The Young Writers Critique Forum Challenge, begun in late 1998 by Sarah Kathryn of the WBBS Young Writers Forum (Critique). It requires each entrant to write a short story to specific guidelines. At the end of the appointed time, entries are posted at the Forum, then critiqued, and finally voted on. The winner designs and runs the next Challenge. Here, I have collected my own entries to the Challenge. Feel free to e-mail me comments.

Enjoy!


YWCFC 1

Magic


647 words

Guidelines: 1000 words or less, begin with "His/her name was..." Designed by Sarah Kathryn.

Her name was Judie. She was a more-or-less normal girl leading a more-or-less normal life. She just happened to be on vacation, that was all.

Nearly a year ago, she had resolved to do this. She had never seen the ocean, and she had never taken a trip before all alone. So she had planned and saved, and then saved some more. Now she was camped on the beach, sitting in the sand, looking out over the Atlantic. She had been sitting there, watching, since early that morning. She had awakened just in time to see the sun come up, and since then she had broken her vigil only long enough to fix herself a ham and cheese sandwich for lunch and another for dinner. The sight of the sun over the water, the endless sea stretching out to eternity, fed her soul--but she still had to feed her body as well.

No one would ever understand, when she told them later. They wouldn't know how she could sit there, just staring out at the waves and watching the tide change. She couldn't quite explain it, either--why she had done it, why she hadn't at least gone for a swim, why she had been so captivated. It was a difficult concept. It wasn't that the ocean's ever-changing nature had made her think about life; it wasn't that its vast immensity had made her think about how insignificant mankind was; it wasn't that the sound of the waves made her feel at peace. All of those things were true, but none of them had caused her to sit there in the sand for hours.

It was getting dark. Behind her, the setting sun stained the wispy cirrus clouds a delicate pink, contrasting with the fiery orange sky. Over the water, the sky was still blue, except for one thin band of lavendar. Slowly, the brilliant sapphire colour dimmed until the band dissolved within it. The full moon rose over the water, and still Judie watched.

The moonlight spilled over the beach, bathing it in silver. The same light bounced off of the waves, making them look like molded glass. The water, which had begun to rise, continued to do so--slowly, slowly, but it rose. The tide had turned a while backand was coming back in. Almost as slowly, a concept penetrated Judie's mind.

Magic did exist.

It was everywhere, if you knew how to see it. It was in the rolling hills, the towering mountains, the flat plains. It was in the way fireflies twinkled like pixie dust over open fields and in the midst of tree branches. It was in the stars above her and the glowing orb of the moon, as well as the blazing sun.

It was in the sea.

She wished that she could pick up a piece of that enchantment and bring it back home, like a seashell or a sand dollar, a small memento of the trip that cost nothing but meant a great deal. Since she couldn't, though, she sat there until the moon had traveled halfway across the sky. Then, unable to keep her eyes open any longer, she crawled into her sleeping bag and went to sleep.

When she dreamt, it was of a faerie-land where man had not yet violated the earth with technology, where bushes and flowers positively sparkled with magic, and where enchantment could be packed up in boxes and carried as gifts to friends and relatives. In her dream, she sat for weeks at a time, watching the world turn and the tide change, then picked up pieces of magic and put them in her pockets to give to her parents.

The sun rose again, flooding her tent with light and awakening her. She crawled out to watch again, feeling as if she could do so forever and never tire of it.


YWCFC 2

A Form of Hell


699 words
(This one actually won; I was astounded.)

Guidelines: 1000 words or less of dialogue, tags allowed but no adverbs in tags, begin with "Did anyone see you?" Designed by Arwen.

"Did anyone see you?" the stranger asked.

"No. You were right. This is such a weird feeling! I can see me, and you can see me, and I can see you--but none of them see either of us. Why not?" Mike wondered.

"It's complicated. I don't quite understand it myself."

"So what's going on?"

"You've gone through... a transition, I suppose you'd call it."

"Which is why I can stand here, in the middle of a crowded restaurant, and no one sees me."

"Yes."

"But why? What makes me so different?"

"Oh, you're not different. Someone just decided to force you through this transition early, that's all. Don't worry. It's not an unusual thing."

"All right, then. Can I go home and explain things to my wife?"

"You can go wherever you want to. You might find it a little hard to explain things to her, though."

"Oh, she'll understand."

"Hmm."

"She will--hey, where'd you go?"


"Tanya, I think something strange has happened. No one can see me anymore. Or hear me, or anything. I don't know what it is, but some weird guy said... Tanya, are you listening? He said it was normal, and it was some sort of a transition. So... Tanya?

"Tanya, can you hear me? Tanya, honey. Please say you hear me. No, don't leave the room. Where are you going? Wait, I'm coming too. Tanya? Well, if you're going to go into the bedroom, go, don't just stand there."

"I told you so," a familiar voice said.

"Huh? Oh, it's you again. Where'd you go off to, anyway?"

"I had some business to take care of. Why don't you have a look inside that room?"

"I... Oh, my God. That's me."

"Yup."

"That's why no one can see me or hear me or... Or anything? I'm dead?"

"Yup."

"That's impossible."

"Nope."

"But I'm not ready to be dead yet!"

"She's not ready for you to be dead yet either."

"But..."

"Sorry, Mike. This is it. Time to go."

"Why don't I remember dying?"

"You were asleep. Come on. It'll be much better once you get away from this place."

"No, no, it won't! Don't you see? I'm going to miss her... Her and our baby girl, I can't leave Ellie without a father. I've got to stay!"

"You'll forget soon enough. That's one of the benefits of your condition. Just follow me, please."

"I'll forget?"

"You'll forget everything. Every embarrassing moment, every stupid mistake, all the pain and all the hungers that come with being mortal. Now come, please. I've delayed long enough just letting you say good-bye. It's time to go."

"Forget? Everything? But... Won't I remember my daughter's birthday party? My wedding? The trip to Ireland? My father's voice, my mother's smile? Anything?"

"Nothing. Now please, come along."

"But I don't want to forget! I don't want to die. Please. Let me stay. I'm here just now--surely that means I'm not quite gone yet."

"Well... Yes. But you must come along."

"But you said yourself this was a murder attempt. That it was early. So why can't I have a chance? Why can't I stay?"

"You already made your choice."

"Yes, I did--I don't want to die."

"That's not what you said before."

"What?"

"Before. When you took those pills."

"I don't understand."

"You overdosed on sleeping pills. You committed suicide. You felt that the pressure at work was too much, that Tanya was being unfaithful, that your little girl hated you. You didn't have any friends left and you thought your life was a disaster. So you took a handful of sleeping pills and hoped you wouldn't wake up. And you won't. Come, now, I have a schedule to keep."

"I do remember now, but... But to never be able to see Tanya again, to not remember her! If I had known what it was like over here, I should think I wouldn't have done it. Can't I go back?"

"If you will not come willingly, I fear I must resort to dragging you. You have, as I said, made your choice."

"No, wait... Put me down! Where are you taking me? No, please..."

"I'm sorry, Mike."


YWCFC 3

(I was ineligible for the third Challenge, as I designed it.)


YWCFC 4

Wishbringer--The Story


993 words

Guidelines: 1000 words or less, multiple points of view, use the word "platypus" in the story, begin with "It was not yellow." Designed by Arthur?

Very much thanks to Infocom for inspiring this with the history given in the manual for their game Wishbringer. The names and faces have been changed to protect the innocent... And the not-so-innocent.
For anyone who by some weird chance knows this story, I apologise--I have changed a little more than the names. My only defense is that I didn't have the space to explain certain things, so I had to write them out.
--Sara


It wasn't yellow. It should have been, but the rose the Brave Knight presented to Princess Hope was red. Queen Merah frowned as her daughter accepted the blossom with an affectionate smile. Silly girl. Red is for an established suitor, not some upstart knight who thinks he is worthy. He ought to be giving her yellow. For friendship, with an interest. Ye gods, who designed this code of flowers, anyway? And then she noticed the way the two looked at each other. An established suitor. Again. The girl is presumptuous. Her eyes narrowed. I'll take care of him the same way I did the others. None of them are worthy of her. The fool will go anywhere, do anything for Hope just now. He might change his mind when he hears exactly what that means.

"Welcome, brave Sir Matthew," Merah said. "You have come to seek my daughter's hand in marriage?"

He bowed. "Yes, Your Majesty."

She sniffed. "Well. Do you know the customs of this land?"

"I am aware that I must fulfill a quest set upon me by Your Majesty. Set me to any task; I will not fail."

Hope looked nervous. She really did care for this one, it seemed. Why, Merah couldn't imagine. The knight was no more than a boy, barely as old as the princess herself. He might, possibly, have reached his eighteenth birthday--but no more than that. After a long moment of silence, the Princess spoke.

"Mother... Your Majesty... Please, be easy on this one. He is young yet, and..." She hesitated. "I do want him to succeed." Easy was a relative term. Of the five who had already come seeking Hope's hand, one had been killed by an angry god, one had fallen off of a mountain, and three had been killed in gruesome ways by various monsters.

Merah considered the dilemma. What test should she put the young man to? The answer came to her at long last. "Bravery is a necessary quality for the husband of a Princess," she announced. "There is a cemetery not far from here, just outside of the west gate of the city. Do you know it, Sir Knight?" When the lad nodded, she continued, "You will spend one full night there. Awake, asleep, it makes no difference. I would advise you to remain alert, for several men older and braver than you have disappeared from there at night. That is your quest."

Sir Matthew had obviously heard the rumours about the graveyard; he looked a touch pale as he bowed again and murmured, "Yes, Your Majesty. If I may have your permission to be on my way? If I hurry, I may still arrive there before the sun sets."

"You may go." Out of the corner of her eye, Merah could see Hope. The girl looked positively terrified. When would she learn that none of the buffoons who had come seeking her hand were in the least bit worthy of her? She was going to have to learn to set higher standards.


A knock awakened Hope from a restless sleep. Without waiting for an invitation, her mother swept through the door.

"Your brave suitor failed his quest," the Queen announced. "It is as well. He presumed too much. He was not brave enough to be worthy of you; he disappeared sometime during the night. I suspect that he has fled."

Hope could only stare at her mother and ask, "Why? Why do you always set them with such impossible tasks? Discovering the secret of flight, beg a god for rain, find a talking platyups. Slay a Grue and bring it to light. Steal a fabled treasure. Stay the night in a graveyard. Why do you want them to die?" She was almost in tears now, holding them back only because she knew that she would be punished for them, for not being strong enough to stop them. "I don't want to die unmarried, mother!"

The Queen fixed her with a long, cold stare. "They are not worthy of you. Not one of them. You are the most beautiful woman alive, and you would settle for less than perfection. Well, I will not let you. It seems that there is no one fit to wed you at all; therefore, I am afraid you must live and die unmarried rather than be handed off to someone less than what he should be." She turned and left Hope to her tears.

"Please," the Princess begged. She spoke to no one in particular, to whichever deity might be listening. "Please. If she dies--if she dies, perhaps I will be free of this edict of hers. Any one of those six brave knights was better than this. And I would have married any one of them, too! Matthew especially--I thought... I thought perhaps at last I'd found someone, someone she would let me marry. Please. Let her die. I canít live this way!"

But Hope's plea went unheard, and Queen Merah lived a long and healthy life.


As the years passed and the world turned, Hope became more and more aware of her beauty. Under Merah's influence, she slowly became a vain woman, and when her beauty faded with age she became bitter. Seldom did she ever think of her life before the Queen's proclamation, because she could not bear to think of what she had been, a girl full of dreams and wishes.

She died and was given a royal burial. Eventually her body turned to dust, and even that was gone. But her heart remained, glowing with the distilled and crystallized essence of her suppressed wishes. In legends it became the Stone of Dreams, able to grant seven specific wishes to the one who fulfilled its conditions. Heroes the world over searched for it, and even the legend of its creation faded into the mists of time, until Hope was forgotten and only the stone's name remained.

Wishbringer.


YWCFC 5

You Just Might Get It


538 words

Guidelines: Write in first-person, 1200 words or less, mention a red velvet cloak, end with "...and then the rains came." or some variation thereof. Designed by Titania.


I push the cloak back again, trying to make it cover as little as possible and therefore retain less heat than usual. I love the fabric, but red has never been my colour. It makes me look washed-out, faded, like I've been sick. I'm only wearing it because Mother insists. She thinks it makes me look like a pearl nestled among rose petals. I say it's time for a new cloak--the velvet is beginning to wear in places and the edges are tattered.

Stepping out the door, I walk down the dry, dusty street of my village. It's so hot lately. I wonder what could be wrong--it's usually dry just before the rainy season, but not this dry. I see my brother standing beside his horse outside Mother's house. Just as I reach him, he swings up into the saddle.

"Cameron! Where are you going?" He's dressed for travel, and there's a pack-horse there too. He scowls down at me.

"You should stop wearing that thing, Vanessa. It's coming apart. Besides which it's too warm to wear a cloak that heavy."

"I know that. Mother won't let me alone about it. Every time she sees me without it, it's 'Where's your cloak, Vanessa?' and 'You didn't throw out that pretty cloak, did you? It suits you so well.' Where are you going?"

"Anywhere else but here. I can't take it any longer. The old harridan's after me to remarry again, and Ruth only three months gone. I wish she would up and die! It's long past her time."

I shake my head at him. "You know better than that, Cam--"

I am cut off by a scream from inside the house. I run inside and arrive in the bedroom without quite remembering my mad dash through the rest of the house. Cameron is there as quickly. Mother lies on the bed, her face fixed in an expression of pure terror. She doesn't move, doesn't even tremble. I begin to cry, knowing what has happened.

"Mother! Mother!" Cameron shakes her a little; her head lolls to one side, but she does not lose the mask of horror imposed on her features. Finally, he fumbles around her neck, searching for the big vein where he ought to be able to feel her heart beating. He looks up at me, tears in his eyes, and shakes his head. "She's gone."

Mother is gone. Mother, so healthy and strong that she refused to move in with either of her children as she aged. She wouldn't let us move back in with her either. "I can take care of myself," she'd say. And now she is dead.

"I didn't mean it," Cameron cries--to me or to God, I'm not sure, but to someone. "I didn't mean it!"

I walk outside in a daze, wiping away my tears. My hypnosis is shattered, however, when I feel a drop of moisture on my face. I turn to berate whichever of the little boys is spitting on passerby, but stop before a word is said. The little boys are all inside, and a dark storm-cloud covers the village. I nod and bow my head. It is appropriate.

And then the rains come.


YWCFC 6

Consequences


880 words

Guidelines: 1000 words or less. Choose a situation: a famous person coming to visit, a theft, or a coup. Your main character must be either the famous person, one of their fans, the theif, their victim, the old ruler, or the new ruler. Designed by Vadal.


I sat down on the bed in my small room at the Rotten Rose Petal Inn. It was the third-cheapest inn in the town of Aleda. Of course, Aleda was only big enough to support three inns--but it served my purpose. I liked small-town dreams. Sometimes.

Reaching into my pouch, I pulled out a wad of cloth. Unwrapping it revealed a small, hollow sphere of greenish glass. There were a few more in my pack, some blue, some silvery, and a nice little packet of red ones tucked away where they wouldn't break. I shivered as I thought of the last time one had broken. What a nightmare. I hadn't gotten the spell quite right, and the contents had been released. Violently. There weren't too many green ones, though. I wasn't really very interested in the green ones. I did have some ethics.

There was a knock at the door as I was rolling the sphere--the loot from last night's work--around in the palm of my hand. "Come," I called. The door opened to reveal Annie, the maid.

"Came to see if you needed anything. What's that?" she asked curiously. I wondered if she could have kept the job if her father hadn't been the innkeeper. She was always wondering about what people were doing and why. It rather intrigued me, but many of the other customers weren't so amused.

"A dream," I replied with a crooked smile, deciding on impulse to let her in on my secret. I was very impulsive. Perhaps too much so for my own good.

"A dream? What are you talking about?"

I held up the orb I had been playing with. "It's a dream. Someone else's dream. I think I'll use it tonight."

"I think you're going insane," she told me disgustedly. "I've never heard of anyone having anyone else's dream. How would you do that, anyhow?"

My smile got a little broader. "It's magic. I took it from someone's mind as she lay sleeping. I've just discovered how to do it."

She looked slightly less disdainful now. Not by much, but it was a start. "Magic can do that?" We had both seen the mages doing their thing, lighting candles from across the room and making things float and reading people's pasts, just to impress the crowds. She had even heard the bards' tales of the huge battles from long ago, when wizards had accompanied armies into war. However, I had to wonder if she believed me. She should have. I was telling her the truth.

"Magic can do that," I affirmed. "It's a lot like reading the past, really. A lot like reading minds." Annie shuddered at that. Mind-reading was forbidden, and anyone caught at it was subject to harsh penalties. No one wanted their personal secrets, their hidden desires and buried wishes, open to anyone who wanted to take a peek. "It's much more structured, though," I continued. "Putting the dream into one of these things is quite difficult. Glass wasn't made to hold dreams." I didn't tell her that I wasn't entirely sure if I had done it right. If I had, the dream would only be released by a special incantation. Breaking the orb would do nothing but destroy it. If I'd gotten it wrong again, though, breaking the orb would release the dream, and it would draw whoever was around into itself.

"So whose dream is that?" she asked. She looked a little nervous. She looked wary; I thought she probably believed me now. Or maybe she was just humouring me.

"It's yours," I replied offhandedly. "I don't really know what it's about--hard to tell, you know--but I think it's a good one. The bad ones usually look redder for some reason."

She paled. "My dream? You stole my dream?"

"Stole is such a harsh word. You wouldn't have missed it, would you?"

"I-- No, but--"

"So you won't mind if I keep it. Oh, don't look so tragic. I'll take good care of it."

"No. No, please, give it back to me. It's my dream, not yours."

"It's mine now. Unless you want it back?"

"Yes. Yes, I do. Please give it back to me."

"I don't know. It looks interesting. Do you know what the greenish ones usually are?" I chuckled. "They're pretty interesting. In dreams, anything goes, you know. I wonder who--"

"Stop it," she interrupted. She was beginning to turn red around the ears now. "Just stop it. And give me my dream back. Please."

My eyes widened a little in mock surprise. "Why, Annie. I didn't know it meant so much to you."

"It is nothing. But it is mine. Give it to me."

I smiled and handed it to her. I had never intended to keep it. I certainly didn't want to see what it was about; I had a fair idea from the colour, and even I admitted that there were some things you just didn't intrude upon. But as it left my hand, the sphere dropped to the floor. I felt as though time had slowed as I watched it shatter. I had just enough time to curse my own stupidity before we were engulfed by the dream that had been released.


YWCFC 7

Breakdown II


986 words

Guidelines: 1000 words or less. Use a flashback. Designed by Chrissy.

Author's Note: As the "II" in the title indicates, this is a re-write of a story I wrote a couple of years ago called "Breakdown", which at one time appeared on the Young Writers Collection. (Click here for the original story.) So if it sounds familiar, that's why. *G*


I sat on the bed and looked around the room. So boring. If they were going to cage me in here, they might as well make it interesting. I wondered if anyone sent flowers to mental patients. I turned toward the window. Perhaps there was something interesting beyond those bars.

There was. He was there. I watched him carefully, as I always had before, as he walked into the building. He couldn't be here to see me. He wouldn't ever talk to me or look at me or... My mind ran in circles as I tried to comprehend what he was doing at this mental hospital in the middle of nowhere. And then my thoughts came to a screeching halt. He must have heard. What would he think of me? He would think what everyone else did. That I was crazy, and I didn't want that. It would ruin any chance I had with him. Not that I had one.

A few minutes later, the door opened and closed behind me. I didn't turn around; I knew who it was. "Did they tell you what happened?" I asked quietly. My voice sounded crazy.

"Yeah." He sounded nervous.

"And you've come to see how nutso I've gone."

"No! I just thought you might like a little company."

"Did they tell you everything?" I asked. "Everything?" As I recounted the entire sordid mess to him, my mind drifted back, just a few days. Somehow, I felt I could confide in him. He no longer made me nervous.

I was sitting in the living room. I got up, feeling restless. I paced through the house, unsure of what I was looking for. Finally, my eyes fell upon a plate in the kitchen sink. It was covered in steak sauce. I picked it up, weighing it in my hand. Something within me felt stretched, and as I held the plate it stretched even further. Finally, it snapped; I whirled and threw the plate at the nearest window. It made a terrific smashing sound, the broken shards tinkling as they fell to the floor. It was only the beginning; I wandered through the house, breaking glass and toppling furniture. I ran downstairs and continued on my trail of wanton destruction. A marble went through the center of the computer monitor. Exhausted and crying, I collapsed into a heap at the bottom of the stairs. At that moment, the front door opened and my parents walked in.

"But there's one odd thing about all this," I concluded. "I never once tried to hurt myself. I always thought that when this happened, I'd try suicide."

"'When'? But this is so unlike you. You've always been so stable. Calm." So I'd fooled him too.

"No. I've been suppressing everything. It all builds up. Pressure. Something's bound to break sooner or later. I've known this was coming for years."

He didn't appear to know what to say. Finally, I continued, "They've got me in therapy. Therapy. The whole reason I'm here is that I have this inability to share my secrets and emotions, this mental block against allowing even my closest friends to know. And I'm supposed to tell all these things to a therapist? Impossible!" I sighed. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to... Sometimes I get talkative. Maybe it's being here; maybe it's the drugs they're giving me, whatever they are. I don't know." I was acting crazy again. Maybe I was crazy after all.

Finally, he found something to say. "It's all right." He looked around. Funny; before, I had always avoided his gaze. Now it was his turn. "Um... Do you mind if I asked what happened?"

I smiled, but it wasn't real. It just seemed the thing to do. "I had a nervous breakdown. A rather violent one."

"No... I know that. I mean... why did it happen?"

I began to understand. He'd known how I'd felt about him all along. "It wasn't just you. It was life." Now I looked away. "It started in grade school. And it all just built up. All the pain, the anger, the..." I trailed off, not knowing how to finish. "It all kept cutting at me and something snapped. I've known it would for years."

"They, um, asked me to come. They asked me not to tell you, but..."

"Thank you. For telling me. And for coming. I suppose they think I'll open up more to you?"

"I'm guessing that was the idea."

"They chose well. But... No. Please don't take it personally."

"I won't." Silence, for a moment.

"You don't have to stay if you don't want to."

"I know." He smiled faintly. "I hope that wasn't a dismissal."

That surprised me almost as much as his presence had. Hope began to creep into me, but I squashed it quickly. "Don't try to make me feel better. Please. You said it yourself; they asked you to come."

"I wasn't sure you'd want me here."

I sighed. "I... I never was sure about much where you were concerned. All I know is that I'm happy when you're around. So, if--"

I was interrupted by a nurse poking her head through the door. "Lunchtime, dearie," the nurse said. "You know the rules. No visitors during mealtimes. I'll let you alone for a moment to say goodbye."

"Well. I guess that effectively ends this conversation, doesn't it."

"Yeah. I hate to say it, but..."

"I know. Goodbye." I felt oddly disappointed. "Listen, I don't want to pressure you, but if you want to come visit me... Well, go ahead. I'd be glad to see you."

He smiled. The nurse pounded on the door and he sighed. "All right. Goodbye, then. But I'll be back." As he left, he added, "Tomorrow."

As the door closed behind him, the hope I had locked away began to shine through again. I smiled, and this time I meant it.


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