Contest 2 Winners
first place $500
On board is the Hater of Children, the Hater of Worms as well as Scared of Snakes, Scared of Fingernails and Cooked Meat. Also; Terrified by Dogs, Terrified by Books, Running Water, Yellow Hornets and Sliding Glass Doors. We ride to get cured, driving forward to a sort of phobia boot-camp. Sitting patiently, comparing neuroses, it seems a little unreal--but our anxieties are true enough. Optimism, too, seems real today, riding alongside each of us in that ancient yellow school bus. For once anxieties feel light, breakable and ready to shatter. Yes, we can be purged all right.
It’s easy to picture the kids who used to ride this bus on their way to school. I can still make out the the names and swear words they scratched into the seats: TOM and LILY and happy faces with their tongues out drooling. Laughter and small talk, some forced and nervous, some light and easy, bounces its way along the interior of the bus. Outside, a golden flat field surrounds us. I watch it pass as a woman’s voice, I think it’s Fear of Horses, calls out, “Hey, look! There’s a bird trapped on the bus.”
“Everybody open their windows!” somebody yells, and we do. The little fellow makes panicked, terrified sounds, clapping its wings against the curved metal ceiling. We guide it along, saying mothering words, until finally the bird reaches open air and escapes. Freedom! We raise our hands and cheer.
I turn to Rodney, Scared of Snakes, who sits across the aisle from me, holding the brim of his greasy baseball hat with both hands. “I guess that--” I say, and he answers with a shrill, windpipe-tight cry--and I’m thrown in the air. Hurled up spinning, voiceless, caught up in light and pain, I don’t know for how long and I don’t hear any sounds at all-- but there must be screeching glass breaking and metal buckling and boy, woman, man, screaming. We stop, settled like an island calm and impossible, and I find my head resting in Rodney’s lap. He makes a noise that isn’t shrill and isn’t tight but worse and I look up. His throat is cut, a piece of glass lodged deep into his neck, shearing it almost all the way through. There is blood, yes of course, so much of it and I think: Chicken. Chicken with its head cut off. I black out. I must have. I don’t remember getting out of the bus, over what and who, but here I am.
Sitting on some of that golden grass in a line with four others looking empty eyed, staring into a flat horizon. Cross legged, hands in our laps, we each hold our fears like a bird’s nest, precious in our fingers. “The ocean," I tell somebody. “I’m afraid of the ocean."
I feel the sun as weight, heavy on my back.
Judges' comments: The last line of this piece is crushingly sad. Sometimes practiced fearlessness can equate to walking Pantophobia.
second place $200
how i got this bump on my head
They said, Hop on – this is a bus to redemption.
The bus was a washed-out yellow: an unblinking, mobile maggot. My feet were tired from miles of unsuccessful hitchhiking, so I was drawn in. It swallowed me and inched back onto the deserted highway. My father, in his arguments against Mom’s ardent insistence he attend Sunday mass, used to say that asking for redemption from a higher power –having faith, for that matter –is to choose the life of a night moth: you’ll forever be seeking out impenetrable light and banging your head into it repeatedly, as if punishing yourself.
He died a poor poet, and though I valued his words, I felt he’d understand if I compromised lifelong doctrines for a comfortable seat in an air-conditioned vehicle.
The missionaries seemed nice enough. I figured I could tolerate them until San Diego before they crossed the Mexican border to “spread the Good Word.” They took great interest in me, wondered what brought me to Bridgeport, Nebraska, where they picked me up.
Burying my father in his hometown, I answered. I didn’t mention that the drawn-out funeral had left me in a quiet mood. I found I couldn’t further partake in the reminiscing of Dad’s quirks and isms, the lines of Whitman he used to recite, the advice I’d come to live by. I gave my car to my youngest brother and started walking west.
Dad sometimes talked about going to California. He talked much. Poets like words, perhaps because they cause people to do things.
The bus had barely crossed the Colorado state line before the missionaries started working on me. They talked the way zealots talk – slipping into my head in a minimally-invasive way with, Do you belong to a church? And when I said no, they folded in closer like moth wings and replied, So you haven’t accepted Jesus Christ our Lord into your heart?
No, and I’m alright with that.
But don’t you feel that something is missing, that you’re not truly happy?
I shrugged. It seemed rather presumptuous of them to consider me unhappy, but because I was alone without a car and had little cash to my name, I could see why they assumed I was running from something – an emptiness I would soon realize I couldn’t escape. Or so the cliché goes.
As we snaked through Utah, I started to doze. One man lent his pillow for me to sleep on. I re-lived the funeral behind my eyelids; I pictured a moth in the coffin.
When I woke, I was hungry, and they fed me. Any weariness of their company oddly shifted to comfort. They insisted, From here, you can only gain things. Just follow.
Like a panicked moth to a grubby light.
My father died a poor poet. Words were worth everything to him, both truths and lies.
They said, This is a bus to redemption.
I never got off in San Diego.
Judges' comments: Momentously narrative, this story won our hearts when its moth broke out of the world of metaphor and swallowed our bus
third PLACE $100
the effects of my black cobra
Yes, the effect from my cobra has finally started to kick in. Although not always lethal, the neurotoxin directly affects the motor cortex, and for that reason this bus will soon crash. Incidentally, that may turn out to be lethal for everyone. The driver’s phalanges are already stiff as a chopstick. I don’t care much for these people; I’ve never had any interest in wide open spaces, or in identifying the difference between soybeans and peas. I would much rather spelunk and commiserate with flying rodents than sit here with jolly (and fat) pasty Nebraskaners.
My cobra is a specialty type, from the genus Maldocile, with a black hood and crimson lining. I love him very much. His venom is not the most lethal in the world, but it acts slowly. It drags. And only once motion has finally ceased does he release the offered flesh from his fangs. The faces of our victims contort in fantastical, impossible expressions as they turn from a dark red to the more royal purple. I often shudder when the outcome is complete, so gnarly is the conclusion of paralysis.
The screams behind me are a mere refraction of the joys I am feeling within. Turning back, the muumuus are almost imperceptible among pastel colored polyester suits, but I know they are there, and I know they are thinking that this might be their last day, wow there is so much ironing to do, and I never got to send that snow globe to the shop for fixing because it kept leaking and my cat would lap up whatever liquid that was, and I don’t think it was good for her, and if I die now, the cat could get sick from drinking all that liquid, what with the mini styrofoam bubbles.
The driver is not gurgling anymore, and has since stopped his pathetic moaning from the cinderblock I threw down on his foot to keep this bus moving. Let’s dust these planes! The odometer reads 60, and I am enthralled. The tour folk behind me have started clambering all over each other, up and through and under the seats, clawing their way to the front for a chance at, well, me. I laugh and slap the driving on the back. My cobra has released! I stuff him back into the burlap bag with the silkscreened side that says, “Yowsah!”, pull the lever to open the front door, jump out and roll parkour-style among the bleak desert foliage. Brushing myself off and looking on at the speeding bus I am filled with an awe of power, another success story to knot upon my knife hilt. I bundle up my black cobra and walk back towards the last town for a slice of the advertised apple pie with Nebraskan cheddar cheese.
Judges' comments: The voice of this piece is as terrifying as Humbert Humbert's and shocked us with its haunting ode to the snow globe. We deem it a winner with the provision that "Yowsah!" is never allowed to ride a bus carrying humans.