Coming in 2017… Not Your Average Book Reviews!

img_1036The trouble with book reviews: subjectivity. Two people can read the same book and opine in wildly different directions. A friend of mine posted that The Brothers Karamazov was her favorite book ever. Ever. Now I respect my friend, but even if I didn’t, ever is a pretty convincing review. Add to the ever– she is the only person I know on planet earth who has her own legit library. Floor to ceiling books, antique books, collectables, classics, reference items. She knows books, ok? Oh, and she wrote one too.

Of course I got me a copy of The Brothers Karamazov and dived in like it was the Crystal Palace pool.

As of today, Brothers is my gold standard for #1 on my readability scale. #1 means reading it felt like slogging through a mosquito-infested swamp. That was until I closed it, forever. Which means I can’t rate its merit. (I do intend to try again later and will update if I get a different result or find my pain tolerance has increased.)

How dare I not finish a classic, right? Let he who finished Moby Dick unabridged be the first to cast a stone. I did finish all three torturous inches of Anna Karenina and Atlas Shrugged, either of which could prop a sagging foundation. My subjective slant is that I enjoy a book for the sake of escapism entertainment, but prefer one that also makes me smarter.

I’ve been considering adding book reviews to my blog… well, since I began it, but always shied away because I don’t relish ripping into a living author, especially a novice. A painter can hang his pictures, but a writer can only hang himself. I keenly feel that sentiment by Edward Dahlberg and will not be responsible for any noob author suicides… JK… sort of. So, if you write and breathe and are not on the New York Times bestseller list, I probably won’t review your book.

There are two important aspects to any book: readability and merit. Bestsellers need have only one of the two. Guess which. Great works of literature need only have one as well. My students can readily tell you which. Every once in a while, a book embodies the highest levels of both readability and merit.

Every book I review will really be two reviews, as outlined below.

Readability Scale (fun factor)

When I read this it feels like:

1 – Slogging through a mosquito-infested swamp. The Brothers Karamazov, Moby Dick

2 – Canoeing through same. A Tale of Two Cities, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

3 – A stroll in the park: not a thrill, but mildly pleasant. The Scarlet Pimpernel, Frankenstein

4 – Cruising on I-71. The Ravenant, Watership Down

5 – Aliens abducted me and I’m rocketing away from earth. Unbroken, The Hiding Place

Merit Scale (and it will make you smart, too)

1 – I could either read this or watch MTV– the net effect would be the same. Apocalypse

2 – At least I’m not watching TV. Treasure Box: A Novel

3 – I’m shopping at the thrift store– unearthing a gem or two out of the dust. A Tale of Two Cities

4 – Many pearls of understanding and perspective. Soundly profound. Atlas Shrugged

5 – Should be required reading for entrance into heaven. The Screwtape Letters

An example of a book high on the merit scale and lower on readability would be Atlas Shrugged (readability: 2, merit: 4). An example of a book high on readability and low on merit would be anything published after 1960. JK… sort of. If you’re interested in a fun book, look to readability. If you want to upload a fresh perspective of the human condition, look to merit.

If you stayed with me to this point, can I shamelessly beg you to leave your favorite-ever book in the comment section? For the truly daring, would you be willing to submit your favorite fun book and/or your favorite makes-you-smarter book? I’d be ever so grateful and will definitely read it, maybe review it. 🙂

 

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A Christmas Story by Gabe, 11

Gabe wrote this story in lieu of doing grammar pages. I cut and pasted it exactly as he sent it to me. Years ago, Katae also wrote a Christmas story. It’s fun to think my oldest and my youngest got their fiction on in time for the holidays.  In the story you’ll note Gabe used the year 281. That wasn’t just a year he pulled out of his imagination. Gabe researched the real Santa story, and 281 is about when the tradition began. Enjoy! 🙂

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Gabe’s Story

There were once three brother elves. These three elves lived with Santa in the North Pole. Jeremy and John were naughty elves, always getting in trouble in the workshop, and messing up toys. Jeremy and John were both always hated by the other elves in Santa’s workshop. However, the other brother, Justin, was the best elf in the workshop. He always woke up on time, did his chores, and made even more toys than he needed to every day. One day, as John and Jeremy were wreaking havoc in the dining hall, Justin was folding his clothes in his dorm. Suddenly, a deafening boom rang through Santa’s entire underground mansion. Every single elf in the secret home listened, and a booming voice rang out,

“John! Jeremy! My office! NOW!” Justin ran out of his dorm and straight towards the dining hall, where a massive door leading to Santa’s office stood. He ran through the dining hall to the big door, mumbling to himself as he went.

“Oh, what have those little terrors done now.” He knocked on the door, and it opened. He walked inside. The room was amazing, huge paintings of all his reindeer , and a picture of him in the year 281, with a massive sleigh that was only run by reindeer. The walls were red and white, with a huge wooden desk and a red and white striped chair. A massive chandelier with red and green lights hung from the ceiling, and a door leading into Santa’s Sleigh room, and another that led into Santa’s bedroom. Jeremy and John were barely as tall as Santa’s desk, and he was giving them a talk about how if they were naughty they wouldn’t be allowed to live in Santa’s underground mansion. They were sent away, and Santa got out of his chair and walked over to Justin.

“It seems that your brothers are nothing like you, and they are the naughtiest elves in this entire place, but you are the best elf in the entire mansion. As you know, every year a special elf gets chosen to go with me on the sleigh ride around the world to give children their presents.”

“Yes, I know, but I have never been chosen,” said Justin.

“Well, don’t tell any of the other elves, but if nothing changes, I will choose you as that special elf,”

said Santa. Suddenly, a huge crash sounded from the dining hall. Justin ran out of the room, and found that the enormous glass chandelier in the dining hall fell to the floor. He ran over to it and found heard maniacal laughs going down the hallway on the balcony near the chandelier. Justin ran down a hall and sprinted up the steps to where the balcony was. He heard the laughing, and ran towards them. Whatever was laughing was running towards the present storage room! Justin sprinted to the door and opened it. The room was an enormous white room filled with presents in aisles. He saw an elf in a red and black suit instead of the traditional green and gold. Justin crept up the aisle, and saw the elves unloading presents from an aisle. They took them to a hidden trapdoor on the other side of the room. Justin crept over to the trapdoor, hiding behind stacks of presents as he went. He could see into the trapdoor and saw a weird, tall creature with skinny limbs, grabbing presents from the elves and loading took them away, to a place Justin couldn’t see, but he knew they weren’t coming back. He walked over to the trapdoor and climbed down into it. He walked through the tunnel and after a walk, felt the tunnel getting cold. As he was walking, one of the elves came around a corner. Justin scrambled into a little crevice in the rock. The elf walked by the crevice without noticing Justin, sniggering as he went. Justin climbed into the freezing, rocky tunnel. He kept walking and finally made it to the end of the tunnel. He saw a weird sleigh, pulled by 7 black horses. Justin crept over to the sleigh, near the enormous black horses. One of them snorted loudly, and Justin disconnected the horses form the sleigh. Justin ran back into the tunnel and towards the underground mansion. The tunnel started to get warmer, and into the mansion. He ran through the present storage room and back into the dining hall. All of the elves were still eating, as if nothing happened.

“Some weird things are stealing our presents!” shouted Justin. The din suddenly ceased. Every elf looked as if it were frozen, staring at Justin. Suddenly, there was uproar. Elves grabbed anything that could be used as a weapon, butter knives, spoons, forks, and even pieces of glass form the chandelier. They ran with Justin towards the present room, and into the tunnel. A sea of elves filled the tunnel, shouting in uproar. One of the pour elves that had been stealing the presents was swept away by the masses of elves rushing out of the tunnel. For the first time, Justin and all of the others saw the weird long legged thing. It was green, with fur all over it, and it had an evil grin. They tramples him and the other elf, bound them with ropes, and took them back to the tunnel. It was complete chaos. No one could see anything going on, and when they had all gone back into the tunnel, the black horses that pulled the sleigh had all run away, and the sleigh itself lay in ruins. Once they had all returned to the mansion, they brought the weird creature and the strange elves to Santa. Santa took them outside to recover all the presents they had stolen, and eventually forgave them. After that, they lived with the elves and helped make presents, and the weird elves got real elf uniforms, and the green creature got an XXXXXXXL elf suit. After that, they all lived together and made presents together. Once Christmas came around, it turned out it was Justin that got to go on the sleigh ride and deliver his presents to the children of the world. THE END.

Friends & Family: My Favorite Gifts

 

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For years I’ve sent a Christmas letter, but not this time. Find your name below for my “card” to you. This list cannot possibly contain every one of the people I consider gifts, but as I contemplated whether or not to send the usual card this year, it felt more right to talk about you than to talk about me. I wish I could write a paragraph for each of you, but time constraints force me to be brief. Each one of you, you’re the gifts of my life. Merry Christmas.

5000 Words students & families. Thank you for the wonderful times learning together. I cherish them all.

Angie Bartos. Friend and savvy dancer. May our moment on the floor be engraved in your mind as it is mine!

Apryl Harbaugh. First responder to the needs around her and in Ethiopia, example of love in action.

Bob. My best friend ever, love of my life, inspiration to greatness.

Bodeker and Hileman families. Welcomed us into the soccer family. Thanks for the laughter and friendship.

Coach Mike. Swim coach/magician– elicits 100% effort and 100% adoration simultaneously.

Dad & Maggie. Gave me a taste for fun and thrills. Loved sharing stories of old with you at Kev’s house.

Dan Wilkenson. We who live in your vicinity are safer. 😉

Darlene Wilke. A beautiful, others-focused woman who delivers more joy than Santa.

Delaney Miller. Grace and poise. You bless all who are blessed to be around you.

Dyer family. Missionaries in a tough place in tough times, holding tightly to God.

Gabe. Already a gentleman at 11, leader, champion. Kind, diligent, merciful.

Ginny Niemiec. Aldi isn’t nearly as fun without you, sweet and beautiful friend!

Glen & Karen Griffiths. Praise for your health! A joy-filled, happy couple.

Greens & Friends. Talking life, parenting, faith, and wine… all in one evening!

Griffiths, Dad & Momom. Both of you are hugs in my life. Thoughtful, charming.

Guenther family. Sweeter than any candy I’ve ever had. You’re living, breathing hugs.

Katae. A sweet, generous soul, often the one kind word I need. Love our coffee times!

Kendall Seyer. Your birthday greetings made me smile. Miss our crazy youth!

Kev & Nikki. Every time I want to smile, I just think of you two. Love your beautiful family!

Kim Griffiths. My favorite bohemian traveller. I love to watch you live life to the fullest.

Kim Wolfe & Steering Committee. Who knew a room full of hens could be such fun! 🙂

Krakowski family. Enjoy sharing the long road to Ignatius with you!

Long family. Love watching the kids grow and reading your posts.

Lucas family. My love-in-action-neighbors, I enjoy running into you on a walk or bike ride.

Luke. Ron Swanson has nothing on you. My rock of a son. No mountain is too tall.

Mark Ciavarella. Your letters remind me of what’s truly important in life. I appreciate your wisdom.

Michelle Mihalek. You’re as beautiful as the pictures you take.

Miss Pam. You’ll always be “Miss Pam” to me. The best pal-gal in the history of the world.

Mom & Dad Timm. Glad to share life with you and take walks together.

Nancy Beach. Inkwell of Godly character and dearest friend. I’d trust you with my feelings any day.

Paul. Your horsing around and fun-loving nature make get-togethers more fun.

Shawna Blumfeldt. My fun and my faith– shows me how to have abundant life.

Stahley’s in Africa. Doing what others dream and think is too difficult, for God’s glory.

Tory. A sunrise is what your life looks like to me lately. Diligence, faithfulness, integrity.

Thompson family. You’re a breath of fresh air and a sweet memory every time we visit together.

Whitty family. Inspires me to revolutionary thoughts on God and missions. Lives spent on knees.

Writer friends like Nthato, Laura, Ronel, Russell, and others. Your advice and feedback keeps me going!

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If you share four walls with me this is how you see me most of the time.

Fiction. Meet the Protagonist of my Novel-in-Progress

On second-hand testimony I was slain. Grain by grain, little stories, facts I learned piled up until one day I found myself wanting to gaze at him. At first it was innocent. I beheld him like any worthy thing, turning it this way and that. Simple appreciation. First intrigued by the person who could inspire such respect and die-hard devotion from his friends, at some point the grains hit a weight and thrust the scales against me. I’d slipped into a drowning undertow before I’d spoken a handful of words with him. To be fair, before I realized I was wet.

Before, I could speak with him. Friendly, meaningless talk I’d have with anyone. Now I put so much effort into planting my feet, into not touching him, not telling him– I can barely form words. What I most want is to pore over him, unfettered. I want to sit on a smooth bench and appreciate him like a work of art, drinking in his form until I’m choked with it. No interaction. I’m not disillusioned. We are not equals, he and I. Part of me hopes I’ll see a blemish or a fault line or even an old man hiding behind a curtain– anything to pull him down from the pillar unto which he’s ascended. In my mind.

One day he frightened me, not on purpose. He came up behind me and spoke. Just a bit too near my ear. His husky voice shook me out and my hands flew to my heart to protect it. That is my instinct.

But I can’t always see the threat coming, like the time at the lake. From deep in a book, my third read-through of That Hideous Strength, the sound of an aerobic thrash on the water began to gnaw at my attention. One fancies ripping duct tape from her skin the way I wished to tear myself from C.S. Lewis. Only to assure myself I wasn’t wallflower to a drowning did I gaze across the sun-sequined water and right through the lithe shape of a swimmer. Satisfied, if annoyed, I bent back into my cerulean world of impossible creatures.

Suddenly, towering over me was a statuesque body, dripping and half-clad in a towel. I drew a sharp breath.

“What are you doing here?” he asked.

Drowning.

Make no mistake. Men’s chiseled frames make little impact on me. I fall down before character. A beautiful mind. That fact colors everything I do. I am who I am because I want to be loved first for my inside and then for my outside, though I have resigned myself to the fact that most men love the other way around. Still, I hold out hope. It’s the only hope for one whose shell isn’t pretty enough to put in a pocket and take home.

When he stood beside me, physically glorious as the sun, I still had power over myself, could objectively appreciate him like I could any celestial body. That is, until he spoke. Many grains of sand were dropped on my head that day, though I didn’t realize. His words, not his form bore into me.

A strange thing happened when he cut his overlong, boyish hair into a military cut that skewered and re-framed his near-perfect lines: I liked him even better. In a twisted Samson dynamic, his haircut sapped what little resistance I possessed. But it was not his outer glory stunning me, I stand by that. It was the synthesis of both punches at once: inner and outer seduction. Watching him scrapes my heart with flinty moths.

I bid them not come, the moths and the flame they ignited, because he would never see me the way I saw him. It is fitting I like art, for my only pleasure in this life is to behold my desire from a discreet distance, from a pew. Still, in unrequited appreciation ever hovers a delusional thought, that somehow he’d be blinded to the socially inept and scrawny girl, the grey-white larva form I can neither change nor muscle my way out of– and see the butterfly of the soul. And it matters not how wrong I am to feel this way. It would be easier to cease breathing than to stop thinking of him.

*I finished my second vomit draft and am plugging along in the second (of many) revisional drafts. On my protagonist I’ve omitted many specifics, but I wanted to provide a sense of her. For anyone who wants to write better stories, this is an effective exercise: plumb what your characters want above all else. Unrequited love has always been a favorite theme of mine, so it surprised me little that it found its way here.

Also surprising and not a little terrifying is how long it takes me to edit even this little vignette before I’m willing to hit “publish.”  Holy revisions, Batman. 

Be the Gift You Want to Get in This World

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“Be the change you want to see in the world” was one of Gandhi’s famous quotes.

Of all the people turned off by Christians, Gandhi is my favorite. Gandhi was perplexed that Jesus’ followers were little crazed antitheses of Him, buzzing about the world scattering judgement like pollen, condemning, wearing the cross and forgetting its dictates.

Though he was turned off by Christians, Gandhi didn’t discount the Man himself. Imitation is not an exact science: if it flatters, it also falters. We are works in progress untill the last breath. My imperfect attempts at being Jesus may be received with misunderstanding and, sometimes, offense. You’re taking this Jesus thing too far has been applied to me. Still, others would say I don’t take this Jesus thing nearly far enough.

Depends who you ask.

People are turned off by a pilgrim taking it too far because a zealot acts unpredictably, often perpetrating heinous acts against humanity: the least of which is discomfiting strangers by talking about God and the worst of which is bringing God’s judgment down upon them– literally, in the form of passenger plane bombs, explosives, etc.

I was taught a catechism of fear– not for God– but religion. Religion makes people weird at best. I learned this in social studies when we discussed Jim Jones (in early elementary school). I learned it analyzing The Crucible and The Scarlet Letter in middle school. I learned it from the nut cases dressed as Jesus, dragging huge crosses along city streets and chanting, “The end is near!”

What I learned was all true. I wasn’t told any lies. But– think Star Wars– I experienced only the dark side of the force and not the light. Half the truth is the best lie because it precludes skepticism. If my cultural experience impressed upon me a fear and loathing of impassioned religion, then did I not receive a broken bowl for a paradigm? Certainly it had the shape of usefulness, but not the essence. No wonder when I tried to pour my life experiences into it, everything leaked out and I was left holding air.

At age 27 I got desperate and decided, against the teaching of my youth, to take this Jesus thing too far. What did that look like? Did I have to renounce logic, sacrifice a chicken, or roll around the altar babbling unintelligible oaths? Hardly.

I picked up a Bible and began reading the book of John. I’d been church hopping, a spiritual Goldilocks searching for a fit. I sat through many a pep talk, incantations, scripted kneelings and standings, services full of buttoned up people whose goodwill didn’t even last into the parking lot. One day I met a man who genuinely, ardently loved his god. Here was a thing I’d never seen before: the other side of the religion equation. It goes without saying you can’t just walk into any church and experience true faith, but walk into enough, and you’ll eventually strike oil.

That is, if you really want to. I hope you do. Don’t let the imperfections of Christ’s followers dissuade you from seeking Him. For who is perfect at anything? I’ve gotten my Jesus step wrong enough times, and those are moments I’m stepping on toes. If I think it’s pollen I’m spreading, it’s my duty to double-check every now and again. The easiest error is thinking we help by spreading a loveless message of judgment. It’s not pollen when I forget to love. But in those moments I am definitely a B—-.

If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. – 1 Corinthians 13:2.

Gandhi and I disagree on what the message should be, but on this we find harmony: My life is my message. As the year draws to a close and our minds are on gifts, it’s a great time to ask yourself if you’ve been the gift you want to get in this world.

Don’t believe the lie that says: If God is any more than a trapping, he’s a trap. Don’t believe religion should be used as the ancients did their spice: to cover the fact that the meat’s gone bad. Jesus made a lot of people uncomfortable when He said he should be consumed. Jesus can’t be taken too far. He is meant to be the main course (John 6:54). Be a pilgrim. Take Jesus too far. That’s not what will actually happen though it may be said of you. If you merely hold out a hand, Jesus takes you too far. And it’s a lovely country.

 

 

The Prettiest. Flash Fiction.

aura-of-light-800x480“Sometimes it’s better to hide the unsightly with shiny things than to try to fix it,” said the mother. “Grab that box of Christmas tinsel from the attic. And a fork.”

The child’s noisy rifling through the silver drawer induced a clamorous tune, followed by staccato thudding on the attic stairs. She returned breathless, holding a fork in one hand, a dusty red box in the other.

“This?” She asked, fingering the wayward silver strands.

The mother took the bright silver lengths and held them to the light. The tinsels flashed and shimmered, squirming in her arms like a lightning strike. She gravely handed the tinsel to the child. “You do the honors. It’s your first time.”

The child wrapped the silver noodles around her fork and jammed it in an eye socket.

“Yes, that’s it,” counseled the mother, “Now hold the tinsel down with your fingers and gently slide the fork out. Now the next one. We can stuff her mouth with dryer sheets soaked in cinnamon oil, so she doesn’t stink. Grab the red sequins and we’ll sew her mouth closed, but we’ll leave slits like a sachet. See?” The mother beamed with pride as her daughter bent to the work, eyebrows furrowed in concentration.

“Yes, like that. Sew her mouth into a smile. You just have to pull hard on the thread. She can’t feel anything.”

“I think I hear her crying,” the child protested. See, where she’s coming apart?”

“Just use more tinsel. Wrap it like a necklace and no one will know her throat is cut.”

The child obeyed, her eyes widening at the transformation. A slight smile played at the corners of her tiny mouth.

“This is the prettiest Christmas doll ever, Mommy.”

“Almost as pretty as you,” murmured the zombie.

 

5000 Words Writing Competition: Everyone Wins.

 

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And not just in the sense of participation trophies. Everyone wins because they become confident and robust writers who don’t shrink at the idea of putting their minds on the page.

5000 Words develops excellence in writing by combining the following elements:

  1. Read quality literature and analyze its structure, themes, and content. (Most recently The Scarlet Pimpernel, The Whipping Boy, and The Indian in the Cupboard)
  2. Write creatively and analytically about the story and other topics, including a heavy emphasis on fiction.
  3. Analyze and critique peer writing.

That students analyze and critique their peers creates a rich environment for excellence: competition. Older students use WordPress; younger students share their work in class. Ecclesiastes 4:4a gave me the inspiration for this element: …every labor and every skill which is done is the result of rivalry between a man and his neighbor. When I happened on WordPress, I knew I wanted to harness it as a writing curriculum. The importance of having a creative space of one’s own cannot be overstated; public writing is motivation to put your best word forward.

Want proof? In the fall of 2015 I taught a class to 10-13 year olds. I gave them authorship of their own student blog, and they wrote thousands upon thousands of words, using one another as characters in their stories. I even show up as an evil character and am summarily executed– imagine. Well, that class finished in April. Today a student posted a story. Today. They continue to use the space and share their work and comment to one another.

Whether I’m teaching or not– they’re writing. And I’m delighted. This week was the 13 & up creative writing competition, entirely student-judged. One of my winners is in 9th grade, which blows my mind. No bar is too high. I’ve had students win flash fiction contests against adult writers.

I shared the winning stories below because some student blogs are private, which means only classmates can see them. Enjoy!

1st Place, Sharon Kay The Last Words

My family and I were patricians. We lived a very comfortable life, having a vast amount of land and a company of slaves; however, we dealt with our slaves quite differently than the rest, paying them wages and treating them with respect. My father also held a position in the Senate, devoting his life to helping others. He believed that all people whether patricians, plebeians, or slaves were created equal and should be treated as such. This belief made him unwelcome among nobles but truly admired among his people. My mother was quite similar to my father in these aspects, also had a passion for the truth and believed that even the worst of the worst deserved a second chance. We were looked down upon by our peers because we treated all people, wether plebeians or slaves, with the same respect and dignity that we would like to be granted to us.

My parents did not just mean the world to me, but also to so many other young men and women, they gave them a hope for a better world. Having them taken away destroyed a part of me that can never and will never be replaced.

One evening, my father and mother told me they had something of grave importance to discuss with me. I sat there listening, as they told me about a family that believed very differently than us and how they had transformed their lives. This family had called themselves Christians, and they had been arrested and were taken to the Colosseum for a religion they so strongly believed in. My father and mother seeing this family stand up and refuse to deny their faith were amazed. They wanted to know why one would sacrifice not only themselves, but the lives of their children. Curious, my parents spoke to them before their execution, asking why they would sacrifice everything just for some god, and why they had not renounced their faith to at least spare their children? They spoke to him saying, it was because of a man named Jesus and how He had changed their lives. Moved by what they had spoken to him and how they were willing to die for their beliefs, my father and mother made a decision to become Christians and fully commit their lives to Jesus.

This belief is the reason I am here now.

I stood there silently watching, my body wanting to propel itself somewhere far away. They said all gladiators in training were forced to watch, and that it would aid in preparing us for the amount of deaths that we would have to grow accustom to. I had watched a countless number of games before but this one was different, my own flesh and blood were out there tonight. I looked at the excitement and glee plastered on the faces of the crowd, waiting for the moment they would let the vicious creatures loose. Kneeling in the center of the arena, the prisoners faces showed something entirely different from that of the crowd, some had the terror of fear in their eyes while others had a stunned but peaceful look about them. How is it possible to be faced in a situation like that and have peace, I thought.

It was time. The gates were being dragged up slowly, the sounds of the crowd growing with every inch. The horrid mountain lions were hissing and scraping their sharp claws at the metal bars, separating them from their food. Their muscular bodies throwing themselves at the gate, just waiting to tear the life out of these frail helpless souls.

Then they were open, chaos was suddenly upon them. I could barely hear my own shrieks over the cheering of the crowd. All at once there was something so distinctive about their voices that I locked on. I could see my mother being dragged off by a vicious panther, black as night, her hands flinging side to side and her legs, hardly visible, were just creeping out of the panthers mouth. Her once peaceful face was now a sight of terror and her screams were so sharp it felt as though they were slicing right through my soul. The panther throwing her body side to side in the air, slammed her into the wall each time it swung back, breaking every bone in her body. I could no longer hear her screams and my heart beat stopped as I watched the panther walk away, like it had lost interest in destroying the life that is my mother. I turned away, not being able to bear looking at what was left of her.

It had felt like an eternity watching my mother and that cursed panther, but in reality had only been a few moments. I furiously searched for any sight of my father, knowing fairly well that he may already be dead. Barley able to recognize him, I almost missed him but there he was lying on his back all of his limbs now missing and his body drenched in his own blood. Not being able to breathe, I could no longer bear it.

I started wheezing as the damn holding back my tears was slowly being broken, I turned to run inside when I was stopped abruptly by the emperors guards blocking my only escape. I glanced over at… him… as he nodded towards the guards, signaling them to let me through. As soon as I was past the guards the damn broke, I started to bawl and it all starting sinking in, my parents…they’re gone. They had been ripped apart in front of my own eyes, and just because they believed in a man named Jesus! Suddenly, all I could think of was how I needed to get back out there, I would not let the Romans see me like this. Marcus came running in as soon as I was walking out suddenly stopping me,

“Are you alright?” he asked.

“I would be better if your father’s last breath was just now torn from him, instead of my parents.”

“We would all be,” he said.

I looked into his eyes, “You do not really mean that do you? Your father is a horrible man, but even I could never imagine wishing the death of my own blood“.

His eyes showed the tiniest hint of sadness before the hatred devoured it as he spoke, “My father has been dead to me since the day he threw me in here. Yes, I truly do wish his death”.

Marcus did not belong next to me, he belonged up there in the balcony, sitting next to his father but like me he did not have that choice. His father, obsessed with the Colosseum and its games, sent his son to fight as a gladiator. The Emperor had proposed an idea of a new type of entertainment to the nobles, to have gladiators against gladiators but instead of slaves and foreigners they would have nobles train to fight, making the games an even more exciting and merciless event. This idea the Emperor had proposed was not taken as he had hoped, so he did something no one noble would have ever dared thought, he placed his one and only son to become the first ever noble gladiator. The people called him insane sending his son to entertain them, but later on they praised him as Marcus became one of the greatest gladiators of their time, the Emperors Pride.

*****

Sharing and helping others like never before, because of their new-found religion, the hate my father and mother were experiencing only got worse.

I had just heard of the Emperor’s proposition, of nobles offering up their children to become gladiators, as I saw my parents being dragged off by soldiers. I ran quickly after them, begging the soldiers to let them go. My father tried to quiet his panicking daughter, telling me to go right on home and that they would be back soon, but as he was speaking I could see the doubt in his eyes knowing this was going to be the last time he would see his beloved daughter as he wrapped me in his arms and held me close. My mother, taking my face into her hands smiled down telling me to be strong and not forget that our God is a loving God, no matter the circumstances that we may go through. Just as my mother turned me towards my home another group of soldiers came up behind and grabbed me, laughing and telling the others about the emperor’s first volunteer noble gladiator. My mothers eyes filled with tears as she stood in shock while the soldiers tried to move her along, my father attempted to tackle the soldier closest to him hoping to break free only to be held down by three more soldiers. I looked at my parents horrified as realization kicked in and I started screaming in terror for them to let me go.

*****

I watched as they brought yet another group of prisoners in, lately there had been more coming in everyday. I could not help but feel deeply bothered by this, even though we had been taught and trained not to let emotions take over, to not see them as people but as a disease threatening to destroy us. My eyes fell upon a young girl about my age when my parents were taken from me, her eyes were filled with terror as she clung to her parents for dear life, how could I see that as a disease? My mind suddenly wondered back to that day, that day apart of my heart was ripped out and would never be put back. I turned and started walking away not being able to face them anymore. I was slowly becoming immune to the amount of people being killed every day, but not when it came to children.

Later on that day I got the news, I may have to kill this girl.

My long brown hair was tightly braided on both sides of my head. My shoulders, chest, and stomach were covered in a well used and beaten up red cloth. My sandals were laced up till they touched the backs of my upper calves, and my sturdy dark leather skirt hung just above my knees. A short well crafted sword hung from my side and strapped on my left arm was my trusty shield, I was ready for what was about to happen. I had been waiting for an opportunity to strike back, and now I have it.

I took a deep breath in and let it out, my feet were moving forward but I felt as though I was stuck in one place. The only thing keeping myself going now was my parents, they had taught me to be the best I could be no matter the circumstance. That strength and determination had gotten me this far, match after match.

Stepping out into the arena I let my head fall, my eyes refusing to acknowledge the barbaric crowd making them scream and yell all the more. I was not here for them, I was here for one reason and one reason only. Lifting my head up as I neared the emperor my heartbeat quickened and my fists tightened. I looked straight into his eyes and spoke reluctantly “hail emperor, we who are about to die salute you,” just like the others. Knowing that would be the last time I would ever to say those words to him, gave me the courage to do this, whatever the cost.

*****

When we heard the Emperor had wanted to organize a group of noble gladiators, we never though it would be us. That we would be ripped out of our homes, against our will, and forced to take the lives of anyone the emperor deemed not worthy of life all for the entertainment of this troubled crowd. The young men and women chosen by the emperor for this”great opportunity, for one to make their mark on history,” were nothing but enraged. We knew we were stuck here and that we would have to kill, but most of all we were prepared to learn, and to be the best in order to survive. We told ourselves that we would learn, we would become the best, and we would fight back when the time presents itself.

We had learned to become one, a unit, a team, and never leave a man behind. I don’t think this is what the Emperor had in mind when he chose his noble gladiators. We were fighting and killing for him but at his expense. The more we trained the more equipped we became, what was once our personal entertainment was now much more. It wasn’t just a game anymore, it was life or death, every moment of every day. Most just wanted to be rid of the emperor, for ruining their lives and throwing them in here while others saw just how sick and corrupt the games really were and wanted to make a difference, to some how change the outcome. Marcus believed these ideas were one and the same, wanting to be rid of his father but also seeing the sick and horrible ways of his people. He wanted change, real change and he believed that cutting off the head of his father would do that. No matter the cost, it was all worth it to him.

*****

The prisoners started flooding in to the arena being pushed, shoved, and cursed at. The crowd silenced as the prisoners were drawn into the middle, gladiators surrounding them. My eyes found the little girl and her parents, holding on to each other, knowing that I was going to change the outcome moved my feet forward.

Looking over at Marcus knowing this was the moment we have been waiting for, we were going to need the entire team if we wanted to save all these men, women, and children. I could not do this alone the best shot we had at protecting them is if we did it together. He looked at me, a questioning look on his face, I glanced over at the little girl and her parents one more time and he nodded his head. Fully aware that this just might be the end of us all, but it was about time we stood up.

Before the sound rang off we ran as fast as we could to reach the little girl and her family, soon the others followed suit, the crowd taking notice, started cheering us on as if this were some sort of surprise and we were all just playing a game. We looked at each other knowing full well this might be the end, but again the slightest bit of hope burned a fire within us all.

The emperors soldiers had come rushing in on all sides, surrounding us and ready to take our lives. We had betrayed them, having not taken these innocent lives for their sol entertainment. The soldiers looked towards the emperor for the final confirmation of our deaths, and the emperor took one last look at Marcus while lifting his thumb and then he pulling it down sealing our deaths. They came in all at once, we were trained and disciplined in battle but so were they. The crowd went wild cheering us on, yelling and cursing at the soldiers thinking this was just one of their games.

I saw Marcus out of the corner of my eye climbing up the walls, a mass of soldiers on his heels. I knew exactly what he was doing, we could not keep this up for long but getting to the emperor would have a bigger effect than dying slowly down here. Marcus was over the wall now making his way to the balcony, the crowd still thinking this was a game, made way for him and prevented some of the soldiers from getting through. He had reached his father now, stopped and was looking straight into his eyes. If looks could kill they would both be dead, they stared at each other with so much hate and disappointment in their eyes. Before I could throw my knife Marcus grabbed ahold of his father placing his knife at his fathers throat, tempting the beginning of chaos. His voice cracked as he screamed at his father asking him why and how he could do this to him. He pushed the knife further into his father’s throat, blood spurting out as his he started struggling. I was on the balcony now, watching as the man who killed my parents was struggling for his final breath when I felt a sword on my neck. Marcus stopped, but did not lower his knife. This was the end we knew, we had stood up and defied the emperor and his games and we were ready to finish this. I nodded towards Marcus telling him to finish it once and for all, he hesitated slightly before he sliced his fathers throat.

That was the last thing I saw…before the world went dark.

2nd Place, Phil Miranda The Wolves

Shifting streaks of icy sand snaked between the burned-out car frames and across the cracked asphalt of the abandoned road. The high moon, cold and distant, lit little save the twisting ribbons of sand that whistled through the night air. The skeletonized vehicles of an army convoy littered the old road. Somewhere in the shadow of an overturned Humvee, in the crater where the vehicle had passed through a guard rail and fetched in a ditch, the prostrate figure of a man lay motionless in the dust.

***

The high Afghani sun glared fitfully into the window of the Humvee and glinted off the faded, creased polaroid in Corbin’s hand. A younger, more innocent version of himself stared up from the photo, his face grinning from over the shoulder of the girl in his arms. Corbin’s sergeant, Anders, was sitting opposite him, talking; Corbin was pretty sure Anders was telling him a story. It had been a while since Corbin pretended to listen, so he raised his gaze from the picture to pay Anders his attention.

“Anyways, she told me to leave,” Anders said. “It’s not like it wasn’t-”

A bullet passed through the vehicle, punching through the windows on either side. A single shaft of white light filtered through the hole in the bullet’s wake. The beam travelled straight towards Anders’ head, where it should have stopped. It shined right through.

Corbin started and fell sideways in his seat as the sound of the gunshot finally struck the car. Anders, lips still speaking, keeled over dead.

A chorus of yelling filled the vehicle and sounded over the radios. More gunshots rang out and bullets drummed against the Humvees like hail on a steel roof. The convoy skidded to a stop, and as soon as Corbin’s driver stopped the car, Corbin squirmed toward the safe side of the car and kicked the door open. He fell heavily on the ground, his armor both jostling and cushioning him. As he rose, a steady stream of curses poured from his mouth; they hadn’t been expecting anything like this in friendly territory. His gun was in the trunk.

Corbin dashed around the corner of the car and slammed the trunk release. The hatch popped open, and Corbin reached for something– anything– the first gun he could find. Just as his fingers were closing around a grip, a low whistle screamed out over the desert ground. Corbin turned toward the noise in time to see the blooming vapor trail of a rocket as it arced through the air and slammed into the vehicle just behind him. A sphere of light exploded outward, striking Corbin with a shockwave like the world was splitting apart.

His unconscious body was flung against his Humvee as the car was sent skidding by the explosion. It careened into a ditch– Corbin tumbling after it– where it overturned and ground itself into the earth, pinning Corbin’s body beneath five thousand pounds of metal.

Insurgents poured into the mess of the convoy, stripping the bodies of anything useful and killing the survivors. A boy wrapped in rags and strapped down with ammunition and a rifle taller than he was meandered into the ditch and rummaged around in the smoldering wreckage of Corbin’s Humvee. He reached inside the car and pulled the body of the driver partway out. He scoured the deceased soldier, then Corbin, and, convinced they were dead, wandered off. He never noticed the small distress beacon that slid onto the ground from the driver’s dead grasp, strobing gently, before it was smashed into the dust as the body toppled over.

***

The stinging sensation of sand whipping against Corbin’s taut skin found its way into his troubled dreams and pulled him awake. Groaning, he raised his head. In front of him, the body of his driver slumped out of the car, half in the dirt, the other half suspended upside down by his seatbelt. All along the road to Corbin’s left stretched a line of destroyed vehicles. Alarmed, he tried to rise, but felt a constricting numbness in his right arm that held him down. He looked to find it lodged under a car frame, in a little crevice where the vehicle’s cargo rack met the roof. Breathing sharply, Corbin tried to pull himself free, but the frame refused to budge. Panic and confusion set in at once, and he tried again to dislodge his arm, pulling until his ulna felt ready to snap. Then a sound not his own shattered the night’s calm. Corbin immediately stopped struggling and pressed himself tightly to the ground. Within the walls of his base it was always a chilling but distant sound, something that lost a sense of realism when heard from the safe side of a steel fence. Now though, it was near and very real.

The wolves were out tonight.

The sound seemed right in front of his face. Two huge creatures, lithe and muscular, crept out from behind a pair of car frames. Anders’ blood cracked on Corbin’s face as he grimaced. He tried to sit up but the tension against his ulna awkwardly pulled him back down. The first one rushed for Corbin, and without another conscious thought, he threw the entirety of his weight against his arm. A crack instantly shot through the entire bone, which held for an instant before splitting in two with a revolting crack, snapping one end like a spring out of Corbin’s forearm. His wrist was wrenched unnaturally to the side as the buckled bone sent waves of anguish throughout his crooked limb.

The pain was so profound that it passed from recognition as pain. With eyes bloodshot and utterly blind, and ears ringing out protests so loud Corbin couldn’t even hear his own screaming, he slid his twitching arm free of the car and raised it at the animal just as it crashed into him. A sickening squelch rose into the air as the spur of dagger-like bone caught the animal in the breast, skewering its heart. The beast collapsed onto Corbin– twisting his ravaged limb further out of place– and its dead jowls clacked together over harmless teeth as a slap of putrid warmth from within the animal’s unclenching throat cloyed at Corbin’s increasingly crazed eyes.

But then the other one was on him, trying to reach him around the body of the first, its claws tearing away at its companion, its jaws close enough that Corbin felt the volumes of air against his face that were displaced whenever they snapped together. With teeth that likely killed dozens just inches from his face, eyes blazing like an inferno with a hunger for his living body, pinned under the corpse of the monster he had just murdered with nothing but his sundered arm, which was sending shrieks like tearing metal into his brainstem, the madness finally set in.

Corbin released an insane roar and lunged forward. The snapping teeth caught the corner of Corbin’s mouth, slicing sideways as he moved forward and tearing a gash through his cheek. But then Corbin’s face was past the maw and his own teeth punched deep into a bundle of writhing muscle and artery. A taste like the smell of coins rushed between Corbin’s teeth and down his throat. He gagged but bit down harder. The ringing had died down enough now for Corbin to hear the monster release a gurgled, agonized yelp that sounded far too human. It thrashed violently, tearing itself off of Corbin’s teeth and leaving a hunk of its own flesh in Corbin’s mouth. But then there was nothing to keep the animal’s life from flowing out of its body, and it collapsed almost instantly, releasing horrifying keens and twitching its muscular limbs over the swirling dust.

His head slammed backward onto the dust, as he spat out fur and gore. The wolf wouldn’t die. Its keens burrowed into Corbin’s eardrums and filled the world with pain. Corbin writhed under the heavy body, his back so arched that his spine didn’t touch the ground, hating the animal struggling next to him for refusing to give him quiet. Just as the cries seemed about to die out, they bloomed louder than ever. There seemed to be the faintest echo of words now. Corbin wearily twisted his head to look. Glassed-over eyes stared back at him from the lifeless animal, yet there were clearly words being spoken. Now Corbin was sure he was losing his mind. Then he heard his name.

Confused, he struggled halfway out from under the first wolf and sat up. Flashlight beams assaulted Corbin’s eyes and lit the wreck. Exclamations of disgust at the sight of three bodies and Corbin’s living corpse floated out from the desert. Americans. “Found the beacon,” one of them said, turning over the body of the driver.

Corbin let out a sigh of profoundest relief as strong arms lifted the animal’s body off him, allowing him to take a deep breath again.

3rd Place, Katelyn Steyer Missing Plans

“Do you even know how to drive this thing?” I yelled from my seat

“I did take a class back in 1975, but I think it was on a older model.” Barb replied just as a missile was shot from the ship behind us.

“Oh no, we are going to have to jump! The missile took out the part of the ship that controls the…controls!” I said in a frantic voice as a blaring alarm started going off.

“That’s called the control system sweetie, I remember learning that from class.” Barb said feeling accomplished.

“Whatever, but if we don’t jump now we are going to turn into toasted marshmallows!” I said annoyed at Barbs previous comment. “Here put this on.” I said handing Barb a parachute.

“Thanks sweetie, now let me grab my things.” Barb said turning around.

“No, we don’t have time. We need to jump now!” I said as I grabbed her hand and opened the door to the sky. “One, two….”

***

Hold on a second, let’s back up just a few hours. That would leave us right about here….

***

Agent Harper, please report to the director’s office. The mumbled voice over the stereo system said as I sat in headquarters. I walked into the director’s office hoping to be authorized for another great assignment.

“Hello Agent Harper, please sit.” Director Brian said gesturing towards the tall, black, leather chairs at the front of his desk.

“What do you have for me today Brian?” I asked.

“I have your first team assignment.” Director Brian replied.”So Agent Harper, I would like you to meet Agent Barbara.” Director Brian said as a old lady walked into the room. She was wearing a light pink dress with a purple shawl, she had a brown purse and brown cane to top off her elderly lady look.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.” I mumbled under my breath.

“Hello sweetie, you can call me Barb.” Barbara said with a full smile on her face.

“Um, hi. My name’s Harper.” I said as I shook Barb’s wrinkly hand.

“Well let’s get started with the briefing of the plan.” Brian said as Barb sat down. “We are sending you to Havoc’s enemy headquarters to retrieve the stolen plans. They were seen on their island in Madagascar. You two will be flying in on a jet we apprehended from their headquarters. Your mission is to retrieve the missing plans and bring them safely back to our headquarters. The plans are located in a secret closet in room 35 on floor 3.” Brian explained.

“Alright, so what kind of gear do you have for us?” I asked.

“We have the latest technology in comms, parachutes, and climbing gear. The new earpieces are much smaller and work faster. They do have a tendency to get stuck in your ear though, so watch out for that. Also, the parachutes are quicker and have been proven to have a 50-50 chance of opening. Which is much better than our last one’s with only a 40-60 chance. Oh, and the climbing gear is made out of stronger material so it won’t snap under pressure anymore.” Brian said as he held each items up in front of us.

“Ok I guess that’s as good as they’re going to get.” I said annoyed at the mediocre gadgets

After we grabbed our gear we headed to the hanger and boarded our ship. An hour later we landed at Havoc’s headquarters ready to take on our mission.

“So what’s the plan to get into the building ?” I asked hoping Barb was more experienced and knew what to do.

“Easy, we just walk over and ask to get in.” Barb said as she exited the jet.

“We can do that?” I asked confused as Barb started walking over to the security guard and I followed closely behind.

“Hello sir, would you like a chocolate chip cookie?” Barb asked as she pulled one out of her purse.

“Sorry miss but you and your friend are going to have to show me your passes or I will have to report you to the authorities.” the security guard said.

“Is that so, well then….. take that!” Barb said as she whacked the security guard in the leg with her cane and once more on the head. Knocking him to the ground in one big thud. “You should have taken the cookie.” Barb whispered in the security guards ear before walking into the building.

“Wow, that was pretty impressive.” I said as I ran past the unconscious guard and caught up with Barb. “Let’s go find the plans.” I said

“This way to the stairs sweetie.” Barb said as she opened the door to the stairwell.

After trekking up the stairs to floor 3 we were out of breath. We took a rest and then continued our mission to room 35. When we reached the room we slowly opened the door and crept into the room, leaving the door open a crack for a quick escape. After about ten minutes of looking for anything that could open the secret closet, I found a switch behind a portrait.

“Barb, look!” I said excitedly as the secret closet was revealed.

“Hey, what are you two doing in there?” A security guard yelled as he walked by the room.

“Quick sweetie, grab the plans.” Barb said as she hobbled towards the security guard with her cane raised in the air.

“I need backup in room 35.” the security guard said into his walkie talkie, right before getting whacked over the head with Barb’s cane.

“Siri, text the pilot to bring the jet to the third floor.” I said into my phone as Barb dealt with the security guard.

“Your message has been sent.” my phone replied.

“He’s here, come on Barb!” I said as I shattered a window and hopped into the jet.

“Pilot, we need to get out of here.” I said as Barb got into the jet.

As we climbed into our seats a security guard shot a bullet straight through the window, killing the pilot instantly.

“Oh my gosh! What are we going to do! He obviously can’t drive the jet and we need to get out of here now!” I yelled in a frantic voice as the ship started to fail.

“I will have to drive.” Barb said as she picked the limp body up.”I’ve been wanting to do this for years, so long Henry!” Barb yelled as she tossed his dead body out of the window.

“Who’s Henry?” I said with my jaw dropped after what I just witnessed.

“Henry was my ex-husband.” Barb said as she sat in the driver’s seat and began to drive the ship.

As Barb began driving, my heart began beating as loud as a drum. I asked Barb if she knew how to drive, and her reply wasn’t good. Then a missile was shot from the ship behind ours and it took out our controls. I handed Barb a parachute and we got ready to jump.

“Thanks sweetie, now let me grab my things.” Barb said turning around.

“No we don’t have time we need to jump now!” I said as I grabbed her hand and opened the door to the sky. “One, two, three!” I yelled as we jumped and began plummeting towards the ground. And just in time because as we reached the ground the plane blew up, sending debris towards the ground as well.

“Oh man, my brand new cane was in there.” Barb said sadly as she saw the jet blow into smithereens.

“Hello, this is Agent Harper. I am sending the coordinates to where we touched base. Do you copy me?” I asked.

“Hello Agent Harper, this is Agent Ben we will be arriving in a few.” Agent Ben says.

A few minutes later a jet arrived.

“So ladies, do you have the plans?” Agent Ben asked.

“We do indeed.” I said as I handed Agent Ben the plans. “Now can you tell me one thing?” I asked

“Sure, what is it?” Agent Ben asked

“What exactly are these plans?” I asked curiously.

“These plans are the secret recipe for our famous chocolate milkshake.” Ben said as he opened them up and admired them.

“What! You mean I risked my life for a milkshake recipe!” I yelled loudly.

“Famous milkshake recipe.” Barb pointed out.

“I don’t care if it’s famous, I almost died for a recipe.” I said annoyed.

“Sweetie, look on the bright side you did complete another mission.” Barb said as she got into the jet.

“That’s true.” I said as I began to calm down.

“Yes, I would like to be the first to congratulate you both on another completed mission. Maybe we can celebrate with a chocolate milkshake.” Ben said as he helped me into the jet.

“Fine famous chocolate milkshakes it is.” I said as we headed back to headquarters to enjoy some milkshakes and celebrate another completed mission.