Our challenged-books-themed "I'm with the Banned!" short-fiction contest drew 52 entries, and we're pleased to present 22 of our favorite stories here. Authors were required to include one of 20 prompts from frequently banned or challenged books (the full list is at RCReader.com/y/fiction) and were limited to 250 words beyond that.

We'll be hosting a reading of winning and favorite entries at 7 p.m. on Thursday, September 25, at the Bettendorf Public Library (2950 Learning Campus Drive). We hope to see you there to help celebrate Banned Books Week!


Summer Visit

Aunt Bridgie graces our kitchen table. Long legs crossed at the ankles. Silky robe belted at her narrow waist. Her auburn hair, shot with silver, is captured in a clasp at the nape of her neck.

Today she took me golfing. Striding to the first tee, ignoring the attention she aroused - "A woman! Wearing trousers!" - she inhaled deeply and announced, "Exercise and fresh air. Nature's tonics."

Never married, Aunt Bridgie does whatever she pleases.

Tonight Dad serves a plate of soda crackers and, for Aunt Bridgie, a glass of warm milk. Leveling her keen, brown-eyed gaze across the table at me, she raises her glass as if in benediction.

Normally, after supper, our kitchen is retired for the evening. If Mother hears a cupboard being opened, it's always, "What's going on out there?"

Mother's senses are sharp as a cat's. I never get away with anything. Not striking a match: "Are you trying to burn down the house?" Not reading under the covers: "Turn off that flashlight, and go to sleep." Not riding my brother's bicycle: "You'll break your neck." Mothers are all slightly insane.

But Mother can't interfere with her aunt's evening ritual. I'm luxuriating in this new freedom, as if I've gotten something over on Mother.

Then, from her perch in the den, Mother re-establishes authority: "Kathleen, it's past your bedtime."

Aunt Bridgie offers a sympathetic smile. I stand and kiss her cheek.

"Sleep tight, Kit." She hugs my waist. "We'll scale new mountains tomorrow."

- Maureen McGreevey, Le Claire, Iowa


Made In Heaven

"This is a weird first date, I know," I said. Shelly laughed and took my arm.

"No! It's great. I love weddings. And I like large parties. They're so intimate. At small parties there isn't any privacy." She snuggled up. "I don't know anybody here. Except you."

"Alone in a crowd. I like it." Now we were through the double doors, into the reception hall. "And check out the buffet."

She nodded. "I know! And a champagne fountain! Shall we?"

"Allow me, Madam." I filled two plastic flutes.

She tasted. "Mmm. Not bad. Where do we sit?"

I fidgeted. "Not sure. Could we circulate a little?"

"Okay."

We strolled, sipped, chatted. Temporized. People nodded, smiled. Men were ogling Shelly. I didn't blame them. She was beautiful, bright, witty. I didn't have to work hard at conversation. But on our second lap of the party, she seemed pensive. I refilled our glasses. When I returned to her, she was smiling crookedly, one eyebrow lifted a bit. "You bastard."

I raised a brow of my own. "Moi?"

"Vous. We're crashing this party, aren't we?"

"Whatever do you mean?"

"Don't bullshit me! You don't know a living Christian soul here!"

I raised my glass. "Guilty." She threw back her head and laughed. Her neck was lovely. "Shall we eat?"

"We'd better. Do we dare sit down?"

"Sure. The trick is not to hurry."

"You sure know how to show a gal a good time."

"Glad you think so. There's this big funeral Wednesday ... ."

- Mary Cartter, Davenport


Conrad

The fall settling into Iowa has a way of stirring up sadness in me. Through the sun I felt it underneath, creeping in as I lay in the grass with Conrad looking at the sky. He pulled me close into his side, "I'd cut up my heart and wear it for you."

I looked down, counting the freckles on his arms. Conrad hated them but I was fascinated, sometimes counting them, other times tracing imaginary lines from one to the other making constellations. He said I could because I was his woman and we were getting married. He talked about running away but how impossible it was because he was nine and I was seven years old. No one hires nine-year-olds - no matter he knew how to use a hammer and saw - but we would grow up one day and make our own decisions.

"Emma Tice, you better get your ass home." My brother Rory rode up on his bicycle. Rory was 10 and thought he was a hotshot and could boss everyone around.

I had lost track of the time and would be in trouble. Conrad helped me up and dusted the grass off my dress. I looked at him, "Come by my window later."

"Yeah Conred, come by her window later." Rory smirked, taking a jab at Conrad's red hair.

"Shut up, Rory, or I will hit you." I clenched my fists.

"Yeah, catch me." Rory spun off on his bicycle kicking up grass behind him.

- Wanda Swim Strunk, Clinton, Iowa


Second Prize

Harold

I am by nature an inward man, he said silently into the disconnected phone. Most of Harold's conversations were of the silent kind. None of the people around him would understand why he wanted to speak to his dead wife on the telephone. Harold much preferred to speak to her in person, but Heaven did not allow for that.

He certainly took notice of the strange looks given by the nurses when they saw him in his room, with the receiver of an old rotary phone to his ear. He was sure that they thought he was crazy; full of old-age dementia. But the truth was: That phone connected him to the other side. It was the only way to hear her sweet, beautiful, albeit dead voice on the other side. She was, after all, the only one who ever understood his hermit-like tendencies.

"It's time for your medicine, Harold," said the night-shift nurse, waltzing into his room, adorning a tray on her arm. Harold held up a finger of pause; he wasn't ready. But the nurse reached for his frail, wrinkled hand and placed two white pills in his palm. "Now take them, or I will call the doctor," she said firmly.

As Harold slowly placed the pills in his mouth, a tear rolled down his cheek. The pills always made her sweet voice fade from the phone. He swallowed, and he cried inside as he listened to the line go quiet, and felt the loneliness creep in again. He inwardly longed for the other side.

- Molly Roland, Moline


Opal

Her mother lived long enough to birth the litter. I don't know what complications caused her to die, but we were gifted five orphaned Saint Bernard puppies, Opal being the runt.

She wasn't breathing when she was born, so my father brought her to his lips and breathed tiny puffs of air into her nose and gently rubbed her back. Miraculously, she began to move her head back and forth, trembling in a confused effort to get her bearings.

I wanted to hold her so badly, but my mother said she was too little and she needed to get bigger, "if she gets bigger," my father added. He was always good at making sure I had a good understanding not all fairy tales have happy endings.

She did get bigger, and she never left my side. She was three when she ran after me while I took off on my bike toward a July afternoon of adventure. I thought she wasn't gonna make it when the little Chevy screeched to a halt followed by a dull thud. She ended up losing a leg, but otherwise made a full recovery.

Now, seven years later, I am leaving for college. She has since gone blind and has bad arthritic hips. I just finished packing and nudged her out of my side of my twin bed. I lay down as she readjusts, her tail slapping my face. I pet her as she gets comfortable again. To have her in bed with me, breathing on me, her hair in my mouth, I count that as something of a miracle.

- Edmond Henry, Moline


Nightshade

I know she isn't sleeping well again, though she claims that she has never been better rested. I know better. I had, after all, loved her once.

I often wake in the night, alone. Most nights, she stands at the window looking out over the garden. In the moonlight, her pale skin fades further to white and her fair wispy hair disappears, laying bare her skull. The outline of her thin limbs, bony shoulders, and jutting hipbones shows through her sheer nightgown, as like a shrouded corpse, long-buried but recently exhumed, flesh decayed away. Sometimes she turns to me, the shadowy sockets of her eyes staring blankly. If I speak, if I ask her to come back to bed, she does not respond.

Some nights, she is not in the room at all. It is easier to fall back asleep those nights.

In the mornings, she is back in bed beside me. I waken to the touch of her finger on my cheek. To have her here in bed with me, breathing on me, her hair in my mouth - I count that something of a miracle. She regards me gravely but without reproach and I try not to fall into the vaults of her large, dark pupils. She remembers nothing of the nights before, or the years before when I had loved her. Deeply.

Some mornings, my cheek is streaked with dirt where she has touched me and I know she has returned from the garden again. She had always been happiest there.

I just want her to be happy. I had, after all, loved her once.

- Mary Kay Lane, Muscatine, Iowa


Uneasy Rider

Sometimes hiding out at the mall was the least bad way to spend the summer. The trick was not to look like a mall maggot; chinos, Docs, polo shirts, and imitation Ray-Bans were perfect camouflage. Toby's friends got that. The girls, too. Iris and Catherine usually wore dresses and straight makeup, none of that black-lipstick bullshit. And nobody was pierced or tattooed, not where it showed. Add a couple shopping bags and you were invisible, as long as you weren't too loaded. They knew the guards' routine, so they could slip out a couple at a time and cop a few hits, stay buzzed all day without getting obvious.

They'd spent about as much time as they could in the food court and needed a plan.

"We could check out that Adam Sandler flick," Iris offered glumly.

"I'd rather be fried alive and eaten by Mexicans," Geoff said. They all nodded.

Then somebody opened a door and a naked man on a Harley roared in. He locked his brakes and slid sideways into Macy's, wiping out a L'Oréal display and beheading a mannequin. He picked up the head, kissed it wetly, shouted, "Take out yo' false teeth, Mama, I wanna suck on yo' gums!", and peeled off toward housewares, singing "Some Enchanted Evening."

Nobody lifted a finger.

Catherine looked after him, bemused. She kicked off her shoes. "Maybe," she said, "maintaining a low profile is overrated." She began to unbutton her blouse.

- Mary Cartter, Davenport


Fourth Prize

Ramblings of a Grumpy Snow Person

Ha! That jolly happy soul stuff is a fairy tale. What kid today would even know what a corn-cob pipe is? Or lumps of coals for eyes?

Today my nose is a giant carrot shoved through from the back of my head to a place in the front (yeah, another frozen fairy tale). And my crooked mouth is made from red Lego blocks; my eyes are two mismatched sea shells left over from a summer vacation to the beach. Added insult - a Twins baseball cap on top of my snowy head. Here's a news flash - it is not going to make me dance around.

No, the kids have a different plan for me. I am their sworn enemy. I am Godzilla one day, Big Foot another. I am pelted, punched, and pushed. I am aware that each kid in the neighborhood is thinking: Every time I conjure up a rock, I throw it. At me, the monster, the alien. Even Mrs. Brown's dog Bitsy gets in on the insults, hence my yellow hem.

I want the sun! I want a change in temperature. I would like nothing better than to thumpety-thump-thump out of here. But no - the forecast is freezing with no thaw in sight. I am just a sitting duck waiting for the next rock.

- Jane McDonald, Bettendorf


Elizabeth Crow

Like the feathers of a battered bird, Elizabeth Crow's gray hair lay dull on her shoulders. Her rough, blackened feet were inherited from her Cherokee grandfather - a memento of his journey to Indian Territory. Her bony fingers curved like the mountains of his Appalachian home. Elizabeth caressed a cup of wheat coffee, taking stock of the room before her. Dirt had silted under the door overnight, the rifle sat idly against the wall, two black flies buzzed. She didn't bother swatting.

Puffs of red Oklahoma soil rose as she limped to the chicken roost. The sun glowed above, illuminating dusty alfalfa in the east. Hot winds transformed the fields into rolling seas - an effect Elizabeth found nauseating. Westward, a lonely cottonwood loomed atop a gentle slope, its warped trunk a testament of age.

Reaching the roost, Mrs. Crow was met by a dreadful squabbling. The chickens lay silent, but along the road to town dashed a Choctaw boy. "Damn Injuns," she muttered, her quarter-Indian blood not accounting for any ability to squawk in Indian tongues. The hair on her neck suddenly prickled. Over the rise in the west, shoots of flames blazed across the yard. Elizabeth hobbled to her cabin, stunned. Embers shot up the cottonwood, her bark and leaves peeling. Elizabeth grabbed the Bible. Mother's tintype. The rifle. She now stood in her dirt yard. The cottonwood withered. The cabin set aflame. In her right hand she clasped the Bible; in her left, the rifle. Utterly powerless, she stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her.

- Alexander Bare, Walcott, Iowa


Talking Allowed

Old Mrs. Welty missed the children after she retired from teaching, so when the primary school couldn't afford a librarian, she volunteered. She sorted and organized the dwindling number of books on the shelves and waited. Back then kids didn't go to the library very often. It was a forgotten room. Whenever children wandered in, she would entice them into searching for a special book she'd hidden. When they found it, she gave them a reward, like a plastic spider or a sugar-free lollipop, and then started reading the book to them. She wouldn't read a lot, just a little, then she'd pause and say something like, "Oh, the really exciting part is when they get chased by wild dogs, but we better stop reading now." They'd beg her to read more or let them take the book home, and she'd hesitate for a moment and then say, "Well, all right, if you really want to."

It didn't take long before kids were asking to be sent to the library, but their teachers objected. No discipline, they said. Mrs. Welty encouraged children to talk about the books, and the library was the nosiest room in the school. For a week there was a stand-off, then a large tent appeared in one corner of the library and Mrs. Welty told the kids they could only talk when they were in the tent. Using every color in the crayon box, the kids made a sign for their tent that said: Let the wild rumpus start!

- Sharon Olsen Abrams, Davie, Florida


Sea Change

The sea, the snotgreen sea, the scrotumtightening sea. The syrupy, stench-ridden, soul-crushing sea. I once experienced its then-azure glory dazzling my retinas into near-blindness as it reflected the sun's rays. I would splash and revel in those liquid diamonds and then peacefully allow my body to become transformed into a living buoy. I felt amazement at its power as it surged inland and outward in a steady, predictable, yet dramatic rhythm. The sea flowed freely back then, being the consistency of ... well, the consistency of water.

Fortunately (or unfortunately?) my view of the present putrid spectacle is mostly obscured by the similarly thick and noxious sea of humans, beach towels, umbrellas, and numerous brightly colored plastic, vinyl, and electronic items insidiously designed to desensitize and distract as well as entertain. One would think people would avoid the beach. But no one seems to object to the sight of the lifeless stew that lies beyond the sand. No one takes offense at the ghastly perfume, half decomposition, half chemicals. The herd's memory is short and selective; this has quickly become all they've ever known, the way it's always been.

I've been told I "get upset too easily." I've been informed that something must be wrong with me because "it doesn't bother anybody else." I've been asked why I can't "just enjoy a day at the beach like normal people do."

Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, in the midst of the oblivious crowd I kneel and weep.

- K.J. Rebarcak, DeWitt, Iowa


Grand Prize

Sales Pitch

Rafael "Raife" Garza was checking inventory when the phone rang.

"Garza Hardware."

"Could I please speak to Mr. Gardsa?"

"Speaking."

"Mr. Garshaw, I'm Tammy with Burble Dynamics, the premier company specializing in customized, proactive strategies for small retail businesses with under-performing sales, calling to tell you about our upcoming seminar."

"I'm sorry, but it's getting late."

"There's a special discount rate."

"No thank you. I must be going."

"If you prefer, Mr. Gartza, I could connect you to a Spanish-speaking associate."

"That's not necessary. Good day."

Twilight shadows fell across the road outside the storefront window, but it was not the time of day nor the offer to speak Spanish that had made him ditch the call. The phrase "under-performing sales" had struck a nerve. Raife had always relied on his well-stocked shelves, his reputation for integrity, and his loyal customers to keep the business going, but perhaps that was no longer enough. The big-box stores had been pulling away both sales and customers, and he was unsure how to respond.

Even as a teenager he'd preferred the quiet work: processing orders, assisting customers, even sweeping up. His gregarious uncle Pablo had handled sales. I am by nature an inward man, he said silently into the disconnected phone.

A framed sepia wedding photograph of Emilio and Guadalupe Garza hung by the door. They'd emigrated to this Mississippi River town in 1915 and had seen worse than this. Best to leave these questions for tomorrow. Supper would be waiting.

- Peter A. Small, Davenport


My Golden Angel

Some people don't understand. Three times she's left me and now three times I've taken her back. It's not like she was celibate when she was away either. I know that for certain because the first time she came back pregnant and I helped her through the pregnancy and the birth, making certain she had medical care, making certain she ate properly, even massaging her when the labor pains started. We are not legally bound, but I have been devoted to her for better or for worse, in sickness and in health. My commitment is one of the heart. It is 'til death do us part because my love for her is unconditional and I am richer with her in my life and heartsick when she is gone.

People have told me I'm a fool. They say I shouldn't keep taking her back, and maybe they're right. They say I could do better, but I don't think so, even though I'm worried. She just came home again this morning after being gone for more than three months. I have no idea where she's been and wonder if she is pregnant again, but when she walked up to the front door I was thrilled to see her and welcomed her with open arms. I promised her I'll take her to the lake for a swim tomorrow morning. She loves to swim. I'm so happy now. To have her here in bed with me, breathing on me, her hair in my mouth - I count that something of a miracle. She is the most beautiful Golden Retriever ever. She is my angel.

- Sharon Olsen Abrams, Davie, Florida


We are lined up in a row to play in the violin recital, several preteen girls dressed in their best accompanied by anxious mothers. My mother had fluttered around me at the department store. Her first choice for me was a tan transparent nylon blouse with smocking across the front that barely camouflaged the new lace slip and bra underneath. Next was a full circle skirt made of cream-colored felt decorated with flowing gold designs and made bouffant with three layers of crinoline petticoats. Having just turned 12, I was not yet really developed, so it was decided that I should have pads - known as "falsies" - to fill in what was physiologically missing. My naturally auburn hair was bleached blonde from having recently played the lead role in "Goldilocks & the Three Bears" in the dance recital. And I was wearing lipstick. (I would have gotten in trouble at school for this. Girls put lipstick on anyway in the school restroom from tubes they had secreted in zipper notebooks and then hastily wiped it off before going back to class.)

I'm next in line to play when a friend of my mother's comes up and whispers in my ear: "How did you grow them so fast?" All time freezes in that instant when the awareness comes: I look ridiculous.

Mothers are all slightly insane.

- Jean Johnson, Davenport


At Dusk

After dinner, in an even tone, as if it were of no more significance than saying, "Pass the salt," he said, "I don't feel the same about you any longer."

She was rinsing their salad plates. Turning to him, hands suspended over the kitchen sink, she momentarily forgot how to turn off the faucet.

"Are you saying you want a divorce?"

"And divide the money? Don't be stupid."

They were going through a rough patch. This she knew. A few nights earlier, preparing for bed, she'd asked him as he brushed his teeth, "Are you all right with our being ... like this?"

"It is what it is," he'd said, drying his hands. She'd not heard that phrase before and naively thought it a positive remark.

She remembered how they had been. How he would arrange her vitamin tablets next to her breakfast plate every morning. How he'd tease her, his fingers kneading her hips, "Mmmm. Fleshy." How, when she'd cut her hand and needed stitches, he'd held her face to his and whispered, "My brave, brave girl."

Now, he stood up from the table and dabbed his lips with his napkin.

As he left the room, she called after him, her voice sounding small and ineffectual, "I thought I'd always be your girl."

The sun was going down, its rose-tinged glow spilling through the open window. Outside, a robin protested the end of the day. She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her.

- Maureen McGreevey, Le Claire, Iowa


Third Prize

Right Honorable

Never buy something called a conch fritter at a Midwestern street fair. Leo had gotten a little too Bixed before strolling downtown, pinging around Leo Land, inside his sunburned head, feet on autopilot, watching what passed for the world wobble before his eyes. He lost himself in a maze of thoughts that were rendered vague by his lack of words to express them. Verbally disinclined at best, a breakfast of Tequila Sunrises and Triscuits had not helped. Still, he could navigate, and make change, and order bad food. The fritter was a new low, certainly, but no match for his unassailably iron stomach.

Incognito in shades and flip-flops, but maybe still a bit exposed, he bought a cap. Now he felt relaxed, inconspicuous. Then, a block away, he saw the first Stalker. Damn! Had they found him already?

They always looked the same - dark suit, wraparound sunglasses, cropped hair. Leo crossed the street, into the shade. There was another ... no, two more! They'd seen him! Leo knew they wouldn't run. Too obvious. But there'd be more. There always were. Leo was good, though. Cunning. He eased into the crowd around the beer tent, hunkered down, ducked between two buildings and ... shit! At the end of the alley was a black car, its door open. Firm hands took his elbows.

"Congressman Leonard? Time for your conference call with the Koch brothers, sir."

"Coke?" said Leo hopefully. No use fighting. He got into the car.

"Perhaps later, Congressman. Business before pleasure. Some coffee?"

- Mary Cartter, Davenport


The One with the Red Hair

As I pondered around in my head, thinking as if everything was wrong in the world, I looked in my rear-view mirror. I saw her sitting there with a dinosaur mask firmly planted upon her face. She was halfway singing "My Girl"; she couldn't muster every word, but she tried. A small girl with radiant red hair and the most beautiful blue eyes I had ever seen, without a care in the world. I couldn't help but smile; my foot tapped along as The Temptations sang that glorious song. Why should I care about the world and how it sees me if this little devil in the backseat can seriously sit there with the mask she loves most and sing her little heart out? It makes me wonder about us, as human beings. I care too much about bills, food, clothing, and having to impress strangers, people I don't even know. Maybe she's doing it right; maybe she knows what life is about. Maybe I was born good but had grown progressively worse every year. What is life anymore? What is the meaning and the hype if I can't live it the way I want? As we made our way home in my beat-up Oldsmobile, I rolled down the windows and sang uncontrollably. And you know what? The little girl in the backseat smiled and starting belting as loud as I was; in that instant I was the happiest I had been in a very long time.

- Athena L. Sheehan, Davenport


Whispers

For five years, it had been just the two of them, behind the locked door of the meeting room at the library, discussing their shared addiction: eating. Peggy knew that the librarians, who pretended to be so nice, whispered about them. Admittedly, she and Margot did appear to be an odd pair - Margot, as thin as cellophane; Peggy, as pillowy as a snowdrift.

There had been three of them once. But the third woman, Shelly, wanted to talk only about "finding a man." Peggy had suggested there were other groups for that and Shelly had stopped coming.

Peggy often saw Shelly about town, a man on her arm, both chubby and smiling. She never met Peggy's gaze. But Peggy could hear their whispers long after they passed.

Peggy looked at her watch. 7:05.

Margot was never late.

7:10. Peggy began to pace.

7:15. A knock on the door.

Peggy jumped at the knob, flung the door wide.

Before her stood a man.

His white T-shirt, dotted with ketchup and mustard stains, stretched like a sausage casing over his belly. Bread crumbs and poppy seeds peppered his moustache. His pea-sized eyes were the color of Nutella. He smelled of French fries and carried a can of Diet Coke.

"Is this Weight Worriers? Am I late?"

She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her.

"Come in," Peggy said. "Looks like it will be just the two of us tonight."

She shut the door, and the librarians began to whisper again.

- Mary Kay Lane, Muscatine, Iowa


First Prize

Superman

I didn't really want to go to the reunion. I'd moved away years ago and wasn't interested in what my classmates had done for the last 50 years, but my best friend from high school is still my best friend and she begged me, so I booked a flight and met her there.

Our old school is a museum now and can be rented for parties. The over-zealous reunion organizers booked the gym and resurrected the theme from our senior prom, An Evening in Paris. The table decorations were little Eiffel Towers adorned with flowers, and they'd strung twinkly lights and twisted, crêpe-paper streamers across the ceiling. The one good restaurant in town had been hired to cater the event, and there was even an open bar.

I hadn't thought about Albert Klein for years, but he rushed up to greet me as soon as we arrived, and the rest of the night was a throwback to our school days: He followed me everywhere. We reminisced about how I'd always dated jocks and he always told me he wanted to save me from them. I said he should have because my marriage to our quarterback had been a disaster. At the end of the evening, when he said it wasn't too late, he could still save me, I just laughed at him.

Later that night I was back at my hotel getting ready for bed when Albert called and told me to look out the window. There, running across the parking lot, was a pudgy old guy in his underwear with a red cape flowing behind him.

- Sharon Olsen Abrams, Davie, Florida


Decisions, Decisions

It could have been an eternity, it could have been an instant. I couldn't tell because time runs differently there. Standing before that glorious light, the gateway cleared for us, the choir singing the most beautiful welcome, it was almost too much. Hand in hand with her I thought, "This isn't gonna be so bad."

And then she fell.

Down into the chasm of red heat and dark agony. Piercing shrieks and bloodcurdling wails assaulted the tranquility, sulfur choked out the air.

I screamed her name. I fell to my knees trying to catch her, her golden hair teased my fingertips, mocking my vain attempt at heroism. Heartbroken, all I could do was watch a teardrop from my nose chase her down.

I felt a hand on my shoulder and my sobbing slowed. I looked up into understanding eyes and a sad smile.

"It was meant to be, my son," I felt rather than heard. "Come, Heaven awaits."

I thought it over for what seemed like hours.

"It won't be Heaven without her," I finally replied. "She really isn't going to be in there, is she?" I asked like a scolded child.

I felt the response, "No."

I took one last look into the Promised Land, sighed, with a trembling voice said, "All right, then, I'll go to Hell," and jumped.

I've been searching for her ever since.

- Edmond Henry, Moline


The Short Goodbye

All she could see were their feet, but that was enough.

A power failure at work had brought her home early. Some truck had knocked over a utility pole. And, as it transpired, her life.

Through the half-open bedroom door she watched them, big feet and little, carnally entwined, toes curling. Obviously they hadn't heard her. She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her. Not in her heart, suddenly stone in her breast, but in her mind. Maybe this was madness. Her mother had gone mad. Maybe this was what it was like, this musky stillness. Or maybe this was just what it felt like to finally smarten up.

She turned away, now deliberately quiet, and went to his office. To the safe. The combination was their daughter's birthday. Erica. Still at school for hours, and that was good. How could you ever face a little girl after this? Ever. If she'd still had feelings she'd be sad.

But weren't big purses wonderful! In went her jewelry, the small stack of bills, the stock certificates. And the key to the safe-deposit box. She had time for that. The safe was empty now except for the gun. Her father's. She couldn't leave that.

She closed the safe, stepped into the hall, and somehow the revolver was still in her hand. Laughter from the bedroom. She looked at the door, at the Ruger. She shrugged. Piss on 'em. She dropped the gun into her purse and left.

- Mary Cartter, Davenport


Yo, Dante

So, I'm hanging out in the Limbo Lounge swapping rhymes, as usual, with my man Homer when I hear a dulcet voice whisper "Virgil."

I raise my eyes to see standing before me a woman so poised, so lovely she seems a star fallen from another realm.

"Please, call me Verge, and, sorry for staring, but we so rarely receive visitors."

She flashes a smile radiant as grace. "The name's Beatrice, but you can call me Bea."

Beatific, indeed.

"Verge, here's the deal. I've been sent to ask you to help one of your fellow word-slingers, a guy named Dante, find his way out of a funk so low it's put him in mortal danger."

"Isn't he the one who wrote all those poems about his crush on some girl? He borrowed a few of my moves. Hey, that's you, the girl. Right?"

"You got it."

"But what can I do, Bea?"

"Guide him on a pilgrimage through this place, like the tour you took before, from top to bottom. You're his hero; he'll follow your lead. Don't worry about getting clearance. We'll handle that." She tosses me a phone. "His number's programmed in."

So I call him.

"Yo, Dante, Verge here. No, for real. Back atcha, love your work." I pitch him the tour; he could write a book about it.

After a pause, he groans. "All right, then, I'll go to hell. When do we leave?"

- Peter A. Small, Davenport

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