The Quick and Dirty Writing Contest has come to a close. There was a tremendous response. I am honored that so many brilliant writers wanted to share their work with me.
Before I announce the winners, I would like to note some honorable mentions:
Birthday Boy by John Biggs
I Lost My Thumb by Zev Lawson Edwards
Zoya by Malcolm Everett
John was on his knees rummaging through junk on the floor of his grandmother’s closet when he found the jar buried under a wad of Christmas tree tinsel. He lurched backwards, and even though he was alone in the house, guiltily glanced around as though he thought a squad of policemen may have been tramping around in one of the other rooms.
He threw the tinsel he was still holding back onto the jar, and when he stood up, tore several sweaters and shirts off hangers and threw those down on top of the tinsel.
Feeling mind-numbed and cold in the pit of his stomach, he walked back and forth through the old woman’s small and immaculate apartment. After her death, since all the other relatives lived clear across the country and he a mere six blocks away in the same city, the task of disposing of her furniture and other possessions fell to him.
It didn’t seem possible that what he saw in the closet could have come from the same world she lived in. He was now in the living room and looked around at the spotless lace doilies gracing every table, the leather-bound bible in front of the sofa, its velvet bookmark smoothly pressed between pages that contained some favored passage, her collection of exquisite crystal figurines shooting out prisms of reflected light, spotless behind a glass-doored curio cabinet.
He remembered, with the clarity of a drowning man seeing his life flash before his eyes, an interlinking chain of scenes that included her – her nimble fingers molding cookie doe into flower and animal shapes, the kindness in her blue eyes as she lovingly twined a scarf she’d knit around his neck, the Christmas card she gave him with white sparkles on the front that looked like real snow to his then seven-year-old eyes – the surprise of a crisp twenty dollar bill folded neatly inside it. He’d never been given cash money before. These, and a lifetime of other events they’d shared, battled with the specter of something so chilling that he simply could not give it any credence.
Still lost in thought, he walked slowly into the kitchen and noticed that one of the kitchen cupboard doors had been left ajar, one he had seen her open often while performing various culinary chores. Flooded with happy childhood memories of afternoons spent at her side watching her cook, he swung the door all the way open.
There, in gleaming rows lining two shelves, was the comforting sight of her canning jars, the empty ones on one shelf, the fruit and veggie-filled ones on the other, as wholesome looking as a Norman Rockwell painting.
He stared at them for a moment and then laughed out loud when he realized the shadowy darkness on the closet floor had caused his eyes to play tricks on him, and what he thought he saw wasn’t really there. He now knew what was actually at the bottom of her closet.
She had often spoken of the health benefits of brussel sprouts and always had a few jars in pickling solution on hand. I wonder why she would have put one on the floor of her closet though, he thought.
He then recalled some odd incidents of forgetfulness on her part over the months preceding her death, remembered
that she was 82 years old, and faced the fact that she must have descended into some dementia in her twilight years. Feeling that he now understood what was going on with her and the brussel sprouts, he felt a surge of love and sadness for her. This was the first time in his young life that he had been touched in some personal way by the decline and ravages of old age.
He returned to the bedroom closet feeling like an idiot, and seeing a grim, but sad humor in the situation, got down onto his knees again. He removed the clothes he had hastily torn off hangers earlier and tossed over the tinsel, placing the garments on the floor in front of him. It was a good thing he did that, because when he swept the tinsel to the side and lifted up the liquid-filled jar,
had he not dropped it onto a pile of soft clothing, it would have shattered, splashing pickling fluid and at least a dozen human eyeballs all over him and onto the floor.
Two days later, when he could bear returning to the house, he used a pair of kitchen tongs to feed the eyeballs (there were 14 of them), one by one down the garbage disposal. Since they were human, he knew he should have told someone about them so that DNA tests could be done, but couldn’t bring himself to do so.
Over the next few days he finished clearing out the furniture and other items from the house. On his last day there, he went out into the back yard to drop a bag of garbage into the trashcan. He deliberately averted his eyes from the huge, flourishing vegetable garden. His grandmother planted one every year, and it had been her pride and joy.
In more recent years, when she would serve him heaping plates of home-grown broccoli, corn, spinach, tomatoes, brussel sprouts, and green beans, he would compliment her on the exceptional flavor, size, and appearance of the produce. She would smile enigmatically, her eyes modestly turned away, and tell him it was grown with a special secret fertilizer she had earlier mixed into the soil. The garden was a sad reminder for him of all the wonderful things he would never be able to share with her again.
He dumped the garbage bag and was about to lower the metal lid back down onto the trashcan, when he stopped mid motion, and eyes wide, turned to the vegetable garden.
In all the years he had known her, only once did she ever become angry at him over anything, and this long-forgotten memory now hurtled up out of the past and hit him like a brick.
One day, when he was four, he’d wandered between some trellised rows of green beans and peas with a kiddy pail and shovel, sat down in the dark, rich soil, and began digging it up to make mud pies.
He was just about to pat down some dirt when his head was yanked backwards so hard, his neck was sore for a week afterwards. His grandmother had him by the hair and dragged him backwards out of the garden.
She then turned him around and kneeled down beside him, digging her nails into his skin as she clutched his skinny, four-year-old arms. Her eyes looked bulgy like the monster eyes he’d seen in a cartoon.
You never walk into that garden again. Do you understand me? You don't walk there. You don't play there. You don't even look at it. Do you understand me? DO YOU?
She then shook him so hard, he felt like his brains were rattling in his head.
Gran, these green beans are delicious!
It’s the fertilizer John.
He dropped the garbage can lid onto the walkway he was standing on at the side of the vegetable garden. It clattered like an out-of-tune gong. Then his legs went out from under him and he dropped to his knees, so that he was at eye level with a row of red-as-blood tomato plants. By the time he stopped vomiting, he was quite sure he would never eat a vegetable again.
In addition to having their work published on ALSO THAT, the second place winner also receives $25!
The figure that stood watch on the edge of the ledge was man shaped, but it was not a man. It had a rounded head like a man, two arms, and two legs upon which it stood, but anyone who came near could tell exactly what it wasn’t. Its face was smooth, porcelain white, and featureless, like a pearl. The years of constant vigil on a thin cliff ledge had left the enamel stained and pockmarked, but it never sought shelter, not from rain nor wind nor bitter cold. The figure stood on thick legs like jointed columns with wide, spade-like feet. Its broad arms ended not in hands, but rather blades, jointed directly to the figure’s forearms, which it sharpened each day against a well-worn stone. Those few true-humans who passed its way simply called it “the Guardian”. The figure though, called itself by a different name, and that name was Greg.
Greg was not the first guardian on the cliff, nor was he the first Greg. In fact, he was the forty-eighth Greg to watch this solitary post, the latest in an unbroken line of Gregs stretching back to the first, over two millennia ago. The current Greg meditated on this thought as he stared out over the roughhewn valley below. His makers only gave him three thoughts, however, so there were not many to choose from.
With his second thought, Greg could also ponder his future. Each Greg spent exactly fifty years standing guard on the cliff. Fifty years to the day, no more and no less. The current Greg knew that his own time would soon be coming to an end. Inside him, the spell that gave him life was growing weak. He had done his duty without pause for forty-nine years, seven months and twelve days. His movements were no longer as fluid as they once were, and his joints creaked from year after year of rain and dust. When, in four months and nineteen days, the forty-ninth Greg climbed up the cliff face to relieve him of his post, he would have just enough energy remaining to walk back down to the valley and report to his makers that he had fulfilled his sacred duty.
Both of those thoughts, however, paled in comparison to the third thought that occupied Greg’s lonely years. Behind the well-worn space where he stood watch, a fissure opened in the side of the cliff, leading back into a small cave. With slow steps, Greg retreated into dark opening, as he always did once per day when the sun was at its highest. He walked down a twisting path worn deep into the rock by his ancestors, each step the same as the day before. When he reached the rear of the cave, Greg knelt on creaking knees next to a low ledge of native stone where Some hands, ages ago, shaped a wide, circular bowl into the ledge's surface. It might have once held treasure; gold coins, or fine weapons, or precious gems, but Greg could not speculate, as this was not a thought he possessed. Now though, the basin contained only a single prize: a smooth, oblong stone the color of a summer thunderstorm. Greg lowered what most people considered his head and inspected his treasure. With the utmost care, he used his blades to roll it to one side, then the other, checking for any signs of damage. It was flawless, same as all eighteen thousand one hundred sixty-five days before. His charge was safe, Greg thought, his third and most important thought. His charge was safe and unharmed, but he must always remain on guard. Nothing bad could befall it while he stood his watch. With squeaking joints, Greg stood again and retraced his steps back outside to resume his watch.
A rope snaked down from the cliff top and coiled on the ledge a handful of paces from where the Guardian stood. A formless black shape descended the line like liquid smoke and landed on the flat without a sound. The nighttime clouds shifted above and the fragmented light of the half-moon illuminated a single, true-human, hidden behind a fold in the cliff face. In the soft light, the guardian’s white body shone like a pearl. Clearly it did not put too much stock in stealth, not like she did. The thief, for her part, dressed all in black.
The wind whipped along the sheer face, bringing with it the sting of cold water and the threat of rain. The thief flexed her fingers to keep them from going numb. Then she tied the loose end of her rope snug about her hips. The guardian remained motionless, blank face looking outward as if lost in deep contemplation. She unsheathed the dagger that she kept hidden under the fold of her waistband. All was ready.
Greg was thinking his second thought when the dagger took him in the back. The arm behind it gave a shove. He tipped forward, wheeling over the edge into the darkness, but his thick legs were also quite heavy, and they kept him planted on the rock. His third thought rushed forward to occupy his whole existence and he turned to face to attacker. The dagger struck again and caught him across the neck, shooting a spray of sparks and scoring the white enamel in a shallow line. His head creaked as it twisted side to side, but Greg felt no pain. None of his thoughts involved pain. All that mattered was the safety of his charge.
He took a step backwards and spread his bladed arms out to his side, planting himself in front of the fissure. Three paces away, a tall woman in black leathers crouched on the ledge, her hood billowing in the stiff wind. She hissed in frustration. Then the thief sprung again, driving her dagger towards Greg’s chest, where his heart would sit. Greg, whose makers did not give him a heart, swatted the attack aside with one blade and then smacked the other flat against the side of her head. The momentum sent the thief staggering towards the edge. She pinwheeled her arms, trying desperately to keep her balance. All Greg had to do then was give her a push.
The thief screamed for a half-second before the sound was cut short. Curious, Greg leaned over the edge. There, a short ways below, the woman dangled in front of the sheer face, swinging back and forth at the end of her rope like a human pendulum. She was in pain no doubt, but not dead. With wheezing breaths, the would-be thief gripped the rope above her head and began to pull herself up fist over fist.
Greg walked down the ledge to where the rope stretched taut across his path. Though only twenty paces away, it was the farthest he had journeyed since assuming his post. He raised one bladed arm high above his head. From below, a voice pleaded with him to be merciful, that she would leave right away and never come back. Greg paid her words no heed, however, as he was thinking his third and most important thought. He must protect his charge. He brought his arm down and the rope split cleanly in two. The scream lasted longer this time.
Greg returned to the fissure and stepped inside. Now that the threat was removed, he needed to make an extra check, to make sure that everything was still in proper order. He tread the familiar path to the back of the cave and moved to the basin, but this time he did not kneel. He did not have to. The damage was quite clear. His precious stone lay smashed. Fragments as thin as parchment but hard as diamond littered the cave floor. Inside, he could now see, the stone had been hollow, but whatever it once held had fled.
At this point, a fourth thought occurred to him, unprecedented in his own experience and those of all forty-seven Gregs before him: his vigil had ended. Leaving his ledge and his cave, Greg would now walk back down to the valley and report to his makers that, after two thousand three hundred ninety-nine years, seven months and thirteen days, a dragon had been born into the world of men.
In addition to having their work published on ALSO THAT, the first place winner gets $50 AND the mystery prize: an original piece of artwork.
Clive answers the phone. He’s dialed in. He dials them up, they call him back, he answers the phone. Did you dial me? they say. She says, Did you dial me?
Clive answered the phone and it was Ferdy and Ferdy told him about the affair, and Clive thought he was so dialed in. How had he missed this? He got angry with Fredy and Ferdy told him Dial it back, man, dial it back. Clive said, Screw you, and hung up, and dialed right back. She said, Did you dial me? and Clive said, Yes, I did, I dialed you because Ferdy dialed me up; and she said, Oh shit.
He hung up on her and she dialed him back a second time. He answered with a snarky, Did you dial me? and she said, Don’t be a smart ass, and Clive said, Don’t fuck my friends and I won’t. And don’t dial me any more today. I need time. She asked him, Time to do what? and he said, Things. Things to make me forget what a cheating whore you are, and she said, I deserve that; and he said, Yes, you do, and don’t dial me anymore today; take me off your speed-dial so you won’t be tempted, because he knew her. She asked him what he was going to do and he repeated, Things, because he didn’t know yet, he wasn’t sure; but he knew he had to do a lot of them to wash certain images from his mind. He figured he would need a fire hose inserted in his ear. He considered dialing up the fire department, but rightly figured they wouldn’t understand. So:
He started with the radio. Clive switched it on and heard classical. Not being in the mood for classical, he turned the dial through pop and more pop, Irish folk-ballads, American country music (what was that doing there?) and more pop, and some rap he couldn’t understand but thought it had a decent beat, two ska stations, four hip-hop, one punk/Celtic punk, two alternative, one post-Brit-pop, and a shitty folk station no one he knew ever listened to. More pop. Clive spun the dial past the Sixties, the Seventies, the Eighties and the Nineties, but old times weren’t happening. So he spun the dial just to see where it would land and it landed on static so he left it there. He turned it up.
With the loud static burning in his mind like Sally’s face hovering over Antoine’s cock, telling him all the things she had told Clive while hovering over his, Clive got out the vacuum. He vacuumed two feet of the polyester-blend “oriental” rug in his sparse living room—and stopped. He bent over, then got down on his knees. Dirt. Pieces of leaves. Blades of grass. This vacuum is set wrong, he decided. He reached for the dial, and dialed it down to Short. Short nap, close-cropped. He could see Sally’s groomed lady parts so he punched the vacuum bag and dust flew. He sneezed. Clive’s only option at this point was to readjust the nap control back up, which he did. Dial up. No, that won’t get this damn carpet clean, he was thinking. Dial down. Sally’s pussy. Fuckit, I’ll suck it up and throw it out in the bin with the rest of the dust and the leaves and the grass and the small rocks and the, What’s this?
Clive got on elbows and knees, putting his face closer to the red, blue, green (just a little) and black-lined delineated carpet (which created the illusion of Asian order in the fake Persian rug). That something shiny: Could it be? Clive had to move a small, thin piece of what appeared to be tree bark to find the solitaire earring. Ha!
He threw that dial down as far as it would go and vacuumed and vacuumed and vacuumed and vacuumed and that spot and that spot and that spot and the rattling-rattling in the brush-head and the rattling in the hose and the clatter in the intake and then the silence of the thing, captured. Hahahahahahaha. It was more of grumble than a giggle, but the meanest joy he had ever felt about destroying something he had loved but not purchased himself consumed him with consequence and purpose.
He dialed his mum. You dialed me? she said and he wondered why the fuck everyone says that when of course he dialed them, he just dialed them didn’t he? Sally’s cheating on me, Clive told his mum. She said, You dialed me to tell me that? Yes, he said, he did. She said, What’s that noise? He told her, It’s the radio and she said, It doesn’t sound like music. He said, It isn’t and she said, What is it? Static, he said. I find it relaxing. She wanted to know why. Clive shouted at his mother, Because Sally is fucking Antoine Gilderberry!
Clive set the phone down and went to the radio. He grasped the round dial and turned it until classical music came back on because his mother liked classical music. He returned to the phone and told her, There. She said that was better and asked, Why Antoine? He has such a large nose. Clive told her he had to dial up Ferdy and he had to go and he was happy he called her because she was so understanding and she said, Why do you listen to static? Do you need to see someone, and he said, Yes. Sally and the undertaker in one room, preferably a cold one in the basement, and his mother said, My.
Clive dialed up Ferdy. Clive dialed up his best friend and said, Why. Why did you dial me up to tell me that? Why would you do that? Why would you dial me up to tell me my almost-wife, my bride-to-be, my fiancé, the love of my life, my Sally, my Sally-Mae is having an affair before it’s even properly an affair?
Before Ferdy could answer, Clive hung up and dialed his mother again. Did you dial me? Yes! Yes, I dialed you! I dialed you up! Yes! His mum pointed out that he sounded In a Tizzy. Yes! Yes, I’m in a tizzy! I dialed you up because I’m in a tizzy because Ferdy dialed me up to tell me that Sally had dialed him up to tell him that Antoine had dialed her up to tell her that he was going to dial me up to tell me that he was fucking my fiancé—her, Sally—and Clive’s mother said, Must we use such coarse language, Clivey? Clive said, Yes! Yes, for fuck’s sake, Mum, we have to use coarse language when referring to acts of wanton harlotry, yes we do! His mother said, You didn’t know?
Clive hung up and spun the radio dial at random; gratefully it landed on static again. He turned it up.
Clive dialed up his best friend Ferdy and said before Ferdy could say anything first, If you ask me if I dialed you up, I will come over and kill you. And may I remind you that you live one block away, so I could be there before you even decide to walk to your door, so stay put on your stupid couch and listen to me. Ferdy said, How did you know I was on my couch and what’s that noise? Are you vacuuming? Clive said, No I’ve already vacuumed, that’s the radio, and I know you’re on your couch because I can see you on your couch; and no, I’m not outside, you can stop looking out your window. I know because I can see it in my head, because you are never any-goddam-where-else. Now, how is it that my mum knew about Sally and Antoine? Does anybody else know? Ferdy said, Yes. It sounds like vacuum. It’s not, Clive told him, it’s the radio. It doesn’t sound like the radio, Ferdy said, and Clive said, That’s because it’s not on a station, and Ferdy asked him why it wasn’t, and Clive said, Because you dialed me up to tell me that my fiancé was fucking my neighbor and I found it a tad unsettling. I’m in an absolute tizzy, h added flatly. You don’t sound like you’re in a tizzy, Ferdy told him. Well, I am, Clive said. Does anyone else know? Ferdy said, Yes. Does everyone know, Clive asked him. Ferdy said, Yes, without pause. Did you dial them all up to tell them? Clive asked his now-former best friend. When Ferdy didn’t answer, Clive hung up the phone, went to the radio and turned the volume dial up as far as it would go. The roar of the static made Clive feel like he was dashing through space at the speed of light. He grabbed the large, aluminum kitchen trash can, emptied the vacuum into the bin, and started for the back door.
In the alley, Clive could still hear the static blaring out his open windows. It was comforting, even out here. A neighbor, kindly old Ms. Mapleton, from Cockfordshire—that was their neighborhood joke; a few years earlier, a decade or so, Ms. Mapleton had invited Ferdy in for tea then dropped to her knees. Ferdy didn’t object, but he still feels dirty. She was in her mid-fifties and was lonely; they all laughed for a decade, and still do—really of Dockshire, asked Clive if he was having problems with his plumbing. At first he thought she was asking about his male equipment (because of the whole Ferdy Cockfordshire thing) but then realized she meant the sound blaring out the windows and couldn’t figure any way that she could possibly make the leap to plumbing. So he said, No, it’s the furnace, which seemed to satisfy her as she mumbled something about her furnace which Clive didn’t hear because now he had seen Antoine walking towards him.
Antoine said, Clive we need to talk, and Clive said, Sure, right before he upended the trash bin on Antoine and began beating him about his head and shoulders and upper body with the aluminum weapon. Ms. Mapleton said, Oh!, and went in to dial up the bobbies. She was the only one anyone knew anywhere who still called them that. Ferdy called them the fuckin’ coppers. This was more common.
Though Antoine kept besieging Clive to, Stop! Stop! Please stop! Clive! Stop! Please stop! Clive! Stop! Please stop! Clive, please! Please stop! Oh, please stop! Clive did not until he was done. When he was done—he felt that he was done—he turned away, walked back inside and dialed up Ferdy. If the fuckin’ coppers come I’m telling them you did it and sending them to your house. Ferdy said, Did what? Clive could still see him on that damned ugly orange and yellow floral couch Ferdy’s aunt gave him just before she died of consumption. Clive hung up, tried to turn the dial up on the stereo, but it was at its maximum; so Clive turned on the vacuum as accompaniment and went back outside.
Antoine was still trying to regain his senses and put his hands up to protect himself from another bin attack by his neighbor Clive who was clearly in an absolute tizzy over this sexual matter involving Sally, Clive’s now-former fiancé. I didn’t mean anything by it, Antoine was foolish enough to say. So Clive said, One of her earrings is in there, in that mess; the one that was now all over Antoine, Clive’s now-former neighbor, because one of them was moving for sure and it wasn’t Clive, is what he was thinking. But he hadn’t fully eliminated that possibility. Antoine wanted to know what Clive was talking about and Clive told him, Fuck off, and went back inside, wondering if the solitaire earrings which had shown up in the now dead-to-him Sarah-Mae Wupperton-Ashleigh’s ears one day a few months ago came from Antoine because when Clive asked Sally about them she said, Oh these? I picked them up for a song at Tesco, and Clive knew she was lying because he said, Next to the bananas? and the semen-slurping strumpet didn’t deny it.
Clive dialed up his mother and while she was asking him if he had dialed her up, Clive just aimed the receiver of his phone handset toward the radio and the vacuum, and then he hung up. He dialed Ferdy and asked him, Are the fuckin’ coppers there, yet? and then he hung up.
Clive dials up Sally.