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The staff of the Berkeley Fiction Review is pleased to announce the winners of our 20th Annual Sudden Fiction Contest!

Their work is featured in the current issue of the Berkeley Fiction Review.

Visit our Current Issue page to see a glimpse of Issue 36, attend our Release Party on Tuesday May 3rd at Caffe Mediterraneum (2475 Telegraph Ave, Berkeley, CA 94704), or visit our Order page to purchase your own copy today!


First Place:

“A Glass Half (Full)” by Athena Scott

Second Place:

“Green Onions” by S.C. Lewis

Third Place:

“DIY Novel” by JD Mader

Honorable Mention:

“Cherry” by Dylan Gallagher

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Edward Booth, BFR Staff

I saw an orange cat yesterday, in the field out back. She strolled through the green field with sun shimmering across her fur, with a feline grace that can only belong to satisfaction. Her stride was purposeful, and soon she had walked the length of the field and vanished beyond the horizon.

Looking through my gap in the wooden fence this sight inspired envy. It was true I could never be that cat. She had a natural gift for movement, a superiority that announced itself to the world. I have nothing to compare with that. I’m no golden stallion of a retriever, nor do I have the glow of a pampered dachshund. I have no beauty or strength that would allow me to know the world as the orange cat does, but I still wish to know what it’s like.

The field outside is a place I’ve never been. I know of the outside world. Occasionally I’m allowed to glimpse it on a path chosen by my owner. Those times, though limited, are incredibly exciting. I can feel the presence of other beings. I can sense their auras. That feeling of newness, of novelty is what I desire. In those moments I’m able to touch upon a fountain of teeming life that exists beyond my boundaries — and then I catch myself. The expanse is beyond me.

I can only be who I am. A runty dog, black and white, with no distinguishing features. I sometimes bark at joggers, but they are not intimidated. It sounds more like a cough than a bark, causing confusion more than anything else.

A lot of the time it doesn’t matter. Routine is routine, and eating, sleeping, and playing is enjoyable as it ever was. Sometimes I get new food, sometimes I get different places to sleep, sometimes I get new toys, and sometimes different people bring in smells and experiences. It’s not bad I suppose. It’s just when I walk to the edge of the backyard and look through the hole in the wooden fence I can see so much more.

The orange cat moved from the field into her own lawn. Now it was time for dinner. A push of the head was all that was needed for her to slip inside, and then she was home to comfort. She had the freedom to roam, but rarely used it. It was a routine as soft and simple as marmalade. She had no need for anything else.

Vivienne Finch, BFR Staff

Finch BFR

Low tide turns this Maine beach into a marsh. When I was six, I woke up just before sunrise to go clamming here with my grandfather. We wore black rubber boots and waterproof coats because the mist was so thick it could soak through anything. Once we got to the beach, my grandfather told me to watch out for little dribbles of seawater coming up through holes in the sand. I found the clams; he dug them out with a shovel and tossed them into a big plastic bucket. I didn’t know we were going to eat them, but that evening we made clam chowder.

I didn’t end up liking the chowder, but that disappointment wasn’t nearly enough to taint how much I enjoyed the routine of finding the clams.

I haven’t been clamming since, but if I end up on a Maine beach and can think of a reason to dig up clams without eating them, I haven’t forgotten what to look for.

Ashley Lin Wong, BFR Staff

Let me tell you something about the Horsehead Nebula.

It’s what scientists call an interstellar absorption, a configuration of dust, clouds of effervescent smoke holding crystals in the air. It just so happens that those gas clouds managed to fold themselves over into something that, from 1,500 light years away, looks like a horse’s head facing right.

The Horsehead Nebula is what scientists would call a miracle. What shouldn’t be there is there. Billows of stars and light angled just so, 1,500 light years ago, that they managed, at one point in time, to resemble a horse. It probably doesn’t even look that way anymore, they say, because what we’re seeing now has been over 1,500 light years coming. Could be a penguin or a tree, but that’s for the next generation to discover.

The first time I went to see the Horsehead Nebula with my dad, I was seven years old and skinny, shivering in the wet grass and damp of the night from Dead Man’s Hill in Hines. My dad was two beers in, whistling softly as he set up the telescope.

“What’re we looking for, Dad?” I said.

He just kept whistling to himself, twisting the stand into the base.

“You want a beer?” he said, pulling a Bud from the cooler.

“Dad, I’m seven.”

“So?”

He stared at me and my silence, his eyes glistening, luminescent as the sky above our heads.

“You wanna see something amazing, Mikey?” he whispered, coming in very close. I could smell the beer and his 9 o’clock cheese sandwich on his breath. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen him this excited.

“Mikey, come look at this,” he said, his eye pressed fervently to the viewfinder, his outstretched hand beckoning for me. I pulled the viewfinder down gingerly until it met my eye level, and looked in.

He wrapped his arms around me like a python and guided the telescope in my arms until the stars went from pinpoints of light to flaming orbs of energy, whole other worlds screwed into the black canvas of the sky.

It was my first glimpse of the Horsehead Nebula, and it felt like all the air had whooshed out of me, like I’d hit the ground falling.

“One day, Mikey,” my dad whispered, his hand holding the telescope steady, “one day, we’re going to find a way to get there – humans are gonna find a way to get there – and then we’re going to be first in line to see. Just you and me, away from here, in space, and we’ll never have to come back.”

“But what about Mom? And Nick? Won’t we need them too?” I said, my voice high and reedy.

My father said nothing, the pupils of his eyes swimming in the starlight.

*          *          *

When I was twelve the teacher put a picture of the Horsehead Nebula up on the overhead.

“Does anyone know what this is?” she said.

I raised my hand and said yes, said that I had seen it before.

“Really? When did you go see it?” she exclaimed, her wide rubbery love-me smile painted firmly over gleaming teeth.

I said that I had seen it with my father, when we had gone stargazing a while back.

“How lovely,” the teacher cooed, raising her voice over the class’s rising snickers. “Has anyone else ever gone stargazing?”

“You fucking pussy,” Larry DeSoto snarled at me during recess, flanked by two of his rats. “Going stargazing with your daddy? You and daddy go stargazing a lot, drink tea, and play with little teddies and pony balls?”

They all hovered over me menacingly, only scattering when Nick came out.

“See you later, dipshit,” they laughed, grabbing my nipples and twisting hard.

“You okay?” Nick asked when he saw my watery eyes. I said I was fine, that DeSoto and his gang had just roughed me up a bit. I didn’t tell him how my dad had been out of a job for weeks, had been gone for days then returned like nothing happened and that now I could hear him yelling through the walls, both my mom and dad crying every night. They always began in whispers, harsh words passed back and forth under their breath, but inevitably one of them would snap and the argument would ignite until they were practically burning the house down with their charged insults. My father started sleeping in the basement.

I never asked why, never wanted to. I started seeing him every day in the parking lot of the Polish bar on the bus ride home from school. I knew how far gone he was, but I thought life could blot out reality as long as he didn’t say it.

*          *          *

The night before he left, my dad got drunk and spread himself out like a bear on my bed.

“Dad? What the hell?” I asked when I found him there around 1 am, still clinging to the sheets.

“Don’t complain, Mikey, I’ve had a long day.”

“Right, because every day’s a struggle when you’re unemployed.”

“Shut up.” My dad rolled himself onto his side so he could look at me directly. His eyes were so red and puffy that, for a moment, I wondered if he’d been crying into my pillows.

“You know what adulthood is, Mikey. It’s not getting wiser, or more mature, or any of that shit. It’s waking up in the morning and it’s twenty years later. And you’re married to your first girlfriend with two kids, and the job at the Ford plant you got junior year of high school is the only job you’ve ever had.”

I pulled off my shoes and socks, half-attentive, waiting for him to pass out so I could sleep.

“Remember what I said, Mikey? About the moon?”

“Sure, Dad.”

“We’re going to be first in line, you and me. First in line to leave.”

I guess some seven-year-old part of me was dumb enough to think he’d actually take me with him. Wherever he ended up going, whatever would happen between him and Mom, I never believed that he would leave without me.

*          *          *

When I was sixteen, my dad pulled his truck out of our driveway and never came back.

*          *          *

The Horsehead Nebula is what some people refer to as a miracle.

I say it’s just fucking clouds of gas, people, get over it. You can make that stuff at home.

*          *          *

Let me tell you something about miracles: they don’t exist.

Emily Conway, BFR Staff

I think getting hit by a suburban and a cement truck in the same day should tell you something about the kind of day I’ve had. A family carryover, you could say; the best worst luck. I mean, I’m not dead. … Sort of.

Getting hit like that does a number on the body, but if the trajectories line up just so … it’s not quite “lights out,” as they say. Just puts everything on hold — like brakes at a yellow light, but I’m not driving. That’s where I’m at right now, I think. It’s hard to know for sure, but if I had to guess, I’d say I’m in a coma.

It makes sense, when I have the sense to think about it. Normally, I’m somewhere in the black. I guess you’d call it the mind’s expanse, or something else pretentious (my liberal art friends would like that; have they visited?). But I’m aware and I’m also not…? Not that it matters all that much; this is just an audience of one.

But I wish I could talk. I’m aware, more than I think the monitors can tell (I’ve watched television; I know how they treat the coma patients). More than any of my friends can, either. I can see through the slits of my eyelids, even though they don’t quite move the way I’d like to. I’ve seen you, looking at me. … If you’ve held my hand, I’d tell you that I felt it.

… If I could talk.

I had a pet die when I was a kid — the kind of impressionable loss that a seven year-old doesn’t quite yet have the mental capacity to handle. Or I didn’t, anyway. But my dad told me, at the time, that Sunny died when I wasn’t around because he didn’t want me to see him go — didn’t want to see me sad.

I should’ve been consoled, I guess, but all I took from that was that death had a certain amount of autonomy. If I was just stubborn enough, maybe I could wait it out, or at least have some say in making my exit.

That’s probably why I’m still here. It’s been a little while, at least. I can’t see much, or even for that long, but I know your outfit’s changed. I’ve seen your face change. From tears to something determined, hopeful, and now … I feel like the gaps between my seeing and not are growing longer, but I’m not sure.

It seems unfair to focus on just you; others visit, too. I’ve seen friends and coworkers in the periphery (what little I have) because you take the prime seat unless it’s family visiting. Though you’ve given up (practical; you always knew a lost cause), they never have. It’s the kind of luck we have. Family vacations, life events, dates … anything and everything, from momentous to mundane, could go catastrophically wrong — but we’d be okay. At its most extreme, if it went wrong just a moment too soon or a moment too late, someone would’ve died. But that never happened.

I guess they think I hit that sweet spot. I guess they’re banking on “never.”

… I hate to think of Sunny dying alone. Of curling up under the stairs because he, in his dog-brain, thought it was for the best.

I’m not dying alone. Selfish, yeah, but the next time they’re here, all of them, that’s when I’ll do it. Take my foot off the proverbial brakes and go on down that road, wherever it leads, because I’m not doing anyone any favors here anymore. I can’t see them. If I want to make this call, I better do it soon. Hell, they might unplug me if I’m not careful. No more waiting.

I choose —