This year’s rules for the Reader's Short-Fiction Contest stipulated 300 words or fewer and the piece had to include one of 10 sentences pulled from Mark Twain’s 1889 comedic novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Thank you and congratulations to all who entered!
She ran her arthritic fingers through his wispy hair. The infusion pump clicked. There was a far-off rattling of a candy striper’s cart.
His breathing suddenly ceased to be metronomic, punctuated now with little clearings of the throat.
She laid her book down. “You awake?” Silence. “Are you okay?”
He spoke without opening his eyes. “A man can die but once; we owe God a death.”
“You’re not dying. It’s a hernia.”
She laughed. “You thought you’d trip me up with … Shakespeare?”
“All right, you saucy minx.” His eyes opened slowly. “The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”
“Do you want some ice chips?”
“Ice chips? You’re stalling.”
“Please, you think I don’t recognize that old misogynist?”
“Papa Hemingway? Take that back or I swear I’ll relapse into my coma.”
She considered for a minute. “Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.”
He smirked. “Well, Virginia Woolf says you're not doing your job. And rocks in your pockets? A real man uses a shotgun.”
“Your point being that Virginia Woolf wasn’t a real man?”
He stroked his chin. “Inherited ideas are a curious thing, and interesting to observe and examine.” He smiled wickedly. “Gotcha!”
“Nice try, but at least Twain was a feminist. He threw off inherited ideas and spoke for suffrage. How about you?”
She kissed him on the forehead and he sighed.
“Since I’m dying, do you want to hear my favorite Twain quote?” he asked. “It’s from Adam’s Diary.”
“Okay.” She looked intrigued, but wary.
“I see that I was mistaken about Eve; it is better to live outside the Garden with her than inside it without her.”
She smiled. “I like that one.”
Dustin Joy, Iowa City IA
How the Fox Stole the Golden Crown in Monkeyville
I was chained to a pole on the Rock in the town square for borrowing a chicken without asking first when the Sun disappeared and afternoon turned into twilight. Eclipse! It came into my mind, in the nick of time, how Columbus, or Cortez, or one of those people, played an eclipse as a saving trump once, on some savages, and I saw my chance.
“Behold!” I stood as tall as I could, raising my front legs. My silhouette looked the best in the twilight, as my silver tail with a hint of bloody orange looked massive in that light.
The monkeys and all the others─bunnies, squirrels, foxes, guys who came to Monkeyville because it was the best place in the entire Flower and Fruit Mountain─shivered more at my holler.
“What is it, Fox?” One brave monkey managed to say
"Don't you all see? The Sun had gone dark! It's the rage over you foolish, foolish bunch! They are taking away all you have, but you are chaining me, the One that can save you!” I declared.
“Who are they?” One bunny asked. I ignored her.
“Taking what away?” One monkey asked.
“Your sticks! Your rocks! You will not be able to throw them freely at each other, as you have done since the beginning of Monkeyville!”
“That’s outrageous!” One old monkey grumbled. Several of his mates nodded vigorously.
“There is more! How about three bananas in the morning, and four in the evening?” I said.
“What! We have always had four in the morning, and three in the evening!” The crowd cried, “What to do?”
“Free me!” I yelled, just as the Sun reappeared, “and I can save you!”
“That’s the sign!” the crowd cheered. One hunky monkey climbed up and broke the chain.
“You saved us!” Several monkeys were in joyful tears.
At their insistence, I put on the Golden Crown, and I became the official savior of Monkeyville.
X.H. Collins, Bettendorf IA
I’ve always wanted to rob a bank.
As I walked in, the unsuspecting guard held the door open. I nodded to him. Carefully I scanned my surroundings. There were cameras mounted on every wall and the lone guard at the entrance. A row of tellers sat behind a counter with no protective glass. I picked the youngest one and made my way to her. She was new here. Fresh faced and doe-eyed.
“How can I help you sir? She asked cheerfully.
Slowly I slid a folded piece of paper across the counter to her.
As she reached for it the old building began to shake as the 3:15 train rumbled by. She stopped and looked around.
So you see I was expecting this interruption, it did not take me by surprise. I pulled my cap down lower over my face and slid my other hand into my jacket pocket and pointed it towards her. As she read the paper and I could see the apprehension in her face. She fumbled with her cash drawer.
“You okay, honey?” asked the teller next to her.
She nodded nervously.
Carefully she counted the stack of bills and slid them across the counter to me. I snapped them up and gave her a dashing smile.
I turned and made my way to the door. Again the guard opened the door for me.
A black SUV and a man were waiting.
“Everything go okay, Dad?” he asked.
I said nothing and made my way to the car. He folded my walker and helped me inside.
“You know we can show you how to pay your rent online so you don’t need to come down here every month.”
I looked away. “Let’s go.”
I patted the stack of bills in my pocket as we pulled away and disappeared into traffic.
I’ve always wanted to rob a bank.
Colin Sommers, Moline IL
Can I Tell You Something?
“Always, Grandpa,” I say into the phone.
“But can I tell you something strange?”
“I guess so.” The words come slowly, like they form a question. “I mean, yes.”
“I think it’s wonderful.”
“You can tell me, Grandpa.”
“You have to promise not to tell anyone.”
“Now you’re just being weird.”
“I’m not weird. Just promise me. Please.”
“Okay. All right,” he continues. “But you promised.”
“Just tell me.”
“I think your grandmother has come back.”
Something in me seemed to believe him—my consciousness, as you may say; but my reason didn’t.
“Somehow she’s found a way to return. To me. And it’s crazy, I know it sounds crazy. But I know it’s true. And this isn’t something like on TV—where people say they feel them in their heart. This is more. This is so much more than that.”
“You’re the only person I can tell. So I’m telling you. Things are happening. And I can’t explain it. Such wonderful things.”
“Your grandma was always a joker. Always teasing me, joking around to show her love.”
“I know. But Grandpa, I don’t understand.”
“Things are moving around the house.”
“What sort of things?”
“Little things. A few times a week.”
“Objects? Like floating through the air?”
“What does maybe mean?”
“Sometimes things are moved. I don’t know how she does it. I haven’t seen it happen.”
“Silverware. Remotes. Even some of my books.”
“And nothing is ever missing?”
“It’s not burglars.”
“I just want to understand what exactly is happening.”
“That’s what I’m telling you. I’m sure your grandma is just goofing with me.”
“I’m sorry. I wish I knew what to say right now. I just don’t know what you want me to think of all this.”
“Sweetie,” he says, “I want you to be happy for me.”
Brian Burmeister, Ankeny IA
The stainless steel door to my laboratory whispered open. The Director had her heavies with her, the tall Punjabi I’d named Muff and Scruff. The midnight-black car far below had rolled away, armored SUVS before and behind. So you see I was expecting this interruption; it did not take me by surprise.
“The Prime Minister cannot wait any longer, Dr. Singh,” she said. The bindibetween her eyebrows glowed like blood. “Yesterday’s death toll reached the thousands.”
“I need 48 hours,” I said. “We cannot be wrong about this.”
Muff walked the cages housing my patients. Lot 106 lay torpid with swollen stomachs and spasming limbs. Lot 107 barked and clawed their fur, piercing skin and spraying spittle. But Lot 108 sat alertly. One groomed; one nudged his water spout. The third watched me and in that black bottomless eye I saw myself, the turban I had not washed in days, stained lab coat flapping around arms grown thin from lack of food or sleep.
“The serum, doctor,” she said, and Scruff moved behind me. He seized my hands and the last vial, stoppered and bullet-smooth.
“No! It’s not ready! People could die!”
“They’re dying already.” I felt the puncture in my neck, and my legs disappeared. The floor felt like ice.
The Director held up the vial. Particles gleamed and floated in the light.
“I,” she whispered. “I will decide for them. I will be death, and I will be deliverance.”
Against the darkness hemming my vision, her true face emerged, the licking tongue, the mad eyes: Kali, goddess of destruction. All those innocent people.
“Poor man,” she said. “Your sacrifice. You will never know.”
In the last rat’s eyes I saw the spreading light of pure consciousness, the galaxies parting, spiraling the path to eternal truth. She was wrong; I would know everything. I opened my arms and fell into the infinite.
Misty Urban, Muscatine IA
I rolled over and mumbled, “Is that another storm warning?” The past evening had been filled with our phones going crazy with thunderstorm warnings. “It’s the smoke alarm,” my husband said.
By the time we’re out in our kitchen, the awful sound had stopped. We’re like, “Where’s the fire?” There was no smoldering menace. And which alarm woke us up at midnight? We found the offender in my room. My personal writing-space of disorder.
What made this room different tonight? The caterpillar.
I’ve been trying to help Monarch butterflies, but hadn’t had much success. To assist some caterpillars to full butterflyhood, I’d harvested eggs and began raising them in my garage. My goal: to get them of a size that when reintroduced into the main milkweed patch they’d make it the rest of the way on their own. Things were going fine; I’d already released several caterpillars. Then it got hot. Then it got hotter. I made the ultimate sacrifice—I brought their containers into the air-conditioned comfort of my room. One bug left to go and it must have emitted enough methane, or other gaseous byproduct of digested milkweed, to set off the alarm.
Before I could confess, my husband presented his own theory. “It was those radioactive spiders.”
I listened to him explain how smoke detectors used radioactive stuff to do their detecting work. How spiders traveled into the country by hitching rides on bananas, known sources of radioactivity. Therefore, you got spiders that set off smoke alarms.
Something in me seemed to believe him—my consciousness, as you may say; but my reason didn’t. I agreed with him anyway. I was so relieved to be off the hook and able to get back to bed.
You see, I was expecting this interruption; it did not take me by surprise. Though it was destroying my life, I anticipated panic attacks at the most inopportune moments. My husband would once again have to go without my touch while I white knuckle another ride of unexplainable emotions. The best outcome? That I would be able to stay asleep; but I knew I would likely wake up in the middle of the night screaming or crying probably both.
The following morning when I finally stopped pushing snooze, I saw the text my husband sent.
Staying late to finish project. Deadline was yesterday.
Yesterday. He had come home yesterday because of me, again.
They started two years ago, when I found out I was infertile. Since a child, I played with dolls. My dolls had wonderful superpowers. They were my superpower babies, and I was their super strong superhero mom.
But I was weak, infertility destroyed me. My kryptonite.
Today was good though, I was able to get dressed and go work.
Meet me for lunch, Boozies?
He looked nervous, sweating a little. Did my fears come true? Did my constant denial of his primal need lead him to find relief elsewhere?
“You remember Eve from work?”
Here it was, here it came.
“She has a daughter.”
I can’t breathe, it’s worse than I thought.
“And she’s knocked up.”
Oh my God, no, no, no.
“Hormones rage,” he laughed, “Eve wants to know if we’ll adopt the baby.”
Four years later.
Miriam reduced the panic attacks, but in reality, they would have shown their face eventually. I’ve accepted that it’s a part of me; along with wife and mom, mental illness is another mask I wear, another title I bear. However, I am strong through it.
Bethany Neumeyer, Davenport IA
“You don’t have to do this,” said Michael.
I patted his arm.
“Don’t smile like that. You know I’ll do anything for that smile. Even after twenty years.” He signed.
"I have to, Michael. I'm not a cancer patient, but don't you see? My thoughts, my obsessions─they are like cancer! Just this once and I will be cured. Forever.”
Michael brought me the single gray pill, sitting on a small chalice: what a compliment to the room! With a comfortable couch, landscape paintings, a Buddha statue and a ceramic mushroom, shelves lined with books of art and mythology, this was like the living room of a New Age guru, not a medical office.
I took the pill, put on the eye mask and headphones, and lay down on the couch. Through the music─Philip Glass at the moment─I heard Michael, “I’m here in the room with you.”
But I couldn’t answer, as I was being lifted up, higher and higher. I was dying, melting, dissolving, and exploding. And then I was being birthed. I was projected violently into the serene openness, and I felt the beginning and ending, all at the same time.
There he sat.
In our past life together and my dreams alone, he was so little interested - just as when people speak of the weather - that he did not notice whether I made him any answer or not.
But in this place where there was no time, he had fixed his gaze on me, his arms extended out, like a blossom welcoming a butterfly. I glided into his arms, but I could not ask him the questions I had wanted to ask him. I did not want to or need to. As he guided me through this place, it became so simple. "Let it be," a voice said, “you don’t always need an answer for something so beautiful.”
I heard Michael again. “You okay?”
“Yes,” I said, “I’m back.”
X.H. Collins, Bettendorf IA
Wonder Red, Are You Still Crying?
"I'm not Matt," I said.
“Umm…” The lady looked at my teacher, Mrs. K.
I liked Mrs. K. So I said, “I’m Matthew Christopher Clayderman.”
“I see. How are you?”
“Fine. Thank you.”
“My name is Ms. Bev. Is it okay I come to play with you? We’ll play games and read books, just like Ms. Abby and you did.”
I was not sure about this. Ms. Abby called me Matthew Christopher, the way I liked. But Ms. Bev was smiling. And Mrs. K brought me here to Ms. Abby’s office. Except…
“Where is the smiley face?” I asked. I felt like rubbing my chin on my knees.
“The smiley face! Where is it?” My voice came out loud.
“Matthew Christopher, honey, cookie breathing please: inhale deeply and smell the cookies; exhale deeply and blow them cool…” Mrs. K lowered herself in front of me. “The smiley face had to be removed when the wall was re-painted, but guess what? Come here,” she gestured me over. There, behind the desk, on the chair, the smiley face was wishing me a bright day. "It will be up there in no time," she pointed to the top of the whiteboard. "I promise!"
“Okay,” I said, “Ms. Bev.”
“Very well,” said Mrs. K. “Ms. Bev will bring you back to class when you are done. Have a great time.”
“What would you like to do?” Ms. Bev asked.
“Write a letter,” I said.
“Sounds good! May I read it when you write it?”
“Yes,” I said.
“W-o-n-d-e-r R-e-d,” She read slowly, “a-r-e y-o-u s-t-i-l-l c-r-y-i-n-g?”
“Who’s Wonder Red?” She asked.
“My friend. She wears roller skates, not shoes.” I said.
Could Ms. Bev know?
Something in me seemed to believe her—my consciousness, as you may say; but my reason didn’t.
X.H. Collins, Bettendorf IA
He was so little interested - just as when people speak of the weather - that he did not notice whether I made him any answer or not. He didn’t expect one.
He rambled on about his plans to finally visit Italy. All the sites he would see. He knew I always wanted to visit there, with him. Now he was going. He didn’t say he wished I could go too.
His phone vibrated. A text he didn’t try to hide. I could make out some of the words - something about a river cruise and his favorite bottle of wine. I wanted to ask about his plans, but he didn’t expect me too.
I noticed his wedding ring was missing. There wasn’t a tan line. How long since he’d worn it?
Another text. He smiled as he read it. That sexy chuckle from deep within, something I hadn’t heard in a long time.
He slowly stood, finally looking at me, that rare moment of his focus on me - my eyes, my face, my body. Sadness appeared in his eyes, but with a blink, it passed. The knock at the door had his attention now.
Come in. Yes, I’m about to leave. In fact, I’ll be going out of the country. No, I don’t know when I’ll be back.
The nurse rearranged my pillow and asked how I was feeling today - just as when people speak of the weather - that she did not notice whether I made her any answer or not. She didn’t expect one.
I’m in here! I’ve always wanted to go to Italy! You promised me!
Silent screams left me feeling more trapped than my lifeless body had ever made me feel.
I wish I had died. I know he did too.
Rebecca Whitmore, Muscatine IA
The Eleventh Avatar of Vishnu Visits the QCA
I arrived today at the airport in the Quad Cities, the ones I had been assigned by Vishnu. I am the eleventh avatar of the top god of the Indian sub-continent. Walking down the jetway into this exotic Midwestern venue on the would-be Ganges of your continent, I seemed to be a creature out of a remote unborn age, centuries hence, and even that was as real as the rest! But seeming is deceiving. You can say it is jet lag but it is not. I am a true creature incarnate from a distant age gestated in the far cosmos come to deliver you from evil on the wings of the eternal truths of Vishnu. I am a cosmic time traveler who has teleported my avatar to the desperate, sunken precincts of the Quad Cities. Believe it now! I am the real embodiment of Vishnu landed on the sullied banks of the Mississippi. I am Vishnu’s teleological verity incarnate, the eleventh avatar, when before there were only ten. Vishnu added me as number eleven to save the Quad cities from the evils besetting them from both sides of the river. I was born out of Ganges silt whose destiny is to transmute Mississippi mud into a sacred substance capable of morphing evil into good.
I won’t tarry long in Bettendorf as the souls there are not so benighted as those in Moline and Davenport. The other municipalities in the QCA are sort of in between and thus will take less avatar time than the Big Mol and the Bad Daven (Vishnu terms for these two spiritual sores on the world map.) I guess I best set about mucking up mud from your river and passing it under the cosmic philosopher’s stone. I need to begin slinging mud soon.
G. Lewis Heath, Clinton IA
“Where did you tell him to go?” York asked confidently, facing the jury.
“The Cat’s Meow. It’s a strip joint on Bloomington,” the witness, Chris Farley, nervously responded.
It didn’t help that he was plump, wore thick glasses, sweated excessively, and wore a suit that could not have cost more than nineteen dollars and seventy five cents. Of course the jury laughed when his name was announced. No wonder he was so nervous.
Witnesses did get nervous, York knew. He remembered one who forgot his own name on the witness stand. The judge granted a short recess to walk him around outside, until he remembered that he had, in fact, been Trevor Smith for the last 56 years.
“When you told him to go there, what did he say?” York continued.
“He said he had never heard of the place; which I took to be a lie, but allowed it to go at that,” Mr. Farley said, sopping at the perspiration on his brow.
“What made you think he was lying?”
“Objection,” the defense attorney boomed.
The judge woke from his nap. Unsure what happened, he asked, “Counsel, your answer?”
“Your honor,” York began. “The defense asserted that Mr. Lam, the defendant, is a truthful person whose alibi should be believed. I am challenging that credibility.”
“Proceed,” the judge ordered.
“What made you think he was lying?” York repeated.
“He once told me that he robbed the joint,” Mr. Farley answered, his cheap suit’s armpits beading with sweat.
An audible gasp from the courtroom paused York momentarily, before he moved in for the kill, “When did he tell you that?”
“When we were prison cellmates.”
Quickly, before the defense could object, York twisted the knife a bit.
“Did he say anything else?”
Mr. Farley answered, “Sure. He said that stint was his fourth conviction.”
“And this will make number five,” York mused aloud.
Jonathon Cody, Davenport IA
Despite being the youngest of the group, aged 31, Janet, was, in fact, already a spinster. During the last year, her diminishing lack of attention to her outward appearance confirmed this fact. She preferred books to men and limited her social interaction to discussion of the former. Though weekly, she would go to a local bar for trivia. She wouldn’t compete, mind you, but would instead silently play alone, usually answering every question correctly.
So what she instigated seemed entirely out of character.
“I think that our next book should be something a bit more modern,” she meekly stated.
There were five others in the crowd. Susan, the self-identified leader of the group, made the decisions on which book would be read and discussed each week. While she solicited input, she did so only as a token gesture, preferring to rule by fiat.
“No,” she began, disapprovingly. “We ought to stick to discussing the classics.”
Surprisingly, it was Mindy who broke the silence. “Maybe Janet is right,” she tentatively advocated to the others. “I read Fifty Shades of Grey two weeks ago and want to talk about it.”
“Ooooh, girl! You is a slut,” taunted Veronica, slapping Mindy playfully with her copy of Pride and Prejudice. “I would love to read that. Give you girls a few tips on how to handle your man.”
“I’m game!” shouted the normally timid, but now positively giddy Brittany.
“Maybe we should vote on it for a change?” Alice asked.
Susan slammed shut her Jane Austen loudly, silencing the others. She was about to emphatically state that the choice of books was hers alone, however the mob soon came to that conclusion themselves; wherefore they called off the assault and began to debate other plans.
“Maybe, instead of chardonnay, we could drink martinis,” Janet suggested, meekly. An unnoticeable smile the only indication of her true intentions.
Jonathon Cody, Davenport IA
The Forgotten Mandaean
So, the world thought there was a vast matter at stake here, and the world was right, but it was not the one they had in their minds. It was a dark matter. Thee dark matter—the original matter, the shape of the origin, a creative matter. The beginning, in fact. Yet, the world was too blinded by light to see that dark was good. Dark was fecund—deep and murky and rich—dark matter was more than everything, it was the source of everything. Yet, the world was fooled by the spark and all its fanciful light. While the dark was the beginning, the beginning of story, of creation, of whatever the world wanted it to be, the world had left it hidden, forgotten. For once the world viewed that first spark, the world overlooked the dark. The world took in the light without the dark to grow things, to see, to build, and all the while the world believed it was building by light when it was the dark at work on the seeds the world planted: to germinate, to grow, to feed, to nurture. The world ignored the dark and left it to its place in the unknown from which all creation occurs, but of course, the world could not see it then. The world frantically built and built in the light until the light was so strong it burned the world. While the world had forgotten the dark, the unknown, its origin, as it was, as it always was, the dark had never left the world for an origin can never leave; it is source and can only create. Once the world was burned, the dark began to heal the world, and it was only then the world remembered the dark.
Robin Throne, Hampton IL
No Conception of Time or Boundaries
Doug was the worst best friend I ever had. So you see I was expecting this interruption; it did not take me by surprise.
At 11 p.m. on a Tuesday he called as I got into bed. “You need to come over for just a minute.”
From the hall closet directly outside his kids’ bedrooms, Doug produced a tattered Monopoly box. “Want to play?” he whispered, and led me back to the kitchen.
Setting it on the mahogany table, he removed the lid, then the game board.
Hidden underneath was a yearbook.
“I got it from the neighbor kid. “Here,” he lifted the book and slid it in front of me, “take a seat.”
“Why do you want last year’s yearbook?” His oldest child was eight.
“Turn to 87.” He sidled up beside me, his stomach pressed into my shoulder. “Right there, right there. Stop.”
The book revealed a two-page spread of sports photos.
“That one,” he tapped his finger to a volleyball shot in the bottom right corner. “That’s the good one. Best one.”
There was a girl, eyes fixed through the net. Her hands tucked behind her back, signaling some formation to her teammates.
“She’s got a head shot on 120. But this one’s better. It was taken at just the right moment. Perfect moment. You can tell she’s focused.”
“Who is she?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, who is she?”
“You met her. Like three years ago. She used to babysit for us.”
I shook my head.
“That time we all went to The District for New Year’s. You and Peggy got real messed up and had to stay in the guest room.”
I couldn’t remember at all.
“She watched the kids that night.”
I handed the book back to him.
He said, with a Pacific-wide smile, “So, what do you think?”
Brian Burmeister, Ankeny IA