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Our October Flash Contest was based on Prompt #223 (provided by Stone Soup contributor Molly Torinus), which asked that participants randomly choose a word from the dictionary and use that word to start their story or poem. A welcome change from some of our more specific prompts, this open-ended prompt led to far and away the most submissions we've ever received for a Flash Contest: 62! As such, it felt fitting to select six winners and six honorable mentions instead of the usual five. Among the plethora of submissions was a poem that plumbed the depths of mythological oceanic lore, a story written from the perspective of a creature who claimed to live inside of computers, and a story featuring a race against time in which the dwindling hours punctuated every section of the narrative. As always, we thank all who submitted and encourage you to submit again next month!

In particular, we congratulate our Winners and our Honorable Mentions, whose work you can appreciate below.

Winners
“Ghost Ash" by Josie Barrer, 11
“Finding Permanence" by Joshua Gordon, 13
“Uranomancy" by Emma Hoff, 10
“The Dream" by Mika Lim, 12
“Bittersweet Star" by Vanaja Raju, 11
“Plum" by Melody You, 12

Honorable Mentions
“Reunited" by Wenonah Brewer-Nyborg, 12
“The Countdown" by Sophie Li, 11
“Football" by Jeremy Lim, 10
“Orange" by Lui Lung, 13
“Fathom the Depths" by Nova Macknik-Conde, 11
“Into Your Computer" by Aryaman Majumder, 11


Ghost Ash

Josie Barrer, 11

Hypnotized by the alluring mountains before me, I stepped toward the edge of the cliff. The anabatic flow balanced out the humidity in the air. The trees confined the moonlight, also blocking the clear sky and the vacant clouds. The stars glistened in the empty night sky. Words could not describe the view that was put before me.

I turned my back toward the breath-taking sight. The woods stretched far beyond the eye could see. The trees came apart at a narrow trail, creating a path for me to jog. I stopped suddenly, as the path before me turned to darkness. An icy chill sent a shiver down my spine. The campsite where I stayed for the night seemed to be miles away.

“Dad!” I shouted, in a desperate wail of help.

I froze, as the bush right beside me moved. I had an insecure feeling I was being watched. A faded body, shining in the dark night rose from the bushes. It wore a white cloth and its face was expressionless. I was too terrified to move. My heart and breathing stopped as the mysterious creature lurked before me. Reality snapped back to me and I ran down into the darkness. I tumbled and landed on the hard, rocky surface. I screamed. A loud and deafening scream.

The human-like creature floated toward me, noiselessly. It rose higher into the sky and now came directly above me.

It looked down at me for a harsh second. I closed my eyes and turned my head to the floor. I waited, a second, then a minute, then turned to see a pile of dust on the ground.


Finding Permanence

Joshua Gordon, 13

Permanent. That’s what I thought my life would be. I thought I would always have my loving mother’s sweet giggle, my lionhearted father’s bellowing laugh, Jack the dog’s big slobbery kisses, and me in the middle of it all in our small blue house on Elm Avenue, smiling until my mouth hurt. But, back then, I was just an innocent little kindergartener, unaware of the impending disaster. That disaster was the car accident.

I was safely snuggled up in bed, sleeping, when my parents died. Somewhere along Highway 20, an intoxicated driver slammed into my father’s van coming home from an evening party. It was all over in a few minutes. That’s all the police at the front door could say before my wailing drowned out their voices that told me what they had told so many other people, not stopping even when their strong arms picked me up and hurried me into their car. That was the end of my life at Elm Avenue.

As I moved from foster home to foster home, from Birch Street to Oak Boulevard to Maple Way, each night I lay on my back, unable to sleep in the alien environment, picturing that fateful night. The swerving car, the unsuspecting van, the ambulances and police cars with sirens blaring, rushing to the scene to try to save my parents. How they couldn’t.

Now, once again, I was being relocated, as the woman in her white uniform informed me. Relocated like an object, I thought. An object nobody wants. This time, the reason was that my foster father had accidentally overwatered my beloved ficus plant. I had, of course, been reasonably mad. I just might have been too mad. One thing led to another, and he decided that caring for a foster child was too much work. In an instant, that impermanent life was gone forever.

A gentle knock on the door startled me from my thoughts. I gingerly placed my new Boston fern that I had been clutching in my lap on the waiting room desk. I inhaled deeply, then slowly let the air out through my nose. I had done this before, but that same nervousness possessed me every time, that small flicker of hope impossible to extinguish that my new parents might truly love me. “Come in,” I squeaked feebly.

The door swung open, revealing a single woman. Her short blond hair fell in curls to her spotless white lab coat. Our eyes met for a few seconds, and I realized she was almost as nervous as I was. Then she spoke.

“What a nice specimen of Nephrolepis exaltata!” She exclaimed, noticing the plant on the table next to me. “Did you know that, according to old folk tales, Boston ferns are a sign that there are fairies nearby?” She looked around as if the stories were real before turning back to me. “So, you’re a quiet one. Well, my name is Jen. I will be your new mother.”

I stared at her, overwhelmed by everything she had just said. “Oh, my lab coat? I came here directly from my botany job a few miles north of here. I love all plants but especially pteridophytes — ferns and other similar species. I’m basically a plant nerd!” She finished her sentence and gasped for breath. “Sorry — I talk quickly when I’m excited.”

“I like plants too,” I whispered hesitantly.

“What was that?” Jen asked, leaning closer to me.

“I like plants too,” I blurted.

Her mouth curved into a small smile, then a big one. “Well, then we have something in common...”

“Oliver,” I said before she could even ask the question. Awkwardly rising from my chair, I tried a tentative smile, turning the corners of my mouth upward ever so slightly. I picked up my Boston fern and we walked, side by side, through the exit. But best of all, as my new mother and I left, I had a feeling that I would never be seeing that waiting room again. I had a feeling — just a feeling — that this time would truly be permanent.


Uranomancy

Emma Hoff, 10

Uranomancy
is the empyreal
shape in the moon
which you say is
a sign that strangely
resembles your head,
glowing in the seeing basin
filled with your mini, silver pet ocean,
in which you divine everything - you will wander
into a forest, alone, and look up at the sky and see nothing
but your glorious face - but this is wrong, it is a signal that your life
is over, and that you have already explored the whole universe, that you have
nothing to breathe for anymore, so you scream as you stare into the water - why do you keep walking?

Uranomancy
is a dangerous practice.


The Dream

Mika Lim, 12

Dreams. What are they, really?  


The doctor clearly doesn’t believe her. It’s evident from the look of pity on her face, pity she’s become accustomed to over the years, ever since she was ten. Why is she even wasting her time here, anyway? There’s nothing wrong with her. Nothing. 

“Sir, I believe your daughter merely has an overactive imagination,” the doctor says kindly, like too-sweet syrup, the kind she hates. “If she has problems with sleeping normally, there are a few pills I can prescribe. And if–"

“Thank you, but I believe that won’t be necessary. I appreciate your, ah, time.” Her father stands up. “Let’s go.” He directs this to her, and she follows him out of the room without comment. She never wanted to be here anyway. 


It’s all because of the Dreams. Once, she had normal dreams, dreams you wake up from knowing it is just a dream, nothing more, eventually forgetting about it, no matter how exhilarating it had been in the dream. But then, somehow, it changed. 

She still remembers the day she first walked into a Dream. It was only when her father had woken up in the middle of the night when she had been screaming that she realized something was not right. But not wrong either. 

Especially as her screaming was to be continued for many nights after, though not for long periods of time. Personally, she feels her father’s snoring is louder. 

Perhaps the only reason why her father deemed it different form any other nightmare was that she had been standing in her sleep for the past few nights. 

But she knows that he’s gotten it all wrong. It isn’t a sleeping disorder. Since the time she’s become fully conscious of the Dreams, they have become clearer in her mind, more memorable, more interesting, something to look forward to. 

Of course, she knows her father doesn’t really care. After her mother died, it has been just the two of them, and it is obvious that he wishes she would just disappear, from the way he avoids her gaze. She isn’t even sure if he has ever cared, even back then.  

Still, he does his best to appear as the doting, loving father. He’s always ready to buy her anything she wants, just that he isn’t ready to spend time with her, not even after all these years. He appears at school events, in a suit and tie, beaming proudly, but at home the silence is suffocating. 

She misses her old life. The bullying she faces every day in school, the constant whispers behind her back – “Weirdo,” “Loser,” “Nerd." But now, at least, she has something, a source of comfort. Dreams. And she’s become more than an Observer. She is in the dream, exploring and adventuring, hating the moment the alarm clock rings and brings her back to a different kind of reality. 

As impossible as it sounds, the Dreams are real. She can feel it in her bones. She is surer about it than anything else.  


One night, she enters another dream. The air is cool, and she is at the same spot as always, where the purple flowers bloom. A blue-eyed boy appears out of nowhere, startling her. 

“Who are you?” he looks at her warily. 

“I’m a girl in a dream.” She doesn’t need to tell him anything about herself. The Dreams are a time where she can be anyone. 

“Fair enough. I’m just a boy in a dream, too.” 

“Wait, what?” she hasn’t met anyone, nor anything, who is also in a dream. No, they are all in the land of dreams, where they all belong.   

“Yeah.” The boy shrugs with a small smile on his face. “It happens, you know? So where do you come from?” 

She doesn’t reply his question. Instead, she walks away and looks at him over her shoulder. “You coming?” she calls. 

He catches up with her in a few steps, and they walk off into another dream. It seems that he is well-versed with the land of dreams – he knows almost all of the shortcuts to get around the place.  

It seems like mere seconds have passed before the dream draws to a close. She can tell because the dream is getting blurrier, and she feels the invisible force pulling her out of it, a force so strong it feels like she is floating. Then the sounds that are definitely not from inside dreams come, and the boy fades from her vision. It’s another day of school. 

From then onwards, it becomes a sort of routine in the dreams. They meet every night in that same spot and go on the adventures together. They face off dragons, zombies, become invisible, discover a never-ending hallway, stop a war unintentionally, and other things that can fill up a book. 

And it feels good to have someone with her in the Dreams. It isn’t only the feeling of knowing that someone can relate to the Dreams, but also having a friend – something she’s been missing for a long while. 

For a while, everything is alright. Gradually, through the numerous adventures and mysteries and nights of dreaming, they begin to slowly open up to each other. Things they have went through spill out. It’s nice not having to be on your guard with someone else all the time.  

Time passes, not too much time to make a difference, but enough time for one to notice. About five months have passed. 

The Dreams are getting even better, even weirder, but still better.  

It’s another night, another Dream. Again, they set off into the unknown, ready for another adventure as usual. Her hair is blowing back in the wind as they run up slopes into the distance. Her eyesight is perfect, even though she isn’t wearing glasses. Dreams will be dreams, after all, only making sense to a certain point.  

“Look, there’s a monster!” the boy calls out, pointing a finger skyward. 

Just as she looks upwards to see what he is talking about, she can feel something sucking her out of the Dream, back to the unwelcome comfort of her bedroom. Before she has time to react, to say anything, she is already out of the Dream. 

The next night, she has Dreamless sleep. And so on for the next. 

And the next. 

And the next. 

And the next.  

It is so dumbfounding, so unexplainable, so abrupt, that she spends days and days thinking about it. Over time, dreaming has become an invaluable part of her life, but it’s not like anyone else — except for the boy — would understand. She misses her adventures, the escape from boring old life, and of course, her friendship with the boy. But they are all gone, and they won’t come back. She really needs to get a grip, to move on. 

So, one night when the moon is so full that it is shaped like a mooncake, she— 

The sound of an alarm clock ringing wakes her up from her deep slumber. 

It is Monday. A school day. She rubs her eyes blearily. Last night’s dream was interesting. What was it about again? Dreams? She can’t remember exactly; the fine details are all unclear now that she’s woken up – dreams are just like grasping fistfuls of sand that keep falling out of your hands. But she can feel strong feelings in her chest, wanting to be let out – a mix of nostalgia and freedom. She gets into a sitting position on the bed, trying to get back to reality as her blankets fall to a heap on the bed. 

The dream ended so suddenly, though. She wishes it had lasted longer, but it was only a dream anyway. Nothing important. 

“Iris! Are you awake? Come have some breakfast!” She’s been sitting on the bed, a pillow propping her up for a while now, and her mother’s voice gets her to start getting ready for the day ahead. In no time, she forgets all about the dream. 

That night, however, she starts having dreams. Dreams in which she is certain she is really inside the dream, that it is real, because it is so clear and realistic in a way no one can possibly understand until they, too, experience it.  She finds that she wakes up standing, voice hoarse from talking all night long. And in the first one, the first of many to come, she meets a blue-eyed boy, sitting on a rock near a place where purple flowers grow in abundance. 

“Who are you?” they look at each other warily. She feels a strange sense of déjà vu, but can't place her finger on where she saw him before. A dream? She almost laughs at the absurdity of the idea. 

And that is her first Dream. 


Bittersweet Star

Vanaja Raju, 11

Saccharine moonlight fell through the tear in Avery’s tent.

He would never have imagined that he would be camping out in his birthplace, the desert garden where there used to be a tent just like his, and his mother first laid her eyes on him.

But here he was.

Avery blinked, trying to make sure it wasn’t all a dream. After all, he often dreamed of his childhood. But now he was a rogue, and he didn’t belong anywhere.

He closed his eyes and tuned out the world, trying to remember his mother’s voice. He longed to hear that lullaby, the silky words passing through her lips. And if he concentrated on the stars shining beyond his eyelids, he could almost hear her sing:

The mother wolf, the mother wolf
She holds her pups close
Though they struggle and run away
Go their own separate ways
The mother wolf, the mother wolf
Sobs herself to sleep.

So Avery smiled bittersweetly, and the night he couldn’t see blurred with poignant tears.

***

People called Olivien a charlatan. He ran a business of pottery, which, due to his ridiculously cheap prices, was believed to be stolen from the neighboring kingdom of Kander. In fact, everyone called him “the Charlatan” behind his back.

But the King of Martala believed that Olivien could help with some personal matters – matters involving Olivien’s own mother.

“So, Olivien.” The King was perched on his bejeweled throne beneath a golden chandelier, and Olivien sat cross-legged on the hard marble floor. Olivien glanced hungrily at the rubies embedded in the ivory throne.

“So,” the King repeated.

Olivien hastily looked back up at the King. “Sorry, Your Highness. I – lost my train of thought for a minute.”

The King paid no attention to Olivien’s words. “Your mother. She told fortunes for a while, did she not?”

“Yes, Your Majesty.” Olivien could sense that the conversation was escalating.

“And there are reportings that she is a witch, are there not?”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Olivien said, his voice now a bit shaky.

“And, is she a witch?”

Olivien hesitated. Clearly, the King had a staunch belief that Olivien’s mother was inhuman.

“No, Your Majesty,” replied Olivien.

“I see.” The King said. His eyes glinted malevolently. “You are quite sure, aren’t you?”

“I–” Olivien started, but was cut off.

“Because it’s completely alright if you’d want to be interrogated.” Olivien knew that “interrogated” meant “tortured until you said what the King wanted to hear”. He trembled.

“Your Highness. She – she is a witch.”

“Excellent. Finally you told the truth.” The King smiled, revealing four golden teeth.

“What will you do now?”

“I will send the Army to hunt her down and get rid of her – forever.

And you will help them. Be warned – if you are lying, they will know.” “Yes, Your Majesty.”

“Guards,” said the King softly. “Take the Charlatan to the dungeons for planning.”

“Wha – who are you calling a charlatan?”

The King just chuckled as Olivien was dragged from his place and out of the throne room.

***

Avery was speeding past the world. At the speed his legs were taking him, he was surprised he wasn’t running on thin air.

He could hardly name the feeling coursing through him right now – what could it be? Sadness? Confusion? Hope?

He raced on past the fruit stands and the clothing shops.

Yearning? Wonder?

He saw another of the posters, the ones claiming that his mother was a witch, but also alive. Alive!

Affection? Desperation?

And then he stopped, out of breath, at the rusty iron gates of Keiser’s Home for Children.

He pushed open the gates with all his might. They creaked noisily.

Avery barged into the pillared building. “You told me my mother was dead!”

He spoke to an empty room, his voice reverberating through the hall. “Lady Keiser!” bellowed Avery.

A short, shrimpy-looking woman with sunken eyes and a sour demeanor strode into the hall.

“What do you want? You ran away fifteen years ago!” The woman glared at Avery so intensely that her anger almost bore a hole in his forehead.

“Where is my mother?”

“If I knew, I’d be neck-high in reward money!” Lady Keiser shot back. Avery’s heart sunk. “Why did you tell me she was dead?”

“I didn’t want you running away, like you clearly did. I didn’t want you to hope that she was still out there. Besides, she was so poor that she would have died of some sewer disease anyway.”

“But she didn’t, did she?” Avery buried his face in his hands. “Did she ever come back for me?”

“No,” said Lady Keiser simply. “Now get lost.” “But–”

Leave, boy!”

Avery made a couple steps backward.

“I said, leave!”

Avery stepped farther back, and Lady Keiser slammed the gate in his face.

***

Olivien crept quietly into the deserted cemetery. A hundred armed soldiers followed him.

At one of the graves there rested a single wilted rose.

“This one,” he said, his voice quaking.

A single tear trickled down his cheek.

“Forgive me, Mama,” he whispered as the army started to dig up the grave.

***

The cemetery, thought Avery. Of course.

The cemetery was where all of the past witches were buried. No one knew how the cemetery came to be. The society hated witches like they were the soil under man’s feet. No man would bury a witch. And yet, as soon as a witch was burned, her body appeared in the cemetery overnight, her grave inscribed with words; sometimes fortune-teller, or potion-maker, or snake-charmer.

So the most magical place in the society had to be the cemetery.

Avery had always known his mother was a witch. Even when he was at the Children’s Home, he had remembered her magic.

Her magic which she crafted from light and dark. Her potions which she poured in the soil to make roses grow. Those enchanted petals she threw in the air, which wafted away into the ether like a softly fading scent.

But as he turned the corner, he discovered that someone had beat him to it. And not just someone.

***

The coffin in which the witch laid glowed purple. The witch’s magenta eyes were open, staring eerily through whatever passed her nonexistent line of vision.

Four soldiers carried the coffin from where it was buried and placed it on the wet grass.

The bottom of the grave was made of metal. There was a wooden trapdoor in the center.

“She’s inside,” said Olivien.

Wait!” called a voice.

Olivien spun around.

Three feet from him was a young man. The man and Olivien had the same build as each other, same pearly complexion, same irreverent gray eyes.

Both were in shock for a moment.

“Who are you?” asked Olivien cautiously, with awe in his voice. “A-Avery,” said the young man.

Olivien gasped. “Are we–”

“You both are siblings.”

Emerging from the trapdoor was a tall lady.

She had pale skin, dark curly hair, and gray almond-shaped eyes. She wore a white tunic, and her hands were adorned with silver bangles. She had a small star-shaped birthmark on her shoulder which seemed to sparkle in the moonlight.

“Mama!” Olivien said. Tears of regret flowed down his cheeks.

“Come, children.” The mother pulled Olivien and Avery in an embrace. Soon, Avery realized that she was crying, too. Before long, the three sobbed into each other’s shoulders, reunited at long last.

“Avery – I am so, so sorry.” The witch gazed right into Avery’s silvery eyes. “You have grown so much, and I wish I could have been by your side. But when you were born, I was on the run, and for your safety, I left you at Lady Keiser’s doorstep. I knew that she had room in her children’s home for you. But after several years, I was able to completely change my identity and was free again. I looked everywhere for you, but I couldn’t find you.”

“I ran from the children’s home when I was six years old,” said Avery softly. “I became a rogue.”

“I should have started the potion earlier,” whispered the mother.

“It’s not your fault,” said Avery gently.

“And Olivien–”

“Mama, I owe you an apology. I should never have involved the king. I was a foolish and cowardly.”

“No, Olivien. I should have supported you more. Every day, I was in a trance. I never payed attention to you.” “Mama, I–”

WITCH!” A loud voice interrupted the exchanging of soft words.

It was the King of Martala. “Get her! And her children too!”

“No!” The witch leapt in front of Avery and Olivien, and squeezed her eyes shut. As she recited frantic verses under her breath, white flames erupted from the ground and surrounded the Army and the King. The flames spread wildly, licking everything they could touch. The Army dodged the flames, but the stout King’s legs were too short and unused to take him anywhere.

With a last cry of anguish, he disintegrated into a pile of ash.

The soldiers, with no King left to order them around, started to disperse.

The witch stopped chanting and collapsed to the ground.

“Mama!” Avery and Olivien knelt to her side. The witch turned slightly to face them.

“I – I love you, my beautiful boys. I love you–” But before she could finish her sentence, her magic was gone, and those sparkling eyes saw no more.

***

Sun peered through a willow’s branches. It was a new day.

Avery placed a small branch containing several white roses on his Mama’s grave. Olivien knelt by him and set down a whole pomegranate.

“Her favorite fruit,” he explained.

Avery looked away, trying to hide his tears.

Olivien closed his eyes and started to sing:

The mother wolf, the mother wolf
She holds her pups close

Avery joined in, his cheeks moist.

Though they struggle and run away
Go their own separate ways
The mother wolf, the mother wolf
Watches over still.


Plum

Melody You, 12

Plum-colored skies hid behind dark clouds as evening gave way to night. Liz patted away a swarm of gnats before fumbling for the old flashlight she kept in her pocket. A yellowish beam of light appeared in front of her, and she slogged up the muddy, crumbling pathway that led to the dilapidated old shed she lived in.

Okay, it wasn’t a shed. More like a cruddy one-story home. Liz huffed and gave one of her many mosquito bites an absentminded scratch. She headed into the house, taking her dirty shoes off and tossing her flashlight, along with her hammer, on the floor.

“You’re finally back,” said Liz’s father.

“Yeah, I’m back,” Liz grumbled. “I still don’t see why I had to fix the fence.” She sank into the ugly tweed sofa, drawing her fingers instinctively to her prickling mosquito bite.

“Mark has a stomachache,” her father pointed out. “And I was on a call. Besides, we have to keep that vermin away from our plum trees.” The man was referring to the mysterious, furry creature that kept stealing plums from the farm.

Liz grunted and lay down, arms crossed. “We never should have moved to Pinewoodson. Sunny Day Plum Farm is the worst thing that’s happened to me!” Pinewoodson was a town so small that everything was called Pinewoodson Grocery or Pinewoodson Restaurant or Pinewoodson Theatre. Liz’s school was the only one in Pinewoodson; it taught all grades, kindergarten to twelfth. “We should’ve stayed in San Francisco. And you know plums are my least favorite fruit!”

“Now, now, Liz,” Liz’s father consoled. “Pinewoodson is a wonderful little town. The forest air’s better for Gramps.”

But it’s so muddy and dirty and full of mosquitoes, thought Liz disdainfully. Gramps will probably die inhaling a gnat. “I’m going to bed.”

“Night, Liz,” her father called, oblivious to the girl’s fully poisonous glare.

Liz didn’t remember falling asleep, but the next thing, she knew, pale morning light was spilling into her eyes and across her face. She sat up quickly, blowing a strand of stringy brown hair out of her face, and hopped out of bed.

Liz poured herself a bowl of cereal and sat there in the dingy kitchen, eating the soggy brown stuff. It was knockoff Cheerios from Pinewoodson Mart, and it tasted a bit better than cardboard. Liz thought wistfully of the chocolaty cereal back in San Francisco as she put her bowl in the sink, but she just sighed and grabbed a tube of Benadryl.

A few seconds after Liz made herself comfortable on the sofa, a loud scream sounded from outside. The girl looked curiously out the clouded front window and dashed out the front door. There stood her father, backed up against the cobwebby brown wall, pointing at something standing beyond the fence.

Something small and muddy and raggedy was scrambling along the gravel driveway. It took a moment for Liz to identify—a dog. The dog put its gray front paws up on the flimsy chain link and barked at the plum trees.

“It’s a dog!” cried Liz’s father in relief. “Oh, I thought it was a mangy old rabid raccoon!” The man walked over to the tiny creature and tousled its curly hair, but it continued barking.

“I think it wants to see the plum trees,” Liz said cautiously. She reached forward and scooped the dog up in her arms. It was quite light. The girl set the creature down on the ground and it swiftly bounded off toward the orchard.

Liz and her father chased after the dog, and by the time they caught up with it, it was gorging itself on a dark, ripe plum. After a minute it was finished, and the girl and the man were left with a shiny brown pit.

“We should keep it!” Liz’s father exclaimed lovingly. “What should we call it, Liz?”

Liz thought of when she used to beg her parents for a dog. She remembered brainstorming names. Orion. Ebony. Rosie. Fernando.

“I think I’ll call it Plum.”

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