APRIL CONFLICTS 104 – Short Story Contest

TOPIC: DISTURBING CONFLICTS

THEME: Optimism

SETTING: Start your story with a disturbance. Your character is passionate about a certain goal, but a conflict is making it difficult. The goal might be in the performing arts, in athletics, music, politics, law enforcement, gardening, cooking, or in something else of your choosing. The opposition might be a criminal, disgruntled employee, death of a loved one, or an immoral acquaintance. An important message helps your character find optimism and persevere in spite of the obstacle.

SUBMISSIONS: Scroll down to post your story.

3 HIGHLIGHTS (include): A box or gift, an optimistic message, and a conflict

WORD COUNT: 750-1,500

DEADLINE: The deadline is always the 25th of the month: Sunday, April 25, 2021

PRIZE: Winner receives a book!

AWARDS: Each story will receive an award!

3 PROMPTS TO GET YOU STARTED:

1.) Your character is a single person who discovers that his or her boss has suddenly died the night before. Police arrive at the small business to question everyone who worked with the boss. Since your character is single, he or she has no alibi. Your character looks guilty but must remain optimistic. You decide possible motives for the co-workers. You decide who killed the boss and why.

2.) Your character loses his or her beloved job. While down in the dumps, he receives a message to help him look on the bright side. He starts a new job doing something totally different or unusual such as packing boxes for people who are moving. You describe internal conflicts. Decide how the new job turns out. Decide whether he returns to his old career or if the opportunity ever is given again.

3.) Your character carries a terrible secret such as accidentally killing someone in a car crash. Years later, a new neighbor bully happens to be a relative of the deceased person. This neighbor bully keeps making life difficult, prank after prank, until an important message stops the neighbor from bullying. Your character almost seeks revenge on the neighbor bully until a box arrives with something inside to help your character remain optimistic.

WINNER(S) and AWARDS will be announced on May 1, 2021.

OPTIONAL RESOURCES:

You can find optional conflicts on pages 44-45 in “Writers 750 Emerald Workbook” written by H.M. Schuldt.

For more inspiration, you can read short stories in “Giant Tales Beyond the Mystic Doors,” Chapter 4: Mysterious Boxes.

ITEMS THAT MUST BE INCLUDED

1.) A box or a gift

2.) An optimistic message

3.) A conflict

3 Parts of a Conflict

  1. A problem is presented.
  2. An attempt is made to solve the problem.
  3. The problem gets resolved.

What if…?

For maximum conflict, you might ask, “What if I almost died?”

You might ask, “What if two opposite characters switched places?”

Antagonist

Who or what kind of antagonist will you include? A rioter, depression, denier, hater, sorcerer, idolator, liar, terrorist, or something else?

CONTEST GUIDELINES – Skip over this comment section if you are familiar with the Writers 750 Program.

GENRE: Fantasy, Thriller, Sci-Fi, Mystery, Crime, Comedy, Romance, or a mixture (No erotica)

PURPOSE –
The main purpose of this contest is to practice the skill of writing fiction, explore conflict and character development, write new short stories, and receive good feedback.

RULES & DIRECTIONS –
• Type in English – a minimum of 750 words; a maximum of 1,500 words

• Post your title and word count total in the first line of your story posting.

• Writers are responsible for their own copyright. Authors keep all rights. PRIVACY POLICY IS ENFORCED. COPYRIGHTS AND INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY RIGHTS BELONG TO INDIVIDUAL AUTHORS. THIS CONTEST DOES NOT GRANT ANY PERSON THE RIGHT OR LICENSE TO COPY OR USE OTHER STORIES. EACH STORY IS PROTECTED BY THE COPYRIGHT OF THE ORIGINAL AUTHOR.

• ONE entry per person, must be the writer’s original work, a final revision, and a new piece of writing. Please do not delete and re-post since this becomes confusing to the readers. Make sure to post your final revision.

SUBMISSIONS: Post your story in the section below.

13 replies on “APRIL CONFLICTS 104 – Short Story Contest”

April Conflict awards:

Gypsy Road to Redemption by Paul Ahnert
Best Redemption and Best Character Development

New Site for a Village Sought by Fred Burwick
Best Map and Best Hope for a New Home

Devastation of Michael by Glenda Garber Reynolds
Best Survival and Best Disaster

Dragons of the Balic Mountains by Terry Turner
Best Dragon Saga and Best Gold Box

The Half-Empty Glass by Arthur Chappell
Best Curmudgeon and Best Blessing In Disguise

Battle of the Bellies by Travis Jackson
Best Battle in Town and Best Surprise Ending

I loved reading your stories this month!
The winning story is Travis Jackson’s “Battle of the Bellies”
Congrats!

Thank you, everyone, for posting your April Conflict story!
They are all very creative stories, and I enjoyed them very much.

Congrats to Travis on your winning story. Thank you all for submitting stories for April!

The “April Conflict” Short Story Contest is now closed.

It is now time to vote from April 26-April 30. Select your three favorite stories and privately send me your votes in order from first place to third place. First place stories get three points. Second place stories get two points. Third place stories get one point. The stories with the most points wins!

Winner and awards will be announced on May 1!

Gypsy Road to Redemption
1499 words
Paul Ahnert

Antoine lay in bed, listening to the drone of his alarm. Mondays were the hardest days to get out of bed for Antoine Levy, but this Monday, in particular, was more difficult than usual. A late Sunday afternoon message from someone he believed buried deep in the past ensured this Monday would be filled with more dread than any other Monday.

In stark contrast, merely two days earlier, Antoine awoke with excited expectation. The little ring box sitting on his dresser that fateful Saturday morning promised to change everything. On Saturday night, he proposed to Sheila, the love of his life. And, as fate would have it, Antoine was not the only one waiting to spring a surprise. Sheila also carried exciting news, only Sheila’s surprise was not in a small box in her pocket, Sheila’s surprise grew in her womb.

The message which sent Antoine’s happy life into a tailspin came the previous day, around 4:30 PM. An email from a relative he had not heard from, nor even thought about, for his entire adult life shook him to his foundation: “Now that you are about to be married and have an heir, it is time you learned the truth about what happened to your parents and time for you to do what they could not, it is imperative you do not fail as they did. Meet me tomorrow at the bus station at 10:00 AM. Come alone and do not be late. Uncle Val.”

Uncle Val was actually Valentino Khmeleva. Antoine had cloudy memories of Uncle Val showing up at various family functions prior to his parent’s death. Uncle Val carried an ominous air about him and when he showed up for a family gathering, the older men would solemnly disappear into a back room with him for an hour or so. What was discussed was never disclosed. Antoine remembered something which, at the time, held no significance, but now nearly choked him with foreboding. The week before 8 year old Antoine’s parents died, under mysterious circumstances, Roman Levy, Antoine’s father, was for the first time, summoned to the meeting of Uncle Val and the family elders. Young orphaned Antoine was shipped off from his home in New York to Aunt Lyla in New Jersey and had no further contact with any of the family he had known his first 8 years, including mysterious Uncle Val.

Antoine arrived at the Greyhound station five minutes before Uncle Val’s Bus, not really knowing how to respond to a man of whom he had very little recollection. He deduced, if his father’s family had a Matriarch, it was Uncle Val. An inexplicable darkness gripped Antoine’s spirit, along with anticipation of secrets revealed, as the unmistakable sound and smell of diesel filled his senses.

Uncle Val was the thirteenth passenger to exit the bus. Valentino Khmeleva was a man of not quite average height, yet, he cut a formidable image of dignified grace usually reserved for those reared among royalty, dressed in a black suit, complete with a black overcoat draped over his shoulders like a cape, accented by a blood red tie and pocket square. Though Khmeleva was undoubtedly well into his seventies, his jet black hair, salt and pepper beard and regal bearing gave him the appearance of a much younger man. The only accoutrement hinting to his advanced age was a black, highly polished cane with silver wolf head handle, although, upon further inspection, the walking stick seemed more accessory than necessity.

Somehow, Uncle Val knew exactly whom he had come to see as he walked directly to Antoine without a shred of hesitation. In a heavy Romanian accent, Khmeleva dispelled any notion this was a warm family reunion, “Come, quickly, we have much to discuss and you have much to do.” Antoine, flabbergasted by his Uncle’s direct approach, blurted out the one question, the only question which mattered, “What’s this all about?” “Not here” came the terse reply, “you have a car, I presume? Let us go to a place we cannot be disturbed nor overheard.”

The drive home was much more like a family reunion than the initial meeting as Uncle Val asked what Antoine remembered from his childhood prior to going to live with his mother’s sister, Lyla. Antoine did remember the family gatherings being festive and he confessed to having a vague memory of the near stranger seated next to him. During the drive, Uncle Val, jovially, recounted his memories of young Antoine and his parents, although there seemed to be an underlying bitterness when Valentino spoke of the late Mrs. Levy.

Antoine lay in bed pondering the life altering meeting with Uncle Val, a meeting which ended abruptly when a black limousine pulled in front of the house and whisked his uncle away to parts unknown. His uncle’s last words, as he strolled out the door were, “Do not fail as your father failed, I do not have another 20 years left to recruit your son, yes, my boy, you will have a son, I have seen it.” Antoine Levy discovered his father’s true name was also Khmeleva, but was legally changed to Levy at the behest of Lillian, his mother. Lillian did not want her husband and son involved in the vile business of the Khmeleva family, even if they were descended from an ancient royal bloodline.

Antoine’s mission was to claim his rightful place as heir to the throne of a mysterious and ancient order of Gypsies. Roman Levy, Antoine’s father was recruited for this very task and failed because Lillian Levy insisted on traveling to Romania and provided enough of a distraction to prove fatal to both. Antoine could not even begin to wrap his mind around the things Uncle Val revealed, it was madness. His was to travel to the land of his ancestors, challenge the “usurper” as Uncle Val called him, and, if necessary, kill him. The fact the Usurper was responsible for his parents’ deaths was quite an enticement.

Because Antoine had always been open and honest with Sheila, the next day, he shared everything with her. As insane as the tale Antoine weaved sounded, Sheila knew this was just the opportunity she had been praying for. While Antoine was busy learning about his past, Sheila had been busy dealing with hers and made a life changing decision.

Sheila, days earlier, not really knowing what to do with the life growing inside her, found herself in a crisis pregnancy center, looking for options. This particular pregnancy center was run by folks from a local church and after a couple of hours of counseling and prayer, Sheila was not only committed to keeping the baby but made a commitment to give her life to Jesus Christ.

After sharing her exciting news with Antoine, Sheila saw the turmoil in her fiancé’s eyes. She shared everything the counselor had spoken to her, and, as a result, Antoine was more conflicted than ever. On one hand, the things Sheila shared sparked a longing in his heart he had never experienced and on the other hand he was seriously considering the mission of vengeance and murder for which Uncle Val had recruited him.

That night, Antoine’s dreams were fraught with images of death and life. In his dream, his Uncle Val flew in like a giant bat, enticing him to give in to his anger and bitterness to claim what was rightfully his; while Sheila appeared as an angel calling him to a warm and glowing light promising forgiveness and freedom from the need for vengeance. He did not realize this was more than a mere decision, this was a spiritual battle for his very soul.

What Lillian Levy knew and Sheila suspected was Uncle Val was a master of dark arts and Antoine’s birthright was to rule over a coven of witches. Sheila prayed all night as evil fought for the heart of the man she loved. Antoine awoke in a cold sweat, crying out to a God he barely believed in, asking for a sign. Dimly at first, a light entered his window and grew in intensity, lighting up the cherished photograph of his parents on the wall across from his bed. In the photo, his mother’s visage shone much like Sheila had in his dream. With an inexplicable urgency, Antoine jumped out of bed and for the first time in his life, knelt down and prayed. As he prayed for forgiveness and committed himself to Jesus, he felt all the heaviness and darkness Uncle Val cast over his soul evaporate.

A few hundred miles away, Valentino Khmeleva gripped at his evil shriveled heart as the dark spirit which sustained his life fled like a rat leaving a sinking ship. Khmeleva was no longer of any use to his dark master and was tossed aside like a bag of dung. His last thoughts were a powerless curse directed toward his still praying nephew.

New Site for a Village Sought by F. F. Burwick 901 words

“You will never return here again!” Agrohlin, the huge interbred man giant called out at the small group of men, women, and children who hurried off with the few possessions they could from their homes as Agrohlin’s troop gathered into that small village overlooking the river valley.

There was no way the people who had lived here for more than a dozen generations in peace and apparent security could be prepared for battling the invaders from the other side of the mountains, who had descended quickly from those mountains toward the village while it was yet morning of that spring day. Agrohlin had called out from an overlooking hill the warning to them that his forces would now occupy that village and any who remained when his forces entered into the village would be slain.

Jogarno and the forty four people with him needed to find a place that would provide them immediate shelter. There was no place known to them like the village of huts made against the cliffside which they had just lost to that invasion. They would look persistently but it could be a long search for such, which they really could not afford. And they continued traversing along the stretch of the valley through that day.

Jogarno’s sister said to him, “There is no place good for new homes to us near enough that we can there this day, is there?”

Jogarno said, “I do not want to think like that, we get by doing what we have to do, but the area we were familiar with did not have any other spot good for our homes as what we had. We will go on, keep looking out.”

Further along in the narrow valley they came near to a densely growing forest. This would not serve them. Jogarno called to the others, “Let us go around on this side, to go around it rather than trying to pass through that dense growth.”

The others agreed readily, and they went to the side a little uphill to go around that. As Jorgarno and the people of his village came nearer to the end of that long length of forest, they saw an ape coming out from the trees at their side, toward them. Jogarno instructed the others, “Stay close together, and if this creature comes close, yell and make a lot of noise, that should drive this animal away.”

“Peace,” the ape, a creature with soft fur of light brown and green streaks, with a mild expression in a dark skinned face, and with a medallion hanging from around the neck, said to them, “I am a guardian ape. You are people fleeing from your homes, and you need a new place to come to, that will serve you as well as the homes that were your own, which will be even more safe. I can give you help. Come, one of you, and take this help being offered.” The guardian ape reached for the medallion, and worked it open, and brought out a papery material, folded small that enabled it to be kept there. The guardian ape held it out.

Jogarno came forward, cautiously, until he was near enough to reach for what was held out. He asked then, “What do you want from us in return?”

The guardian ape said, “This that I let you have will show you the way to where you will have homes safe and with abundant supply of what you need to provide for yourselves, and you will learn to have needed things keep growing there. Giving you this will free me and those living here of worrying about the lost out here driven away without knowing where to go.”

Jogarno unfolded the papery material and saw on it a map of this area adequately portrayed to recognize, with the forest area in the middle. He could see from it that going a little further, shown on there, there was a narrow passage through high hills and mountainous terrain further on, to the right of their direction ahead, which turned in away out from sight while leaving it to look like a short dead end from outside that passage. In the hidden area there was plenty of open space though. There was yet a stream which flowed down that way to join the river flowing down along the middle of the valley.

Jogarno said, “Thank you, this will really help us immensely. We will go that way indicated on here. I must say I am so surprised you can speak to us to help us.”

The guardian ape said, “You should always take into account that there are ways purposely provided for you. Even that I and the others of my kind being here where we might be of help to lost ones, as you are, is such a provision. And we are more intelligent than we may look to you, with a superior way to speak to other minds.”

Jogarno said, “This really means a whole lot to us. We will go on, now, to find that place.” Jogarno returned to the others of his community again, and indicated to them he had learned to watch for a passage from this valley, that looked short, but would have a hidden way further in that would be out of sight from others, where they could have their homes and grow things there.

Devastation of Michael
1021 words

Sometimes I just want to relax, watch the birds fly in and out of the trees, and appreciate the beauty of it. There have been a few things that have prevented my goal of making my back yard into a paradise. A big one was Hurricane Michael.

Flashback

My husband Bob and I braced ourselves against the glass sliding door as we faced hurricane strength winds. As the winds pushed the glass door inward, I looked up at the framing above to see a large crack appear and disappear then reappear again with each forceful gust. Pine cones struck the glass in front of us like balls sent from a canon. How long had we stood there and faced the monster known as Hurricane Michael?
Twenty-four hours earlier, we received the news that Michael had entered the Gulf of Mexico. I had previously planned a trip to Tennessee to go alone to visit my mother and her husband.
But I would not abandon my husband to survive a hurricane by himself.

I called my mother to cancel my trip. I cried on the phone because I had so looked forward to it. After all, it had been five years since I’d seen her. But she understood. Then Bob and I took to task of boarding just the front windows. In the past we customarily boarded the side windows of the bedroom and bathroom and also the back glass sliding door. We made the mistake, like many Floridians of not boarding up entirely. Like many locals, we misjudged the potential strength of this hurricane.
I had worked many years in my backyard garden. I had three palms, a number of elaeagnus shrubs along the privacy fence, a huge century plant, a magnolia tree, a pine tree, an angel fountain, and a bricked in flower bed. Beyond our privacy fence there were many lush green trees. Little did we know that all of this would change in a matter of hours.

It was October 10, 2018. By the time Michael reached the Panama City, Florida coast, it was a category 5 hurricane. We knew we were in trouble and should’ve completely boarded up. We spent several hours with our hands braced against the glass door to the back yard. We witnessed the fury of the hurricane as it toppled trees from across the road that landed on power lines and eventually on our property. We watched our 2-story tall pine tree bend to the left and right without breaking; it didn’t crash on our house like so many other homes were damaged by trees in the area. All the while I was declaring in prayer, “Shalom! Peace be still!” Meanwhile, water had entered our house and was pouring out of air-conditioning ducts. The worst was in a hallway near the front door. Thankfully Bob had gotten a large trash can to catch the water. But water was pouring in through the skylight several feet away from this in a bathroom.

Many people who had Virgin mobile phone service lost connection during the hurricane. Fortunately, I had Metro PC; I was able to see Michael on the My Radar app as it traveled through and left the state. I placed a claim call to our home owners’ insurance agent before Michael had left the state. When it was over, it was as if a bomb had been dropped. So many trees covered the road that we were trapped in our neighborhood. Power lines were down everywhere. Privacy fences were flat on the ground. Shingles were missing from every house. Vehicles were damaged on the bodies and windows from flying debris such as the shingles; one vehicle was flipped upside down. We lost palm trees and pine trees too damaged to save. Michael picked up my angel fountain and hurled the bottom of it into the unknown. The next few days were spent picking up piles of shingles and pine cones and cutting broken privacy fencing to set out for pick up by the county. We’d have to work to regain our back yard garden again, our piece of heaven.

We went a week without water and electricity. A nearby pond provided some water to wash our dishes and flush the toilets. Thankfully, I’m a hoarder of plastic bottles which came in very handy for having set aside drinking water. The National Guard dispensed MRE meals in the parking lot of a nearby school. They also dispensed tarp for our houses. Before the week was up, my brother showed up unannounced bearing gifts: a large pumpkin, a case of trail mix granola bars and other food items, two large commercial flashlights, a generator, and some gasoline. That is the most loving, unselfish thing my brother had ever done for us. It helped lighten the load for sure.

After the electricity and water were restored, it was a small waiting period to begin employment with a company I had applied for before the hurricane. It was a blessing in disguise. The recovery efforts have been slow and sometimes disheartening. A two-story house on my street is still wrapped in tarp two and a half years after Michael due to a pending law suit for damage claims while a small house still has a tree on top of it a little ways from here, and the owner sleeps in a small travel trailer. Churches still stand broken and abandoned; commercial properties are empty, covered with only concrete foundations and parking blocks; houses stand abandoned with tall weeds in the yard.

And then the Covid-19 hit the US and the world.

Sometimes I’m glad for the lockdown and social distancing since my view out of my window is a forest beyond my neighborhood filled with large, dead looking trees with stubby branches erect or leaning. My back yard garden is still my oasis from the world. I also receive encouragement from God’s word and his promises such as “For I know the plans I have for you”, declares the LORD. “Plans to prosper you and not harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
Jeremiah 29:11

DRAGONS OF THE BALIC MOUNTAINS
by terry turner 1439 words

In the early predawn light, the wizard, Excabar, gazed out of his tower window over the mass of destruction from the night before. He had come to a decision while nervously twisting the large turquoise ring on his spindly finger. His sense of hearing was not good but his eyesight had not diminished over the passing years and what he saw disturbed him.

His mind drifted back to the first day when his village was invaded by dragons and his people lived in fear for their lives. Their homes were destroyed on regular basis and their farms burned. He tried hard to forget those times when his people dealt with starvation and atrocities but recent events had dredged those memories up again.

The latest attack was beyond imagination. Many of the villagers had died and children abducted. Over the past years, he had ordered a tower to be built to accommodate the villagers and their children. A safe haven for the people to wait out the attacks which he knew would surely come again. The tower had deep cellars where the animals were housed and a large well supplied by a mountain stream was fed into an inside well. When the attacks stopped, they would leave the tower and life could resume.

But the wizard knew this could not go on indefinitely. His life was coming to an end and it was with this thought in mind that he brought Mazarina into his life.

Mazarina had been born without sight on the eve when the three moons had aligned and had been given the gift of magic. As a young girl, Excabar cast a spell on her which restored her sight and diligently instructed his protege over the years to rule his people upon his death.

Mazarina quietly watched her master from the far side of the tower room and began to wonder when the village elders would converge on their door demanding to know why the wizard had not dealt with the dragons before now. She watched as tears trickled down her master’s bony cheeks.

“Isn’t there anything you can do to stop this reign of terror master?”

His beautiful long-time protege and companion for over 100 years stood motionless waiting for the wizard’s answer.

The wizard stopped stroking his long white beard and turned to face Mazarina.

What is it, master?

Dragons were born of wizardry thousands of years ago and now we wizards have no power over them. I need to send you to find out about these dragons. I need to know if this is one of the green Balic mountain dragons or one of the red dragons who dwell in the sea cliffs. It could be very dangerous and I no longer have the power to protect you. I am growing weak, my child.

After hearing the old wizard’s plan, Mazarina agreed, and that evening when the three moons climbed into the sky, she made her way to stand on the edge of the abyss searching the sky for any sign of the monster dragon. On the third night, his black silhouette hovered before the moons, then he swooped over the abyss in front of her. Again and again, he circled her each time coming closer until his great dark shape landed beside her.

Mazarina screamed and ran toward a nearby cave but the great dragon spread his wings and stopped her retreat. He spat skyward a long plume of fire so hot that Mazarina felt the heat on her face. The dragon then lowered its head and bowed before her.

“Be not afraid beautiful maiden,” the green dragon said to her. “The destruction of your village was not caused by the dragons of the Balic mountains. I have come to bring you a gift. Give it to your master. He will know what to do with it.”

With that, he reached under his wing with his long neck and pulled out a gold box placing it on the ground before her. Then he leaped from the cliff, stretched his powerful wings, and soared into the night sky.

As instructed, Mazarina delivered the gold box to Excabar and told him everything the dragon had said. The wizard listened quietly to every word that was spoken. When he opened the box, he recoiled with his hand over his mouth.

“What is it, master?”

“It is a Cryote Crystal. I have only seen drawings and was told that they were no longer in existence. It is a powerful orb that could destroy any dragon within its range when required.”

“How do we get it within the red dragon’s range, master?”

Excabar turned a sad face to Mazarina.

“You must do it, my child. I have a plan. The red dragons will attack again while the three moons are aligned and tonight is the last night before the moons start to wane. They will return again tonight and you must be on the edge of the abyss with the crystal.”

At dusk, the wizard gave Mazarina a strong potion, kissed her forehead, and spoke of his love for her.

“You have been like a daughter to me, my child. Whatever happens tonight, know that you will always have a place in my heart.”

Tears streamed down the old wizard’s face as he watched Mazarina walk across the marketplace below. She paused for a moment to look back toward the tower window from where she knew Excabar was watching. Then, she quickly ran for the path that would take her to the abyss. Excabar fell to the floor with a high-pitched, mournful cry. He tore at his hair and shouted “what have I done.”

Standing on the rim of the abyss, cold and afraid, she wondered what mysterious energy had brought her to that place and why. Her mind was a dreamscape. The potion was working its magic. Thousands of feet below, a river of molten rock, red, yellow, and orange, flowed slowly but purposefully toward the sea. Her long auburn hair and the sheer white veil that covered her naked body floated gently on the warm sulfide air current that was rising from below.

Then, from out of the starry night sky, a fiery snake-like creature with scaly legs and bat like-wings swooped over the abyss in front of her. It was the red dragon.

The beast circled high in the moon-lit sky and then dived again. This time he came closer and sniffed the air as he passed. He is a wise old dragon who has been around for hundreds of years. He will not be easily fooled. If he suspects that she is a pretender, he will knock her off the ledge into the abyss with his long barbed tail.

Again the dragon circled and this time she saw him coming straight at her. A jet of fire erupted from his angry mouth. She braced herself for what was to come and held the Cryote Crystal high over her head.

Then, from out of the shadows the old wizard rushed to Mazarina’s side, pushed her to the ground, and took the crystal from her hands. The dragon grabbed the wizard with his clawed front foot jerking him off the ledge with a jolt.

Mazarina watch in horror as the dragon flew over the molten lava with Excabar dangling helplessly from the dragon’s powerful grip. Its flight path took them out to sea before returning to the cliff cave where the other red dragons had gathered to ready themselves for their nightly raid on the village.

Mazarina was stunned as she laid on the ground watching the dragon disappear into the distance. “This is not how the plan was supposed to go,” she cried out knowing she had just lost her master and life long friend.

Then she shuddered breathlessly when the ground beneath her shook and she saw a great ball of fire and smoke rise from the cliffs where the red dragons lived.

It was then she noticed a familiar silhouette against the lunar glow. Her heart pounded. Her mind was confused. The dark shadow came closer and shortly the green dragon again landed on the cliff next to her.

“Do not be sad, Mazarena, for the great wizard has provided for your future. He sent a messenger to the Balic mountains yesterday with his magic ring and a message. He has asked that I deliver the ring of enlightenment to you which will give you all the power and knowledge that the ring has gathered and stored for hundreds of years. You must use it wisely to reign over the land. Know the green dragons of the Balic mountains will always be your friends.”

The Half-Empty Glass 841 words

I’m happiest when I’m miserable so stop trying to cheer me up. Nothing depresses me more than forced joy. If I hear once more that cliché stating that we use up more calories frowning than smiling, I’ll probably try to end it all. I’m actually getting more exercise by being depressed, so leave me alone.

In Candide, Voltaire’s Dr Pangloss stays eternally optimistic no matter how wretched his existence gets. He says we are living in ‘the best of all possible Worlds.’ What a twerp. Dante’s Inferno would be better than Preston, Lancashire under lockdown.

No one I know died today, which means the despair of losing more of my loved ones is still to come unless I die first and make them feel sad. The volcano didn’t erupt today – Hoo-bloody-ray. It might erupt tomorrow or the day after. I wish I lived near a volcano, so I can say I told you so as the lava buries us all. I’m tempted to move to San Francisco, ready for the big one, the quake they know is imminent. I have to settle for the more mediocre regret of not being there for it though. I just can’t get unhappy enough these days.
Still, enough about me. You say your wife left you and took the kids. Oh how I envy you …..

****

“Well, Harry, that’s the ‘for training purposes only’ recording of your last call handling someone contacting the helpline here at Reach-A-Friend. Not really the kind of message you ought to be giving out is it?”

“I’m terribly sorry. Am I to guess you are going to fire me, Mr Walkington?”

“I ought to, but given what you are saying to our clients, you might actually welcome dismissal, and yet also be bitterly disappointed if we keep you on and make you work harder. You are supposed to inspire optimism, not wallow in your own existential angst to leave the poor shmucks dialling in thinking you have it ten times worse than they do. If you ask me, you ought to be phoning us up, not receiving and responding to the calls. God knows how your latest client feels about his life now.

Trouble is, if I sack you then you might well exploit your dismissal to fuel your masochistic pessimism even further and it wouldn’t look good for us if we got reported as unable to keep our own staff happy in their jobs. Then again, keeping you on might mean a massive increase in client suicides, and needs for therapy, drugs like Prozac, etc. I really don’t know what to do with you. Maybe you need to just watch a few sitcoms and feelgood movies. Get drunk, have some sex. Lighten up a bit. Try smiling for once. Live a little.“

“I had a go at smiling once. I put a wire coat hanger in my mouth to force my lips to curl up to ten to two.”
“Obviously it didn’t work.”

“No, I could barely talk, everyone thought I had dental braces and the edge of the hanger sprang out and cut my tongue.”

“It was a pretty dumb thing to do.”

“I know. Everyone laughed at me including the doctors who treated me for the Tetanus poisoning.”

“At least you made someone else happy then.”

“But I don’t want to do that. Why should others enjoy life when I don’t?”

“That’s like a soldier marching out of step expecting the entire platoon to follow the pattern of movements he makes instead of conforming to the norm.”

“I’d have to be brainwashed to be more like everyone else.”

“So you put on this deadpan extreme individualism act to give yourself an identity and stand out from the crowd. You’re a phoney. Your gloominess is a façade and an act, like Harpo Marx pretending he couldn’t speak whenever he was in public.”

“He could talk? Oh no, that ruins the illusion for me. I’ll never be amused by those old films again. You’ve robbed me of one of the few pleasures life could still throw my way.”

“Right, well, this is all getting terribly rhetorical and philosophical. I think you are just being awkward, a maverick trying to go against the rules. It makes you too much of an anarchist to trust dealing with the kind of counselling we offer. I’ve decided it is for the best if I let you go. I hope you’ll fare better with any future employment. Good luck. “

“I understand Sir, and this isn’t the first time this has happened to me so I bear you no grudges. Thank you for giving me the opportunity.”

“I’m curious as to where you worked before? Were you fired for being a bad-vibes merchant then too?”

“No, I made people laugh, smile and dance.”

“]You were a stand-up comedian?”

“No, I was an under-taker. They expected me to take things seriously. After they fired me I practiced on sad. I guess I over did it a bit, don’t you?”

Arthur Chappell

Battle of the Bellies
Travis Jackson
1429 words

Connie walked through a large crowd of locals, most of whom chanted her name. As they parted before her, she spotted Mayor Sumberlin on a large wooden stage, dusting his black suit off before pointing at her. To his right stood a 360-pound sumo wrestler, who crossed his arms and smirked as she approached. Looking above them, she saw a 20-foot-wide white sign, the words “Edrei Texas Eating Contest” on it in fat blue letters. Stopping, Connie looked right and then left, hearing people talk to her, feeling them patting her back. As the sumo wrestler shook his head, Connie looked down.

“You hungry?” she said to her unborn baby. The baby kicked in reply. Patting her massive belly, which her blue shirt could never hope to cover, Connie looked back up at the stage, locking eyes with the sumo wrestler.

“Good. Me too.”

Refusing help from a man in the crowd, Connie walked up the stage’s oak steps, grunting and putting a hand on her lower back. Reaching the top, she turned, waddling over to the mayor. As the mayor grabbed a mic and backed away, Connie approached the sumo wrestler, once again locking eyes with her gargantuan opponent.

“Alrighty, now!” Mayor Sumberlin said, readjusting his glasses and then his hear aid,

“Everything else in our 200th annual Edrei Texas festival has been just festivities, but now…we get down to serious business!”

The crowd cheered, hand claps sending squirrels darting out of nearby trees. Behind them, a Ferris wheel stood idle, the last of its passengers getting out.

“Now, we all know that most of those who signed up for this contest got food poisoning over at Kublai Joe’s Bar-be-cue. However, it’s all for the better, as we now have a serious duel between two big eaters, a true heavyweight match!”

Connie gasped, gawking at Mayor Sumberlin. The sumo wrestler also turned to the mayor, his eyes narrowing. “Really?” he said. Clearing his throat, the mayor put his arthritic hand on the mic.
“Come on, guys, I’m selling this. Just go with it.”

As Connie and the sumo wrestler looked at each other, both still in shock, the mayor removed his hand.

“Today, one of these homegrown residents of Edrei, Texas, will go home with ten gift cards to our local Burrito Inferno restaurant, as well as a cash prize of one thousand dollars! So, who will win? Will it be…what was your sumo name again?”

“Kotetsu No shiro.” The sumo wrestler said. The mayor hesitated, then put his hand on the mic again.

“Can’t I just call you by your old name? Billy-?”

“Kotetsu No shiro!” The sumo wrestler said, raising an eyebrow. His elderly bones slightly shaking, the mayor removed his hand.

“Will it be Kotetsu No Shiro, the local boy who went to Japan, became grand champion, and returned home to compete in the American Sumo League?”

The sumo wrestler raised his hands, eliciting numerous cheers. Before they silenced, Connie noticed several people holding up smartphones, recording the clash to come. She also noticed several reporters and cameramen in the crowd, the former speaking into their mics. She shook her head, laughing a little.

“Or…will it be Connie Walker, Edrei’s very own librarian, who is 40 weeks pregnant?” The mayor said.
As the crowd shouted, voicing its conflicting opinions, the mayor lifted his hand.

“Well, are you two ready for a BIG supper?” the mayor said, looking first over at Kotetsu. Bowing up, the sumo wrestler took a step forwards, his belly sloshing under his green sleeveless shirt.

“I’m as ready as my Choctaw ancestors were before a battle, Mayor Sumberlin!” Kotetsu said, sweat flowing down his thick forehead.

Before the mayor could turn to her, Connie took a step forward, glaring as her belly pressed against Kotetsu’s.

“Let’s eat!” Connie said.

The crowd thundered. Eyeing them both, the mayor backed away.

“Well okay, take your seats.”

Both contestants walked over to separate red wooden benches, each of which had plates filled with pizza slices, Tacos, chow mein, pumpkin pie slices and jelly filled doughnuts. Each table also bore four water bottles, several napkins and two forks. As both Kotetsu and Connie sat down, a sheriff walked up to the stage, nodding to the mayor.

“Now, everyone, what are the rules?” The mayor said, putting his hand to his ear as the sheriff looked at his watch, the afternoon sun glinting off his silver hair.

“Eat for five minutes! Whoever eats the most is the winner! Wait for the signal to start!” the crowd said. The mayor gave them a thumbs up.

“Speaking of that signal…Sheriff Brown?” The mayor said, turning around. Nodding, the sheriff pulled out his .357 magnum and fired it into the air.

“Get it on!” several in the crowd said.

Moving as fast as a rattlesnake strike, Connie grabbed two tacos, taking quick bites out of each. Kotetsu went after his pizza, unleashing his teeth. In under a minute each had finished off an entire plate.

“Come on, Connie!” someone in the crowd yelled.

“Get rid of those plates, Billy!” another person said. Kotetsu glared at the crowd, irritated at the sound of his former name.

Three minutes into the gluttonous equivalent of a high noon, the contestants showing no signs of strain, no signs of getting full. As plates emptied the crowd grew larger, with many placing bets. The reporters talked to the cameras, though their voices were drowned out by the crowd as both Connie and Kotetsu continued to pig out, their considerable bellies growing even larger.

After the fourth minute, Connie began to feel full.

“No, no, I have to continue.” She said, taking a bite of a slice of pumpkin pie. As the final minute dragged on, she found it harder and harder to munch, while her opponent continued to eat at the same pace. Not going to win, not going to win, she thought, grabbing another piece of pie.

Suddenly, her baby kicked.

Connie’s eyes widened, her little one inadvertently sending her a message.

“Of course, I’ll win.” She thought, her smile growing,

“He’s only eating for one. I’m eating for two!”

Suddenly feeling hungry again, she took nearly the entire slice into her mouth.

“Come on, guys, time’s almost up!” The mayor said, before looking over at the sheriff. The sheriff looked at his watch, pulling his revolver out.

“You can do it! You can do it!” the crowd chanted, as both Connie and Kotetsu ate faster than ever, their faces coated in pizza sauce, grease and pie filling. The louder the crowd became, the faster they ate, encouraged by the sounds of over two hundred people calling out their names.

“Connie! Connie! Connie!”

“Kotetsu! Come on, Kotetsu!”

“Twenty seconds…” the Sheriff said, looking at his watch.

Her hunger now ravenous, Connie tackled the doughnuts, the only food left on her plates. Taking a quick glance at Kotetsu, she noticed that he likewise had only doughnuts left. She barely chewed, often swallowing the moment she took food into her mouth. Her baby kicked repeatedly, almost as if he or she were cheering her on as she continued to obliterate her doughnuts.

The sheriff raised his revolver.

“Ten seconds!” he said.

I can do it, I can do it, she thought, rolling her eyes and almost snarling as she ate. She ignored the crowd as they commenced the countdown, powering down two more doughnuts.

As she reached for another, the sheriff fired.

The crowd cheered, clapping with the mayor as both Connie and Kotetsu lifted their hands. As they drank water and sighed, the mayor looked at their plates.

Kotetsu had only two doughnuts left.

Connie…had one.

As Kotetsu looked at Connie in shock, the mayor grabbed her arm and lifted it.

“You’re winner! Connie Walker!”

Applause erupted as Connie wiped her face with a napkin and then struggled to get up. Finally managing to rise, she waddled to the front of the stage, the mayor still holding her hand. Wiping his own face and tossing his stained napkin aside, Kotetsu got up and walked over to her. After waving to the crowd, Connie turned, seeing him standing right before her. His face like stone, Kotetsu extended his huge hand.

“Congratulations.” Kotetsu said. Slightly smiling, she took it.

“Thank you.”

“You are a worthy opponent, as well as a beautiful woman. Your husband is one lucky man.”

Turning her body until her belly wasn’t pointing to him, Connie put her arms around his neck and pulled him down.

“Course you are, hubby.” She said, planting a kiss.