VW may puff, hack; I vow by my paid-off Bug. My Chihuahua, Pygmy; my pug, Max, yap amid food, ax, wood, bamboo wok, a Cubby Kid wigwam of my Dad who had a Cubby Kid amid a goofy boyhood hobby.

I avoid a big oak bough. Highway, VW zig; - I zag. I bump my buddy, Jim.

"Whoa, chica! You'd dig a hug, huh?"

"Back off, hippy boy!" I chomp my gum, my mood giddy.

I zip off by a wavy Okoboji bay. I pop my VW hood, pick up my pack, fix a cozy camp. I quiz macho Jim whom my doggy duo mock amid happy, dizzy bow-wow:

"Pacify Max by a jog up Okoboji; a dog cooky may coax Pygmy."

Jim, Max jog off. I pump up my kayak, cook a gob of gumbo, pop up my wigwam. Jim, I, Pygmy, Max go by a dock. A yip of a fox, quack of a duck, comfy guffaw of Jim, doggy woof by a dim, foggy Okaboji: - a day of high joy!


Virginia Johnson

Rock Island




Honorable Mention

Best Days


November was colder than usual for Madison. They end up with more snow than they can handle beginning in late December, but November usually seems like the tail end of summer.

And it's always the best time to bake. The cool evenings and days mixed with sunlight and a rigid breeze kept the humidity at bay and temperature moderate. All cookies thrive in this environment, but the delicate fortune cookie, baked at 310 degrees for just four minutes, then, gently folded with a thin strip of platitude down the center, needed all these elements to be in line slouching towards perfection.

With so many entrants this year and 20 miles north of the city, the fortune cookie had to be baked the same day. A day earlier, brittle; a week, and, well, it's not a cookie one eats, but more like a thin ocean sponge.

As the judges filled in their final vote tally cards, the 67 entrants stared out at the silence, waiting for the champion to be declared. And just like last year, and the previous eight, chocolate chip came out on top. And, except for the rogue oatmeal, usually does.


Paul A. Wessling





Honorable Mention

Waiting for a Sign


I guess Sweet Jesus really wants the rest of his money. The goofball in the blue athletic jacket is Ricky, and the big guy with the mustache is Jack. They're going to jump me when I go to the can, or wait for the airport lounge to empty out - either way, time is on their side: My flight doesn't board for hours.

9:48. My shadows have moved up, Ricky behind me and Jack two seats to my right. I've got nothing on me, just a wad of cash, my ticket to Vegas, and an old fortune cookie. I open it and learn that the Chinese ideogram for sugar looks like what my face will look like in about five minutes. I turn over the slip of paper and read: "In the near future, you will discover how fortunate you are."

"What's it say?" asks Jack. I pass over the fortune. He reads, starts laughing and hands it to Ricky. He reads it and breaks up too. Both of them are laughing hard, Jack turned around in his seat and Ricky just about on the floor. I cross my fingers and run for the doors.


Eric Mains






Thu-Thump, Thu-Thump.

Jack excused himself, retreating awkwardly to the restroom. There was a faint sweet taste in his mouth, crumbs on his lips. Jack splashed ice-cold water on his flushed face, and looked at himself in the mirror. The room was small. Too small.

"Where am I?" Jack couldn't remember. His head hurt, and he suddenly felt very warm.

He ambled back to the table. The restaurant was quiet. Had he eaten with company?

For the life of him Jack couldn't remember if he came with anyone else. Or what he ate. Or where he was.

He could feel his pulse in his temples.

Thu-Thump, Thu-Thump.

Jack slumped into his chair. The plate before him was white, nearly spotless. In the center were a few fortune cookie crumbs and an ivory slip of paper.

Blinking, Jack reached for it. He brought the slip to his eyes. There was writing on it, but the words took a minute to congeal in his brain.

Slowly, they registered, one letter at a time.

do not eat cookie.

The floor was hard. Jack saw shoes slowly walking toward him in the corner of his eye.

Thu-thump. Thu-thump.


Jesse Wright

Cedar Falls, Iowa



Happy Lucky Chicken Time


I petulantly picked bits of pineapple from a sauce as vividly pink as a Chernobyl sunset. Across the table, Adam noisily slurped oily lo mein noodles. Nausea threatened to cut my dinner short.

"Why did you pick this place?" I asked, unable to contain my disdain.

"What, the sweet and sour chicken's no good?" asked Adam between gluttonous mouthfuls.

"It tastes like wet socks, Adam."

"Well, I hear they have great fortune cookies," Adam replied as his chopsticks spun another knot of noodles. "Supposedly the chef is some kind of Manchurian mystic. He pens every fortune himself. They always come true for those who finish their meals."

Although this sounded dubious, I admit I was intrigued. I downed the rubbery neon chicken and undercooked rice, eager to receive my fortune. With a final Herculean effort and a little help from some weak Oriental tea, I consumed the stale cardboard confection before unfolding the tiny ribbon of paper. As I read my stomach rose and heart sank. I knew what Adam had said was true.

My fortune read: "Acute food poisoning is in your future."


Patrick Steinmetz




She Called


I told myself I wouldn't do this again.

Last time was supposed to be the last time.

Still, I wait. My wedding ring is in my pocket. The hotel room key card is in the other. The kids should be asleep by now.

I said I was in Boston like I've said before. I lie each time. I've never been to Boston.

Her flight arrives in five minutes. I know I should leave. Still, I wait.

Six years of marriage with five spent in a lie. Still, she called. "No" would have been the right answer, but it wasn't mine.

I look at everyone else and wonder who is doing the same thing. Maybe the guy in the sandals or the guy behind him. I'd like to say everyone does what I do, except I know that's just to make myself feel better. It would be a lie anyway.

She arrives, walking out the door with an overnight bag around her shoulder. It's all she'll need before her flight leaves tomorrow morning.

She smiles.

I say, "I love you." I told my wife the same thing two hours ago.

I meant it with each woman.


Brian Krans




Déjà Vu


The blue chairs reminded her of life's indignity. Whether that was purposeful, well, it seemed beside the point. To sit, or not to sit seemed hardly to matter. They attracted her, because, oddly, she felt tired. They repelled her in their garishness, and their bizarre inappropriateness.

She sat. That's what they did. They sat.

She slipped off her shoes and felt the floor with her toes. It was cool, and solid, unexpected. What were toes to her now? Look at these people! Reading, of all things.

Some had been here a long time. She was the newest arrival. No one spoke. One looked at her with great sadness. There was a cough. The rustling of pages. A vague smell her brain was racing to place.

Had she been here before?

Another smell; stronger, acrid, inescapable, suffocating.

She leaned back in the chair, trying to escape, and the back wasn't there, and the room wasn't there. Empty. She fell back into herself. Pain everywhere. The smell.

"She's back." A voice. Clinical.

"How many?" Another dim voice.

Darkness, the smell, pain, overwhelming ...


... agony. She screamed from the bottom of her being when she realized.


Michael Callahan




A Play


Piqua, Ohio.

10:15 p.m. VH1: Wham - "Go-Go"

Doug: Papa pizza? Good food.

Abby: Yummy. You pay?

Doug: I am.

Micah, coy: Zoo pal day - Abby, cow!

Abby: Moo.

Micah: Abby, dog!

Abby: Bow-wow.

Micah: Abby, duck!

Abby: Quack. Away, you dick!

Micah: Ha, ha, ha ... .

Doug: You high?


10:30 p.m. Baby boy poop. VH1 - jazz.

Baby: Waaaaaaaaaaah!

Doug: P.U.! Why?

Abby: Duh - baby. Jump up! I go pump boob.

(Abby away.)

Micah: Kooky bimbo. Baaaaa!


10:45 p.m. VH1 - Bach?

Doug: Wow - Piqua, Ohio.


Denise Beenk

Grand Mound, Iowa



A Bad Day


A hazy, muggy day.

I hop by a bay. Avoid muddy bog. A duck quack by a dock. A bug buzz a bud. A yappy jay high up a boxwood.

Which way food? I hop midway up a woody hummock. Hay. Chomp, chomp, good hay.

Ah, a puppy amid hay. Cocky puppy. I jump him. Ha ha, puppy go away. Oh my, big mad mommy dog. Puppy paw mommy. I zig zag away.

I go by paddock. Moo cow chomp cud. Pig dig up yummy yam. Odd pygmy kid chow woad. Cock, biddy, chick occupy coop. Coy fox jog by. I back up, avoid fox.

Which way food? Oh ya, hay. I hop away.

High up, a hawk! I mimic a hump of hay. Hawk whip back. Doom! Quick, zip away.

Whack ... .


Tammy Lawrence

Sherrard, Illinois



Virtual Reality


I am in a virtual waiting room. I imagine my waiting room blandly colorful. Gray shiny floors. Muted blue chairs. Fluorescent lights offset by green and blue lanterns. Sterile. Impersonal. It is virtually comfortable; I am not.

I am only virtually waiting. I am virtually discussing sports. I am virtually dating. I am virtually shopping. I am eating stuff that is virtually food.

I am in a virtual waiting room, but I wait in my room. I imagine others in my virtual waiting room. I do not acknowledge them. They do not acknowledge me. I am set apart. I am their creator.

My room has virtually disappeared into the darkness. I see only what is illuminated by my computer screen. I await my chance to witness a life-changing event. I could be chosen at any moment. I am virtually there already.

I could leave, but I wouldn't want to miss this.


Michael Cotton






Bob never fooled anybody. Ten years ago he went to prison for killing Mona. They found him with the body, the gun, and no idea who he was. It was the start of the Alzheimer's that eventually freed him.

In the care facility, he took to chewing on a pipe and wearing a bow tie with Forties-type suits, like Raymond Chandler. He kept a loaded cap pistol under his pillow. And every full moon, he disappeared.

I'm a private investigator. I followed Bob to the train station, the one where Mona died. He sat, chewed on the pipe, waited, then went home. I told the manager. He said I was done, but I'm not made that way.

So, on full moons, I watch Bob. We wait for justice.

Bob's head turned to hard-heeled footsteps. A tall man in a black peacoat stopped. Bob pulled his cap gun. "Hold it, Johnson."

He'd claimed a Johnson killed Mona.

"Don't shoot, Bob. I didn't mean to kill her."

I stepped into the light. "Stay where you are, Johnson." I said, "Bob, get the cops."

The toy pistol clattered to the ground. "Who?"

Bob still goes out on the full moon.


Bill Capron

La Center, Washington




Creative Marketing


Dear Father,

I write to you as I am sitting in an airport. You know I have never been one to make spontaneous decisions, but I have decided to go to China. This is going to sound foolish, but I recently opened a fortune cookie and it told me that I would find true happiness in Hong Kong, China. My life has hit a plateau in recent months and I feel that I need a spike to rejuvenate my mind, and I think that a trip to a foreign land might just do the trick.

You're probably thinking that it's strange for a fortune cookie to predict such a specific future, location-wise especially. I'll admit that it's a bit odd. I suppose that it could be a scheme to attract more American tourists to China, but that's a little far-fetched. Although, that would explain why on the back of the fortune it had suggested a hotel for me to stay at and listed a reservation number. Oh well. I will end my letter here, because I just caught a man taking a picture of me and I'm going to report him.


Your son


Joe Bergren






An intriguing waitress with a hop in her step and an eye patch placed the bill slowly on the table. My brow raised in amusement, due to my infatuation with all things fortune-cookie-related. By the urgency in her eye, it was obvious it contained an important message.

I fractured the delicate shell and read: "BEWARE OF FERNS AND SQUIRRELS ... .Your lucky numbers are 3, 8 and Twen" (a combination of two and ten ... or a typo). To be cautious, I went home and released the squirrels in my traveling squirrel circus and stared intensely at my fern, Phinneaus. Days passed as I was locked into the most intense fern stare-down that I had ever encountered. On day twen, I broke, and erupted in fern rage. In a tornado of fern, fingers, and squirrel hair, it was destroyed. As the debris settled, a brown flash lunged towards my face. I had forgotten about "Lefty" the Flying Squirrel that had made his home in my fern, a mistake that would cost me my eye.

She was warning me, for she had suffered the same fate. And now I am left with only my hibiscus and gerbil acrobats.


Nick Yazbec




March 15, 1983


I was asleep in the airport terminal, waiting for my flight. I woke to a man sitting on my left. His eyes were distant and mouth gaping open. Startled by the sight, I reeled in my seat, while incidentally knocking the gray-haired stranger from his chair. He lay on the cold, tile floor motionless. I searched for help, but the area was deserted.

I figured him dead and rummaged through all of his pockets. I found nothing with the exception of a small, shiny package that was tucked inside the lapel of his tweed blazer. I surveyed the terminal again, and anxiously tore through the wrapper. In my hand I held a fortune cookie. I snapped through its delicate architecture and read the concealed "fortune" ... .

"The Eulogy of Myron Dunn: I have whipped the Ides of March, and shot thunder through the din. I drank whiskey and mustard chasers, and galloped through the sin. No life has led my equal, as far as I can tell. And for those who really want to, I will see you all in hell."

With that, I grabbed Myron Dunn's blazer and ate the last bite of cookie.


Mike Poppen




The Food Shall Set You Free


I eat the ice cream because I have to, the cookie, because I want it. I bite the fortune in half, so great is my desire to capture one last, sweet bite.

I always read the fortunes, though they rarely predict much. Today's soggy bits of paper proclaim, "The truth will set you free." This is some revelation. It's not every day I get religion from a baked good.

Anyway, I eat the ice cream because the Xanax bottle is empty. Emergency sugar does the trick; ice cream, doughnuts, cookies all squash the anxiety. My heartbeats slow, my breath seeks the rhythm, and my mind quiets. For precious minutes, I fear nothing, not even the calories that will thicken my center.

A real fortune would predict the future. It would read something like: "You will live a long life filled with courageous deeds," or, "Your fears will vanish like a feather on the wind."

I fold the fortune bits together and over on themselves, forming a tiny rectangle in my palm. Pursing my lips, I blow, sending wisdom off on a current of breath. One of us, at least, should fly free.


Wendy DeWitt



Real Forks


Frank stopped reading those damn fortunes a long time ago.

They were always so nebulous, they just made him angry. Plus, extra "quirky" points whenever a co-worker would ask him about it in the lunchroom, so, all good.

He still ate the cookies, though. The taste reminded him vaguely of something from his childhood. (Frank had his first fortune cookie when he was six, but he'd toasted a few brain cells since then.)

"Aren't you gonna read that?" she asked.

(Ahem!) "Nah, they just make - "

"Can I have it?" she interrupted. "I could use some good news today."

"Uh ... sure. I kinda stopped reading them a long - "

"‘You are filled with life's greatest treasure: hope!'"

He looked warily up at her. "Say what again?"

"That's what it says. Thanks, I needed that!"

"Oh. Yeah, awesome," Frank muttered.

Later that evening, he tossed the leftovers into the microwave and rinsed off a plastic fork from last night's takeout. His real forks had all disappeared over the years, one by one. He had no idea where the hell they went.

Jim Lohman



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