This writing contest was a lot of fun for the staff at Brilliant Flash Fiction. The entries were judged in-house and provided us with months of reading pleasure. We would like to thank the 350 writers who took the time to share their creativity and brilliance with us. Choosing a shortlist and three prize-winners was a difficult task.
First Prize: LIGHT THE DAMN FIRE by Eileen Malone
Second Prize: Calculus by Suzanne Freeman
Third Prize: Gustav Mahler’s Nipples by Laton Carter
Judges: Brilliant Flash Fiction staff
First Prize: LIGHT THE DAMN FIRE
Assistant Editor Ed Higgins’ comments: As novelist and short-story writer Richard Harding Davis observed: “The secret of good writing is to say an old thing a new way or to say a new thing an old way.” Eileen Malone’s story carries the marks of both. The plot and plotting of the betrayed vengeful wife is, of course, a much repeated tale. Malone reinfuses this old nugget with a realism of setting as well as giving her protagnist-narrator a believable infusion of emotional hurt by a betraying husband. All of which sets the story up for the “new thing” twist on good ‘ol revenge. In the couple’s get-away cabin the wife sets alight the stuffed fireplace—but with the vent closed. You can’t read the story’s terse “I close the vent” without saying to yourself, hey, wait, that’s not right—you should open the vent! But that indeed is the “white-hot sparks” of the wife’s revenge. As her unknowing husband snores in his stuffed chair she knows the stuffed fireplace with its vent closed will ignite the entire house: “a grand burning of everything except me.” Because “I’ll be gone.” Malone’s sharply written she-done-it from its protagonist’s slow-burn to the ending conflagration is a “Wow Us” piece, for sure.
LIGHT THE DAMN FIRE
By Eileen Malone
I can always tell by the way you touch me, look at me, even the way you text me, e-mail me quick and businesslike when you had sex with her, was thinking of her. I could tell as we drove on our highland journey to our cabin that you were thinking about her. In spite of washed out bridges, and unexpected detours, still she was on your mind.
I pour scotch, neat, into two glasses. Stir yours, set it on the mantle. Drink mine down. Wait for you to arrange your tired, cold self on the stuffed chair by the empty fireplace and wrap a blanket about you. You don’t invite me to join you. But you never share, do you. I share you with her, she shares you with me.
Just light the fire, please. There are plenty of logs, tinder, newspaper, kindling, butane. No animal knows how to draw out fire from stone or wood, just humans, men and women, us, we can make heat, force light, snuggle, we can, we can, oh love, please, I’m begging you, light the damn fire before it’s too late.
Sorry darling, you frown, one doesn’t light fires this early in the year. You pull your tartan closer to you, away from me. Giving it a good swirl, I hand you your drink. Watch you gulp it down. Listen to you pontificate on twilled wool, kilts, clans, show off what sets you apart, makes you smarter.
Wind straight from the glaciers, races down the black chimney to where there is no fire. You begin to snore. I close the vent. Light a match. Soon, there will be a flaming hearth, a roar of red, a leap of gold, a spitting of white-hot sparks, a grand burning of everything except me.
I’ll be gone.
Second Prize: Calculus
Photographer and Webmaster Laurie Scavo’s comments: While I have several favorites from this stellar group of stories, I selected Calculus by Suzanne Freeman for its relatable characterization of Evie Munroe, a lonely math wiz who has the bad habit of chewing erasers off her pencils. Whether you were Evie in school, or knew someone just like her, she exists in everyone’s childhood memories, and this story captures that universal experience perfectly. Freeman’s careful weaving of math equations into the palpable isolation of the daily lunchroom drama is truly brilliant flash fiction at its finest, and that last line … wow. Excellent story telling!
By Suzanne Freeman
Evie Munroe had the bad habit of chewing the erasers off her pencils. This was really her only bad habit. And anyway, it did not matter. She never needed erasers. She got the answers correct. The figures appeared in her head, decimals, negative numbers, even logarithms. She saw them. They were sharp and beautiful, like a painting made just for her. Something private. She sat so still at her desk, hands folded in front of her, that Mrs. Newbold often halted the class and admonished the others to stop behaving like a pack of wild hyenas and follow Evie’s example.
“See the way she sits up straight and pays attention and doesn’t talk out of turn? This is what I’m looking for. This is what I mean about deportment. You can all learn to behave like young ladies and gentlemen. It isn’t so difficult, is it, Evie?”
Her classmates’ eyes were all on her. The silence in the room was thick and murderous. She knew that later she would sit down at the far corner table in the lunchroom and nobody would join her there. She would suck milk through the straw and solve the problems. If there were sixteen panes of glass in each of the five lunchroom windows, but three were taped over, that left seventy-seven panes. If eleven girls pulled chairs around one table to sit together, laughing like a pack of wild hyenas, that equaled thirty-nine percent of the class. In waxed paper, at the bottom of her lunch sack, there would be the heart-shaped sugar cookies that Evie’s mother packed “to share with all your little friends at lunch time.” There were always eight cookies. If you smashed each one into a hundred and twenty-five smithereens, that would give you exactly one thousand broken hearts.
Third Prize: Gustav Mahler’s Nipples
Editor/Publisher Dawn Lowe’s commments: Laton Carter’s story title, Gustav Mahler’s Nipples, is an eye-stopper. The premise is clever, and the writing is tight and clean. Carter’s description of the “dowdy while still loveable English horn” as a pair of nipples “aimlessly hanging on to the skin they’d come with” is the sort of thing editors don’t read every day. Das Lied von der Erde was written during a disastrous period in Mahler’s life, and he asked the English horn to extend its range lower than usual (like a pair of sagging nipples), perhaps as an expression of his misery. This contrasts well with Carter’s humor—“Calisthenics had pulled them up some, but not nearly to the region of good nipple placement, of respectable nipples that stuck out their nipple-chins into the province of tight shirts or a tingling night breeze.” The last line nicely sums up the music-nipples analogy: “Mahler grinned when he heard the note in his mind, as, simultaneously, a strange tickling couplet hummed just beneath the fine cotton of his work shirt.” This story follows our prompt to “Let your imagination run wild” and receives maximum points from me for originality.
Gustav Mahler’s Nipples
By Laton Carter
His wife had told him he had ugly nipples. No, it wasn’t the nipples themselves, but rather their placement. Unfortunate, but that was his word, not hers. And he had asked anyway—what would you change about my body—and they weren’t even married when he’d asked. So his wife telling him that he had ugly nipples was really only himself telling himself he had ugly nipples. There were the poor things now in the mirror, useless and pointing almost directly down, gazing sleepily over the awkward slope of his abdomen. Calisthenics had pulled them up some, but not nearly to the region of good nipple placement, of respectable nipples that stuck out their nipple-chins into the province of tight shirts or a tingling night breeze. At their worst, they might be likened to those ovoid faded-brown patches applied to the elbows of walking jackets. At their best, but it was hard to think of a best. Represented musically, there was no other choice but the cor anglais, the dowdy while still loveable English horn. In its unadorned tenor nasal, the cor anglais was a pair of nipples, aimlessly hanging on to the skin they’d come with. Unless otherwise called for, a symphony contained just one set of male nipples, quietly lodged to the right of the much sexier oboes. Pitched to a low B, the nipples would be asked to somehow droop a half-step lower to B-flat in Das Lied von der Erde. Mahler grinned when he heard the note in his mind, as, simultaneously, a strange tickling couplet hummed just beneath the fine cotton of his work shirt.
Innocence in the Rain
By Alex Pickens
Fairies tiptoe across puddles, gods snore in the clouds, and Aimee slips out while her mother naps. Raindrops in her eyelashes gather in streams down her cheeks, the hem of her dress dragging through the moss as she snags a bullfrog by the leg to join her for tea. As she is filling the frog’s cup, a knight named Rusty in a black suit he thinks is armor sits in the tiny chair beside her. He explains that he has a new job managing enchanted rainforests that are being eaten by fire-breathing monsters, but when he says he must go on a quest for renewable grails by blessing dams and tilting with windmills, Aimee’s face puckers with skepticism. Rusty must be a sorcerer secretly sent by Kaitlyn across the street to steal her new shoes, the ones that light up in the dark. When Rusty explains that trolls on bridges will help raise funds for his quest, and that he is on his way to farm the wind but must take a fairy across the water to get there and will not be back for several weeks, her suspicions are confirmed. No time for bullfrog-kissing now! She throws her amphibious prince at Rusty and sure enough the imposter screams and runs. She sips her tea and tells the turtle across the table that Kaitlyn will have to do better than send a sorcerer pretending to be her father to get her shoes.
By Robert Wexelblatt
A light rain blew down the slope and collected on their faces. Green now with grass and young bamboo, the hill swelled up beside the dirt road. The ex-lieutenant leaned against the olive-green truck and looked up at it as if it were a huge breast. The other remained by the truck, rubbing his hand gently against his trouser leg, smiling almost shyly. He waited patiently while the ex-lieutenant walked around the truck and then strode into the man-high grass at the base of the hill, scrutinizing the ground as if he’d dropped a cigarette lighter there. He waited while the ex-lieutenant positioned himself and snapped four pictures with the camera hanging from his neck. He continued to wait until the ex-lieutenant turned toward him and motioned with his arm. Come, come.
As they climbed the steep hill, hunched against the rain, grasping tufts of grass and bamboo stalks, the ex-lieutenant couldn’t help saying, “Seems so, you know, little. Seems like nothing.” He was short of breath because, though little, the hill was still steep and he was no longer a twenty-year-old lieutenant.
Out of politeness, the other man only shook his head once. To him this climb would never be anything but a great thing, out of time’s normal reckoning.
When they reached the top, the former lieutenant sat himself down on the edge of the eroded trench, sighted down the hill and shook his head. “Fucking waste,” he mumbled solemnly, then swung his head around to the other expecting some brotherly gesture, some tiny concession.
The other could recall only a few words of the ex-lieutenant’s language yet he understood the look in the man’s eyes. “No,” he retorted in a voice high-pitched and proud. “Not waste. Hill paid for, sir. Expensive.”
By Olga Zilberbourg
At three years old Michael did decide to return to his mother’s stomach. His mother shifted things around and made room under her heart. She lived a mostly stationary lifestyle, and so accommodating Michael was no problem. In fact, she appreciated the companionship. Michael never complained about the lack of exercise and the diet of bread and cheese.
Unlike most children his age, he’d found independence overrated. So what if he’d already had the skills of using the knife and fork. He’d never particularly grown fond of walking. His body was bluish-green from all the falls. Dangers loomed. Dirt. He’d seen a rat picking at their trash bin, and mice and raccoons haunted the playground. Toilet training was definitely much more trouble than it was worth. He was happy to let his mother take care of these practical aspects of life.
Reunited in body, Michael and his mother did all their favorite things. They stayed in the large orange chair and rocked and rocked. They read fairy tales and adventure stories. They composed letters to friends in faraway places. He very much appreciated having access to his mother’s vocabulary and understanding. In his turn, he provided emotional support. Having made himself comfortable, he could afford to share. Whenever his mother got scared or felt lonely and sad, whenever her breathing signaled anxiety, Michael shifted to remind her of their togetherness. “I love you so much,” his mother would say. She patted her belly just the way he liked. Her love for Michael brought his mother great pleasure, and knowing that pleased him, too.
Misguided Mini Mecha
By Jessica Tsuzuki
It landed in a field and started to grow, sprouting from the moist dirt and instinctively mimicking the stalk-shaped forms around it. Leaves made way for blossoms and fruit beyond. Finally, the ears broke forth and ripened in the sun, nestled in their snug coverings.
Picked, shucked, dried and processed, it found itself alone among millions in similar states of disarray. Where was I? What was I? This life was comfortable once, but how? Before it conjured a relevant memory, the pile shifted and the motion served as enough distraction to reset its neural net. As it came to rest, questions returned. Where am I? What are we doing here? Shifting again, it noticed the downward trajectory just before the mental processes shorted out.
Settling came with chemical covering, caked around, filling an enclosed space perfectly before the lights went out. Rebooted, it thought about the others around it and the thick chem coats they were now wearing, it among the eyeless rest. Calls to the others from his landing party went nowhere. Attempts to communicate with those around him were equally fruitless. The little mechanical wonder turned itself to sleep mode to reserve power as the world around it seemed to turn upside down and back again.
The buzzing hum rousted it from sleep mode and electrified it aware. Something was happening. Something dangerous. Overwhelming heat coalesced into a spark, flying up from its head and setting alight the very ceiling above. The buzz, the hum, the heat. It would have fainted but something was happening at its core. Finally, it burst forth, converting the melting microwave in a marvelous metal mess.
By Tricia Lowther
I’m in the best position, top deck, front seat, where I can watch her, unobserved. Olivia waits for the bus to stop. I expected her back for the new term, but I wasn’t certain. I duck when she glances up.
Upstairs she takes her usual seat, by the other front window, six feet to my right. A tiny bird flutters in my chest.
She wears Chelsea boots and cheap black leggings. Her legs will get cold in those. She has a new top, indigo, patterned with silver doves. It would have suited Ella.
Messy hair hides her face as she rests her head against the window, phone welded to her hand. Those blonde streaks look salon-professional but they’re natural. She’s had them since toddlerhood. She thumbs the screen. It’s angled so I can’t see what she’s looking at. The bus trundles to the back of a long queue. Stay on red, traffic lights.
She still has that black and white striped canvas bag. Dirt stains the bottom. Liquid has seeped through the side-pocket seams. It reminds me of blackcurrant smudged around little mouths. How I’d pick Play-Doh out of the carpet, clean paint from walls after playdates. Oh Ella. My little girl. If you’d lived, would Olivia still be your best friend?
Olivia lifts her phone and snaps my picture. The bird in my chest jumps. It beats its wings and makes me gasp for breath.
Her voice is firm but her hands tremble. “You have to stop doing this Mrs Taylor.” She pauses, swallows. “Ella would have hated it.”
She stomps down the stairs and I clamp my lips, bite down the wail that’s lived inside me for six years, two months, thirteen days. I know she’s right.
I have to stop.
By Geraldine McCarthy
Rashers sizzled on the pan as Nora flipped the black pudding with the spatula. Denis sat at the kitchen table reading the death column in the newspaper.
“Anyone local?” she asked over her shoulder.
“No one.” He turned his attention the front page, the paper swishing and crackling as he did.
Nora relished this time of the morning, when the milking was done and they could settle down to their second breakfast. There were fences to be mended down by the river, but that could wait.
She served the food on warmed plates and wet the tea. Denis remained behind the barricade.
It was difficult to know how to bring up the subject. Their anniversary. Thirty years married on the first of June. She had suggested a weekend in Killarney. He said he wouldn’t be able to find anyone reliable to milk.
Denis folded the paper and lay it on a kitchen chair. He smeared the brown bread with a thick layer of butter.
“You’ll give yourself a heart attack,” she said.
“You’ll give me a heart attack with all this grease.”
She bit her lip.
The clock ticked. Slowly, slowly.
A Man Up in Age
By Nealla Spano Gordon
He smells like hard cheese. He brings his index finger and thumb to the rim of his nose like he’s toying with a scab, like he’s playing the violin. He has chocolate-pudding eyes. But his shaving is a mess. Stubble sticking out of his neck and his chin. He stares at the Maltese a few feet from his gaze like he wants to squish it, like he wants to consume its agility. He ponders what his life was long ago when he had a wife inside his home. He cringes as the dog lifts its hind leg on the potted plants for sale outside Whole Foods. He thinks that the owner of the dog is ill equipped for responsibility. And he longs for a world that follows his sense of order and decorum. He remembers his life with his wife and his son many years ago. The smell of fried eggs every morning. The sound of hostility at the breakfast table. He hears the whine of his son at the age of 13, lamenting math homework and hexing the teacher who demanded make-ups on a test that yielded a 71%. And still further back, he recalls the realtor who sold them their apartment south of Montana. “This will only go up in value as the years pass.” As the years pass. He and his pudding eyes still search further back to when he was a youth. He recalls his affinity with Calculus and remembers how derivatives blew his mind. And still he travels back. Powering back toward his childhood. All the while picking his nose, mining for gold and truth, which is: only his mama has ever really loved him.
Black & Blue
By Matthew C. McLean
He held the image of the cave in his mind with a perfect crystalline awareness, its rocky lips and jagged edges parting out into the blue, blue sea of the Mediterranean. It was the last time he could recall being truly happy, wading out of the darkness of the cave’s belly to the impossible beauty of the grotto’s quartz filtered light. Shannon had been there and they had held hands and hadn’t even needed to look at each other to know the other one was smiling.
He put that image into the blackness of the pistol’s muzzle, using it to bury the darkness at the other end, using it to hold down the failed business, bad investments, foreclosure. Therapy and medication had held those things in place for a time, but insurance became unaffordable and alcohol and a firearm were so much cheaper.
The trigger wasn’t sending something to him, though, not a bullet from the barrel, it was taking him somewhere. It was going to transport him from the failed wreckage of his life and out to that cobalt sea. Shannon would be there again and just like with the cave, they’d be able to see the light and step out into the sunshine once he had passed through the short, cold dark.
By AC Hunter
As he pulls the motorhome into a layby so she can fart and plop more of the interminable honeymoon into the chemical loo, he concedes her daughter was right to shout ‘Gold-digger!’ the day he parroted trite vows about golden years and love in later life.
The spindly limbs and skittery reclusiveness augured a short wait until the missus snuffed it and he got her cash. He’d read it wrong, should have taken warning from the cobwebby hair, the rotation of the same three viscous brownish dinners. Too late, he realised she really did have eight eyes, it wasn’t just the bifocals. Now she dissolves him more with each slobbery bedtime kiss, digests him at leisure.
She’ll be at least ten minutes in there, tucking all her legs back in. He leaves the wedding band dangling in the torn web at the door, hopes to thumb a lift as he runs.
Ehru Amreyan, Abstract
Laura Austin, Perspective of a Vulture
Sudha Balagopal, This Isn’t How We Live
Greg Beatty, I Had a Lot of Dogs
Tara Breathnach, The Call
Stephen M. Breitenbach, Oracle
Paul Brockbank, Bruises
Becky Buller, The Water’s Edge
Ruud Burke, Consumed
Xin Rong Chua, The Saguaro Who Couldn’t Sleep
Joy Chuks, NOVEMBER 18
Ros Collins, Fear Follows
Brian Comber, to the four winds
M.M. Cupernall, A Clown’s Flower
Meghashri Dalvi, The Tornado in Texas
Jenny Darmody, Camrock House
John Paul Davies, Cash in Hand
Salvatore Difalco, THE MUMMIES
Catherine Edmunds, The Babies
Theodore Eisner, Sour
Chinua Ezenwa-Ohaeto, OUT OF HIS DREAM
E.W. Farnsworth, Her Spectacles
J. Marshall Freeman, CONSTANTIN
James Freeze, Sanctuary
Gabrielina Gabriel, ACROSS THE MEDITERRANEAN
Fiona Gardiner, Me, Myself and I
Sharon Gerger, Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dyson
Joe Giordano, Give Her Some Credit
Mel Goldberg, IN THE PSYCH WARD
Jenna Gomes, PUBLIC SPACES
Paul Gray, 3001—A Space Misogyny
Gila Green, In a Protest on a Jerusalem Highway
Andrew Hamilton, First Steps
Alyson Hilbourne, Second Fiddle
Caroline Hurley, Far Away and Near
Miryam Jackson, Broken Glass Magic
Charlie Jacobson, Betty Boop
Edmund Jonah, Untitled
Dave Joseph, At the Drop of a Hat
R.G. Kaimal, A Memorable Day in School
Jackie Karneth, The Open, Opened
Kiesa Kay, ESCAPE
Teddy Kimathi, Experiment
Bear Kosik, Leaving for Serendip
Stephen Lodge, A Reason to Return
Beverly C. Lucey, For the Birds
Gwenda Major, Please Wear Bright Colours
Veronica Marwood, The Girls of Summer
Anthony Mays, Behind the Wall
Kelly Miller, Fake It
Edoziem Miracle, Confession
Steve Mitchell, M E T H L A B
Damhnait Monaghan, All Through the Night
Alan Morris, The Lucky Penny
Traci Mullins, The Patriots
Dave Murray, e-bike
Chukwuka V. J. Odigbo, Keeping Another Woman
Chibuike Ogbonnaya, Please, Remember Me
Kirby Olson, Bar-Fly
Karen Otto, Miner’s Regret
Alexandra Peel, Sweet, Sweet, The Memories You Gave to Me
Jeremiah S. Perkins, To the Earth
Rebecca Pilling, Looking Back; Or, How I Died
Barclay Rafferty, O’Manam in Bb Major
Simon Read, The Transmutation of Blue
Lisa Reily, Twelve Years
Tony Roberts, The Rain Prophet
N.R.M. Roshak, BURNING BRIDGES
Howard Sage, This Jour What For
Tammie Saiki, The Scrooge Phenomenon
Nidheesh Samant, Rock Star
Jenni Sheppard, This Is Nacho Universe
Naomi A Shuyama, FIREBALL
Al Simmons, Casting Call, Everyone’s an Extra
Asha Singh, 2018
Mary Siroky, In the Morning
James Smart, HOUSE SHARE
Kim Smyth, The Arrival
Julia Sorensen, Inhale
Kinna Sorensen, Gone
Mike Tarnpoll, Mr. P
Chris Tattersall, Likes
Tobi Tijani, Unpleasant Surprises
Zen Tolliver, Shore to Shore
Emmanuel Udoma, Shattered
Ian Vogel, SHE LOVED APRIL
Michelle Vongkaysone, Three Letters
Robert Walton, Don’t Let Them Swim Alone
Cathy Watness, Float
Rod A. White, Absolute Control
Hannah Whiteoak, The Lump
A. Wirta, My Gawsh
Olga Wojtas, The Little Goat-herd
Lorna Wood, Ant Death