Many thanks to Judge Charles Rammelkamp for choosing our contest theme and volunteering his time to select the three prizewinners. Thanks also to the 250 brilliant writers who entered this contest.
FIRST PRIZE— Andrew M Stockton, Sunday Lunch (Again)
SECOND PRIZE—Lesley Middleton, Little Joe
THIRD PRIZE— Mark Warren, The Cleaner
Judge: Charles Rammelkamp
FIRST PRIZE: Sunday Lunch (Again) by Andrew M. Stockton
Judge’s Comments: Sunday Lunch (Again) is like an oyster concealing a pearl. Just as the food smells are described as “invisible but powerful,” so is the secret of incest that’s only alluded to. Is it the daughter’s father? Her uncle? Both? All that’s certain is the shame and the “naked, remorseless memories” behind the sham of the family dinner.
Sunday Lunch (Again)
By Andrew M Stockton
Walking into cooking-smells, cabbage, the roast, food smells, invisible but powerful, making me salivate. “Hi, it’s me; your daughter’s home for Sunday lunch! Feed me!”
Dad’s laid the table, and the tablecloth is so bright and white it could warn ships about hazards. Wish I’d had such a hazard warning years ago. Mum checks the cutlery and moves the bottle of wine that uncle Danny bought to hide a small stain on the cloth.
“I’m dishing up,” Mum calls from the kitchen and we take our places.
At lunch we talk of what I’d done in Uni (again) and Mam’s gorgeous food (again) and boyfriends (again) and the garden (again) and the weather (again) and the dogs (again) and we never, ever, talk of incest.
And Mam worries I don’t eat enough (again) and Dad and uncle Danny laugh (again) and the hurt and the stinging and the blame stink of cabbage and naked, remorseless memories.
SECOND PRIZE: Little Joe by Lesley Middleton
Judge’s Comments: Even though my own forthcoming poetry chapbook, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts (Main Street Rag Press), covers the same ground—cross-dressers in uniform—I didn’t see the end coming at all, fooled from the start by the red herring of the concealed age of the Confederate soldier. Well done. Bravo!
By Lesley Middleton
Little Joe turned over on the palliasse, gave a soft sigh and went back to sleep. So far, the doubters had been proved wrong. Despite fresh-faced looks and a slight build, the young soldier had shown surprising courage and aptitude.
Lying awake, Abe was wishing he’d managed to dissuade Joe from enlisting in the Confederate army. Only men over eighteen years old had to join up. When he couldn’t persuade Joe to go home, they’d agreed Abe would say Joe was his kid brother so they could stay together. So far the ruse had worked.
It was time. Abe silently roused the sleeping soldiers. Their mission – tracking down the Yankees they knew were in the area – would be fraught with danger.
“Joe,” Abe whispered. “Stay close to me.”
Abe’s squad made good progress and, as ordered, concealed themselves until nightfall before crossing the river.
The Yankees were lying in wait for them and opened fire as soon as they reached the other side. Abe’s men were hopelessly outnumbered. The order to retreat was given and the squad regrouped back across the river.
“Where’s Little Joe?” Abe tried to keep the urgency from his voice. “Has anyone seen Joe?”
“Joe got hit, Sergeant,” said a soldier. “Shall I go back?”
“No. I’ll go.” Abe set off at a run.
As dawn broke, Abe found Joe resting against a pine tree, blood oozing from a shoulder wound. He picked Joe up and hastened back to the camp.
“Cut his tunic away,” the surgeon commanded Abe. “Quickly. He’s lost a lot of blood.”
Abe dropped the torn and bloodied shreds to the floor as the surgeon began to assess Joe’s wound.
“Sergeant—this man is a woman!”
“Sir.” Abe replied. “I have the honor to present my wife, Joanna.”
THIRD PRIZE: The Cleaner by Mark Warren
Judge’s Comments: The dystopian vision of society in The Cleaner, in which oxygen-producing plants are contraband, is brilliant and clever, playing with poignant irony on so many of our current social themes: the gap between the haves and have-nots, the dwindling scarcity of natural resources, the cynical view of governments taxing their way out of problems. Nothing cleanses like fire!
By Mark Warren
The haul was astonishing. Kaz couldn’t remember when a stash of this size had last been discovered. The room must have been nearly 10 metres long. Flowers adorned the entire length creating a kaleidoscope of shapes and colour. There were tall ones, small ones, singles and doubles, spiky ones and fragrant ones. All illegal contraband since the passing of the Oxygenation Law.
Subtle fragrances interwove as she walked the length of the room. Either side were table tops lined with newspaper and engulfed in plant life. Her half-memories of flowers before they were outlawed were smothered by the experience. She let her fingers brush against the leaves as she walked. Colleagues hurried around documenting the finds, calculating the kilograms of oxygen per year that could have been emitted from the flora.
Through the leaves and petals she read a faded headline on a yellowy-brown newspaper crusted on the table top beside her: “Oxygen up $1000 per kilogram—crisis in government as fat-cats line their pockets.” After oxygen had become a commodity to be traded, the companies that manufactured it, together with the government, won a string of court cases that resulted in people requiring a licence to own or grow any oxygenating plant. Gardens had disappeared under swathes of concrete. Ordinary people were no longer able to afford plants and the price of oxygen rose relentlessly.
Kaz meandered with the path to return to the entrance. She wondered how it had all remained secret until now. Kaz sighed. She felt privileged and sad to be the last to see it.
The room had emptied of people and only she and the contraband remained. She took a last look before flicking the switch on her shoulder, pointing the nozzle and pulling the trigger. Nothing cleanses like fire.
Out of Town
By Olutosin Ajanaku
My mama lives up on the third floor, in the backroom where no one goes. The walls are so thick no one could ever hear her call out.
Sometimes I worry and go to check on her. Might be she is needing a cup of water, and nobody knows. God forbids she die of thirst.
When I go look, I see her sometimes whispering to the walls, or pulling her hair out and smiling like it don’t hurt. When I call out to her, she looks at me but she don’t see me. Sometimes she pats my head a little too hard, and sometimes she tries to twist my arm like I am a plastic doll. She says words I cannot understand, and talks to people I cannot see. Mama used to smell of fresh flowers and mint, and now she stinks up something terrible. I want to tell her to wash up sometime, or to quit pulling her hair, or that I’m her baby doll. Sometimes I manage to tell her, but before she starts to understand, Grandmam finds me and sends me off with a spanking.
I wonder how long mama will be up in that back room for. One time when she used to play, she would throw me up in the air, and swing me about.
“You’re my beauty, you’re my pride,” she would say and smile. Her smile. Oh so glorious, papa says it lights up the room.
Now she never comes down to play and I wonder if it’s something wrong I did. I have promised over and over, that I will be of best behavior but she is near forgotten up there.
When people come visit, they would ask where mama gone to, and Grandmam would sharply say
“She out of town.”
By Louise Mangos
How strange to be clearing out Aysha’s wardrobe. She wore these outfits like a second skin. Camouflage for what we didn’t know was an unhappy life. I should defer to the women who lovingly washed her body in milk, ghee and honey; I’m sure this isn’t part of the husband’s job.
The scent of jasmine wafts from her scarves, eclipsing the faint dusty odour of cumin on her favourite saris. One hanger is empty, the red one they took to dress her.
I held her mother’s hand again this morning as we drank our tea. Amma questioned tearfully for the hundredth time why someone with such vivacity would take her own life. She barely touched on the social stigma and dark reputation this has wrought on our families. My throat tightened as I kissed her goodbye and gently closed the door on her melancholy. I left her in a suffocating vacuum of sorrow, to return to this task in our room.
On a pile of shoeboxes I find an old Quality Street tin. Years of monsoon humidity have rusted its rim. I sit on the bed, and curiously prise off the lid.
Inside is a gathering of objects a small child might collect. Memorabilia. A swimming medal she won in high school. Shells and pebbles we collected on the beach in Goa. A snow-white feather we found under the mango tree in the middle of the lawn.
And the key to my lover’s apartment I thought I had lost in Chandni Chowk.
The Neighbors Are Bad Company
By K.A. Rauf
Some days it’s easier to bear their silence.
When the quiet becomes suffocating, I slam my palms flat against the cold stone until they yell at me to stop. Sometimes one of them tells me to die.
I laugh noisily. Already there, Frank, already there.
If I’m lucky, Peggy describes the colors to me; the ones that the artists are always arguing about, down there, next to the towering, oak tree.
They say her father snapped her neck.
She never talks about it. Doesn’t need to. Everybody here knows everything about everyone else, you see.
The man from the grave next to mine grumbles about the other place sometimes, swearing unapologetically. He says life is all about hiding yourself, your kindness, your strength, weakness, grief, all inside a small, wooden box that is never quite satisfied until it consumes you whole.
They tell me that he blew his brains out, stuffed the metal inside his mouth and pulled the trigger.
He reads out his poems once in a while and we all hide from the words. I can hear Peggy crying quietly but I don’t make an attempt to comfort her.
I have nothing to offer.
Once every year, however, everything changes. Once every year I hear voices from the other place. Crying. Loud wails mixed with sobs and snot and swear words. Sometimes they bring me flowers.
I love flowers.
But today is different.
There is no crying. No warmth in the air. Not even the rustling of dead leaves above me.
Something inside me makes me want to call out to the others. Maybe slam my hands against the cold slab of stone, cry out my disappointment but I don’t.
They were right.
It is easier.
By Eric D. Goodman
For Father’s Day, they took me somewhere special. I drove blind, following their directions—wife shotgun, son and daughter giggling in back—as we left the city for the suburbs, and the suburbs for the middle-of-nowhere countryside. That’s where we met Saucy.
No doubt my family concealed our destination because they knew: my mind told me we didn’t need another family dog, not after putting our last dog down a year before. But my heart told me—once we’d met Saucy and let her wag and lick and fetch—that we couldn’t live without her. A “Dad, let’s go get a dog” would not have worked. This did.
Saucy rode in the back seat, between the kids, occasionally poking forward to kiss me and my wife. The silver-grey Vizsla’s noble posture and playful temperament filled our home.
Next day, we noticed the lump on her head. How could we not have seen it before? That lead us to notice the swollen lymph nodes and glands. An allergic reaction? A sting or bite?
Dr. Cardinal looked grimly at Saucy, as he’d looked at Trixie when he’d revealed her fatal news.
His natural stance, his go-to phrase: “I’m afraid it’s a chronic condition.”
Cardinal took biopsies, blood-work, stool samples—swelling our $49 visit into a $700 tumor.
Passing days were counted in problems: more swelling; vomiting; howling and barking; irrational behavior; loss of appetite and weight.
Had the owners known Saucy was a terminal case? That she had Lymphoma? We’d wanted a pet, not a patient. We confronted them.
“Saucy’s your bitch now.”
For Saucy, the euthanasia shot felt better than the biopsy grind.
Next Father’s Day, I know what I want to find concealed beneath a box top: a drama-free tie, silver-gray, maybe reminiscent of a Vizsla.
By Annie Dawid
While hashing through the park that day, training for the race, I thought I saw, half-hidden, a swastika dug into the soil of a hill. Blaming my mother for such paranoia, I ignored it; surely my New York Jewish self was hallucinating this manifestation of the Pacific Northwest as unabashed Aryan Nation. So I kept running. But my route home mysteriously returned me to where I thought I saw that symbol. In the late afternoon light, it glowed. Nearby, I saw a khaki tent and survivalist gear. Alone in the woods, a woman in her forties who’d survived more than one trauma, I hesitated. To know, or not to know?
Inside the tent, I spotted a stack of ancient Encyclopedia Britannica. The army-neat dwelling had evidently housed more than one person for some time. Far from any trail, the campers had developed a bathing area by damming a stream, cleared a spot for dining under a canopy of fir, securing their food from weather and thieves. I saw sleeping bags on opposite sides of the tent; flashlights; kerosene lamps; one cooler packed with dry goods and another with ice containing a stick of butter, eggs, and a chunk of cheddar. I found a box of clean clothes, some with tags from Goodwill: jeans for a man, dresses for a girl. A calendar from the nearby Ford dealer was pinned to the canvas, each previous date slashed in red.
No Goldilocks, I knew the inhabitants would soon return and ran.
By Karen Lawrence
The young woman barely noticed the cottage on the kitchen shelf anymore. It was a thing of her past, not her future.
She was an only child; her brother had died suddenly in infancy. Her parents accused her of killing him. The authorities looked into their claims and went away satisfied that five-year-old Alice was innocent. No one bothered about their disappearance.
Pieter worked in the same factory as Alice. He was good looking; all the girls thought so. When he asked if she’d go out to dinner with him she’d agreed. As she sat at her kitchen table, carefully applying make-up she rarely had occasion to wear, she heard a small voice.
‘Don’t go out, Alice. Please. Feed us, it’s been two days. Please.’
She glanced towards the tiny woman standing at the doorway of the cottage. Alice fought the temptation to ignore her. Instead she crushed a biscuit and threw the crumbs onto the shelf. Some landed near enough for the woman to pull them through the door with her broom.
‘We need water, please.’
‘Later. My taxi’s here.’ Alice hissed.
The evening started well enough. The restaurant was pleasant, neither expensive nor cheap. It was after the entrée that Pieter started talking about himself. He didn’t stop until they were at the train station. They were alone on the platform and he was still droning on about his wonderful life, full of adventures.
‘Shut up,’ Alice said.
‘What did you say?’ Pieter looked affronted. ‘You turn up for a date with me looking like a poor relation and then boss me about. You … ’ He jabbed his finger toward her.
Alice grasped his arm and mumbled a few words.
‘You will fit in quite nicely with my parents.’ She put him in her bag and hailed a taxi.
Thank God for Die-Ins
By Holly Saiki
Lenny grunted under his breath as he dragged the body onto the sidewalk. He normally wouldn’t do this, but there was a protest being staged at Buckshot Bob’s gun store criticizing the owner’s shoddy background checks. He didn’t really care about the gun control issue one way or another. But hiding the body here was way better than digging a grave.
He placed the body on the edge of the Die-In, taking a quick look at the covered protesters. White sheets decorated with red-paint bloodstains draped gracefully on their bodies. He then looked at the actual dead body he dragged in. The sheet was the same color as the protesters’, but the bloodstains were bigger and made of genuine blood. Lenny idly wondered how long it was going to take until somebody smelled the odor coming from the corpse.
I’d better get going. He thought. Considering how I look, somebody’s going to get suspicious.
He walked quickly back to his car, looking over his shoulder in case there were any witnesses. When he reached the vehicle, he took one last look to confirm nobody saw him before getting in. The engine came to life with a loud rumbling sound as Lenny drove it as fast as he could out of the parking lot, nearly missing a yellow fire hydrant.
Dan lifted his blanket so he could get some air; lying on the hot pavement was uncomfortable, even if it was for a good cause. He saw a sheet-covered body lying near him. Dan smiled happily. It looked like they were attracting more converts to the cause.
That shroud looks really authentic, Dan thought. When the protest is over, I’ll have to ask them how they did it.
David Ackroyd, Unforgiven
Uchechukwu Agodom, The Search
Fortune Agoziem, Charlie
Heather Allardice, Cover Up
Claire Allinson, The Wishing Well
Noelle Ameijenda, A Rare Moment of Unnatural Honesty
Ruby Astari, THE FAMILY PORTRAIT
Alicia Bakewell, Red-Handed
Cath Barton, The woman with chocolate biscuits for eyes
Paul Beckman, Hide and Seek
Brittany Bender, Fresh Air
Cathy Berg, Frozen Memories
Laura Besley, A Hidden Truth
Sonja Biberstine, Burning Salvation
Amy Braun, Skid Mark
Jon Brierton, In the Name of Love
Jacquie Bullard, Undocumented
Michael Caines, The Trouble With Art
Lauren Carlson, Pheasant
Purnendu Chatterjee, A Piece of Art
Fields Chung, Screams for Ice Cream
Tim Dadswell, Cornered
John Paul Davies, Carnaval
K.S. Dearsley, GOING ON FORTY
Bill Diamond, Trolling
Jodi Sh. Doff, Cage Match
William Dollear, Concealed
Glen Donaldson, Golden Memories Unearthed
Joely Dutton, Water
Chiaka Echebiri, Behind the Scene
Stanley Echebiri, Moral Dilemma
Chinua Ezenwa-Ohaeto, Lovers With Lovers
Erica Fabo, Unsaid
Melynie Tyler Ferrari, Loose
Epiphany Ferrell, Brooding
Rebecca Field, My First Visit to the Bank
Michele Freed, Dakota Canon—Captain Invincible
Dorothy Gofourth, Break Away
Clare Goldfarb, CONCEALMENT
Mel Goldberg, Explorers
Drew Goshorn, Concealment
Paul Gray, The Cover Up
Jessi Green, Clandestine Hooker
E.M. Greer, Washed Away
Michael Haggerty, Who’s That Girl?
Ron Hall, Double Trouble
Mark Reece Healey, Grandpa Can You Hear Me?
John Herbert, Roman Road Market 1966
A. Elizabeth Herting, Confessional
Alyson Hilbourne, LEAVING
Patricia Hofmann, I’ll Take a Cab
Alva Holland, A Private Inconvenience Among Fifteen Oak Trees
Hasen Hull, Home
Caroline Hurley, Defending His Realm
Serra Ilhan, Remind the World
Lydia Isales, Don’t Let Them See
Esther Whitman Johnson, SECOND SKIN
Ben Johnston, Even the Earth Gets Angry
Jana Katsaros, Heels
Pamela Kenney, Male Conversational Skills
Teddy Kimathi, Mrs. Simmonds
Kate LaDew, The Woebegone in Little Top Hats
A.H. Lanham, Tourists
Claire Lawrence, The Gossip’s Tongue
Josh Lefkowitz, Ezra
Steve Lodge, HYSTERIA BITES
Jane Lomas, A Place By the Sea
Tricia Lowther, The Game
Carroll Lutz, The Whole Truth
Anne Macdonald, Last of the Morning Sun
Mort Mazor, The Old Help the Young
A.E. McAlister, An Odd Blossom
Geraldine McCarthy, Baggy Jumpers
Lisbeth L. McCarty, Glow
Susan Rowan Masters, Breathless
Siddhant Mathur, Short and Bitter
Gargi Mehra, Next to Godliness
Alexis R. Milton, Re: Seeking Roommate (quiet, no pets)
Damhnait Monaghan, La Dolce Vita
Cynthia Morrison, Hurricane Hercules
Paul Phillips, Sought After
Geoffrey Philp, MISDIRECTION
Tyler Powell, In Plain Sight
Soumya Sundar Mukherjee, Stay with Me, Forever
Eric Andrew Newman, Concealed
Nieve Nichol, Concealment
Sarah Nowotny, Many Happy Returns
Bayveen O’Connell, Witness
MC Oluwatosin, Let’s Play
Adaobi Onyeakagbu, Demons
Ray Owen, Hide
Jeremiah S. Perkins, Where the Blossoms Went
Alex Phuong, Repression
Maxwell G. Poulter, Concealment
Matt Randles, My Father’s Desk
Sharon Mauldin Reynolds, IN THE POOL
Rachel Rodman, A Son
Justin Rulton, Emergence Ablaze
Tammie Saiki, No Place Like Home
Tricia Saiki, As Small as a Mouse
Lawrence Scales, Fall Guy
Pam Schmieding, Blink, Blink
Dianne Scott, I Am
Joseph Sidari, BURNED INTO MEMORY
Nicole J. Simms, Ted’s Secret
Ron Singer, Immigrants in New York
Hilary Slade, A Mother’s Love
Beverley Smith, Wendy
Jakeb Smith, Concealment
Rui Soares, WRINCLIAN
Angela Spires, Shaky Hands, Steady Heart
Chris Sumberg, Her Passive-Aggressive Birthday
Hannah Sussman, Virginia
Jade Swann, Beneath the Paint
Arik Tashie, Everything’s Just Fine
C.G. Thompson, “I HOPE YOU HAVE AN IDEA WHERE I AM NOW”
Charles Trevino, Single Serving
Luke Uche, SMOKESCREEN MARRIAGE
Ray Vukcevich, Many Worlds
Robin Whitten, His Hands
Ramez Yoakeim, THE OTHER WOMAN
Mayur Wadhwani, Baby Brother
Jennifer Wagley, 11 Things I’ll Never Admit To
Scott Zeigler, The Box
Ann Zimmerman, Grandad’s Story