2023 Online Generative Workshop Short Short Contest
In the spirit of generating new work Writing By Writers held our 10th annual Short Short Writing Contest to win free tuition to the 2024 WxW Generative Workshops. The rules were simple. The piece could be fiction, non fiction, memoir or poetry but it must have included the name of a band from the 80's, a food that did not originate in the U.S., a geologic phenomena, a gait of a horse, the name of a river and the name of a semi-precious stone.
Winners: Aparna Agrawal, Katherine Belliel, Aja Duncan, Ben Jahn, Jessi Jarrin, Natalie Korman, Amalia Levari, Leticia Lopez, Lillian Martin, Mashaw McGuinnis, Lucyann Murray, Larissa Runkle, Nicole Simonsen, Vicki Whicker and TJ Zark
Cola in the Himalayas by Aparna Agrawal
A vulture swooped low as it spotted her climbing the steep path. The clink-clink of glass bottles
broke the silence of the mountains. She walked past me in thin slippers, stepping confidently
over loose rocks that formed the trail to the higher camp. Her back was bent with the weight of
a long cone shaped reed basket, filled with Coca Cola bottles. A wide, leather strap on her
forehead held the basket. Smiling shyly, she walked past us without breaking a step, a girl of
sixteen, wearing a small turquoise necklace framing her red burnt cheeks and dark eyes.
I was born here and had returned to hike in the Himalayas with a group of tourists,
which I suppose I was too. Trekking in the Annapurna valley, where the sacred Seti river drains
the Himalayan range, we were surprised that the ice bridge we were going to cross had cracked
and dissolved. Instead we decided to ascend to a higher camp.
We were welcomed at the tents by warm bowls of yak butter tea and dal bhaat. Tied up
pack horses dreamt of trotting on flat terrain. We prepared for a frigid night sleeping on
wooden platforms to view the sunrise over 23,000-foot Machapuchare. As the young girl ran
back down the trail, I called out to her. Our eyes met and she joined her hands, "Namaste,"
before disappearing. Lamps were lit; cards shuffled; we passed the hours till the 3 am sunrise,
drinking Coca -Cola, and singing the Pretenders.
Dirty Laundry by Katherine Belliel
Our matriarch dies, the lithosphere of our family pulling apart, separating us into rift
valleys of grief. Our matriarch dies so I serve my son a pasty without gravy on wedding china
she told me to take with one of her last breaths. White, silver lined, with blue cornflowers, all the
rage in the 1950s. “I worked at Steketees when I was 17, saved up, and used my store discount to
buy china and my wedding dress. Then I had to quit.” Purchases for her first marriage, to a man I
never knew was my real grandfather. A man whose name I do not carry, the china the only nice
thing I currently have as a single mother. Our matriarch dies, and I find old photos tucked in the
Bible of grandma in a svelte, tailored green pencil dress, turquoise earrings, carrying my infant
father, on a Sunday walk alongside the Grand River. “He bought me that dress only after I lost
all of my postpartum weight in 6 weeks,” she told me once with pride and fear. My son is 13,
and I will never get a green dress reward even though my first husband abandoned me, too.
However, I do have turquoise earrings. Our matriarch dies and I find love letters I wrote but she
never sent to Michael Jackson when I was five, then Bon Jovi when I was seven. She only
comforted me when they never wrote back. “You will get used to men hurting you.”
Mad River, by Aja Duncan
Dixon said the sky’s the limit. Sky dropped sheets of rain and a mannequin’s arm. Back
in the shed, Dixon put the mannequin arm on the small table, atop objects she had been
collecting since she was a teenager. She was more than a decade in. Her mother
knocked. “What are you doing?” she asked. Dixon didn’t answer, then later said, “I’m
making a phone to call the universe.”
Dixon glued the arm to a wooden box and made a keypad out of bloodstones. It was
still raining when she laid down in the irrigation ditch and picked up the receiver.
There was static, then the sound of horses galloping. Hello she said. When she opened
her eyes, she saw a woman towering above her. Dark hair, wild as Mad River.
“Laliswal,” the woman said. Dixon didn’t know much of mother’s language, but she
knew the word for sing. “Welcome to the human race,” Dixon sang. The woman smiled,
touched her lips. “The Pretenders,” Dixon said.
“What’s your request,” the woman asked, but not really. There was no way to say that
in Wiyot. What she said was ‘dusk cries a bird in your mouth.’ Dixon opened her
mouth to set the bird free. The woman moved her fingers to Dixon’s lips, then her
mouth. “You taste like duqqa,” Dixon said. She had never tasted such a thing. The
woman flapped her wings. But there was already too much water. And then the hill slid
down. Briefly, everything would stay.
Mange Vector, by Ben Jahn
Thanks to the neighbor who took to that app on which bots and folks they ape inveigh
against taco truck exhaust to expose a post called “Mange Vector” mongering for extermination
of our local coyotes. It had lifted an image from a news story in another state on sprawl’s
destruction of habitat: a mangy coyote standing in a residential street.
Because of my neighbor’s vigilant insistence on truth in this post-truth era, I returned to
the logging road turned jogging road where I’d seen rabbit remnants matted in scat.
I recalled the sarcoptic hindquarters of that poor diseased beast as a matter of contrast
when a healthy coyote stepped out of the scrub to regard me from twenty yards through the cold
November rain. It trotted ahead at a consistent distance, and I kept pace for several minutes, past
the place where the road becomes a trail that tracks the Mad, gone tourmaline with rill erosion. I
was running on the balls of my feet, a strangely erect gait, never striding ahead of my body but
somehow moving forward with rhythmic efficiency.
The coyote disappeared into a seasonal creek bed. I heard her pups denned in a diversion,
their garbled yapping like a Guns N’ Roses solo. The month. The weather.
That was the year far-right donors got the city’s progressive DA recalled. Cable news
looped shaky cellphone footage of thieves raiding drugstores while security guards looked
All that jogging. We’ve forgotten how to run.
Blood Falls, by Jessi Jarrin
How are you?
My insides are gray. All this ash. Hope the rain’s been good. I’m wondering if you still see it.
That light behind the stable. That familiar figure scouring the stalks where we grew up. That
shadow drawing the bath. When I moved to the city, I drank so much. A miracle anyone stayed
around. Maybe it was easier.
I met her at The Blind Donkey. Her eyes reddish brown like our Penny’s. She asked me for a
light. Her black hair floating reminded me of our childhood. Mom swore she’d seen a witch. Dad
called her crazy. But she was right in front of me.
It took a song and two shots of whiskey.
You know who sings this? She asked.
The Cure. She cocked her head, smirked.
Walking around an old strip mall, she said her grandma was sick once, cried blood, and about a
dream she’d had.
I’m in a dirty gown. There’s a waterfall–except it’s not water.
I know what you’re gonna say.
I said nothing.
It was before.
I don’t tell her that somewhere in Antarctica, blood falls. But it’s not really blood. I don’t tell her
that when Dad put Penny down, I cried so much it felt like my head shrunk. That when I pass the
American River, I can’t look up. That when we found her, Mom was still wearing the amber
Don't you see, Jack? The lights, the horses, the witches, the blood. It can all be real. I’m
drowning. But I need you to know we’re not crazy.
Holding, by Natalie Korman
When I told my dad that the lead singer of Judas Priest, who he had worshipped for years, and
me, his only daughter, who he had adored for a good while too, were gay, he said nothing. I
could, at first, see rageful denial tearing up through him. But he grew up on the Klamath River
and knew the danger of a rapid unchecked. So he went out to the barn, got Frannie, and cantered
her around the ring for what seemed like hours.
My mother had been oblivious to this whole exchange, making croque monsieurs in the kitchen
in the way her mother taught her, never hearing our strained voices, or the creak of the barn, or
the snuffle of Frannie as she relaxed her mouth at the bit. My mother always seemed, for better
or for worse, wrapped in her own shimmering world. She had slept through the ’89 earthquake. I
had had to wake her by screaming that the house had a giant crack in it. My father had been
silent then, too.
Not seeing a path forward, I wished then I could be like my mother, could hold contentment to
my chest like a small round of turquoise, smooth and lovely. But instead I was in the open, the
harsh sun, with the rust of the hinges on the gate, and the sparking iron of the horse’s shoes.
Partaking, by Amalia Levari
Brendan-or-Brandon found Opal after class and asked if she was into "The Cure". She thought he
meant the band. Nope: peyote. Sure, I love Disintegration, she said. He thought she meant the
ontological fracking prompted by a cactus that might have longed, instead, to be tequila. She
meant the album. "At Girl Scout camp? Someone snuck it in the cassette slot of a Teddy Ruxbin.
We sat in the woods and held hands and just cried."
"Whoa. You all... partook?" Opal nodded. He scanned her from the neck down. They’d been
leaning near her door for weeks. She clocked his unbridled desire. Or... okay. Bridled, she noted.
Her appearance never prompted urgency. A lope, an amble. Years later, a solid bearded slab of
guy would chisel her open hoping for a geode and would instead find stubborn veins of silver,
fluorite, the glinting miracle of her. Tonight, there was Br_nd_n, a cairn stacked by idiots but
somehow still standing, bound to tip over into a muddier swathe of the Pere Marquette. Opal
suspects his fumbling with the condom will resemble a foal beaming as it discovers, far too
suddenly, all four of its limbs.
"Brrrhhnndrrhhn," she says, foregoing the vowels in case she’s wrong. "I’ve got Disintegration
upstairs." He laughs, surprised. Surprised! His face strains, calculating her potential to elicit envy
or pity from other men. Opal resents the lag. See ya, she says, and is two floors up before she
hears him clambering up the stairwell, calling April, April.
Emerald Green Taffeta and Fried Tostones, by Lillian Martin
I stand in the doorway of our bedroom as Dulce brushes cranberry-red polish on her toes. She
cradles the princess phone on her neck. On the other end of the line is a boy Papi calls el
gasolinero. The cassette player on the nightstand barely muffles Dulce’s voice as the Pet Boys
sing, “just you wait till I get you home” and then something about having no future and no past.
She whispers to Arturo, “Tell me again . . . you know . . . . how the earth will move.”
The smell of grease permeates our duplex while Mami fries tostones. Even with the jalousie
windows at their widest and a breeze from the Miami River, it lingers.
“Mami, do we have earthquakes?” I ask.
Mami smashes a chunk of a green plantain and drops it back in the iron skillet.
“Go ask Abuela if she wants a cafe con leche. And Walk, don’t gallop.”
Abuela hunches over her Kenmore—trapped in waves of emerald green taffeta—the color of
Dulce’s eyes, not mine. I see the hearing aid on her dresser and go back to my room.
“What’s that song mean?” I ask. “The one about the western girls.”
“It’s West End Girls, stupid!” Dulce is rolling her hair around pink foam rollers. “Don’t you
That summer my sister lost her virginity to el gasolinero and the year I went away to college, she
was pregnant again. Whenever I hear West End Girls I think of emerald green taffeta and fried
Taft, California, by Mashaw McGuinnis
In this scorching, near-dead town where earthquakes and oil derricks punish the soil, I
drive pass roadkill and a gasping Kern River. Unremitting dirt devils paint skies honey jade.
Familiar wooden steps groan. The couch on the porch—western themed, threadbare, its
cowboys galloping across the backrest—has sat here since Duran Duran won a Grammy. The
storm door complains. Inside, cardboard replaces missing windowpanes.
I call, “Davey!” My fourteen-year-old nephew emerges from the kitchen, where a
blackened carburetor sits on the table with yesterday’s eggs, and a Campbell’s soup can full of
I am of this world. Where chain-smoking relatives with Marlborough belt buckles brag
about collecting guns and felonies. Today, I’m taking Davey on his first road trip. He’s never left
southern California. Never seen a forest. Never even seen it snow.
We’ll stroll downtown Santa Cruz, visit a museum, and experience his first elegant
restaurant. Bathed in salty sunshine, we’ll dine far above the Pacific, galaxies from this desert
wasteland. A waiter will deliver warmed bread with flavored olive oil. Tea light candles. Davey
will lean towards me and ask in hushed voice.
“Where’s the napkins?”
And I’ll point to the linen swan. His eyes will widen.
“Nuh uh,” he’ll sneer.
The innocence of his disbelief will break me—a flutter of wounded birds trapped inside
my ribcage. But I’m still a kid myself. I won’t yet grasp that it’s not enough. That all the
restaurants, museums and linen swans in the world won’t be enough
Origin Story by Lucyann Murray
I come from a long line of strong-willed women.
I was born on a hot July day in 1990 at Columbia Women's Hospital, which no longer exists. I imagine my
parents broke out in song to Guns n' Roses "Sweet Child o' Mine" as I exploded from the womb like a
My father said, "keep her names separate." My mother said, "no, she has one name not two." My mother
scribbled my name on the birth certificate with a space. The US government “determined” my name to be
Lucy is my mother’s mother. She was one of the first women on wall street and made meat pies. Her toes,
crooked from the pointy shoes that walked the streets of New York peaked out from her fuzzy slippers.
Ann is her mother. A suffragette from Manhattan who spent her short life fighting for women’s rights
Casey is my father’s mother. She built her house in a national park overlooking the Tennessee river. She
fought the racism of the south through her stiff upper lip.
On my 22nd birthday I made my mother cry when she wanted to give me pearls and I asked for a skateboard. I
would rather gallop on my horse in glacial valleys than host a dinner, easily picking shit-covered cowboy
boots over heels. Standing on the shoulder of giants, I insert my will into the ever-changing winds striving for
a better world for the strong-willed women to come.
The Ballon, by Larissa Runkle
Sinéad O'Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” crept under the closed bedroom door for the tenth
time since 9 a.m., breaking through the clouds of glittering oil that still hung heavy between
peeling swatches of a wallpapered hallway— leftovers from the bangers and mash she’d
reheated by herself when her mother still hadn’t emerged at noon.
Earlier that week, they’d buried Mungo. Her mother kept repeating, in the odd moments when
she actually appeared downstairs, that she’d known he was gone because of the balloon. Not
the fact that his giant wire-haired belly has ceased to rise, or the absence of paws trot-trotting
on the kitchen floor begging breakfast, but because the geode-shaped balloon from Isla’s eighth
birthday party had finally deflated and sat emptied next to his unmoving body.
Her mother had always believed in signs, like when the River Tay flooded a week before
Nanna’s diagnosis, or when her opal wedding ring cracked under the dirty dish water in the
weeks leading up to her father's trahison. Mungo, who her Weegie cousins assumed was
named after the saint, when in fact it just meant “beloved”, had been the final loss, a string cut at
a time when there weren’t many left—excepting Isla, who was not quite tall enough to reach the
stove and had taken to murmuring words from her French class, as they made things like
betrayal and death seem less real and more bearable.
Carried Away, by Nicole Simonsen
We were on step 4, making a list of people we’d harmed, when Maria brought the guava
roll. Step 4 was hard, she said, so we needed something extra sweet.
Who had I harmed? I was 15. Dad was the one. He was floating down the Russian River
again, Mom’s code for Dad’s deep into the vodka. There was nothing to be done but go to Al-
Anon, otherwise Opal and me would end up like her, chained to some drunk. I liked it when we
held hands and chanted, “Keep coming back. It works if you work it so work it cuz you’re worth
it!” But mostly, I went for the Oreos. Until the guava roll, and ohmygod, a landslide of sticky
sweetness. It carried me away.
When it was time to admit the exact nature of our wrongs, Opal quit the program. It was
just a bunch of talking heads repeating the same sob stories. She took up running. There really is
such a thing as a runner’s high, she said. Run with me.
No way, not me. While Opal galloped after her runner’s high and dad floated away on his
lazy river, I was sneaking guava rolls. Maria was my dealer until I discovered the Mexican
market. Handing over my allowance, I could see my future: cavities, diabetes, shame. Still, I
couldn’t stop. I liked the way the sugar crystals stuck to my fingertips, the way they refracted the
I always licked my fingers clean
Snake River Saloon, Ski-Stoned, Colorado, 1982, by Vicki Whicker
5 pm, time for radical flames, blue and lascivious, that lope from the bartender’s fu-manchu,
undulating aross the low slow ceiling, collapsing into our darkness we cheer the 151 rum
cowboy, gaunt and meszmerizing, we clap for Cuervo, we beat each other senseless at the pac-
man table, we run our tongues down each other’s throats in the dirty john between bumps of
coke, holocene loess, hundred bucks a snow-seal, but free for me, stuffed to the hilt with one-
hits, Mirror In The Bathroom mocking my beat to the beat of The Beat endlessly throbbing the
juke box, please don’t freak sweet cheeks, rosy as rhodochrosite, the smooth gem in my pocket,
my why worry rock, gift from a future ex boyfriend, this one tilting his handsome head to the
nucluear cheese enchiladas before us, bubbling with thick tongues of pablano and crumbled goat,
local’s only in this shit-stomping dive, home of the shaky hand, clammy between rock hard
freestyle thighs, hard again, always hard, easy to be hard, this was back when I didn’t date so
much as was hostage, my Midwest too far out West, making my twenties mine, my life, I said
yes, and will say yes, until the day I say no, no, no more, I’m done and this one when he looks
me in the eye and says, No one will love you like I do, I laugh in his stupid eyes because even a
coke-whore knows what love isn’t.
On The Banks of the San Juan, by TJ Zark
I scooch sideways, making room for him on the tailgate so we can look over the geldings, eat egg rolls,
and drink lukewarm Pepsi. He always says there's no good Chinese food out here. It's Monument Valley,
so maybe he's just being funny, but I bring him egg rolls anyway. They're cold but still tasty if you use
enough hot mustard sauce.
I only know him as Denny. I don't know his Diné name. I don't know much about him at all, just that
he's the best rodeo pickup man I have ever seen and he makes damn nice riding horses. Once a
year I drive through the Valley's massive red, sandstone pillars, then on up to the banks of the San Juan,
so we can eat egg rolls, talk horses, and maybe I buy one or two.
He's wearing a well-worn Cure concert tee shirt today. Robert Smith's crazy hair and eyes in white
ink on black. He has a 3-inch wide turquoise band on his left wrist. His arms are dark and strong
and I wonder if he knows how I feel about him.
Later we will pick two ponies and head out on a long trot along the river banks until the canyon forces
us up to the plateau. Just a few hours ride and then back to the corral. I never bring a horse trailer, just
my pickup. Does he know it's my excuse to come back if I decide to buy?