• 2016 Luminaire Award for Best Prose •

Winners & Finalists 2016

Winners & Finalists for 2016 Luminaire Award for Best Prose

First Place: “For the Man after Me” by Eric Shonkwiler
Second Place: “Kinda Sorta American Dream” by Steve Karas
Third Place: “What World We Build after All That’s Burned Away” by Justin Lawrence Daugherty
Fourth Place: “Sculpting Sand” by Steve Karas
Fifth Place: “Tennessee” by Constance Sayers
Sixth Place: “The Jewel Fish” by Charles Bane, Jr.
Seventh Place: “LinkedIn Thought You Might Be Interested in This Post-Climate Impact Job: Environmental Migrant Management and Soil-Free Solutions” by Ashley Shelby
Eighth Place: “Re-Up” by Eric Shonkwiler
Ninth Place: “Summer of the Horseshoe Crab” by Charles Bane, Jr.
Tenth Place: “Walking” by Diane Payne
Eleventh Place: “Riders on the Storm” by Vic Sizemore
Twelfth Place: “Furthermore” by Josh Wardrip

2016 Luminaire Award Prose Judges

Will Chancellor is the author of A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall, a finalist in the 2015 Tournament of Books and a Kirkus Reviews’ Best Fiction Books of 2014 selection. His criticism and essays have been published in Bookforum, Electric Literature, Interview Magazine, and Literary Hub. He can be found on twitter at @WillChancellor.


Matt Sailor lives in Portland, Oregon, in a tiny apartment filled with books, records, and cats. He received his MFA in Fiction from Georgia State University, and has been published in AGNI, Day One, Barrelhouse, Hobart, and elsewhere. Formerly serving as Editor-in-Chief of New South, Matt now serves as Associate Editor of NANO Fiction and Fiction Editor of The Mondegreen. He has been the recipient of a 2014 Creative Writing Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a 2012-2013 Paul Bowles Fellowship from Georgia State University, and 2014 and 2015 Wigleaf Top 50 Very Short Fictions listings, making the shortlist in 2015. You can find him at mattsailor.com.


Ashley Strosnider is a writer and editor living in Lincoln, Nebraska, where she is Managing Editor at Prairie Schooner and the African Poetry Book Fund at the University of Nebraska. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of South Carolina, where she was a James Dickey Fellow. She is also the fiction editor at Pithead Chapel. Previously, she has served as a production editor at Drunken Boat and former editor of Yemassee, at the University of South Carolina, where she taught writing. She has worked as a content editor at CreateSpace in Charleston, South Carolina, and a bookseller and event planner at an independent bookstore in Nashville, Tennessee. Her work appears in Fifth Wednesday, Potomac Review, Nashville Review, and SmokeLong Quarterly, among others. Her reviews appear in Publishers Weekly and elsewhere. She recently delivered a TEDx talk at a Lincoln Women 2015 event on the importance of reading diversely. Find more at ashleystrosnider.com.

2016 First Place Winner: “For the Man after Me” by Eric Shonkwiler

For the Man after Me

The chains on the Ranger quiet and go silent altogether when he pulls up behind the wreck. There is a long, curling drag of snow ahead like the beginning of a figure-eight or from far above, maybe the top of a cursive letter, e or a, except it ends with the blue Explorer smashed driver-side into the telephone pole. Just take the rims, he thinks, if they aren’t factory. A TapOut necklace is swinging gently from the rearview, and he stills it. He could just go on. He could call 911 and leave. If there’s someone inside, don’t mess with it. Leave it for the cops.

It’s a new snow, and the clouds have already passed after dropping a couple inches, and the sky is bright blue. The cold cuts through his Carhartt to his back, and he can feel it spasming, and he wants to lie down, feels the lack of sleep in his shoulders from staying up with Brendan after his nightmare. The back windows on the Explorer are tinted, and he can’t see inside. He steps off the road and into the packed snow, over the dirt and grass kicked up from the skid, and peers in the passenger window. The impact cracked the windshield, and the airbag is drooping toward an empty seat. He breathes. He looks down at his feet for footprints and sees some intricate sneaker tracks leading up to the road. He pulls his cell from his coat pocket and dials up the shop.

MD answers. New meat. What you got for me?

’96 Explorer. It’s in bad shape.

Gonna need a rollback?

He walks around the other side of the truck. It’s curved like a fish, and the driveshaft has to be crooked. Yeah, he says, and nods like MD will see.

You just find it?

Yeah. There’s no one around. He puts his hand on the hood. Engine’s still a bit warm.

Where you at?

He tells him.

We’ll be out. Sit tight.

They hang up. There’s no one coming either direction, and he can just barely hear the semis on 29. From this far off, they don’t sound like trucks, and all he really hears is the hum of them passing, like whales, he imagines, the sound of displacement. He briefly remembers a book he’d read in elementary school, the word ‘cetacea’ above pictures of whales, row on row, all shapes and sizes, before walking around to the front of the wreck. There’s less wind from this side, and he puts his hands on his hips and arches his back, feels it strain, crack. He kneads the muscle beside the spine with his knuckles. He walks a few feet into the field to see if the telephone pole is cracked, but it’s fine, not even crooked from what he can see. He wonders how the poles are strung a hundred feet apart, yet people always seem to hit them, never pass on through into the field or to someone’s yard, something harmless. The glass is busted out from the driver-side window, and the bits look like blue-green gems sprinkled in the snow. The rest of the truck seems intact. At the back, gauging the trueness of the vehicle with one eye, like judging a pool cue, it doesn’t seem as bad as he first thought.

He looks up and sighs, scans the horizon. Cornfields for a couple hundred acres, and then to the south, thick woods. If it were tomorrow, it would be deer season, and he’d hear nothing but gunshots. Maybe still the hums of 29. It’s a good day for picking, he’s told, if you’re careful. Find a truck at the edge of a field and take the rims, take the battery if there’s time. He jumps the short ditch and starts back to his Ranger but stops. There is a tiny flag of red floating against the trees. He squints, visors his hand over his eyes. It’s red, not orange, so not some eager hunter. The footprints below him go from the passenger door to the road, stop where the snow is mostly gone in the center, and continue into the field. He yells for the person, a long hey, hands cupped. The red doesn’t get any closer or further, only seems to sway a little.

He looks both ways down the road, still abandoned, and starts to highfoot it across the cornfield, the broken stover catching and tripping him up every few steps. Now, he can see it’s a woman, wearing one of those sweater-vests. He can make out the white of her turtleneck and her jeans. He yells again, starting to breathe heavily, and waves. She’s just standing there, walking a tight circle. She’s not even looking up. He doesn’t see any blood, and wonders how she could have gotten away without a scratch. Then she pivots for the rest of her circle, and, right before he can grab her by the shoulders, he sees her eyes. The left is blown, all the wiry capillaries burst, and her iris is thin blue but wildly bright against the blood.

Ma’am, he says, are you all right?

He’s stopped her now and is holding tight to her shoulders. She doesn’t say anything. He looks her up and down and still sees nothing wrong with her, just the eye. He remembers his phone and looks back at the vehicles a hundred yards away. He pulls his phone out and calls MD.

Cancel it, man, he says. The driver’s out here, and I need to call her an ambulance.

The woman grabs his arm. I’m looking for my dog.

He stares at her. For a moment, she’s in profile, and he notices she’s pretty, delicate nose, long eyelashes, a classy everymom sort of haircut. Lady, your dog ain’t here. He turns back to the phone. You got a pre-pay to call on or anything?

Yeah, MD says. Where were you again?

Lewis Road, probably a mile or two back from 29.

She know who you are?

I don’t think she knows who she is, he says.

We could keep rollin’.

He stops, looks at the ground. You won’t beat the medic out, will you?

No. She make it if we wait?

He glances back at her. I got no idea, man. Her eye’s all fucked up, and she’s talking about a dog. I think she’s in shock or something.

Well. MD sighs. We could use a ’96.

He curses softly, turns in his tracks. The woman has started her circle again. All right, I’ll deal with it. She’s moving around okay.

Your boy called a bit ago.

He smiles briefly. I just taught him the number.

He’s smart, huh?

Yeah, he ain’t nothin’ like me. Look, I better go.

Sure, kid.

He pockets the phone. Come on, ma’am. Get you out of the cold.

He takes the woman’s arm, and he has to pull to get her to move. She’s still warm somehow. They don’t get far before she tumbles in the rough dirt and snow, and they both go down. As he lifts up, he hears a car coming and lowers back to his chest, his hands covered in snow and his chin almost touching it. A Sunfire heading toward 29. It slows, stops. He should have put his hazards on. He should have taken off the back plate. He should have made the drive to the shop and asked for one of their cars. The Sunfire goes on after a few seconds.

Jesus. He feels the sweat on his forehead freeze. He gets up and brushes his hands on the front of his coat. The woman is facedown and unmoving. Lady. Hey. She doesn’t respond. Hey. He grips her shoulder, rolls her over. Are you okay? You hurt? There’s no answer again, so he throws her arm over his shoulder and stands with her, and once her feet are under her, she begins to move. He hears air like she’s trying to whistle or maybe whisper, and he stops and says, What?

But she keeps on. Her lips are pursed oddly, and he realizes she is just breathing, and he feels something weighing him down inside. When they reach the road, he puts a little distance between them, and she drops onto the pavement and snow.

Shit.

He moves his arms in a wave, unsure, and looks down the road even as he angles toward her. She is crumpled up on herself like her legs became unboned. He turns her head to look at him, the red eye strong and piercing, and he almost has to cover it to keep looking at her. The skin of her face has gone pale, cool as the snow. He presses at her neck, tries to find a pulse. He checks her wrist in a panic. He can’t tell. To the east, the road is still clear, and he brushes away at the snow stuck to her vest and creeping into the folds of her turtleneck. The Sunfire didn’t get his plate; he’s sure. Not hers, either. Just checking out a crash. He can leave now. He can call 911 and have them come get her and be gone, headed home. Take the O2 sensors and battery and the rims and be gone and have something to give MD. But there are his tracks, truck, and footprints, and if someone gets curious, he could get ID’d. He pulls her half up, thinking maybe she’ll start moving again once she’s standing, but feels her still slack and heavy on his shoulder, and he bends to sweep her legs up and staggers with her toward his Ranger. Something buzzes against his chest, and he figures it’s her phone. Drive her in, then. Meet the ambulance. Keep it away from the scene so the guys can scoop up the wreck. Nothing to be done. He’s a Samaritan, not a thief. Can even be anonymous.

He has to set her down to open the door, pressing his knees to the quarter panel and trapping her partly against it with his arm, keeping her from the ground, then lifting her up and nearly losing his balance putting her in the seat. His cheek presses against her breast, and he catches perfume and feels embarrassed more than anything before looking at her face, head lax, leaning toward him. He is only now really afraid and only now because she is dead, and he doesn’t know what that means. He pushes her toward the center of the bench seat and closes the door quickly so it doesn’t end up slamming her head if she slouches back.

With his hands free and walking around the front of the Ranger, he starts to shake. The Explorer is motionless—as though it should be moving. Caught like a still of a movie, and there should be glass flying through the air if he looked hard enough. The road is empty as far as he can see, and he opens his door and gets in, turns the key. The truck starts up and the radio blares metal, and he is embarrassed again. As he pulls the wheel hard to the left, he has the feeling that he’s fleeing a crime scene.

He puts it up to fifty comfortably before thinking he hasn’t buckled her in, and he hits the brakes. She lurches, head striking the dash. He winces and rights her, clips her seatbelt.

I’m sorry, he says, and brushes her hair back to straighten it, like someone will notice or care.

Going on toward 29, he looks over at her every couple hundred feet to see if maybe she’s come back around, but she hasn’t. He stops at the intersection, scans her, grabs her wrist to see if it’s warm again. Her eyes are open and looking blankly at the floor or her lap. The left eye looks peeled. He wants to push her head back against the seat because it seems more comfortable that way. There’s a buzz, and he remembers her phone. It vibrates musically, two short buzzes and a long one, then again, again. He lets it go and turns left.

The firehouse is in the center of town, just past the stoplight, he remembers. It’s been a while since he’s been here, the last time he came to an away football game. The phone buzzes again after they enter the village limits, and he leans over, eyes still on the road, and searches through her vest pocket for it. He pulls it out and looks at it. The picture on the screen: a man probably ten or fifteen years older than he is, and a child, baby hair almost white and sparse, gummy grin. He sets the phone down between them and puts both hands on the wheel. Brendan is only a little older. A year, maybe. He glances at the woman, and his heart pulls so many ways he can’t name one of them. She is pretty, but that’s all she has in common with her. He swallows something, thinks of the park a couple years ago. They pass a gas station and a library on the left, an older woman salting the walkway. The light is up ahead, and it turns red and he stops. A couple cars pull up on the other side, and he wonders if they can see into the truck, see her slouched there. The light is still red, and no one is coming. He lets off the brake and drives through the light, and the silver flank of a semi fills his rearview. The firehouse is right there, and his arms and legs feel heavy getting out and running to the door. The reception area is vacant, two chairs, a gumball machine. There’s a glass booth set into the wall with no one in it, and he realizes he should have called on the way. A payphone sits off to one side, and he fishes for a quarter and dials 911. Dispatch picks up on the second ring. He paces as close to the door as he can get, looks out at his truck and at the woman inside.

I just freaked out, he says. I saw her and didn’t know what to do. He is flushed suddenly and, after hanging up, walks outside. It is as though he has killed her, as though he wrecked her car. He feels like he has left something important behind.

He gives the medics a fake name, and they are satisfied. They pull her out of the truck and straight onto the gurney, load her into the back of the ambulance, and leave him there on the street with their lights going and the siren, and he watches the red flash over the sides of the houses as they drive away. He wanted to ask about her, to follow them to the hospital, but instead he gets into the truck and pulls a U-ey to head back the way he came.

It’s 3:56 by the clock, and the sun is heading down. In another hour, the snow will be blue and the stars will come out and Brendan will be at the door, breathing steam on the glass, drawing in it. He passes through the intersection and drives out of town, meets the start of traffic coming home and the end of it leaving for work. People going out for second shift at the Honda plant, a grind he could never take even if they’d hire him. Her phone lights up and bleats. He picks it up, puts it back. Turning down Lewis Road to make sure the Explorer is gone, he thinks he’ll just chuck the phone out the window. But there’s the truck, still. No rollback in sight. He parks the Ranger and gets out, switches her phone for his, and calls MD.

MD picks up on the first ring. Bryce, man, you’re not gonna believe this shit.

What, he says.

Tranny dropped on that F600. Pull the usual offa the wreck. We’re gonna have to let it go.

He nearly sits down in the road. All right.

Traffic on your woman is bad. They called her soon as they got her.

He nods. I figured.

Foulk’s Towing on its way. You probably got half an hour. Sheriffs are tied up across the county.

He’s silent for a minute, stuck between the two trucks. He turns back to his.

Well, see you back here.

Yeah. He hangs up. He puts his phone away thinking of the doublewide, dark and dry from the plug-in heaters, his son’s chapped nostrils, him tugging on the cord of the phone while Grandma stands beside him, waiting, too. As he gets his tools from the bed of the truck, he thinks of the baby on the woman’s phone, and the man, the husband. He wants to call MD to see if there was traffic about contacting family, but they probably asked off-air.

He takes a tarp and his toolbox from the back, throws the tarp down below the Explorer, and slings himself under the truck, eases to the back of the engine block. He looks along the exhaust and raises the screwdriver up to the first O2 sensor to peel back the plastic and stops. What was above him, what was warm and like a home, maybe, this truck. He thinks of sitting in the backseat, looking at the mom and dad, holding hands between the seats, or her hand on his thigh. All the things he didn’t get to do, won’t, the things Brendan will never see. And if he does, they won’t be right. They won’t be like this kid saw. It won’t be his mother.

The first sensor comes off easy, and so do the rest. Scooting himself out from under the wreck, he feels the cold seep in from the ground below. He stands and opens the passenger door to lean over and flip the lock on the hood and something pale catches his eye in the backseat. He looks ahead, through the cracked windshield, and moves to shut the door. His feet slip out, and he sits down against the tire. A semi or two passes along the highway.

The field across the way looks barren. Like nothing could grow there, like the rows of stover are all there ever was, jagged above the snow. Again he thinks, I could go. Try again tomorrow. This is only his third week. But he’s already seen this, and he thinks the driver heading this way doesn’t need to. So he calls 911 from his phone. He says he just came up on a wreck and the dispatcher tries to tell him it’s taken care of, and he says, No. No, it’s not. He says, There’s a kid here in the back, and the woman on the other end goes quiet. She finally asks his name, and he gives it. Then she asks him to wait there for the deputy or the ambulance, and he says, Yeah, I’ll wait. She wants to keep him on the line, but he says, I’ll wait, again and hangs up.

He stands and walks into the field, following the tracks, and he takes out the woman’s phone. There are five missed calls and a couple text messages, and he clears the notices to see the picture again, but the background is of flowers. He bends down to set the phone in the snow, and walks back to his truck, hands deep in his pockets for the cold and the shivering.




Eric Shonkwiler has had writing appear in Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, Fiddleblack, [PANK] Magazine, Midwestern Gothic, and elsewhere. He was born and raised in Ohio, received his MFA from University of California Riverside as a Chancellor’s Distinguished Fellow, was selected as a New River Gorge Winter Writer-in-Residence in West Virginia, and has lived and worked in every contiguous U.S. time zone. His debut novel, Above All Men (MG Press, 2014), won the Coil Book Award for Best Book in the Independent Press, was chosen as a Midwest Connections Pick by the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association, and was included as a Best Book of the Year selection on multiple lists, including The Next Best Book Club’s and Chicago Book Review’s. His second novel, 8th Street Power & Light, was released by MG Press in October 2016. He is the winner of the Luminaire Award for Best Prose, was a finalist in the Best Small Fictions Prize and Pen 2 Paper Fiction Prize, and has formerly served as Regional Editor for LARB, a reader for [PANK], and Editor-in-Chief and Fiction Editor for Crate Magazine. Find him at ericshonkwiler.com and at @eshonkwiler on Twitter.

2016 Second Place Winner: “Kinda Sorta American Dream” by Steve Karas

Kinda Sorta American Dream

I’m in the supper line behind fifty white-bearded fat asses ready to stack my plate high with fried chicken, buttered egg noodles, and creamy cabbage salad. Might as well get something out of this. “Welcome Class of 2012” is spelled out above the dinner choices on the menu board. When we graduate—those of us who do—we’ll be the seventy-fifth group to stake that claim. I didn’t get into Harvard, and I’ve never been much of a Christmas guy. In fact, I dropped out of community college after a year and always preferred Halloween, so the fact that I’m here, at the Harvard of Santa schools, so they say, makes it plain just how twisted life is.

I find a seat at an empty table, bread buns rolling off my plate like snowballs.

“Sit over here, pal,” one of the Santas calls out to me.

“Saved this spot for you.”

“Come on, join us!”

It’s amazing how much friendliness is exaggerated here.

“Thanks, fellas,” I say.

For a lot of these guys, this isn’t their first rodeo. Unlike me, most are retired and have been playing Santa for years to make a little extra income. I’m sandwiched between an ex-land surveyor and an aerospace engineer. An agricultural salesman is slurping down a casserole right in my face. Some of these guys have been here before and are signed on for a tune-up, you know, to work on the ho-ho-ho or pick up new tips on beard grooming. One Santa—Gill—is already getting on my last nerve. He’s Southern-California-tan, bragging to us about how he doesn’t need the money, how he volunteers his time at hospitals and village tree lightings. I want to reach across the table and smack him upside the head with a drumstick.

From the windows, we can see flakes beginning to fall. Gill, of course, breaks out into song—“Let it Snow”—and pretty soon the whole cafeteria is rockin’. I feel like quite the imposter because, I’m embarrassed to admit, I don’t even remember the words. I’m no Santa. At six-four, a hundred ninety pounds wet, I look more like Frankenstein than anything. I scan the room, move my lips, bounce my head anyway. I do my best to stumble through it without letting on how lost I am.

*****


“I don’t feel comfortable here,” I tell Barb.

We’re in our dorm room. She doesn’t respond or even look up, just keeps unpacking her suitcase and putting clothes in drawers. Her not saying anything says a lot. Like, “Well, you better suck it up, Wayne, unless you got a better idea because, as of now, we’ve run out of options.”

“Mom paid,” she finally says, “and we’re already here.”

My mother-in-law, The Meddler, saw a segment about this place on 20/20. Since I’ve been out of work a while, she forked out the cash for this mini-camp and sent us as an “early Christmas gift.” In three days I’m supposed to be miraculously transformed into Santa, and Barb into Mrs. Claus. The Meddler said it would give us the chance to find seasonal work, and when she said it, I could tell she thought of herself as quite the do-gooder, which royally pissed me off. But Barb decided it might be a good idea for us to give this a try, and I’m in no position to argue with her.

“I’m going to call and see how the boys are doing,” Barb says, her hair dyed white and pulled up into a bun, which is still wigging me out.

Before the plant shut down almost a year ago, we paid our mortgage on time for a nice ranch outside Detroit. Barb stayed home with the boys—now fourteen, eleven, and six—and I made a modest living. We’d take summer camping trips to Muskegon or Ossineke, had even been to Canada once. We were kinda sorta living the American Dream. The boys haven’t wanted much to do with me in my recent mood state and now they’re crashing with their grandpa and The Meddler, who I’m sure are doing their best to convince them they’re better caretakers than us.

“Do you want to say goodnight to Dad?” Barb says. “Boys? Oh, hey, Mom. Where’d they go?” She glances at me and shrugs.

“Guess not,” I mumble.

The room smells like peppermint. Coupled with the Christmas decorations it’s smothered in—a candy cane bedspread, creepy talking Santa doll, wooden nutcrackers—I feel nauseous, like I’ve eaten too much candy. Even though I know it’s probably not for the best, I wish I were back in the comforts of my own home. I wish I were alone in my den, where I feel safe at least, searching for jobs that don’t exist or that I’m not qualified for, obsessively checking my family’s online bank account, watching our savings slowly disappear.

*****


It’s the ass crack of dawn, the Dean of the school is at the podium in the front of the great hall (interestingly, the only guy in here with a clean shave), and I’m sipping on burnt coffee out of a Styrofoam cup. I can’t stop scratching my neck because my newly dyed beard, only three-weeks’ growth at this point, is itching to no end. I flip through the schedule: non-stop sessions on marketing and promotion, fitness training, and posing techniques to name a few. On the last page, I read “Final Test (Hint: In Front of TV Cameras)” and my stomach churns.

“Kids expect perfection,” the Dean says. “That means you need to have fresh-smelling breath, know all the reindeer names, act like you’ve lived in the North Pole your whole life. And it helps to have real reindeer doo doo on the soles of your shoes.”

The Santas laugh in unison—a hearty laughter that rumbles from deep within their bowels. The white Santas, the Latino Santas, the one black Santa, even. I’m having a hard time understanding what’s so funny, especially at the crack of dawn’s ass.

“Give it your all on every effort,” the Dean continues, “because each kid will remember you forever. To be a great Santa, you have to want to be him, embody his spirit, be willing to stay in character through highs and lows. I’m a firm believer you don’t choose to be Santa; you’re chosen to be.”

I roll my eyes and search the crowd for someone sharing my skepticism—maybe a raised eyebrow, folded arms—but the rest of these suckers are all nodding their heads in agreement, hands on bellies.

“Enough from me,” the Dean says. “Let’s go around and have each of you share your name and your wildest Christmas story.”

As if a switch is turned on, my heart begins hammering away at my chest cavity, and I know where this is going, so I bail. I mutter something to the Santa next to me about having to hit the head, though I really don’t care if he hears. Barb is running late to her Mrs. Claus meeting and is still in our room, slipping into her plaid worsted cloak. She looks like Mrs. Doubtfire, and that actually calms me a bit.

“I can’t do this,” I say. “I’m freaking out. They’re having us get up and talk about ourselves and we’re supposed to be all cool and jolly.”

“Why don’t you take one of your Xanax, Wayne? Did you take your Xanax?”

“I hate having to rely on that stuff.” I shake one out from the pill container anyway and fire it down my throat.

“You’ll be fine,” Barb says as she squeezes her hooves into black pointed shoes with fancy gold buckles we’re supposed to presume were fashioned by elves. She stopped comforting me during these episodes months ago, and I’m not sure if she’s just fed up or if it’s tough love.

“All right, I guess I’ll deal with it myself then,” I say.

“Wayne, c’mon.”

Six months back, I started waking up in the middle of the night scared I was about to die. The weirdest things are setting me off now on a regular basis. High school fears like speaking in public, talking to attractive ladies, calling about job openings.

I step closer to the door, and I can still hear Santas bellowing into the microphone: “Next thing I know my leg starts feeling wet and, sure enough, the kid’s taking a leak on me!”

For some reason, I think of the boys, especially my fourteen-year old, and I’m glad they’re not here to see me pacing the room, shrinking behind the door. The schedule, rolled up in my fist, is tight enough to make a straw. I peer down at letters following the paper’s curve, namely the letters “T” and “V.” The boys would love to see their old man on the tube, wouldn’t they? A younger version of me would have been the first to jump in front of television cameras and act a fool. I was the goof in the high school cafeteria doing magic tricks for crowds, making coins disappear in my hand, but now look at me. I crumple up the schedule into a furious little ball and dunk it into the snowman-shaped garbage bin.

*****


That afternoon, we’re at a toy store in a local mall doing field research on the latest crazes: Furby, Elmo Live, something called a Lalaloopsy Silly Hair Star doll. Gill is examining a box holding a One Direction action figure. I believe it’s Harry Styles, and I only know this because Barb says our fourteen-year old is growing his hair out to look like him. He cares more about his Harry Styles hair, in fact, than about his grades, from what she tells me.

I see Gill nudge Barb, who’s standing beside him. “One Direction?” he says. “Who are these guys? What happened to The Monkees and The Beatles, right? Now, those were bands.” He cackles like it’s the funniest thing he’s said—ever—and Barb obliges him with a laugh herself.

I’m a few feet away, staring at a Ninjago Epic Battle Lego set, clawing at my beard, pretending not to pay any mind.

“Do you have any kids?” Gill asks her, this guy with his orange skin and white teeth, this George Hamilton in a Santa suit.

“Three,” Barb says. “All boys.”

“Three boys? You’ve got to be a saint, right? I’m in the presence of sainthood, and I don’t mean Saint Nick. No offense to you, buddy,” he says turning to me. Cackle, cackle. “How old are they?”

“The oldest is fourteen …”

“There’s no way you have a fourteen-year old. Get out! Even if you are supposed to be Mrs. Claus.”

“I do, believe it or not. The next one is eleven and the youngest is—”

“Six,” I interrupt. “The little guy’s six.”

Gill’s eyes get wide as truck tires. He nods his head, giggles out of place, and goes back to fumbling with the Harry box. Barb pulls a doll from the shelf and clears her throat. She inadvertently presses its belly and the doll shouts, “I made a stinky!” I maneuver one of the little ninja Lego soldiers and poke his sword into the monstrous snake with its red eyes and silver fangs. Gill puts Harry away and moseys out of the aisle, beginning a carol under his breath.

*****


The next morning, the Santas are assembled in the great hall. The toy train is chugging its way around trays of pineapple and Danishes. I’m downing my black coffee and eavesdropping on conversations. “How’d you get your beard to smell like a candy cane?” one Santa says to another. “Peppermint oil,” the other one says. “That’s my little secret.” I roll my eyes. A three-hundred-pound candy cane, all right.

The Dean gets up to the podium and announces what’s on tap for the day: dance lessons and sessions on liability insurance and make-up artistry. A child psychologist will be lecturing us, too.

“Before I send you off to your first session, let’s talk about tomorrow’s final project,” the Dean says. My chest tightens. “You’ve all been paired up and will take turns playing Santa at various locations across the area—daycare centers, old age homes, churches. Local newspaper and TV crews will be floating around to catch you in action.”

That familiar feeling joins me as the Santas are bumping past to find out their assignments. I’m short of breath and my mouth tastes like I’m sucking on batteries for mints. I’m caught in the stream of Santas, following the scent of peppermint and body odor, but inside I want to run. Inside, I’m a caveman with a sabertooth on his trail.

I don’t even have the chance to open the card with my name on it and Gill’s warm breath is heating my neck. “You’re the only Wayne P., I take it, right?”

“Uh, yeah, I think so.”

He extends his hand and grasps my sweaty palm. “Looks like it’s you and me then, buddy. Our gig’s at the Midland Mall. That’s gotta be the primo assignment, right? Am I right?”

I stare at the raspberry jelly squeezing out of Gill’s Danish and onto his pearly whites. A Santa nudges my shoulder from behind and a speckle of coffee lands on my shirt. “Whoa, you okay, buddy?” Gill says. “You don’t look too good. Bleach in your beard getting to you?”

And then the music begins to blare over the loudspeakers signaling us to move on to our first session of the day, and I’m off to the Rudolph Room to learn how to do the Christmas Waltz. Between Bing Crosby’s “Silver Bells” and Gill’s cackling, there’s no time to think and that’s probably exactly what I need.

*****


Barb and I are lying in bed watching the news. A blizzard is blowing in, they say. Over a foot of snow is expected to drop by tomorrow afternoon. Outside our window, things seem calm for now. A lamppost lights the mounds of snow, the lot of them glazed with a thin veil of ice, that have set up camp right there for the winter.

“Maybe they’ll cancel this stupid final project,” I say.

Barb doesn’t look at me, only tucks her white locks behind her ears, pushes up her glasses with her trigger finger. “One more day, Wayne. And just think, once you have a diploma from here, you’ll be like a Super Santa. You’ll be able to work wherever you want, I bet.”

“Super Santa. Fantastic, what I’ve always aspired to be. Maybe I can be like the jerkoff they’ve paired me up with.”

“Oh c’mon, Gill seems like a nice guy.”

“He’s not. But the good thing is, I’m sure his pompous ass will have no problem doing the whole gig on his own and I can sit back, blow smoke up his rear, and finish up so we can go home already.”

“Maybe you should hang out with Gill, regain your confidence. It doesn’t seem like anything bothers him. That’s the way you used to be before all this.”

This has an assortment of connotations and hangs in the air like God-awful breath. For ten years running, I was racking up World’s Best Dad T-shirts and mugs each Christmas. Now whose fault is it I can’t keep up the act? Whose fault is it I’m reduced to vying for the title of Super Santa?

“So, what,” I say, “do you want to fuck the guy?” Barb’s head whips around and she glares at me, eyes crazy, mouth like a giant sinkhole. “I’m sorry, that was dumb.”

She jumps out of the bed. “What’s wrong with you? Have you completely lost your mind?”

She storms into the bathroom, slams the door, locks it. That doesn’t stop her from yelling at me, though, and I’m a little embarrassed thinking if anyone hears us, it may dampen the Christmas cheer. “Now that your family needs you to step up,” Barb says, “all you want to do is hide in your den like a damn groundhog waiting for the spring!”

“I’m sorry.”

“I mean, what kind of man have you become?”

She keeps going like that for a while. Comments of that nature that slowly taper off. When she comes out an hour later, even after I say “Sorry” for the umpteenth time, she doesn’t make eye contact or respond. She gets into bed, and we’re lying with our backs to each other. I can’t sleep, and she periodically kicks the sheets and readjusts her pillow so I don’t suppose she’s sleeping much, either. I gaze out the window wondering how I let this go so far, and then snowflakes start to fall at some dreadful hour and I assume the blizzard has burst through the gates.

*****


I’m the first Santa in the great hall. It’s as quiet as this place has been, and even the Christmas lights haven’t been turned on yet. The Dean is getting the coffee brewed. I reach for a gingerbread scone from the breakfast table. “Is it okay if I grab one of these?”

“Oh, yeah, sure. Early bird gets the worm, right?”

I stare out at the snow falling down sideways, the wind combing the evergreens back like a big brush. The Dean seems unfazed, goes back to the kitchen and brings out a fruit platter, like it’s just another day in the North Pole. I catch a glimpse of his Mrs. reaching for plates from a cabinet.

“So what line of work are you in back home,” the Dean says, “you know, when you’re not donning the Santa costume?”

“I worked at a plant that manufactured parts for the auto companies. Drive-line parts mostly. Front and rear axles, propeller shafts. I was on the assembly line for seventeen years, but the plant closed down for good about a year ago. Been out of work since.”

“Nothing else out there, huh?”

“Nothing else I know how to do.”

“Well, you came to the right place.”

“I suppose,” I say.

“You got kids, Santa?”

“Three.”

“Well, if there’s any good in this, it’s that you’ll be able to relate as well as anyone when you have that sad little child on your lap asking you to get his daddy a job or help them keep their house.”

A few groggy Santas, half-asleep, drag themselves into the hall. They nod their heads and mumble “Good morning” before lining up for coffee.

“Where you headed this afternoon?” the Dean asks me.

“Midland Mall. With good ol’ Gill.”

“Oh, boy, guess you didn’t hear. Gill went out skiing at Apple Mountain last night. Broke his leg. You won’t be seeing him unless you plan on visiting the MidMichigan Medical Center.”

“So what the hell does that mean for me?”

“I guess it means you’re on your own, Santa. Think you can handle a mall full of overexcited kids?”

*****


Fortunately, the mall is pretty much a straight shot down 10 because I’m on my own, and I can’t see out of the windshield even with the wipers going full force. Barb is with the other ladies probably learning how to bake cookies, and even if she weren’t, she wouldn’t be with me. She hasn’t talked to me since last night, and I’m sure she doesn’t think I’d muster the balls to do this mall thing, which may very well be the reason I’m going.

With the snow, I’m expecting a light crowd, but of course it comes to a stop as soon as I get out of the truck. Because that’s the twisted nature of this life. A plow is crashing through the lot, clearing the way for all the minivans and little tykes I imagine are eagerly throwing on their coats and boots in foyers across town. Inside, the mall is set for my arrival. In the center of the courtyard, behind kiosks selling chair massages and pillow pets, there’s a towering tree with red and green ornaments. Beside it, there’s a gold throne, my throne, surrounded by poinsettias and phony gift boxes. Carols are piping through the loud speakers: “You better watch out. You better not cry…” It reminds me of a time not that long ago but that seems long ago, when I was the one on the other side of the red velvet rope with my three boys. To be honest, I don’t even know if my six-year old still believes in Santa.

I meet up with the general manager, a chubby fella with a five-o’clock shadow who looks like he could be a mall Santa, too, if he wasn’t running this joint. He walks me into a back room, makes me sign some papers, and invites me to go ahead and get suited up. He wishes me a Merry Christmas in the same way a churchgoer would say, “Bless you, Father,” to a priest, and then walks out.

I’m alone for the first time in full costume—suit, boots, hat, and gold-rimmed glasses. I examine myself in a smudged face mirror stuck to a file cabinet and realize it’s been a while since I’ve done so. I don’t look anything like me, but it is me. I don’t think I look much like Santa, either, but as long as the kids buy what I’m selling, as long as one of them doesn’t sniff me out, this can end up all right. I grab a Snickers from the vending machine and wolf it down for a little boost.

As I’m heading to my throne, I start feeling weak, hyperventilating. I try to remember everything I’ve absorbed over the last three days despite putting so much effort into not paying attention to any of it. “Keep your hands in plain view. Keep your hands in plain view. Keep your hands in plain view,” I’m muttering under my breath. I give my mustache a little curl because it apparently gives more of a fantasy look, adds to the magic that is Santa. The line is building, I see, into a mass of moms and strollers, winter coats, and runny noses. The mall photographer is setting up, and I spot a TV crew lurking by the RadioShack. I can’t feel my beard itch, and I’m not sure if that’s a good thing.

My phone begins vibrating in my pocket, and I’m worried if someone sees me answering it I can get in trouble because maybe Santa isn’t supposed to have a phone. But then again they’re presumably making all these toys in the North Pole, right, so why wouldn’t they have phones, too, in this day and age? Plus, it might be an emergency so I pull it out. It’s Barb.

“What’s up?” I say. “I’m about to go on,” thinking maybe she’s calling to give me some last minute moral support, declare how much she believes in me.

“I just had a call from my mom,” she says. “Are you sitting?”

“Yes, I’m sitting. I’m sitting in my Santa throne.”

“Your son decided to sneak out of the house last night. My parents found out when the police brought him home around midnight after they caught him drinking beer with two of his friends in an alley.”

“You’re telling me this now?”

My immediate reaction is to race out of here because I have a legitimate excuse. I’ll do the three-hour drive home in two, grab my boy, and shake him. My boy who I’ve barely spoken to the past six months, my boy who’s growing his hair out to resemble a British pop star. As much as I’d like to ask him what he was thinking—why?—I know he won’t have a good answer and I already kinda sorta know why, anyway. Besides, I have an army of toddlers that will hunt me down and trample me into the snow if I run for it at this point.

“I’m sorry I’m laying this on,” Barb says. “I just had to tell you.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“Mom and Dad have been keeping an eye on him all day. We’ll deal with this tonight. No point in leaving now, anyway, because we’ll just get stuck on the highway with this snow.”

“Ready, Santa?” the GM calls.

No, no, I’m not. But “ho, ho” is what comes out of my mouth.

“Good luck,” Barb says. “I’m proud of you, Wayne.”

The first kid is being dragged toward me by his mom, and I don’t have time to cry or yell or scrutinize my parenting. The kid is clinging to his mom as they near, terrified, like if he comes to me he’ll be swallowed up into the abyss that is my fluffy red suit. The mom tries to drop him in my lap, but his arms are locked around her neck.

“It’s okay, little pal. You can come here,” I say.

“Oh, he did this last year, too,” the mom says, swiping her dangling brown hair from her eyes.

Then why the hell did you bring him back? I’m thinking.

“Come on, sweetie,” the mom pleads. “Santa just wants to know what you want for Christmas.”

The kid is finally in my lap, but writhing, arching his back, one arm grasping his mom’s top.

In a panic, I start thinking WWGD—What Would Gill Do? “Do you want to hear all about my reindeers?” I say. “Donner, Blitzer.” But he doesn’t stop thrashing.

So I dig into my pocket and pull out a quarter. “Hey, hey, watch, little buddy. Watch what Santa can do.”

He quiets a bit, his chest still heaving, though, snot running down his lip. He sneezes on me.

I show him the coin between my thumb and index finger. “Should we make it disappear?” I ask and he nods. I swipe my right hand over the coin as if I’m grabbing it and then squeeze the hand shut. “Go ahead and blow on it,” I say.

He looks to his mom for reassurance. “Blow on it, sweetie,” she says and so he does.

And then I slowly fan my fingers open for the big reveal and, lo and behold, the coin has vanished as far as the little guy can tell. His eyes widen, and it’s the same expression my boys used to have when I would do the same trick for them. They’d gawk at me in amazement as if I were otherworldly, invincible, like they couldn’t believe I was their dad. And I was pretty sure they’d never doubt me for a second.

By the time I make the coin reappear behind the kid’s ear, he’s not crying anymore. In fact, he’s twiddling with my mustache. His mom backs away a few steps and the photographer snaps a picture I have to believe is a good one.

“Okay, so now let’s get down to business, little man,” I say. “What is it you want Santa to get you for Christmas?”




Steve Karas is the author of Kinda Sorta American Dream (Tailwinds Press, 2015) and Mesogeios (forthcoming from WhiskeyPaper Press, Summer 2016). His stories have appeared in Necessary Fiction, Hobart, JMWW, Little Fiction, and elsewhere. He lives in Chicago with his wife and two kids, and can be found online at his website.

2016 Third Place Winner: “What World We Build after All That’s Burned Away” by Justin Lawrence Daugherty

What World We Build after All That’s Burned Away

My husband had started to believe his left arm was a lie. We’d gone to the redwood forest where we’d first conceived, to bury the memory of the child we never shared. It had been months since the loss, so long since some part of me was gone that I’d forgotten how beautiful dying leaves were in the fall. We lay in bed in a hotel room, Bryce’s ear to my stomach. He did this often: listened, cooed, and awaited some sound from the deep of me.

“It’s not supposed to be there,” Bryce said. He held out his arm, commented on its ugliness, its deformity. “I was born wrong.”

“Everything’s where it’s supposed to be,” I said. I laid my left arm across his, ran my nails down his skin. I asked if he felt the heat in my fingers, the chill from the slightest touch. “That’s how you know,” I said.

Our child was never much larger than a lime, the fingers and toes barely losing their webbing. I wanted to feel more like Bryce did, but I’d felt the miscarriage as a subtraction, almost as a ghost or spirit leaving me, finally free.

There was a man in Atlanta who managed a doomsday vault. He filled this chamber up with seeds of all kinds from around the world. He awaited disaster daily. If bombs fell and blacked out the sun, his doomsday vault held all of the seed copies necessary for the eventual rebuilding. I met him at the airport, on his way to give a talk in Chicago about his project. I was on one of the many trips I’d taken that year to get away from all the things I had to run from.

He showed me the seeds of a rare pepper. I asked him if he was certain the world was going to end sometime soon.

“It’s not the world ending,” he said. “The world will be fine. It will move on tumbling through space. It’s us we’re worried about.”

“But what if all of us are lost?” I asked.

He put his seed pouch back in his bag. “It’s pretty narcissistic, I suppose, to believe some of us will be left to start over.”

He got up to head to his terminal. He gave me his card and said he’d be happy to talk some other time. Before he left, I asked if he thought we’d survive.

He said, “Eventually, even the universe is going to freeze, all the heat of it lost to the cold.”

*****


I called Bryce when I touched down in Seattle. He said he had contacted a surgeon about taking his arm. He had found a group of people on the Internet who talked about their unneeded limbs, their vulgar hands and toes. I told him no surgeon would take his arm from him, that it went against their oaths to first do no harm.

“I want to be rid of this,” he said.

I ran my hand over my belly, searching for the scar.

“I need someone to come and cut this away from me,” he said. “I need to feel like I’m rid of the thing that was never supposed to be there.”

*****


Bryce had found me crying in the bathtub after it happened. He’d come home from work, and I was curled up there, unmoving. He said we needed to go to the hospital. On the way, I was almost delirious, not myself. He’d tell me later that I had asked him where the baby was, if it was a boy or a girl, if it was safe and sleeping or hungry and in need.

*****


I met the man from the doomsday vault when I returned from Seattle. He spoke of doomsday preppers he met at the conference, how they misunderstood. He wasn’t in the business of hysteria, he said. Seed storage was about insurance against loss.

I asked if he was married, if he had ever had children. He took out a flask and poured liquor into his coffee. He drank deep and long, ignoring the heat. He shook his head, said he’d had someone once. He drank again. I watched all the people coming and going past the patio where we sat. I wondered where they headed, what worlds they couldn’t return to.

“We lost a child,” I said. This man felt like the only person I wanted to tell about the miscarriage. I hadn’t talked to Bryce about it in months. I’d awakened in the middle of the night twice to Bryce whispering to my midsection in the dark. “My husband’s not dealing with it well. It’s been so long, and I don’t know what to do, where to turn. He’s falling apart. But what I’m afraid of is that I’m not feeling anything.”

He asked why I would tell him any of this. He asked what made me want to tell him these things. I said I had no one to talk to, that all I wanted was somewhere to put all the words I had forgotten I needed to say.

He reached in his bag and produced boxes of seeds for peppers, tubers, medicinal plants. He said he often looked at the world and thought not much of us was worth preserving. He wondered why he did what he did, sometimes. “But, it’s not about preservation or continuing,” he said. “It’s about what comes after, what world we build after all that’s burned away.”

*****


I found Bryce in the kitchen one afternoon with all our knives on the counter. An ax from the shed leaned against a cupboard. There was a handsaw on the table. There were small, still-bleeding cuts on his arm.

“If no one’s going to do it for me, I’m going to have to do it myself,” Bryce said.

If I hadn’t shown up then, would he have started sawing? How far would he have cut, ignoring the pain until either he could go no further or until his body shut down from the shock?

I started gathering the knives, took up the ax. He asked what I was doing, and I told him he’d lost it. I went to the table and he did, too, and he tried to get to a butcher knife before I took it away. He yelled for me to stop, but I walked out the door with the knives and the ax and the saw. He tried to follow, but I drove quickly. I thought then to take these things far; then I thought to go to the vault, to bury these things that could do such harm. I drove toward the vault, thinking of locking myself and Bryce and those we loved in it. I wanted to find ourselves inside, waiting out the ruin, waiting on a chance to emerge into the newly-made world.




Justin Lawrence Daugherty lives in Atlanta and is the Co-Publisher of Jellyfish Highway Press.

Luminaire Award Medallion Designers

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Transparency for 2016 Luminaire Award for Best Prose

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