• 2014 Luminaire Award for Best Prose •

Winners & Finalists 2014

Winners & Finalists for 2014 Luminaire Award for Best Prose

First Place: “A Slow Dance in the Afternoon” by Mia Eaker
Second Place: “Sunrise Special” by John Vicary
Third Place: “The Spirit of Shackleton” by Gavin Broom
Fourth Place: “The Elephant in the Bathtub” by J. Lewis Fleming
Fifth Place: “Stoop” by Alexa Mergen
Sixth Place: “The Peculiar Incident at Otter Creek” by Gavin Broom
Seventh Place: “The Deathbed Confessions of Christopher Walken” by Paul Corman-Roberts
Eighth Place: “Telling the Sampo” by Kevin Catalano
Ninth Place: “The Blue Diamond” by Steph Post
Tenth Place: “If Only Her Husband Were a Member of the Brotherhood of Flying Things” by Elizabeth P. Glixman
Eleventh Place: “This Love Story Has a Zombie in It” by Daniel Crocker
Twelfth Place: “On Coyotes and Hay Bales” by Ronnie K. Stephens

2014 First Place Winner: “A Slow Dance in the Afternoon” by Mia Eaker

A Slow Dance in the Afternoon

Charles Hostettler arrived home early. His truck shrieked to a halt in the driveway of a small brick house nestled in the cul-de-sac on Laurel Avenue. His wife, Helene, wasn’t expecting him home from work for another three hours. She heard his boots, first, pounding up the front steps. Then, he barreled through the front door, slamming it behind him. He paused in the doorway. His eyes, wild and hazy, darted around the room.

The four women assembled in his living room, dressed primly in their Sunday best, sat frozen, eyes glued to the looming figure in the doorway. A young blonde, dressed in a pale pink sweater and beige slacks, was still leaning in, one elbow propped on her knee, gesturing with a pointed finger toward the woman sitting across from her. The other woman, who appeared much older, wore a honey-colored blouse with large pearl buttons. She sat straight, with deliberate posture; one knee was crossed carefully over the other. Her hands still held a slightly tilted pitcher and a half-full glass of iced tea.

In fact, the only pair of eyes not fixed on Charles belonged to Helene Hostettler. Her eyes, instead, stared straight down, right through the bottom of the empty glass in her hand and into the carpet below, as if the mingled heat and force from her gaze were strong enough to burn an escape route right through the floor. Beside Helene sat a young woman who could not have been more than 25. Helene had determined this when she met her, although never asked. Helene had wondered whether the woman appeared so young to her because of her age or because of the way she dressed. Today, Meredith, the wife of the new pastor at their church, wore her hair pulled back in a ponytail with long curls that bounced when she walked. The dress was bright yellow from top to bottom, except for the white buttons. The color reminded Helene of warm sunshine on her face in the summer. The sleeves were cut off at the shoulders, exposing Meredith’s long, slender arms.

Charles grunted in their direction and continued his rampage across the room and into the kitchen. Only a thin wall separated the four startled ladies from the heavy pounding of his boots back and forth on the tile floor. In the living room, the women sat in silence while the tension thickened in the air around them. The TV still played softly in the background. They’d been watching a ballroom-dance competition. Well, not really watching. Helene had turned it on and let it play quietly during the meeting because she liked to have background noise in the room. She was thankful for that noise now.

Above the quickening tempo of the music, the women tuned in to the excited clamor of cabinet doors opening and slamming shut, then jars and glasses clinking together. There was a brief silence. A hard thump against the refrigerator door. One by one, each lady began shifting her concentration to missing items from purses, minutely crooked skirt seams that needed immediate attention, and imaginary last sips of coffee and tea from dry cup beds. On the other side of the wall, Charles finally collapsed into a chair, and a swift, sharp silence invaded the room and jolted the fidgety group to a halt.

Helene Hostettler relaxed the clenched lines in her brow. Her hands remained calmly folded in her lap, the corners of her mouth tilted upward in a calculated and confident smile. After glancing toward the kitchen, she rolled her eyes and released a light-hearted chuckle. “Men,” she sighed. “And they say women are emotional.” Helene waved her hand through the air with a gesture intended to erase her husband’s shocking tirade through the house just moments before.

Inside, even her bones were shaking. Her last sip of tea turned on her stomach. Cool beads of sweat seeped through her freshly ironed blouse. The ladies sitting around her smiled back, cautiously, wearing strained looks of understanding.

Finally, Meredith leaned over and patted Helene’s hands gently. “Of course, Sweetie. We all have one at home,” she whispered, and added a wink for good measure.

Helene never met her eyes. Instead, she stared expressionless at Meredith’s hopeful yellow dress. The dress annoyed her now because Meredith had worn it despite the growing cold outside and the winter season rolling in. Although she had worn a heavy coat, Helene decided the dress was out of season and returned her attention to the other women.

“Maybe it’s best to take a rain check on the rest of the meeting. I should really check on him,” Helene noted and rose to her feet. “We’ve covered a lot. We could certainly talk after the service on Sunday about the last of the fundraiser plans,” she added reassuringly.

The three other women promptly began to clamber with purses, cell phones, and jackets. As they herded toward the door, Charles emerged from the kitchen. His movements had been silent and calm. He appeared without warning, without so much as the scuff of his feet on floor. He wore a smile now, a smile that was new and warm.

“My apologies, ladies, for the outburst,” he began. “I had forgotten that Helene was having company today. Work was quite a mess,” he chuckled. “Too much excitement, but it’s no excuse. Helene and I are happy to have you.” He spoke with a chilling calm, his words lyrical and soothing. Charles looked head-on at each of the bewildered faces in front of him. “It’s too bad that we have plans for dinner with my boss, or I’d ask if you’d like to stay for supper,” he noted matter-of-factly, yet at the same time, pleasantly and with an air of sincere regret.

When his transformed gaze met Helene’s, he extended his arm toward her, and she folded into his embrace without so much as a pause. Their eyes locked for a moment before Helene turned to face the other women. “Ah, how silly of me. I completely forgot about that. I guess it’s just as well,” she said, and gestured to the front door.

The women glided to the door and filed into an obedient line. Helene smiled and hugged each of her friends, thanking them for coming. In turn, each of Helene’s friends left her with a sincere “thank you” for the refreshments and an assurance that, like her forgotten dinner plans, there was a necessary engagement or to-do list waiting to be taken care of just as soon as they left.

Meredith gave Helene’s hand a gentle squeeze and peered over her shoulder toward the kitchen. She started to speak, but hesitated. Instead, she looked down at Helene’s hand laying in her hers and scuffed her foot on the brick step where she stood.

Finally, Meredith looked back toward the kitchen, where Charles had retired, with a determined gaze and stammered loudly, “I’ll see you both at church on Sund—”

“You better get going,” Helene cut in. “A pastor’s wife has lots to do.” She smiled at Meredith reassuringly and released her hand.

Meredith responded with an uncertain grin, her cheeks quivering slightly. Then, she nodded, turned, and went to her car, the hem of her sunshine-colored dress still peering out from under her winter coat. Helene twisted her mouth into a subtle scowl as she watched Meredith shut the car door and slip her keys into the ignition. Helene’s feet remained glued to the front steps while Meredith’s car eased down the road and disappeared onto the highway. Helene stood for a moment in the doorway, breathing in the calm, crisp air outside and letting it linger around her a little longer. Then, she closed the front door and walked over to the window and quietly pulled the blinds.

She turned to face the kitchen and found Charles already in the doorway.

“Why were they here, Helene?” He was leaning against the doorframe, hands shoved in his pockets.

She didn’t jump when he appeared there suddenly. She had learned to turn every corner with the expectation that he’d be standing there. He often appeared from other rooms, from around nearby corners, or even from behind her.

“Church meeting. We have a fundraiser to plan,” Helene replied, quick and confident with her words. “We decided on a bake sale and raffle,” she added with a cheerful grin that nearly cramped her cheeks. “Did you know the rain flooded the park? That’s where we planned to have the meeting. Meredith called this morning and asked if they could swing by here, instead.”

Although Helene was careful to hold his gaze, she now noted that his hands were no longer in his pockets. One fist was clenched. She knew better than to look directly at anything except his eyes when he was angry.

Helene had been in love with Charles when she married him five years before, when everything was peaceful. The yelling hadn’t started until nearly a year ago, just after his father, whom he hadn’t spoken to in years, died suddenly in a car accident. Charles hadn’t hit her until a few months ago. The bruise on her arm was easy enough to cover up. She’d had to become more creative since then—makeup tricks, jackets, accessories, illness, whatever she could think of that she was pretty sure she hadn’t used more than once before. Over the last few months, she’d also developed an ability of nearly superhero proportion to take in every movement of his body, every expression change, even the scope of the room, without averting her eyes or losing the casual, singsong flow of her voice.

“It was after you left for work, and I didn’t want to bother you,” she explained, feeling a quiver in her throat. “I didn’t think you’d be—”

“—home so early,” he cut in sharply, sliding a foot in her direction.

Helene took a step away from him, gliding her feet toward the coffee table and lifting the silver tray gingerly from the end table. She began to clear away the glasses and coffee cups, stacking them on the tray with careful attention.

“I see that, Sweetie. What happened at work?” In truth, she already knew. Layoffs had been happening at the factory for weeks, causing Charles to be increasingly stressed, and increasingly angry.

From the doorway, Charles only continued to stare, clenching his fist tighter.

“It came today, didn’t it? The notice?” She let the words drag slowly and sweetly from her lips, tilting her face slightly so he could see it and pinching her eyebrows together to mark her concern. She stood carefully and continued to tiptoe backward, holding a tray of empty coffee cups and glasses. With her right hand, she slipped a large glass off of the tray and behind her back. The glass, embellished with yellow flower petals, had a subtle crack etched in its side.

“Why do you think it came?” Charles stuttered. His eyes darkened. “You assume that I got fired. I’m not a lazy-ass like some of the other guys there. I work hard, and I’ve been there for more years than most. I deserve to be there!” He paused, still glaring at her. “But, of course, you don’t think so.” His voice shook. His eyes, already red and swollen, widened in fury. “It’s just like you to assume the worst of me!” His words struggled to find air through a barrage of powerful, desperate sobs. He reached for the lamp on the table next to him and ripped its cord from the wall. Then, in one massive, thunderous swoop, he buried the bottom edge in the living room wall.

Helene screamed, dropping the tray to the floor and ducking behind the recliner on the far end of the room. Shards of bright yellow flower-printed glass decorated the floor all around her. She sat, crouching behind the chair, listening to Charles grunt and curse as he stood wrestling the lamp out of the wall.

Waiting.

Charles kicked the wall with the steel toe of his boot and then started pounding it with his fists.

Somewhere in the background, subtle and indistinct, Helene heard the rising echo of clapping and cheering. The dancers on TV leapt back into her mind. The music. The clapping. She couldn’t see the screen from her hiding place, only the walls blocking her in from every side. She strained to focus her ears on anything other than the sound of Charles, ten feet away, now tugging violently at the lamp lodged in the wall and shouting obscenities that sent shivers rushing down her spine.

On the TV, a new couple sauntered onto the floor to the sound of cheering. The applause stopped. The couple was ready. As the music started up softly, Helene began to rock back and forth. She wrapped her arms around her knees and closed her eyes. Huddled over, Helene was more than afraid. She was ashamed. Ashamed that she’d taken a chance. Ashamed that she believed him a week ago when he said things were going to be different.

With her eyes closed tight, she saw herself floating right through the wall and stepping into the grass where she’d be out of his reach. Slipping into woods where he couldn’t find her. She pictured wings blooming right from her shoulders and carrying her up into clouds where she’d be free. She felt herself slowly dissolving right into the air until she could imagine being invisible to him.

She felt her breath start to come a little easier, less shaky and deeper. It slowed in tune to music that now seemed to fill the room. A calm acceptance flooded over and through her, and her shaking bones began to still. She opened her eyes and reached for the remaining bottom half of the glass she had been holding behind her back. Her finger traced the lines along the yellow flower petals and the sparkling jagged spikes that wrapped around the top like a holiday wreath.

Suddenly, the lamp exploded from the wall. Her fingers clutched the base of the glass. Her eyes stared straight into the pile of broken glass in front of her. Charles began to move in her direction. Helene listened to his every movement. The slow, controlled shuffle of his boots as they neared her. The smell of his cologne and sweat. The chuckling in his belly. The rhythmic tap of his finger against the metal base of the lamp. The familiar pulse of his anger when it began to rise. The quickening thump in her chest. The music. Helene drifted away, dissolved right into the air.

The broken glass crunched on the other side of the chair, and Helene thought she glimpsed the toe of a boot. She shivered, clutching the base of the ruined, cracked glass even tighter in her palm. She squeezed it between her fingers until her anger matched his, until she leapt to her feet and stood with her eyes staring straight into his.

Her rage clashed with his, and it merged in the air between them. She felt it. Heard it. It crackled like twisted flames rising from a campfire. His arm shot into the air; the base of the lamp flashed as it peaked above her head.

Helene swung. The broken glass struck Charles at the base of his neck. His eyes widened and locked with hers, and Helene released a desperate cry into the room. Charles shrieked in pain and surprise as he crumpled to the floor. Helene followed him, dropping to her knees beside him and pressing her hands over the wound in his neck.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry.” She moved one hand from the wound to reach for the phone on the end table. “I’m calling an ambulance. You’re gonna be fine,” she sobbed, barely able to get the words out. Tears gathered on her husband’s cheeks. With one hand he held her arm, and with the other, gripped the hem of her skirt. Helene and Charles locked their eyes as if they were in an embrace, an embrace that held fast while Helene called for the ambulance, while she removed her blouse and pressed it against his wound, while they waited. Neither of them looked away.




Mia Eaker currently lives and writes in Charlotte, North Carolina. She received her MA in English from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, where she now teaches composition. She also teaches composition at Central Piedmont Community College and works as a cognitive skills trainer at The Brain Trainer in Charlotte.

2014 Second Place Winner: “Sunrise Special” by John Vicary

Sunrise Special

“You can’t smoke that in here.”

The old man peered over his glasses at the slip of a girl who’d interrupted his morning cigarette. “Since when?”

The waitress frowned. “Since always.”

“That’s not true. I’ve been coming here for years. And I always sit right here—right in this very spot—and have my cigarette.” The old man held up his lighter, as if that provided proof.

“There are no-smoking laws in New York. I’m sorry, sir, but you’ll have to go outside for that.” The waitress sighed. Seven in the morning, and people were already giving her grief.

“Martha lets me,” the man said.

“I’m not Martha,” the waitress countered.

The man snorted. “I noticed. Where is she?”

“I don’t know. I’m here to take your order today. Can I bring you anything? Coffee?” She swirled the remains of a half-empty pot.

The man nodded. “Sure, sure. And lots of cream. Martha knows I like a lot of cream. I don’t have to tell her that.”

“Okay.”

As the waitress poured him his first cup, the man unfolded his newspaper. “So, I bet you hear a lot of things working here, am I right?”

“It’s a diner, not a bar. Do you know what else you want, or do you need a minute?” The waitress tried not to tap her foot.

“Yeah, I’ll have the Sunrise Special. So, no one ever tells you stuff, huh? What’s your name, anyway?”

The waitress flicked her nametag. “How do you want your eggs cooked?”

The man squinted. “Well, you’re not much of a talker, are you? Agnes. What kind of a name is Agnes for a girl like you?”

Agnes shrugged. “I was named after my great aunt, you know? Eggs. How do you like them?”

“Sunny side up, Agnes. It suits you. I’m Howard. Nice to meet you.”

“I’m glad you approve. That comes with toast. There’s whole wheat, rye, sourdough, and white.”

“Well, the kids these days and their names. It’s good to hear something solid. Something you can wear for the rest of your life. Names are like coats, you know. You want to pick one that’s going to last. Agnes will do you.”

“Right. Well, my mom chose it, so next time she calls, I’ll be sure to tell her thanks for giving me a coat name. Toast?”

“How come you aren’t writing this down? How are you going to remember my order?” the man asked.

Agnes tried not to roll her eyes. “So far you haven’t ordered, mister.”

“Howard. Call me Howard.”

“Can you just decide on the toast, or do you need a minute?” the waitress asked. Old people took forever and a day to do anything.

“You’re in such a rush. It isn’t like anyone else is even here. Rye, please. I’d like rye.”

The waitress nodded. “It comes with a side of meat. There’s sausage links, patties, or turkey sausage. What will it be?”

“Do you ever want to tell a secret to someone who doesn’t know you?” the man asked suddenly.

“Why would I want to do that?” The waitress was too startled to bother with questions of meat. No one had ever asked her anything like that before.

Howard creased his paper between his fingers. “Sometimes it’s easier to tell a stranger. That’s all. Someone who doesn’t know you might not judge you.”

“That’s silly,” the waitress said, but as she said it, she didn’t really think it was. It seemed to make perfect sense.

The man stared at her. “It’s easy. I’ll go first: I cheated on my wife.”

“What?” The waitress set down the almost-empty coffee pot on the Formica table. “Why would you tell me that?”

“I needed to,” the man said. “I had to tell someone. Your turn. Go ahead; it’s amazingly cathartic.”

Agnes swallowed. “You’re crazy!” She didn’t want to look at him, this old man in a buttoned-down shirt, sitting there calmly after he’d just admitted to cheating on his wife. It was surreal; that’s what it was. People just didn’t say things like that! “You’re crazy.” Then, she thought he must be going senile, and she felt bad for saying it twice.

“I’m a lot of things, but I’m not crazy.” Howard tore open a tub of cream and stirred it into his coffee. “I loved my wife, you know. Very much. I’m not saying that to make myself sound better; if anything, that makes it worse. The thing is, she never knew I cheated. I’m so glad she never did. It would have hurt her so much. She’s gone now, God rest her. But I had to tell someone, look someone in the face and admit that it happened. I mean, this was years ago. Years. Before you were a gleam in your mother’s eye, as we used to say. I just had to tell someone and be free of it. And you’re that someone, Agnes, so I thank you for that.”

“But … why?” The waitress sat down across from the man, even if it was against the rules. It felt silly to be looming over him, and besides, the diner really was empty. “Why did you?”

Howard sipped his coffee. “I’ve asked myself that so many times over the years, and every time I come up with a different answer. I don’t know that there is any one reason. Certainly not one that you’ll understand. I guess I just missed being in love. I didn’t realize I had been all along.”

The weight of his earnest admission hung in the air between them, a terrible imbalance, and the waitress knew she had no obligation, but still, she wanted to tip the scale out of the valley of peculiarity they’d fallen into. “I never learned to tie my shoes,” she blurted out before she could stop herself.

The man blinked, his eyes owlish behind the trifocals.

Agnes held out her ankle, showing off the Velcro-ed shoe. “My parents weren’t around much, and I just never learned when I should have. Then, I felt silly when I got too old, and I was embarrassed to ask. So that’s it. My deep, dark secret.”

“Feel better?”

The waitress smiled. “Kind of, yeah.” She stood. “I’ll go place your order and bring you a refill on that coffee.”

“I’d be most obliged, Agnes.”

There was one other girl on the day shift, and Agnes motioned her over as she set another pot of coffee on to brew. “You see that guy in my section?” Agnes asked. “The old guy in the striped shirt?”

Heather nodded. “Howard? Yeah. He’s a regular. Been coming for years. Why? He giving you trouble?”

“No, no. I was just wondering if he ever talked to you.”

Heather shook her head. “Usually, he’s in Martha’s section. I’ve had him once or twice, but I don’t think he’s said anything to me. Did he say something nasty? Try to hit on you?”

“Ew. Heather. That’s gross.” Agnes wrinkled her nose. “He’s nice. He’s not like that.”

Heather raised her eyebrows. “They’re all like that, honey. You should know that by now.”

Agnes made a face and took the man his refill. “Here’s the cream. I didn’t forget.”

Howard lowered the paper he’d been reading. “I got arrested one time.”

The waitress’ hand wavered, and she spilled a drop. “Excuse me?” Maybe Heather was right. Maybe it was indecent exposure …

“I’ve spent time in jail. You’re looking at someone who has a misdemeanor on his record. I’m a criminal.”

The waitress mopped up the spill with a rag from her apron pocket. “You don’t seem like a hardened criminal,” she said.

“I am,” he answered.

“What did you do? Or is that the secret?” Please don’t be creepy, she thought.

“I organized a strike. It turned ugly, and someone was hurt in the scramble that followed. Although, it isn’t really a secret, I guess. It just bothers me; that’s all. I never meant for anyone to be injured. If I could, I’d take it all back. That’s something I regret, that people were hurt because of me. So, yeah, I’m a felon.”

How could she have thought the worst of him? “Well, not in the strictest sense. A felon has a felony record. So you’re not a felon … Howard.”

The man reached for his cup. “I guess you’re as good’a waitress as Martha.”

“Thanks.” The waitress scratched her forehead. “I had a baby.” She tried not to cringe when she said it.

Howard set his cup down but said nothing.

Agnes kept talking, the words spilling out in a rush. “I was only sixteen, you know. Too young for a baby. They told me I could hold her, say goodbye, but I didn’t want to. I know they thought I didn’t care, and that bothered me. I did care. I did. I knew if I held her and smelled that baby smell, I’d never give her up. I moved up here the next summer, and I’ve never told anyone about that, never.” She smoothed her apron. “Aren’t you going to say anything? Aren’t you going to say you’re sorry or whatever it is people say? I always thought when I finally told someone that’s what he’d say.”

The man looked at her. “Do you want me to?”

“No. That’s stupid.” The waitress wiped her eyes. “Why would you be? You don’t even know me.”

“I am sorry, but I wasn’t going to say it. I think you’re sorry enough. You don’t need to hear it from a stranger. You just need to tell it. Have someone hear you.” The man tightened his mouth into a line.

“Yeah. Your food should be ready by now. I’ll be right back.” The waitress turned and marched to the counter. His Sunrise Special was the only one there, ready to be delivered. She picked it up and took it to him without further comment. She’d said enough already. God knows what Howard thought of her.

When it was time to bring him the bill, he cleared his throat. The waitress braced herself. He was probably going to say something, tell her how terrible she was, what an awful person—

“I’m dying.”

Agnes blinked. “What?”

The man rolled the bill into a cylinder between his fingers as he talked. “I’m dying. I have cancer. It’s these cigarettes—that’s what they tell me. I guess it isn’t a secret, my dying, but it was for a long time. This is my last day here, living my life the way I want to. My terms. My son is coming up from Georgia, and I’m going to hospice this afternoon. All my things, my house … well, none of this matters to you, Agnes. Agnes with the name that will last. I can say this, though. Quit the things you need to. And the things you can’t, well … you might as well enjoy them right up until the end.” He unrolled the slip of paper and breathed out as he stared at the words. “Will you please tell Martha I sent her my regards?”

The waitress nodded. She didn’t trust herself to speak.

“Thank you, my dear.” The man stood, and she could see now how fragile he was beneath that cotton shirt. Why did it matter? Yet, she was surprised to find that it did. “You have a lovely day. It’s just starting, don’t you know?”

The waitress watched him shuffle out, and she didn’t know if she felt like laughing or crying. Maybe it was a little of both.




John Vicary has been a contributor to more than sixty compendiums in his career and is a Pushcart-nominated author. He is the submissions editor at Bedlam Publishing and also co-founded the editing business The LetterWorks. He enjoys playing piano and lives in rural Michigan with his family. You can read more of John’s work at his website.

2014 Third Place Winner: “The Spirit of Shackleton” by Gavin Broom

The Spirit of Shackleton

When the police told me to start from the beginning, I explained that it had started on a Tuesday night in July, on the evening of the full moon. Of course, it must’ve really started much earlier than that—weeks, maybe months, earlier—but that Tuesday night was the one that stuck in my brain. The cops nodded their approval and invited me to continue, which I did, just as soon as I’d crushed out my thirtieth cigarette of the day.

*****


A medley of painkillers had done nothing to shift my headache, so I stood on the back patio, nursing a joint and a Scotch and hoping that would do the trick instead. The huge moon hung just above the hills like a balloon waiting to be popped, and I found that, while I stared at it, and while I listened to the chirruping of the grasshopper orchestra playing on the prairie, my headache may not have been getting better, but at least it had stopped getting worse.

“You okay, Dad?” a little voice asked.

“Me? Yeah, I’m cool, Zander,” I said, forcing a smile. As casually as possible, I let the joint drop to the ground and covered it with a tan sandal. “I’m cool. What makes you ask?”

“I thought I heard you and Mom fighting.”

It surprised me to find that I couldn’t remember much of the specifics of the argument, even though its echoes were still fresh. I suspected the official cause was something to do with the faulty TiVo or the fact that the maid hadn’t shown up for the last couple of days or that the maid had been the one who’d fucked up the TiVo in the first place. I couldn’t remember. What I did remember was plummeting into a foul mood after I’d come off a conference call with the Mumbai office an hour earlier, and this probably magnified whatever Melissa had done to piss me off. I would have asked for her opinion, but she was so drunk that any real enquiry or apology would need to wait until morning, and by that time, it would no longer matter.

I sipped my drink and changed the subject. “Isn’t it funny how we always see the same side of the moon?”

“Huh?” Zander asked.

“You know. The moon. It’s always the same side that shines down on us. It’s more obvious when it’s as big as it is tonight. It’s just weird, don’t you think?” The dope, it seemed, was starting to take effect.

“It used to spin, Bryan,” he said with a sigh, bored and calling me by my first name. “Like, years ago. But it’s in synchronous rotation now that the Earth’s gravity has slowed it down and stuff. And the moon’s no bigger tonight than it was last night; it’s just because it’s so near the horizon that you have a focal reference, instead of it being high in the sky surrounded by stars.”

A minute passed while I kept my eyes dead ahead at what I now understood to be a regular-sized moon.

“Nothing escapes gravity, Dad. Not even the moon.”

“What age are you, Zander?”

“Nine.”

“Nine years old,” I said with a whistle. “How’d you get so clever?” I looked down at my son and ruffled his hair.

Ignoring this attention, the boy shrugged and took a hit from his asthma inhaler, even though he hadn’t been wheezing. “I read up on it. It’s part of my special project.”

I took a moment to replay anything I may have already heard about this project and to decide if asking about it now would be an admission of ignorance. By the time I’d decided to keep my mouth shut on the matter and let Zander explain if he wanted, he had already given up and gone indoors.

*****


The brief conversation went out of my head, until the next morning at breakfast. Zander had just taken his baryta carbonica pill—something Melissa had recently prescribed to help with his bashfulness—and was about to leave for school, when Rayne, our neighbor’s eight-year-old kid, came into the kitchen. I’ve never liked Rayne, mostly because he’s a boy with a girl’s name. With the maid being MIA, I wondered who’d let the little sissy in.

“Good morning, Mrs. Carlyle,” Rayne said to Melissa. He spun toward me like a mini maître d’. “Mr. Carlyle.”

I nodded and scowled.

“Good morning, Rayne,” Melissa drawled, making me think she was already drunk. “Are your parents still having their barbecue tonight?”

Rayne looked confused. “I think it’s Ocean’s parents who’re having the party, Mrs. Carlyle.” He gave himself a quick blast from his own inhaler, which was a different color than Zander’s. I didn’t know if this meant his asthma was more or less serious, so I made a note to look into it later.

Melissa’s head nodded in a wide circle, and she waved her spoon at our guest. “Yes, of course. Tell them we’re looking forward to it.”

Appearing even more confused, Rayne walked over to Zander, who was loading up his bag with binders, books, his Omega-3-rich lunchbox, and his little plastic tray of medical supplies. The two of them began to whisper to each other, chattering excitedly, drifting in and out of earshot.

“I’m Captain,” Zander insisted, and his buddy nodded in agreement. “You guys are crew.”

“You talking about your bassoon recital?” I tried, hoping I’d guessed the correct instrument.

Rayne started to giggle. I really hated that kid.

“Project stuff, Dad,” Zander said, throwing his bag over his shoulder. “Don’t sweat it. Can I have fifty bucks?”

As soon as I heard the door close—and with my wallet fifty dollars lighter—I asked Melissa if she had any idea what this special project was all about.

She stared through me for ages, still waving her spoon as she contemplated an answer.  “I think it’s got something to do with …”

When it became clear that she had no intention of finishing her sentence, I retreated to my office where I spent an hour looking at Internet pornography, and then, I phoned Mumbai and took my temper out on them.

*****


Ocean’s parents are the biggest hippies on Buena Vista Drive, and because the whole family is vegetarian, Darryl cooked peppers and potatoes on the barbecue and served it with tofu, falafel, and hummus on the side. I’d have killed the cow myself, if it meant I would have gotten a burger.

The conversation was pretty standard, and, within an hour—with the coyotes over the hill baying either their approval at the rising moon or their disappointment at the absence of meat—we’d squeezed the life from all the usual topics. Melissa had rhymed off the benefits of the new homeopathic meds she’d discovered on the Internet. Rachel, a romance writer and Rayne’s mom, had played some MP3s of Rayne’s bassoon-playing over the external B&O sound system. After a lot of cajoling from Darryl, Ocean had demonstrated her flexibility with a highly accomplished yoga routine, and then, not even in a sweat, she’d gone off with the other kids to play Wii or whatever. That apart, we covered the same old PTA issues, our offspring’s asthma, taxes, work, smog levels in the city, and all the usual shit. I excused myself three times to take imaginary conference calls from Mumbai.

After a while, the two other men and I escaped to the far end of the garden, beyond the pool, and we all helped Darryl get through his stash of weed and whiskey. The women stayed at the table near the barbecue, and while we waited in silence for Darryl to skin up, I could hear Melissa repeat her meds stories. I stared at the moon and tried to ignore her.

“Hey, Bryan,” Rayne’s old man, a fifty-something accountant named Garfield, said. “It’s good to see our boys get on so well.”

“Sure is, Gar,” I agreed. Part of me hated to admit it, but it seemed Melissa’s prescription of bar-c had very much helped Zander overcome his shyness and anxiety, and he’d made friends with all the neighborhood kids. I remembered the conversation from breakfast. “Do you know anything about a special project they’re working on?”

Garfield shook his head. “Should I?”

I shrugged.

Darryl, toking deeply on his spliff, managed to wheeze, “I know.”

We waited thirty seconds for him to exhale and continue.

“He’s got Ocean involved in it, too,” he explained. “I overheard her a couple of nights ago.”

“Involved in what?” I asked, pissed that this doofus seemed to know more than I. “Overheard what? Is it school work?”

“Don’t think so, dude. I think it’s Zander’s project.”

If someone was ringleader, it was bound to be Zander. I’m Captain, he’d said that morning.

“So, what is it?” I asked, sounding calmer than I was feeling.

But by this time, Darryl had taken another toke and passed the j on to Garfield, and before he was in a position to continue, some commotion from the women’s end of the garden disturbed us. Melissa and Rachel were leaning over the fence, looking into our yard, and they appeared to be in conversation with someone on the other side. A loud clank of metal finally perked my curiosity enough to abandon the guys and the dope and walk up the garden to find out what the hell was going on. When she saw me approach, Melissa came to meet me halfway.

“You’ve got some explaining to do, mister,” she said. “Your son …”

“Our son what?”

“Your son tells me you gave him fifty bucks to buy scrap metal. What did you do that for? Do you have any idea the disease that’s carried on metal?”

“You were there when I did it,” I spat. “You handed me my wallet.”

Sure enough, when I got to the fence and looked over, Rayne and Ocean were shuffling large strips of what looked like aluminum into our yard with help from Cambridge and Tuesday, the twin boy and girl from across the street. I could never remember which one was which. Zander, meanwhile, directed traffic up to the back fence.

“You said it was okay, Bryan,” Zander shouted over to me.

A hand landed on my shoulder, and when I saw its owner, I was faced with Darryl’s puffed cheeks and pinking eyes.

“I overheard Ocean talking on her cell phone,” he said. “They’re building a spaceship.”

*****


Over the next few days, the construction of the spaceship continued to take shape at the far end of our yard, and it wasn’t long before my expectations were wrecked. Despite the arrival of large quantities of sheet metal, I still had an image of a box racer decorated with crayon-drawn flags on cardboard wings. Instead, the framework reminded me of a cigar tube that had been squashed and fattened out.

“That’s a rocket, Dad,” Zander told me without looking at me, after I’d explained my preconceptions. It was a Sunday, and he was in the yard, dressed in a suit, focused on some blueprints on a clipboard. “We’re not building a rocket. We’re building a spaceship.”

“Is there a difference?”

He scratched his head with the cartridge end of his asthma inhaler. “There’s no cardboard in my plans.”

“Touché.”

“Y’know, Dad? We could really use another fifty bucks.”

And while I didn’t ever see the kids doing anything other than hammering a few random panels, gradually more and more detail was added to the construction until it became clear that there were actually two parts to it, and the spaceship was poised on a platform that pointed toward the hills where the coyotes howled at night. Soon, even Melissa began to notice.

“I’m worried about how this project is affecting Zander’s bassoon playing,” she said, once a door and porthole had appeared on the ship. “He and Rayne are supposed to be playing a recital for the community leaders’ fundraiser, and he hasn’t prepared. Neither of them has. Ocean’s been learning the sitar for nothing.”

“The community leaders can kiss my ass,” I said, not really knowing what I meant by that, but feeling I had to express outrage at something.

My outburst shocked Melissa enough to make her retreat to the bedroom with a blender full of margarita.

Two days later, and as the finishing touches were being applied to the ship, a ten-foot by five-foot LED display unit perched itself on the far fence. A day after that, and the kids had it working.

73 hours, 00 minutes, 01 second.

73 hours, 00 minutes, 00 seconds.

72 hours, 59 minutes, 59 seconds.

Because it kept ticking down, it took me an embarrassingly long time to calculate when the red digits on the timer would reach zero, but after I checked my working a couple of times, I came up with my answer: nine o’clock on Friday evening. By that time, the numbers had totally freaked me out, but the only drugs I could find in the house were Zander’s expired Ritalin from a couple of years ago when we suspected he had ADHD. If anything, they made me feel worse.

I didn’t really sleep that night, and the next day, when I phoned Mumbai, I was fucking unbearable and a bit racist.

*****


When there were twenty-eight hours left on the display, all the parents received an invitation to the launch, produced on homemade, organic paper and printed in such a way that it looked like handwriting. Rachel thought the whole thing was a hoot—that was what she called it—and even Melissa had started to chill out about the idea.

“Our children have such imagination,” she said.

“From what I hear,” Darryl said, “it’s all your Zander’s handiwork. He’s the brains behind the operation.”

“They’re all taking it so seriously.” Gar leaned forward, swaying in everyone’s face. “Aren’t they? When was the last time they took something so seriously? I wish we could get Rayne to apply himself in his Japanese cookery class as much as this. He’s really let that slip recently.”

I’ve tasted the little brat’s California rolls and, to be honest, I’ve never thought they were any good; certainly not restaurant quality.

Rachel hugged herself and smiled. “It’s good to see them all getting along so well. I mean, it can’t be easy for them, you know?”

Everyone nodded. I suspected I wasn’t alone in not having the first clue what she meant.

When Friday morning arrived, and I looked out into the yard, the only work being carried out on the spaceship was by one of the interchangeable twins who was polishing it up. Other than that, it looked finished. By the afternoon, the shine had been worked to such a level, it was like someone had laid a tubed mirror out on an angled sun lounger. Whenever I peeked out from my office, the reflection from the sun fried my eyes, and when I turned back indoors, everything was blue.

The kids—Zander, Rayne, Ocean, Tuesday, and Cambridge—hustled toward Zander’s room with a couple of hours to go. They were all dressed smartly in Armani with black ties and Ray-Bans. Each of them, even Zander, had a silver case that each wheeled behind himself. I was sure they’d all had haircuts since the last time I’d seen them. Melissa clasped her heart as they marched through the house.

“Adorable,” she said. “Aren’t they just so grown-up?”

The adults all arrived shortly after. I’d gotten a case of domestic beer—I dunno, it just seemed fitting—and we stood outside like a bunch of assholes and watched the countdown fall toward the inevitable, while the sun did the same.

Seemingly to mark every passing of five minutes, someone would say something like, “Isn’t this exciting?” or “I can’t wait,” or “It’s just like New Year’s ... takes forever to get to midnight, then, it’s suddenly, like, three a.m.” I didn’t add to the collection of bon mots and instead, made sure I got more than my share of the beer. When I collected up some empties, I noticed a hint of tequila from Melissa’s cans.

0 hours, 6 minutes, 27 seconds.

In the moments leading up to the launch, the sun gave up the ghost and was replaced by a blushing moon that looked too big and heavy to creep any further up the sky. Then, I remembered Zander’s words from last Tuesday and realized my eyes were just playing tricks on me. Once the countdown had tripped over five minutes, the French doors slid open, and the five figures emerged from the house to rapturous applause from the parents.

They were all dressed in foil suits, each with a badge sewn on the upper arm that had the words, The Spirit Of Shackleton, written around a drawing of the Earth, and they wore what looked like cartoon fishbowls on their heads. Beneath the bowls, their new haircuts were covered by white hoods, making them all look uniform and asexual. As they walked to the spaceship and waved back at us, I noticed for the first time in months how young and small and childlike they all looked, how they were all kids, not even in double digits, and it made me a little ashamed and teary and frightened because they were all so fragile.

I presumed it was Zander who led the way up the ramp and opened the door, but it could’ve been any of them. Whoever it was took one last look back to us, saluted, and then, disappeared inside. Within a minute, the others had all followed suit.

“Hey, Bryan,” Garfield said, raising his beer can to me. “You didn’t buy them gas, did you? I’m kinda expecting this sucker to take off!”

“You’re thinking of a rocket,” I whispered. “This is a spaceship.”

No one heard me, though, as they were too busy roaring with laughter. Melissa, drunker than anyone else, thanks to her tequila-beer combo, watched the scene with one eye shut and a slurpy kind of liquid grin on her face. Gar high-fived with Darryl, and then they crashed their beer cans together, sending up a geyser of suds. Rachel bounced up and down on the tips of her toes and clapped her hands just in front of her nose and mouth. Cambridge’s and Tuesday’s folks, who had been making asses of themselves for the last hour, had brought novelty foam hands and were whooping like they were at a ballgame. I think I was the only one frozen to the spot, my mouth dried out and cold, my eyes glassing over.

0 hours, 0 minutes, 10 seconds.

“Ten!” everyone shouted.

0 hours, 0 minutes, 9 seconds.

“Nine!”

And so it continued, and I watched with an increasing sense of dread and a desire to run over to the timer and pull the plug, except from where I stood, I couldn’t see a plug. I took some comfort from the fact that there was no steam or flames coming from the back of the ship.

0 hours, 0 minutes, 3 seconds.

“Three!”

0 hours, 0 minutes, 2 seconds.

“Two!”

0 hours, 0 minutes, 1 second.

“One!”

*****


Nothing happened.

The second it had taken to trip down from one had been the longest of my life, but now, I was looking at a line of flashing zeros and nothing had happened. Absolutely nothing.

0 hours, 0 minutes, 0 seconds.

I took one step toward Zander’s spaceship.

Then, it disappeared.

I don’t mean there was a plume of smoke or steam or dry ice. I don’t mean a canvas dropped in front of them. One instant, they were there; the next, we were all staring at an empty platform with a blinking display behind it. They fucking vanished. They were gone.

“Where …”

I had no idea who had spoken. Maybe it was one of the adults. Maybe it was all of them. Maybe it was I. Whoever had said it pretty much summed up everything we were all feeling, and that one word was the cue for chaos.

The women pounced forward toward the ramp. Tuesday’s and Cambridge’s mom, still wearing her foam hand, ran onto the platform where the spaceship had been just seconds earlier, looking down as though she were expecting to see a miniaturized version of them scuttling around. Melissa fell to the ground, and for a moment, I thought she was searching underneath the platform for a trap door or something, and perhaps to begin with, that was exactly what she was doing. By the time I got to her, she was howling and pounding the concrete slabs beneath her, screaming unintelligible garbage into the ground. Gar grabbed me by my shirt and shook me.

“Where are they, Carlyle?” he roared. “What the fuck have you done with our kids?”

I waited for a punch that didn’t arrive, and eventually, he let go of my shirt, threw his arms around me, and started crying on my shoulder. Some time later, someone—Ocean’s mom, perhaps—called the cops and reported our kids missing, but by that time, I had figured it out. They weren’t missing, and they weren’t coming back, and they would never be found. Zander had worked out a way to beat gravity. He was the captain, and the others were his crew. They’d abandoned us. In the sky, the moon—while shining brighter than it had ever been before—suddenly looked very small and very far away.

*****


And so, when they asked me to take it from the top, just one more time, that was what I told the cops. I started at the beginning, and I finished at the end, and every single word I said in between was true.




Gavin Broom, originally from Central Scotland, now lives and writes in Michigan. He’s been published over sixty times both online and in print and, in a very focused world tour, has read at Dire Literary Series in Boston, at Last Monday at Rio in Glasgow, Scotland, and at the Michigan State University Creative Writing Open Mic. He edits fiction for The Waterhouse Review.

Luminaire Award Medallion Designers

Special thanks and acknowledgment to Devin Byrnes and SuA Kang of Hardly Square, for their creativity in designing our annual medallion imprint. Hardly Square is a strategy-, branding-, and design-based boutique located in Baltimore, Maryland, that specializes in graphic design, web design, and eLearning courses. Their invaluable design expertise has made our annual awards come to life. Learn more about our medallion designers.

Transparency for 2014 Luminaire Award for Best Prose

Judging spreadsheets and final reports will be updated here once the winner is announced.