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LCRW Round Robin - The Challenge from Beyond

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[Sue Savard]

I step into the shower and let the warm water spray on my head. Why not start a story round? We're writers. Writers write. If each writer adds one or two lines taking it wherever they want, it could take on a life of its own. Maybe--a Best Seller. We'd feel less alone. I dry off, slip into my robe, and run toward the office.

I'm no longer helpless. Story ideas flash in my head. I'm saving the world. I've become Florence Nightingale, or a brilliant scientist, or a billionaire donating my wealth to the poor. An image comes into focus of being interviewed on CNN. Just as I reach for the office doorknob, a toe catches in the hem of my robe. As if in slow motion, I fall face-first on the hardwood floor; the impact forces a cough of hot breath from my lungs. Surging pain ripples up my arm, and my scream bounces off the walls of the empty house. My last thought before passing out is...

[Steve Yates]

What if I die? The house is a mess.

As I start to regain my senses, I feel the dog licking my face, and it's a few seconds before I remember I don't have a dog. Or a cat. Adrenaline kicks in and I scramble to my feet to get away. Just my luck, I must have fallen under the desk and I slam my head on the bottom of the drawer and pass out, again.

One more time, I claw toward consciousness. This is getting old. 

The dog isn't there, so I take stock before I get up. My nose hurts, and I'm not sure my teeth are all there, but that's it. Making sure I am away from that damn desk I sit up and take a deep breath. Cinnamon cookies.

Then I hear, "Mom, are you alright?"

"Yes, honey, I just tripped. Nothing to worry about."

"Good. Dad just got here."

Wait. I've never been married, and I don't have any children. And how did I get dressed in a blouse and slacks?

[Sue Spitulnik]

I shake my head to get rid of the cobwebs and magically my nose stops hurting. I am dressed in a blouse and slacks. The young lady offering me a cookie is someone I don't know, but she looks a bit like me. I ask her how I got dressed. She says she knows I wouldn't want to finally see Dad again while in my bathrobe so she dressed me. I am so confused. When "Dad" walks in he has the movie-star looks of my highschool sweetheart I never should have broken up with. He must have finally forgiven me. I am elated. I know a woman can admit years later to a man that she never told him about his child, can it work the other way? I've never known that it could, but these are strange times and the three of us seem to have the love of cinnamon in common.

[Sally Valentine]

Cinnamon cookies. Another whiff and my mind goes back twenty years and 5,000 miles to a Turkish bazaar. I was shopping with Emily and Janice, two other girls in the college exchange program in Istanbul. We were buying walnuts and fresh cinnamon to make Baklava to impress our professor (who looked like Omar Sharif) with our cooking ability. As I took the bag of cinnamon from the turbaned vendor, a stampede of Bedouins swept through the market, their swords cutting down racks of goat and lamb, their camels stirring up clouds of dust and drama.

What the … ? I couldn't get the words out before the last Bedouin stretched down one long arm and snatched me up off the ground and onto his camel. My purse was gone, but I was still clutching the bag of cinnamon.

[Karen Roberts]

He looked like my old boyfriend.  Was my boyfriend a Bedouin?  His image is starting to fade...

I'm feeling woozy.  My head is throbbing.

I reach for a cinnamon cookie.  I put it in my mouth.  

Yuck.  It tastes like that raspberry-flavored medicine I had to take as a child.  

I've never liked anything raspberry ever since.

Wait a minute. I think it dissolved.  I didn't swallow it.  But it's not in my mouth.

I see a mirror lying on the floor next to me.  I open my mouth and look in the mirror.

Is that really in there?

[J. A. Goodman aka Judy Burns]

My heart skips a beat. I hold my breath and turn around. My eyes sweep over the people standing in line, the table, the plates of cinnamon cookies, and the books. The stacks of books waiting to be purchased. I didn't recognise the title but the author… I was the author… of a best selling book! 

I hear sirens. I look out the window, beyond the crowds of people and I see the police arrive to control the crowd. 

My friend Sue nudges me. "You have to keep signing these books. The crowd is growing. I hope we have enough books for everyone."

My mind tries to remember writing this book while my hand signs one after the other. Over and over until each stroke is so painful I want to cry out. I tell Sue I need a break. She hands me a cookie and a cup of coffee. I take a drink, it tastes like blood. I close my eyes and feel the crowd grabbing and pushing at me. I feel cold.

[Christine C. Thompson]

Blood is coming from inside my cheek, where I've clamped my teeth, trying not to think of the book. The hardest story developed to work through . . . help . . . pain.

People push to see me. It triggers flashbacks. I close my eyes and hold my head in my hands while plugging my ears with my thumbs. I envision a developing story while taking slow deep breaths.

A loud familiar voice says, "I need to see the author."

My clammy hands are shaking as I look up and realize she is here.

She looks at me, nods, turns to Sue, and says, "She needs a break." She gives me a hand, and I stand up. She turns toward the crowd, smiles, and announces. "We'll be back soon."

I thank her, and we walk to a private spot. I tell her I forgot to draw a circle on my leg with one hand while I sign books with the other. I shiver. "I tell her I saw a man that looked  . . .

[Jean Verno]

'…. Just like Omar Sharif."

"Not again," she said. "Omar's dead" 

"I know that," I answered, "but Wahidi is alive and stalking me."  

Professor Wahidi is very disturbed by the success of my college memoir. He believes that the book endangers me, him, his whole family, and the entire Middle East.  He shows up at my book signings to confront me but I have avoided him so far.

"He is upset that you wrote about him." She said

"I didn't write about him; I wrote about me. He is only in a few chapters, the best chapters."  I admitted.

My former professor believes the Bedouins came to trap him and steal the secret to the enormous treasure his family had built over centuries.  What treasure?  He was an underpaid college professor interested in tenure, not treasure.

The Bedouin adventure is certainly an exciting episode in my life but there is no treasure or secret key. As sad as it is, the professor is disconnected from reality and his following me around the country is not helping my mental health either.

[Darlene Markham]

Gosh, my headaches.  Must have had too much wine last night.

Why am I on the floor in my childhood bedroom?  Did I really like Pepto-Bismol pink that much?  Oh, that's right, I wore that awful pink dress to the prom. 

That looks like a key on the floor under the bed.  Geeze, it looks like the key to my teenage diary.  Writing about my geography teacher was the best part of my day.  Fantasizing about him whisking me off on a camel, flying up and down the sand dunes, eating moist dates and fragrant, exotic dishes next to an evening fire took up a lot of paragraphs.  I should write a book someday.

Mr. Wahidi often told us stories about the generations of his family and their exciting and dangerous lives.  That's right, he bragged that he once played bridge with Omar Sharif.

What the heck?  I'm wearing a Bedouin galabeya dress.  How do I even know that word?

That key is the answer I just know it.  If I could just crawl forward.

[Barbara-Helene Smith]

I inch under the bed toward the key. Almost there. I stretch out my arm to reach for it. Got it!  Now where's my diary?  I roll over on my back and stare at the fuzz hanging from underneath the box springs. Think. Where did I last see the diary? Images race through my aching head like express trains at rush hour. Stop! I scoot out from under the bed and crawl to the closet.

Tossing out old shoes, slippers, stuffed animals, and whatnots, I grab a brown carton in the back corner marked 'My Treasures', tear off the masking tape and rummage through its contents. There! At the very bottom is my red leather diary, still locked.  My hand shakes as I fumble with the small key and slowly turn the lock.

The paper has yellowed and the ink faded with time, but isolated words jump off the pages – Sue, Omar, Bedouins, Wahidi. Wait! There are pages torn out?  What was on those missing pages?

[Rick Iekel]

The awful smell of ammonia and a strange voice are pulling me away from my dairy. Wait, wait …those pages. What was on those pages? I open one eye, then slam it shut. Someone is leaning over me, someone I don't know. I feel myself slipping back into… There is no diary, no pages miss-i-n-  …again, that awful smell. I try to raise my right arm – try to push it away. "Oh-h-h!" A scream erupts from deep inside as pain rips through my shoulder and I nearly pass out again.

"Easy, Sue…"

What? Who is that talking?  The voice is not familiar. When I finally open my eyes, someone in a white smock is leaning over me. The siren – I heard a siren? Was this the siren? Who are you?

[Victoria J Baker]

I feel like a bundle of nerves. Bending down to touch my toes I exhale then inhale deeply as I come back up. I feel calmer after doing this three times. I am ready.

I climb up the pool stairs to the diving board. Last year's dive was executed poorly and I sustained a massive concussion and was unconscious for a few minutes after they helped pull me from the pool.

Relax, I am telling myself. All these strange thoughts. I feel like Alice in Wonderland now.

There I go again staring deep down into the drain of the pool.

[David A Baker]

"Turkey...Turkey...does anyone want more Turkey before we start to do the dishes now?

"Can I have one of the cinnamon cookies you just made Grandma?" "Not until the dishes are done," Grandma answered. "Aww," Alexa moaned.

Before the "Aww" sound had disappeared into the air, Grandma had turned around with her container and said, "Cookies anyone?"

"You do that all the time Grandma!" Alexa  laughed while she pulled out a fresh cinnamon cookie from the tin.

"It's in my DNA Honey which means it might be in yours too!" With a big smile.

Seven-year-old Jake yelled from the corner of the table, "I can yell underwater, I do it every time I take a bath!"

The thought of that made Alexa remember yelling out a four-letter word at the bottom of the swimming pool near the drain when she completely missed her final dive in the Olympic trials last fall in Los Angeles.

Luckily for her, if you want to call it that, the summer Olympics were canceled and she might get to get another chance to qualify for next year's summer Olympics.

Alexa then quickly said, "If I can't qualify for next year's Olympics my last chance will be in Turkey for the 2024 summer Olympics then."

[Robbi Hess]

Turkey, I shuddered, hoping Alexa and Jake didn't notice. They knew me as the "grandma who always had fresh hot cookies." My grandchildren assumed I had some sort of magical power because, truly, who always had fresh hot cinnamon cookies at the ready?

Alexa had dreamed of competing in the Olympics since she first plunged into the backyard swimming pool. No fear, that one. How to squash this girl's dreams without having her hate me? They – no one in my family – had any idea what I went through and what occurred in that Turkish bazaar all those years ago. I had taken a spur-of-the-moment trip right after high school graduation and a month before I settled into my marriage with Arthur. Settled. Yes, that was it. It had been a comfortable life and I needed that safety and security after what happened in Turkey. The smell of cinnamon and the continual baking of cookies kept the demons at bay. It was the only way to keep my family safe. I hugged Alexa so tightly she squirmed to get away.

"What was that for?" She kissed me on the cheek and smiled.

"I just need to you know, no matter what. I love you more than my own life."

Alexa laughed. "Grandma, sometimes you're so weird I don't even think I know who you are."

If only she knew how close to the mark she was…

[David Woodruff]

"What do you think it means, Vassily?"

She had a limited glimpse of what was going on. But only a glimpse, as if through a fog. She was restrained. The room was small, like a shower stall, and the two men hovering over her wore tan uniforms. There was the smell of cinnamon in the air, but something wasn't right. The cinnamon had something of a chemical odor to it. Almost like a medicine, a drug. It wasn't natural, but its effects were wearing off.

"They've gotten much better at hiding information from the drugs and the machine, Anatoli."

"Then we have made no progress," the taller man offered.

"She knows," Vassily insisted. "It's the diary and the key. They are clues. She's hiding something. A vast pool of knowledge. She's keeping it from us."

"And the Bedouin?"

Vassily stared at her closely. "She's uncovered what we are doing in the Middle East… she knows about the babushka, about Project Grandmother."

[Terry Le Feber]

"Cinnamon. Cinnamon. Time to wake up. Let's get moving."

"Huh? Wha…?" I'm half asleep or something. Who's 'Cinnamon'? Oh, there's that cinnamon smell again. Cookies?  No. Not cookies.

Who's this guy looking down at me? I remember the name: Vassily. Is he Vassily? Doesn't look like a Vassily. He looks like…like …O' my god! Martin Landau. Martin Landau? Mission Impossible? Paris of Mission Impossible? Cinnamon. Cinnamon. Landau's real wife, Barbara Bain, played Cinnamon. Am I in a movie? Where am I? Who am I? Can't be Cinnamon. No…no… I' m Sue. Aren't I?

"C'mon, Cinnamon. Time to rise and shine. We've got to get to work."

I blink. Martin Landau is gone. Instead, it's Vassily looking down at me with a sardonic grin that makes me fully awake. He is not a nice man. I can tell.

I close my eyes. Shudder. Open them and then…Vassily's gone! Gone? Now there's a short man in a white lab coat. A doctor? Looks familiar. He's…he's…. My God! Rod Serling?

The man in the white coat smiles and asks, "Young lady, did you remember to take all your meds before retiring last evening?"

[Sally Steele]

Meds? What meds? I don't take meds.

Rod Serling's doppelganger stares at me with a condescending smirk.

"Here," he says, offering me a cinnamon cookie. "This will help you feel better."

I remember having cinnamon cookies with my tea last night. They were part of a cookie tree delivered by a friend. That's how the card was signed, 'from a friend'.

The cookies smelled so good I couldn't resist having a couple. They reminded me of my grandmother. Was hashish the main ingredient in those cookies? Who would want to hurt me?

Then I thought about my diary and the missing pages and Abdul, Wahidi's Sultan.

Those pages, I remember why I tore them out. I put them in a safe deposit box at a bank. They are evidence of Abdul's involvement in a plot to assassinate Erdogan, Turkey's President.  Abdul would kill to get his hands on those pages.

I try to sit up, but my head swims and my side aches.

Rod Serling pushes a cookie under my nose. It smells so good and I'm hungry. I take a small bite.

[Rick Taubold]

"Okay, folks. Let's pause and evaluate," Jake Jackson said.

The four others around the table looked up from the proposal.

"Thoughts so far?"

"I dunno, boss," Dave said. "U-Script-It, a semi-reality series written by a group of amateur writers...?" He made an ell with his thumb and forefinger on his forehead.

Amanda chimed in, "This isn't too horrible... so far." She pointed at the proposal. "I say we keep reading. If it doesn't work... well, we're just evaluating it, right?"

"Who came up with this crazy idea?" Dave asked Jake.

"Wife of a network exec belongs to a writer's group. You can take it from there."

"Ah," Stephen said, looking at Amanda. "More than an evaluation. Exec suggests, we make it happen."

"And I heard that if this works," Jake said, "then they offer other writers' groups a chance to participate. No idea how that selection process would work."

Wendi sighed. "Sound like they're trying to put us, real writers, out of a job."

Dave continued the reading, "The cookie pops out of existence, Rod Serling vanishes, and..."

[John Caligiuri]

Jake Jackson picks up a cinnamon cookie from the tray at the center of the conference table. He waved it in the air. "If we don't stop these amateur writing groups from undercutting us, our golden days are over."

He snapped a corner of the cookie off and popped it in his mouth. "When Disney+ picked up that ridiculous miniseries about an upstate NY girl getting involved with a Bedouin assassination plot of the Turkish president because of an infatuation with one of her high school teachers, it was a shot across our bow."

Jackson shoved the rest of the cookie in his mouth and brushed the crumbs from his Armani suit. "We need to own them and their material."

Amada shrugged. "We could just put out better scripts. We don't need to buy them out."

Jackson hissed. "Amada you haven't been looking at our balance sheet. We couldn't buy out the loser of a third-grade spelling bee." He grunted. "We haven't put out a winner in over a year. Their stuff is fresh. We need to get their scripts the old-fashioned way."

"Ah, boss." Dave twisted his thick, bull neck, cracking it. "Are you sayin' what I think your sayin?"

Jackson rose and glared around the table. "Do you goons think you'll be driving those Ferrari's working the loading docks in Long Beach?" He spun and walked towards the exit. "I want the rights to everything the U-script-it scumbags have written by this time next week, or you goons better pay up your back Teamster union dues."

[John Steele]

"We have a problem gentlemen", said Larry Dickerson, Project Coordinator for the U-Script-It computer project. "There is a problem somewhere in the story matrix and it's causing an abstract and random mixing of the stories written by these amateur writers"

"Okay, so what do we do about it?", Tom Stevens asks.

"I'm glad you ask. You and Gray Appleton have been on this project since its inception and are the best Engineers we have. I want you to do a deep dive inside and find the problem."

"But we have already gone over the code, searched all the files and ran security checks too", piped in Gray.

"Yes, Yes, I know that. What I'm proposing is to use the experimental Tron-izeer. I know we have only had preliminary testing, but those tests were all successful, and we were planning to take the next step of sending a man inside soon anyway. Find and fix the problem and you will each be paid 10 million dollars."

"That is the gizmo that converts you to a data stream that theoretically allows us inside any computer system for diagnostic purposes" Tom adds.

In the Tron-izer room, Tom and Gray are in their special suits waiting in the Tron-izer Chamber. "Here are your communication devices, just attach them to any data bus and we can talk back and forth. Good Luck!", Larry says as he turns and nods to the control Engineer.

A whirring sound grows, the beams turn on and the chamber is filled with what looks like a million fireflies. As the 'sparkling dust' settles, it is clear that Tom and Gray are no longer in the chamber.

"Come in Tom", the control Engineer says into the console microphone. "Tom?….Gray?, Hello"…..

[Carol Neufeglise]

"Tom, Gray, do you copy?" Larry Dickerson takes the controls and summons his engineers. Glistening beads of sweat are forming on his forehead and slowly dripping down the side of his face from his balding head. No response. His face has become red. His pulse quickening. Where are they? Oh God, have we lost them? The thought of ten million dollars to finally get the bugs out of the Tran-izeer would inspire anyone to take a risk. But, were we really ready to take that risk? Larry continues to summon his employees. No response. His red face is now clammy and pale. He feels sick. It has been 7 minutes and 28 seconds and still no response. How will I bring them back? Will the codes work?

The sound of static electricity is pervasive. Tom senses that he has prickly ears. But does he have ears? But data streams don't have ears! Yet he is aware of sound. Has something gone wrong? Where is Gray? Did we completely convert to a data stream? No one has ever gone this far. Will Larry be able to apply the codes to bring us back? Will I look the same upon return? "I hear my name called!" Tom fights off the strong urge to panic.

[Joe Mele]

A presence makes itself known to Tom, or more precisely to the ephemeral entity/nonentity that Tom has become. Quantum effects rule this universe. Not seen, nor felt, nor heard, nor smelt, but somehow Tom knows the presence is not Gray. It's a female presence and Tom perceives an anxiety, a dread, an awful fear that she is losing her mind.

[Kim Gore]

"It's all right, Tom," a woman's voice says. "My name is Sue. I'm Arthur Wahidi's wife. You know, the 'wife of the exec' who put together this 'crazy idea' to start U-Script-It, a platform for talented new writers to start their careers."

A figure forms. A woman in a blouse and slacks. Gray hair clipped short at the ears. Pursed lips. An air of what could be construed as haughtiness, but might be a defensive stance. After all, they had looked down on her idea and turned it into some kind of fantastical money-making monster.

"I-I don't understand." Tom glances around at the empty abyss. It's just him, Mrs. Wahidi, and white space. So much white space.

"Let me quickly break this down for you. I'm a memoir writer. My adventures in the Middle East and consequent marriage to my Omar Sharif look-alike professor have, in my opinion, created a possible best-seller. But people aren't reading enough these days." She adjusts a hearing aid tucked inside her ear and continues. "Netflix, Amazon Prime, Disney +…this is what people want now. Not sentences written with sharp images."

It's hard to get a breath. Tom swallows air, but his lungs are incapable of gulping it down. All this white space is suffocating.

"I plan to change all that. I came up with the concept after tripping over my own two feet and knocking myself out at home. When I awoke from the floor it hit me. Actually, the scent of cinnamon cookie hit me, as my Yankee Candle had been knocked from its stand and shattered all about me. But that's when I realized my true potential. I might not be a Florence Nightengale, a brilliant scientist, or a billionaire handing out my wealth to the poor. But I am a storyteller. And we need storytellers as much as we need any other member of society. Because stories help us be more intelligent, more self-aware, more human."

"I-I don't get it. Then why all the terrible scripts written for U-Script-It?"

Sue smiles for the first time. "Because that's where we're headed if we don't continue to read. Television is a wonderful tool, but reading is true comprehension."

The white space starts to fill with words…typed with Arial, 12-point font…Tom's lungs open to the air again. He can breathe.

[Mary Lou Heilman]

The scientist rubbed his hands in glee. "My experiment was a success," he gloated as he perused the jumble of words, the so-called scripts from those U-Script-It geniuses. His brilliant idea to bake LSD into cinnamon cookies, and then waft the cinnamon aroma through the heat ducts, enticing the writers into the break room  to gobble up the doctored cookies, came off without a hitch.

Then all he'd had to do was watch as the writers stumbled back to their cubicles and began to frantically type. Strange, though, there was a weird kind of continuity to the scripts, almost as though one person started a script, then another picked up the story thread, on down the line. Sue was the last person to contribute. Her idea about where we're headed if we don't read made sense. Maybe she was able to resist the cookies. She always did have will power.

But the scientist discarded that little glitch in his experiment as another LSD proposal began to take shape in his mind.

 

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