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Uncanny Valley · Original Short Story ·
Organised by RogerDodger
Word limit 2000–8000
Death Valley
The heat does strange things across the sands of the valley once the sun is high in the sky. Many people talk about the beauty of the desert, or how the sand sparkles all the colors of the rainbow in the dawn, but as the mercury rises, humans vanish from the landscape for the refuge of air conditioning and shade.

Shimmers of heat distort more than just vision. Reality itself begins to bend under the relentless sun, until the rare human out in the middle of the day begins to see things that could not be. Far worse is anyone who finds himself walking down a ribbon of black asphalt in the blazing heat. Cheap shoes stick to the tacky surface like walking across a frying pan, and every blessed gust of wind carries with it enough heat to cook a pizza and a fine dust like abrasive talcum powder.

Walking alongside the baking highway is little better because every fragment of sharp rock or thorn cuts into tender feet, burrowing into the thin plastic soles or embedding themselves into sweaty socks. The only option for the wearer is to hop on one foot while trying to clear the painful object, simply to pick up another after a few minutes or interminable hours of walking.

A car driving across that infinite ribbon of asphalt appears to the viewer as an illusion at first, surrounded by the shimmer of an unreal phantom. As it grows closer, still silent as a ghost, it begins to become solid, floating like a speedboat over the landscape until the wheels start to appear, and then the low rumble of the engine.

John stuck out his thumb.

It was the first car he had seen in… he was not certain. A shining image of darkness in overwhelming light, it continued onward in his direction as if intending on passing by, only to slow rapidly and stop a halt a few feet away. The driver of the black convertible, a red-faced overweight man, looked John over, from tattered shoes to broad-brimmed hat, and gave a winsome smile.

“I’ll skip the obvious, lad. Help me get the top up and you can cool off while we travel. A man who bakes out in this heat will fry like bacon.”

The surface of the car was as hot as the sun, and John sucked on a burned finger by the time he settled into the passenger seat and the driver turned on the air conditioning. The top had only put up a token fight, but now it kept the blazing heat at bay while the convertible accelerated back down the road.

“Helel ben Shahar,” said the driver, sticking out one muscular hand while driving with the other. “What’s your name, son?”

“John van der Sloot,” said John, trying not to wince at the crushing pressure of the handshake. “Headed back to college in San Francisco, but I’ll go with you as far as you’ll take me.”

The red-faced man gave John a sideways glance, but did not say anything else. The inside of the car was becoming welcome cool, but the suffocating stench of cigarettes only penetrated further into John’s sinuses as they began to dry. The ash tray was heaped with butts, snubbed out at the filters with a few of them trickling out onto the floor. The man followed John’s expression and brought out a fresh cigarette with a flick of his fingers like some sort of magic trick.


“No thanks.” John pulled his line of sight back to the windshield and the desolate landscape flying by. “It’s a nasty habit,” he added despite himself.

“Vice is vice,” said Helel. “Odd choice of words for somebody on the road out of Vegas with nothing but a backpack and their hat. How much did you lose?”

“What makes you think I was gambling?”

The man did not respond immediately. Instead, he put the cigarette between his lips, pushed in on the lighter, and only started talking once he got it lit. “You’re a kid. You’ve got that look about you, like a kid who traveled to Sin City knowing everything about how he was going to take it for every penny he could. Then…” The man blew out a cloud of smoke into the air-conditioned breeze of the car’s interior.

John coughed intentionally. The man ignored him, taking another puff.

“So what was it, kid? Slots? Blackjack? That’s always a good one. Smart kid like you thinks he can calculate the odds better than the house. Gets rolling pretty good and they slip a new dealer onto you with a fresh set of cards.”

After a period of time with no answer, the man reached into the back seat and produced a bottle of water from a cooler that John had not noticed before. “Here, kid. Bet you’re dry as a rasin from your little stroll. A man could die in a few hours walking in this heat.”

“I’m not stupid.” John twisted the lid off the bottle and took a deep drink of the icy water anyway. It was very difficult to stop, as every cell in his body seemed to clamor for more even after he drained it to the very bottom of the flimsy plastic. “I had a gallon jug before I started walking, and I’ve got a pair of two-liter bottles of water still in my backpack.”

It took only a quick zip to open said backpack and display his foresight, which would have been more effective if either of the old soda bottles had any water left in them. He could remember getting them out to drink once or twice… or maybe more.

The overweight man held out another bottle of water for John, which he accepted and took a measured drink out of before adding, “Thanks.”

“Think nothing of it.” Helel continued to drive with only the low thrumming of the big engine and the noise of the wind for entertainment. He put out the smoldering cigarette once it burned down to the filter and the air became slightly clearer once the smoke escaped, but did not seem to want to talk any more. It allowed John to take a longer look at his benefactor and the smooth black convertible he owned, both of which bespoke of a great amount of money.

The man had an immaculately tailored sport jacket over a dry white shirt, starched and prim to the limit of the fabric, while the car’s interior had a similar expensive look and feel to it, with supple Corinthian leather and an expensive sound system which remained unused. Even the cigarettes looked expensive, with a slim gold band around the filters and a sickly sweet scent which was not quite like any other cigarette John had ever smelled before. It raised an itch in the back of John’s mind which refused to be quashed by any amount of staring out of the window and looking for the occasional road runner or lizard.

“So, what do you do for a living?” asked John, once he ran out of patience.

“I sell dreams.” The man made a motion as if he were going to get out another cigarette, but thought better of it. “Life insurance, annuities, mutual funds. All things that kids your age have no respect for. You can’t see the future, except where you’re going to eat next or which girl you want to pork. Show me a college student with a good portfolio in the Morningstar fund, and I’ll show you a unicorn. They’re both mythical creatures, only you have a better chance of seeing a unicorn in a whorehouse.”

“My uncle has money,” retorted John out of some instinctive urge to defend his past. “He’s some high mucky-muck over in the Netherlands. He’s paying for my degree in architecture.”

“But I’ll bet you’ve never built a building in your life,” countered the red-faced man with a wave of one hand holding an unlit cigarette, which he had produced during John’s conversation. “You have no idea how to mix concrete, or weld steel beams, or even run a riveting machine. Never stood out in the blazing sun and even laid asphalt, God’s gift to the unskilled worker. Have you even held a hammer, kid?”

“I built a treehouse,” said John, feeling very small. “Well, my father did most of the work. But I held the boards.”

“And yet you plan on building skyscrapers,” said Helel. He gestured out the window with his unlit cigarette. “What do you see out there, kid?”

It was a foolish question, but the middle-aged man was driving, so John humored him. “Miles and miles of worthless desert.”

“Ha.” Helel lit his cigarette and gestured again once it was trailing smoke. “That’s all anybody saw in Las Vegas until they opened it up for gambling. Now there’s a few million people out on that worthless chunk of sand, and you can’t buy a square foot of property there without paying through the nose.”

“That’s Vegas,” scoffed John. “The rest of the place is worthless. It’s dead.”

“Worthless?” Helel raised an eyebrow and pointed with his smoldering cigarette across a wide swath of the desolate landscape. “Out there in all that nothing, the government saw a place to test the most powerful weapons mankind has ever seen since the first idiot picked up a stick. There must have been a hundred bomb tests done out there, all watched over by people with huge brains, far smarter than either of us. Children playing with the elemental forces of creation while they tore apart God’s own building blocks with atomic hammers. You know what they said about the first A-bomb tests, kid?”

He could vaguely remember having seen a video or two on the subject, but John’s only real memory came out of a movie. “I have become death, destroyer of worlds.” He paused before adding, “I never did understand that.”

The statement seemed to energise the middle-aged man, and he took a puff before continuing with abrupt gestures and motions. “When they tested the first atomic bomb, they weren’t sure if it was going to ignite the atmosphere of the planet. One bomb and—” He blew a smoke ring, which the car’s air condition promptly shredded.

That sucked the whole atmosphere out of any conversation. Miles of featureless desert passed without a word being spoken, endless dusty expanses with little flecks of green where cacti and desert plants fought for every drop of water. It was like another world, filled with death and desolation and separated away from John by only a fragile pane of automotive glass. He could hardly remember his time spent in endless drudgery, trudging along the road in the baking sun, like it had happened to another person who deserved that kind of hellish punishment for their sins of avarice and greed.

After a time, he could see the mushroom clouds of nuclear destruction climbing into the sky with the imagined fire of their detonation hot on his face. Weapons of war beyond human comprehension setting the desert alight with their touch in a stage rehearsal for the inevitable end of times when their march of atomic destruction would sweep the world. Even then, the lizards would survive, like the little flickers of motion he could see on the roadway where their grey and green bodies would dart away to avoid being crushed. Maybe the radiation would cause them to grow to immense sizes, scurrying through the radioactive ruins of dead cities and making their dens in crumbled concrete and rusted steel.

“It is scripture,” said the middle-aged man abruptly, knocking John out of his musings. “From when Lord Krsna is talking about his purpose in life, to destroy everything, from the mightiest to the least of creatures. As Death, all things bow to his will. Death claims us all in the end.”

Helel crushed out the cigarette he had been smoking, although it was only half-consumed. “We plan and plot against him, with insurance and other creations of Mankind to lessen the impact of his sharp sword, to no avail. All the wealth of nations piled up will not stay his touch. In the end, he collects us all in his dark chariot and carries us away to our final destination.”

John could feel an icy chill sweep through him, despite the furnace of heat still radiating through the car windows. For one long moment, it had become a black chariot being pulled by a fiery steed and driven by the skeletal form of Death, then in the blink of an eye, it was just a black convertible again, giving out the low roar of expiring gasoline through heavy pistons while punching a cool hole in the blazing day. He took a drink out of the fresh water bottle he was holding, although he had no memory of having it handed to him, and tried to look out the window again.

“Poker,” said the man once he had fished out another unlit cigarette. “That’s what got you, isn’t it?”

John nodded, which Helel seemed to find funny from his low chuckle which followed.

“Did you keep the deck? Just for curiosity's sake, of course,” added Helel.

It was the only thing John had managed to keep, since even his return bus ticket had been cashed in to pay the serious-looking gentlemen who had taken his money at the table. He produced the cards with a flourish, and ran through a quick shuffle before fanning them out in front of them.

“Pick a card, any card,” said Helel. “Here, take the wheel for a second.” The middle-aged man released the steering wheel with both hands, and plucked the deck of cards out of John’s grasp when he grabbed for it. Although John had to keep his eyes mostly on the road to keep the convertible steering straight, he could see enough to be impressed with the way Helel ran through several quick shuffles, fanning out the cards and stepping through various cuts and riffles. Giving the deck one last cut, he dealt five cards onto each of their laps and reclaimed the steering wheel.

“What was that all about?” John picked up his cards out of reflex and checked them, feeling moderately proud that even in the strange circumstances, he had three of a kind.

“Whatever you want to make of it.” The man took a quick peek at his own cards and tucked them under his thigh. “How much did you lose on that last hand of poker?”

“None of your business.” John took another look at his cards, unconsciously moving the two he would normally have discarded over to the right edge of the hand. After another mile or two when the driver said nothing else, John added, “Fifty thousand dollars.”

“The proceeds of many profitable poker games among friends and family at San Francisco State, I presume?”

“University of San Francisco,” corrected John. “And… mostly. I played some in town. Saved a little money on the side.”

The driver tiched quietly under his breath with the unlit cigarette bobbing along. “Doesn’t want to dirty his hands with construction, but more than happy to relieve the working man of his excess money. The Jesuits should have taught you better, but I suppose some young men learn their lessons from experience instead.”

“I’m near the top of my class in college. And I was doing just fine in Vegas. For a while.”

Helel moved the unlit cigarette to the other side of his mouth and smiled, a thin, predatory expression that would not have looked out of place on a shark. “Let me guess. You worked your way up in the games at Vegas until you were invited to a private game, one that you were assured held six strangers. The pots got larger, and you won some, until at the last hand, you had some very nice cards. Then…”

“Are you saying I was cheated?” The cards felt cold and clammy in John’s hand, and he took another look to make sure they had not changed since the last time he saw them.

“Child. I’m saying you might as well have handed those nice gentlemen every penny you had when you walked into the casino and saved yourself the trouble.” Helel finally lit the cigarette and jabbed it at John like an accusatory finger of glowing coals. “Are you still in a betting mood?”

“I don’t have any money. You know that.”

With a wave of his smoking cigarette, Helel dismissed his protest. “That doesn’t keep you from betting. Go ahead.”

“I need to know what’s in the pot.” John fought back the urge to wipe his damp fingers against his pants.

“Everything.” Helel took a deep drag off the cigarette and blew out a long plume of smoke much like a dragon’s breath. “Your whole life has come down to those five cards. Are you in? Or do you fold?”

Part of John’s mind urged him forward, but it was the same part that had dragged him into the casino and refused to let him leave when he was ahead. Instead, he rolled down the window a crack and threw out his cards, watching them flutter in the wake of the convertible’s rapid pace. For a long moment, Helel just looked at him, then burst into laughter and threw his own cards out of his window.

“Maybe you’re not the fool I thought.” Helel snuffed out his cigarette, left the window cracked until the air was clear in the car again, then rolled it back up. He pointed ahead where there was a gas station shimmering in the waves of heat coming off the asphalt, with several cars parked outside near the bus stop sign. “Civilization, at last. Do you need to water a cactus while I get gas or are you still dehydrated?”

John took the bottle of water that he was given and took a long drink while thinking. “I better use the bathroom. It’s still a long way until… where are you going, anyway?”

“That’s a good question.” Helel scratched his sunburned nose while lifting his foot off the gas, allowing the throaty roar of the car to slow. “I’ll let you know when I know.”

Once John got out of the car, blinking in the bright sunshine, he realized his need to use the facilities was a little greater than he anticipated. Helel stopped him before he could go inside, holding out several bills. “Here you go, kid. I know you’re busted, but I’ve got a little extra.”

“I can’t—”

As if he had not heard the protest, the middle-aged man pressed the bills into John’s hand . “You need it. I know what it feels like to have made a bad decision. Besides, I had a friend named John once. Reminds me a lot of you. Constantly getting in too deep and having to be bailed out, but he worked with his hands.” Helel took John’s soft hands in his own and closed his fingers around the bills. “There’s honesty in hard work.”

“Construction?” John stuffed the bills in his pocket. “I wouldn’t know where to start.”

“At the bottom, of course, and work your way up.”

It was something to think about while John darted across the scorching pavement into the oasis of cool air. He took some extra time to get washed up after using the bathroom and refilled his water bottles in the backpack, considering the people who had built this building in the middle of nowhere. Construction companies were always looking for additional help, and the burly guys he had played poker with back in San Francisco were a rough but honest lot. It made a lot of sense, particularly with the flights of fancy some of his professors went on about when showing off structures which looked pretty, but must have been a cast-iron bitch to build.

He was just coming back out into the main section of the gas station when John noticed a lack of car outside at the pumps. John flagged down the attendant, who was stocking cigarettes behind the sign that said ‘Bus Tickets.’

“Hey, what happened to the old guy in the convertible?”

“Him?” The young woman pushed a last pack of cigarettes into the display. “Paid for his gas and cigs, then left. Oh, and this must be for you.” She handed him a bus ticket, paid all the way back to San Francisco. “Next bus’ll be by in about two hours, so you might as well make yourself comfortable. You need anything while you wait? We’ve got some video poker machines.”

John just stared at the ticket, then slipped it inside his pocket. “No, I think I’ll just have a sandwich. And some water.”

She shrugged and passed over the plastic-wrapped sandwich from the cooler. “Suit yourself. Water’s over there. That’ll be six fifty.”

John dug into his pocket and produced the bills, but leafed through them first. After some thought, he extracted a ten out of the wad and passed it over, pocketing his change. There was a seat next to the window where he could sit and eat his lunch while looking out across the desert, which he did. The sandwich was tasteless and dry, but filled an empty pit in his stomach while he put two of the remaining bills on the table and considered them, along with the strange man who had given them to him.

When the bus showed up two hours later to carry him home, he was still considering the two twenty-dollar silver certificates, but he had decided on at least one thing for certain.

He was going to take the old man’s advice. A job in construction would help him in school as much as it would help him develop as a person. Maybe something in carpentry.
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#1 ·
· · >>AndrewRogue >>georg
Eight entries, first one to show up, and I feel the need to make longer reviews in order to make up for giving up.
I have several points I want to discuss, but let's cover the basic first.

This story did good for me.

It took me some time to get invested in what was happening, but once it was done, it was quite a ride. The interaction between Helel and John were great, even though I'm still wondering if there is a meaning behind these names.

Speaking of Helel, that's the best character in this story. His portrait is both detailed and he still keeps something mysterious that got me caught up (and no, that's not because he's smoking)
As for John, well, I have some reservations about him. He's supposed to be the character we follow throughout the story, but he didn't feel like a compelling character. I'm not sure what it's his main trait, and the fact he doesn't really reply to Helel's questions isn't helping. What I think was supposed to make John mysterious, and also not bluntly stated what happened to him to get the reader engaged, I feel like it leans too much towards blank character than mystery and stakes.

About the resolution, it's pretty straightforward and, in a way, it happens a bit too fast. I mean, John has lost pretty much everything in Vegas, a man told him construction work is the big thing to do to improve yourself, and then, John fully agrees with the idea, without much of thinking about it.
(He) considered [...] the strange man who had given them (the bills) to him.

When the bus showed up two hours later to carry him home, he was still considering the two twenty-dollar silver certificates, but he had decided on at least one thing for certain.

He was going to take the old man’s advice. A job in construction would help him in school as much as it would help him develop as a person. Maybe something in carpentry.

It's only five sentences, he considers the idea, and voilà, he agrees. I guess you didn't have enough time to resolve it well, and you probably did want to resolve it anyway. My advice would be to add more probability and less certainty. The last sentence has a 'maybe' but more would have done better for me.

As the idea on which the story focuses on, it's quite interesting, but it lacks un je-ne-sais-quoi that would make it shines brighter. Maybe more subtlety. I can see the point of doing things on your own, building and crafting things and not directly buying them. However, our modern societies are giving less and less room for these kind of people (without speaking of the fact they aren't well considered, which is a shame).
Moreover, intellectual and manual work may be two different things, but they complete each others. I agree that our way of thinking and doing tends to divide them in two separate entities, leading to architects who had never seen concrete in their life. Maybe that was what the story tried to convey, but I'm not sure of that.

Anyway, even though I nitpicked a lot a little, I want to reaffirm the pleasure I had reading this. It is far from flawless, but the good points exceed the bad ones. So thank you for writing it.
#2 ·
· · >>georg
Another nice one:

The story flowed pretty smoothly from beginning to end, though I didn't much care for the omniscient panorama of the opening. I kept expecting a first person narrator to show up and be the character who was giving us this view of the desert, but then we drop into John's head and pretty much stay there the whole rest of the way. I'd recommend either bringing some more of that external POV into the story here and there or dropping it entirely and starting us right in the blazing heat with John stumbling along the road.

The only other note I'll give has to do with the difficulty I had picturing Helel. The first image of him--"red-faced" and "overweight"--makes me think he's flabby and out-of-shape, so the reference to his muscular hand a little later made me stop and blink. Likewise, we first get him described as middle-aged, but by the end of the story, the adjective of choice is "old." Maybe call him big and red-faced? Add a reference to his hair being white or speckled with gray or something, maybe mention whether he's got lines on his forehead or not, talk about how gnarled his knuckles are gripping the steering wheel or manipulating his cigarettes: specific visuals, in other words.

Still, good stuff!

#3 · 1
· · >>Rao >>georg
It took me some time to get invested in what was happening, but once it was done, it was quite a ride. The interaction between Helel and John were great, even though I'm still wondering if there is a meaning behind these names.

Isaiah 14:12–15 has been the origin of the belief that Satan was a fallen angel, who could also be referred to as Lucifer. It refers to the rise and disappearance of the morning star Venus in the phrase "O light-bringer, (Helel ben Shaḥar, translated as Lucifer in the Vulgate and preserved in the early English translations of the Bible) son of the dawn."


Hm. This is a hard one for me. There are some very cool things, primarily centered around this particular take on Satan/the devil/whatever, but I keep bumping into little frustrations. Potentially this is because I caught wind of this story ahead of time, but once you realize the thing, it is distractingly obvious as you make a lot of nods to it, which I really thing is unnecessary. Stuff like the name which stands out like a sore thumb and the last line about the carpenter are really aggressive and I really think too much.

Of course, on the other hand, obvious is necessary sometimes.

I also found John really obnoxious. Like, really obnoxious. All his little flaws kinda add up to a somewhat stupid and obnoxious kid who I'm not particularly well disposed towards. I realize there is some need to make him flawed for the arc, but it just ends up feeling like he's too flawed, IMO.

All that said, the tone and atmosphere are solid and the core idea in here is really, really cool. I just want to root a bit more for John and maybe have some of the more egregious references reigned back in a bit.
#4 ·
Death Valley — B- — Not a bad fic, but the beginning needs to be combed and primped because it’s awfully random and doesn’t flow well. Ditto for the ending. Characters are ‘heavy’ mostly due to the instinct of a reader to immediately google the odd names and figure out ahead of time what their roles are. Hehel strikes me as the Dutchman, but the terminology used to reference him is all over the place, from the devil to I’m guessing Judas from the forty silver dollars. I like the way the main character (what is it with ‘John’ in this writeoff?) is held in an indeterminate state of ‘Did he die walking through the desert, or is this real?’
#5 ·
· · >>Ranmilia >>georg
I feel like your impersonal narration opening isn't pulling it's weight. The change from 'no characters' to 'John' feels weird to me, and I don't think it's useful. The only time I've seen this sort of thing work is in the opening of Discworld, and Pterry does that partly out of necessity (he gives a whirlwind tour of the Disc in just about the first page of every book, because they're designed to be readable out-of-order) but also because he wants to start his in-jokes, where he has the narrator shares things with the reader that the characters don't know. (This is how he gets that comfortable familiarity he uses in his narration and footnotes to stick so well.)

You... don't really need to do either of those things, I don't think. And if you do have a concrete aim you're going for with this, I missed it. Sorry about that.

Anyways, I think you'd be better off couching this firmly in John's point of view. It would cut down on the awkwardness of trying to keep concrete actors out of your paragraphs, with convolutions like 'the only option for the wearer' and stuff like that, and it would remove the necessity for the jar when transitioning from impersonal narration to close-third-person when John drops into the picture.

As for the story itself, I found myself rather enjoying it. Helel is a bit of a know-it-all, and John's a bit of an idiot, but they're fairly tolerable in the way the interact. And I liked the fact that it doesn't really take a hardline one-way-or-another stance on what happens, but John does seem to get a useful lesson out of it.

As for the religious-ish imagery... well, I'm honestly left wondering why it was in there. It's laid on fairly thick in some spots (twenty pieces of silver, work as a carpenter, really?) but I didn't feel like it added much to the story except a vague flavor. I mean, I think you could build a very strong narrative around it; something like 'vice tends to be self-defeating' or something like that, about how what doesn't kill us makes us stronger, but... just not seeing that here.

I dunno. The writing here is a bit rough in spots, but on the whole, I liked the arc here a lot, and the characters were fairly entertaining. I find some of your storytelling decisions weird, but I'd rather have weird than boring, so that's not really that much of a black mark.

Congrats on being bold enough to experiment. I'm not sure it worked here, but I enjoyed it anyways. Thanks for writing!
#6 ·
· · >>Baal Bunny >>Not_A_Hat >>georg
Various circumstances, including a hurricane, have conspired to sap my motivation pretty hard. I'd like to offer apologies to the remaining authors, as they are at no fault, and I'll try and get the rest of these out as best I can.

My initial impression of this story was quite negative. It leads off with four impenetrably purple paragraphs of nothing happening, and doesn't pick up steam for another several after that. (Cut the intro far, far down, when you go back to revise this!) Then we reach the character introductions, and, well.

"Helel" is something you use to beat up Shin Megami Tensei endgames not a name one goes by in modern English-speaking society. Like "Adolf," or (exactly) like "Lucifer," parents don't give children that name, and anyone who would somehow have it would almost certainly change it. A quick Google and Facebook search to confirm this turns up zero Helels for me, except as Arabic surnames (never given name) and explicit Helel ben Shahar references.

So right off the bat, something smelled fishy. Then he was described as "red-faced," talked about vice, "Corinthian" leather, and then:
“I sell dreams.”

That line took it beyond reasonable doubt for me. This guy is The Devil, we're in one of those Twilight Zone episodes and he's going to offer John a deal for his soul. "Yep," I thought, "I can see where this is going. Let's cruise control through the rest of the tease until we hit the deal and reveal."

... And then the deal was rejected, the reveal never came, the story didn't go where I thought it was going, and I found myself astonished. Well played.

To pull some from >>Not_A_Hat:
As for the story itself, I found myself rather enjoying it. Helel is a bit of a know-it-all, and John's a bit of an idiot, but they're fairly tolerable in the way the interact. And I liked the fact that it doesn't really take a hardline one-way-or-another stance on what happens, but John does seem to get a useful lesson out of it.

As for the religious-ish imagery... well, I'm honestly left wondering why it was in there. It's laid on fairly thick in some spots (twenty pieces of silver, work as a carpenter, really?) but I didn't feel like it added much to the story except a vague flavor.

I am very much in line with the first paragraph there, but the complete opposite on the second. For me, the religious allusions make this story; without them, this would be a rather banal "litfic" piece, but with them in place it becomes something more. It's much more than a vague flavor, it turns the story on its head, positioning it as an inversion of a known twist and giving us metaphysical weight and room to explore.

And what's more, it does this without breaking the wall and making the direct reveal. The road between "too subtle" and "too explicit" in Writeoff is a thorny path to tread, but I think this piece makes as good an attempt as any I've seen. Strong technique, in my book.

This piece is my top pick for the round. While my initial read had a shaky start, I was impressed by the time I reached the end, and subsequent reads have only been more and more positive. It does have a fair number of flaws: John is weakly written and oblivious, his final decision feels not quite sold, and that whole intro (and some of the description elsewhere) needs the axe. But I would want to reread and look into the details of this story even if I wasn't analyzing it for competition, and that's one of the highest praises I can give. In a close round full of stories that are all quite good, yet have issues getting their hooks in me, this is the one that catches me the most. Thanks for writing, and good luck with the rest of the votes!
#7 ·
I missed:

The religious imagery completely, author, so all >>Ranmilia's metaphysical weight whooshed right past me without even creating a breeze. So I'd put the story firmly on the "too subtle" side of things.

Knowing who Helel is now, though, I can't help but compare this story to "The Fountain." Both stories have The Deceiver giving a largely passive main character advice that seems good on the face of it and that the character apparently takes. Poor readers such as myself then miss the point in every way that it can be missed, shrug, and move on with our lives.

Now, if you don't mind that people like me won't understand your story, then that's fine. It's a choice every author has to make--what audience am I writing this piece for?--but you can't assume that the audience who actually reads the piece will be in the audience you're aiming for...

#8 ·
>>Ranmilia I should clarify (because maybe it wasn't obvious) that I liked what I saw as vague flavor, for the most part. I agree with Ran's 'otherwise banal litfic' comment, and I'd probably have enjoyed the story much less without the religiosity stuff.

I just didn't feel like it was crystallizing into anything. I'd prefer seeing it's impact on the story strengthened, although I do think the explicitness in some spots could be dialed back. Like, make it more meaningful, but a touch less obvious. It does kinda feels inversion-y, yeah, but I don't think it really pulled that together for me in a way I recognized. It just seemed like a weirded-up litfic. Which is good in it's own way.
#9 ·
· · >>georg
I was unsure of John at first. He seemed a bit too ungrateful and rude for surely having been plucked from the mouth of death by desert sun. But then his tale unfolded, and I see that he's really just bruised from having his ego so thoroughly smashed. He's quick to open up when given the space to do so, and I think that makes up for his occasional disrespect.

I was sure Helel would be some sort of magic desert man, or Death. Even after finishing and him not doing anything overtly supernatural, I'm still not convinced he isn't. There's a very "Odd Thomas" vibe about the man, where sometimes a person's gift is just being in the right place at the right time to lend a hand, and maybe some folksy wisdom.

The opening crawl very accurately describes what it's like to be stuck in the desert. As a native Arizonan, I appreciate the attention to detail. The successful beginning sets up the rest to be believable, and to make John's sporadic disrespect to his savior all the more sharp.

Perfect example of why I read and comment before browsing the other comments. Great catch on the names and reference. I wouldn't have picked that out at all, though I did think the name felt distinctly old. It really feeds into my overall sensation of the story, and makes Helel's actions all the more puzzling.

Edit: Totally spaced the mid-drive game of cards. Everything makes more sense now.
#10 · 1
Ladies and gentlemen of the academy, I would like to dedicate this award to all of the little ponies who helped me get here.

Oh, wait. Not an Academy Award. Darn Maybe later.

Thank you all for putting Death Valley at the top of the slate and giving me my first gold medal. (sniff) My original complaints about my story were all correct. The beginning needs a re-write to tie it more together and make it a little less fuzzy, although I like the way it wanders because it brings the concept of heat stroke to mind.

The characterization was ‘heavy’ because the ‘Show, don’t Tell’ philosophy on thought pieces like this tend to leave the reader just about as lost as John here, and seeing all kinds of mirages in the cracks. For example, look at the names:

Helel ben Shaḥar : translated as Lucifer in the Vulgate and preserved in the early English translations of the Bible) son of the dawn. His smoking habit is taken from my first college roommate, who used to light a new cig right after smoking the last one to the filter.

John van der Sloot : Notice that the first hit you get on Google with this name is Joran van der Sloot, the notorious Dutch murderer. His attitude and college major are taken from my first college roommate, who did not want to go outside and didn’t know which end of a hammer went where, but he was determined to get his architecture degree between cutthroat poker games. (Compare this with my brother, who barely graduated high school, but has been building excellent bridges and roads all across Kansas for the last forty years. He’s tall, tan, and can break you in half with one hand.)

The intent of the story is to leave the reader ‘fuzzy’ about the reality of the surroundings, if perhaps John died in the desert and the devil arrived to collect his soul, or if Helel is the Dutchman, forever doomed to travel the world as punishment for his sins, or maybe they are just two people thrown into the same environment. I like to think of Helel as Judas, personally.

Fenton - I have no problem with people who do intellectual work. After all, that’s my computer job. I’ve just seen far too many college students who turn their nose up at doing anything that involves sweat. Had a summer job once with a bunch of variegated kids. Farm kids were out there with the shovels, working their butts off while all the city kids stood around the water cooler, complaining about the heat. Guess where I was. :)

Baal Bunny - Taking your advice at the beginning. What I *wanted* to do was near the end where John is trying to describe Helel to the clerk and realized that he could not remember any of those details, not eye color or hair, zip. Add a little Twilight Zone to the story. Got to the end and decided I didn’t need to go that far.

Andrew - I think I originally found the name by googling ‘Morning Star’

Not_A_Hat - First part I plan on making a little less vague and more in John’s POV, because you’re perfectly correct. I think I went a little heavier into ‘Show and Tell’ because of some of my previous stories that were misinterpreted (or at least interpreted in a way that I never expected), and that frustrates me something fierce. I’d never be an artist. “No, that apple I have in the foreground has a bite taken out of it! It symbolizes Original Sin, which is why the two naked people in the back are running away.” Sigh. :)

Ranmilla - Yep, going to de-purple some of that intro prose. Oddly enough, people will name their kids things no normal person would think normal. (no examples please) but apparently (and thankfully) nobody wants to name their kid after the devil. It does make it so that if I ever were to have this published (fat chance), I don’t have to worry about copyrights on the name. Or if I do, it will be very bad. :)

I also like the Subverted Tropes. Someday I hope to have a story where the Frogolice are arresting the scorpion and reading him his rights before tossing him in the slammer. At the same time, Frogamedics are pulling the injured frog out of the river and applying antivenom, trying to keep him from croaking.

Rao - Shows that John may be an idot, but he’s not a fool. :)

>>Baal Bunny