Rules of the Reader Poll: Everyone may participate, readers and contest participants, alike. One vote per person. Each poller chooses his or her top story, listed below in no particular order. The Poll at the bottom of this page is open until November 1st, 12:00 a.m. The top story’s author will be awarded $50.
The Empire Builder
by Eden Robins
This morning, I woke up next to an Amtrak train. It had stolen all the covers, and my feet were freezing.
“How did you get in here?” I asked. It snorted and rolled over. I feared for my bed springs.
“It was snowing and I had nowhere else to go,” it said. “You really don’t remember?”
I shook my head and swung one foot off the bed, ready to bolt if necessary. “Did we–” I couldn’t bring myself to finish.
“No,” said the train. “You wanted to, but I didn’t want to take advantage. You were very drunk.”
“Oh,” I said. Well that would explain the pounding headache. “Is there a name I can call you?”
“Really? This again?” it sighed. “I’m the Empire Builder. Chicago to Seattle?”
“Doesn’t ring a bell,” I said. “I’m–”
“Zipporah,” said the Empire Builder. “Named after Moses’ wife and mohel.”
“Sorry,” I said. “I don’t usually drink this much.”
But, of course, I did. My recycling bins overflowed with wine bottles, and that was just from the weekend. I could say it was because I was heartbroken, and that would have been true, but it’s never the whole story. The Empire Builder frowned at me, but politely refrained from commenting.
“It’s been a rough week,” I said. “I feel very alone. You’ve caught me at a vulnerable time in my life.”
The Empire Builder swung itself over the edge of the bed and tried, to its credit, not to shake the floor as it stood. “Break-ups are rough,” it said. “And life can be cruel.”
“Yes,” I said. “Exactly.” I wondered what I had already blabbed about while I was drunk. I wondered if I had any wine left.
“How about some coffee?” asked the Empire Builder, as if reading my mind. It was nice to connect with someone again.
So I made us some coffee, and we talked about Jeremy, who told me I was a terrible listener, which is ridiculous. I listened to his awful break-up speech, didn’t I? The Empire Builder took its coffee black and sipped while I spilled my guts. Then during an awkward lull in conversation when I ran out of things to say, a blood-curdling scream came from outside my window, followed by the screech of creaking metal.
“Whoa,” I said. “That sounds nasty.” I ran over to the window and pulled open the curtains, squinting in the bright sunlight.
The entire block was filled with Amtrak trains. They were smashing cars and throwing them at pedestrians. Houses burned. My neighbors limped and bled, were chased through the snowy streets by trains and crushed by wheels or impaled on rusty railroad spikes.
“Oh my god,” I whispered. I stepped away from the window, letting the curtains close, and backed right into the Empire Builder. I jumped away, but it grabbed me by the shoulders. “Are you going to hurt me?” I asked. “What’s going on?”
“It’s an old story,” said the Empire Builder, scraping my neck with its gritty wheel. “We feel exploited and underappreciated, so we seek revenge. Nothing more complicated than that.”
“But what have I ever done?” I asked.
It shrugged. “Sin of omission. You haven’t asked me a single thing about myself.”
I picked at my cuticles. “Not true!” I said, peeling a strip of skin with my thumbnail. “I asked you your name.”
“Twice. You forgot the first time,” it said. “Doesn’t count.”
“Still,” I said. “I thought we had a connection.”
“You just don’t get it, do you? You’re missing the point entirely,” the Empire Builder said. “But I guess that’s to be expected. I’m sorry, Zipporah.”
“Why didn’t you do this last night? Why not just put me out of my misery?” I asked.
“I wanted you to prove me wrong,” it said. “And then I just wanted you to be sober.”
The Empire Builder let me wipe the sweat from my forehead. “You know, I think I may have taken you to Seattle once, when I was a kid,” I said. “You timed the route to pass through Glacier National Park during the daylight hours. That was nice.”
“Too little too late,” said the Empire Builder. It shielded my face as the windows exploded from the heat. A flash lit up the street behind my curtains, where silhouettes of trains skipped merrily through the carnage. Flames crackled up the side of my house. Melting snowflakes dripped like rain.
Lost For Words
by Kenneth Yu
When she was young, the words flowed freely, fearlessly, seemingly forming on their own into sentences and paragraphs, pages upon pages, blending together until they became stories.
She drew scenes with almost no effort, conjuring them with a vividness that took control of her readers’ imaginations. She could make her readers cry or laugh, fill them with anger or melancholy, leave them sighing in bittersweet pleasure, or stir them with high inspiration, all as she so directed with the words she chose.
She saw herself simply, as a conduit. Her hands were the means by which she held the parchment in place, by which she moved the quill over paper, by which the ink plotted words, making worlds. The ways the tales sprung forth stayed a mystery to her, a kind of fantastic magic which she never pondered long or deeply upon, reveling instead in that they came to be set down and indeed written.
Every completed tale filled her soul with a supreme sense of fulfillment. In stature and strength she fluorished, finding both her confidence and her identity.
She longed for that time, when she was young.
Friends told her she would heal, but she knew she never would. How to erase from bitter memory a loving husband lost in a storm? Or a daughter, to grave illness, though much deadlier to that child her festering heartbreak for a lost father?
Now, she lived alone, locked away in her all-too-quiet home, carrying the sadness of a mind and heart no longer unburdened. The sharp, tangible pain of loss slowly turned to numbness and drudgery. From her bed, she spent many nights wishing into the darkness for the power to shed the weight of life as easily as she shed her garments. Come the morning’s harsh light, she found her wishes never granted.
One day, even behind muted whispers made in low breaths, she overheard from an open window the talk of her fellow storytellers out on the sidewalk, at once pitying and envious: “What happened to her is unfortunate, but now she will use her sadness to weave even more word-magic, better than before, and the rest of us will seem all the lesser!”
Somewhere in her insentience, she bristled. That she would use her family for this type of gain, that she would use their passing to seek her own, selfish fulfillment, seemed insulting to their memory. She resolved never to do so, and gathered herself in a last, great effort.
She stopped the words.
In her haste she still gave small thought to the consequences. A struggle to bottle the words, to wall them in, to keep the magic and the tales from escaping, was not beyond expectation, but curiously, no such struggle occurred. When she tested herself and familiarly brought a quill to hover over a blank sheet she simply sat there, her arm immobile, for minute upon minute. Satisfied, she put away her instruments and decidedly forgot them.
As the words she once spun had made her grow, it was not long before she began to shrink.
The first hint came with the loosening of her garments. An inch long here, another wide there, and soon her dresses became old, loose-fitting sacks draped carelessly on her body. In two days she shrunk to nearly half her original size and height, and had to choose between traipsing around naked or donning her daughter’s clothes. She chose the latter, but in a few days more it didn’t matter as then even her child’s attire became too large. Her modesty asserted itself only briefly, but careworn and feeling the loss of her family at its most piercing, she let all cloth slide over her skin for good before hiding away in her daughter’s room.
As a pet, her daughter had kept a songbird, a yellow tit, in a gilded cage by the open window. On the day her daughter was buried it had ceased all song. For some reason she felt drawn to it now.
She approached the table upon which the cage stood; with each step the piece of furniture loomed taller, larger. She raised her arms and discovered that she could only just get her fingers over the edge, but it was enough leverage for her to hoist herself up and on.
The shrunken woman and the yellow bird studied each other through the bars. The bird spread its wings and cocked its head several times, gauging her through black, button eyes.
She chose an end to her heartbreak.
Stepping up to the cage door, she released the latch. With a heavy intake of breath, she swung it open, stepped inside—she never wondered at how much smaller she had suddenly become to fit through—and walked adamantly to the middle of the cage floor. The tit fluttered down.
The first peck, an exploratory one, hit her squarely on the shoulder. It felt like the slash of the sharpest knife, and drew blood right away. Spatter appeared on the tit’s yellow breast, a shower of crimson raindrops. She screamed in agony but did not run away.
The tit took out her eyes next, then attacked her throat. A flurry of blood, yellow feathers, and flesh exploded inside the cage. She fell, and the tit hopped onto her; its clawed feet became scrabbling spears that punctured and scratched her body through. The tit’s head bobbed up and down with each attack till all that remained of her was the mush of her flesh and her cracked, broken bones.
The tit shook itself and screeched, trilling a terrible song before flying out the cage door and through the open window, losing itself against the grey sky.
by April Reyes
Dance, the spiders say. Throw up your hands and kick up your feet and dance.
Dusk, and they crawl up your arms, their little legs making love to the insides of your wrists, fluttering along the thin skin so softly you almost can’t feel them. You smile; watch them press their tiny spider mouths to the pulse, drip loving poison into your veins. It feels like the slow burn of wine, or like the warmth of a hand rubbing over your belly. Oh, they’re such pretty, gentle things. You don’t know why your brothers are so afraid of them.
You’re not afraid of them. You know better. You know how sweet they can be.
You tilt your head back; let them tip-toe up your neck, over the sharp angles of your cheekbones, into your hair. They slide to your ears, whisper secrets in the soft voices no one but you can ever hear. They tell you all about the villagers — the things you don’t know because the men are frightened of you and the women call you a witch, and they never let their guard down if they see you within a hundred meter’s distance.
The mayor’s wife hates the miller’s daughter. The mayor is in love with the miller’s son. Your brother, the eldest one, the one with the gimp leg, thinks of you every night when he lowers his wife onto the bed and presses his face against the swell of her breasts. He calls your name. He dreams of you.
The spiders laugh, simper, plant dainty kisses to your lobes. Did you know, precious, lovely, love? Did you know?
You say no.
They giggle into your ear and you giggle with them, and they tell you secrets and then say: dance.
So you dance.
Your legs are tired, and the bones of your ankles grind together. Your thighs are bruised. There are burns on the calves, where someone (the seamstress, because she’s jealous of you, she hates you, she sees the way her boyfriend wets his lips every time you walk by) accidentally singed you with burning coals the day before last. Your legs are tired. Your legs are worn.
But there’s poison now in your veins, and there are angels whispering sweet nothings in your ears, so you sway to your feet and dance. Acrid liquid weeps from your pores, and your legs swell, and the tiny capillaries there turn purple and burst, and you dance. There’s pounding on the door and horrified shouts at your window, and still you dance, with spiders in the web of your hair and little legs peeking from behind the shells of your ears.
Dance, to the sound of a tarantella no one else hears, to the whispers of secrets pouring from the walls, to the moans of the mayor and his pretty little paramour in the haystack behind your house. To the faces they make when they open the door and see you waltzing in the parlor and leaping up and down like a thing possessed.
They don’t know what they’re missing. Silly fools, with their love affairs and apathy. They never knew that all you needed in order to be free was to let the spiders climb into your ears and dance.
You dance and dance, and they stare at you and point at you and send a runner off to find your brother. The eldest one. The one with the gimp.
You close your eyes, then open them. He stands before you, staring at you with his wide black eyes, his mouth a wide ‘o.’ He slides trembling fingers over your shoulders. He shakes you. He tells you to stop.
You rise onto your tip-toes and let your lips slide to his ear, and you tell him a secret.
And when his eyes widen and his arms start to drop, you wrap your thin fingers around his large wrists and hold his hand in yours. Then you smile up at him and spin him around the room.
Dance, the spiders say. All you have to do is throw up your hands and kick up your feet and dance.