We’ve picked the winners of our June 2016 short story contest and you’re in for some great reads.
Florrie Kohn won second place and introduced us to some sinister carrots with her response to our prompt “Forging Colossal Character.”
Like a herd of aged grasshoppers, the bells chirp weakly. Oscar hears the shop door scrape against the ancient tile floor.
The bells, an affectation that predates even the shopkeeper, signal the arrival of a late night customer, while the neon red blink of the open sign nags at Oscar with the reminder that he forgot to close up. “Hm,” he grumps. Oscar pushes back from his perch behind the register, grinds his cigarette and limps toward the front of The Gnarly Garden Shop.
“Overnight hours are Tuesday going into Wednesday. Tonight by any calendar, it’s Thurs-”
He stops midsentence as the door seems to swing itself open. Then he feels a tug of a tiny creature. The naked bones of a miniature fist jerk at Oscar’s leather apron. Peering close, he sees a stranger—a skeleton. Its desiccated bones poke through a musty nightdress like a coat hanger set slightly askew, and he notes, absent are its left forearm and hand.
“Shoo,” he says, brusquely prying its fingers loose from his apron. It turns as though to leave; then Oscar’s eyes catch the glint of gold coins dragging at the turned up hem of the nightdress. Oscar never misses a sale.
He steps around the creature to block the shop door and idly rubs his hands together as though he already possesses the coins. He bends his giant frame close to the creature, the better to see eye to eye socket. The skeleton steps back and brushes the ends of Oscar’s straggly beard from its face. Then, it sneezes causing its skull to rattle.
Oscar snorts. He respects the gold that night creatures carry far more than he respects them. To intimidate one so small, and so alone, warms his soul or whatever it might be that lives inside Oscar.
“Son, what can I do for you?”
“I’m not a boy and certainly, not your son.”
“So what?” he huffs, and makes to grab at the nightdress. The creature pulls back, straightens an inch, and in one leap, jumps close to Oscar and snaps at him with what is left of its jaw.
“You bugger,” acknowledges Oscar. “What do you need, Missy?”
“I’m not Missy, I’m Sara,” it hisses. “But ‘it’ works as well as ‘she,’ as those parts were gone before I ever knew them. I’m here to grow carrots.”
“Never had that request before,” he says. “Carrots are rare and pricey. Your people come here to sniff at the flowers, copulate behind the sod, purchase potions to keep dogs from digging at you, and you drink the bottled water—and that would be during open hours as Tuesday folds into Wednesday. You are an inconvenience—to be here past closing, and on the wrong night, and wanting to grow something as exotic as carrots.”
“I want to understand carrots. My people,” says Sara. “My people are dead. Everyone who ate carrots in 1896 is dead. Carrots, tell me, how would I forge them?”
Contemplating the coins glinting through her nightdress, Oscar warms to sale. He explains turning soil, checking fertility, placing seed, watering, weeding and patience. As seed is what he has to sell, Oscar emphasizes the importance of seed selection. “Pick bad seed and you’ll just have to root it out and start over. The character of the seed should be your prime consideration,” he says.
Sara nods and clicks her fist of finger bones against the sharp point of her chin bone.
Oscar goes on to say, “Carrots don’t grow in a day. You have to wait for the carrots to stretch their parts deep into the soil and high into the sky. That’s how you get colossal—really big—carrots, through vigilance and waiting.”
The creature sighs. “I have the time. I can wait,” it says firmly. It fingers the seed packets, carefully reading the description of each variety. Oscar nudges her toward Heirloom Orange. He has a box full of Heirloom Orange seed packets in back and no one has ever bought one.
“Your best choice,” notes Oscar. He walks over to the cooler and pulls out a wedge of carrot leftover from the day-help’s lunch. He carves a tiny nib and hands it to Sara. The skeleton seems to sniff at it. “Pure Heirloom Orange,” asserts Oscar. “You will never find a carrot so rare, so full of character.”
“Yes, I will have the rare Heirloom Orange carrot seed and a bottle of that water, too,” says Sara.
Oscar pulls out a bottle of water—refilled from the tap. He rings the sale. “Three gold coins for the carrot seed, and as that’s all the gold I see, I’ll give you the water for free.”
Sara drops the gold into Oscar’s hand and turns to leave. “Forge,” says Oscar. “That’s a word you’d use for a weapon, not for growing a carrot. Not even a great big carrot.”
The creature looks back at him.
“Yes,” it acquiesces. “Forge can be a word of war—an action to ferret out and destroy those who are against you. And carrots are deadly. As I said, everyone who ate carrots in 1896, is dead. No one survives.”
Sara pushes through the doorway. Oscar notices the remainder of the carrot piece lying on the counter. He pops it in his mouth and starts to chew. The creature, Sara, stands outside, looking in. She drinks the bottled water. It courses through the bones and onto the sidewalk–directly underneath Oscar’s neatly printed “No drinking here” sign.
“Get away, yells Oscar, banging on the shop window. Then, the unthinkable—and very thinkable—happens. He chokes on carrot. Sara sips and drips as Oscar claws at his throat and then collapses on the shop floor. The packet of Heirloom Orange slips from Sara’s finger bones and floats in the small puddle.
I won’t need to forge a colossal carrot after all, thinks the creature. It’s time to nap.
Thanks for reading! Check in next Friday for our first place winner.