This flash has it all. Beautiful prose, brilliant, cinematic imagery, and palpable emotion. This story moves and breathes and resonates. I think I loved this story more with each reading. And how’s this for an absolutely gorgeous ending:

She takes a step back, looks at me with uncertainty. I want to soothe her. She should know there’s no beginning or end to our revisions. That we can live in greens and blues radiant with revelation. That we don’t have to be tamed. That love can silence our whispering ghosts.

Kathy Fish / Guest Judge

1st Place: “Crickets” by Quinn Madison

Mornings, the shouts of my landlady rise through the floorboards as she rails against her husband. In bed, I press wet tea leaves against my eyelids. I moved to Taiwan without a plan.

Midnights I mount Li Kai’s motorcycle, press my cheek hard against his back, circle my arms tightly around his waist. If I could, I’d wrap my legs around him, erase the air between us.

Snake Alley calls. There, we perch on wooden stools in the street, drink shots of snake whiskey so fast our eyesight blurs. We see girls leaning out from barred windows of tilted shacks, waving delicate hands to men hungry for something dark beyond description.

Tonight the youngest girl is pushed forward. Each man, each trembling weed, wants to wrap himself around her doll waist, arch her back, enter her in measured thrusts. I know she dreads morning, the coarseness of the bamboo mat, the serpent breath that’ll cling to her. I know she believes only in her nightmares.

* * *

Always, when night ends an invisible border shifts.

I talk with my landlady mornings before my Mandarin class. Once, while cracking sunflower seeds between her teeth, she tells me that her mother arranged her marriage. “Ta bu hao kan,” she says.

She spits a shell, repeats that her husband of twenty years is ugly. She pushes him away most nights, recoils at his sweat of ash and alcohol, his cheap whispered dreams of wealth. In this city of pagodas and glass spiral towers, of blackened air and exhausted trees, she feels despair. She knows her future is already here: winters of dumplings dropped in hot peanut oil, the coming and going of her soldier sons, the livid heat of summers. Hoping heaven will reveal its intentions, she searches the night sky for messages—a flicker on the fire planet perhaps. Anything.

After so many lives, she’s tired. She hoards rent in a worn silk pouch and breeds crickets for extra cash. For weeks now she has heard something no one else does: a ringing. She tilts her head to shake it out, claps hands against her head.

Now her finger floats towards me, then points to her ear. I rest my hand on her shoulder, peer into the dark cavity. I look for something, a movement perhaps, an injury.

I tell her I see only blackness. She scolds me, commands me to her again. I press my ear to hers, listen. Suddenly, sounds. They rise through her body like birds, enter me like wind. I hear her life, the wet clothes flapping against acres of line, the screech of caged crickets, the chop chop chop of her kitchen knife against the cutting-board.

She takes a step back, looks at me with uncertainty. I want to soothe her. She should know there’s no beginning or end to our revisions. That we can live in greens and blues radiant with revelation. That we don’t have to be tamed. That love can silence our whispering ghosts.


 

Quinn Madison

Quinn Madison

Quinn Madison has a master’s in social anthropology from Oxford University, which means she’s a practiced people-watcher. She spent a year in Taipei on a Sachar Fellowship, researching the lives of contemporary women fiction writers. Her story “Anhui” was nominated by Zyyzva for a Pushcart Prize. She works as a content strategist at Google in the Bay Area.

 

This flash truly took my breath away. The prose itself is beautiful, but the surreality of the story, not once overwrought, is what really impressed me. Drawing from an actual text on dream interpretation, the piece is itself a dream, brilliantly rendered. I will not soon forget those tornadoes or this startling sentence:

The horror isn’t to die but to live, to suffer such opportunity for disaster. It masquerades as a train, whistling a one-note tune as it carries all the world’s passengers to some other place.

Kathy Fish / Guest Judge

2nd Place: “10,000 Interpreted” by Landon Houle

Often there are tornadoes, but this time, her grandmother is driving. It’s some old church van, thinly painted and pocked as a pioneer’s pot. They are cutting through red fields with the windows down, and from the backseat, her dead grandfather corrects anyone who will count the dark funnels, but in the beginning, there are at least ten, no eleven. This her grandfather concedes.

Earlier, they’d been in a house with several other people from TV shows, and they were watching TV. They were watching the emergency weather broadcast, which—on a local channel—is always more humorous than informative, and finally, you just walk up to a window as you should, of course, never do, and you look out through the glass that at any minute could burst and send you pummeling into everlasting darkness.

Or you end up, as she did, opening the front door, and seeing the tornadoes including the little one, the devil that like a kitten, she let in, and she said, “Look everybody! Here’s one!” as it chased its own tail and finally, harmlessly, and mystically unrolled itself between the recliner and the coat rack.

Now everything is so much worse, and they’re just trying to get away, and her grandfather in the backseat is saying, “Thirteen, not fifteen.” And he doesn’t look dead when she sees him in the side mirror. He looks like he did ten years before the clot rose from his lungs like a bubble in a coke. He’s still red-faced from checking all those wells and derricks in these very fields which her grandmother traverses with the heavy foot and the chin-jutted courage she no longer has to go to the grocery store.

There is a moment when one of the twenty-four or twenty-two tornadoes comes right for them. There is nothing but to park and duck. In those floorboards have been the many heels of the faithful, and there, they press their faces. They kneel and cover their ears.

The horror isn’t to die but to live, to suffer such opportunity for disaster. It masquerades as a train, whistling a one-note tune as it carries all the world’s passengers to some other place. Gustavus Hindman Miller says, “You will be filled with disappointment and perplexity over the miscarriage of studied plans.”

For hours—minutes, her grandfather would argue—she’s tucked like this until finally, it is quiet. No, anything but quiet. “Hear the birds,” her grandfather says, but when she opens her eyes, he is gone and so is everything but the sparrow, the song.


 

Landon Houle

Landon Houle

Landon Houle’s writing has won contests at Black Warrior Review, Crab Creek Review, and Permafrost, and her story “Travelers” was named a Pushcart Prize special mention. Other work has appeared in Baltimore Review, Crazyhorse, Natural Bridge, Harpur Palate, Hawai’i Pacific Review, River Styx and elsewhere. She is the fiction editor at Raleigh Review, and she teaches English and creative writing at Francis Marion University in Florence, South Carolina.

 

This is a great example of what a skilled writer can do with a deceptively simple scene. The first line is very intriguing. An unsettling tone is achieved through deft description, dialogue, and imagery. I found the ending of this flash both moving and mysterious. This one resonated beyond the page, leaving me with a lingering feeling of sadness and foreboding. Kathy Fish / Guest Judge

3rd Place: “Buffalo” by Amanda Fields

When I was a child, and my father had just begun to be noticeably strange, my mother took me to the zoo. It was July, and hot. The lions were thin, their manes as brittle as straw. Monkeys tumbled in a canopy of ropes, pausing to pick at each other’s hair. They ignored us. The parakeets seemed lifeless, tucked into layered bark. After hours of this, our wrapped sandwiches eaten, our feet sore, my mother suggested that we leave.

“Please, can we stay?” I scuffed my thick shoes on the walkway to slow her down.

Her dress seemed too loose in the cooling wind. “The crickets are tuning up,” she said. Strands of hair dropped on her cheeks.

“Just one more thing, then,” I begged. I was thinking of the meerkats in their artificial desert, a painted sky behind them. I wanted to see them one more time. A sentry always stood at attention on its hind legs, making sure no harm came to the rest.

“The buffalo,” my mother said, touching her rounded stomach.

As we crossed a little bridge over an expanse of land, my mother gave me a nickel, and I slipped it into a metal stand that resembled a parking meter. A pair of enormous binoculars perched on the stand, the lenses opaque without the click of the coin and the tick of the meter. I strained up and felt the crick-crack of my corrective shoes, the ones my parents made me wear so that I wouldn’t walk pigeon-toed.

The lenses blurred until I moved my eyes into just the right place. Then the view through the slits became clear. There were the mighty buffalo, grazing in what appeared to be deadened grasses—what at the time I thought of as prairie, not understanding thatthe prairie didn’t exist anymore.

I squinted one eye, then the other, watching the buffaloes’ fluffy bent heads in the stalks. Despite the binoculars, the buffalo were distant, as unrealistic as moon craters in a telescope. The sun warming my back seemed a closer friend.

“See the buffalo?” my mother whispered. “They don’t belong here.”

I pulled away from the binoculars and blinked. My mother wiped at the sweat beneath her nose then gripped the railing. I heard the tick-tick and put my eyes back.

But I didn’t get a good look before the minute was spent and my mother held out a white-gloved hand, her forefinger smeared a light pink where it had run against her upper lip.

I twitched my face to indicate that I might cry, turning my left foot inward.

“No more nickels,” she said, glancing at my toes. “No more time.”


 

Amanda Fields

Amanda Fields

Amanda Fields is an Assistant Professor of English and Director of the Writing Center at Fort Hays State University. Her prose and poetry have appeared in Indiana Review, Brevity, Contemporary American Voices, among others, and her scholarship has appeared in Sexuality Research and Social Policy, Kairos: A Journal of Rhetoric, Technology, and Pedagogy, among others.

 

List of Finalists:

“The Car Full” by Christine Brandel

“what it means to be lost” by Abby Burns

“all their hushed worries” by Abby Burns

“These Arms of Yours” by Chloe Clark

“Out of Reach” by Steve Cushman

“Buffalo” by Amanda Fields

“Swan Songs Are Just Human Songs With Feathers” by Jennifer Fliss

“10,000 Interpreted” by Landon Houle

“Aspects of My Father” by Stephanie Hutton

“A Lesson of Manners in Paint Rock, Texas” by Jad Josey

“Everything Is Going to Be Okay” by Matthew Lyons

“Crickets” by Quinn Madison

“The 45th President of the United States and I Went to Baskin Robbins” by Grant Miller

“Ms Tempke Goes to the Cinema” by Sherry Morris

“Paroxsym” by Georgiana Nelsen

“A Hex That Binds” by Simon Pinkerton

“Bitter Pills” by Kristen Ploetz

“In Patient” by Jenn Rossmann

“Super Human Leech Bite” by Estevan Torres

“Tall Tales” by Chelsea Voulgares