UTAH

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Utah’s novella-in-progress

Opening Sentence (Round 1):

The perils of motherhood had grown far more treacherous with the advent of the Internet.

Opening paragraph about interactions on the Web – 300 words (Round 2):

At three a.m., August 4th, the first of many cornfield nightmares jarred Delia out of her sleep. She jerked up from her bed, coated in a thin film of sweat. In the nightmare, she was standing alone on the edge of her cornfield, which now lay in a scorched waste, as if a horde of Vikings had marauded through and torched everything in sight. There was nothing more to the dream, but it left her with an overwhelming feeling of impotence and devastating loss. Unable to drift back to sleep, she decided her only chance at salvaging another hour or two of sleep was to first stretch her legs and reboot her disturbed psyche with a brief trip to the kitchen. In the hallway, a slit of light was emanating out from under the door to the computer room. She assumed she’d forgotten to shut it down so she pushed the door open. Her 13-year-old daughter, Corey, was sitting there, expressionless, almost robotic in the white preternatural glow of the screen.  It was as if she were trapped within the abduction beam of an alien vessel. She was wearing headphones and typing in short fast bursts between pauses. Delia slowly walked towards Corey until she was standing directly behind her. On the screen was a man in a hooded sweatshirt, probably in his late thirties or early forties. Despite the pixilation, Delia could see the shock on his face as he registered her presence through the video chat. Then, the MSN box vanished from the screen.

Incorporate the death of a dog – 400 words (Round 3):

“Who was that man?” Delia demanded.

“Does it even matter anymore since I can’t even get online?” Corey yelled, pushing her cereal bowl away and storming out of the kitchen.

It had been a week since Delia had cancelled the Internet subscription after walking in on Corey live messaging with the hooded man. Corey insisted it was the first time she’d ever gone online at night or spoken with a stranger, but Delia knew she was lying. For several months Corey had been uncharacteristically lethargic, sometimes even dozing off on the couch in mid-day.

Not that Delia was over-protective. Free-range was as much her philosophy for childrearing as for animal husbandry. She vocally criticized the Dutch authorities’ decision to prevent a 13-year-old girl from sailing around the world alone. She believed children grew strongest and healthiest when roaming under open skies.

But her love of freedom didn’t extend to the Internet. Delia, whose childhood consisted of mud, chalk, hula hoops, and heaps of dried leaves, couldn’t comprehend how kids could spend their days riveted to a 17-inch screen. To her this seemed the denial of life, a technology of death, a furtive oppression that swaddled its seductive form of bondage as human connection. It made her recall the parable of Plato’s cave. The shadows on the cave wall were now illuminations on a screen.

There had once been a time when Corey and Delia went out into the cornfield every new moon to gaze at the stars and Delia would narrate myths of the constellations. She remembered the first night she’d explained how Corey could always locate north on a clear night by following the Big Dipper’s handle to the North Star.

“But that’s not the brightest star,” Corey had said, pointing instead towards Canis Major.

“That’s Sirius, the Dog Star. We get the phrase ‘dog days of summer’ because it rose before the hottest days of the year.”

“What do dogs have to do with hot days?” Corey asked. Delia opened her mouth to answer only to realize she had no idea.

That time was gone. In recent years Corey had lost her interest in the stars, even in the outdoors. Delia finally gave in to her pleas and installed high speed Internet. Six months later, for fear of losing her daughter, she cancelled it. Two weeks after that, Corey ran away.

Weave an element of Fyor’s story into your passage – 450 words (Round 4)

At one p.m. on an unseasonably cool day for late August, Corey entered the Halfway House diner and sat at a booth facing the door.

The two farmhands at the far booth murmured as she walked in. They’d seen her climb out of the southbound 16-wheeler after it had screeched to a halt. The Halfway House was on 22A, four miles from Shoreham and about eight from Bridport and Cornwall. One didn’t come across 13-year-old hitchhikers in these parts.

The waitress came over from behind the bar.

“Honey, you expecting someone?”

“Yes, I… a friend of mine.” Corey said. “He should be here soon,” she added hastily.

“You ain’t bothering anyone sitting here. What can I get you?”

“Just a coke if that’s okay.”

Corey hadn’t live chatted with Jacob since Delia had cancelled the Internet after walking in on her that night. But Corey had been venting her frustration to him in emails from school and the library. A week ago Jacob proposed she come visit him in Vermont. At first Corey had nervously laughed it off, but as her resentment grew at her mother for having cut Internet from her life, she began considering it. Finally she told him she’d come for a visit, a friendly visit, nothing more. “What kind of a man do you think I am? ;)” he wrote back. “I know a nice diner we can meet at. Then you can decide.”

Two days later, instead of going to school, she caught a bus to Kutztown and bought a Greyhound ticket for Burlington.

Corey didn’t know this man as Jacob. Nor did she know him as The Unseen. To her, Jacob was Ronaldo, his chat room pseudonym. He didn’t spend much time on social sites. But there were times when his sexual appetite would occasionally rear up. When that happened he would troll the dating forums for cyber sex. Because he lived in a remote cabin on the Vermont side of Lake Champlain, there weren’t many possibilities for him to meet his dates in person.

When he first saw Corey’s online profile, he felt an overwhelming desire to possess her. He knew he risked a great deal by setting his sights on a minor but he was overcome by lust. He couldn’t believe his fortune when she accepted the invite.

At 1:47 Jacob parked his black station wagon outside the Halfway House; at 2:38 they were laughing and talking over club sandwiches and onion rings; and at 3:07 they were driving down a dirt road towards his cabin.

Fourth Fiction Challenge 5Incorporate this image into your next passage – 500 words (Round 5)

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It was a Saturday, normally Corey’s day to shop with her girlfriends at the mall, when Delia drove off in search of her daughter.

Just like Corey, who had run away exactly a year ago that day, Delia didn’t tell anyone she was leaving. But unlike her daughter, she called from a gas stop along the way, explaining to a friend she could no longer wait.

For months Delia had nursed the hope that the police and private investigators would discover a lead on Corey’s whereabouts. But despite their words of assurance, she knew the case had fallen to the backburner and would soon fall off that too. She also knew she couldn’t survive another winter staring with wistful desperation at the empty driveway and jumping with quickening pulse at every ringing phone.

As for the farm, it made no difference whether she stayed or went. Her fields lay fallow. The bulk of the corn had remained unharvested last winter, though she’d offered her crop up to anyone in the community. She’d spent countless hours wandering amidst the blackened ears and squawking crows, an image of singular grief. Her cornfield nightmares had now also seeped into her waking life.

Delia had no doubt that the man Corey had been video chatting with that night was responsible. Encryption experts had futilely tried to recover identifying information from her computer’s hard drive but, whoever that man was, he possessed the technical knowledge to scramble any information leading back to him. Corey’s email and online chat accounts had also mysteriously and irretrievably vanished.

The one thing, however, that the hooded man could not delete record of was his face. His expression, especially his eyes, had been permanently seared into Delia’s mind. She occasionally saw him in her nightmares. In the last dream, his face stared up at her mockingly out of the ground, only his eyeballs visible through the dirt. She cried and dove down at him but he had vanished, leaving her there, clawing at the earth alone.

Sketch artists had spent hours with her but the images never came out right. This seemed to her an augury that she was the one who’d have to track him down. The odds were stacked terrifically against her, but if she stayed on the farm, there were no odds at all.

After interviews with local bus drivers, police determined that Corey had traveled to Kutztown. Initially, they mistakenly assumed she was hiding out in town and delayed investigating Kutztown as a potential transit point. Later, three Greyhound bus drivers who’d been shown photos of Corey said they recalled a passenger traveling alone during that period resembling her, although none were sure of it. The destinations were Providence, Burlington, and Raleigh.

Though Corey could just as easily have hitchhiked out of town or taken another bus, Delia intended to start with those three destinations and then work her away around the country if need be. The first stop: Raleigh.

Incorporate a White Russian and the words “over the line” into your next passage – 500 words (Round 6)

*          *            *

The expanse of Lake Champlain opened before them as the black station wagon pulled in to the cabin. Junked cars and trucks lay abandoned about the yard. A black Presa Canario that was chained by its spiked collar to the shed rose to its feet and began growling as they stepped out of the vehicle.

“Don’t worry about Herb,” Jacob told Corey, who was glancing over at the dog nervously. “He’s all bark and no bite.”

The cabin was shrouded in the shade of weeping willows, whose tendrils overhung the lake. Jacob motioned out over the state line of Lake Champlain towards the far shoreline. “Have you ever been to New York, Corey?” She shook her head. “I’ve got a rowboat. Want to row across sometime?”

Corey looked out blankly at the lake and nodded mechanically. He unlocked the door. “Home sweet home,” he said, with a sweep of his arm. “After you.” Her fingers knotted by her waist, Corey looked back at the dirt road and then walked in.

Jacob first showed Corey to the spare bedroom, her bedroom as he emphasized. He needed to calm her frayed nerves. Her body had begun tensing up when they first turned onto the dirt road. From then on she kept glancing about, unnerved by the absence of residences. Her fear mounted as they descended towards the cabin, so by the time they arrived she had gone completely silent and shrunk into her seat. Jacob found her girlish fear appealing but he knew he had to check his lust. He’d rather avoid violent incidents. “Why take something,” he thought to himself, “that might give itself to you freely?”

After touring her around the rest of the cabin, he opened the door to his office, a cramped unlit space dominated by a 23-inch computer screen.

“Look familiar?” he asked, pulling the chair out. “Try my throne out.”

They spent the rest of the afternoon on the computer. Corey began speaking again and even laughed a few times. That night he microwaved baked beans and hot dogs, which they ate in front of the computer screen.

“I have a treat for you,” Jacob told Corey. He returned from the kitchen with a White Russian.

“What is it, Ronaldo?” Corey asked, holding the cloudy liquid up to her eyes.

“Try it,” he insisted. “It’s a dessert.” She took a sip. Then another. Several drinks later, Corey was sprawled out on the beanbag in the corner of the room, snoring. Jacob checked her pockets until he found her cell phone. The last call she’d made was days ago. He tossed the phone into the river and then scooped her up in his arms. Her eyes still shut, she clutched blindly at his sweatshirt, burying her face into his chest.

“I want to go home,” she mumbled as he carried her to the spare bedroom. “Please … take me home.”

Incorporate a Steak Knife – (taken from Fyor’s story) – 600 words – Round 7

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“Corey!” Jacob said. “We’ve gone over this a dozen times. The fork always stays in your left hand! Only rednecks switch back and forth.”

Corey stared vacuously at her plate through disheveled hair. With the fork in her right hand, she continued jabbing at the pieces of chuck steak that Jacob had fried up for her fourteenth birthday.

Jacob slammed down his silverware, grabbed her right wrist, and began prying the fingers apart. “Leave me alone,” she murmured.

“Give me the fork, Corey,” he said between clenched teeth. Once he tore the fork free, he took the steak knife, which was lying in a thin pool of blood on her plate, and jammed the handle into her right palm. He then forced the fork into her left hand. “The right hand cuts. The left hand stabs. I won’t tell you again.”

“You’re hurting me…”

“I’m trying to teach you things!” he said, sending flecks of spittle flying. His knuckles whitened as he squeezed down upon her small hands before releasing them. “You want to grow up to be trailer trash?”

Corey abruptly pushed herself away from the table and leapt up. The box wine they’d been drinking since mid-afternoon toppled onto the linoleum floor, spilling rosé over the vinyl flooring.

“Stay away from me! I’ll stab you, I swear it!” Corey stepped backwards towards the door, weaving unsteadily and wielding the steak knife in front of her.

Jacob intertwined his fingers over his belly and leaned back. “And where will you go, Corey, drunk, at night, in the dead of winter?”

“Anywhere away from you! You think you can keep me locked up my whole life in this hellhole, you… you kidnapper, you… rapist!”

The soft dark skin under Jacob’s left eye twitched. “I never touched you against your will. Not once. And I’ve never forced you to stay. You came to me. Remember that.”

“I’m leaving,” she said, the steak knife trembling before her.

Jacob motioned toward the door. “You’ve always been free to go. Go back to your mother, if she’ll take you. Go back to your boring life.”

“Go to hell.” With the knife upraised, she stepped backwards out the door and into the snowy dusk.

Jacob picked up the box wine from the floor and refilled his glass. A moment later an explosion of barks and snarls filled the silence, followed by the thudding of running footsteps along the porch.

Corey burst into the front door and slammed the door behind her. She turned to face Jacob, her back and palms pressed against the door.

“You know how to tell a full-bodied wine?” Jacob said, swirling his wine up by the fluorescent light. “You check to see how many legs slide down the inside of the glass when you swirl it around. The more the better.” He examined the glass. “They must have sold us a bad box.”

The steak knife slipped from her grip as Corey slid down along the door, sobbing, until her stomach came down onto her knobby knees.

He sat next to her on the floor and offered her his glass. “Don’t take the barking personally. It’s just Herb’s way of saying, ‘Stick around.’”

Corey drank the wine between sobs. “I really didn’t mean it when I… I just got…”

“Shhhhhh, it’s okay,” Jacob said, running his fingers through her frayed hair. “It’s okay, my love. Everything will be okay.”

Incorporate a prophetic dream (given by Eros), Set your passage on Christmas Day (given by littlestar), and At least half of your passage should be a flash forward to the end of your story (given by AnnasBones) – 600 words  – Round 8

*          *            *

Canada geese migrating from the south honked overhead as they whooshed in V formations over the greening earth. Corey and Delia interrupted their seeding and straightened their backs to watch with craned necks, humbled by the majestic effort filling the skies with music and symmetrical power.

The fields, fallow for so many years, had again been plowed. The spring planting was underway. Delia’s life had always been intertwined with the health of her farm, but this spring the farm took on more significance than ever before. Since the January FBI raid on Jacob’s cabin that had rescued Corey, Delia had thrown herself into rejuvenating the abandoned acreage.

A nosy few in the community, the ones who lacked imagination, insinuated that Delia was placing her farm’s wellbeing before her daughter’s. But Delia knew that, in some unfathomable, archetypal way, the mending and resuscitation of the farm reflected Corey’s own healing process. Each seed germinating in the greenhouse represented a small victory in Delia’s heart against the morally deformed fiend who had stunted her daughter’s growth for so many years.

It was in fact Corey who wanted to pare down her rehabilitation schedule and Delia who insisted she attend the sessions the trauma counselors advised. To Delia’s great joy, Corey now embraced the farming life. Her childhood love of the dirt had strangely returned. One afternoon Delia found a notepad on the living room couch. On the front page was a short passage in Corey’s writing:

We are not the Beautiful Ones, not reared in measured soil and tended with controlled temperature and dosages of Mozart.  We are of the raw and implacable earth, thrusting our way through stone and gravel only to break into shade, fighting one another for scarce sunlight, bending under hail, cursing under drought. Neglected, compressed, clobbered, thrashed, we learn by the toil of our flesh that what matters—not what matters most but what matters first—is to endure, to stand fast when the hysterical and wailing wind tries to bowl us over.  By the ragged history of our blood we know to endure.

Delia burst into tears. From that day on, she knew the health of her farm and of Corey were inseparable.

One cloud still remained over Delia and Corey: Jacob had yet to be apprehended. He had been returning from grocery shopping when the FBI descended upon his cabin. When the three unmarked vehicles ahead of him turned down his road, he realized they had found him. He knew everyone who turned down that road. So he kept driving. His station wagon was found abandoned in a parking lot in Albany.

Never had the farm been as productive as in the season of Corey’s return. Just after the fall harvest, Corey and Utah were walking through the cornfield when Corey stooped and plucked something from the ground. When she righted herself, she was holding a Narcissus. Tears were running from her eyes.

“Corey, what’s wrong?” Delia tried to go to her but her legs wouldn’t move.

Corey began to step backwards, tears dripping from her chin.

“Corey!” Delia extended her arms helplessly. The wind picked up as Corey kept slipping backwards into the cornstalks. “Corey! Corey!” The cornstalks flailed about her daughter until only her outstretched hand holding the flower was visible and soon that too was swallowed up. Crows began to caw and wheel overhead. The sky darkened and pressed down. The stalks wilted and blackened.

Delia jerked awake in a cold sweat. She was in a Super 8 Motel in Burlington, Vermont. It was Christmas morning and she was alone.

1) Incorporate a hoax; 2) Incorporate a revelation ; 3) Incorporate the number four; 4) Incorporate Stephen Colbert – 444 words (Round 9)

*          *            *

“We can watch The Hunt for Gollum or The Addams Family,” Jacob suggested, filling a bowl with Mars bars. No one would come trick or treating but it gave Corey some illusion of harmonious domesticity. He’d learned that from previous Halloweens.

She was turning sixteen in three months. The nightly drinking and hours on the computer had taken their toll: her hair had thinned, her complexion grown sallow and her eyes sunk within their sockets, as if taking refuge from her nightmarish surroundings. She weighed less than when she first came three years ago. She still thought of her mother, but only as part of a gone former life.

Corey looked at the carved pumpkin in the window. “Will any trick or treaters come?”

“I’m sure.”

“You said that last year. And the year before that.”

Jacob didn’t answer. “What do you want to watch?”

“Colbert.”

Jacob couldn’t understand why she liked “The Colbert Report” so much. He was trying to isolate Corey from anything that might evoke nostalgia of the outer world – newspapers, magazines, radio, television – but it had to be done incrementally. Appeasing her in small ways kept her tantrums to a minimum. It was preferable to force. He once punished her by locking her overnight in the cellar. She’d been unruly for weeks after that.

Jacob lowered the shades. He kept them down whenever they were online, which was most of the time. Only the wind rattling the windows suggested an outdoors. Jacob insisted darkness was essential for oneness with virtual reality. He’d been reading about Buddhism online.

Jacob clicked on the latest “Colbert Report” episode. Yesterday had been the anniversary of the October 30, 1938 “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast and Stephen Colbert was staging his own hoax, claiming the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelation were presently barreling towards America. The invasion was not from Martians this time but Canadians, who brought death, destruction, and socialized health care.

Illuminated by the spectral computer glow, Corey sat silently through the show without once cracking a smile. She never smiled. She also never cried anymore. Jacob liked this newfound dispassion. They spent the day’s remainder drinking vodka tonics and gaming. Internet access was permitted only in his presence.

No children came that night. The pumpkin leered from the window, its fading inner flame casting a feeble light upon the dead fallen leaves swirling in the howling darkness.

While Corey slept in a dreamless drunken stupor, hundreds of miles away Delia dreamt she was on the western side of a long narrow lake. On the other shore, illuminated by the setting sun amidst browning trees, was Corey.

Kill off one of your characters (Round 10) – 1200 words

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Janet Garver, the wife of the Super 8 front desk clerk, had lost her daughter in a car accident, so when her husband told her one of the motel guests was looking for her missing daughter, she took it upon herself to assist. Delia needed the help. For starters, she was desperate for income. In her wanderings over the past three years she had blazed through all her savings. If she continued this way she would have to sell her farm over the next year.

Due to the recession and all-time high unemployment, jobs were scarce for out-of-staters. But Janet was close friends with the owners of the Halfway House restaurant on 22A, and after a brief phone call told Delia there was a position for her there as a waitress if she wanted it. Janet assumed Delia would turn it down. The diner was forty miles south of the motel, about an hour commute each way, and the salary was lower than average for the Burlington area.

To Janet’s surprise, Delia jumped at the offer. It was ideal for her, though she didn’t elaborate why. There was no point in explaining to Janet that she had come to Vermont to scour the shores of Lake Champlain because of a dream. The Halfway House was a straight shot from Burlington down US7 and 22A, the major north/south route running parallel to Lake Champlain. Delia could combine her work commute with explorations of the lake’s perimeter.

On Monday, November 9th, Delia began her first shift. Her job had always been to put food on other people’s tables, although not quite so explicitly. In another strange inversion of circumstances, most of her customers were farmhands.

At first Delia kept a low profile about Corey but she soon recognized that not only was it impossible to maintain anonymity as a small town diner waitress but also that she was in a unique position to gather information about her possible whereabouts. She no longer avoided talking about her search for Corey. Naturally there were a number of customers who thought she had lost her wits. The standard explanation Delia gave for why she was in Vermont was that a Greyhound bus driver three years ago claimed he saw a girl who resembled Corey board a bus to Burlington. It wasn’t the most compelling lead. But then again, as many of them muttered quietly over their coffees while Delia tended the counter, they too would probably grasp at anything in her situation.

Delia had been working at the Halfway House for two months when Jacob’s station wagon pulled into the parking lot. Since meeting Corey there three years ago Jacob had only come one other time. He rarely drove along that stretch of 22A and he even more rarely stopped along the way.

Once Jacob took his seat, Delia came out from behind the counter with a menu. “Something to drink?”

“I’ll just have a club sandwich and onion rings.”

He stared out the window while waiting for his order. Delia brought him a glass of ice water with the sandwich and rings. “You from these parts or heading somewhere?”

The skin under Jacob’s eye twitched. “Just traveling. Heading south.” It was obvious he wasn’t interested in small talk.

The only other customers, an elderly couple, paid up and left. He noticed Delia pushed the cash register shut with her hip the same way Corey did with the kitchen drawers. Jacob ordered two slices of cherry pie to go.

“Keep the change,” he mumbled as he headed to the door. He grabbed the door handle but then froze in his tracks. Pinned up on the corkboard was a Missing Person flyer with Corey’s photo. Delia was chopping walnuts at the counter for the maple walnut pies. She looked up and saw Jacob looking at the flyer. The sound of walnuts crunching under the chopping knife stopped.

“Do you recognize her?” It was silent.

Jacob glanced over at Delia and shook his head. Then he put his hood up and walked outside. Delia returned to her duties. The engine of Jacob’s station wagon roared to life. The sound of the motor climbed in pitch and then faded away into silence

She stopped chopping the nuts and looked up slowly at the door. She again saw the image of the man looking over at her, putting his hood on, and then looking away. It was the same face. The same face from the computer screen three years ago. The same face except with a goatee. The chopping knife fell with a clatter from her hand as her throat constricted. Two slices of cherry pie to go… She rushed outside, a cry lodged in her throat. The station wagon, which she had never seen, was gone.

*          *            *

While her mother was serving Jacob, Corey was standing naked in front of the bathroom mirror, looking at herself in side profile. Her ribs were visible and her shoulder blades jutted out sharply. She ran her hands over her stomach. The nightmare she had awoken to that morning was playing out in her head again. She was in a sunny cornfield, with birds whistling about her. The corn was almost ready for harvest. Hungry, she reached for the closest ear and shucked it. But no matter how much husk she peeled away, she couldn’t find the cob underneath. She tried another ear and then another, but there were no kernels in any of them.

With her hands on her belly, Corey looked at her reflection as the tears ran down her face. Finally, scared but determined, she wiped her face dry. Then she walked out of the kitchen and ran as fast as she could into the corner of the table. Doubling over, she fell to the ground. She stood up and ran again. And again. When Jacob arrived he found her on the floor. She was unconscious and bleeding between her legs.

Put your main character in danger in a new and hostile environment. There should be a struggle for survival through which new aspects of his or her personality are revealed – Round 11 (Word limit – 1500 words)

*          *            *

Jacob’s dog, Herb, wasn’t chained up when the FBI agents pulled into the driveway. After seeing the Missing Child flyer at the Halfway House three days earlier, Jacob purchased a shock collar so that Herb would be free to roam the yard and ward off uninvited visitors.

The plan was effective for fifteen seconds. When the FBI pulled in to find a Presa Canario barreling towards them with flattened ears, they stayed put. Herb was on his hind legs, saliva dripping from his bared teeth, barking and clawing at one of the passenger windows. The agent loaded a dart gun, cracked the window, and shot Herb in the neck. As he slumped to the ground, they all burst out of the cars.

They found Corey hiding in the closet, the reek of alcohol on her. She was an aged and ravaged version of the shining girl in the photos they carried but there was no doubt she was the same person. The agents knew she was sixteen and had been held captive for three years but there was an unnerving equanimity about her. She neither resisted them when they led her into the car, nor expressed relief or joy at their arrival. Entirely unresponsive to their questions, she simply let herself be escorted out from the cabin – a pale and haunting figure as much dead as alive – climbed into the open car seat, and sat silently through the ride to the Burlington Fletcher Allen Health Care Facility.

That same moment, Jacob was driving towards Albany. He had been returning from the grocery when he saw the unmarked vehicles turn down his road. He knew it was over. At that moment it also dawned on him that Delia, whom he only recognized after seeing the flyer while leaving the Halfway House, must have realized who he was.

Even so, he had no idea how the FBI found him. It couldn’t have been the license plate: his plate checked out at a different address that wouldn’t trace back to him. Nor would his fingerprints lead them anywhere. Jacob had moved out to this remote Vermont cabin to flee the constraints and scandals of his family past. He was as faceless and unknown to his neighbors as he was to the residents on the far shore of Lake Champlain.

He had, however, been prepared for a raid. His browsing history and computer files were encrypted with a program he’d designed. No encryption expert would be able to hack into it. There was nothing in the cabin that would enable the authorities to trace back to him. Fingerprints and DNA samplings would only lead them to his past self, a man who, at least legally speaking had been a black hole for the past two decades. Nor was there any lead in the apartment as to his next whereabouts. There couldn’t be. He didn’t know himself where he was going.

Jacob abandoned his station wagon in an Albany strip mall parking lot, bought a laptop from Best Buy, and then took a taxi to the bus station. He then made his way westward by bus through major cities in a circuitous route to prevent investigators from ever tracking him.

A week later, in Las Vegas, Jacob checked into a Motel 6. He had read all the online articles about Corey and hacked into all the relevant police and FBI memoranda to know they had no leads on him. He was free to start a new life afresh.

However, a moribund bleakness had seized Jacob ever since he left Vermont. An oppressive fog of gloom had settled upon his formerly imperturbable disposition. It wasn’t his dislocation from his cabin and his gaming routine. His online life as the gaming overlord The Unseen hadn’t been uninterrupted by his recent flight. Corey’s story may have made national news, but no one in the online circles he frequented had any reason to suspect The Unseen was now on the FBI’s Wanted List.

It was his separation from Corey that brought on the saturnine mood. Just as Jacob’s virtual subterranean life had seeped into and taken possession of Corey, so too had Corey’s youth and vitality ebbed out of her into him. For two decades Jacob had lived exclusively in the ethereal disembodied sphere of the Internet. Corey was the first person over this period with whom he’d had extended face-to-face contact. Only now that she had been taken from him did he realize how much richer his life had been with her.

It was on the bus to Las Vegas, in the quicksands of melancholy, that Jacob first contemplated killing himself. By the time he disembarked he decided he would let the gods decide it. That evening in the Las Vegas Motel 6 Jacob sat motionless at the small corner desk for an hour. The desk was bare except for his laptop. He reached over and opened the nightstand drawer. Inside was a copy of Gideon’s Bible and a six-chamber revolver with a bullet beside it.

Jacob put the single round in the revolver, spun the cylinder and clicked it shut. With his left hand on the laptop, he placed the muzzle against his head. The hammer clicked as he pressed the trigger. Jacob’s heart was racing; his mouth had dried out; feelings for Corey were welling up inside him. He put the gun down. He wanted to tell Corey how he yearned for her and how he still had to so much to show her about the online sphere into which he’d only begun to initiate her.

Jacob played another single round of Russian roulette the next night. For six consecutive nights he pointed a pistol at his head and fired a single shot. Each time fresh feelings bubbled up inside him. Jacob had always thought this emotional side of him had been buried along with his teenage years. It turned out it had just been hibernating.

Guilt consumed him as he thought of all the times he’d remorselessly punished Corey for her adolescent misbehaviors like locking her in the cellar or threatening to set Herb on her or leaving her passed out on the kitchen floor in her own pool of vomit. The only distraction from his remorse was the pangs of desire that fuelled his insomniac nights as he tossed about in the creaking motel bed, recalling her skinny childish limbs.

After a week, Jacob put the revolver away. He’d had a one in six chance of dying for six nights in a row and he was still alive. Though he never put another pistol to his forehead, he had to struggle against the temptation. It wasn’t so much that he felt alive in the face of looming death. It was that he felt death couldn’t touch him.

A month later Jacob purchased a small cabin on a creek in Northern California. He assumed that with time his thoughts of Corey would lose their sway over him. But with the months, they only grew stronger.

For several weeks now Jacob had considered contacting Corey. He knew that was bound to end in disaster. Not that he needed proof, but Jacob’s hacks into the FBI sites confirmed that all of Corey’s accounts were monitored. There was, however, one opening. Jacob had planned two years ago for a potential raid by setting up an account enabling the two of them to communicate in inviolable privacy. However, if Corey had revealed it to the authorities – and they would have done everything to draw out any information from her – the secret email would merely serve as a trap.

Jacob’s suicidal impulses didn’t diminish. By the end of the summer, he couldn’t take it any longer. He decided to play one last game of Russian roulette: he sent Corey a message.

*THE 1ST RUNNER-UP, UTAH WAS ELIMINATED AT THE END OF ROUND 11

Utah’s Farewell Statement

Harvest has ended. Disappointed as I am to bow out so near the end, I take some consolation in my Fourth Fiction run coming to a close along with the crop season. Coco deserved to win as much as anyone else; in fact my better half is glad the winner is someone whose primary language is not English. It may have cost her in votes along the way, but it goes to show that what readers most value isn’t technical competence but compelling narrative.

I just went through and read your comments to me over the past few months. It was a privilege and honor to have had for a readership such a diverse and lively company, or as one of you put it, an “attractive & crazy posse.” The commenters section of the last video was especially moving. I could watch it endlessly and I doubt it would lose any of its emotional impact. It’s as if somewhere along the way the readers had become characters upon some larger canvas. That may explain my initial surprise at seeing your faces.

The phrase ‘online community’ doesn’t sound as funny to me now as it once did. I hope the bonds don’t break with the end of the contest. As for Delia, Corey, and Jacob, you can be sure my last writing wasn’t the last you’ll hear of them.

As much as I eagerly await the pseudonymous restrictions to be lifted, it’s been entertaining to imagine what the contestants look like, who they are, and to what degree they’ve shown their true identity.

Finally, a sincere thank you to our newly mustachioed host, despite his autocratic practice of barring contestants from the website! 😉

Congratulations, Coco. Like the others I eagerly await your post.
Utah.