At a time when most humans have developed prehensile tails, a woman returns home from a trip to find distinct changes in her loafer of a son.



Bart didn’t hear me come into the apartment. He remained hunched over his laptop, headphones corking his ears. The brusque taxi driver plopped my enormous suitcase into the corner of the main room, snatched money out of my hand, and trotted back out. His lumpy, hairless tail yanked the door shut behind him. My son, unfazed, hawked a loogie into an almost-empty McDonald’s cup and furiously kept typing.

When I left for my Hawaiian vacation three weeks ago, Bart was lying on the floor in his boxers with his legs up on the couch. He’d read somewhere that elevating his feet would relieve the back pain he felt when he sat too long. It’d been months since he’d quit his “network security job,” whatever that was. Before I left, he spent his days either at the computer or watching Game of Thrones. Now, with Bart’s back to me, I noticed his t-shirt lacked the usual greasy spot from his long, unwashed hair. In fact, his hair had been clipped short.

I tapped on his shoulder and shouted to be heard over whatever noise he was funneling into his ears. “Bart, I’m home.”

In one swift motion, he screamed, stood up, turned around, and snatched a pair of scissors from the desk. His quick reaction surprised me because it was the most I’d seen him move since he’d quit his job.

“Jesus, Ma, why are you yelling?”

“You had your ears plugged. How else was I supposed to get your attention? Now stop threatening your mother with assault and give her a proper welcome home.”

Bart did as he was told, plodding between the kitchen island and the couch to hug me. A chemical smell struck me as we embraced, an odor whose source I would later learn was called Axe Body Spray. He quickly pulled away and returned to his computer. As he sat, his t-shirt hiked up and I could see the notch of his shorts that would, on most other humans, accommodate for a tail. The words Fuck Off were tattooed onto the pale skin over his tailbone. My son was full of surprises today.

I expected him to return to whatever computer world I pulled him from, but he clicked a few buttons and flipped the screen down. In the split second before it lay flat, I saw the Washington Monument and a large crowd of people marching.

Sure that I’d received all the welcome I was going to get, I wheeled my suitcase into my room and unpacked. When I came back down the hall, I peeked into Bart’s cavern of a bedroom. He’d replaced the video game and death metal band posters that had decorated his walls with bright red banners: NO TAIL? NO PROBLEM!, PREHISTORIC & PROUD.

Returning to the main room, I found Bart clicking through channels. Most featured the same tailed man, gray hair, eyes like marbles, speaking into the camera. The runner at the bottom of the screen said, Ryan Paul, Prehensile Freedom Committee.

“So, I can’t help but notice a few changes around here,” I said.

“Yeah, well, you’ve been gone a while,” he pouted—still a child at 19—but I kept circling my hands in the stale air between us, out with it already. “I went to a couple nonprehensile rallies with some friends and did some volunteer work for them.”

“That’s great. What friends?”

“Just some people I met in a group chat,” he said defensively. I sat down and shoulder-nudged him. “I just…I watched this documentary on the History channel about what it was like before the adaptation—how nonprehensiles ran the world—and it pissed me off. So I looked up nonprehensile groups, and their sites said some stuff that made me think.”

“Such as?”

“Such as how ludicrous it is that we can’t drive or that we have to include our tailless status on job applications or…,” and he reached across the top of the couch and laid a finger on the seam of the cushion where a notch had been taken out to accommodate most people’s extra appendage. “This.”

“The tailcut? That’s not a big deal.”

“But it is, though. I’ve seen pictures, Ma. Of couches that didn’t have huge pieces taken out. They used to all be like that. How hard would it be to make a few for people like us? It doesn’t even make sense that they don’t, you know? And did you know that back in the 1980s they made cars without tail shifts, too? Nonprehensiles can drive just fine. There’s no fucking reason for the laws against us.”

“I know.” I put a hand on his knee. “Well, that explains the signs and your butt crack message. Listen, I think it’s great you’re getting out of the house”—he gave a half-cocked smile—“but what’s with the hair and being dressed before noon and threatening your mother with scissors?”

“Sorry. You just scared me, I guess.” He paused. “Like I said, I’ve been working for the group: going to meetings, doing some computer stuff, you know” and then his gaze returned to a commercial on the TV showing nonprehensile salon workers waxing people’s tails as their clients sipped mai tais and flipped through Us Weekly magazines.

A few hours later, after Bart had gone to a meeting and I’d decided to head out to WalMart, I found two cops standing in the hallway. I gasped, dropping my purse with a thunk. The taller cop slid his tail behind my leg to catch the door.

“Veronica Lippincott?”


“You’re under arrest. You are charged with three counts of Identity Theft and one count of Unlawful Access to Stored Communications.”


The shorter cop—cold sore fuming on his lip—read me the Miranda rights as his tail slipped the cuffs on my wrists, all the time muttering under his breath that he shouldn’t have to touch me. The third, smaller cuff dangled between my hands.

THE OFFICERS ASKED ME a lot of questions and then brought me to a cell with four beds in it. I fell asleep pretty fast because of the jet lag, and because I’d already decided everything would be fine. Sometime later, the racket of an officer pushing three girls about Bart’s age into my cell woke me up; the girls all seemed tipsy.

“How you hanging, girl?” The one with the gap in her teeth said before using her tail to run a comb through her bangs.

“Not bad. You?” I sat up, and she caught my eye.

“Sharon, look. She’s tailless.” Sharon was the one wearing a Limp Bizkit t-shirt.

The third girl, brown hair with purple streaks, yelped. “They don’t like that word. They like to be called nonprehensile.”

“Whoa. I’ve never talked to one before,” Sharon said to Purple Streaks, and then she turned to me. “Can I touch it?”


Sharon shoved me forward and slid her cold finger over my tail bone. In that moment, I understood the message above my son’s butt crack. I curled up in my bed with my back to the wall.

“Oh,” she said. “It just feels like touching someone’s back.” She rejoined her friends on the other side of the cell. I laid there for a long time listening to them talk about going to the gym again to get definition in their tails. Minutes, or hours later, Gap Teeth shook me awake; it was still dark.
“Hey lady,” Sharon called over, “what’s your name?”


“Hey, Loni. We were just wondering what you were in here for?”

“Um…something to do with computers.”

“You don’t know?”

“No. They told me, but I don’t remember. All I know is I barely ever use a computer. Don’t need to with my son always on the thing.” The three of them waited for me to say more, so I told them about coming back from Hawaii, the police at my door, and the changes I’d noticed in Bart.

“Is he like you?” Gap Teeth asked.

“My son? Yeah, same eyes, same nose. People tell us we laugh the same.”

“No, I mean…” and she hooked her pointer finger and jabbed it a few times as if to say, behind you.

“Oh. Yes. Just another lottery we didn’t win, I guess.”

“What’s it like?” Purple Streaks asked.

“Excuse me?”

“You know”—she turned bright red before she whispered, “not having one.”

It took me a second to come up with an answer I was willing to share.

“Lonely,” I sighed. “You know, when people were first showing signs of the adaptation, before you three were born, I had this friend, Glenda, who pulled down her pants and showed me the nub on her tailbone right in the middle of the Macy’s department store. That doesn’t seem like a big deal now with tail notches in clothes, but back then it was not okay. Calcium deposit, she’d said. All the doctors back then thought the nubs were calcium deposits. Every phone conversation with her after that was about her tail: it’s the size of Peter’s dingaling, she said—Peter was Glenda’s husband—it’s as long as a cucumber now; I could slap Gucci on it and wear it as a belt, Ronnie.

“Not long after, Glenda stopped calling me. She’d found other friends, I guess. So, I went to a geneticist, asked him when I should be expecting a Gucci belt of my own. I had Bart do a test, too. Both negative. Didn’t bother me much, but having to tell my five-year-old he’d always be different wasn’t easy.”

The girls left me alone after that. One of them woke me up vomiting. Gap Teeth, I think. And I felt the bed jiggle when someone finally got into the bunk above mine. Whoever it was kindly didn’t use the tailcut in the bed, must have slept on her side all night.

A different cop let himself in to retrieve me at eight the next morning. Walking out the door, I noticed Sharon had been the one sleeping above me. The cop told me my bail had been posted and led me to Processing where I found Bart sitting at the only table in the room. A small man with a moustache sat next to him. He sat rod straight, using the chair back as a splint almost, not the way someone with a tail would sit. They stayed where they were until the officer behind the desk told me I could go.

“Ma!” Bart walked over to hug me. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, I’m all right. Met some new friends; got a little shut-eye.” I pointedly gazed over at the man.

“This is George Halberson, Ma. Our lawyer.” The man stood and joined us.

“I didn’t know we had a lawyer. Nice to meet you, sir. Hopefully clearing all this up will be easy. Do you know that I’m not even sure what they charged me with?” Bart steered me out the door.

“Yes, well,” George’s voice came out pinched and nasal. He looked at a sheet in his hand. “It was Identity Theft and Unlawful Access to Stored Communications, Mrs. Lippincott. Some pretty serious hacking crimes. In fact, the Pro-Prehensile people have picked up on your case. They’re pretty upset.”

“But I don’t even know how one would go about stealing an identity.”

“Don’t worry. I think we have a strong argument,” Mister Halberson said.

“George and I have been talking, and we think all we have to do is show the judge you don’t know anything about computers.”

“Bart, don’t call Mister Halberson by his first name. It’s rude.”

Mister Halberson let out a puff of a laugh, his moustache barely raised.

“George is a friend, Ma. We’ve been hanging out.”

“Yes. Bart has been helping with some NPIA initiatives with which I’m afraid you’ve been entangled, Mrs. Lippincott.”

“NPIA?” There were a few nonprehensile groups: NPUSA, 2Arms, NANPA. I remembered one of them had gotten in trouble with the Pro-Prehensile groups for becoming violent at a rally.

“The Nonprehensile Initiative of America,” Bart said.

“Oh, right. The new tailless group,” I said.

“We prefer nonprehensile,” George shot back.

“Sorry. But what do you mean I’m entangled?”

“Whoever did it hacked into Ryan Paul’s personal server. Got tons of info against him. Riled up the Pro-Prehensiles. They’re calling us traitors.”

By then we were at the cab and the driver was asking us “Where to?” George said goodbye and that he’d call Bart later. In the cab, I kept trying to talk about what had happened, but Bart put a hand on my shoulder and looked meaningfully toward the driver whose tail was operating the gear shift at my feet. All the way home I thought about the night before: Bart’s reaction when I tapped him on the shoulder, his newfound purpose, George’s sudden appearance. How the internet, the phone, and the cable bills were all under my name, not Bart’s.

THE JUDGE USED HIS TAIL to pound the gavel, bringing court to order. After a while, the bailiff called the first witness. Gap Teeth walked in, chewing a wad of gum. Twelve tailed jurors watched George pace in front of the witness stand. Bart sat behind me, the smell of Axe Body Spray cloying the air.

George asked Gap Teeth a series of questions about our night in jail. How I couldn’t remember the charges, how I couldn’t use a computer. In the moments when the courtroom was quiet, we could hear the protestors outside chanting, “Lock her up!” Then it was the prosecuting attorney’s turn with Gap Teeth. His tail swished in the air behind him as he spoke.

“In your conversation with the defendant, Miss LePage, did you also ask her what it was like to be nonprehensile?”


“And what did she say?”

“She said it was lonely, that she’d lost friends because of it.”

“Did the defendant tell you a story of how she lost her friend?”

“Yeah, she,”—Gap Teeth nodded toward me—“said she was jealous of her friend for growing a tail and how she hated that she and her kid weren’t normal.”

“Thank you, Miss LePage. I have no further questions.”

I was numb through the rest of the trial. Later, Bart would tell me how a tail supremacist managed to disrupt the hearing, how Ryan Paul had called me a disgrace to democracy on national television, and how the judge used the word example to describe me in his ruling. The only thing I remember from that whole week, and I remember it vividly, was the bailiff pulling my hands behind my back and the weight of the three cuffs digging into my tailbone.


***I wrote this story for a contest. My prompts were political satire as a genre, a computer hacker as a character, and a night in jail as a conflict.***

The Injured

The young man sitting next to me on the bench only stopped muttering to himself after a mewling came from the next car. A whimper, low at first, soon blazed into the telltale agony only a country doctor could rattle out of a man. The scrabble of people in the train car with me tensed at the sound.

“He’s awake then,” my neighbor said, each word a valve opening. I had taken him for a cowhand when I first eyed him, but I saw now a reddened circle around his right eye and a ledger in his hand, so I did not know what to surmise. He wore a white hat, the likes of which I’d never seen, with a low crown that rounded off at the top and a considerable amount of material—was it netting?— tied underneath the wide brim.

Muffled groans seeped out from the other car for some time, and then I noticed water sliding down my neighbor’s cheek, sluicing through the stubble of his jaw, and plopping onto the pages of his ledger. Lacy sentences, not numbers, littered the page.

“Come now, son,” I said, putting down my newspaper. “Your friend will be all right.” I did not know if what I said was true.

The young man glanced at me and immediately recoiled, a reaction to which I have had decades to grow accustomed, but one that still bit just the same.

“A fire,” I began, referring to the scales and discoloration on one side of my face. “I like to think the devil licked me and decided I was too pure for his tastes.” His gaze returned to the book. The moaning continued.

“I can’t sit here any longer,” my neighbor said, and he was off. I returned to the article about Teddy Roosevelt’s return to the city. In minutes the young man returned more agitated than before.

“The doctor won’t let me see him. He’s put up a curtain, and he’s blocking the way.”

“Quite right. Your friend is too preoccupied at present to receive guests.”

At this the young man looked me straight in the eye. “But he is my brother, sir.”

“Oh. Well then, that is something else entirely. Come. We’ll try together.” I slid the paper under my leg and began to rise, but the young man stopped me.

“Thank you, Mister…how may I call you, sir?”

“Mister Bentley, will do.”

“Thank you, Mister Bentley, but that doctor is a mule.” He scratched his ear. “I did notice an empty spot on a bench nearest the curtain. Could I persuade you to…”

“Find a way to divert the good doctor’s attention?” I kept my voice low. The young man smiled so I continued. “You were fortunate to sit next to a man who had to employ devious methods to obtain even a biscuit for dinner when he was young. Go. Take the bench near the curtain. I will come along in time to give you the opportunity to see your brother. Does my plan sound feasible?”

“Yes, sir,” the young man said, and he was off again.

I waited some time before I began to cough. A little at first, and then with gusto. I hailed a whiskered man across the aisle who aided my tramp into the next car. I saw my young man’s odd hat straightaway, peeking above the heads of the riders. I made a great show of our procession; by the time I stood before the little doctor, I held the sympathy of the entire car.

“Thank God I found you, doctor,” I said through wheezes. “I’m afraid the catarrh has returned.”

“Please sit down. I am Doctor Fairchild. And you are?”

“Trent,” I squeaked before exploding in a series of powerful outbursts. “Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

The doctor listened to my breathing and felt my neck. Then he stooped to fetch something from his bag, I quickly peeked through the slim gap between the curtains. In the second I had I saw my neighbor whispering to the injured man lying on a bench. My neighbor’s hand was placed delicately on the other man’s cheek, but I could not tell if the injured man was awake. It was plain to me that the man was not aware of any world beyond his friend; his face was bright. His earnestness sent a wave of heat to my face and forced my attention return to the doctor who was still searching in his bag.

She Pissed on my lap

I was sitting on my friend’s couch in the middle of a crowded birthday party when the cat jumped up on my lap. The woman next to me stopped her conversation to smile at me and say, “You must be a cat person.” Iris the cat purred loudly and nestled in, so I began scratching her chin. “Oh, I am. I grew up in a house where cats outnumbered people,” I told the woman, and then I felt something warm seeping down my inner thigh.


I jumped to my feet, forcing Iris to leap to the floor, and a wet spot spread down the front of my jeans. My sudden movement made everyone’s heads snap to me. All I could get out was an incredulous “She pissed on my lap.”

It took a few seconds for the shock to subside, then a couple guests began discussing the best way to get urine out of clothes. After I’d changed and the washer was churning, everyone at the party struck up conversations with me; they already knew my name. As an introvert, I was pretty uncomfortable with the attention, but I had no choice: I was The Guy Who Got Pissed On. But I soon found the conversations that followed were easy, not at all the awkward first conversations I’ve tried to strike up with strangers at parties. My brain didn’t get mired in the social anxiety I’d usually feel. The people at the party and I immediately had a topic to discuss and since it was a shared experience I wasn’t worried about being boring or a nuisance. I made several friends that night. Having a cat piss on my lap turned out to be a positive experience.

Crossing a River

The first time I traveled to a different country I was a junior in high school. Friends had decided they’d rather take the train from Flint, Michigan, to Toronto, Canada, than rent formal wear and a limo and go to prom and invited me to come with.

Being a geography nerd, I fantasized about the trip in the weeks before we left. The only Canadian I’d met before was my grandfather (but he’d been an apple-pie-eating American for decades by the time I came around) so my imagination went wild. I learned from an episode of the Brady Bunch that Hawaiians welcomed travelers with a garland of flowers. So I figured a similar ceremony would greet me when we crossed the border: mounties knighting me with hockey sticks, customs agents anointing me with maple syrup, a dexterous moose pinning a maple leaf brooch on my REM sweat shirt; that sort of thing. I was pretty disappointed when we crossed the St. Clair River and I didn’t even hear a cheer.


The greeting came after we stepped off the train. Hello, strange money. Hello, taxi drivers whipping down Yonge Street using the “wrong” lane. Bonjour French words burbling at the bottoms of signs. When we arrived at the subway station, a man standing on a milk crate was spouting off about the evils of America to anyone who would listen. The Greedy States of America, he’d said, lewdly rubbing his fingers and thumbs together. I pulled my jacket a little tighter as I walked with my friends past the train station pundit, through the crowded platform, and toward the first subway station I’d ever encountered. That was the moment I first realized I had transformed into a capital-F Foreigner. How I had become something so political and mysterious just by sitting on a train playing cards mystified me.

We struggled—my friends and I—to follow the instructions written on the subway fare machine even though they were in English. After a while, a man in a beret approached us: “I can see you are in need of some orientation.” He enunciated each word, then he explained in a very practiced way how to buy a ticket and board the right train.

After a short subway ride, we found our hotel and proceeded to ramble around the city for the next four days completely in awe at the cultural differences we saw. Those differences were, of course, minute—only impressive to a group of 17 year olds who had never known another way of life.

On Sunday we found ourselves stepping into a train on another smoky platform. I felt like I was boarding a spaceship to go home and tell my people all the wonders I’d seen.

Hensall railway station

I didn’t know it at the time, but my grandfather Nelson Harburn and his large family had made the same journey to Flint on a Grand Trunk train 70-odd years before me. The difference was that they had birdcages and trunks, hat boxes and linens with them. They were crossing the St. Clair River for good.

Up until the day they left, the boys in the family had worked in the fields around their house in Hensall, Ontario, to keep the farm going for the new owners. Meanwhile, the women packed up the house, emptied the cellar, and sold the furniture. I imagine they talked about their new lives in the city as they worked. When the family came together for dinner, the women asked the older brothers, who had visited Flint before, to tell them again about the car traffic, the groceries, the department stores.

George, the oldest Harburn sibling, and his new wife were waiting in a little white house for their arrival. Flint, at the time, was a burgeoning industrial hub thanks to the automobile industry. Factory managers practically hired men off the street. My great-grandfather William was probably the one who’d contacted General Motors. In 1919, the conservation legacy of nature lover Theodore Roosevelt still dominated, and the auto industry was in trouble over air pollution. William Harburn farmed and distributed flowers for a living. He or George negotiated a deal to start a farm across the river from the main factory to prove there was no environmental threat. In addition, the Harburns offered their flower inventory to the company’s many social events and landscaping needs. GM agreed, giving them land and a company house.

The new home had only three bedrooms, but the Harburns didn’t complain. They arrived in Flint excited all the same. Imagine 12 people—two married couples!—crammed into a house in the city. Imagine all of the cultural differences the family would have encountered all at once: Canadian to American, country to city, independent to corporate.

And the Harburns, relatively speaking, had it easy. They arrived with a house and a purpose. They spoke the language. They had the safety of their motherland waiting just across the river with open arms.

Click here to see a copy of the record immigration officials took the day my grandfather arrived in Flint.
All relevant sources can be found here.
A short biography of my grandfather can be found here.

Drakkar (A Noir)

“Darling Jesse,” she says—her voice is a bassoonist playing in the back of a concert hall—and then she ashes her cigarette into a waiting urinal.  The wide brim of her sun hat and her five-o-clock shadow obscure her face, but I recognize the mole on her right bicep just below the hem of her puff sleeve. “Where’ve you been, lamb?”

Sleeping on dusty couches in basements. Imagining us on Jerry Springer: me with a chair raised above my head, you appealing to the audience, the cameras. “Around.”

The neon light from the Pabst Blue Ribbon sign in the window makes the sweat in the air glow cobalt blue, and the smell of stale cologne mixes with the smell of urinal cakes. Every kind of Lycra shirt slides by us on their way to the urinal or to hide behind a stall door, but my eyes stay on her mole.

“Mm hmm,” she says and blows smoke into my face. “You could have come by anytime. I don’t hold grudges.”

You stole money from me.”

“Borrowed. I borrowed money from you. I told you about it, didn’t I? You did get my IOU, yes?”

Yes. She’d only written four words to justify taking $1,000: MISS VEE HAS NEEDS. The block capital letters had reminded me of her past life as an architecture student.

“That was no IOU. That was a cry for attention.” The DJ punctuates my words with techno breakbeats.

“Maybe.” She slips the cigarette back between her lips. “Or maybe it was charity.” The beat of a Chemical Brothers song fades and a man’s voice rings through the building. Vee’s show was about to start.

“Right. Stealing money from me was an act of charity.”

“That’s right, lamb, because we both know you weren’t saving that money up to hand off to the nuns.”

“Still. You didn’t have to take my money and kick me out.”

She reaches an acrylic fingernail out to touch my collar bone, and drops her voice low. “You’re welcome back in my hive anytime you’re ready to follow the Queen Bee.”

The MC’s voice echoes down the hallway. “And now let’s welcome Miss Veronique Ahhhhhh to the stage.” The crowd roars. I hear the sizzle of embers hitting the water in the toilet bowl before she glides down the hallway to stand in a waiting spotlight.

Red Dot

“What did your father say?” my mother whispers.

I watch her gaze flit from my eyes to the painting of a peacock on the wall and back to a spot just left of my nose. Her drink is crooked in the hand that isn’t clutching me. I look past her cashmere shoulder to my sister’s television in the corner. Brian Williams is confidently addressing the almost empty room completely unaware that he is muted. The acrylic nails pressing into my wrist are elegantly curled warnings.

In my head: I steer her toward the mirror hanging not two feet away. I use the laser pointer in my pocket to circle the flames of gin in her eyes, the too-young barrette in her hair, and, somehow, the jealousy in her voice. She shakes her head in disbelief. In my head.

“It can wait, Mom.” I whisper back, and then I point toward the dining room. “They’re waiting for us.”

As if on cue my young nephew asks if he can play Red Dot with the cat again before Thanksgiving dinner is served. My sister tells him that he can’t because I have the laser. Where did he go? my nephew whines. To wash up, my sister says even though she knows I am just on the other side of the wall.

“Alex…my Lexy-man, just tell me.” My mother juts her bottom lip out. I know she wants me to take pity on her, but I can’t help thinking of the orangutan I watched on TV late last night who spent the entire episode hunting for grubs in an old banyan tree. 

I shave both words to a point before I speak. “You’re drunk.” 

“I’m not. This is my first. Promise.”

In my head: disbelief. “Ok, then. What the hell.”

My mom brings her hands together to cheer her small victory, forgetting her drink. An olive lanced by a toothpick plops onto my sister’s pristine white carpet. Brian Williams ignores it and continues mouthing words.

“Dad told me that you would try to manipulate me.” I watch her jaw fall slack. “He told me not to be afraid to cut all ties with you until after the hearing.”

She puts her martini glass down on a book shelf and I return to the dining room alone.

Fall Away

No one sees the sun the same
some notice shadows     some the glow
floating in between damask curtains
lenses pinpointing the here     now     today
maybe some regard its power as a threat
fretting ultraviolet     infrared     gamma?
mamas mostly     smearing white chemical
wool over the backs of their babies
seizing any chance to capture time but
what their children will do later     wander
     certain days skipping school on beaches
     reserving time in a tanning bed
     red arms blistering after a road trip
flip the safety switches off and
band the mamas who can only watch their all
fall away and hope their children return


Constructive feedback—both positive and negative—welcome. I’m posting this early on in my writing process just to get back into posting regularly again. Interested to know your thoughts on the subject of the poem.

Nip Point

TW: violence, suggestions of rape

Summary: A woman unwittingly falls into the hands of a killer the moment she walks into work.

Liz saw them as soon as she walked into the reception area of the Chippewa Paper Mill bright orange helmets lined up outside the doors to the machine floor. Each helmet sat atop a pile of meticulously folded clothes.

She immediately recognized a turquoise blouse as Autumn’s. There was Marvin’s helmet with the Red Wings sticker slapped crooked on the front from when they’d won the Stanley Cup back in ‘08. She spotted a pair of khaki pants in another pile with a crease so sharp Liz imagined cutting her finger on it. She guessed they were Derek, the night manager’s. And at the end of the line she saw her husband Ron’s black and red striped polo shirt. Eleven piles of clothes and helmets. One for each person that worked the night shift.

This must be a weird joke, Liz thought. She let out a half-laugh when she realized the joke must be meant for her. They knew she’d be the first one in for the morning shift; she and Ron liked to steal time together before he went home and she began her day.

As Liz walked onto the machine floor, she found work boots blocking her way. Someone had tied their laces together and strung them like a gate between the pulp tanks. She noticed red smears on their heels.

“Ron?” she yelled, and the room returned her voice. She realized that this end of the factory was silent the loud agitators in the pulp tanks, the pulpers, the boilers held their breath; the sprayers crouched overhead mid-pass. Yellow and black signs saying NIP POINT stared out at her from the walls, unblinking reminders of how dangerous the machinery was when the mill was fully active.  

“This isn’t funny, guys.” The echo repeated eyes.

As Liz untied the boots, she felt a presence. Derek was standing behind her, naked, pointing a gun at her head. Liz saw that underneath the pressed creases of the khakis he wore he hid a myriad of tattoos. Bible verses twined around his biceps and thighs, circled his pecs, and fell like vines down his abdomen.

“Hands,” he commanded. Liz stuck hers out and Derek tethered them together. Then he marched her down the aisle past the row of freight elevators. One of the doors was cracked open. Liz saw Marvin, the hockey fan, inside as she walked by. His naked body slumped on the floor; the eyes in his severed head stared back at her from the top of the utility table.

“Why did you come in here?” Derek whispered. “You should have heeded my warnings.”

He walked her into the farthest of the freight elevators and used a piece of rope already hanging from the railing to tie her up. Ron was there, too. In the back. He was naked, gagged, and strapped to a chair. Blood pooled at his feet. Liz could see that the blood came from Ron’s hands; all of his fingernails had been removed.

Liz screamed Ron’s name. She fought hard against the rope that bound her hands. Derek quickly pulled the gag out of Ron’s mouth and forced it into Liz’s. He replaced the gun in his hand with a boxcutter he grabbed from underneath the chair, pinned Liz’s legs to the floor and cut at her clothes as she tried to buck him off. He hummed to himself as he worked. When he had ripped her bra off, he left her alone in the elevator.

After a few moments she heard the low hum of one of the machines starting up. She began to tremble. She knew what these machines did. She imagined being crushed or boiled alive.

Liz snapped her mind into focus. Ok, if I can hold him off the rest of the morning shift should be here any minute. She surveyed her surroundings. There was Ron either passed out or dead in the chair, his blood on the floor, and nothing else. The elevator’s operational buttons shone bright just above her bound hands, but she knew the elevator wouldn’t move unless both the wooden gate and the jaws of the heavy automatic doors were closed. Flinging her legs, she reached toward Ron. When she felt the warmth of his blood on her, she used her body to wet the floor.

“Looks like we’re meeting our Lord and Savior together,” Derek sing-songed as he stepped back into the elevator. He slipped immediately in Ron’s blood and threw his hands out to the walls to steady himself. Liz instinctively tried to block his fall with her arms, but the rope strangled her wrists. When she looked up, she saw Derek’s hairy torso above her. He had become aroused. She focused her gaze on the ceiling.

“Tricky girl,” Derek said with a grin. He righted himself and reached over her head to press the button that closed the automatic doors. A NIP POINT sign stuck to the top door blinked into view. When the elevator started moving, Liz remembered that they were in the broken one. It still moved with the gate up.

They stopped on the second floor. Liz knew there was only equipment and nip points to the open vats of the pulp boilers up here. Derek pressed the button to reopen the doors. She waited a beat and then kicked her legs back, pressing the Close button at the same time. Derek fell forward, his head poking through the still-open doors until they clamped down on his neck. Liz heard a crunch before the doors’ safeguard stopped it from closing.

His naked body was angled over her and his arms and legs kept convulsing, grabbing, stretching. She heard the whirrs and crackles of Derek trying to inhale. It only took a few minutes for his arms to fall limp, resting on bloody hips. All she could do now was wait.

This story was a submission to a judged flash fiction contest. Here were the judges’ comments:


{1686}  The story sets out on a dark path from the beginning, with the initial misdirection creating a greater sense of alarm when it is revealed that this is no innocent joke.…  {1614}  I like how the protagonist manages to save herself and her husband through resistance and cleverness. While Derek tries to take away her choices, Liz ultimately decides who lives and dies, showcasing great agency.…
{1702}  I like that your hero makes it out alive! Good for her, being super resourceful under intense amounts of pressure. Your story’s pacing is also incredibly fast, which is great. Your descriptions, such as the one about the Red Wings sticker, are fantastic because they’re so specific. Great job there.…

{1686}  While the events of the story are horrific and there is a lot of violence and action, consider playing with suspense and more understated ways of raising readers’ hackles to bring out a deeper sense of horror. In some places, less may be more; for example, leaving the last sentence off this paragraph could actually increase the sense of foreboding:  “After a few moments she heard the low hum of one of the machines starting up. She began to tremble. She knew what these machines did.”

The beginning is headed this way already.

Perhaps expand on Derek’s ideology or show more subtle signs of his emotional imbalance.…

{1614}  A little more background on Derek and what’s driving his psychopathy would help ground the narrative. Additionally, you might consider revisiting the moments of action and adjusting the prose to read more quickly. For example, taking advantage of more frequent line breaks.…

{1702}  After reading you story, I feel like there were several unanswered questions that, if answered to some degree, might make your story stronger. Why did Derek want to kill the whole night crew? Moreover, how did Derek kill 12 or so people in the span of a few hours without anyone apparently noticing? What’s a “nip point?” Did the broken elevator’s safety not work? Is that how it was able to crush his esophagus? Answering or clarifying these questions to varying degrees could really help strengthen your already strong story.…