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First Place Winner- Alexia Woodall

Pools

Mercury; Atomic number 80; Chemical symbol Hg; Liquid at room temperature; highly toxic. Equally beautiful as it is elusive. Pools of it swarmed the ground like bees to a hive. These silver poolings reflected the purple tinge from the canopy above. It may just be that exact mesmerizing trait which led to your fall. Mercury, for a metal that is twice as dense as lead, you’d think it would stay solid when a creature disrupts its surface tension. Your clothes were encased with this malleable poison. With your thoughts coming to a close, it was time for you to get up.

Drops of mercury ricocheted from your skin as you emerged from your patch of quicksilver. Your surroundings lit into focus at the speed of sound. Leaves were green and reflected purple, the flora was a variety of bright- city like colors. Although, when gazing upwards, there was no sun or visible sky. It seemed all the light was coming from the vivid glow of the “nature” around you. Then, a realization hit you fast. You were lost in a jungle of neon, and, worst of all, you had no recollection of arriving there. Then, there was a disruption. Your pool of virulent sliver started to move. Though it wasn’t the movement that startled you, it was the change in color. The silky silver stain that coated your clothes transformed into a puddle of variety. Vibrant neon colors filled the pool, one could even say it resembled a painting. Awe filled your senses. You stared at the pool of mixed colors for a while. Or maybe you stared at them for a short amount of time, there was no way to actually tell how much time passed and how quickly it did so. You could’ve been admiring that anomaly of liquid for months, or even years, and you wouldn’t know. A jolt snapped you out of your trance as fast as you got snapped into one. The pool of metal paint started shifting. Filled with unease, you instinctively wobble backward. As soon as your foot hit the ground behind you, another step was taken but this one wasn’t yours. Keeping in that rhythm of steps, you stumble to take another pace back but, instead of typical balance, you are struck with vertigo. A collision between the ground and your back seem inevitable, until, suddenly, a hand grabs your wrist. You gaze up at the unexpected contact only to see a figure of a person. They were roughly your dimensions though; they didn’t have a face.

The faceless stranger had seemingly emerged from the pool of neon. It pulled you back to your feet. It still kept its grasp on your wrist. You stared at it blankly in the face, something about it was oddly familiar and warming. Almost like if the colors of a sunset were a person. You glance down to where the creature is holding you. It wasn’t until this moment that you realized your skin was mercury stained silver and somehow, miraculously, this figure was staining your skin with oranges, blues, purples and pinks. With primal urgency you snap your hand out of the sunset’s hold.

Flashes of light and images filled your eyes, until a clear picture came. You saw cities, lights and people, though, they all seemed to be infected with the same silver you were. There were no colors, there were no sounds. There was only a dim synthetic light of white that kept the world in viewable sight. You saw pollution, stress, anger, fear and unhappiness. You saw the unjust and the unkind, and then, there was you. You were a metallic mercury, just like everyone else. And like everyone else, you couldn’t see your own mercury. Something seemed different though, you looked almost determined. That’s when you started to run. You ran and ran until your legs couldn’t take you any further. It seemed like you were running into nowhere. And nowhere was exactly where you ended up. You were no longer able to recognize the terrain behind you or in front of you. You could smell the fear leaking from you, but, all senses were lost in the same gush of monochromatic existence. Everything smelt like fear, so your fear fit in perfectly. It was now that you realized that your feet felt heavy. Looking down you found yourself in the middle of a pool of mercury. Many pools of mercury surrounded this land, around the same number of people in your city. Moving with a certain unease of unfamiliarity, you try to move out of the silver mercury, which only led to a slip, and then a fall.

Your vision stops, as you are returned to your reality. You fixate back on the person made of sunset and trace the outline of their⎯no⎯ your body. Following its arm, you remember where it caught you and held onto you. You stare at your arm, only to see that your silver mercury is gone. You look to your other arm and see that the color stain from the figures grip spread all over your body. You take the hand of the painted figure in front of you and peer at the neon jungle you are lost in. Taking in its beauty and ease, you don’t seem to feel so lost anymore. And you finally feel at peace.

 

 

Second Place Winner- Troy Rawlings

Kids These Days

 

The day Lucas was eaten was no different than the rest.

It was the sweltering summer of ‘06, and the kids rushed out to play ball in the streets after breakfast before the sun could melt the skin right off of them. Cramming the rest of a bacon strip into his mouth, the nine year old leapt down his porch steps to join the older boys in the yard.

Wisteria Lane was a long, nearly deserted road in dire need of repair, and Lucas caught himself from tripping over the pot holes as he reached the others. Swallowing back the grease left in his mouth from the bacon, he looked up at the boys, who had already begun to play. They tossed a worn football back and forth, laughing and joking around with deep voices.

Alexander and Scott stopped throwing the ball around when they saw Lucas approach. Scott rolled his eyes and greeted the young boy with a grunt. Alexander held the football over Lucas’ head, “Get it, little man.”

Lucas wasn’t anywhere near as tall as the high schoolers, but he tried jumping for it anyway. They only let him stick around for the amusement; he knew because they’d told him so. There weren’t any other kids around for several miles, so options were limited.

Alexander and Scott guffawed as Lucas bounced on his skinny legs, fingers never quite grazing the ball. Snorting, Alexander finally dropped it into his hands, and the boys chased the ball up and down the street. They were rough with Lucas, tackling him to the ground until he skinned his knees, but Lucas didn’t complain.

At one point, with the other boys right on his tail, Lucas made a mad dash for the nearest yard, dropped the ball, and bent over in the grass to catch his breath. He braced himself for the attack he was sure was coming, but the sound of footfalls slapping on pavement had stopped.

Lucas glanced over his shoulder, still huffing, and saw Scott and Alexander a few yards away, feet planted firmly on the ground and angled away with bent knees as if they were preparing to run. He followed their stare to the house rising before him.

The one tree in the yard was dead, reduced to a skeleton of spindly, bare limbs twisting to point all around, as if to indicate escape routes. Beyond the tree was the oldest house on the block, standing under white-hot sun with a long, wrap around porch and imposing black shutters on every window. They were all shut. The window boxes were empty of everything except some dry soil, and the walls could have used a new coat of grey paint decades ago. The part that had Lucas shaking in his oversized boots was the man sitting on the porch, staring right back at him.

The few residents of Wisteria Lane all knew about the old widower; with all the gossip about him that passed around in whispered fervors faster than the rolls around the dinner table, it was hard to know what was true. But what he’d heard had been enough to keep Lucas from getting too close before; he hadn’t been paying attention as he was running, and now he was there, and he was frozen.

As was the man, Mr. Bernstein was as still as the rocking chair he rested in, unblinking. Lines seemed to be carved in his forehead like it was stone, and his lips were pulled down into a grimace.

They regarded each other for several moments; Lucas recounted in his head all the stories he’d heard of the man being monster before chiding himself.

Monsters aren’t real, he reminded himself silently. Nonetheless, his hands still shook and when the old man barked, “Get off my lawn!”, Lucas didn’t hesitate to oblige.

As Lucas tore down the street on Alexander’s and Scott’s heels, the wind seemed to carry another statement from the man, this one in a bitter growl: “Kids these days.”

Alexander and Scott pushed Lucas around when they’d reached the safety of their own yards, teasing him about being scared. “He’s just an old fart,” Alexander scoffed, but his voice wavered.

Lucas’ mother called him inside for lunch and made him stay inside until it cooled down. When he opened his rickety screen door again, the sun had almost left the sky, painting it swirling shades of fiery red and orange.

The older boys waited for him on the curb with crossed arms.

Lucas thought about going back inside, but wanting to seem tough, he forced himself to keep moving.

Alexander spat on the ground and leered down at him. “We have a proposition for you.”

Lucas looked between them and said in a small voice, “What’s a proposition?” He stumbled over the long word.

Scott said, “We dare you to go back to Bernstein’s house.”

Lucas gulped. “B-but why?”

“Because we said so,” Alexander snapped. “You chicken?”

When the older boys started to make clucking sounds, Lucas shook his head quickly. “No!”

Raising their eyebrows, Alexander and Scott waited without response until Lucas started picking his way up the street. A chill swept through the air and up his spine as he came to Bernstein’s driveway.

“Okay,” the boy said, inspecting the shadows cast on the porch by the street lamp. The old man had disappeared inside, but he couldn’t stop the hairs from rising on the back of his neck or goosebumps pimpling his arms. “I did it.”

“Now go inside,” Scott urged.

Lucas looked back at him with wide eyes. “We wanted to apologize, for earlier,” Alexander elaborated, but something in his eyes seemed to say otherwise.

Liar, liar, pants on fire, Lucas wanted to say, but held his tongue. Before he could back out, he found himself padding up the driveway and easing his weight on the porch with a crrreeak! Lucas flinched, waiting for the shutters to swing open, but nothing happened.

He gave a timid knock on the front door, and in response it drifted open a few inches.

Lucas looked back at the boys, who nodded enthusiastically from the curb. They watched as he was swallowed by the darkness inside, the only sound being the rapid beats of their hearts and their laboured breaths.

And then, a scream shattered the otherwise quiet night, a scream neither boy would ever forget. It was one of which they’d never heard before and never would again, full of true terror and agony.

Scott broke out into a run, but in the moments in which Alexander tried to remember how to move, the lone boy saw movement from inside the darkened house. The floorboards creaked, there was a sickly crunch, and with just enough light from the rising moon and street lamp, he saw it. Alexander saw the faint outline of the old man opening and extending his jaws like a snake, and munching down on a skinny limb. At the sight, bile rising in his stomach, he fled after his friend.

The two never spoke about what happened that day. Alexander convinced himself he’d imagined what he’d seen, what he’d heard; the police were called when Lucas didn’t come home, but they didn’t check out the Bernstein home.

Over a decade later, Alexander had moved away and had children of his own. He’d been able to push the events of that night far from his memory and cast it off as just childish antics and a great imagination, until he brought his kids back to Wisteria Lane.

After visiting their grandmother, the children wandered off to play in the streets. Alexander found them, making mud pies in a familiar yard while an old man watched on.

Gathering his kids, he looked up to meet the man’s gaze, and felt a shock of recognition jolt through him. It was Bernstein, and he hadn’t changed at all, down to his frown lines and still position in the rocking chair to the sort of ragged clothing he wore.

Alexander shuddered, but forced himself to be calm. He’s just an old fart, he remembered saying, and that had to be the truth.

“I’m sorry for them,” Alexander managed to say, gesturing to his kids as he pulled them off the lawn.

Bernstein’s lips twitched upward into a semi-smile. “Kids these days,” the old man murmured back.